May 2021 Reading Recap

Still a lot of work on the back end of the blog, including on my “featured authors” pages (see the right column on the main Literature page and the introduction of my April 2021 recap post).  So, contrary to plans, still no new posts in my alphabet blogging series in May.  However, the time-consuming back end stiff is finally completed now, so I’ll be able to get back to the regularly planned posting in June once and for all.  (And it’s about time, too.)

My May reading included one totally predictable binge: It’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s birth month, and I still had the complete Sherlock Holmes Canon as read by Stephen Fry that I’d acquired long ago sitting in my Audible app, waiting for the perfect moment to indulge … well, I figured this was it.  Other than that, there were a couple of double dips, with Native American, French, Solomon Islands, and Scottish settings (plus a somewhat less extended side trip to Italy) making for a nice variety of stops all around the world, but otherwise a fairly even spread across the board — well, across the mystery board at least!

 

The Figures

In terms of total number of books read, I’m almost back to where I’ve been at about this point in the past couple of years, with almost 100 books read (92 to be precise).

Average rating of books read to date: a rousing even 4 stars, as of the end of May; doubtlessly as a result of the Sherlock Holmes binge at the beginning of the month, but other books contributed as well.

In terms of genres, the breakdown for May doesn’t leave any doubts about my favorite reading material (again, blame it on Sherlock; though decidedly not only on him here, either):

  • Mysteries / Crime Fiction: 24
    • Golden Age: 14
    • Tartan Noir: 2
    • General: 8
  • Historical Fiction (1 mythology-based, 1 war / adventure): 2
  • Classics: 2
  • SciFi: 1
  • Nonfiction (essays): 1

I’m counting the three books by Rendon and Vermette (see below, section “Diversity Bingo”) as “general” mysteries solely because I’m not aware that there actually is such a thing as “Native American noir” in terms of sub-genres (though perhaps there should be) … and “neo-noir” as such tends to involve city, rather than rural and small town settings as a rule.  Also, the books by Rendon and Kent (again, see the “Diversity Bingo” section below) are straddling the “historical fiction” line; I have, however, a distinct aversion to classifying anything “historical fiction” that happened either during my own lifetime or only a few years before my birth; besides, both Rendon and Kent were already denizens of this world when the events described in their books took place, so by the “happened prior to the author’s own lifetime” definition we’re not in the realm of historical fiction, either.

Despite the ACD binge at the beginning of the month, the gender balance is still solidly on the side of the female authors, even if it’s slipped a bit below the previous months’ 2:1 ratio — it’s currently more in the vicinity of 5:3, but that’s still good enough; and perhaps more importantly, I’ve read twice as many new books by women as by male authors (and I have also reread more books by female than by male authors). — For background on why I decided to track this, and incidentally also ethnicity, see HERE and the addendum HERE.

 

My Reading Projects

Diversity Bingo

This project is continuing to be a rousing success; not only am I more ahead of schedule than ever before in terms of the total number of books read for it (14 / 25 at the end of May, with 10 / 25 having been the target for the first five months of the year); like in the previous months it has led me to yet another set of truly interesting discoveries — and despite my ACD binge, 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.

 


Marcie R. Rendon: Murder on the Red River

When I took a look at Native American authors whose work I might want to explore, next to Joy Harjo (whose memoir Crazy Brave I read last month), Marcie R. Rendon quickly stood out as another obvious candidate.  A member of the (Ojibwe / Minnesota Chippewa) White Earth Band, she is a resident of Minneapolis; both books of her Cash Blackbear series that so far have been published have either won or been shortlisted for literary awards, and it’s easy to see why.

Renee “Cash” Blackbear, like the author herself, is a member of the Ojibwe nation; when we meet her in this book at age 19, she already has as much life experience as a woman two or even three times her age should have accumulated: Taken away from her mother and her siblings as a very young child in accordance with the common practice according to which, prior to the introduction of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, as many as 25-30% of all Native American children were removed from their birth families and placed into foster homes, Cash only has vague memories of a loving, nurturing family environment; by contrast, she knows exactly what it means to be the unloved, feared, despised, and severely abused “squaw” child in a white, Scandinavian-descendant family only taking her in for financial reasons and dropping all pretenses the moment that the social worker is out of the door.  In the years after being taken away from he rmother she’s lived with more foster families than she cares to remember, and there is no saying where she would have ended up if Moorhead (MN) Sheriff Dave Wheaton hadn’t prised her from the claws of the system one day six years ago, put her in a tiny (rented) apartment of her own, and made her finish high school.  Since then, she’s been working on farms, driving trucks, and developing her eight-ball pool skills to the point of tournament proficiency — but her interactions with her fellow humans (of all colors, races and sexes) are decidedly of the distant and casual variety; and although she realizes that alcoholism is a huge issue in the Native American communities of the 1960s’ American Mid-West, the bar tender at her favorite pool joint has a bottle (or two) of beer for her on the bar counter the moment she walks in, and no night passes in which she doesn’t go to sleep with another bottle of the same by way of a nightcap, no matter how much alcohol she’s already had before. 

This first book of the series is more about getting to know Cash (and Wheaton, and their ersatz-father-daughter relationship), as well as learning about the situation of Native Americans, particularly Native children, in 1960s’ America, than it is about the murder mentioned in the book’s title: Yes, an investigation does take place, and in the tradition of all amateur detectives Cash wheedles her way into it — here, on the grounds that the victim is a man from the Red Lake (Chippewa / Ojibwe) Reservation in Northeastern Minnesota, so she just might be able to help, though neither she nor Wheaton seem to have a clear idea just how that might be the case –; and like the good professional cop in a mystery that he is, Wheaton lets her take off to Red Lake, even though that end of the investigation isn’t even his own to handle (it’s that of the FBI).  And if this had been a run-of-the-mill mystery, this sort of stuff would probably have bothered me no end.  But here it hardly impinged, because on balance, Cash’s life experience, the glimpses we are allowed into the lives of the murder victim’s wife and children, and race relations in the 1960s in general in this part of the U.S., were just so much more important (and interesting, and gutting).  Rendon knows what she is writing about, clearly from personal experience and observation, and she is a good enough writer to get her message across with less preaching than I would have expected in a book such as this, particularly in a first novel (as this one is, too).

There is one event towards the end of the novel where Cash develops a level of Mary Sue / Superwoman qualities that are hard to believe even in light of her severely scarring and toughening life experience; if it hadn’t been for that moment, I might even have added another half star to my rating.  As it was, this passage just stretched credibility way too far (as did, FWIW, Wheaton’s manner of dealing with the immediate aftermath of that moment, to the extent it involved his role as an investigating officer).  Earlier in the novel Cash has, by contrast, also one of those TSTL “dark and stormy night” moments that hardly any debut mystery novel seems to be able to do without.  But by and large, this was still a tremendously interesting discovery. — For Diversity Bingo purposes, I decided to assign this book to the “human rights” category, because the protection of the family as a nurturing and natural unit is specifically recognized as a human right (see, e.g., the International Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 12 and, especially, 16); and this book’s central theme is the severe trauma caused by ripping apart natural / birth families and made worse by placing the children from those families into a succession of unwelcoming and even abusive foster homes.

 


Marcie R. Rendon: Girl Gone Missing

Given how much I liked Rendon’s debut novel, reading her second book, too, was pretty much a given for me.  Again she writes from the heart; in this instance, about the trafficking of young girls and women for sex purposes, the victims of which trade formed a large part of her day job before becoming an author.  And while (surprisingly) her relative inexperience as a writer shows a bit more here than it does in the first book — is it possible that first novels are edited more tightly, because they represent a bigger risk for the publisher? — there is, again, a lot to love here.

Towards the end of the first book, Sheriff Wheaton had pushed Cash to enroll in college, so part of what we’re witnessing in this book is Cash’s experience of moving in an academic setting, after having spent much of her time in the past couple of years working with her hands, on the land, and while still “hauling beets” in her off hours.  And while this aspect, as well as Cash’s being surrounded by white middle class students (and professors) might have veered into a whole number of cliché directions really fast, it fortunately doesn’t. — Another interesting level added in this book is the arrival of Cash’s brother, whom she has last seen as a child, over ten years earlier, and who one day shows up at her home, fresh back from a tour of duty in Vietnam and with a whole baggage of severe PTSD on top of the trauma of his own foster experience, which was different and not as instantly hurtful as Cash’s, but ultimately every bit as jarring.  Apparently Rendon called on a friend’s insights with regard to the Vietnam PTSD, and these passages indeed convey a great deal of emotional insight.  And then there’s Cash’s light bulb moment when, during a trip to “The Cities” (Minneapolis / St. Paul), she gets to see and touch the façade of the Grain Exchange — a place that forms part of her daily radio listening experience, but which she has so far been unable to imagine as a physical location, let alone get a handle of its inner workings; and which she now realizes for the first time is a real place, not merely a vague figment of her imagination. That, too, is very well done and went straight for my solar plexus.

Yet, it was also during this trip to “The Cities” that the book once again took a dive for me which, if it had been longer or even lasted until the end, would have killed every bit of my (until then, considerable) enjoyment.  Again, there had been minor “huh?” moments before, such as Cash’s astonishing ability to navigate by car in a city where she had never been before in her life — and Rendon is way too specific about locations for there to be any uncertainty about the whole thing — or the remarkable specificity of her dreams.  Like in book 1, I was essentially willing to shrug those moments off as comparatively minor in an otherwise well-written book (and dreams are an important experience in many Native American cultures, so I’ve come to expect these; even if one particular detail in Cash’s dreams here did strike me as over the top).  But a distinct pattern is emerging as to Cash’s suddenly surfacing “Mary Sue” qualities, and that is a real pity, because she wouldn’t need those in the least.  She’s 19 years old, for crying out loud, and however much she may have been toughened up by her life experience so far, there’s nothing wrong with giving her at least a bit of vulnerability or weakness in moments of extreme danger and when faced with overwhelming odds (even if only deep down inside, and without letting any of it show to others).  Making her this resolute and able to cope doesn’t add but, rather, takes away from her credibility.  Rendon shows in Cash’s brother that she is perfectly capable of writing this sort of thing into a character — it’s a pity that with Cash, of all people, she refrains from doing so. 

Like in book 1, Cash again has her Mary Sue / Superwoman moment during a — no, THE — crucial moment of the book; like in book 1, she suddenly develops a resourcefulness in a moment of supreme stress and danger that, for all the tough cookie she may be, is simply not credible in a 19-year old.  And in this instance there is even another aspect to the event in question, which has been telegraphed about a million miles back (perhaps not in every detail, but definitely in and of itself), and which therefore — because I was literally waiting for it to happen — took away a good deal of the genuine sense of danger I might (and should!) otherwise have felt.  (SPOILER WARNING for the rest of this paragraph)  Moreover, unlike in book 1, in this instance Cash not only manages to save herself but also others, which jacks up the unbelievability factor by yet another notch.  Oh, and while we’re at it:  In an author’s note at the end of the book, Rendon directly addresses the reader and says she hopes “you” (I / we, reader(s)) will realize how extraordinarily generous Cash has been in that moment, not just trying to get out alone.  Excuse me?!  Lady, you don’t get to tell me how I’m supposed to feel about your characters.  Or their actions.  Or anything else in your book.  Or, for that matter, your book as such.  Or you as a writer.  Do this again, and we’ll part company for good.  (In fact, we might already have parted company if you’d put this bit into a foreword and not an afterword.)  And that’s not even mentioning that there are excellent reasons for considering Cash’s actions supremely selfish — because saving just herself might ultimately have turned out the more dangerous short-sighted option.  That being said, as a matter of fact I had seen Cash’s actions in this particular scene more in the light of generosity initially — but the comment in Rendon’s author’s note made me think twice and awakened the contrarian in me.  So all told, it proved about as counterproductive as it possibly could have been.

Like in book 1, Cash really only dons her Superwoman cape in the plot’s one decisive moment.  And like in book 1, there is much to like yet again once we’ve put the Mary Sue nonsense behind us.  So overall, this still rates in the four-star range for me.  But I’m growing a bit weary, both because of Cash’s sudden but recurring Superwoman qualities, and because of Rendon’s egregiously crossing the line into preachiness in her author’s note.  I think I’m still going to take a look at book 3.  But if the emerging trend continues, I might just decide to call it quits after that, however much I might have enjoyed most of the first two books, and however glad I may be to have read book 1 of the series especially.

 


Graeme Kent: Devil-Devil

This book (and series) had been on my radar ever since I first started to put together reading lists for my Around the World project.  A mystery set in the Solomon Islands, with a Lau policeman as one of the major characters — and set in the time period immediately prior to the end of British colonial rule?  Too tempting for words.  So don’t even ask why I only got around to it in the third year of the project’s existence …

Anyway.  Welcome to the world of Ben Kella, who, like so many of his fellow islanders, must somehow find a way to reconcile his Western education with his native island traditions; more specifically in his case, the fact that from childhood on he’s been groomed to be his people’s aofia, which roughly translates as “peacemaker”, but in fact is a position of great authority, combining the roles of a judge, an investigator, a guardian of the weak and unprotected, and — to some extent — a priest (or at least, a mediator interceding on behalf of his fellow humans with their deities and spirits).  Becoming a policeman in the British colonial service is only a solution on a very superficial level, as it tends to bring him into conflict with both of his worlds even more whenever those clash; on a spiritual level as much as in terms of daily coexistence (and authority).  Which is of course precisely what happens when a seemingly random elderly villager on Kella’s native island of Malaita is killed, when after the subsequent ghost caller ceremony the local chieftain refuses to pay the ghost caller and hostilities ensue as a result, when Ben moreover discovers a death curse near the killed man’s home, and when the man’s grandson takes off in a panic as a result — all the while Kella’s British superiors are anything but happy (in fact, spitting with rage) that he’s bent on getting involved in the matter, instead of focusing on the one and only task for which they’ve sent him back to Malaita to begin with; namely, to find an American scholar who seems to have gone missing in the wilds of the island’s mountains.  Because Kella is, from the point of view of his British bosses, on probation, after there had been some unforeseen unpleasantness (read: deaths) after he had gone off on private (read: aofia) business six moths before, too, and he’s been languishing at a desk in the Solomons’ capital of Honiara, on the main island of Guadalcanal, ever since.

During his investigation, Kella crosses paths repeatedly with a headstrong, unconventional young American nun named Sister Conchita, who picked a Spanish name after her ordination thinking she’d be sent to South America instead of the South Pacific.  There’s a bit of the standard mystery “crossing swords but grudgingly coming to respect each other and work together” trope in the establishment of the two investigators’ relationship, and given their disparate backgrounds it even (mostly) makes sense, though I was glad to see that Kent wasn’t set on overdoing this aspect; even it does take until the final part of the book for them to get themselves sorted out.  But there are plenty of other events to keep the reader engaged, and the action jogs on at a nicely-paced speed all along.  I could seriously have done without Sister Conchita’s one major Mary Sue moment towards the end of the book, though — it’s obvious why Kent sent her down, or rather up this particular path, and I approve of the author’s reasoning in principle, but its execution calls for a physical feat which I found palpably incredible, and it’s not necessarily helped by the fact that here, too, the book’s solution involves a supernatural element that I personally found as inaccessible as it was unnecessary from a plot point of view. 

Obviously books involving one particular culture written by an author from a different culture usually have to be taken with a grain of salt of some size or other; but based on the book as a whole, it seems to me that we really are looking at a grain of salt at best, not a boulder-sized rock.  Graeme Kent, this book’s author, was (according to the book’s back cover and what I’ve been able to find out online) head of BBC Schools Broadcasting in the Solomon Islands for eight years and subsequently served as Educational Broadcasting Consultant for the South Pacific Commission; and there’s not a scrap of doubt that he knows the islands about as well as anybody not actually born there can know them.  Also, as this book and its sequels were written in the 2010s, not during the period when they are actually set (the 1960s), there is no colonial bias in the writerly tone; very much to the contrary in fact, British colonial society is unflinchingly portrayed as a decaying beast aware that it’s long outstayed its welcome, and whose representatives couldn’t care less about the daily grind of the jobs still keeping them in Honiara, while they are already looking forward to either retirement At Home or a new but equally plush and pointless appointment in another part of the British Commonwealth … as long as Britain still has any colonies at all, that is.  Kella and his fellow islanders, on the other hand, can’t wait for the Brits to be gone, even though they know that will only solve part of their problems and nobody has a very precise idea what post-colonial Solomon Islands society is going to look like. — Kent also seems to have researched Lau and other Solomon Islands religions and belief systems in quite some depth: Making allowance for the above-mentioned grain of salt (the taste of which seems to be a bit more pronounced in the ghost caller ritual described early on in the book than in other scenes, as well as Kella’s thought processes, later on), and given that I knew next to nothing about the Lau and other Solomon Islands cultures going in, Kent conveys both the underlying philosophy and certain cultural elements that are central to the plot with what at least sounds like a fair amount of genuine insight — and respect: no talking down to “the savages” here; in fact, it’s the islanders who make fun of the obviously ignorant and racist way in which they are portrayed in classic 20th century Western literature, as “terrified extras” (in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead) and “savage headhunters” (in Jack London’s The Cruise of the Snark; both works are expressly name-checked).  As for the attitude of the more enlightened Europeans, one of the book’s most interesting white characters — Father Pierre, Ben Kella’s erstwhile mission school teacher and now mentor to Sister Conchita — explains to the young nun that she will ultimately have to make up her mind whether she wants to “go by the book” and continue following Catholic doctrine no matter what she sees in the world around her, or “do what a number of priests and nuns who have spent much of their time in the bush do, and appreciate that there are two worlds of the spirit in the Solomons, and that sometimes they intermingle.”

As indicated above, the mystery’s solution is triggered by an unnecessary and overdone Mary Sue feat on the part of Sister Conchita; also, the resolution of Kella’s official mission back to Malaita (the search for the vanished American scholar) is so cliché-ridden and ridiculous that it had me shaking my head in incredulity and my eyes went into 360-degrees-loop-and-spin-around-yourself rollercoaster mode.  But there is a good, solid solution to the main mystery (the one involving the deaths whose investigation by Kella so infuriates his superiors) as well, and it doesn’t rely on deus ex machina revelations — every part of the solution is based on an element or a clue presented over the course of the novel; yet the solution still manages to contain an element of surprise.  So, ultimately four stars is the maximum I’m willing to give this book, but those four stars it gets, because it was for the setting and the culture I chiefly picked this book, and on those counts it delivered in spades; and despite some unnecessary and, in part, exasperating decoration along the way, the mystery as such is solidly enough crafted.

 


Graeme Kent: One Blood

My experience with book 1 of the Ben Kella and Sister Conchita series was encouraging enough to move on straight away to the second book, which started vigorously enough with the death (murder?) of an American tourist — or was he? — in the tiny church of the Gizo Island mission where Sister Conchita has been sent by her order as a “placeholder” administrator until the arrival of the mission’s new priest; as well as Kella’s new mission to clear up some trouble experienced by a powerful logging company in the Roviana Lagoon (like Gizo, in the so-called “Western District” of the Solomons) … after having deflected a minor religious upset on his home island of Malaita, that is.  And again I can’t fault Kent for not having done his homework: Both in terms of setting and native culture, as well as the story’s historical background, this is very obviously on solid ground; and since we’re talking about a series set in an erstwhile British colony on the point of becoming independent, one of the aspects I enjoyed here was seeing how those hoping to hold political office post-independence went about positioning themselves with their electorate.  Last but not least, even though this is a book published in 2011 and I’m not sure to what extent logging would genuinely have been an environmental and cultural concern in 1960 (when the book is set), I rather liked the fact that Kent uses this outlet to voice his concerns with regard to these issues.

The main gripe I have with this novel though, is that here we’re no longer dealing with a book written with the idea of conveying information about the Solomon Islands just-pre-independence while also telling an interesting story.  Other things intrude, and by and large that is not a good thing.  Most noticeably, I don’t know whether it was Kent’s own idea or that of his publishers — somebody, in any event, thought it would be a great idea to bring in the 1960 U.S. Presidential election, where the Democratic candidate was one John F. Kennedy, who had served as a naval officer in just this part of the Solomon Islands in the 1940s, where he was shipwrecked, and disappeared with his crew for almost two weeks, after an encounter with a Japanese destroyer in 1943.  And in the hands of an experienced author this sort of thing may well pay off; in fact, I read a book based on a similar premise — though an entirely different location and time period — just last month (Michael Jecks’s The Chapel of Bones).  However, in that other book the ploy works because the author can forge a natural link between his main characters and the location of the historic event he is using, and all of his book’s other characters are locals; so there is nothing contrived about the whole thing — whereas Kent, here, not only has to rely on coincidence to simultaneously bring both of his main characters into the vicinity of the place of Kennedy’s disappearance to begin with; he also has to resort to coincidence and conjecture aplenty in crafting his plot and introducing his cast of other characters, almost all of whom are as much outsiders in this part of the Solomons as are Ben Kella and Sister Conchita — arguably, in fact, other than a minority of native characters from this part of the Western District islands (only a few of whom even rise to the level of notable supporting characters), the closest thing to “locals” that the book serves up are the nuns of Sister Conchita’s tiny mission, all of whom are Europeans by origin, though they have been living in the mission for decades, since before WWII.  And not enough with this, both Sister Conchita and Ben Kella also develop Mary Sue / Gary Stu tendencies that are impossible to overlook and seriously jarring: As I mentioned, there’s a bit of this in book 1 of the series, too, but while I was able to brush it away there, here it becomes central to both the plot and the resolution; and the resulting eyeroll-factor is, while not quite as bad as that associated with the American professor’s subplot in book 1, a serious annoyance.

There are only three books to the Ben Kella / Sister Conchita series; I have no idea whether the reason is that Kent’s publishers ultimately concluded that, after all, he only did have the one story inside him that he told in book 1, Devil-Devil (and thus the publishers chose not to extend his contract beyond the standard first three books), or whether it’s tied to Kent’s age and possibly frail state of health — for all I could see online, he seems to have been born in the 1930s, so writing these books was obviously a post-retirement occupation, which he may not have been able to continue beyond book 3 (entitled Killman).  Either way, I may find out when I get around to the third book — which I’m still planning to read, if only for completion’s sake, although it may take me a while to get there, as my enthusiasm isn’t anywhere near on the same level anymore as it had been initially, and as it still was after book 1.

 


Nora Ephron: I Remember Nothing

As already mentioned elsewhere, if at all possible I try to combine my Diversity Bingo and / or Around the World reads with my (Dead) Author Birthday reads: In January, that combination yielded Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, in February, Toni Morrison’s Sula, in March, Gabriel García Márquez’s El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel, and Other Stories) and Olivia Manning’s The Spoilt City, and in April, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and the Ngaio Marsh / New Zealand binge.  The past month’s birthday girl doubling as a diverse author (Jewish) was Nora Ephron.

I Remember Nothing, published two years before Ephron’s death, was her final individual essay collection; followed only by The Most of Nora Ephron, which is a posthumously-published anthology including a fair amount of the essays from this and earlier essay collections, along with the opening scenes of When Harry Met Sally and Ephron’s comments on that movie, the first chapter of Heartburn, her play Lucky Guy, and a selection of her blog posts and magazine articles.  When this present collection was published, it was not general knowledge that Ephron had been diagnosed with leukemia four years earlier: she kept the diagnosis private, because she feared if it became known she would no longer be able to get insurance covering for new projects.  Yet, it is unmistakable from the pieces included here — particularly the title essay and the subsequent one, The O Word (about ageing: “O” stands for “old”) — that Ephron felt she was running out of steam.  And out of time.  In fact, the opening passages of the title essay, where she goes into downright excruciating detail about recent occurrences of memory loss, sent me straight to Google, to check whether I had somehow missed that Ephron had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease in her final years.

“I have been forgetting things for years, but now I forget in a new way.  I used to believe I could eventually retrieve whatever was lost and then commit it to memory.  Now I know I can’t possibly.  Whatever’s gone is hopelessly gone.  And what’s new doesn’t stick,”

she writes:

“I used to think my problem was that my disk was full; now I’m forced to conclude that the opposite is true: it’s becoming empty.”

Not Alzheimer’s, though, Google assures me.

(“I am living in the Google years, no question of that.  And there are advantages to it.  When you forget something, you can whip out your iPhone and go to Google.  The Senior Moment has become the Google moment, and it has a much nicer, hippier, younger, more contemporary sound, doesn’t it?”

Ephron comments in the same essay.)

But old age, and the finite nature of life, was obviously weighing on her.

“I’m old.

I am sixty-nine years old.

I’m not really old, of course.

Really old is eighty.

[…] In these days of physical fitness, hair dye, and plastic surgery, you an live much of your life without feeling or even looking old.

But then one day, your knee goes, or your shoulder, or your back, or your hip. […] Your hands don’t work as well as they once did and you can’t open bottles, jars, wrappers, and especially those gadgets that are encased tightly in what seems to be molded Mylar.  If you were stranded on a desert island and your food were sealed in plastic packaging, you would starve to death.  You take so many pills in the morning you don’t have room for breakfast,”

she writes in the collection’s second essay.  And cancer, even though she doesn’t reveal just how personal the topic now is to her, has become an undeniable presence:

“Meanwhile, there is a new conversation, about CAT scans and MRIs.  Everywhere you look there’s cancer.  Once a week there’s some sort of bad news.  Once a month there’s a funeral.  You lose close friends and discover one of the worst truths of old age: they’re irreplaceable. […] You are suddenly in a lottery, the ultimate game of chance, and someday your luck will run out.  Everybody dies.  There’s nothing you can do about it.

[…] The realization that I may have only a few good years remaining has hit me with real force, and I have done a lot of thinking as a result.  I would like to have come up with something profound, but I haven’t.  I try to figure out what I really want to do every day, I try to say to myself, if this is one of the last days of my life, am I doing exactly what I want to be doing?”

So, if you’re looking for the lighthearted, spot-on humour of When Harry Met Sally — let alone the even more rose-tinged romance of You’ve Got Mail — this isn’t it.  Nor is it the searing irony of Heartburn (which is, after all, based on Ephron’s personal experience).  The rest of this collection does offer up a more varied and, in parts, also a considerably lighter tone than the first two essays, and there’s plenty of Ephron’s incisive insight into human nature, people, and society, too.  But by and large, it’s more contemplative and (by Ephron’s standards) at times even tinged with faint whiffs of nostalgia.  And death is a constant presence: that of her parents (particularly her mother’s), that of an uncle (which taught her the several stages of inheriting wealth — or not), that of her friend Ruthie (whose absence at Christmas dinner caused a veritable crisis in the dessert making department), that of Lillian Hellman (and of their friendship, which ended in acrimony); and the death of her first two marriages, which ended in divorce: another word beginning with “D”, which is in fact that essay’s title — The D Word — and which again ends with the statement that

“for a long time, the fact that I was divorced was the most important thing about me.

And now it’s not.

Now the most important thing about me is that I’m old.”

Quod erat demonstrandum?

 


Katherena Vermette: The Break

Big sigh.  Oh, this book had so much going for it.

The Break is set in a uniquely Canadian — well, OK, Canadian and Canada / U.S. border region — community; that of the Métis, descendants of the union of European (mostly French) settlers and their Native American partners; one of three groups of Indigenous peoples referenced in the Canadian constitution, and recognized as a distinct Indigenous people under the Constitution Act of 1982.  (“Métis” means “mixed”, or “mixed race”, or “of mixed descent.”)  While the Métis were crucial, inter alia, to the foundation of the Province of Manitoba, the only Canadian Province where they currently have a designated territory of their own is Alberta.  This story, however, is set in Manitoba; more specifically in the Winnipeg North End, the neighborhood in which Vermette herself grew up: a neighborhood whose population consists of a comparatively high percentage of of Indigenous people (approximately 25%, in about equal parts First Nations and Métis) and is characterized by its — even for Winnipeg — high rate of reported crimes, as well as widespread anti-Indigenous prejudice.

Moreover, the novel shines a glaring light on the trauma brought about by sexual crimes, particularly by those committed against very young women and adolescent girls: in the victim, but also their families; in their female relatives even more so if they themselves have experienced or witnessed violence and abuse, too — as well as in those of the victim’s friends who witnessed the crime, and in a probably largely unavowed way, even in the perpetrators or those close to them (especially if they are women, too).  Using the novel’s setting, Vermette highlights how this trauma is exacerbated if it is added on top of the feeling of insecurity and repression already caused in Indigenous women by growing up and living in an environment noticeable for its disregard of Indigenous concerns of all natures, but particularly so, in connection with the prosecution of sexual harrassment and other crimes against the person.

Yet, Vermette doesn’t exclusively give us a female perspective: I also very much liked the way in which she shows, from the character’s own point of view, how a young male Métis policeman gets completely caught up between all the lines imaginable in this setting: a man trying to talk to traumatized women; a policeman trying to investigate a crime where both the victim and both key witnesses are too traumatized to be able to speak; a young and inexperienced cop eager to do well and bring some level of justice to the victim and her family, but saddled with a much older partner who couldn’t give a damn and who only seems to be waiting for another mistake by the rookie to put him down once again; and finally, a young Métis fighting for the respect of his older white partner. 

And there is no question that Vermette can write: At the beginning of the novel, it took her all of three minutes to get me infuriated about the way in which the Métis witness to a crime, a young mother completely and understandably out of her depth, is being treated (or rather, dismissed as inconsequential and unworthy of attention) by the police and by her own husband.  And there are plenty of other gut-wrenching passages in the book — particularly those where Vermette uses restraint and doesn’t try to throw everything but the kitchen sink in her range of vocabulary at whatever she happens to be describing.

However.

This is, as indicated in the final sentence of the above paragraph, unfortunately a classic case of “too many notes” — the charge unjustly leveled at Mozart’s music in Peter Shaffer’s (and Miloš Forman’s) Amadeus, but which otherwise so perfectly characterizes a hugely overwritten composition.

For one thing, the narrative would immensely have benefited from a leaner structure; by which I don’t necessarily mean the constant change of perspective between various characters as such, but the great number of characters involved and the fact that the novel’s focus keeps wandering from the central story; namely, that of the sexual assault witnessed (from afar) and reported to the police at the very beginning.  Instead of using that story as a crystallized focus, the novel keeps diverting the reader’s attention to the life, abuse, and relationship experience of a plethora of other women, whose connection with the central events at first is not recognizable at all, and who are only gradually revealed as essentially the victim’s entire extended family (mother, aunties, grandmother, great-grandmother, younameit), as well as (while we’re at it), her best friend (also a witness to the crime), that friend’s mother, her own connection to the victim’s family … and, oh yes, yet another female character, whom we gradually come to suspect as being somehow aligned with the perpetrator’s side — and as if all of this weren’t more than enough already, a female character speaking to us from the Great Beyond, Lovely Bones style (and unlike everybody else, in a first person narrative voice).  Which in its ensemble (beyond the grave, first person, present tense) is a narrative perspective I personally detest, so in that regard we’re in “it’s not you, book, it’s me” territory; but in that regard only.  There genuinely are way too many characters and life stories to keep track of here; in fact, we learn more about just about everyone BUT the victim, and that, to me, is a huge fail in and of itself.  I can see and honor the attempt to show that the emotional trauma caused by the attack isn’t limited to the victim alone but also affects those nearest and dearest to her — as well as witnesses –, particularly if this isn’t the first time their lives are touched by an act of violence, but less would have been considerably more here, and the main focus should NEVER have wavered from the victim; or perhaps, the contrasting perspectives of the victim on the one hand and the young woman representing the perpetrator’s side on the other hand (with the young male cop caught between the lines).

More generally speaking, this book reads exactly like what it is: the product of a literary fiction class.  There is an enormous emphasis on writing “beautifully” and “artistically” — only a minority of the wordy constructs that pass for descriptive sentences here read like something that Vermette (or anybody else) would actually say in describing the same situation in conversation or, for that matter, in any other setting more obviously calling for a rendition in the speaker’s natural, everyday voice; whereas almost her only means of characterizing speechlessness in dialogue this exchange, repeated ad nauseam:

“I just can’t –” (or “I just don’t –“)
“I know.  I know.”

Which got on my nerves in double quick time.  Which, in turn, is a pity, because there are passages where Vermette shows that she is aware that you can do it differently, and generally more effectively, by showing how outside noises and smells intrude into an uncomfortable silence, of someone’s visual attention is distracted, or people start talking about something completely irrelevant.

Another huge “tell” (at least in a new writer) is the use of a present tense narrative: yes, it can add immediacy, but you first have to know how to create immediacy as such, and if it doesn’t grab the reader’s gut when written in the narrative past tense, there’s no logical reason to assume it will do so in the present tense, because essentially it’s the substance of what you write that is supposed to grab the reader, not the tense it’s written in.  Here, too, Vermette succeeds in some scenes (like the above-mentioned opening of the novel, where I didn’t even notice the tense), but as a general matter the use of the present tense just comes across as pretentious here.

And, final pet peeve of mine: the use of swearing to denote mental toughness; especially in one particular character.  To be clear, I don’t object to swear words in fiction as such, and I am well aware that they are part of the “street language” characterizing the milieu in which this particular character moves.  However, if four letter words become the predominant means of expressing a given character’s utterances, emotions, and internal life and dialogue, I just get annoyed (and bored), and I start picking apart the writing instead of empathizing with the character (or even if failing to empathize, at least thinking about them and accepting them as someone who might actually exist in real life).  Ultimately, the only thing that kept me interested in the character in question here was the question which role, precisely, they played in the abuse scenario; i.e., why they mattered to the narrative at all.  (Which, ultimately, I almost missed, because at that point I had long started to tune out more and more frequently, my attention having been distracted by the novel’s unfocused narrative structure.)

So: By and large, a lot of unfulfilled or even downright wasted potential here.  This was an interesting reading experience on account of the book’s setting alone, but I can’t shake the impression that the combination of that setting and the (for editors, apparently irresistible) lure of a pronounced “literary” style of writing earned it its publication in a form, and at a moment, where the novel would still have benefited from substantial editorial guidance. 

 

Around the World in 80 Books

Technically, every book that I read counts for this 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. Like in April, Around the World didn’t generate any entries beyond the books I read for Diversity Bingo and a few of the other projects (Appointment with Agatha, Dead Author Birthdays, and Authors in Residence), but as I did respectably there, I’m not too bothered about not having added yet another foreign location to the tally in May, for the Around the World project alone.  In fact, I’m half tempted to relax my (self-imposed) rules this month and add another location, Scotland … but, no.  Knowing myself, I’d relax the rules into non-existence and the project itself into oblivion if I start doing that.  So, Scotland is (still) a part of the UK.  And for purposes of my recap listing, that means I don’t get to double dip for the two excellent and hugely atmospheric Tartan Noir novels that were part of this month’s non-specific-project-associated reading.  By way of summary, then (and with reviews posted in the sections of this post associated with the other projects referred to respectively):

Diversity Bingo
  • Marcie R. Rendon
    • Murder on the Red River – Native American / U.S.
    • Girl Gone Missing – Native American / U.S.
  • Graeme Kent
    • Devil-Devil – Solomon Islands 
    • One Blood – Solomon Islands
  • Katherine Vermette: The Break – Métis / Canada
Appointment with Agatha
  • Agatha Christie: The Mystery of the Blue Train – France
  • Georges Simenon: Les vacances de Maigret (Maigret’s Holiday) – France
Author Birthdays
  • Arthur Conan Doyle: Sir Nigel – France
Authors in Residence
  • Ursula K. Le Guin: Lavinia – Italy 

 

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.

 

Agatha Christie’s Novels


The Mystery of the Blue Train

Agatha Christie hated this book.  While she was trying to write it, her little daughter kept distracting her and demanding her attention.  The plot is not an original idea but, for the first time (of what would eventually be multiple repeat occasions), she had chosen to expand an idea first used years earlier in a short story (The Plymouth Express).  And, worst of all, she was not writing because she wanted to but because she had to — the divorce from her husband, Archie Christie, had made writing a necessity if she and her daughter were not to starve.  As a result, Christie felt uninspired; stale, flat and unprofitable; the characters didn’t seem to come alive for her, she was unhappy with her output and could only ever look back to it with distaste, except for the one major accomplishment: to have attained the quality of a professional writer once and for all; a writer who got up in the morning and went to work, however little she felt like doing it, out of a sheer sense of duty.

I, on the other hand, have always loved this book — even before I knew the back story of its creation; which, if anything, has enhanced my fondness for it (and my respect for its author) even more.  Not only does very little of the hardship experienced by Christie while she was writing it actually translate onto the page; I wish my own output were as little affected by any ill humor I might be feeling during its production.  Not only is this a giant leap in quality as compared to Christie’s outing of only a year earlier, the abysmal The Big Four; maybe not quite back to the level of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but not terribly far removed, either.  Most of all, this book has almost everything that makes the best of Christie’s mysteries set outside of England such great fun: a — no, even two — intelligent, independent, adventurous young heroine(s) (vis-à-vis whom Poirot assumes an entirely benign, avuncular mentorship role), travel in one of the luxurious conveyances of yesteryear, and a glorious, exotic location as its final destination.  (And one of the young ladies, Katherine Grey, even begins her adventures in St. Mary Mead, as the former companion of just the sort of elderly lady who, only two years later, might well have joined Miss Marple and Griselda, the vicar’s — Reverend Clement’s — wife, for the village ladies’ weekly meetings for “tea and scandal at the vicarage”, if she hadn’t conveniently died and left her young companion Katherine all of her considerable fortune.)

Oh, sure, there is a bit of nonsense at the beginning involving the acquisition of the famous ruby, the “Heart of Fire”, by the millionaire father of the victim-to-be, that is eyeroll-worthily reminiscent of The Big Four.  And there is a bit of additional “organized crime” twirling about in the background of the plot and inspiring the odd conversation of Poirot’s with characters who can’t really make up their minds whether they’re genuinely shady or merely faintly exotic.  But fortunately Christie chose not to go very far down that road yet again; and as a result, it hardly impinges.  And all you need to know about the “Heart of Fire,” anyway, is that, like almost all great gems — both real and fictional — it is a stone that has inspired crimes in the past, and its possession is not necessarily a matter of good fortune for its owner.  But the rest of the story is sheer bliss; and the exchanges of Poirot and Katherine, as well as between Katherine and her newly-discovered glamorous cousin Lenox, daughter of chronically impecunious but even more glamorous Lady Tamplin, are a pure delight; as is, of course, the sparkling French Riviera setting. 

*** SPOILER WARNING ***

Many a modern reader would probably have wished for a different ending as far as Katherine’s personal relations are concerned; alas, in this regard the novel is only one of several where one of Christie’s independent young women ends up saddled with a man who is decidedly her inferior — because in Christie’s world, both that of her books and the one she was living in, staying single just would not have been an option: and obviously, no independent and intelligent young woman would have deserved to be snatched up by a husband who would actually have outshone her.  (And let’s face it, not everybody is fortunate enough to meet her equal, either, as do the heroines of The Man in the Brown Suit and The Secret of Chimneys in the end — and as Christie, at the time when she wrote those earlier books, might still have thought she herself had, too.  If so, now she knew better.)

That being said, the TV adaptation of this particular book starring David Suchet — which milks the French Riviera setting to the nth degree and thus, comes highly recommended on account of its glorious visuals alone — is not entirely faithful to the book; and one area where this plays out very much to this present-day Agathyte’s satisfaction is in the ending, where Katherine is given just the sort of freedom that many a female reader would probably wish her to have in the novel, too.  In fact, the episode (filmed before the adaptation of The Murder on the Orient Express, which Suchet was reluctant to go near because of the iconic status of the star-studded 1974 movie) ends on a rather cheeky fourth-wall-breaking note, which makes me grin widely every single time:

KATHERINE: Actually, I’m not planning to go back to London just yet.  It’s peculiar, really, given everything that’s happened, but I’ve discovered I rather like travel.  So I’m going to keep going a bit.

POIROT: Oh, but of course. Oui.

KATHERINE: I’m going to go to Vienna.  I’m picking up the Orient Express.  The idea thrills me.  But I expect you’ve been on it millions of times.

POIROT: Not once.  But I must …

 

Le Train Bleu: Departure from the Gare de Lyon, Parisen route

— and arrival in Nice (image sources here and here).

 

The Villa Serena in Menton, which in the TV episode doubles as the Villa Marguerite (the home of Lenox and her mother, Lady Tamplin), and the view from its terrasse towards Menton.
(Source: Wikimedia here and here)

 

Side Reads

Set in France


Georges Simenon: Les vacances de Maigret (Maigret’s Holiday)

The Appointment with Agatha group’s May 2021 “side read” theme took us to France yet again, and who better to read in this context than Simenon?  Like Poirot in our main (Christie) read, Simenon’s commissaire Maigret has also taken himself to one of the country’s manifold vacation spots in this particular installment of the long-standing series, though to quite a different place than Nice; not only in terms of geographical region (Vendée / Pays de la Loire on the western / Atlantic coast instead of Côte d’Azur / Mediterranean), but also in terms of atmosphere. 

While Les Sables d’Olonne had, by the time the Maigrets decided to seek it out for a holiday outing in the late 1940s, long been a popular vacation spot, it possessed little of the glamour of the French Riviera.  That being said, Simenon manages to make pretty much every French seaside location that he uses in his books come across as seedy, provincial, and an insalubrious mixture of stuffy and lethally corrupt: This is true for Fécamp (Normandie), where Maigret detours in the course of his 1931 investigation of the case of Pietre le Letton (Pietr the Latvian) (Simenon’s very first Maigret book) and for Concarneau (Brittany), where another early case takes the Commissaire (Le chien jaune / The Yellow Dog, also 1931), as much as for Saint-André-sur-Mer (like Les Sables d’Olonne, not far from La Rochelle), where Maigret finds himself in the later (1954) case entitled Maigret à l’école (Maigret Goes to School); and also for the non-Maigret book Le voyageur de la Toussaint (Strange Inheritance), which is again set in La Rochelle, a place with which Simenon was intimately familiar due to several extended stays in the area — and it is unmistakeable yet again in this present book, where Maigret’s holiday is rudely interrupted first by the hospitalization of his wife due to acute appendicitis and then by an anonymous plea “for pity’s sake” (“par pitié”) to ask questions about another patient at that same hospital (run by Catholic nuns), a young woman who, however, by the time that Maigret does work up an interest in her circumstances, has died just the night before.

In fact, in this instance we are not so much looking at a traditional whodunnit but, almost, an inverted mystery.  It takes a while for Maigret to be convinced that there is anything unusual about the victim’s accident, which had sent her to the hospital in the first place — he really only begins to take a serious interest after another young woman disappears, whom he has met by chance and somewhat furtively at a the home of a doctor practicing at the hopsital –; and we’re initially treated to an extensive exploration of Maigret’s boredom: He misses his Quai d’Orsay desk and colleagues, and his stultifying daily routine, now that his wife is stuck in a hospital bed, consists of slow, extensive walks along the beachfront (the Remblai), daily visits to a beachfront bar (the Brasserie du Remblai) and other bars and cafés, and also daily visits with his wife, who updates him on what little hospital gossip she manages to get a hold of.  His visits to the hospital — where, based on his wife’s room number, he is known only as “monsieur 6” — also follow the same dull routine day in, day out: he calls at 11:00 AM, is assured that everything is going well and as planned with his wife’s recovery; at the hospital he is then welcomed and conducted to his wife’s room by the same nuns every single time, and after M. and Mme. Maigret have tried (with small success) not to bore each other to tears for the duration of his half hour-long visit, he is conducted out of the hospital again by the same nuns as before and resumes the rest of his numbskull daily routine.

However, once Maigret at last does decide to take an interest in the circumstances of the other patient’s accident and death, he fairly quickly settles on one particular suspect, and Simenon doesn’t even go to the length of pretending that there could possibly be another serious candidate.  If there is any question at all, it is whether the reason for “patient 15″‘s hospitalization really was an accident (which the unknown writer of the “for pity’s sake” note obviously doubts) and what precisely has happened to the other young woman, whom nobody (including the doctor himself) seems to have been intended to meet at the doctor’s home; as well as to her brother, who is believed to have left for Paris but never seems to have arrived there.  But even to the extent that there are unanswered questions, as in the other books mentioned above, Simenon’s interest is not so much in constructing a fiendishly clever mystery; rather, his focus is on the the slow and painstaking deconstruction of the web of family ties, friendships, filth, fraternization, and (Catholic) faith characterizing this provincial town like so many others, and which provides the local élite with a near-impenetrable shield against prosecution even for murder — whereas those without ties to the rich and powerful are left without any protection at all, and are best advised to stay out of the high and mighties’ way, because any entanglement with them can only lead to disaster and tragedy.  From the point of view of the local élite, it obviously helps that the local juge d’instruction (chief investigating magistrate) — a picture of vacuous vanity such as only a French (or British) élite education is able to produce — is firmly tied into the web of power by bonds of blood; and the fact that Maigret’s concerns are initially dismissed as ridiculous by the local police is, unsurprisingly, only par for the course as against this background.  As is the fact that once the layers of protection have at last been peeled off, the culprit is revealed as the naked, empty shell that he really is.

There is only so much seedy French provincial life, Simenon style, that I can take at any given time, so I was glad that this was a comparatively short book; and given the total number of novels that he published over the course of his life (which even exceeds that of Agatha Christie), I suspect at some point certain books with a similar atmosphere and setting are going to run into each other in my memory, the more of them I read, even if they all have distinct and very different plots.  But I’m not quite at that point yet — and the one thing that will probably make this particular novel always stand out to me is Simenon’s rendition of the hush-hush, strictly regulated atmosphere at the convent hospital, which for the time period is absolutely spot-on and excellently done.

Detail of a 1946 cartoon style French Department map showing the location of Les Sables d’Olonne, north of La Rochelle and west of Poitiers. (Source)

1934 guide Michelin map of Les Sables d’Olonne, showing several locations used in Simenon’s novel, including the Hôtel Bellevue, the hospital (right side of the map, white cross on black background, below and a bit to the left of the roman numeral “IV”), and the police station (gendarmerie, “G”) just beyond the next major street to the left of the hospital).  According to this review, which is also the source of the above image / map, the letter “A” in the center / left part of the map marks the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Port (near the the market place and the Hôtel de Ville, “H”); and the Brasserie du Remblai is in the same spot as is, on this map, the Hôtel du Remblai et de l’Océan, on the beach front next to the Hôtel Bellevue.

Les Sables d’Olonne in 1948 (the year in which Les vacances de Maigret was published)

… and today.

The Remblai (beach front promenade) in the 1950s
(image sources here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) —

— in the 1960s (image sources here and here) —

 

— and today (image sources here, here, here, here, and here).

 

Les Sables d’Olonne in the arts: 1928 poster using a painting by Maurice Perronnet — 1948 painting by Ludwig Bemelmans —  ca. 1958 poster using a painting by Robert Falcucci — 1933 painting by Albert Marquet — and 1988 painting by Raphaël Toussaint (image sources here, here, here, here, and here)

 

Detection Club

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”.

I managed to advance my personal Detection Club reading project by three additional books by two different authors in May 2021:

 


Joanna Cannan: Murder Included

Joanna Cannan was chiefly known, until her death in 1961, for three types of books: her novels examining British interwar society, the mysteries she published from the early 1930s onwards, and her pony books for young readers.  A keen horsewoman herself, Cannan passed her love of all things equine on to her daughters Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson, who became writers in their own right and together published, inter alia, the Black Beauty sequel Beauty’s Family.

Cannan’s mysteries feature two main detectives who, in their attitude to life, society and other people (including and in particular potential suspects) couldn’t be any further apart: the arrogant, narrowminded, reverse-class-prejudiced and downright nasty D.I. Price and the almost-too-nice-to-be-true, modest but highly intelligent Inspector Guy Northeast.  Not having read anything by Cannan before, I decided to try one book from each series and see where that was eventually going to take me.

Murder Included (aka The Taste of Murder) is the first book of the D.I. Price series, and, wow, if there ever was a fictional cop whose course of action virtually shouts for a rivalling amateur investigation, it’s definitely him.  His opinions are formed on the basis of his personal prejudices only and his investigation proceeds accordingly, with zero room to allow for errors (which, infallible as he thinks himself, would only be a waste of time).  Woe betide the person to have been so unfortunate as to have drawn his suspicions within moments of, or even before their very first encounter (as this is how rapidly his opinions are formed) — once that has happened, there really is only one way out; namely, to investigate the crime yourself in order to be able to clear yourself, because he most certainly won’t.  If this sounds like a recipe for disaster in terms of the book’s readability, the only reason why Cannan gets away with it is her accomplished light writerly touch, which never leaves a sliver of doubt that Price’s portrayal is satire, she’s having a heck of a time composing it, and the reader is cordially invited to come along for the ride and join the fun — and the fact that she does actually present the reader with a genuinely likeable main character to focus on; none other, of course, than Price’s main suspect.  Or, at any rate, this is how she sets things up in Murder Included; but I can’t see a D.I. Price novel working in a substantially different way, so I suspect this, or something very much like it, may well be the basic setup for the subsequent novels too.  For Price to actually get things right would involve either a gigantic learning process or a monumental change of character, both of which in turn would create issues of believability — and Cannan was too good a writer, and (I think) held her own integrity far too high, to go down that particular road.

In Murder Included, the person who draws not only Price’s suspicions but just about everybody else’s ire, too, is Barbara aka “Bunny”, Lady D’Estray, second wife of the present owner of Aston Park (located somewhere in the Home Counties), writer of “books about Siamese cats and children” and bohémienne, recently imported from the French Riviera which she’d so far been calling her home (there we go again) … who has had the unheard-of, and to her husband’s family (“established since the Conquest”) downright mortifying idea of turning Aston Park into a guest house for the (newly) rich and upwardly mobile, in order to defray some of the costs of running the estate and maybe even make a dent or two into her husband’s discomforting debts.  (These latter are, of course, not a thing to ever be discussed; neither in polite society nor within the family, and only grudgingly even between husband and wife).  So when the one guest who is actually related to the family — an overbearing, hard-nosed, interfearing, know-it-all busybody of a distant(ish) cousin whom they’re all all trying their level best to avoid or apease — is found murdered, everybody quickly agrees that it is Bunny’s fault to have inflicted scandal and the police onto the estate, not to mention having had that stupid “guest house” idea to begin with.  What is even worse, it turns out that the local Chief Constable and Superintendent have regrettably felt duty-bound to call in Scotland Yard, what with the conflict of interest arising out of their being related in one way or another to just about every person living at Aston Park, both Upstairs and Downstairs; really a bit of a bother, that.  But when the supremely irritating and ill-educated inspector from London concludes, even before he’s actually spoken to Bunny for the very first time, that she must obviously be the murderer, everybody is only too happy to agree with him: Bunny knows about plants (the victim was poisoned).  Bunny’s equally irritating and unconventional twelve-year-old daughter Lisa (from Bunny’s first marriage) knows where the specific plants yielding the poison used here are to be found on the estate.  Bunny “must have” had differences with the victim over the running of the estate and therefore “must have” hated her.  And anyway, life was so much nicer and more dignified before Bunny and Lisa arrived — if only things could go back to the way they were before …

It will take another murder and a murderous attack on Bunny (or was it?) for the murderer to be found. — And by the time that had finally happened, I was genuinely done, not only with D.I. Price but also with virtually the entire D’Estray clan.  Fortunately this is a short book that keeps you interested throughout (in parts, even glued to the page), the mystery is well-constructed and the solution, while appropriately clued throughout the book, not at all obvious (and I’ll defy anyone to point to a dead giveaway “tell” anywhere in the novel’s first half).  Also, I really liked Bunny (and Lisa), as well as Cannan’s style as a writer.  So Murder Included easily falls within the four star range for me.  But at the same time, I doubt I’ll ever read all of Cannan’s D.I. Price books — he gets on my nerves way too much for that.  I have one more book from the series at home, which I’ll probably get around to at some point (And Be a Villain), but I think after that I’m going to call it quits.

Left: Chenies Manor (Buckinghamshire); right: Dorchester-on-Thames (Oxfordshire) (photos mine)

 


Joanna Cannan: They Rang Up the Police

They Rang Up the Police was Joanna Cannan’s first-ever mystery.  It is one of only two books featuring Inspector Guy Northeast, an investigator forming, as indicated in my review of Murder Included, the polar opposite of that book’s D.I. Price: Of humble rural origin, Northeast is the perpetual, quintessential outsider in Scotland Yard; he is unambitious and, because of that and his farm boy credentials, his superiors consider him a clumsy country bumpkin and assign him only cases which they think “not even he” can screw up.  What they — and incidentally, also the suspects and witnesses coming up against him in his investigations — miss to their cost is his shrewd intelligence and dogged determination to get to the bottom of things.

The case that takes Inspector Northeast into the Home Counties in this book, to a village very much like that of Murder Included (even the name of the local hotel is the same) is, on its face, just the sort of case that the worthy Inspector’s superiors consider tailor-made for him: A middle-aged spinster has been reported missing by her widowed mother and equally unmarried sisters, with whom she had been sharing a house on the outskirts of the village.  A man living nearby has also been reported missing — by his wife, and the marriage is reportedly on the rocks.  A lady wearing the kind of clothes that, judging by the (absent) contents of her wardrobe, the missing spinster would most likely have been wearing on the day of her disappearance has been seen getting on a train to London at the nearby station.  A suitcase matching the description of the suitcase carried by said lady is later found (uncollected) at the train’s London terminus.  Conclusion easy, right?  Spinster and neighboring husband have embarked on an affair and scarpered to London — and there are many reasons why the lady may not have taken her suitcase away from the station … she may have been planning to pick it up later; she may have taken it for decoy purposes; whatever it is, it doesn’t throw any doubts onto the conclusion, does it?  So get yourself to the shires, Northeast, get the suitcase identified by the missing lady’s nearest and dearest, and we’ll tie the case up neatly with a big red ribbon …

Well, no.  Not if you’re Guy Northeast.  Oh, initially he’s quite willing to go along with the assumptions made by his superiors (he’s only the country bumpkin whom nobody takes seriously, after all, so why even bother to develop ideas of his own?); but when he gets to his destination and starts to talk to people, he finds that things don’t quite add up.  And then, not much later, there comes the point where he knows that there is more to this case than meets the eye — and things begin to get seriously unpleasant; not least because in addition to solving the case, he now has to devise ways again and again to keep the higher-ups (locally and “in town”) from messing up his investigation out of their own preconceived ideas and lack of detailed insight.  (He’s tried briefing them initially, like any good copper would, but that did more harm than good, so now his strategy is to deflect their attention to shiny but harmless side avenues along the lines of “Oh, look — shiny!!”)

Apparently Cannan only wrote two Guy Northeast books because she thought he was just too nice — I disagree; I do like him a lot, but I also think there would have been a lot of potential to the inherent class and educational conflict between Northeast and just about everyone else at Scotland Yard, though particularly the higher ranks, which in those days were predominantly either ex-military or aristocrats (or both).  Shame about that missed opportunity, then.  The real kicker in this particular book, though, is the widowed-mother-and-three-unmarried-daughters household from which the missing lady has disappeared.  There virtually is no way of speaking about it without spoiling half the book, so I won’t — but let me just say its creation and portrayal is a feast for the reader’s eyes, and easily on par with anything ever written along similar lines by just about everyone from Jane Austen to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Angela Thirkell.  That household alone is worth the price of admission (or purchase) in this book.

Cottage in Bibury (Cotswolds, Gloucestershire)
(photo mine)

 


Harriet Rutland: Bleeding Hooks

Harriet Rutland (real name: Olive Shimwell née Seers) fell out of favor with publishers and the reading public even more than Joanna Cannan in the decades after WWII (or at least after her 1962 death); it would take over half a century for the three books that constitute her entire literary output to be republished, as part of the recent couple of years’ general wave of reemergence of Golden Age crime fiction.  I read her first Mr. Winkley book, Knock, Murder, Knock! last month; Bleeding Hooks is the sequel, which takes the Scotland Yard “random brainwave” expert to Wales for a spot of fishing.

This being a mystery, obviously Mr. Winkley doesn’t manage to leave crime behind after all; and like in the first book Rutland outdoes herself in the selection of the dastardly deed’s instrument: it’s murder by knitting needle there, and murder by salmon fly here.  Just how the death has occurred is a bit of a puzzler: heart attack as a result of shock (and if so, accidentally or deliberately induced)?  Or was the fly poisoned (and if so, how, since the most proximate agent would seem to be too volatile)?  Questions — so many questions.  However, they only occur to Mr. Winkley and a young couple rather unfortunately nicknamed Pussy and Piggy who are staying at the same hotel as Mr. Winkley, the victim, and the rest of the motley crew of their fellow anglers and vacationers; everybody else seems more than happy to call the whole thing an accidental death and be done with it.

As in the first book, what most stands out here — in addition to the murder method — is the setting and the cast of characters; as well as Rutland’s manner in setting the scene for the (not-so) tragic interruption of (almost) everybody’s favorite sport.  (Favorite sport in the book, that is; personally I abhor any sports that involve the killing of living creatures — besides which, I wouldn’t have the patience for fishing to begin with, and I don’t much care for fish as food anyway, either.  And no, this is manifestly not a matter of the proverbial sour grapes, either.  But I digress.)  The first 50 or so pages of this book are, like those of Rutland’s first Mr. Winkley novel, a joy to read; she really had a knack for bringing characters to scintillating life with a few well-placed strokes of her writerly pen.  Also, one of the features that really stood out favorably to me here was the portrayal of a father raising his son as a single parent; not a thing you’d expect to show up in a 1930s novel at all, particularly not in a mystery.  Unfortunately, and again as in the first book, the novel more or less fell apart for me the moment the dead body made its appearance — not quite as drastically as between (roughly) pages 50 and 150 of book 1; but by the same token, there was no drastic recovery, either. 

For one thing, the actual reasons for the victim’s untimely demise are built intrinsically into the solution; as a result of which, until her death, we mere experience her as a nuisance, and although Rutland does let on that there could be more to her story than meets the eye, apart from a fairly obvious red herring (and don’t you just love it when a mystery-related metaphor fits a book as obviously as this one?), few persons seem to have profound enough reasons to fear or hate her to make murder seem an obvious solution.  Now, that’s of course not a mandatory feature, and there are quite a few excellent mysteries out there where it is precisely the seemingly random nature of the killing that produces the first questions that need to be answered.  But in this instance, the victim actually is set up as the kind of genuinely awful person who in a mystery is just asking to be killed, and in that regard she falls (or at least, initially seems to fall) decidedly short of her (in)famous peers from the pens of Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer (think  Mrs. Boynton, Simeon Lee, or old Adam Penhallow) — and that is true even more for the fact that part of her would-be unlikeability is based on a juicy bit of fat-shaming on part of the author, which ultimately reflects back on Rutland herself much more than it does on her book’s character. 

Worse, though (and ultimately fatal to my enjoyment) was the fact that I just couldn’t take Pussy and Piggy serious as amateur investigators.  They’re supposed to be in their 20s — “Piggy” is a university student — and engaged (i.e., on the point of forming a family), to boot; yet, they have the mental maturity (or lack thereof) of teenagers and, when they don’t happen to be sitting down for some five minutes’ worth of serious thinking, they display all the annoying behavior patterns to match.  In fact, all told they are considerably less mature than the single father’s eighteen year old son, for all of that particular young man’s insecurities; which are, moreover, eventually explained, whereas we’re apparently supposed to take Pussy and Piggy’s antics as the natural byproduct of young love.  Well, I just don’t. — Lastly, in the final pages of the book Rutland throws a spanner into the works of the solution to which she has built up until then: in fairness, it’s not a deus ex machina thing, but at this point it does come very much from left field, and in sum, that just was the proverbial last straw tipping my exasperation over the edge once and for all.

I have only one novel by Rutland left to read, and by all accounts it’s her best one (Blue Murder, a standalone book) — I am glad that I decided to leave best for last, though; otherwise I’d probably be calling it quits at this point … or at the very least thinking about it (and continuing, if at all, strictly for completion’s sake).

Wales:  view from Horseshoe Pass (north of Llangollen and Valle Crucis Abey) and the River Wye at Chepstow (photos mine)

 

(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 fact, like in the previous month, in May 2021, this turned out once again to be the major determinative feature of my monthly reading, though not quite as excessively so as in April; however, once again more along the lines of “reconnecting” than “walking literary paths less traveled,” thanks to the ACD / Sherlock Holmes binge alone.  I’m really going to have to start branching out more into new directions again in June …

 


Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes

Ah yes — Sherlock Holmes.  London’s only unofficial consulting detective; often imitated, never surpassed.  You either dig him or you don’t; and I do.  A lot.

I don’t think the world needs yet another beat-by-beat rundown of every individual story in the Canon; and anyway, the Sherlock Holmes Canon as a whole really is a single literary entity and, as such, much bigger than its individual parts — larger than life, in fact –, and the same is true for every single one of the five short story collections belonging to the Canon in and of themselves.  Never mind that Conan Doyle wrote the individual works forming part of the Canon in fits and starts, over a period of 40 years, with huge gaps between the later works especially; and never mind that his outlook on life changed substantially (and noticeably in the Holmes Canon, too) over the course of that period — due to his, and his country’s, war experience in South Africa and in WWI, the loss of his first wife (which Watson is promptly made to experience, too, if only in passing so as not to distract from the all-important detective work), his emerging interest in spiritualism, etc.  There is a reason why the reading public didn’t let him get away with killing Holmes off at the Reichenbach Falls — and what a good thing it turned out, too, that we never actually see Holmes tumble down the Falls in The Final Problem but are getting the whole thing second-hand only, from Watson’s perspective.  Conan Doyle may initially have considered this merely the logical consequence of telling each of Holmes’s adventures (at the time, anyway) in the voice of his trusted sidekick; but that alone certainly doesn’t explain why he has Watson being called away just prior to the apparently fateful encounter, and thus not on the spot as an eyewitness to the event.  Honi soit qui mal y pense?  Stephen Fry, judging by his introduction to The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, seems to think so.  Whatever Conan Doyle’s reasoning, it’s certainly a heck of a lot more convincing than walking out of your (ex-)fiancée’s dream and having a shower …

Somewhere buried in the depths of the list of projects I might get around to at some undefined point in the future (and if life doesn’t get in the way, which it has an irritating habit of doing) is the idea of a multiple-dimension series of reviews, taking into account not only the written originals as such but also their respective adaptations in the Granada / ITV series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and first David Burke, then Edward Hardwicke as Watson (word to the unwary: in my book, the only screen adaptation of ACD’s works worthy of notice), along with the published commentary on that series (inter alia, by its producer / executive producer, Michael Cox), as well as other works of reference, and quite possibly also some of the Canon’s more notable audio editions (narrated by Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Edward Hardwicke, and Simon Vance, respectively, plus the radio dramatizations starring John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Orson Welles).  Merely writing all of this down has made my head spin, however, so don’t expect it to happen any time soon.  If ever. 

Anyway — for the moment I’m just going to highlight a few things that struck me upon this particular revisit (most of them, not for the first time) … and

*** SPOILER WARNING: ***

With works as well-known as these, I am going to assume that readers of this blog are familiar with their contents, but if you aren’t, you’re proceeding at your own peril from here, because I will be mentioning not only significant plot points but also the ultimate solutions of various stories. 

  • While most of my favorite short stories come from the first three collections, and are fairly evenly spread across those, the final two collections do contain a few absolute gems as well.  The Bruce-Partington Plans, for example (contained in His Last Bow, 1917; originally published in Strand Magazine in 1908), would likely not have been written before Conan Doyle had developed a pronounced interest in naval operations and, more specifically, the potential risk to Britain emanating from Germany’s submarine fleet, which would later, in the immediate run-up to WWI, also translate into the stand-alone short story Danger!  (written in early 2013 and published in Strand Magazine in July 2014, the month when WWI actually began).
  • For all of Holmes’s alleged misogyny, and Conan Doyle’s general alignment with political conservativism, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t only treat women with unfailing courtesy — which Watson expressly acknowledges –; he, and through him the author, also gives women substantially more genuine agency than even certain female authors writing later in the Golden Age did.  And I don’t just mean obvious examples, such as THE woman, Irene Adler, who famously bests Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia; or, for that matter, women who valiantly “stand by their man” and are the true agent of his recovery from a traumatic experience (cf. The Naval Treaty).  No: none other than Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s landlady, puts her own life at risk in assisting Holmes to outwit a vicious sniper (in Holmes’s own words, “the second most dangerous man in London”) in The Empty House.  And even in “woman in peril” stories, such as The Copper Beeches, The Speckled Band, and The Solitary Cyclist, either the women themselves manage to outfox their pursuers / adversaries for a considerable time (cf. The Solitary Cyclist and, arguably, also Wisteria Lodge), or Holmes assigns them an active (and not necessarily easy) part in their own rescue and in the solution of the mystery (cf. The Copper Beeches and The Speckled Band) — or after their abusers have been punished and removed from circulation by another man, the women play a crucial, brave, and very active part in shielding their rescuer from prosecution (cf. The Abbey Grange).  That is more than can be said for many a heroine of the “women in peril” stories by Ethel Lina White, who made a minor specialty of this kind of thing, and whose first crime novel (Put Out the Light, 1931) appeared four years after the final Sherlock Holmes Collection (The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927), with her first genuine “woman in peril” mystery (Some Must Watch, aka The Spiral Staircase) published another two years later (in 1933), and her — today — best-known book, The Wheel Spins (aka The Lady Vanishes), even almost a full decade after The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

    Yes, there are also genuinely stupid women who are the agents of their own misfortunes as much as the men who take advantage of them (A Case of Identity, anyone?), and Holmes theorizes about “the drifting and friendlesss woman” as “one of the most dangerous classes” and “an inciter of crimes in others” in The Disappearance of Lady Francees Carfax (which is, incidentally, one of the reasons why neither of these stories will ever be among my favorites).  But stories such as these are a minority, and just as importantly as all the above examples, in a time when it was still perfectly acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, Conan Doyle took a a firm stance against spousal abuse; not only by painting abusive husbands in the blackest of colours (Black Peter; The Abbey Grange), but even to the point of having Sherlock Holmes explicitly let a man who has killed the abusive husband of his unhappy lady love de facto get away with it (The Abbey Grange again).  All in all, thus, Conan Doyle may have been a man of his times in many respects, and a proud son of the British Empire — but he was decidedly ahead of the curve in his literary treatment of women.

  • The same is true for Conan Doyle’s treatment of race issues.  In a time period when racial epithets and stereotypes were a given across all genres and types of literature, and society was divided not only along class but also along ethnic lines, with the lowliest white person (or natural-born citizen) more assured of their place in society than any foreigner or member of a different race, Conan Doyle had the heroine of The Yellow Face take the monumental step of leaving behind white society (as she necessarily had to) in order to marry the black man she loved, and describe her deceased husband later with the words “a nobler man never walked the earth” — and he had the lady’s new (British) husband eventually accept his wife’s mixed-race daughter as his own, albeit after some serious thought; an equally unheard-of thing in polite British society at the time.  (There are several versions of the story with differing time periods given for how long it took the gentleman to make up his mind — apparently Conan Doyle couldn’t decide whether two minutes’ worth of serious reflection would have been enough, or whether it would rather have taken “a long ten minutes.”)  By the same token, Conan Doyle was one of the first authors to highlight the KKK as both racist and criminal (in The Five Orange Pips).  He occasionally did resort to ethnic / national stereotype (a “hot-blooded” Brazilian in The Problem of Thor Bridge, another “hot-blooded” lady, Welsh this time, in The Musgrave Ritual), but unlike many of his fellow countrymen (and incidentally the citizens of most other Central and Northern European, as well as North American, nations at the time) he never fell into the trap of attributing the criminal nature of a given organization to all citizens of the country or community from which it originated: Yes, the Mafia happened to be an Italian crime syndicate, but that didn’t mean that ordinary Italians weren’t as scared of it as everybody else (cf. The Red Circle); and if there were rotten apples among the predominantly Irish American miners in Pennsylvania, that didn’t make every other American of Irish extraction a rotten apple, too (cf. The Valley of Fear).  In fact, every so often we even see him have Sherlock Holmes exonerate a person whom others have, at least implicitly, found guilty wholly or in part on grounds of national or linguistic affiliation (e.g., in The Priory School).  And one of (IMHO) Conan Doyle’s most silently brave characters is a landed British gentleman’s Peruvian wife (i.e., once more a woman character, too), who has chosen to bear to be ostracized on the egregious charge of vampirism, after having sucked poison from a wound in her baby’s neck and been found bowing over her child with blood on her lips, rather than expose the true criminal, her husband’s ludicrously spoilt teenage son from his first marriage (The Sussex Vampire).  (Arguably, this particular story — if it could have happened at all — would have gone down quite differently these days; but back then, the lady, being both a woman and a foreigner, had every reason to fear that she would lose her child and, quite probably, also her husband and her home in England if she publicly accused her stepson and he contested the charge, predictably underlined by one of his recurring fits of temper … because it is clear that her husband would have jumped to believing his son’s, not his new foreign wife’s version of events.)
  • Conan Doyle is occasionally accused of “not playing fair”, i.e., not providing the reader with enough clues to solve the mystery “in competition” with the Great Detective.  By way of a tongue-in-cheek and apparently related charge, Holmes himself repeatedly accuses Watson of going for a thrilling and, at times, downright melodramatic narrative rather than a lesson in logic in recounting his cases: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid,” he famously scoffs in The Sign of Four … only to (of course!) do exactly what Watson does, namely, withhold critical information on his process of reasoning until he is ready to reveal it in one piece in the story’s conclusion, in the two adventures narrated by himself (The Blanched Soldier and The Lion’s Mane, both contained in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes).  The larger point here, though, is that those who accuse Conan Doyle of “cheating” are missing two critical things:
    • The notion of the detective story as a “contest” between the reader and the Great Detective didn’t truly take hold until the 1920s, with the novels of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, and their contemporaries and fellow founders of the Detection Club, as well as Ronald Knox’s famous “Decalogue,” setting down the rules of the game (and subsequently incorporated into the statutes of the Detection Club).  Conan Doyle published most of his Sherlock Holmes stories — in fact, most of his crime fiction — before this period; in fact, when he was invited to become the Detection Club’s first President, he declined on age grounds … rightly, as it would alas turn out, as he died in the same year as the Detection Club’s formation (1930).  Obviously, he can’t be bound by the rules of a “game” that he never set out to play in the first place.
    • Conan Doyle’s intent, in writing the Sherlock Holmes stories — other than, of course, to entertain his readers and earn money in the process — was to demonstrate in a fictional setting what he had learned, years earlier, from his Edinburgh mentor Dr. Joseph Bell; namely, that logic and scientific deduction are indispensable in the solution of a crime.  What today is known as crime scene investigation technique, has long been considered the vital first stage of the investigation of any crime, and has developed in a highly specialized scientific branch of its own, was not even in its infancy when Conan Doyle began to publish his Sherlock Holmes mysteries; but he had seen by shadowing Dr. Bell that his mentor’s method worked and frequently produced results where nothing else would, and was eager to find a way to bring this notion to the attention of a wider public (as well as, if possible, the police).  So, Holmes’s expostulations about the “exact science” nature of detection actually do have a point beyond that of extracting crime narratives from what was then known as “sensationalist” literature.  Obviously Conan Doyle knew that you still had to tell an interesting story, and he concluded that laying both Holmes’s actions and his inferences from his discoveries before the reader in the same moment as they happened would have taken away much of the suspense.  On the other hand, Holmes’s deductive process is much easier to follow — and the usefulness of its application is much easier to understand — in context, rather than ripped apart into tiny fragments.  So, Conan Doyle decided to tell the reader precisely which steps Holmes takes in his investigation (including which items or parts of a given room he examines at length, etc.), while giving us a lovely, thrilling chase in the process (and bamboozling Scotland Yard and other police inspectors by the dozen) — and in the conclusion let Holmes detail, from minute point to minute point, what his inferences had been and how his reasoning had progressed.  And readers have been finding it consistently entertaining and engaging for the better part of a century and a half at this point, so arguably whether or not he “cheated” is a moot point anyway.
  • If you have not yet listened to the complete Canon’s audio version as narrated by Stephen Fry, do yourself a favor and remedy that sooner rather than later.  In retrospect, I could have kicked myself for not having done so myself much earlier, either, because this is definitely one of my favorite audio versions.  (I had, in fact, started to listen to it immediately after I’d first acquired it, so I knew exactly just how good it is, but then life interfered … oh well.)  Two things stand out for me in particular:
    • Stephen Fry’s introductions to each of the nine books in the Canon.  They are as informative, entertaining, and personal as anything you’ll ever hear (or read) about ACD and Sherlock Holmes — and the reading experience, and the Canon’s legacy, and plenty of anecdotes to boot; in short, they’re quintessential Fry and all the better for it.
    • The fact that Fry gives both Holmes and Watson a very “natural” voice, not unlike his own natural speaking voice: not Holmes and Watson are the characters to be primarily distinguished but, rather, the other characters in the story are.  Don’t worry: unlike in other audio versions — that narrated by Simon Vance springs to mind especially — you’re still able to distinguish the speaker at every given moment.  But not only does Fry avoid the trap of making Holmes come across as arrogant (as he surprisingly sometimes does in Edward Hardwicke’s narration — and of course in Simon Vance’s, but then, Vance always sounds like that, which is why he isn’t one of my favorite narrators to begin with; and to have even Watson sound like the toff that he manifestly isn’t is arguably considerably worse than the occasional stridency in Holmes’s pronouncements).  More importantly, though, by giving both of the stories’ protagonists an only minimally modulated version of his own, natural speaking voice, Fry makes both of them supremely relatable, in the same way as the written stories themselves do (yes, dammit, I do find Holmes relatable, too … well, except for the cocaine thing at least), and in a way that only one other audio version of the complete Canon does as far as I’m concerned; the one read by Derek Jacobi. (As well as the abridged version of The Valley of Fear narrated by Ian McKellen; but then, that is one of my least favorite individual episodes in the Canon, so it’s not one I’m likely to rush to very often.)

Last but not least, lest anybody feel short-changed by my summary rating of the Canon as such with five stars, by way of a more detailed summary here are my individual star ratings — note, though, that they’ve been subject to occasion half-star (or in rare cases also one-star) shifts over the course of time; and again: the whole is decidedly more than its constituent parts here.

  • A Study in Scarlet
  • The Sign of Four
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
    • A Scandal in Bohemia
    • The Red-Headed League
    • A Case of Identity
    • The Boscombe Valley Mystery
    • The Five Orange Pips
    • The Man with the Twisted Lip
    • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
    • The Adventure of the Speckled Band
    • The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb
    • The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor
    • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet
    • The Adventure of the Copper Beeches
  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
    • The Adventure of Silver Blaze
    • The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
    • The Adventure of the Yellow Face
    • The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk
    • The Adventure of the Gloria Scott
    • The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual
    • The Adventure of the Reigate Squire
    • The Adventure of the Crooked Man
    • The Adventure of the Resident Patient
    • The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter
    • The Adventure of the Naval Treaty
    • The Final Problem
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles
  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes
    • The Adventure of the Empty House
    • The Adventure of the Norwood Builder
    • The Adventure of the Dancing Men
    • The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist
    • The Adventure of the Priory School
    • The Adventure of Black Peter
    • The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
    • The Adventure of the Six Napoleons
    • The Adventure of the Three Students
    • The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez
    • The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter
    • The Adventure of the Abbey Grange
    • The Adventure of the Second Stain
  • The Valley of Fear
  • His Last Bow
    • The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge
    • The Adventure of the Red Circle
    • The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans
    • The Adventure of the Dying Detective
    • The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
    • The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot
    • His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes
  • The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
    • The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone
    • The Problem of Thor Bridge
    • The Adventure of the Creeping Man
    • The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire
    • The Adventure of the Three Garridebs
    • The Adventure of the Illustrious Client
    • The Adventure of the Three Gables
    • The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier
    • The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane
    • The Adventure of the Retired Colourman
    • The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger
    • The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place

 


Arthur Conan Doyle: Sir Nigel

I didn’t quite want to limit my “birthday boy” look at Arthur Conan Doyle’s work to the predictable Sherlock Holmes binge, so I decided to take a look at one of his historical novels in addition.  Well, I suppose I have to hand it to Sir Arthur for mastering, with panache, genres as diverse as detective fiction, horror, science fiction (dinosaurs and all), and, in the present instance, historical fiction.  And I can’t fault him for the research that has obviously gone into this volume (as well as, presumably, the associated earlier novel, The White Company).  And if fighting for fighting’s sake, death for the sake of chivalric honor, and faked-up antiquated dialogue with plenty of “nay”s, “wot not”s and “wouldst thou”s are your thing, you’re bound to have a blast with this book.  Conceivably, once upon a time, so would I have — but not anymore.

And yet, it started so well …

*** SPOILER WARNING ***

[Note that I’ll be discussing significant plot points of this novel in my review; if that sort of thing bothers you, you may want to stop reading one or at most two paragraphs below the quote from the novel’s opening passages.]

Sir Nigel is set in the immediate aftermath of the mid-14th century plague outbreak and the early years of the Hundred Years’ War; as indicated above, it is the second of two books dealing with the exploits of a group of English soldiers in the context of that war.  In terms of sequencing, today we’d call it the other book’s prequel, as it is in fact set earlier: The White Company (published 15 years previously) focuses chiefly on the war exploits of the son-in-law-to-be of this novel’s hero, Sir Nigel Loring, some 10-15 years after the events of this present book.  As a character, this book’s Sir Nigel is (very) losely based on one of the first Knights of the Garter, Sir Neil Loring.

Now, this is how Conan Doyle sets the scene and goes about establishing his hero as the scion of family of minor landed gentry whose fortunes have taken a sharp downward turn in recent years:

“In the month of July of the year 1348, between the feasts of St. Benedict and of St. Swithin, a strange thing came upon England, for out of the east there drifted a monstrous cloud, purple and piled, heavy with evil, climbing slowly up the hushed heaven. […]

Men died, and women and children, the baron of the castle, the franklin on the farm, the monk in the abbey and the villein in his wattle-and-daub cottage. All breathed the same polluted reek and all died the same death of corruption. Of those who were stricken none recovered, and the illness was ever the same – gross boils, raving, and the black blotches which gave its name to the disease. All through the winter the dead rotted by the wayside for want of some one to bury them. In many a village no single man was left alive. Then at last the spring came with sunshine and health and lightness and laughter – the greenest, sweetest, tenderest spring that England had ever known – but only half of England could know it. The other half had passed away with the great purple cloud. Yet it was there in that stream of death, in that reek of corruption, that the brighter and freer England was born. There in that dark hour the first streak of the new dawn was seen. For in no way save by a great upheaval and change could the nation break away from that iron feudal system which held her limbs. But now it was a new country which came out from that year of death. The barons were dead in swaths. No high turret nor cunning moat could keep out that black commoner who struck them down.

Oppressive laws slackened for want of those who could enforce them, and once slackened could never be enforced again. The laborer would be a slave no longer. The bondsman snapped his shackles. There was much to do and few left to do it. Therefore the few should be freemen, name their own price, and work where and for whom they would. It was the black death which cleared the way for that great rising thirty years later which left the English peasant the freest of his class in Europe.

But there were few so far-sighted that they could see that here, as ever, good was coming out of evil. At the moment misery and ruin were brought into every family. The dead cattle, the ungarnered crops, the untilled lands – every spring of wealth had dried up at the same moment. Those who were rich became poor; but those who were poor already, and especially those who were poor with the burden of gentility upon their shoulders, found themselves in a perilous state. All through England the smaller gentry were ruined, for they had no trade save war, and they drew their living from the work of others. On many a manor-house there came evil times, and on none more than on the Manor of Tilford, where for many generations the noble family of the Lorings had held their home.”

If only the tone and the analysis built into these paragraphs had prevailed throughout the novel … but alas, that was not to be.

The novel’s early chapters are set in England, where Nigel — still a squire then — acquires, in this order, a fearsome, indomitable horse, King Edward III‘s and Sir John Chandos‘s (another one of the original Garter knights) patronage, a set of armour, and the heart of a noble lady anxiously awaiting his return from the wars, knighted and with honor — in other words, every attribute of a knight except that of the title itself.  Along the way he picks a fight with the nearby Cistercian abbey (whose claims on Loring land are the chief agent of his family’s recent fall into ruin), has a (rather ignoble) run-in with a feared woodland robber and his wife, saves his lady love’s sister from a lecher’s clutches, and manages to get under his belt the first of the three knightly jousts (or fights) that are eventually supposed to endow him with enough honor to deserve being knighted.  All in all, this reads like a cross breed between a picaresque novel (think Dumas’s Les trois mousquetaires, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, or the Spanish originator of the breed, Lazarillo de Tormes), Robin Hood, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and the “boy’s own adventure” stories of yesteryear — and I was beginning to be faintly bored.  (Except for the scene in which Nigel acquires his horse … but then, I have never been able to resist a well-told horse story in my entire life; and this one is certainly told with plenty of flair.)  Dumas, Cervantes and Scott had a recognizable purpose in telling their tales, but I kept wondering what Conan Doyle’s was; particularly in those episodes that didn’t end up contributing anything to Nigel’s knightly outfit.

Well — at last we get to the wartime derring-do, most of which (except, of course, for our hero’s specific, fictional contributions to the war effort) is based on fact.  When Nigel isn’t fighting alongside the King himself, his son, the Black Prince (of Wales) and / or Sir John Chandos, he is to be found in the company of yet another one of the original Garter knights, Sir Robert Knolles (or Knollys); the notable battles and engagements that Conan Doyle selected as his hero’s opportunity to distinguish himself in battle are the (maritime) Battle of Winchelsea in the Dover Straits (1350), the so-called Combat of the Thirty (Combat des Trente) in Brittany (1351), and the 1356 Battle of Poitiers.  And although up to this point Conan Doyle has already pretty much clobbered us over the head with the fact that a medieval nobleman’s life and actions were controlled first, last and always by the code of chivalry (which they were, of course), and I had already become faintly annoyed by the author’s seemingly uncritical endorsement of this attitude, I am sad to say that the rest of the novel considerably jacked up that annoyance factor even more.  It is really, really hard to separate authorial voice and presumed medieval attitude here; the text almost reads as if it came straight out of Chrétien de Troyes or Jean Froissart, or any of the other medieval texts that Conan Doyle does in fact reference as his sources in the novel’s introduction (including but not limited to the Book of St. Albans and the chronicle of Jocelyn de Brakelond).  As a result, there is much rejoicing over the opportunity to distinguish oneself in armed combat, and, although the wounds sustained by various combatants are described in their in part gruesome detail, no attention whatsoever is given to the pains and hardships of war: reading this book, you’d think it was all a grand adventure and short of being knighted there couldn’t be any greater fun than killing others — or being killed oneself in the process.  The pinnacle, for me, came with Conan Doyle’s rendition of the Combat of the Thirty, which (at least in his version) was not a necessary wartime engagement at all, but merely an exercise of chivalric sport, initiated because those involved regretted having been deprived of a genuine battlefield encounter as a result of a recently-concluded truce … and chose to instead duke out — to the death! — a spurious dispute made up for this express purpose by way of compensation.  Excuse me??  Short of the circenses in the Roman Colosseum, I can’t think of many other examples of a waste of human lives this egregiously profligate.  (And stupid to boot, because on both sides there was the substantial risk of needlessly losing experienced senior commanders, and on one side in particular this is in fact precisely what occurred.)

Virtually the only episode during Nigel’s entire adventures in France that held my attention throughout was Conan Doyle’s one (apparently)* genuinely fictional contribution: the English company’s encounter with a cruel Breton robber baron named La Brohinière, who manages to capture the English longbowmen, marches them off into his heavily-fortified castle, and in short order proceeds to hang three of them from his castle walls to give emphasis to his ransom demands.  Here, with Conan Doyle’s imagination freed for once from the self-imposed shackles of the fact-based medieval narrative, his enormous writerly potential comes to the fore at last; and while this episode is unquestionably among the novel’s most brutal ones, it is also far and away among the most suspenseful ones (if not the most suspenseful one, period).  Here, for once, Conan Doyle recaptured and kept my attention.  Here, for once, there was an episode that didn’t shrink from showing the pain inflicted by violence, both physically (the captured longbowmen are viciously tortured in the attempt to press them into the robber baron’s service) and mentally, in their English companions, who try the best they can do from outside the castle walls to keep their three companions with nooses around their necks from being hanged, only to fail miserably and to their great fury and grief after all. (In fact, in light of the robber baron’s extreme cruelty, I couldn’t even blame his victims — hardened soldiers, all — for taking revenge on him when they finally could.)  Here, for once, I felt reminded not only of the classic adventure stories that I used to swallow while growing up (secret passages and all), but also of the type of historical novel that I still enjoy reading. — Alas, once the English have freed their captured companions (and Nigel has genuinely distinguished himself in the process), we next see them moving on to Ploërmel where, in short order, they will be participating in the Combat of the Thirty …

Conan Doyle tries to justify the uncritical attitude towards medieval thought, and incidentally also his choice of rendering the dialogue in a markedly antiquated (although by no means medieval) language in the book’s introduction:

“The matter of diction is always a question of taste and discretion in a historical reproduction. In the year 1350 the upper classes still spoke Norman-French, though they were just beginning to condescend to English. The lower classes spoke the English of the original Piers Plowman text, which would be considerably more obscure than their superiors’ French if the two were now reproduced or imitated. The most which the chronicles can do is to catch the cadence and style of their talk, and to infuse here and there such a dash of the archaic as may indicate their fashion of speech.

I am aware that there are incidents which may strike the modern reader as brutal and repellent. It is useless, however, to draw the Twentieth Century and label it the Fourteenth. It was a sterner age, and men’s code of morality, especially in matters of cruelty, was very different. There is no incident in the text for which very good warrant may not be given. The fantastic graces of Chivalry lay upon the surface of life, but beneath it was a half-savage population, fierce and animal, with little ruth or mercy. It was a raw, rude England, full of elemental passions, and redeemed only by elemental virtues. Such I have tried to draw it.

For good or bad, many books have gone to the building of this one. I look round my study table and I survey those which lie with me at the moment, before I happily disperse them forever. […] With these and many others I have lived for months. If I have been unable to combine and transfer their effect, the fault is mine.”

Rather to the contrary, Sir Arthur, I think you may have done too well in “transferring” the effect of your sources: or rather, too literally and, as a result, something got lost in the translation.  Precisely because the fourteenth century was a rawer, ruder, more brutal and sterner age, wouldn’t that have been even more occasion to display that rawness and brutality for what it was and make it come alive for the reader — instead of glossing over (especially) the psychological effects of all that bloodshed for the sake of an almost exclusive emphasis on chivalry?  Chivalry was of course very much a feature of medieval life (or at least, medieval aristocratic and knightly life), but it was so precisely because medieval society was aware of its darker antecedents and sought to counterbalance those with a highly refined set of rules, both on the battlefield and in civil life.  In other words, chivalry didn’t exist despite those antecedents but because of them: War was still very much considered a means of resolving conflict and, yes, a human life was worth considerably less then that it is today, but the fact that you had distinguished yourself in battle didn’t mean that you hadn’t suffered pain, grief, fury, fear, and any of the other myriad emotions that any human being will experience when their own life is at stake (particularly given the fearsome nature of the medieval weaponry) — it just meant that you had overcome them, and you had refrained from the even greater savagery that “non-chivalric” fighting and killing would have involved.  The likes of Jean Froissart didn’t need to go into the detail of what warfare in the Middle Ages meant — the vast majority of their readers knew as much from personal experience, or if they were lucky, at the very least from the narrations of their elders and nearest and dearest.  Besides, Froissart was writing history, not fiction: if he detailed the wounds sustained by the combatants in a particular battle, that was more than enough for the purpose of his chronicle; his contemporaries could supply the context from their own knowledge.  But it’s not enough in a historical novel — an enumeration of battle injuries (regardless how severe), combined with the over-emphasis that all of this is done in the name of chivalry, just deprives the account of life and renders it precisely as difficult to relate to as you seem to have feared, Sir Arthur, judging not only by the contents of your preface but also by the fact that you did give us plenty of emotional context for the La Brohinière episode … so much so, in fact, that it is easy for the reader to even empathize with a decidedly unchivalric killing (that of the robber baron by his former victims, which Nigel in fact tries to prevent — in the name of chivalry).

As for the language in which dialogue is rendered … well, let’s just say I am happy that most modern historical fiction writers have come to the conclusion that any attempt to approximate historic language by the use of archaic forms of speech (even if not actually period-adequate) is decidedly worse than just going with the flow of modern language and taking it as a given that their readers know their characters would have said the equivalent things in Old, Middle or Early Modern English, Norman French, Provençal, Middle High German, Vulgar Latin, Venetian, or whichever other language they would actually have spoken.

So: three stars for the painstaking amount of research and for the episodes that actually did hold my attention — as well as for the bits and pieces of analysis along the lines of the novel’s opening paragraphs strewn throughout the book, and the passages where Conan Doyle does give freer rein to his own authorial instincts and gifts.  I think I’ll mostly stick with hiss crime and horror fiction in the future, however — unless someone convinces me that The White Company, Micah Clarke, or either of the two Brigadier Gérard books are substantially different from this outing after all. 

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* As far as I could find out, while a village named La Brohinière does exist in Brittany, it is today chiefly notable for its station, and neither the (French) Wikipedia page nor the official website of the community to which it belongs (Montauban de Bretagne), nor the website of that community’s tourist office makes any reference to a robber baron of the same name as a notable historical peson from the area.  Nor does the village of La Brohinière itself seem to have a castle; the closest one seems to be that in the community seat of Montauban de Bretagne — and this castle was held, in 1351, by a Breton knight (Geoffroy de Mellon) who actually did die in the Combat of the Thirty, which in turn would expressly seem to rule him out as the robber baron from the novel, as Conan Doyle makes no mention of La Brohinière in the context of that particular fight (nor would his participation seem likely based on the larger context of this armed encounter and its major participants).

 

Octave Penguilly l’Haridon: Le Combat des Trente (1857)
(Source: Wikipedia)

 


Nora Ephron: I Remember Nothing

See review in the Diversity Bingo section.

 

 


Daphne Du Maurier: My Cousin Rachel

Oh, I wanted to like this so much better than I ultimately did; for its glorious Cornish and Italian (Florence) settings alone, as well as for the fact that Du Maurier (as she herself insisted) apparently identified so much with this novel’s first person narrator, Philip Ashley, that at times she almost felt like she had “become” him.  Unfortunately, however, it seems that the only novel by Daphne Du Maurier that I love unrestrainedly and however many times I reread it will probably remain Rebecca.

Again, like several other books I read in May (Rendon’s Girl Gone Missing, Kent’s One Blood, Rutland’s Bleeding Hooks, Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel), the novel starts on an impressively strong note but falls apart (or did for me, anyway) at some point thereafter.  It recovered partially towards the very end, but by and large the recovery was not pronounced enough to make more than a minor difference.

We start with what has to be one of the most impressive grab-your-gut openings in literary history, with a graphic description of a gallows near Philip’s home, his memory of a visit to the gallows as a young child (when the corpse of the then-most-recently executed man had been rotting there for no less than four weeks), and his, as well as his elder cousin and de-facto guardian Ambrose’s musings on death and the death penalty.  (Ambrose is the person who actually brought Philip up; his legal guardian is the family lawyer.)  From there, Du Maurier seamlessly segues into establishing the de-facto-father-son relationship between Ambrose and Philip; and it’s such a comfortable all-male establishment that — particularly in light of Ambrose’s pronounced, though paternally-expressed misogyny — you’d think no woman in her right mind would ever even want to set so much as her little toenail in there.  Well, no woman but their Cousin Rachel, it turns out, and from the moment that Ambrose first meets her in Florence, things start to go downhill … for the Ashleys, but so, unfortunately, they also did for me; particularly once Philip himself has met Rachel, about whom he had initially only heard through Ambrose’s letters. 

Not only did I find the majority of the then-remaining plot disappointingly predictable (maybe not in every detail and episode, but definitely in its broad outline); Philip is another one of those TSTL characters who deserve every single bit of their fate for the sole reason that they’re too blind to see the supersized, glaring, red neon warning signs that keep flashing before their very eyes.  (OK, this story is set in the candlelight, horse and carriage age, so forget the “neon” bit, but anyway.)  I can forgive one instance of this sort of behavior in a character, maybe even two … but if it happens again and again (and if a character, like Philip here, even takes a painkiller for the headache from being clobbered over the skull with a warning sign, only so as to be able to pretend he’s never been clobbered with anything at all and there’s nothing to be clobbered about to begin with), and it all happens very obviously only so as to allow the author to give the plot yet another minor twirl, at some point I just become annoyed.  And that’s not even mentioning Philip’s own two brain-fryingly stupid contributions to the whole mess — from only one of which he is saved, if only for the time being, by his legal guardian; whom he then however repays in turn by calling on a complete stranger so as to be able to commit his second and infinitely greater act of monumental stupidity, this time without anybody’s timely interference.  At that point, the only question in my mind was how, if at all, Du Maurier would be able to redeem the mess that she’d created for her characters — which, as I said above, she does to some extent, but all told it’s too little too late for me.

As a side note, given that the novel is narrated exclusively from Philip’s point of view, who is as unreliable a narrator as they come and never develops the first inkling about Rachel’s true personality and thought processes, Rachel herself never emerges as a fully rounded character but, rather, always remains little more than a cipher, seen through the distorting lenses of Philip’s myopic eyes.  This is quite obviously Du Maurier’s intent, but even if the title’s implicit question (“My Cousin Rachel: Who or what is / was she really?”) is eventually answered, and we’re at least given a few pretty fat hints as to the driving force of Rachel’s course of actions, Du Maurier plays fast and loose with the reader’s understanding until the very end — to the point, incidentally, that the Wikipedia summary of the novel’s plot clean misses the crucial final twist.  (I’m not going to link to the page since it does spoil the more obvious part of the ending, but there’s one aspect that it misses entirely — presumably because Du Maurier only hints at it without ever spelling it out as a cold, hard, “in your eyes” fact — and which gives the whole ending a 180-degree spin.)

I’m not sure that this book is a case of “this could have been so much better if only …”: Du Maurier wrote precisely the novel she set out to write, and it really only works at novel length because of Philip’s utter cluelessness; but unfortunately, that is also the very reason why it didn’t work for me.  So, three stars for the wonderful atmosphere and for Du Maurier’s as always beautiful writing — but that’s really all the enthusiasm I can muster.

Left: laburnum in a garden in our street; center and right: in the Lost Gardens of Heligan (Cornwall)
(photos mine)

 

(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, though not quite as strongly in May.

 


John Steinbeck: The Winter of Our Discontent

John Steinbeck’s final novel was one I had never gotten around to in my Steinbeck fangirl binges of yore — I knew it was reputed to be “bleak”, and after I’d seen what Steinbeck can do along those lines in The Grapes of Wrath (never mind that that actually is one of my favorite novels by him), I just couldn’t work up the nerve to go anywhere near bleakness, Steinbeck style, again anytime soon.  But of course it remained a nagging “to-do”; so here we are at last, all those years later.

I was surprised (and dare I say it, relieved) to find that the book actually opens on an almost serene note, never mind that this note is being sounded on Good Friday; with all the dual / opposing implications built right into the novel’s opening that way (and for those who’d otherwise miss it, Steinbeck even goes so far as to give us the etymology of the holiday’s name).  And the benign mood lasts longer — in terms of pages, even if not in terms of time passed in the novel — than I would have expected; Steinbeck really puts a lot of groundwork into establishing his protagonist Ethan Allen Hawley’s initial standing as his township’s one decent, honest and incorruptible citizen, all the while laying out the character of the town as such and its major denizens — and, once more, producing quotable lines by the dozen.  (I swear, one of these days I’m going to grab my entire Steinbeck library and copy half its contents into my collection of favorite quotes.)

Similarly, while both in terms of the novel’s timeline and in terms of Hawley’s inner life, the beginning of Hawley’s transformation is clearly definable, he goes about it in such a slow, methodical way that at times you almost want to doubt whether he really has changed his course after all; and there’s a moment right before the ending (for those who have read the book: the conversation in Baker’s office) where, even knowing everything that has made this moment possible, I still couldn’t stop myself from thinking, “good for you, Ethan.”  (That is, of course, before Hawley gets home on the evening of that same day.) 

Taken all in all, this novel is everything that’s ever been said about it — a searing indictment of capitalism, exemplified not through Wall Street and large city corporations but seen through the focus of a small Long Island community (which looks benign only as long as you don’t know that it was founded by buccaneers), an indictment of the link between money and social standing (whoever said the U.S. were a classless society anyway?), an exploration of morality and personal values; and also, noticeably, once more an incredibly prescient piece of writing; from land and corporate ownership to honesty in academic settings and national contests, there is not one issue in this novel that hasn’t retained its relevance until the present day and hasn’t kept producing similar examples, over and over again, over the course of the decades since the novel’s publication.  Steinbeck’s final word on human society is a harsh one — and yet, the very last notes that it sounds are not without hope, and they do bring us around all the way back to the novel’s double-edged beginning after all.

 


Ursula K. Le Guin: Lavinia

The final six books of Vergil‘s Aeneid (half the epic’s length, until its abrupt and arguably premature ending) deal with Aeneas’s arrival in Latium and the hostilities ensuing after the Latian king, obeying a prophecy, promises his only daughter Lavinia’s hand to the Trojan warrior.  Now, this being a heroic epos setting out to chronicle the adventures and deeds of Rome’s mythological founding father — and written for a predominantly male audience, by a male poet, in one of the (at least structurally) most male-dominated societies of Western history –, it is perhaps not surprising that the fair maiden herself does not impinge greatly on the story; even if it is she who the whole fuss is all about … well, she and the Latian crown, that is. 

Still, Lavinia herself rarely features as an actor in the poem; we either learn about her in a brief bit of narrative passage, or we learn what others do to her or with respect of her; but hardly ever what she herself does, let alone what thinks and feels, nor does she ever speak.  Over the course of the entire six books, she is name-checked — including as an object of someone’s commentary addressed to some third party — a puny 14 times, i.e., just over twice per book on average (for those who care, the actual breakdown is 6 times in book VII, once in book IX, twice in book XI, and 5 times in book XII).  The number of times that she is referred to other than by her given name (as princess, bride, etc.) can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  In fact, even her mother Amata, who incites the Latians and Lavinia’s up-to-then foremost suitor Turnus to fight the Trojans, gets considerably more active play than Lavinia herself.

In one of her final works of fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin set out to right this narrative wrong and give the founding mother of what would later become Rome a full life circle of her own, from early childhood to grave and beyond.  In sketching out the events as such, she is — up to the sudden end of the Aeneid with the death of Turnus — guided by Vergil’s narrative; with the significant difference, however, that like its two Greek predecessors, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid shows the mythological gods as taking a significant hand in the events narrated, whereas in Le Guin’s account they themselves make no appearance at all.  Le Guin does allow for an unspecific supernatural element: there are events seen as auguries (those mentioned in the Aeneid and also others), and there is the sacred grove where both Lavinia and her father on significant occasions spend the night to find spiritual guidance in their dreams; but Amata’s vengeful outbursts and her wild, bacchalian abduction of Lavinia, for example, are portrayed as expressions of a madness which (unnoticed by most) had already struck her at the childhood death of her sons, not as incited by the Furies (Erinys), who in turn have been called to action by Juno (Hera to the Greeks), as they are in Vergil’s text.  Nor does Le Guin have much time for the verbal battle royal between Juno and Aeneas’s mother, Venus (Aphrodite), during which Juno effectively counters Venus’s pleas to Jove (Jupiter / Zeus) to interfere on her son’s behalf by telling her if she’d wanted to spare her son having to flee his burning Trojan home and find or conquer a new home elsewhere, she ought not to have set Paris onto Helen’s tracks in the first place — and Jove, apparently equally annoyed with both of them, eventually decrees that the gods are to stay out of the humans’ dispute entirely (which then proceeds with significant losses on both sides, until Aeneas finally kills Amata’s — and Juno’s — champion Turnus).  In Le Guin’s account, these are the gods of the Greeks and the Trojans (and later, the Romans), but not of the Latians; Lavinia learns something about them from her dream encounters with Vergil, but she can only understand them to the extent that she can reference them to the more archaic and more naturalistic divinities of her own people, and she has a hard time imagining them as actors on an equal or even superior footing to the humans.

Yet, Le Guin, writer of fantasy, is, of course, interested in the mythological nature of Vergil’s tale, and of Lavinia’s existence as such, and thus she presents us with a creature existing in a reality entirely of her own, brought to life by “her poet” (who is only once identified by his full name, though we’re told that he also gives it in his and Lavinia’s first encounter, where she identifies him as Etruscan by his last name, Maro, and he tells her that while his spirit is appearing in her dreams — and her spirit in his — his dying body is lying on a ship on his final voyage to Brundisium (Brindisi, Apulia)): Lavinia, sprung from “her poet”‘s imagination like Athena (Minerva) from the head of her father Zeus (Jove), is neither mortal nor immortal; if anything, she is fated to fade away gradually as all unearthly creatures are, a shadowy being of unfulfilled potential even in “her poet’s” narrative, and she is real only for purposes of that narrative — and her own:

“I know who I was, I can tell you who I may have been, but I am, now, only in this line of words I write.  I’m not sure of the nature of my existence, and wonder to find myself writing,”

she begins her account:

“As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all.  Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy.  It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself, which I do, vividly, with all kinds of emotions, emotions I feel strongly as I write, perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them. […]

I won’t die.  Of that I am all but certain.  My life is too contingent to lead to anything so absolute as death.  I have not enough real mortality.  No doubt I will eventually fade away and be lost in oblivion, as I would have done long ago if the poet hadn’t summoned me into existence.”

And later she adds:

“I am a fleck of light on the surface of the sea, a glint of light from the evening star.  I live in awe.  If I never lived at all, yet I am a silent wing on the wind, a bodiless voice in the forest of Albunea.”

Similarly, in her dreams encounters with “her poet” in the sacred grove, he tells her about some of the things that will happen in his epic, but he also warns her:

“I think it has not happened yet. […] Perhaps it never did — never will happen.  You should not be concerned about it.  I made it up.  I imagined it.  A dream within a dream … within the dream that has been my life …”

The novel takes a while to find its feet; and while Le Guin naturally has to have recourse to a certain amount of poetic license in her endeavour out to fill in the gaps in Vergil’s narrative and give Lavinia not only a voice of her own and a full life up to the moment of the Aeneid‘s abrupt ending but also beyond, all the way to old age, there are passages in both the early parts of the book and the “post-wedding-to-Aeneas” part — where Le Guin resorts to other ancient sources* as well as contemporary works to complete the tale — that I could have done without.  Arguably, as the ancient accounts on which Le Guin directly or indirectly relies to complete Lavinia’s history, are narratives that very much take Lavinia as a being of flesh and blood (the founding mother of the dynasty from which would spring the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus), there is also a certain shift in narrative tone, from the earlier dream-interspersed, more obviously mythical narrative — which ends with the rendition of the hostilities between the Latians and the Trojans, where Le Guin elaborates on the vicious brutality of the fight that can be gleaned from the Aeneid with all that she’s got — to an overall slightly more matter-of-fact narrative, particularly following Aeneas’s premature death.  The last time we see Lavinia seek out the sacred grove specifically for the purpose of finding spiritual guidance is when she takes her and Aeneas’s son Silvius to the woods in order to be able to bring him up without interference from his older half-brother, and Aeneas’s successor on the throne, Ascanius.  After that time Lavinia remains in the woods and becomes a somewhat legendary person to her own people, but with the exception of one significant oracular moment, the events at Ascanius’s court (including those between Aeneas’s death and Lavinia’s and Silvius’s flight) are essentially rendered as historical fiction; and so is the summary account of the remainder of Lavinia’s life. — So, all in all a slightly uneven tale, but still a beautifully-told one, and one that I nevertheless enjoyed considerably.

___________________________________

* Chiefly the beginning of Appian‘s Roman History, the Roman Antiquities of Dionysus of Halicarnassus, and Livy‘s History of Rome (Ab Urbe Condita).

Left: Mirabello Cavalori: Lavinia at the Altar (ca. 1565; detail) — with Lavinia’s hair bursting into flames; right: Francesco de Mura: Latinus welcomes Aeneas and offers his daughter Lavinia’s hand in marriage (18th century; detail) (sources: here and here)

 

Other Books, including Comfort Reading

Most of the remaining books that I read in May 2021 were easily on par with the strongest books I read this month: not a major surprise, perhaps, since I decided to stop by a few longstanding favorites, but still welcome confirmation; particularly in the case of Val McDermid, whose previous installment in the Karen Pirie series I liked decidedly less, but who fortunately is back to stellar form here.


Martha Grimes: The Man With a Load of Mischief

Until not so very long ago, Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury series used to be one of my standard “go to” mystery series; it had everything that I’m looking for: well-constructed puzzles, great characters and settings, snappy dialogue, and plenty of sardonic humor.  (Also, if you thought that Elizabeth George was the first American novelist to set a mystery series in Britain and get away with it, think again: Grimes was there before her, by almost a full decade.)  Somewhere along the way, though, something got lost; and while Grimes — I think — still keeps plugging away at the adventures of Richard Jury, Melrose Plant and their manifold cohorts, I have stopped reading her books: they’re just not working for me anymore.  For her birthday, though, I decided to go back to the very beginning and revisit books nos. 1 and 2 of the series, which have always been among my particular favorites and still are after this reread.

Grimes’s Inspector Jury series is one of those book series whose titles all follow a particular theme; in this instance, it’s unusual pub names. No “Crown,” “Anchor,” or “Queen’s Head” here; every novel features a pub whose name is identical with the novel’s title (as well quite possibly, also a few other idiosyncratically-named pubs); and the pub’s name, in turn, usually contains a clue for the mystery’s solution — or at least, it does so in the series’s early installments.  In this first book, we meet not only Inspector Richard Jury and his chronically hypochondriac Sergeant Wiggins, but also half the population of Long Piddleton, aka “Long Pidd” (Northamptonshire, or Northants for short), where Jury is sent when two dead bodies are found at or near one of the local pubs (you guessed it, the one the book is named for): first and foremost, we also meet Melrose Plant (moneyed, green-eyed Francophile, drinker of Old Peculier, record-speed-Times-crossword-solver with a sideline occupation as a Professor of French literature), who would be the local squire if he hadn’t resigned his hereditary title as the eighth Earl of Caverness for reasons known only to himself, and Melrose’s American aunt by marriage, Agatha (insatiable guzzler of scones and incorrigible mispronouncer of non-intuitive English names; torn between the regret that her nephew-in-law no longer holds an earldom and triumph over the fact that, as his uncle’s widow and self-styled Lady Ardry, she now conceivably outranks him; with her beady eye always firmly on the riches displayed at his manor house of Ardry End, which to her infinite chagrin she is not destined ever to own).  Like some of the other denizens of Long Pidd, who are all destined to become recurring characters in the series, Melrose Plant and Aunt Agatha are regulars not at the Man With a Load of Mischief but at its rival establishment, the Jack and Hammer, from where they merrily follow the investigation; or rather, everybody else looks on, while Melrose seizes the opportunity to escape the boredom of a rural winter with both hands, and Agatha enviously but futilely tries to insert herself into Jury’s and Wiggins’s job in turn.  Another recurring feature of the series are lost, lonely, or real or de-facto orphaned children (mostly boys), with whom Jury — in contrast to Melrose Plant — instantly establishes a connection: Jury is a war orphan himself; we later learn that he lost his mother in the London Blitz, and he has spent part of a childhood in an orphanage.  In this first novel, the children in question are the “Doubles” (so named because they’re both called James, or at least that’s what they claim); they are not quite as prominent as some of the children in the subsequent books, but there’s hardly a Jury novel without them.

As the novel’s (and the pub’s) title implies, there is quite a bit of back story to the murders; and you have keep your eyes open in order not to miss the clues that Grimes sprinkles throughout.  The first two deaths are followed by several others, to the point that eventually Jury not only has to divide his time between his police work and keeping Agatha at bay, but on top of everything he is eventually also saddled with his equally stupid and irascible boss at Scotland Yard (aptly named Racer), who shows up in Long Pidd in time for the discovery of the final body and, when Jury shortly thereafter collars the killer, all but steals the Inspector’s thunder in the press.

Grimes is no stranger to the deliberate use of cliché in characterization; this isn’t only true for Racer but also, e.g., for Long Pidd’s resident antiquarian, Marshall Trueblood, who is flamboyantly gay (he insists the flamboyance is only an act put on because his customers expect it, but it does carry over into his behavior when among friends), as well as for a number of other eccentric characters that will be introduced later in the series.  This is balanced off, however, in the early books at least, by her genuinely sensitive portrayal of Jury’s London neighbor Mrs. Wasserman, a Jewish WWII survivor, whom her life experience has made distrustful of everyone and everything, and who finds great comfort in living in the same building as a policeman with the Met.  So, a few 1980s (in)sensibilities do crop up, but I nevertheless still love this series — and the earlier books, in fact, much more than the later ones, where Grimes sacrifices part of the snappiness of the earlier books’ dialogue and characterization for the sake of political correctness.

 


Martha Grimes: The Old Fox Deceiv’d

The Old Fox Deceiv’d was the first-ever book by Martha Grimes that I read, and whatever other details of its contents I subsequently forgot, it opens with an image that instantly grabbed me and stayed in my mind as vividly as when I first read it decades ago, and it’s in fact the one pictured on the Onyx paperback (above left), too:

“She came out of the fog, her face painted half-white, half-black, walking down Grape Lane.  It was early January and the sea-roke drove in from the east, turning the cobbled street into a smoky tunnel that curved down to the water. […]

The wind billowed her black cape, which settled again round her ankles in an eddying wave.  She wore a white satin shirt and white satin trousers stuffed into high-heeled black boots.  The click of the heels on the wet stones was the only sound except for the dry gah-gah of the gulls. […] The narrow street came right up to the cottage doors and black iron bootscrapers. […]

When she came to the iron gates of the Angel steps, she stopped.  The wide stair was on her left and connected Grape Lane and Scroop Street above with Our Lady of the Veil, the church at the top of the village.  She unlatched the gates and walked up, a long walk to a small landing where a bench served as a resting place. […] It was Twelfth Night.”

The place where this scene is set is the fictional, but quintessentially “Yorkshire” fishing village of Rackmoor (inspired by Staithes north of Whitby, where Grimes stayed during her research for this novel).  The date, as stated in the above quote, is Twelfth Night.  “She” is, as we will quickly learn, a young woman who has come to Rackmoor Old House, the residence of Colonel Sir Titus Crael, M.P., Master of Foxhounds, and one of Yorkshire’s richest citizens, claiming to be his resurrected and returned beloved ward, who disappeared at age 18, almost half her present lifetime ago — sort of a latter day female Martin Guerre.  One of the questions that Inspector Jury, sent to Yorkshire when “she” is found murdered, will of course have to answer is whether that claim of hers is correct: Sir Titus’s son vehemently rejects the idea; Sir Titus equally vehemently would have loved to believe it.  Oh, and it so happens that just when Jury’s job takes him to Old House, Melrose Plant has also been invited there — Grimes would later have Jury expressly call on Melrose to help with certain aspects his investigations, but in some of the earlier books she relies on coincidence to throw them together, which of course isn’t the most elegant way of going about things if it happens repeatedly; but you essentially have to lump this one, as it’s clear from book 1 that they are the series’s joint protagonists, so if you don’t want to get annoyed by their chance meetings near the scene of a crime over and over again, you have no option but to go with the flow.

In terms of this book’s plot development, Grimes doesn’t limit things to the Martin Guerre angle by far, and Jury’s and Melrose Plant’s investigation even takes them back to London for a while, but while that part of the book does offer up a number of colorful scenes and encounters as well, it is ultimately Rackmoor first, last and everywhere that controls this book’s atmosphere.  Of course there’s the obligatory (de-facto) orphan, too, and he plays a considerably bigger role here than do the Doubles in The Man With a Load of Mischief (he also won’t remain the only one who owns, or is best friends with a dog).  Upon rereading the book, it struck me that some of the clues here are a bit more obvious than in the series’s first book, but ultimately none of this matters — I think it is fair to say that the opening scene will continue to overshadow everything else whenever I’m thinking about this particular novel.

I’m not planning to revisit the entire series, but this reread has whetted my appetite for a few more of the earlier books.  Far and away the most atmospheric of these are set in winter, either shortly before or after Christmas; and I may well end up including one or more of them (particularly another one of my very early favorites, Jerusalem Inn) in this year’s holiday reading.

Robin Hood’s Bay (south of Whitby, Yorkshire), another fishing — and formerly smuggling — village on which Rackmoor could easily have been based. (photo mine)

 


Catherynne M. Valente: Space Opera

Catherynne M. Valente wrote Space Opera as a dare, after a publisher (Saga) had said it would accept a novel from her based on the Eurovision Song Contest sight unseen.  The novel had been sitting on my TBR pretty much ever since it was published, and what with May being both the month in which Valente is born and May 2021 also having seen the resumption of the Eurovision festivities after last year’s Corona-induced interruption, I decided I might as well include it in that month’s reading.  As it turns out, this was a timely choice not only because this year’s ESC winners (an Italian band with a Norwegian — or Danish — name, Måneskin, which means Moonlight) almost looked like a fallback to the days in which this book is set and could easily have shared a stage with Space Opera‘s heroes, the glamrock band Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes — or rather, the band’s surviving members, Danesh Jalo aka Decibel Jones himself and the band’s all-purpose drummer, keyboardist and master of all other instruments, Oort St. Ultraviolet (and his cat, Capo) –; the book also features a vicious virus that turns everything it infests into foully mouldering zombies.

Valente starts us off with the Fermi Paradox and the Rare Earth Hypothesis, only to soundly reject the latter … well, she has to; she wouldn’t have a story otherwise — in fact, pretty much no science fiction writer ever, short of possibly Jules Verne, would have much of a story:

“Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb.  Somewhere in between discovering various heretofore cripplingly socially anxious particles and transuranic elements and digging through plutonium to find the treat at the bottom of the nuclear box, he found the time to consider what would come to be known as the Fermi Paradox.  If you’ve never heard this catchy little jingle before, here’s how it goes: given that there are billions of stars in the galaxy quite similar to our good old familiar standby sun, and that many of them are quite a bit further on in years than the big yellow lady, and the probability that some of these stars will have planets quite similar to our good old familiar knockabout Earth, and that such planets, if they can support life, have a high likelihood of getting around to it sooner or later, then someone out there should have sorted out interstellar travel by now, and therefore, even at the absurdly primitive crawl of early-1940s propulsion, the entire Milky Way could be colonized in only a few million years.

So where is everybody?

Many solutions have been proposed to sooth Mr. Fermi’s plaintive cry of transgalactic loneliness.  One of the most popular is the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which whispers kindly: There, there Enrico.  Organic life is so complex that even the simplest algae require a vast array of extremely specific and unforgiving conditions to form up into the most basic recipe for primordial soup.  It’s not all down to old stars and the rocks that love them.  You’ve gotta get yourself a magneto-sphere, a moon (but not too many), some gas giants to hold down the gravitational fort, a couple of Van Allen belts, a fat helping of meteors and glaciers and plate tectonics — and that’s without scraping up an atmosphere or nitrogenated soil or an ocean or three.  It’s highly unlikely that each and every one of the million billion events that led to life here could ever occur again anywhere else.  It’s all just happy coincidence, darling.  Call it fate, if you’re feeling romantic.  Call it luck.  Call it God.  Enjoy the coffee in Italy, the sausage in Chicago, and the day-old ham sandwiches at Los Alamos National Laboratory, because this is as good as high-end luxury multicellular living gets.

The Rare Earth Hypothesis means well, but it’s colossally, spectacularly gloriously wrong. […]

Life is beautiful and life is stupid.  This is, in fact, widely regarded as a universal rule not less inviolable than the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Uncertainty Prinicple, and No Post on Sundays.  As long as you keep that in mind, and never give more weight to one than the other, the history of the galaxy is a simple tune with lyrics flashed on-screen and a helpful, friendly bouncing disco ball of all-annihilating flames to help you follow along.

This book is that disco ball.
Cue the music.  Cue the lights.

Aaaand off we are into the intergalactic contest designed to bring everybody back together after the recent Sentience Wars and determine, at the same time, which life forms around the universe are “people” and which are “meat”; and which of them consequently are destined for destruction because, let’s face it, who needs them anyway? (that’s what the sentience wars were fought over), and which life forms possess just about enough sentience to be allowed to continue to inhabit their galaxy.  And if you thought humanity surely has to be “people”, you haven’t considered the opinion of the rest of the million billion life forms out there — nor the reason for this book’s existence.

So, guided by an Esca — a supersized lantern-fish-flamingo alien of indeterminate sex, infinite adaptability, and faintly reminiscent of Big Bird from Sesame Street, with multiple cross references to Roadrunner from Mr. Looney of the Tunes (as Danesh/Dezibel’s Nani would have said) –, the remaining members of the Absolute Zeroes are whizzed off via spaceship to a remote planet, there to represent Earth and all its inhabitants in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, with no song at the ready, no hope to actually win the contest, and only a feeble prayer to at least not finish last (which will mean destruction for their planet, because they will have shown that they alone, of all the life forms of the universe, do not possess a single shred of sentience).

And initially it’s all a lot of fun in a Hitchhiker’s Guide-meets-Startrek-meets-David-Bowie-meets-Looney Tunes-meets-Jack Vance-meets-every-space-travel-SciFi-classic-under-the-sun-meets … you guessed it, the ESC sort of way; except that it gets exhausting really, really fast, and one alien planet and its inhabitants begin to melt into the next in your brain (while making your brain melt in the process, too), particularly as most of these planets and life forms are presented by way of lengthy asides and you find yourself thinking more and more frequently (or I did, anyway), “can we please get back to the main story already?!”  In reviews from the year of the novel’s publication, expressions such as “chaotic reading” (Publishers Weekly, Feb. 18, 2018) and “over-the-top … frantic narrative” (The Guardian, Sept. 7, 2018) keep cropping up, and I agree with those assessments; except that conceivably I mean this slightly less enthusiastically than especially the reviewer in The Guardian seems to do.  While Valente’s bubbling imagination and prose left me speechless in every respect, ultimately I found that, once again, less would have been more here — at least for me.  Lordy, talk about “too many notes” …

So, douze points it’s decidedly not, but, on the other hand, also comfortably far enough ahead of the infamous nul points to still rank within the class of sentient beings and thus, in no danger of accidentally causing our small, watery, excitable planet’s destruction.

That being said, Valente has announced that she’s working on a sequel to this book (to be called Space Oddity and chronicling the adventures of the Starship Glam): and I’ll have to take some convincing to be along for the ride once more.  I can see the cult classic potential — for both books, of course –, but I think before I commit to a second dose, I’m going to wait for the reviews by a number of trusted friends, as well as a bunch of published reviews and other pieces of information allowing me to determine whether I’m in for a similar bout of linguistic and imaginative exuberance once again … and if so, whether I feel like diving in once more regardless.

 


Ann Cleeves: Red Bones

Ann Cleeves’s Shetland series became a “go-to” series for me, whenever I am looking for a profoundly atmospheric (preferably Scottish) setting, with its very first book, Raven Black.  Needless to say, I’m also a huge fan of the TV series starring Douglas Henshall as the series’s protagonist, Jimmy Perez; never mind that in the books Perez is dark-haired, in accordance with the fact that he is the descendant of a soldier of the Spanish Armada shipwrecked on his home island of Fair Isle — halfway between the Orkneys and the main group of the Shetlands, but counting as part of the latter.  Jimmy is quiet, prone to overthinking things, not easily trusting, and always wary of being sidelined by the can-do boys from Glasgow who tend to be flown in whenever the higher-ups conclude that the locals in Lerwick (the Shetlands capital) probably won’t be up to the job.  All of this makes him one of the most “real” fictional policemen out there these days, and I love him all the better for it.

The dark doings of the past traditionally feature strongly in Cleeves’s Shetland books, all the way from the bones and other remains of early civilizations that come to light in archeological digs to things buried in the much more recent past.  While in the series’s first two books this also included significant events of Jimmy Perez’s own life, and those of his family and friends — or acquaintances — of younger days, in Red Bones the focus shifts (not entirely, but significantly) to Jimmy’s younger colleague Sandy Wilson, who on a visit to his home on the island of Whalsey finds that his grandmother has been shot, apparently accidentally by a neighbor who’s been out rabbitting (and also a little drunk); an incident equally devastating to the Wilson family and the presumed shooter’s family.  Soon the shooting resurrects the two families’ rivalries, however, and things take a further complicating turn as a result of the discovery of ancient bones in an archeological dig that Sandy’s grandmother had permitted on her land, as well as Mrs. Wilson’s long-ago involvement with clandestine WWII operations, which included a tragic incident of their own. — Sandy Wilson’s continued involvement with the investigation would (or should) of course not have happened in real life; but as it is, the case puts him under a huge amount of psychological strain, not only because it concerns his own family and that of their neighbors — and he’s of course known the young man believed to accidentally have killed his grandma his entire life –, but also because heretofore he’s had a reputation for clumsiness and for messing things up, and this time around it matters more than ever for him to get things right.

It’s a pity that Cleeves only ever wrote eight Shetland novels: I’m trying to space them out so as to make each of them stay with me as long as possible, but that, of course, is only going to get me so far.  I guess one of these days I’m going to have to travel there and see the Shetlands for myself … for that reason alone, I hope travel will become possible again soon.

 

Left: Northern coast of Lewis (Outer Hebrides); right: prehistoric excavations at Skara Brae (Mainland, Orkneys) (photos mine)

 


Val McDermid: Still Life

Another armchair visit to Scotland; though this time to Edinburgh — with brief but significant excursions to the English Midlands, Ireland and Paris, that is.  (France yet again!)  I had held back a bit on this latest installment of Val McDermid’s Karen Pirie series, as in the last book, Broken Ground, she had introduced a new character — as an antagonist to Pirie — whom I absolutely hated, and for that character to continue to intrude into my reading pleasure as significantly as she did in that other book would have made me think about whether or not to continue reading the series at all.  Which would have been a real shame, as of all of McDermid’s series, the one focusing on Karen Pirie is, or has so far always been, far and away my favorite. — Fortunately, however, while the “Dog Biscuit” (the new unloved character’s nickname) does make her presence felt here, too, she is not anywhere near as much of a nuisance as in the last book.  In fact, McDermid is back at the top of her form.  And while she does introduce yet another new character, it’s someone I wholeheartedly approve of — so double hooray for all that.

Karen Pirie, as always, has her hands full here; she’s already heading an investigation involving an unidentified corpse found to have been left behind in a camper van in the garage of an Edinburgh residential home, when the determination is made that another investiga,tion concerning a body recently fished out of the Firth of Forth, is related to a cold case that Karen has been reviewing in the past, and therefore more properly assigned to her.  Along with the second case’s file, Karen inherits (or is initially being given on loan) the services of aspiring young Sergeant Daisy Mortimer, who had been part of the original investigation conducted in Fife.  So Karen henceforth divides her time between both cases, while assigning her existing bagman, D.C. Jason “The Mint” Murray to the investigation of the matter involving the corpse in the garage, while Daisy gets to continue working on the investigation into the death of the body fished from the waves.  Soon both cases take the investigation into various angles of the art world (hence the book’s title) … while an annoying “bug” imported from Italy is causing unforeseen backlogs and personnel shortages at the crime lab (the book is set in February 2020, its epilogue on the eve of the March 2020 lockdown), and the killer of Karen’s former lover Phil Parhatka is released from prison; an event that Karen is determined not to let pass by unnoticed.  (Fortunately McDermid avoids the more obviously clichéd avenues there, though for a moment it looked like things would go down just that road.)

Like several other authors who have published books since the 2016 Brexit referendum, McDermid doesn’t hold back with her opinion on the issue — more than that, though, she finds several proximate examples showing how the work of Britain’s police, and the prosecution of crimes, will conceivably be made harder in the future in cases that involve cross-border cooperation (as well as, incidentally, a cooperation between English and Scottish police officers, should Scotland at one point become fully independent, which since the Brexit votum has moved back onto the cards, too).  So, while McDermid has sent Pirie away from Edinburgh in previous cases, too, this time she does it to ask, at times implicitly, at times explicitly: How are British police officers going to cooperate with their Irish and Continental European colleagues if their investigations take them abroad, onto those foreign colleagues’ patch: are they still going to be able to have a hand in the investigation, e.g. interrogate witnesses, review documents or search apartments and other locations on their own, or are they formally going to have to request judicial assistance and leave the actual work to the local forces?  How much more difficult is it going to be to to obtain and execute an extradition warrant for a British suspect who has fled to the Continent (or the Republic of Ireland)?  Are British police officers still going to take advantage of the open Irish border and the particularities of the Irish geography?  How willing are English officers going to be to tolerate the impromptu invasion of their district by Scottish officers in hot pursuit (if that sort of hot pursuit is still going to be possible in the first place), should Scotland ever become independent? — McDermid doesn’t try to answer these questions, but I liked the book all the more for the fact that she asks and highlights them.  As I said above, she truly is back in top form here … now let’s just hope that the “Dog Biscuit” is not let back out of the tin (or the kennel) in full force again next time around, whenever that is going to be.  I like Karen Pirie, Daisy Mortimer, and “The Mint” just fine without the bark of that nuisance factor personified.

 


Martin Edwards (ed.), Various Authors: Vintage Crime

Given this book’s title, I’d originally been considering it for my Detection Club (= Golden Age mysteries) reading project, but as it turns out, the number of Silver Age and, even more so, contemporary entries is somewhat too high to justify that.  However, this survey of short stories by members of the Crime Writers’ Association — edited by the CWA’s former chairman, current president of the Detection Club, and British Library Crime Classics series advisor, Martin Edwards — easily delivers on its stated goal of providing an overview of British crime fiction since the CWA’s 1953 foundation.  Grom the myriad of stories published since that time, Edwards has picked a varied and above-average strong crop.

The 22 stories in this volume range from John Dickson Carr’s 1940 woman-in-peril-meets-impossible-crime tale Footprints in the Sky (included here apparently because it had also been included in a 1969 anthology named John Creasey’s Mystery Bedtime Book — Creasy was the founder of the CWA), and Michael Gilbert’s 1956 Henry Bohun offering Money Is Honey, to Edwards’s own 2003 contribution Melusine, Kate Ellis’s 2005 Short Story Dagger candidate Top Deck, Robert Barnard’s 2006 Short Story Dagger winner Sins of Scarlet, and Mick Herron’s sordid 2008 tale All She Wrote.  Some of the stories, I was already familiar with (e.g. John Dickson Carr’s Footprints in the Sky), but most of them were new to me, and I am glad to have discovered them.

In some cases the stories feature the respective authors’ series detectives (e.g., Michael Gilbert and H.R.F. Keating — Henry Bohun and Inspector Ghote, respectively); John Dickson Carr’s posthumous contribution is one involving his Colonel March of the Department of Queer Complaints, who featured in a 1950s TV series, but is probably less remembered today than Dr. Gideon Fell, Henri Bencolin and Henry Merrivale.  However, most of the stories included in the anthology are stand-alones. 

The murder methods featured here are mostly on the traditional side — people are done to death by being shot, poisoned, strangled, bludgeoned / beaten, stabbed, drowned, or hit by cars (special props for inventiveness to Susan Moody’s Moving On, however); stylistically and topically, on the other hand, the entries include everything from inverted crime tales (Simon Brett: The Nuggy Bar; Andrew Taylor: The Woman Who Loved Elizabeth David), epistolary accounts (Liza Cody: In Those Days; Mick Herron: All She Wrote), tales told almost exclusively in interior monologue (Celia Fremlin: The Woman Who Had Everything) and others told essentially in dialogue (Paula Gosling: The Perfect Alibi) to woman-in-peril narratives (John Dickson Carr: Footprints in the Sky; Bill Knox: The Service Flat), traditional country house mysteries (Michael Gilbert: Money Is Honey), and tales of the mean streets (Liza Cody: In Those Days; Michael Z. Lewin: The Hand That Feeds Me).

Not all of the protagonists and other major characters are human (cf. Michael Z. Lewin: The Hand That Feeds Me); those who are range from the high and mighty (Julian Symons: Strolling in the Square One Day; Robert Barnard: Sins of Scarlet) and those who very much would like to be (Simon Brett: The Nuggy Bar; Frances Fyfield: Cold and Deep) to housewives (Celia Fremlin: The Woman Who Had Everything; Anthea Fraser: Turning Point; Andrew Taylor: The Woman Who Loved Elizabeth David), lawyers (Michael Gilbert: Money is Honey), writers (H.R.F. Keating: Inspector Ghote and the Noted British Author; Susan Moody: Moving On), agricultural workers (Lesley Grant-Adamson: Cuckoo in the Wood; Martin Edwards: Melusine), iconoclastic misfits (Mat Coward: Nowhere to be Found), and everybody in between; as well as, of course, several policemen, private investigators, and even a number of secret service operatives.

Most of the stories are set in the same time period as when they were written, but there are also historical mysteries (Robert Barnard: Sins of Scarlet) and narratives that link past events to a — for the time of the writing — contemporary framework setting (Paula Gosling: The Perfect Alibi; Lesley Grant-Adamson: Cuckoo in the Wood; Susan Moody: Moving On; Peter Lovesey: Interior, with Corpse; Marjorie Eccles: The Egyptian Garden; and Kate Ellis: Top Deck). 

In terms of locations and settings, finally, Great Britain predominates, but some of the entries takes us elsewhere; to India (H.R.F. Keating: Inspector Ghote and the Noted British Author), the U.S. (Paula Gosling: The Perfect Alibi; Michael Z. Lewin: The Hand That Feeds Me), Egypt (Marjorie Eccles: The Egyptian Garden), Italy (Robert Barnard: Sins of Scarlet), and an unnamed Caribbean / Central American country (Mick Herron: All She Wrote).

The stories that will probably stay with me the longest are (in the order in which they’re contained in the anthology):

Anthea Fraser: Turning Point — A married woman runs into an old flame during a spontaneous short-time trip to a seaside resort; when he doesn’t show up for a date she is at first disappointed but then shocked to read in the local newspaper, the following day, that a man has been found dead.

Michael Z. Lewin: The Hand That Feeds Me — A street dog sets out in pursuit of a group of hooligans who have killed a homeless old man who had, shortly before, shared his garbage bin dinner with the dog.

Frances Fyfield: Cold and Deep — An upwardly-mobile perfect fiancée and granddaughter-in-law-to-be (or is she?) gets her unexpected comeuppance.  (Sensitivity warning: Dead puppies.)

Susan Moody: Moving On — You didn’t really believe writers were above milking personal experience for fictional purposes … or did you?

Marjorie Eccles: The Egyptian Garden — An English tour group pays a visit to an Egyptian museum, with which an elderly member of the group is particular familiar.

Martin Edwards: Melusine — Stronger on setting than on plot, but Edwards has a visceral way with words, and any story that begins with the statement “On the hillside, bodies were burning”, references “the plague” in its very first paragraph, and extensively features a foot and mouth disease outbreak must make for (unintendedly) uncomfortable reading in these days of the Corona virus.

Mick Herron: All She Wrote — At least implicitly an hommage to Ernest Hemingway and (even more so) Graham Greene, and the one story with far and away the most vicious twist at the end.  Think this is predictable and you’ve got it all figured out?  Think again.

Mexico City: Cathedral and Zócalo, seen from the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México (photo mine)

6 thoughts on “May 2021 Reading Recap

    1. Oops, “complete Sherlock Holmes Canon”, not complete works. I changed it; thanks for bringing this to my attention. The recording of “the Canon” is some 70+ hours long, all told — I finished it within the first 10 days of the month.

        1. The short story “Danger!”, which he wrote to expose what he saw as Britain’s easily-exploitable weaknesses vis-à-vis foreign (read: German) submarines in the event of hostilities. It’s downright dystopian in tone, and it apparently did get the Navy Senior Command’s attention … given its contents and background, which was apparently fairly well-researched and realistic for the time of the writing, I’m not surprised.

          I think you (and Flagon) might also enjoy the Professor Challenger novels; especially the first one, “The Lost World”. I’m not enough of a science fiction fan to make it a priority, but judging by the excerpts I’ve read, it does sound suspenseful and well-written enough.

          As for ACD’s historical fiction, so far I’m underwhelmed (see my review of “Sir Nigel”) — not with his obviously considerable research, but with the way it translates onto the page. I’ll probably take a look at one more book, but if my impression of that one isn’t substantially different than that of “Sir Nigel”, I may call it quits for that aspect of his writing afterwards.

  1. Well done, that’s another whole lot of books you managed to go through – and another interesting list of titles to possibly add to my backlog. And I love the photos references you pick to illustrate these posts.

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