Tuesday, December 5, 2017

*talk about fake news: The Mystery of the Sintra Road, by Eça de Queiróz and Ramalho Ortigão

Dedalus, 2013
originally published in 1870 as O mistério da estrada Sintra
translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Nick Phillips
287 pp

On July 23, 1870, readers of the Lisbon-based newspaper Diário de noticias would have seen a notice therein from the editor that said the following:
"At a rather late hour yesterday we received a singular piece of writing. It is an unsigned letter, posted to the editor, with the beginning of a stupendous narrative which suggests a dreadful crime, clouded in mystery and full of truly extraordinary occurrences which seem to have been related in order to sharpen our curiosity and confuse our minds in thousands of vague and contradictory conjectures."  (as quoted in Maria Filomena Monica's Eça de Queiróz, 69). 
The idea behind the story that was about to be published in the newspaper in daily installments (a departure from the normal serialization publication timing) came from two writers, Jose Maria Eça de Queiróz (24) and Ramalho Ortigão (33), who were both friends of the editor.   In an afterword to The Mystery of the Sintra Road, Nick Phillips writes that the two understood  that Portuguese readers had "avidly embraced foreign fiction," especially French feuilletons, and by 1870 "had become aware of a new style: the crime and detection novel." (281)  The two writers decided that they'd give it a go as well,
"to be published as instalments (sic) in the newspaper, Diário de Noticias, with the intention of stirring up Lisbon, which they saw as a city overcome by inertia, and showing its people how literary styles were changing." (282)
In Nancy Vosburg's Iberian Crime Fiction, Paul Castro notes that it was "designed to be a hoax, a spoof devised to reveal the attitudes of its readers and expose their stance to critical ridicule." (117)

The editor/founder of the newspaper saw its publication as an opportunity to "boost circulation," and the first installment began July 24th.  Phillips explains that on that day, a letter to the editor appeared in which the anonymous author said that he was a doctor who had been
 "kidnapped at pistol-point, blindfolded, bundled into a coach and taken to the site of what looked to be a serious crime.. He had been released unharmed, but through fear of retribution for having written to the newspaper, he had not dared to sign his letter."
 And we're off, into a series of events which the Doctor himself called "so grave, so veiled in mystery, so seemingly steeped in criminality," that he felt that the facts should be made available to the public "as a way of providing the only key to unlocking what seems to me a truly horrifying drama."  I won't and can't get into plot here, but the drama, as so nicely recounted on the back-cover blurb is as follows:
"Two friends are kidnapped by several masked men, who, to judge by their manners and their accent come from the very best society. One of the friends is a doctor, and the masked men say that they need him to assist a noblewoman, who is about to give birth. When they reach the house, they find no such noblewoman, only a corpse.  Another man, known only as A.M.C., bursts in at this point and declares that the dead man died of opium poisoning."
 This section, which introduces the crime and its seeming impossibility, is followed by a fake letter from a reader, then a letter from the friend of the doctor who was with him at the time of the abduction, another fake letter, and then we come to the testimony of one of the "masked men" who had taken part in the kidnapping.  Then we hear from A.M.C. himself, followed by the confession of the killer, and then all is concluded with a final account, once again from A.M.C.  The back-cover blurb also reveals that "Many readers believed the letters to be genuine," which made me think that if people were actually believing that this whole thing was true because it was in the paper every day, it would have been great fodder for morning coffee conversation at home or later around the 1870 equivalent of the office water cooler. As I said in my GR post, it was a case of fake newsapolooza!!

Looking back on their work in 1884, Eça de Queiróz notes that today he and his co-author find their tale "quite atrocious," and indeed, while it begins mysteriously enough, I found that once the "tall masked man" got his say, the story moved into a different territory altogether. Granted, everything he says helps lead to the final reveal, where the mystery sort of just flattens for a while until we get back to the crime elements.  On the other hand, though, I was so caught up in the story that I didn't care, and put together, this book made for what I like to call a rollicking good yarn, so good, in fact, that after turning the last page, I put the novel down and applauded.  Serious crime readers wanting just the crime facts etc.,  may not find it to their liking, but I'm in for its place in the history of crime -- the first Portuguese crime novel --  and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.  It may not be the most intellectually-stimulating book in my reading history, but I loved it. Sometimes you just gotta let go and have fun.

... and as usual, there's plenty going on under the surface, so read it slowly if you can.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Shadow District, by Arnaldur Indridason

Thomas Dunne/Minotaur /St. Martin's Press, 2017
originally published as Skuggasund, 2013
translated by Victoria Cribb
344 pp


I will never, ever pass up the chance to read a novel by Arnaldur Indridason, so when I saw that this one was being published, I hit the pre-order button so fast I may have broken a nail.  Okay, that may have been an exaggeration,  but I was rather excited to pick it up.

one stack of the Indridason novels on my shelf (yes, I know keeping them on their sides is a bad thing, but shelf space is an issue at my house). 
  Long before Stieg Larsson seems to have prompted the whole "Scandinavian noir" thing, books by   Indridason and other Scandinavian writers were already fixtures in my home library.  His books are among those which have stayed on my shelves while those by others that I didn't enjoy as much were given away, and there was never any doubt of their status as keepers.   What I enjoy about these books the most, aside from his Inspector Erlendur and the rest of the cast, is Indridason's way of rooting modern-day crime in events in the past, and that is precisely what he's done once again in his newest book, Shadow District.  Here though, he's done something a wee bit different.  Not only has he once again dreamed up a contemporary crime that sets the stage for the past to come barging into the present, he has also made us privy to the ongoing investigation from the past as well.  It is a very clever set up indeed.

It all begins when the police do a welfare check on an elderly man whom his neighbor hasn't seen for a while.  Letting themselves into the man's apartment, they discover his body laying on the bed.  While the "death was not being treated as suspicious and no police inquiry would be judged necessary," there is still a post-mortem.  The pathologist goes into her work assuming that he'd died of cardiac arrest, but it seems that's not exactly the case, as she discovers when she pulls something out of his throat.  Turning the page expecting to see what it is that has caught the pathologist's attention, instead, we find ourselves back in 1944  during the occupation of Iceland.  It is a "chilly evening in the middle of February," and a young couple out walking in the wind come across the body of a young woman behind the National Theatre.  The man doesn't think it's a good idea to call the police, so they leave the scene.  Page turn, and we're back in the present, where a retired detective named Konrád becomes interested in what is now being called a murder investigation  when the lead detective tells him about some newspaper cuttings found in the dead man's apartment.  It seems that the deceased had been looking at articles about a "girl found strangled behind the National Theatre in 1944," a case which for Konrád has interest because of a personal angle, and it is a case that, for some reason, was never brought to court.  He gets permission to work on the old case while detectives are working on the murder.  We don't really get too much about the present case as far as an active investigation goes (although Konrád does keep the detectives informed of his findings when relevant), but while Konrád is digging for answers, his discoveries are paralleled with the investigation into the 1944 killing by the two officers on the case, Thorson and Flóvent.   In both past and present, things take more than a few strange twists and turns before all is said and done.

As the blurb says, Shadow District is a "deeply compassionate story of old crimes and their consequences," something Indridason is known for in his work. It's also of historical interest, since not only does he get into the occupation of Iceland, but Iceland at that time was on the edge of independence, a situation that is clearly explained here.  There's also quite a bit here about Icelandic folklore and folk beliefs which I found quite interesting and which fit nicely into the plot, and if you want to get a bit more into what's happening underneath the main mysteries involved here, just take a look at how Indridason gets into the changes on several levels brought about by the war.   And then, of course, there's the team of Thorson and Flóvent who will hopefully reappear soon in another novel.

 When it comes down to it,  there are a number of reasons that I'm happy to have read this book, but I do have to say that I had figured out the basic scenario just shortly after page 100.  The actual perpetrator by name, no, but I did have an idea of where this story was going to lead and as it turned out, I was completely right.  I can't say how I knew without bringing in spoilers but I just did.  Now here's the thing, and it's the reason my husband hates watching crime shows on TV with me, and to be fair, it's probably not the author's fault:   I've read so many mystery/crime/detective novels over the years that it's getting easier and easier  to start reading a book like this and have a general outline in my head of how things are going to play out before I get too far into it.  Seriously -- it's like something goes "ding!" in my brain and I just know.  It's excruciatingly frustrating at times, as it was for me in this book, but I have to say that since this happens so often, I have learned that I have to look beyond the anticipation of the solution to the writing and to the journey.   Here, the joy is in the interplay between past and present, following Konrád as he tries to piece things together in the present following the same path as the investigators in 1944. And then there's that central question here, which is this: why was the dead man so interested in the case before he died? 

Count me in on the next Indridason novel.  I'll make shelf space for it somehow.

Monday, November 20, 2017

*Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Pocket Classics, 2000
originally published 1871
339 pp


"You have played your game well, but with all the odds of the position in your favour, I am tired, beaten. The match is over, and you may rise now and say Checkmate."

Do not, under any circumstances, read anything about this book that gives away the ending.  There is a major plot twist, the likes of which just might possibly be the first of its kind in mystery/crime/detective novels up to this point (1871) and it would be a shame to ruin it by knowing it even before getting started. 

Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873)  is probably best  known  for his supernatural tales; he has written some of the best ghostly or otherworldly stories in the genre,  and his works are nowadays considered as classics.  His novella Carmilla is famous; his short story "Green Tea" has been anthologized everywhere, and his "Schalken the Painter" is a veritable supernatural shocker.  Le Fanu's work also influenced a number of authors:  his House by the Church-Yard, first serialized 1861-1863, was a favorite of James Joyce who supposedly used it as a source when writing his own book Finnegan's Wake; according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,  W.B. Yeats,  "acknowledged a debt" to Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly in speaking of his play about Jonathan Swift, and then there's author Elizabeth Bowen, whose "post-Second World War fiction, beginning with The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945), owes not a little to Le Fanu's disturbing blend of the occult and the banal."  But Le Fanu moved beyond the supernatural as well --  for example, his Uncle Silas (1864)  remains one of my favorite Victorian  novels ever.  According to The Saint James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers,  while he used "gothic motifs" as "background," he "sought to develop character and everyday incident to dictate his story." (357)  Julian Symons notes in his Bloody Murder that Le Fanu should have been established as "one of the most important originators of the crime novel," but sadly, "in this respect he has never received acknowledgement."  (60) Le Fanu today is studied widely in academic circles, and as the article in the ODNB states,  Le Fanu's "transgressions across the boundaries of gender, genre, and nation have assisted a revival of interest the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries." 

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, from Swan River Press Blog

Unlike the previous recent decades of my reading project, when police-detective fiction seemed to be all the rage, Checkmate doesn't really follow in that category.    There is a shady ex-detective named Paul Davies who makes an appearance here, and he does play a role in what happens,  but he had been previously been dismissed from the force.  His character seems to be representative of a trend between the 1870s and 1880s,  which, as author Ian Ousby notes in his Bloodhounds of Heaven, begins as the public starts to change its attitude toward "the police detective," in a "dethronement of a minor cultural hero."  (136)  Instead,  in Checkmate, we find a  mix of  gothic, sensation fiction, and well-crafted mystery to enjoy.   

For the first time ever, I'm refusing to comment on the plot because quite frankly, to say anything would be a travesty for anyone considering reading the book.   Thinking back on it now, I realize that Le Fanu had scattered a huge number of clues across this book's 339 pages from the very beginning, and it wasn't really until the end that their significance became obvious, so I don't want to wreck anyone's experience.  I will say that  it's a story that kept me reading, especially because of the bad guy in this book whose villainy, in my humble opinion, surpasses that of any of the characters encountered in the British novels I've read so far during this project.  By the last quarter of Checkmate, I was actually hating him, and to his credit, Le Fanu managed to take this story right down to the wire so that I had no clue as to whether or not  things were going to turn out all right. It was yet another book where my tension level was so high over the last few chapters that I may have forgotten to breathe until the last word.  The back cover calls it a "chilling mystery," and I have to concur. 

I'm a huge, huge fan of Le Fanu's work, and he didn't let me down with this book.  It is probably one of his least-known novels, but it is most certainly well worth reading. Its plot, and especially its solution are unique in terms of its contemporaries,  and as I said, there is a fine mystery here that centers on a most heinous villain. And while those elements are important in terms of reading a crime novel, for me it's more about the writing.  From the first paragraph this story bears Le Fanu's stamp in terms of surrounding us with atmosphere almost immediately with its opening describing the landscape around Mortlake Hall, taking us from the outside through the drawing room windows into what seems to be a cozy scene. However, from certain things the author says, we know right away that all is not quite as snug and happy as it seems.   Le Fanu has this uncanny way of bringing landscape into his work so that it reflects not only the workings of the story at different points, but sets the stage in terms of interior landscape.  For example, there is a beautiful passage on pages 68 and 69 in which the author asks us to "suppose" ourselves in the middle of a "vast heath" at night, "lost in a horizon of monotonous darkness all around," where once in a while we might see a "scrubby hillock of furze, black and rough as the head of a monster."  As he goes on to describe the scene, a "melancholy wind" arises in "fitful moanings" and then this:
"If you can conjure up all this, and the superstitious freaks that in such a situation imagination will play in even the hardest and coarsest natures, you have a pretty distinct idea of the feelings and surroundings of a tall man who lay that night his length under the blighted tree I have mentioned, stretched on its roots... looking vaguely into the darkness." 
Le Fanu also has this way of inserting certain ideas into his work that are so strong that a reader just can't shake them off, which generally turn out to have a huge bearing on what happens in the story.   In Checkmate this happens more than a few times, but  there is one passage in particular that struck me.  Here our villain is waxing mystical with the woman he has set his sights on marrying, and says  "There is at present at the birth of every human being a demon, who is the conductor of his life,"  and then goes on to remark, "....and to families such a demon is allotted also, and they prosper and wane as his function is ordained."  I had marked several of these sorts of things and going back and looking them over after having finished, I realized how very closely each had hit the mark.  The book is also appropriately titled, once you figure out exactly how cunning our villain truly is.  These short passages really do work as clues in understanding what is happening here, so the book requires some bit of patience, care, and thought in the reading, and is therefore, not a book to buzz through in a hurry. 

Hell, I could talk about this book forever because there's a lot here, but well, time and all that, along with the fact that while I'm in love with these old, forgotten crime novels, with Le Fanu, and with sensation fiction in general, I know that not everyone shares my zeal.  My guess is that it will appeal mainly to fans of this author  and  to people who are seriously into Victorian sensation novels and Victorian crime, so once again I'll call it a niche read I can highly recommend. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

*...and with great regret, we say goodbye to the 1860s: The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

Modern Library, 2001
originally serialized in All the Year Round, 1868
496 pp


"The detective-fever isn't easy to deal with..."

Anyone who has not yet read The Moonstone really ought to pick up a copy, not solely because is is considered by some to be "The first and greatest of English detective novels" (à la T.S. Eliot on the front cover), but more to the point, it is downright fun to read.  It's also another one of those novels I read as a teen when I caught a case of Collinsmania and made my way through everything he'd ever written that I could get my hands on at the time.  As I said to someone, although I read it as a teen, coming back to it, I realized that I hadn't really read it. Now that I have, I can't recommend it highly enough.  

While T.S. Eliot's claim to prominence of  The Moonstone as "the first and greatest" of British detective novels may not exactly be the case [and especially not with Julian Symons, who in his Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel says it was definitely Charles Warren Adams' The Notting-Hill Mystery that was the first (51)],  Eliot was  "one of the genre's most passionate and discerning readers" and a huge fan of the author.  He said in 1927 that  "all good detective fiction  'tends to return and approximate to the practice of Wilkie Collins',”  an idea shared by Dorothy Sayers.  She not only referred to The Moonstone as "the most perfectly conceived and written detective story" of its time "or any other," but she also stated her firm belief that Collins  would continue to "exercise still more influence on [the mystery-story's] future development."   It was his "skillful construction of complex plots, his descriptive verbal painting, his attention to detail and accuracy, and his gift of characterization" that she admired, and I have to say that I completely agree.   

The actual story behind the titular Moonstone takes readers back in time to 1799 with "The Storming of Seringapatam." The history of the diamond, which includes the mandate of Vishnu the Preserver that "three priests in turn, night and day, to the end of the generations of men" should be the gem's guardians, starts the story off with a sort of mysterious vibe in its own right. Then things take a more sinister turn: in a military action which leads to the death of Tippoo, the Sultan of Seringapatam who is presently in possession of the Moonstone, the diamond is stolen.  The thief is one John Herncastle, who took the gem by force, killing one of its guardians in the process.  The "dying Indian" manages to curse Herncastle before his actual death,  saying that 

"The Moonstone will have its vengeance yet on you and yours!" 

Mind you, we're only on page seven at this point, and it was here that I began to fall in love with this book.  Not only is this short history reminiscent of the beginnings of some of those old pulp stories I've read and enjoyed over the years,  but as Robert McCrum of The Guardian said in 2014,
  "The theft of the Tippoo diamond after the fall of Seringapatam...connects every detail of the plot to the great imperial drama of India, the society over which Queen Victoria would eventually declare herself 'Empress'."
And as the story launches from there, those three guardians will return more than once, so through their presence, Collins also not only keeps the Moonstone mythology alive but also reminds us throughout that the Moonstone was not the rightful property of any of the British characters in this story.  As Stephen Knight says in his Towards Sherlock Holmes, the taking of the Moonstone "was a very disruptive act," and so the story provides a "highly liberal account, for the time, of how Indians, here the three patient noble Brahmins, might respond to English imperial depradations." (146)

The long and short of it is that the Moonstone had been bequeathed to Rachel Verinder by her uncle for her eighteenth birthday, and it was stolen that very night.  Our story begins in 1850 when the house steward, Gabriel Betteredge,  has been contacted by Mr. Franklin Blake, Rachel's cousin, who had been tasked with delivering the diamond to Rachel some two years earlier.  At the time of the theft the police had been called in, first Superintendent Seegrave, and then a certain Sergeant Cuff.  [As a very brief aside, Symons tells us that Cuff was modeled after the real-life famous Inspector Whicher,  the subject of Kate Summerscale's excellent book.] However, Cuff's inquiry was cut short, and the identity of the thief had never been revealed.  The relationship between Rachel and Franklin had suffered as a result (it's so complicated so you have to read it on your own to discover why), and now, Franklin has decided that
"the whole story ought, in the interests of truth, to be placed on record in writing -- and the sooner the better." 
His idea is that
"We have certain events to relate...and we have certain persons concerned in these events who are capable of relating them.  Starting from these plain facts, the idea is that we should all write the story of the Moonstone in turn -- as far as our own personal experience extends, and no further."
Starting with Betteredge, then, we are taken through the story step by step, from the time the Moonstone came into the hands of  Franklin's uncle Herncastle fifty years earlier, to how it came to Rachel in Yorkshire, and then how it came to be lost, followed by events leading up to the unmasking of the thief and beyond.  Divided into two periods "The Loss of the Diamond (1848)" consisting of Betteredge's narrative, and "The Discovery of the Truth (1848-49)" with the stories of Rachel's cousin Miss Drusilla Clack (which I have to say would be a great name for a pet duck!), Solicitor Matthew Bruff, Franklin Blake himself, Dr. Ezra Jennings, Sergeant Cuff, and an extract from a letter from a Mr. Candy.   Finally, the book ends with an Epilogue and the finding of the diamond, where we hear from Cuff once more and two other characters involved in the story's denouement.  I love this approach, actually, and each character stands out fully as an individual in his or her own right.  It's such a brilliant way to paint a full picture of events and as the story continues, discoveries are made that tie present to past and vice versa.  Not only that, but it's the perfect English country house crime novel, sans murder, with a clever and ingenious solution.    I have to say that I loved every second of reading this book, and what makes it work so nicely is the combination of Collins' excellent plot and the vividness of his characters in relating their parts of the whole.  Collins also provides a bit of comic relief throughout this story; as just one example, I giggled my way through much of Miss Clack's narrative, and not just because of her name.

Let me just say that there is a  LOT happening in this book beyond and underneath the mystery itself,  but I won't go into any of that here because The Moonstone has been studied inside and out, upside and down, picked apart, analyzed,  and has provided many scholarly works that can be found on one's own.  I can see how it might frustrate a number of modern detective-fiction readers and seem a bit tedious at times,  but it had the completely opposite effect on me: every moment of free time I could possibly grab during a day was devoted solely to this novel. I will say that while I will always be a bit more partial to Collins' The Woman in White,  I thought The Moonstone was just brilliant.

thus ends my journey through the 1860s, although there were quite a few novels I didn't read that I will get back to some day.  What a great, great decade for crime/mystery/detective fiction!!!!


The Moonstone, 2016 - Rachel Verinder on her birthday after just having been given her diamond.

And now, just briefly, I watched two film adaptations of this book after finishing it.  The first, via Britbox (a streaming service I just love and have had since it became available here in the US) is a 2016 production of The Moonstone, told over five episodes.  I couldn't stop watching, actually, and while I'm a huge lover of period drama in the first place, this adaptation adhered nicely to the novel while making it entirely watchable.  I enjoyed this one much more than the 1997 version,  a 2-hour production which to me really didn't get to the heart of the novel as much as the 2016 adaptation was able to. 

Franklin and Rachel painting Rachel's door -- from the 1997 version 

Both are very much worth watching for different reasons, although I ended up having to buy the 1997 version on DVD.   

Read the novel first though, because as I said, it's just brilliant. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

* Victorian women detecting X 2: The Female Detective, by Andrew Forrester, and Revelations of a Lady Detective, by Williams Stephens Hayward

Since I'm talking about two books here, it's going to be a long post, so grab a coffee, a cup of tea or whatever, sit back and relax.

With the completion of these two books and Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (post coming shortly),  I've finally made my way out of reading the 1860s.  I could probably stay in that decade for quite a long time, since it really seems to have been a banner decade for mystery/crime/detective novels, but it's seriously time for me to move on.

I hadn't really planned on including Revelations of a Lady Detective as part of this project since I figured one book about a Victorian woman detective would be enough of a representation,  but after reading Forrester's The Female Detective, quite frankly I was rather disappointed.

British Library, 2012
originally published 1864
316 pp


It starts off well enough -- we first encounter our heroine as she introduces herself in explaining why she has compiled her experiences in a book of "memoirs," saying that
"I write in order to show, in a small way, that the profession to which I belong is so useful that it should not be despised."
In fact, she feels that the detective business is  perceived as such a despicable trade that she has hidden what she does from everyone -- "relations or friends, or merely acquaintances" -- letting them believe that she is a dressmaker, instead of as she calls it a "spy."  She knows that a woman engaged in detective work is likely "regarded with even more aversion than her brother in profession," but she doesn't budge from her belief that her trade is a "necessary one" :
"...if there is a demand for men detectives there must also be one for female detective police spies. Criminals are both masculine and feminine -- indeed my experience tells me that when a woman becomes a criminal she is far worse than the average of her male companions, and therefore it follows that the necessary detectives should be of both sexes." 
and also notes that
"... in a very great many cases women detectives are those who can only be used to arrive at certain discoveries ... the woman detective has far greater opportunities than a man of intimate watching, and of keeping her eyes upon matters near which a man could not conveniently play the eavesdropper."

In a final justification for putting her adventures down on paper, she says that it's through the detective that "the most obscure and well-planned evil-doing is brought to the light."  She ends her introduction to her readers by noting that  "even amongst criminals,"  there is "good to be found," and finally, that
"it does not follow because a man breaks the law that he is therefore heartless."
Oho, I'm thinking after I finished reading what she has to say for herself here, this is going to be great.  And it was right up until I got to "The Unraveled Case," which is the third story in this book. Now, I consider myself to be a very patient reader, but this case irritated the crap out of me.  In the first two adventures of our female detective, we are clearly shown how being a woman had its advantages in solving these cases, allowing our Miss Gladden (the name only shows up once in a while, so I'll use it here, although she says in her intro that she's purposefully left out her name) to insinuate herself into a situation that wouldn't have been appropriate for a male.  That's just not the case in "The Unraveled Mystery," where she looks at a detection failure and gives her opinion on what went wrong.  There's absolutely nothing about this case in which her being a woman has any relevance whatsoever -- in fact, it's not even her case, and reads like an excuse for Forrester to amaze and wow us (which he did not) with his deductive prowess.   The same thing happens again in "A Child Found Dead: Murder or No Murder," which isn't Gladden's case either but rather a manuscript given to her by same guy who had her take a look at the earlier case I've just mentioned; finally, in "The Mystery," we're given a story which as she says, "never came under my observation." Here's the point: if I'm expecting to read about a "female detective" and only four out of seven cases fit the bill, well, to me, that's a fail.  A big fail. Had Forrester stuck to a plan and given us the work of an undercover female detective in each case, it could have been so much better -- as it was, I was extremely disappointed.

British Library, 2013
originally published 1864
278 pp

However, I found only great delight and much joy in reading Revelations of a Lady Detective, by William Stephens Hayward, whose Miss Paschal found herself not only in the thick of a number of strange cases, but also faced certain death at one point.  In his introduction, Mike Ashley explains why the two women detectives are so different; why they come from "a different line of evolution," which I'll leave people to read on their own.   We are treated (yes, treated) to ten of Miss Paschal's experiences here, ranging from a countess who somehow has no income but is fabulously wealthy to a secret society that meets at an old mill and practices the old tradition of vendetta to the story of a wealthy  woman who is afraid that a conniving woman is slowly sinking her hooks into her son's fortune.  While Paschal is the first to admit that her cases are solved mainly by "accident" or by "chance," the fun is in watching her insinuate herself into various environments where she has ample opportunity to figure out what's going on before taking steps to bring the criminals to some sort of justice. 

My absolute favorite story is "The Nun, The Will, and the Abbess," a rather gothic-ish sort of tale of a young woman whose entire life was spent in preparation to take her vows and live out her life among the Ursuline sisters in a convent.  Hayward outdid himself with this one, and while I won't say why, it is truly a standout among the other nine stories.

If you had to choose only one of the two, I'd definitely go with Revelations of a Lady Detective.  For one thing, the stories are much better as a whole, for another, they all focus solely on Miss Paschal and her job as detective, and three, they're so much easier to read, obviously written more for the general reading public than was The Female Detective, published the same year. However, in both books, the novelty of a woman working with the police not as a true employee but independently, gathering financial reward for her work, is clearly realized;  the two women detectives often find it difficult to carry out what's needed to be done because of their respective senses of empathy but they both eventually put their own feelings aside to do what they need to do, and in both books, it is writ large that  justice doesn't always necessarily  mean a set of manacles and a trip to the local nick.

I've noticed that many readers find in both that there's no actual "detecting" going on, but in a big way, that's just not the case.  The women portrayed here are more or less undercover "spies" as Miss Gladden will tell you, and while they may not be busy with a magnifying glass or taking fingerprints, they are gathering information/evidence that will make it easier for them to bring a case to its end.  In "The Mysterious Countess," for example, our Miss Paschal lies in wait for something to happen once the house has settled down, actively follows her quarry, observes the suspect, and makes an incredible discovery that leads to satisfying conclusion.  How is that not "detecting?"  Quite frankly, if you want something along the lines of Kinsey Millhone, you shouldn't be reading a Victorian novel.

So much more goes on here under the surface in both books, but it's time to bring this post to a close and besides, both books have been written about extensively so more information and analyses are widely available for perusal.   I will cautiously recommend The Female Detective because of its milestone status, but wholeheartedly endorse Revelations of a Lady Detective because bottom line -- it's just plain fun.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

returning to the present with Faithless, by Kjell Ola Dahl

Orenda Books, 2017
originally published as Kvinnen i plast, 2010
translated by Don Bartlett
265 pp


It's not all that often any more that I pick up a Scandinavian crime novel by an unknown-to-me author, and it's certainly way out of character for me to read a book that is seventh in a series without having devoured the other books beforehand. I'm actually quite OCD about series order, but I thought I'd take a chance with this book after  being offered a chance to read it by the publisher (thank you!!) and so not knowing what I was about to get myself into, I spent most of yesterday reading this book.  The first thing I did after finishing it was to pick up a Kindle edition of the author's first book in the series, Lethal Investments, because of what happens at the end of Faithless.  While I obviously can't say exactly what that might be, I felt this need to go back and see why the author would choose to end things in the way he did here, and I figured that it must have something to do with all of the things I'd missed by not reading the previous novels.  The first three books have been translated, as has book #5, so I have a bit of catching up to do. 

What drew me into this story wasn't so much the actual crimes and crime solving here (although I have to admit that I do like when the cops figure things out before I do)  but rather the dilemmas faced by a couple of the main characters that play a huge role in how this story plays out.  While there are a few different crimes under investigation here, the biggest one opens the novel with the arrest of a woman, Veronika Undset, whom the police have under surveillance because of her connections to a known criminal they are watching -- a "teflon" crook, meaning that nothing has ever stuck with this guy, so he's able to continue his operations.  While searching Undset's bag, Detective Frankie Frolich finds a quantity of heroin hidden in her lighter, but she is eventually released.   It's not long afterwards that Frankie is invited to the birthday party of an old friend he has not seen for years and gets the surprise of his life not only when he sees Veronika there, but when the friend introduces her as his fiancée.   He gets an even bigger shock when later Veronika turns up dead.  Because of his past history with her fiancé, he tries to get himself taken off of the case but is refused, and while he knows that no good is going to come of his involvement, he has no choice but to stay involved.   

What comes shining through in this book, and very nicely so, is the old cliché that the world is a very small place, and that it really is impossible to escape one's own history.  It can be buried, maybe, but it's always there, and it definitely has an influence on the present. While  this idea is reflected in several characters in this novel, it is best exemplified in Frank's role in the murder investigation.   While he tries to remain professional, he comes to realize that the past is not really past -- and the choices he makes throughout the case may not exactly be limited to his role as a police officer.  And while his own  demons certainly play a role in the police investigation, he is also portrayed as being very human as he tries to keep them under control.  The same is true of his colleague Lena, whose own circumstances lead her to make some very bad decisions.   There's much, much more, of course -- the disappearance of a young woman recently arrived in Norway, a horrendous, unsolved murder from the past -- but for me it's all about the people and the author does it right.

Faithless moves toward the dark end of the crime fiction spectrum in a hurry, as we watch how people deal with not only their own inner anxieties but also how forces that just may be out of the reach of human control have to the potential to play a role in unleashing the darker aspects of human nature.  I have to hand it to this author -- I have had enough of thriller-type crime novels to last me a lifetime, but in this book, he has put his writing energy into getting into his characters' heads, which is very much appreciated on my end. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

*back to business once again: Force and Fraud, A Tale of the Bush, by Ellen Davitt

kindle edition
Clan Destine Press, 2015
originally serialized 1865 in The Australian Journal
244 pp

"Yes, there they were: Force and Fraud, contending with each other -- the two crimes, which so often unite in the destruction of mankind, now striving for the mastery." 

High marks for this book, which has a dual significance:  since it is most likely that it is the first work of crime fiction written in Australia, that also makes it the first work of crime fiction written by an Australian woman.

Author Ellen Davitt (1812-1879) neé Heseltine, was born in Yorkshire. According to Kate Watson in her Women Writing Crime Fiction, 1860-1880, Davitt, who would later become Anthony Trollope's sister-in-law, "spent her early life in the United Kingdom."  She married her husband Arthur in 1845; by 1847 the two were in Ireland where Arthur served as an "inspector of schools" and Ellen taught drawing for three years at Dublin's Irish National Board's Model School for Girls. They emigrated to Melbourne, arriving in 1854, where Arthur had been appointed as the principal of the Model and Normal Schools and Ellen took a job as the "Superintendent of the female pupils and trainees." Arthur died in 1860 while Ellen went on to take several different positions in schools in Victoria. Watson notes that Ellen Davit was a "progressive, proto-feminist figure" who
"refused the role of a conventionally subservient woman, confined to the domestic sphere." (160) 
There is a full biography of Ellen Davitt  at Design and Art Australia Online for readers who want to know more about the author.

Force and Fraud first appeared in Volume 1, issue #1 of The Australian Journal: A Weekly Record of Amusing and Instructive Literature, Science and the Arts.  Lucy Sussex, in her book Women Writers and Detectives notes that from the Journal's beginnings, it had a "crime bent," which is obvious by some of the titles listed here in another article by Sussex; its founding editor was also an ex-policeman.  Watson says that Force and Fraud was "pioneering in its status as the first murder mystery in Australia, and the first 'whodunit'," but sadly, Davitt is yet another woman crime writer who has faded into obscurity.  The good news is that, as Derek Parker notes at The culture concept circle, Davitt's "importance to the modern day crime novel" has been recognized by Sisters in Crime Australia, who have "created the annual Davitt Awards to honour Ellen Davitt and foster home grown crime writing talent."

Considering its significance in the history of crime fiction writing, hopefully more mystery/crime readers will become aware of Force and Fraud, which as I said earlier, deserves very high marks. It is not your ordinary whodunit by any stretch -- while the story progresses, it moves from the bush to small towns to the city of Melbourne, and there's even a brief bit at sea as a ship makes its through a treacherous reef.  These parts of Australia of the time are represented well here; the sense of place is so strong that I could picture it in my mind while reading. The actual story revolves around a young woman, Flora McAlpin, whose father ("a relic of the feudal ages")  is murdered and whose fiancé Herbert Lindsey  is jailed for the crime. He, of course, protests his innocence,  but the weight of the evidence is so strong against him that even he gets the picture.   However, while Lindsey awaits trial in jail, we are made privy to the machinations of the true culprit, suspected by no one.  He's a pretty nasty piece of work and it's pretty obvious from the beginning that he's got a hand in it all, but watching everything unravel is the best part of the book.  There's also a bit of a literary angle going on here, captured in one scene in particular where  Mr. Stewart the jail chaplain opens a book "by chance," after deciding that Lindsey, "the delicately minded young man" could "never have committed murder."  The book happens to be Thomas Hood's poems about Eugene Aram; the point made is as he realizes that "all murderers had not been branded ruffians," something worth remembering as the story progresses to its end.  One more thing that I feel strongly about in this novel is the characterizations, which are unbelievably  realistic and move from lower to upper classes and everything in between.

While not all crime readers will immediately run to pick up a copy of Force and Fraud, I particularly enjoyed this one and once I'd started, was reluctant to put it down.  It's a book I can certainly recommend, especially to readers who are interested in the history of crime writing and to others who like me, are heavily  into older crime novels.  It's certainly worth checking out and the bottom line here is that it's also a lot of fun.