Friday, April 21, 2017

* Eugene Aram, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

9781934555194
Valancourt Books, 2010
originally published 1832
516 pp

paperback

"I looked on the deed I was about to commit as a great and solemn sacrifice to Knowledge, whose Priest I was." 

 Edward Bulwer-Lytton isn't exactly a household name, but in a way, everyone has some teensy measure of  familiarity with this 19th century author, since he was the guy who coined the famous phrase "It was a dark and stormy night," in his novel Paul Clifford (1830), which gained fame via Charles Schulz (see cartoon below) and via the annual (since 1982)  Bulwer-Lytton contest, a
" whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." 

As a word of friendly warning, I should note that Bulwer-Lytton's style of writing has been labeled as "florid," "turgid," and one of my online friends referred to it as the "paid-by-the-word" style -- in short, he's extremely verbose, a yammerer extraordinaire, and devoted to wordiness to the point where reading is a chore.   I consider myself to be a very patient reader but I almost lost my cool after reading six pages devoted to absolutely nothing but one man trying to convince another to look after his cat while he was off on his travels. I knew this was going to be rough going pretty much at the outset.


However, in spite of the extreme verbosity, Eugene Aram turns out to be a pretty decent book, a tale very loosely based on the real-life story of the titular character.   According to the Newgate Calendar, aka The Malefactors' Bloody Register,  the real Aram,  was "A Self-Educated man, with remarkable Linguistic Attainments, who was executed at York on the 6th of August, 1759, for a Murder discovered Fourteen Years after its Commission."  Bulwer's Eugene Aram is just one example of the body of work known as the "Newgate Novel,"
"so-called because the characters of its stories might have been found in the pages of Newgate Calendars, a collection of criminal biographies that first appeared in 1728."
This sort of book "focused on the lives of real or invented criminals,"  and are of huge  importance to the history of crime fiction, since as stated briefly in a blurb for chapter eight of  The Oxford History of the Novel in English: Volume 3: The Nineteenth-Century Novel 1820-1880,  
" These novels and others like them set in place themes and tropes that shaped early fictional narratives of crime.They incorporated factual events, revolved round the figure of the criminal, and promoted a didactic political and social message."   
In other words, according to one literary scholar, the Newgate novel "emerged in the 1830s as a response to contemporary issues within the social, legal and penal systems of Victorian London." For further information, there are all sorts of resources online and in print about the Newgate novel; now it's on to Eugene Aram. 

 Aside from the overly-excessive verbiage here, the novel isn't half bad.  Divided into three volumes, the first few chapters introduce us to the main characters of this book, and situate us somewhere in the English countryside, in the village of Grassdale.  The backstory to what is to come is also introduced, concerning the disappearance of one Geoffrey Lester, brother to squire Rowland Lester and father of Walter Lester. Geoffrey had married a woman with a "competent and respectable fortune," stayed with her a few years even though the marriage wasn't a good one, and then just took off leaving young Walter behind to grow up in the home of his uncle Rowland. Every effort had been made to find Geoffrey, but to no avail.

As he grew older, Walter fell for his cousin Madeline, but she only has eyes for the mild, reclusive scholar who lives nearby,  Eugene Aram.  With the handwriting on the wall regarding that relationship, and with no love lost between Walter and Aram, Walter decides it's time he goes out into the world.  While he's out there, he plans to seek news of his long-lost father. As we're told,
"The deep mystery that for so many years had hung over the fate of his parent, it might indeed be his lot to pierce; and with a common waywardness in our nature, the restless son felt his interest in that parent the livelier from the very circumstance of remembering nothing of his person."
Off he goes and it isn't too long after he begins his quest that he finds the first clue having to do with his missing father; following that up sends him on to yet another place and so on until he is ready to return to Grassdale, as it just so happens, on the day set for the marriage between Madeline and Eugene Aram. But the wedding plans are off after Walter reveals everything he's learned over the course of his travels -- as the back-cover of my copy reveals, Walter's quest will "lead to the discovery of a long-hidden and horrible crime and the trial of Eugene Aram for murder!"

the real Eugene Aram, from Wikipedia

The story goes back and forth between Walter's adventures and scenes between the Lester family and Eugene Aram back in Grassdale, until both come together with Walter's return.  That's really all I'll say about plot, because while it was fun traveling along with Walter through all of his adventures (and there are many), of greater interest to me was Aram's motivation for his role in the crime. He's a complicated man, a closed-off, quiet, yet very respectable scholar and as Walter discovers, there are few in this book who have anything but great things to say about him. Yet, as we know from the real case, Eugene Aram turned out to be a murderer.  So what made Bulwer-Lytton's Aram tick?  I actually struggled with that question right up until I got to to page 400 something when the turning point/aha  moment  for me came as I read the following from a statement given by Aram, in which he says that he
"looked on the deed I was about to commit as a great and solemn sacrifice to Knowledge, whose Priest I was" 
at which point I was actually sort of floored with the conceit of this guy.   How this is so I won't reveal, but it's a somewhat twisted logic Bulwer-Lytton uses here, and I'm afraid that I'm in agreement with many of his contemporaries who called him out for turning his Eugene Aram into sort of  as Winifred Hughes says in her The Maniac in the Cellar,  a "criminal-hero."

I've noted above the hazards of the writing style in this book, but I will also say that despite the testing of my endurance, Eugene Aram turned out to be a good read for me.  It takes a very patient reader to make it through this book, but it's worth it for many reasons, none the least of which is that it is a part of crime-fiction history.  When  earlier I posted my thoughts on Richmond I said that "it's a narrow circle of readers who will be attracted to this book, making it what I call an "NFE" read -- not for everyone..." and I will say that the circle  of people who would be attracted by Eugene Aram is probably even narrower.  I would, however, certainly recommend it to readers who are interested in the evolution of crime fiction, and for those readers who are interested in pre-Victorian British fiction as well.


Friday, April 14, 2017

The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay-Holding: A yes in my book.

9781903155325
Persephone Books, 2009
originally published 1947
231 pp

paperback

"The walls of her home were falling down; there was no refuge." -- 75

It's not surprising that a number of regular crime fiction readers have never heard of Elisabeth Sanxay-Holding (1889-1955), but it's certainly a shame.  According to the Publisher's Note in this book, in 1950 Raymond Chandler wrote to his British publisher, Hamish Hamilton asking if "anybody in England" published her work, noting that
"For my money she's the top suspense writer of them all."
He went on to recommend three of her books: Net of Cobwebs (1945),  The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946) and this one, The Blank Wall.   The publisher's note also states that although a number of her books were published in the UK in the 1950s,
"Elisabeth Sanxay Holding vanished on this side of the Atlantic and all-but vanished on the other."
In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock reprinted the complete The Blank Wall in his anthology called My Favourites in Suspense, and a reviewer at the time described Holding as an "astonishing artist" and called upon "reprint publishers" to take notice, but sadly, no one did.  As late as 1981 Maxim Jakubowski writing in The Guardian also said that for publishers, perhaps "the time has come to take up Raymond Chandler's challenge" and to "resurrect the exemplary books" by this author, but  no one did.  Holding is another sadly-neglected author, but now that I've read two of her crime novels, trust me, the home library will be hosting many, many more.

I consider myself lucky to have found this novel, because it's so nicely done I couldn't stop reading it once I'd picked it up.  It reminded me so much of the work of Patricia Highsmith, but Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, didn't come out until 1950.  The Blank Wall is a book where there are crimes, cover-ups and consequences, but like so very many of Highsmith's books, the focus here is much more on character rather than simply crime.  In that sense, it's not what I'd call a typical suspense/crime novel, so anyone who may be considering it might want to make note of that fact. In other words, the plot is not nearly as important as what's happening around it.

from Early Bird books

Lucia Holley is a mother of two, keeping the  home fires burning while her husband Tom is away, "somewhere in the Pacific,"  doing his duty during World War II.  Her father lives with the family, and she's got a gem of a housekeeper named Sibyl to help her out.  Lucia writes Tom "very dull letters" every evening, letters meant to provide her husband with "a picture of a life placid and sunny as a little mountain lake." And in fact, life had been pretty dull at the Holley home, up until the time seventeen year-old daughter Bee began seeing a much older man named Ted Darby.  Lucia knows he's no good for Bee, and even made a trip to nearby New York City to confront him, but her visit had been "utterly useless," and ultimately harmful, since Ted immediately turned around and told Bee about it, setting up a confrontation between mother and daughter. Lucia, for whom there is nothing she wouldn't do "to stop this thing" makes several threats (cutting off Bee's allowance, for example), but inside she feels as though all of this was her fault -- that she'd made "several mistakes with Bee, even when she was a little girl."

 Lucia's father (Mr. Harper) echoes her concern about Ted Darby, and matters come to a head one evening when Darby shows up at the boathouse.  As Lucia is writing Tom and considering how "badly" she'd done with Bee, Harper reveals that he'd gone to the boathouse and "dealt with" Darby, pushing into the water and sending him off with a "flea in his ear."  The next morning, Lucia wakes up "extra early," and decides to take out the rowboat and go for a swim, "to think of some new and better way to talk to Bee."  As she steps into the rowboat, she looks into the nearby motorboat and discovers Darby's body -- "fallen, on a spare anchor, half upended on the seat, and it had pierced his throat."  Her first thought : "Father did that."
"Of course it means the police, she thought. Then Father will have to know that he did this. They'll find out why Ted came here, and Bee will be dragged into it. And I shan't be able to keep it from Tom. Not possibly. It'll be in the tabloids."
Deciding that she must do anything "to save us all," she decides to hide the body.  But Darby's death  is only the tip of the iceberg:  it's not long until she finds herself targeted for blackmail by a crook who has gotten hold of letters from Bee to Ted, leading to a sequence of events that will reveal exactly how far and to what costs this woman will go to protect her family.

So that's the plot in a nutshell -- suspenseful, definitely, and also twisty along the way to the end, but as I said before, there is much more than merely plot to this book, and Lucia is at the center of it all.  Lucia is a passive, highly-insecure woman  and with Tom away, her "little world," as Lucia puts it, consists solely of her children and her father, for whom she will do anything. Her life since childhood has been relatively uneventful; she married young  at eighteen, directly out of her parents' house, then had her first child. Up until Tom went away for the war, she's rarely had to cope with things by herself, and her life is rather humdrum and dull. She depends heavily on Sybil, who often covers up Lucia's absent-mindedness and sloppy housecleaning; Sybil makes the best deals at the markets to get the most out of their ration coupons, and keeps things on track within the home. But as things begin to threaten Lucia's "little world," Holding does a brilliant job here in slowly bringing out a Lucia who somehow manages to go deep within herself to find the strength she needs to protect it; she also makes us privy to Lucia's thoughts in which she comes to terms with how she really feels about herself and her life.

As Sanxay-Holding lets us into to Lucia's head, we also get a glimpse into how women with domestic responsibilities  like Lucia  are viewed outside of the home. As just one example, while in New York City,  Lucia decides to take out a loan from a company that advertised it would "lend money on a note," with  "no delay" and "no red tape." With no income of her own, the promises don't hold true for her. Thinking about her frustration while in a cab, she notes
"If one of those reporters stopped me in the street and asked me what I thought about Russia, or something like that, he'd put me down as Mrs. Lucia Holley, Housewife.
Why is it 'housewife'? What would I call myself if we lived in a hotel? Nobody ever puts down just 'wife' or even just 'mother.' If you haven't got a job, and you don't keep house, then you aren't anything, apparently."  
There's a lot  happening here outside of plot, as this book takes a look at (among other things) motherhood, family expectations, the true meaning of friendship, race, class, and domestic disruption on the home front due to the war.  At the same time, the focus on the criminal aspects here are very well done, and the suspense ratchets constantly through the novel.  It is so very well done on both inner and outer fronts, and I was so impressed with it that I couldn't put it down. It is highly intelligent and as I said earlier, I feel fortunate in having discovered it completely by chance.  I can seriously and highly recommend this novel to readers of vintage crime, and to readers who enjoy crime fiction written by women.  I promise - it's a story that will not be forgotten.

*****
I'll be back with an update on the film based on this book,  "The Reckless Moment" (1949)  after I've watched it. There was another adaptation, "The Deep End" (2001), but I'm going to pass on that one.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

*Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner, by "Richmond," (ed) E.F. Bleiler

0486232794
Dover, 1976
originally written 1827
266 pp

paperback

Continuing on with my look at crime fiction history, I discovered this book, which the front cover says is "the first collection of detective stories (1827) in English."   According to E.F. Bleiler's introduction, true authorship of this book is unknown (well, at least it was in 1976 when this volume was published), although the names of two different men (Thomas Surr or Thomas Gaspey)  have been floated about as having written these tales.  Bleiler dismisses the possibility of either one having done so.

I'd say that for modern readers, it's definitely a book for a niche audience -- for people like myself who can't get enough of this sort of thing, for people interested in the popular side of 19th-century British fiction, for readers looking into the history of British crime fiction, for people interested in the Bow Street Runners (and so on).  The writing is thick, meaning a bit archaic for today's reading audience, and there is a lot of narrative yammering by  both narrator and other characters which can drive a person crazy. Then again, the author realizes this here and there, as in Richmond's fourth case when he notes during a scene in the courts:
"The magistrate soon grew tired of this stuff, as I fear the reader has been long ago..."
or in scenes in which Richmond tells people to, as translated in our modern verbiage, cut to the chase and get on with the story.  That sort of thing is only annoying for me every so often here, and doesn't really bother me too much -- in short, I had great fun with this book.

Originally published in three volumes, here Richmond is divided into two parts, complete with labels as to the ending of each original volume.  The first part is composed completely of "Richmond's Early Life," which follows him from school days on to as he says,  "the period of my education for future duties at Bow-street." It's his love for a woman that, among other things,  sends him on the run, lands him in a small theater group, sends him to live with the "gipsies" for whom he develops sympathy, great respect and true friendships.  The second part consists of five of his cases, throughout which his
"fame travelled in company, waxing, like the moon, brighter and broader as it rolled on"
so much so that his services were in great demand and in "much request for enterprises of 'great pith and moment.' "

There is a wide range of cases for him to solve here.  He begins by looking into the disappearance of a little boy whom, it is feared, has been the victim of a "resurrection man" who kidnaps and kills in order to make money from bodies by selling them to anatomists. Next up is my personal favorite, in which an attorney turned rector via a fake degree decides to make his home among villagers who hate his tithe policies and try to drive him out using some very funny tricks (fake ghosts, fake earthquakes, a rat in the house with a bell attached to it, and more); while he's settling this one, he becomes involved with graverobbers.  In fact, each case is not focused solely on just one crime -- Richmond uncovers others and continues his pursuits throughout the book, so a bad guy from one case may turn up in another.  Moving on, the third case is a bit more complicated, involving smugglers, racing fraud etc., but it is here that he meets the woman he will eventually marry. In case number four, his services are required to rescue a man's daughter from a husband who is driving her mad and treating her terribly, and finally, in case five, Richmond spots a well-dressed woman trying to pass forged bank notes, leading him to bigger fish when he saves the life of a naive young man who tries to drown himself.

Not only are these stories fun in the reading, but they move in and out of social, economic and class divides, exposing the best and the worst among all kinds of different people; it also moves between city and countryside so that we get the idea that crime happens everywhere.  Richmond's detection skills are first rate; at the same time, having lived with the "gipsies" and gaining an understanding of how need and want can sometimes drive people into crime, he often turns his head to ignore some illegal activities that he feels are not as heinous as others.

As I said earlier, it's a narrow circle of readers who will be attracted to this book, making it what I call an "NFE" read -- not for everyone, and that's okay.  For me it's another window into the history of crime fiction, and I'm very happy to have discovered it. For any reader deciding to take a look, Bleiler's introduction covers a wide range of topics not just connected with Richmond -- it also includes a brief history of the Bow Street Runners and how they were perceived as well as many other subjects of great interest to nerdy people like myself.  I found Richmond fascinating -- then again, I could make a steady diet of books like this one.


Friday, March 31, 2017

* The Rector of Veilbye, by Steen Blicher

9781500384753
CreateSpace, 2014
25 pp

paperback

"Oh, what is man that he shall dare to sit in judgment over his fellows! God alone is the Judge. He who gives life may alone give death!" 

One would think that a book of only 25 pages would be a no-brainer, easy read with not much to say, but that's just not the case here. First published in 1829, this little pamphlet-sized story kept me up well past two a.m. this morning thinking about what I'd just read.

The Rector of Veilbye  has often been touted as "the first crime novel,"  and is based on real events.  According to the back-cover blurb, "The trial of Pastor Søren Jensen Quist of Vejlby took place at Aarhus in 1626," and involved the disappearance of a farm laborer in 1607 employed by the rector.  Evidently, over a decade later, bones were dug up on the rector's land that were believed to belong to the missing man and the rector was blamed. Also noted on the cover is the fact that this little book was "selected for inclusion in the Cultural Canon of Denmark," and that one official noted the "elegiac pain and discomfort in an eerily intense drama."   It may actually be the first Scandinavian crime novel -- obviously I can't say that for sure, but 1829 is still quite early in the crime fiction game so it's entirely possible.  The story is revealed through journal entries from two different people -- District Judge Erik Sorensen, who outlines the main events of the case as well as his own involvement and how it affects him personally, and then a pastor from Aalso, who lets us in on a most harrowing aftermath some 21 years later.  Sorensen has a role here other than just district judge -- he happens to be betrothed to the daughter of the titular rector of Veilbye, Soren Quist, who has been accused of murdering one of his servants "in a fit of rage," and then burying the body in his own garden.

To tell is to spoil, especially in this very short but powerful work, so I'm not going to give away any plot details other than what I've said above.   At the same time, a note to readers: don't be fooled by its size -- there is a lot going on in this little book.   Not only is it a no-frills story of a crime (and I'll leave it to readers to decide which acts here are actually criminal),  but it also provides a great argument against capital punishment,  while also examining the links between religious beliefs and the law.  It's also, I'll argue, a book that puts the reader in the unhappy position of judge -- considering the evidence as it's given here,  it's simply impossible not to find yourself trying to make up your mind one way or the other, just as Sorensen had to do.

For readers entrenched in modern, fast-paced, violence-laden crime fiction, this book may seem to be a nothing sort of work. That certainly wasn't my reaction though -- it actually became an incredibly sad and thought-provoking story as I considered  the moral implications vs. the legal, and as I said earlier, it kept me awake long after having finished it.  Considering that it's not even thirty pages long, well, that's power. I have to wholeheartedly agree with the Danish official noted above who said that "the story is difficult to shake off" -- there is definitely a lot of truth in that statement.

Anyone who is at all interested in the history of crime fiction needs to read this book, but really, given what happens in this story, well, it's actually a book for everyone.  Amazing.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

a Graham Greene double (well, triple really) play: The Ministry of Fear, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol


"But he didn't understand a thing; he was caught up in other people's darkness."




The Ministry of Fear was, according to Greene himself in his Ways of Escape (1980), written after he'd read a particular book by writer Michael Innes.   Greene was not a huge fan of  English detective stories but as he notes, Innes' book was a "surprise and welcome change...a detective story both fantastic and funny."  Greene decided he could do the same, and he chose his plot thinking that it would be "a funny one," but after having finished the book, he realized that it really wasn't funny at all.  The Ministry of Fear, he also notes in Ways of Escape, is his "favorite" among what he termed at the time his "entertainments," which he said "distinguished them from more serious novels."  

Since I've got three Greene stories to cover, these little synopses will all be brief.

The Ministry of Fear is an excellent spy novel with a number of truly remarkable twists and turns, but even more importantly, it is an excellent character study. Here his focus is on widower Arthur Rowe, who after some time away (I won't go into the details here) returns to the outside world. As we get to know this man, it seems that Arthur's inner turmoil is a reflection of the outer turmoil of the world he's come back into  -- for example, as the country  "has a war on," so too does Arthur in his head; there are "gaps between the Bloomsbury houses," which continuing the image, will also reflect Arthur's psyche, as  the "sound of glass being swept up" reflects his shattered self.  He is happy to find himself at a local fête on a "late summer Sunday afternoon" --  it "called him like innocence; it was entangled in childhood..."  -- where he is asked if he would like to guess the weight of a cake.  Guessing off the cuff, he later makes his way to the fortune-teller's tent where he learns that he should actually give the weight as "four pounds eight and a half ounces." He changes his guess, wins the cake and on leaving, is told that a mistake had been made, that someone else had actually guessed correctly.  Arthur refuses to hand it over, and it is this one decision that changes his life. Following an attempt on his life, he is framed for a crime in which his own knife is the weapon, and finds himself not only at odds with the people trying to get him out of the way, but also with his own mind and especially his past.  


The movie is a bit of a conundrum.  Greene's depictions of the blitz and the atmosphere surrounding it move nicely from page to screen, the spy vibe is definitely out in full force,  and the sense of dread is palpable throughout.  However,  Fritz Lang left out some pretty vital scenes from the novel to make his film, and like Greene, I was not happy about it   -- as he said, the omission of the scenes that find Rowe in a mental clinic made "the whole story meaningless," and I concur. The depth underscoring Ray Milland's character (who now becomes Stephen Neale) is not brought to life as fully in the movie as it is in the book, which sort of misses the entire point.  So read the book first, for sure -- it is so much better than the movie. 

Book number two is The Third Man and The Fallen Idol.  Both stories once again blew me away, especially The Third Man which is just genius storytelling.  Turning again to Greene's own words in Ways of Escape, the author states that this story "was never written to be read but only to be seen."  


However, he also says that
"For me it is impossible to write a film play without first writing a story...I must have the sense of more material than I need to draw on."
Luckily for me and for fans of Greene's work, he felt as though it had to start as a story first. And oh my god, what a story it is.  It is set in a divided, "smashed dreary city,"  postwar-Vienna,  which at the time was occupied by the four powers, and is a tale of black-market corruption and racketeering.  The book begins with the arrival of Rollo Martins, a hack writer of western novels, who has come there to work for his friend Harry Lime. Lime has offered him a job in a charity he supposedly runs, but when Martins arrives, he finds that Lime has been killed in an accident in which he was run down by a car.  Martins, who "worshipped Lime"  is resentful that Scotland Yard's Colonel Calloway has pinned "some petty racket" and murder on his now dead friend, and swears that he will make Calloway "look the biggest bloody fool in Vienna" for doing so.  What Martins doesn't know, and what Calloway doesn't explain until it's necessary, is that Harry was not involved in just a "petty racket going on with petrol," but rather something so heinous that it beggars belief. Martins knows that there were two witnesses to Harry's death, but as he continues his quest for the truth, he uncovers evidence of a "third man" who was there as well, making Lime's death a murder and not an accident. Who was this third man? And why did he not come forth to give evidence? As Martins tries to discover answers, he finds himself caught up in something so much bigger than he'd ever expected. All eyes on Martins here -- Greene once again gives us a character who has to come to terms with a reality that will test everything he's ever known or believed.


The film is just over-the-top excellent -- once again Greene fleshes out the characters in much more detail in written form than the film can convey, although the movie comes very close. Once again, I'd say if possible read the book first because you will get a lot more out of the film.

And now to the third story, "The Fallen Idol," which started life in 1935 as "The Basement Room." After having finished it, I understand the logic behind the original title, but even so, the story is just so damned good that it hardly matters.  Book and movie are quite different -- as Greene explains, what started as a story about "a small boy who unwittingly betrayed his best friend to the police" ended up as a tale about "a small boy who believed his friend was a murderer and nearly procured his arrest by telling lies in his defence."  I'll go further: reading carefully, we find that this is a story of a suppressed memory based on childhood events -- there are interjections throughout that reveal Philip in his sixties still traumatized and by then psychologically damaged.

In the story, young Philip both adores and pities his friend Baines, the family butler.  As we're told, it had "occurred to him how happily they could live together in the empty house if Mrs. Baines were called away," since she is always harping on her husband and making life just plain miserable in general. Philip stumbles onto a secret that Baines has been keeping regarding another woman, which pushes him into a world he doesn't quite understand and is not ready for;  he then unwittingly betrays Baines prompting a series of events that will trouble and color Philip's psyche for the remainder of his life.



I have to say that I love this movie. This is my second time viewing the film, and it was better this time around than the first.  Even though Philip stays a little boy here and there is no hint of the older Philip as in Greene's original story, it is so suspenseful that I was mesmerized. The casting of Bobby Henrey as Phillipe was so perfect that his is the face I saw while reading the story; the same is true in the case of Mrs. Baines, who in the book is described by Philip as being "so like the witches of his dreams."  The scene with MacGregor, the snake, the one that really sets Philip against her (not in the novel, by the way), says everything a person needs to know about this character.

Sadly, with two books/three stories at once under discussion here, there's really no time to dig deep, but careful readers will definitely find a LOT going on in these stories aside from plot. The quotation I began this post with is from "The Fallen Idol," and this one short sentence to me embodies much of the essence of all three of these stories. For me, it ties these diverse tales together in a way that makes complete sense.    In The Ministry of Fear the main character accidentally stumbles into a serious case of espionage, The Third Man focuses on a man who refuses to believe that his best friend in the world might possibly be guilty of  horrific deeds in postwar Austria, and in "The Fallen Idol" young Philip finds himself plunged headlong into the messy adult world with no understanding of how it works.  For me all three are also scenarios of a sort of lost innocence that can never be reclaimed, all have to do with secrets and lies, and all are frankly quite brilliant.  As I keep telling people, it's just a shame that this author is not read very widely any more.  He is a master storyteller as well as an author whose works go well beyond simple plot into deeper, darker places -- in short, my kind of writer.

I highly, highly recommend these two books as well as the movies -- I'll be revisiting Greene here shortly.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

oh! RIP Colin Dexter -- one of my all-time favorite authors.

from The Independent
I've just heard that Colin Dexter passed away today.  I cut my crime-novel reading teeth on his Morse series,  which gave me hours and hours of pleasure,  and I will remember him as one of my favorite crime writers of all time.

Perhaps it's time for a Morse reading retrospective.

Requiescat in pace


*Mademoiselle de Scudéri, by E.T.A. Hoffman

1843910241
Hesperus Press, 2002
originally published in 1819
translated by Andrew Brown
90 pp

paperback

"Un amant qui craint les voleurs
n'est point digne d'amour." 

Finally getting myself back on track here, I've just finished  E.T.A. Hoffman's Mademoiselle de Scudéri, which has been seen by many  as an early, pre-Poe example of the detective story. In his foreword, Gilbert Adair also notes that this is so, and he notes that Mademoiselle de Scudéri is a "genteel elderly spinster not a thousand miles away from Agatha Christie's Miss Marple."  He may be right, and in that sense, this short novella is definitely worth reading by anyone at all interested in the history of the genre, and to be more specific, in the history of the female amateur detective.  

Set in Paris, "the scene of the most heinous atrocities," during the reign of Louis XIV, this tale comes on the heels of the infamous ""affair of the poisons" of 1677 that resulted in the establishment of the Chambre ardente, a special tribunal headed by Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie. As Hoffman reveals,
"The tribunal completely assumed the character of an inquisition, the slightest suspicion was sufficient to lead to brutal incarceration, and it was often left to chance to demonstrate the innocence of the person accused of a capital crime." 
Just FYI, I'm not offering a history lesson here -- all of this is relevant to the case in which la Mademoiselle finds herself embroiled. It seems that while the poisonings have become "less and less frequent," another series of crimes finds its way onto the streets of Paris. This time it is the theft of jewelry, assumed to be the work of a "gang of thieves" who were out to "get its hands on all the jewels in town". Their victims are all men who have purchased "rich jewellery" -- not only are they robbed, but they are either knocked out or murdered.  All of the dead men showed the same sort of wound: "a dagger-thrust to the heart which ... killed so swiftly and surely that the wounded victim simply fell to the ground, unable to utter a sound."  Despite strengthened police presence, the thefts and murders continued, and  it wasn't long until people began to believe that perhaps
 "it really was the devil himself protecting the heinous villains who had souls their souls to them."
 This story takes place in 1680.  Around midnight a "cloaked figure" makes his way to the home of the celebrated Mademoiselle de Scudéri on the rue St. Honoré, demanding to see her. She is asleep, but in talking to the maid, he leaves behind a small casket that he demands be given to her.  The next day, upon inspection, it is found to contain "a pair of golden bracelets richly adorned with jewels" and matching necklace, along with a note signed by "The Invisibles" who thank her for her "wit" which has saved them "from great persecution." The jewelry is a gift, a token of their "gratitude," and she is appalled that this notorious gang of thieves and murderers would even consider that she was their friend in some way. Taking the jewelry to her friend (and the mistress of  the king) Madame de Maintenon, she discovers that the pieces were all the creations of René Cardillac, "the most skillful practitioner of his art, not only in Paris, but perhaps of his whole age," who when questioned, reveals that the jewelry had "inexplicably disappeared" from his workshop. Later, when Cardillac turns up dead, Mademoiselle de Scudéri suddenly and somewhat reluctantly finds herself deeply involved in the case, finding herself in direct opposition to the notorious chambre ardente. 

I had great fun with this story.  It may not be the greatest literature ever written, as it leans a bit to the side of melodrama toward the end, and it ultimately depends a great deal on coincidence (both part of my normal reasons for not enjoying a book),  but I have to say that after all has been revealed, the story becomes much more than just a work of crime fiction. The historical aspects are fascinating -- the affair of the poisons and its psychological aftermath,  the concerns that the devil and his henchmen are active agents on the streets of Paris, the creation and operations of the chambre ardente all make for great reading.  The personal history and the psychological motives underlying the acts of the villain of this piece are also quite interesting, and as Adair has noted in his foreword, it is vintage Hoffman.    I won't explain, but I would suggest not reading anything at all about this book that gives away much more than the dustjacket cover blurb. Heck, don't even read the foreword or the introduction if coming to this book with, as Adair says, "an 'innocent' eye."

I know that a number of people didn't care too much for Mademoiselle de Scudéri, and I can sort of understand their reasons why.   However, as a step toward modern crime fiction, it is of great interest to me as a reader of the genre, and in that sense, it is well worth the time, and I'm very happy to have read it.