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.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Wine of Angels, by Phil Rickman

Pan Books, 1999
629 pp


"It was the depressing side of country life; they all seemed to know their Pattern and the Pattern didn't change."  -- 326

 This old 1999 copy has been with me through several  moves (along with many of the other books in this series), and has sat quietly on its shelf since the last move eleven years ago.  Recently, though, The Wine of Angels came up in an online group discussion and I figured it was time to brush off the accumulated dust and give it another read.  It's also in keeping with the season -- not just Fall, mind you, but that spooky time of year leading up to Halloween.  Not that this book is overpowered by what I call the woo-woo factor, but there are plenty of mystical moments that helped me decide to read it as part of the Halloween book list. It is set in a small British village, but there's nothing at all cozy about this one. Other than the secrets that are hidden behind closed village doors, it's about as far from St. Mary Mead as one can get.

Wine of Angels is the series opener featuring Merrily Watkins, who has just received her first real assignment as a newly-ordained Anglican vicar.  While visiting the village of Ledwardine, Herefordshire,  deciding whether or not to "go for it," she arrives just in time to witness a strange ritual under an old apple tree known as "The Apple Tree Man."  It is supposed to be a traditional "wassailing," but one of the villagers (an "incomer," there only about a year and a half)  takes it upon herself to add rifles to the mix, citing a reference in a book about collected folk customs.  One of the long-time villagers contests that decision, saying that since it's not a local tradition, what they're doing may end up causing "offence" to the orchard itself, but rifles are fired anyway and Merrily stands by as one of the men blows off his own head.  If that's not an attention-worthy opening to a novel, I don't know what is. 

That event will return to the story later, but in the meantime, the struggle between modern and traditional takes center stage in this mystery.  Merrily ends up accepting the job in Ledwardine, but not everyone is happy about her presence there.  Her male predecessor had been there for decades, so it's not surprising that some of the villagers would be unhappy about her appointment.  But that's not the worst of it -- it seems that there is to be a Ledwardine cider festival, and one of the residents decides he's going to put on a play to solve the mystery of the centuries-old death of a local vicar, Wil Williams, who was accused of practicing witchcraft.  There are some in the village who do not want things to come out in the open, and Merrily gets stuck in the middle of a growing controversy.  In the meantime, perhaps the incomers should have paid more attention to Lucy Devenish and her warning about causing "offence" to the orchard, especially when a local girl goes missing after last being seen there.

from Tudor Stuff

Since The Wine of Angels is the first in a series, the author spends a lot of time on the people who live in Ledwardine, most especially  Merrily and her fifteen year-old daughter Jane. And while there is a lot going on in the mystical sphere here, in his review at  The Agony Column  Rick Kleffel  notes that  the interaction between  Jane and Merrily  "grounds the novel in the real world," and I'd say that's a perfect way to describe it:  not only does Merrily have to concern herself with the doubts involved in her own belief, the antagonism of some of the villagers toward her position, and a recurrent nightmare that adds to her stress, but she also worries about Jane, who is trying to find her own way after yet another move in her life.   And, like most mystery novels that are set in small villages, there are secrets that remain hidden until something forces them to float to the surface, which happens more than once in this book, leading to as Kleffel says, a story with "layers" that are peeled away to uncover "something more mysterious." 

It's fun, it's intelligent, and it's not just another point A to point B mystery story with a tired plot that's been done over and over again; combined with the people in this book  and the struggle between modernity and tradition, The Wine of Angels  makes for a very, very good read.  I'd forgotten just how much I enjoyed this novel and I went scurrying back to the shelf to grab the next one, Midwinter of the Spirit for more.  Recommended, for sure.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Man From the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery, by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

Scribner, 2017
464 pp


It's very rare that I choose to sit down and read a true-crime account, since it's not my really my thing, so the topic has to be something that piques my interest enough to get me to take a look.  So when I heard about this book last July that involves an axe-wielding serial killer who in the early part of the 20th century  rode the rails and left carnage behind him, that got my attention.  For one thing, this was a case I'd never heard of, and the deal was sealed when I discovered that this all went down over one hundred years ago.

The dustjacket blurb describes this book as a
"compelling, dramatic, and meticulously researched narrative about a century-old series of axe murders across America, and how the authors came to solve them."  

Bill James, who says here that in his "day job" he is a "baseball writer," is also the author of another book, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebrations of Violence (2012). In a 2016 interview in The New Yorker', when Evan Hughes asked the author about the book he was currently working on, James said the following:

"You know the story of the murders in Villisca? All right, a hundred and four years ago eight people are found dead, murdered with an axe, inside this locked house, in a quiet, small town in the southern part of Iowa. It's a famous crime, and the reason that it became famous is that at the time it was obvious that it was the latest in a series of similar attacks. I had the idea that I'll bet there are others like this which have not been tied to the same murderer, because at the time they didn't have the methods you have now to connect the dots between unrelated events. So I started looking for them, and I found several."
 James hired his daughter Rachel as research assistant and this book is the result of their work.  As James writes in the preface,
"With modern computers, we can search tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of small-town newpapers, looking for reports of similar events."
And not only did he find them, but he also claims that they even discovered the culprit, the true identity behind person they label as "The Man From the Train."  It's a great premise, to be sure; on the flip side, though, rather than being the "compelling" or "dramatic" book promised by the dustjacket blurb, this has to have been one of the most frustrating, amateurish and utterly confusing true-crime accounts I've ever read.

There are no footnotes or endnotes;  there is no bibliography, and he handles the lack thereof in the acknowledgements section where he says that "it is inadequate to acknowledge in a footnote those whose work you use," and that he feels that "sources should be directly acknowledged in the text." He says that he "tried to do this throughout the book," but that's not always the case. While he does mention things said in old newspaper accounts here and there, and quotes one or two of his sources once in a while, for the most part, there are several places where I found myself while taking notes writing "Source???"  or "Citation?" especially when it came to things like statistics he gives, or phrases that start with "It has been written." In putting together a work involving historical research, the lack of sources is not just astounding, but downright appalling.

Another major issue here is that the author makes assumptions about the killer that have absolutely no factual basis; not only that, but then after he's made one statement, he contradicts himself later.  One huge example of an assumption about the killer is that the author believes that the Man From The Train "likely" lived and worked near Marianna Florida between 1901 and 1903, and then doesn't say why. There is no elaboration on the topic, and frankly, I was flabbergasted.   Another example  of his kind of waffly logic  is found on page 310 where the author is going through a list of "let's say for the sake of argument," about whether or not the killer "stalked" his victims.  There, in a brief paragraph about a murder which happened in Maine in 1901, he states the following:
"The murder of the Allen family in Maine in 1901 is him, but that this was an unplanned event that resulted from an eruption of anger on the murderer's part, when Mr. Allen insulted the murderer and drove him forcefully away from his door.
There is no evidence given anywhere that this scene occurred,  and back on page 226 he implies that one of four factors that "strongly suggest" this murder was the work from The Man From the Train was "the presence of Carrie Allen" (the daughter) since Mr. James claims that many of the murders were based on the killer's "perversion" or his penchant for young girls.  Then, on page 228, he says
"But it may not have been Carrie; it may also be that he knocked on the door and asked for a drink of water, and Wesley Allen came out at him in a bad temper, and told him to get on down the road and be quick about it."
Note the "it may also be" here as opposed to what he says on page 310.  And then he reflects on an episode of Dexter for his statement that The Man From the Train "particularly hated large men who tried to push him around," again, a statement that has absolutely no factual basis.  In fact, the entire book is filled with scenarios like this -- guesswork, lots of probablys, maybes, "it may be thats."   My point is that when you have a whole book filled with speculation it's kind of hard to take anything seriously.

Then there's the pattern that the author has established that is supposed to convince us that these murders are the work of the same man and that they go back further than anyone who's already written about the links between these axe murders has discovered. Admittedly, there do seem to be similarities and these were already noted in 1911; however, when a murder doesn't fit the pattern, the author still finds a reason that it should.  As just one example when he tries to justify including a murder in North Carolina in 1906 when the pattern the author has established here doesn't quite fit, in this case a murder where potential victims were left alive  (301), he says that the killer "heard a train coming."  Not "may have heard a train coming," or "probably heard a train coming," but "heard a train coming" and therefore decided to catch it, implying that he was in a hurry to leave.  There's no evidence for this at all unless Mr. James has a timetable of trains running through that section of North Carolina on that particular day, which he doesn't.    This sort of things occurs more than once; not only that, but he takes us through several murders that have nothing at all to do with the case  that could have been left out all together.  By the end of Section IV (330),  Mr. James notes that so far,  121 murders "have been discussed in this book."  And while the research is impressive, what's frustrating is that after he's taken us through these 121 cases,  he says that while "the authors do not believe that all 121 murders were committed by the same man,"  they do believe that a "substantial number" can be attributed to him; that gets narrowed down on page 336 to "  "perhaps fourteen crimes about which we have enough information to be certain they were committed by the same man."  So why write about all 121 and not focus just on the fourteen? That makes no sense at all and fills the book with a lot of unnecessary details and way more conjecture than fact. 

Honestly, it's enough to make your head spin and I haven't even touched on the writing style which absolutely grates.

This book is actually getting some really great reviews and high ratings, but not from me. I will say that I was impressed with how he pointed out several instances where the police or other members of the justice community were too quick to arrest or judge suspects based on race, opportunity or other factors --  that was done very well.  I also found the subject matter intriguing especially because I'd never heard of any of these murders, but as one of "today's modern readers," a phrase he uses throughout the book, speculation, guesswork, and a lot of "maybes" just aren't enough to make this a convincing story.  It's sad, really, because I had been looking forward to it for months.