Friday, April 21, 2017

* Eugene Aram, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Valancourt Books, 2010
originally published 1832
516 pp


"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.

Persephone Books, 2009
originally published 1947
231 pp


"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

Dover, 1976
originally written 1827
266 pp


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

CreateSpace, 2014
25 pp


"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

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


"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.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Iron Gates, by Margaret Millar

Avon, 1974
originally published 1945
191 pp


It was like Christmas here a few days ago when I moved some stuff out of the closet space under the stairs and discovered boxes and boxes and boxes of old mass market paperback mystery novels that I'd forgotten I owned.  I opened one, and this book was staring at me -- so naturally, I had to read it.   Whoa! I had forgotten just how much I like Margaret Millar's work, but reading this novel brought it all back in a hurry.

The draw for me is that Millar doesn't present the usual crime-investigation-solution type plot. Her books, like all of my favorites in suspense/crime/mystery, look deep into the human mind.  As this article from a Canadian writer notes,
"she was far more concerned with the psychological ramifications of relationships, especially the toxicity that builds up and destroys marriages." 
Kathleen Sharp, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books notes another quality that keeps me glued to Millar's novels when she says that the author
"explored female characters as they battled the daily accretions of frustrated ambition and blocked power, often while trying to keep a grip on their own sanity."
While I won't go into detail as to how The Iron Gates embodies the psychology that both of these writers have described, and more,  it was a book I couldn't put down.   As a sidebar note, I do have to mention here that Sharp's description of The Iron Gates in that article as a "gothic novel about abortion" is incorrect, but the article itself is still worth reading.

from Women Crime Writers of the 1940s & 50s

The first thing worth mentioning here is that this book is structured in three parts that reflect the inner workings of the novel itself.   In Part One, "The Hunt," we meet Lucille Morrow, wife of physician Andrew Morrow, stepmother to Martin and Polly Morrow (both in their 20s) and sister-in-law to Edith.  Martin and Polly have never fully accepted her marriage to their father after the death of their mother Mildred some sixteen years earlier, which sets up major domestic tension especially between Lucille and Polly.   And while Lucille has been aware of the Morrow siblings' feelings about her over the years, she also realizes that in the long run, she has everything she wants, and as she says in her mind, "neither of you can take anything away from me."  There's only one thing really wrong as far as Lucille goes, and that is her jealousy toward the long-dead Mildred, but somehow she manages to keep her feelings to herself so as not to cause even more problems in the house.  Life, in short, is good and quite comfortable for Lucille, but things take a bizarre turn on the day after the arrival of Polly's fiancé Giles. While Edith, Polly and Giles are out shopping and Martin and Andrew are at work, the doorbell rings and a shabbily-dressed man hands one of the maids a parcel which is dutifully delivered to Lucille, resting upstairs. Shortly afterwards Andrew phones, and the maids notice that Lucille is nowhere to be found --  she's simply disappeared,  taking nothing with her but one of the maid's coats.  The police, of course, get involved, and the fact that it's the Morrow family draws the attention of Inspector Sands, who has been

"interested in the Morrow family for a long time...For about sixteen years." 

In Part Two, "The Fox," Lucille resurfaces in a place where
"She felt safe again. Behind her there was an iron gate and a hundred doors that locked with big key."
Sands wants to know what drove Lucille to take refuge in an asylum, and beyond that, why so many deaths have occurred since her disappearance.   It's not just Sands, either -- it's at this point that the reader also begins to wonder what's up with Lucille as we are made privy to the stream-of-consciousness musings reflecting her inner turmoil, and quite a different woman emerges miles apart from the cool, composed lady of the Morrow house from Part One.  The inspector's investigation leads him to, in Part Three "The Hounds,"  a shocker of a revelation that frankly, I didn't see coming, although I had great fun playing armchair detective in this one.

One of the excellent things about The Iron Gates is that Millar goes well beyond just the crimes in this novel, and she takes the time to psychologically flesh out most all of the players involved in her story -- the family, the side characters who will play a role in this story, the police, the other women in the asylum, and she does so without detracting one whit from the suspense.  She has an excellent sense of balance here -- while  there's a detective involved,  the focus stays on the characters so that The Iron Gates never becomes his story or hinges on his investigation, and  Millar never takes her eyes off of the psychological aspects of the characters for which she is so famous and which really sets her work apart from many suspense/crime writers of the same period, both male and female. Vintage crime readers ought not to miss this one, and anyone interested in the work of women crime writers might wish to consider this book, or for that matter, any novel written by Margaret Millar.  Don't plan on getting anything done once you start reading, because this book hooks you at the start and doesn't let up.

Recommended, absolutely!!!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Contraband/Saraband, 2014
244 pp


At page 90 I started thinking that this book has a Simenon sort of feel to it, and then on page 95, I came across a passage describing one of the characters who "devoured Simenon."  By the time I finished this book, I came to the conclusion that the author must also be a fan of the Belgian author, because like Simenon's romans durs, Burnet's focus in The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau isn't so much on a specific crime, but rather on what's going on inside the heads of the two main characters.

The setting is also part and parcel of this story -- as he noted in an interview at Bloody Scotland, the author visited the  French town of Saint-Louis, where he observed and was "captivated by the sense of unchanging routine and claustrophobia," words which, up until the titular disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, also describe the main character, Manfred Baumann.  He is a bank manager, a creature of habit and strict self control living a rather mundane and routine life. As we discover,
"If he lived the way he did, it was because that was how he wanted to live. He had no desire to change anything." 
He has lunch every Thursday at La Cloche, and even there things are always routine -- he has a regular table, he always orders the same lunch -- "onion soup, pot-au-feu, crème brulée".  Only once has he changed his order, thinking it might perhaps get the attention of the waitress Adèle; he even goes so far as to order a second glass of wine, both out of character. At one point, he even goes so far once to remark on her appearance.   His fantasies about Adèle provide a break in his otherwise unremarkable existence, as do his regular visits to a brothel where even the sex is routine.

Manfred would have most likely continued on in this unchanging life had it not been for Adèle's disappearance, which brings in the second character under study here, Detective Georges Gorski.  At age sixteen, he had understood that he was meant to take over the family's business, but he had decided instead to become a policeman.  At age eighteen he joined the force, did time on the beat (during which time he came to realize that he was being favored as "the inspector's protégé"), and made detective in his mid-twenties.   Gorski realized that "there was little in the way of crime to be solved" in Saint-Louis, and set his sights on "more exciting pastures...somewhere alive with crime, violence and murder." His first big chance came in the form of the murder of a young girl for which an innocent man was tried and convicted. When we meet the detective, his failure in the now twenty year-old murder continues to weigh heavily on him, so he really wants to solve the mystery of Adèle's  disappearance.  Manfred becomes a person of interest in the case as the last person who is known to have seen her. Although he claims he is innocent, paranoia begins to set in, and soon his carefully-ordered, carefully-controlled life tragically begins to unwind.

The book is not a crime story per se -- the disappearance of Adèle is the frame upon which rests an examination into the past and present of these two men, each in their own way outsiders, as well as a portrait of a small town where life has gone on virtually unchanged.  In the "Translator's Afterword," we also discover that the author has been having a bit of metafictional fun with his readers, with the claim that the novel was the work of Raymond Brunet, born in Saint-Louis, and that his life has some bearing on the character of Manfred Baumann. He goes on to inform us of the publication and film adaptation of the novel and other interesting points, but I'm not quite sure why the author felt the need to do this since the book certainly stands on its own.

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau may not be the ideal book for readers looking for an action-packed thriller, but it's certainly a good choice  for those who enjoy an intense glimpse into the strangeness of the human psyche and the outside forces that can help to determine why people do what they do. Recommended.

fiction from Scotland
(all maps courtesy of Lonely Planet)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

indie author moment: The Mountain Man's Dog and The Mountain Man's Bride, by Gary Corbin --the lighter side of crime

There comes a time, yes, even for me, when I have to back away from the darker side of crime fiction and pick up something light.  A steady diet of bleak just doesn't cut it.   So every now and then I'll actually say yes when someone emails me about reading his/her book if it fits my need at a particular moment. In this case,  I've been uber-sick, got better, got sick again by being stupid and thinking I was wonder woman, and on top of everything physical, I've basically been in a mental funk for the last two months.  We won't go there, but the point is that I've  needed a serious break for a long time.  The other problem is that aside from the novel by Camilleri I just finished, I don't think I even own anything on the lighter side. So when Oregon author Gary Corbin asked me if I'd read his book, I had no hesitation in saying yes.  Then I realized it was book two in his series, so I picked up book one since reading books in series order may be the one and only thing I'm actually OCD about. I read the first one on Kindle, but for non-Kindle people, it's available in all formats.  The books are published by Double Diamond Publishing.  He also has another novel out right now called Lying in Judgment, billed as a legal thriller. 

First up - The Mountain Man's Dog, which takes place in the very small Cascade Mountain town of Clarkesville, Oregon, 

where main character Lehigh Carter manages his family's woodland acreage along with that of other customers.  As the story begins, Carter is  in his trusty pickup truck with the intention of heading to the grocery store when he is stopped by a dog limping its way across the road.  He isn't a fan of dogs, but he picks it up and takes it to the Clarkesville Animal Hospital where he runs into an old girlfriend, Stacy McBride.  Stacy just happens to be the daughter of State Senator McBride, currently running for Governor.  Up until a few weeks earlier, she'd been seeing her father's campaign treasurer Paul Van Paten, who has it in his head that he and Stacy should be engaged. She, however, has other plans, and they don't involve him. Paul and the McBrides have a long history together, and he's banking on being a part of this prominent family when the Senator wins the governorship and then runs for president, so he doesn't take the news well when Stacy rejects him in favor of Lehigh.  He puts pressure on Stacy, but for Lehigh, well, let's just say that after some money is accidentally delivered into Carter's hands, Van Paten makes sure that Lehigh knows it's now all-out war between them.

Double Diamond Publishing, 2017
253 pp
paperback -- my copy from the author. Thanks so much!!!

Moving onto book two, The Mountain Man's Bride, we pick up the story not too far in time from the action in the first book.  Lehigh and Stacy are now happily engaged and looking forward to tying the knot.  Everything seems to be on track for returning to normal, and Lehigh is trying to get his life back in order following events from The Mountain Man's Dog.  Things are moving slowly but steadily for the two when their happiness suddenly gets put on hold -- it seems that acting Sheriff Jared Barkley has been killed and it looks as though the police think Stacy is responsible.  But they're not ready to let Lehigh off the hook just yet --  even though he has an alibi, there are a few people who want the crime to be pinned on him, and who will do anything to make sure that he ends up behind bars.  Lehigh, however, has other ideas, and starts his own investigation to clear both of their names.  Unfortunately, what he learns in the process has him beginning to doubt his fiancée -- and not just where murder is concerned.  

Let me get my niggles out of the way first.   I had to wonder why people speak like they're from the deep South in these books when they're in Oregon -- seriously,  it caused me major moments of cognitive dissonance in my head and was hard to get past. And this is just a me thing, but I'm just not a huge fan of sweet romance in my crime, but by now anyone who has taken a moment here and there to read what I post already knows that. But as I said, that's on me -- there are certainly plenty of readers who love it. On the positive side, while there is a murder in book two, and while both books do have their fair share of violence, we're thankfully spared the more gory details as the author chooses to focus instead on his characters and on the main issues at the heart of both, political corruption and the abuse of power.  There is nothing over the top to be found in either book, making for a sort of carefree, non-stress, light reading experience even as the tension grew and as I was left wondering how Stacy and Lehigh were going to get out of their respective predicaments, especially in Mountain Man's Dog.   So for me, in that sense, I enjoyed both and they were exactly what I needed -- two good old-fashioned, lighter-side mysteries that I could just relax and have fun with.  

While definitely not my norm, sometimes light is good for me, and I need to remember that and read more of it from time to time.  If I laugh that's also a plus, and that's what happened with these books since there is also a bit of comedy in each.   Of the two, I liked The Mountain Man's Dog a bit more than The Mountain Man's Bride, since it was a bit more suspenseful all around and because it offers a glimpse at what happens when less-than-scrupulous campaign staff let ambition and power take the wheel, and even there Mr. Corbin makes his point without having to get too down-and-dirty hardcore about it.   Those readers who normally enjoy crime light will be happy with these books.  One more thing -- I especially appreciate that the author didn't feel compelled to join the ranks of those writers who use torture, graphic sexual violence against women, and hardcore violence in general to sell their books.  Applause, and thanks!  

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Voice in the Night, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2016
originally published as Una voce di notte, 2012
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
274 pp


I don't think I've ever kept up with a crime fiction/mystery series for as long as I have with this one, but A Voice in the Night is the 20th (!) installment in Camilleri's series featuring Salvo Montalbano. To say that I love this series is an understatement -- it's light but not too light, funny,  and yet at the same time, Camilleri never fails to draw attention to some aspect of political or social issues in his own country.  More importantly, though, Montalbano and his cohorts are like old friends at this point; they are people I enjoy revisiting every now and then. I don't think that there is another crime fiction series out there (and I've read TONS) that has given me so much pleasure, which is another reason that I love these books.

There are two cases at work here, both of which have the dubious distinction of setting Montalbano (and his superiors) between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  First, there is what seems to be an ordinary supermarket robbery, which turns out to be anything but ordinary.  Second, a young man who a) turns out to be the son of the provincial president,  and b) pushes Montalbano's road-rage buttons by driving erratically turns up again to report the murder of his girlfriend.  Both cases have to be handled with kid gloves and Montalbano has to come up with some clever workarounds to ensure that justice is served. Around the action, once again we find Salvo in his own head, musing about old age (the book starts on his 58th birthday), politics, the media, and lack of respect for the elderly among other things.

For me to stick with a series for so long is unheard of -- what I've discovered over the years is that some authors would be better served letting their series run take a rest.  As someone once told me when I was very upset with the end of the excellent Wallander series, sometimes it's better to go out gracefully and leave your readers with good memories rather than to drag something out forever and get stale.  After 20 books I can honestly say that I don't see how Montalbano and his motley crew can go down that second road --  I have so much fun with Montalbano that I've already pre-ordered the next one (due out in August), A Nest of Vipers. As long as Camilleri's novels continue to be published, I'll continue to read them.

crime fiction from Italy

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama

riverrun books, 2017
translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies
643 pp


Let's just get this out of the way -- Six Four is not an average thriller, nor is it an average police procedural; there are no kick-ass heroines or scenes of over-the-top violence to be found anywhere in this book.  I finished it in one go in a major overnight, insomnia-fueled reading session and my reaction was this: hooray (!) for something new, something delightfully different, and above all, for an intelligent mystery novel that goes well beyond the standard crime fiction fare -- in short, the sort of thing I crave but don't find much in modern mysteries and crime these days.

Set in 2002, Six Four is the story of Mikami, the director of Media Relations in the police department in D Prefecture.  He used to work as a detective and was on the team investigating the kidnapping and later the death of Shoko, a little girl back in 1989.   Mikami understands the devastation of the loss of a child, since his own daughter Ayumi simply disappeared one day and aside from a few silent phone calls which Mikami's wife swears must have been their daughter calling just to hear their voices, has neither been seen nor heard of since.   The 1989 case was never solved, and from that time on, it has been referred to as "Six Four" because it took place in the Showa year 64.  It was also billed as the "Prefectural HQ's greatest failure," and there is only one year left before the statute of limitations runs out for this particular crime.

Back in D Prefecture, Mikami gets a surprise when he is ordered to go to visit the family of the Six Four kidnapping victim, to let them know that the police commissioner would like to meet with them on the crime's anniversary day and
"make an appeal, inside and outside the force, and to give a boost to the officers still investigating the case, to reinforce our intention never to let violent crime go unpunished."
The real purpose, Mikami's boss tells him, behind the commissioner's appeal is to "reach an internal audience" rather than "the general public." Immediately Mikami realizes that this is all about "politics" more than anything else.

Mikami decides to familiarize himself with the case files, and while going through them sees something odd.  His questions are met with silence in some cases, warnings to back off  in others, fueling his quest to dig further.  But as he is busy trying to find answers, big things are happening at  the prefectural HQ that force Mikami to examine his own relationship between himself and the people he works for, as well as his own personal feelings about the crime itself.

That's the basic plot in a brief nutshell, and makes for an excellent mystery, but  there's much, much more going on here.  First, the book tackles the issue of the relationship between the press and the police, which in my opinion is one of the best parts of this novel.  Second, it takes a look at the Japanese police force itself, as Mikami finds himself having to try to navigate through,  as author David Peace notes in the interview with Yokoyama at the end of the book (and do yourself a favor and save it for dead last),  "their political machinations and rivalries, internal, local and national...", dealing with ambition and the drive for power on the parts of some individuals.   And finally, it looks at the human costs of crime from the points of view of both the victims and the police.

I've seen so many not-so-positive reviews of this book -- mostly by readers who were disappointed that it was less of a thriller than an insight into everything I've just mentioned above. Well, to each his/her own as I'm fond of saying.    People looking for garden-variety thrillers or crime fiction should probably think twice about reading this one -- thrillers are a dime a dozen these days; books like this one are rarities and should be celebrated.


crime fiction from Japan

Friday, February 3, 2017

*Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Oxford University Press, 2009
362 pp


"They told me what a fine thing it was to be an Englishman, and about liberty and property, and all that there; and I  find it is all a flam. Lord, what fools we be!"
           -- 195

According to Ian Ousby, author of Bloodhounds of Heaven, this book is the first in English fiction to "display a sustained interest in the theme of detection," and that the book's hero, the titular Caleb Williams, is "the first important detective in the English novel."  Well-known British writer Julian Symons also noted that this book was important in the history of crime fiction, saying that it is in this novel that "The characteristic note of crime literature is first struck," and that it's "about a murder, its detection, and the unrelenting pursuit by the murderer of the person who has discovered his guilt."

Caleb Williams is also the first choice in this year's quest to read early crime fiction through the onset of World War I, which I've tagged as ecfp for early crime fiction project and which will be the asterisked posts for 2017.   It's also very good, and while it works very well as a commentary on social injustice, class and the abuses of power, it's also a novel that finds a man on the run after uncovering some startling information.

The nutshell version is this:  young Caleb Williams finds himself working as secretary for a respected local squire, Fernando Falkland.  He becomes curious as to what's up with his employer, who has taken on a solitary life with "no inclination to scenes of revelry and mirth," avoiding "the busy haunts of men." After about three months of employment, Williams is accused of spying on his master, which leads him to feel "uncommon dejection and anxiety," so for help he turns to Falkland's steward Collins for answers.  What he learns only increases his curiosity, and when Falkland reveals the secret he's been hiding for so long, Williams takes a vow that he will never disclose what he's learned.  He also decides that it's time to move on.  Unfortunately, due to the the nature of what Falkland is hiding, the squire decides that Williams must be punished for what he knows, and starts a relentless campaign of revenge and terror.  The novel follows Caleb through the persecution hell that Falkland puts him through, leading Caleb to fight for his very survival in the process.

There is a vast amount of scholarship on this novel available online, so I'll just throw in a couple of observations.  I'll agree with what Ousby says about this story --  that the detection in this book starts out as "an activity apparently designed to establish moral and intellectual clarity" and that "the detective, voluntarily or involuntarily, assumes the role of an agent of justice, seeking to distinguish good from evil and to identify the source of evil."  But, as has happened in so many of the better crime novels that have come after this book, Godwin reveals that "good and evil" and "the detective and the criminal" are "inextricably linked," growing into what he calls "symbiotic twins."   And in his piece about William Godwin in The Literary Encyclopedia, Andrew McGann notes that this book is also important in another area, the linking of "psychological exploration with political radicalism" which has also long been prevalent in crime novels.

It is a wonderful novel, to be sure, and while some people may find the prose a bit slow going, once you  pick up the rhythm there's a great story in here. It's most certainly a tension-ratcheting piece of work and quite frankly, I was so tempted to turn to the end to see what happens.  I didn't, but the temptation was definitely there.  The novel appeals to my sense of reading crime fiction with purpose, which for me is all about human nature and what it says about the factors (social, political, economical) at work that have everything to do with why people do what they do. Godwin makes this exceedingly clear in Caleb Williams -- making it well worth the time I put into this book.  It's another one that I will say is probably not for everyone, but oh  my gosh -- what a great novel to kick off my reading project!!

Anyone interested in reading about the author will find a great article here by Pamela Clemit, the author of the introduction to this edition of the novel; another excellent source is the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy.

Definitely recommended and for me, highly satisfying.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Sorry, Cain purists, but ick: The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain.

Hard Case Crime, 2012
270 pp


“Something about you doesn't quite match up.” 

Ostensibly the story of a woman's anguish about getting her child back from relatives in whose care the boy has been left, and how she goes about doing so, what we have here is a sort of sleaze version of the Perils of Pauline, as the narrator gets stuck in bad situation after bit situation, none of it, of course, her fault.  

The novel is set up as a confession, of sorts, being taped by main character Joan Medford in the hopes that it just might find its way into print, as she says, "to clear my name of the slanders against me, in connection with the job and the marriage it led to and all that came after..."  The cops are certain she's killed her husband, but one of the pair sets her up with a job in a restaurant which turns into a job in a cocktail bar.  It's here where the action starts, as Joan puts on a pair of "trunks," and agrees to "leave the bra off," because it brings in more tips.  According to Cain's notes reprinted in the afterword, Cain meant for this book to "turn on the hot, close, sweaty, female smell of the cocktail bar," a place where soon the "trunks" are replaced by "hotpants", and where Joan soon enough has her hooks into a wealthy guy who leaves her big tips. In her mind, the more money she saves, the sooner she gets her little boy back -- and as Cain continues to ask throughout this story, what woman wouldn't do anything to have her child back with her?  The problem is that Joan Medford is the most unreliable narrator on the planet here, so anything, and I do mean anything this woman says has to be taken with major grains of salt.

There is a huge difference between writing a femme fatale and writing a skanky gold-digger (which in my head are two vastly different entities), and for my money, with Joan Medford, Cain invested his writing time on the latter. The plot also tends to meander, although I'm not sure exactly how much of this is due to the fact that the editor has gone through a number of different manuscript versions to come up with the finished product. How do we know how Cain might have put this all together had he ever managed to finish his book?   It certainly lacks the control and the polish of his Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce or The Postman Always Rings Twice.  This novel is sleaze-o-rama on a grand scale, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Unlike Cain's big three, all of which in my opinion are works of art, The Cocktail Waitress is just pure trashy story that gets trashier as the novel goes on. Call me silly, but aside from the fact that this is a previously-unpublished Cain  novel, I just don't see the point.  

I really, really wanted to like this book, but well, I just didn't.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

... and the first crime novel of 2017 is Death on the Cherwell, by Mavis Doriel Hay

British Library Crime Classics, 2014
originally published 1935
286 pp


This past July I read my first book by Mavis Doriel Hay, who wrote only three crime novels during her short stint as mystery writer.  I have yet to read her The Santa Klaus Murders, the last of her mystery novels, which is still sitting patiently on its shelf waiting for me to pick it up.  And while I wasn't a huge fan of her Murder Underground, I was really into Death on the Cherwell, which was not only fun, but also a story that turned out to be a good mystery with a number of red herrings and many possible suspects. I got it for Christmas this year and as it turned out, it was just the ticket for brain calming after having read more than one too-serious novel over the holidays.

 If you look at readers' thoughts on this book, more than one person has actually compared this book to a Nancy Drew story.  The truth is though that the only similarity between Death on the Cherwell and Nancy Drew is that a group of young women friends do a bit of sleuthing after a murder -- Voilà,, c'est tout. The comparison is just not right. In fact, in a very un-Nancy Drew sort of way, the book begins with four undergrad girls attending Persephone College, Oxford,  holding a secret meeting on the roof of a nearby boat house.  They've decided to form their own secret society, the Lode League,  the purpose of which is to curse the bursar, the not-much liked Miss Denning.  Just as the group rings are being passed out, along comes what looks to be an empty canoe.  The girls rush to bring it to shore and discover that the canoe is not only not empty, but that it's carrying the body of the very person they formed their League to curse.  Evidently she'd drowned, but as one of the girls, Sally, asks
"How can anyone drown in a canoe?"
Very good question, actually, and one that brings in Scotland Yard to investigate.  In the meantime, though, Miss Cordell, Principal of Persephone College, just dreads the publicity that this death is going to bring to the school -- publicity, as we're told, is her "bugbear:"
"Respectable publicity was bad enough, because newspaper reporters, however carefully instructed, were liable to to break out into some idiocy about 'undergraduettes' or 'academic caps coquettishly set on golden curls'.  But shameful publicity! A death mystery! That was terrible!"
Later, after having been initially questioned by the police, Sally realizes that "There'll be an awful tamasha about this," and decides that the girls should do all they can to "help try to clear up the mystery."  They need to discover the truth about things, "to find it out so that Persephone doesn't look silly."   That's not the only reason that the girls decide to get involved -- their fellow student Draga, a "Yugo-Slav," had already made her feelings about Miss Denning known after the bursar had, as Draga puts it, insulted her. The girls are concerned that if Draga somehow got brought into the investigation, they may have to "cover her tracks," since outsiders don't understand her Yugo-slav temperament. It's a fun little mystery story, and while my choice of suspect turned out to be the killer, it took me a while to figure it out since there are a variety of people with motives to knock off Miss Denning.

Careful readers will note a wide strand of misogyny running throughout this mystery novel.  At one point, for example, a few of the guy pals of our female amateur sleuths are talking, with the main question being that of why "most women get murdered." The answer for one of them is that "Some wretched man gets involved with too many of them and has to remove one or two." Hmmm.  Then, of course, there's one suspect whose family has a long, long history of hating women, and as just one final example (although there are many),  is that we are told in no uncertain terms that Cambridge in the 1930s has yet to offer real degrees for women students.

It's a good read, very easy to get through, and I had a much better time with this book than I did with the author's first novel.  Even though Hay reprises a couple of characters from Murder Underground, Betty (Sally's sister)  and her husband Cyril, thankfully Cyril's not the same twit here that was he was in that one.  About the only spot where this book starts to get boggy is while the Inspector takes his time to try to pinpoint alibis for all and sundry, but otherwise it flows very nicely. There are even a few comedic spots that brought out a chuckle or two, my favorite centering on the girls' secret late-night surveillance of a property belonging to one of the suspects.  But there's some serious stuff here as well, starting as the book comes down to the big reveal.  Nancy Drew it is definitely NOT and while people are certainly entitled to their opinions, well, that's a bit wide of the mark.

Do not miss Stephen Booth's excellent introduction (but do save it for last)  which puts a nice perspective on Hay's work and that of Dorothy Sayer, whose Gaudy Night was also placed in an academic setting.  While Hay's book isn't quite up to the Gaudy Night level of excellence (my personal favorite of Sayers' Lord Peter books), it's still quite fun and a great way to pass a quiet day. People into vintage crime, those who are following the British Library Crime Classics series, or those who are exploring the work of interwar women mystery writers will definitely find a good book here; it may also work well for cozy readers.  Plus, I love the cover art -- just love it!!

crime fiction from the UK

.... but first, the last book from 2016: The Bone Readers, by Jacob Ross

Peepal Tree Press
270 pp


(read in December)

"My gift was reading bones." 

The Bone Readers is,  according to the back cover, the first book  in Ross' 4-book series the Camaho Quartet, so named for the small Caribbean island where this story takes place.   That's a good thing, and I'll be following this series as it's published.  The Bone Readers isn't your average crime novel, nor is the main character your average policeman, both of which are definite plusses in my book.

The star of this show is Michael Digson, aka "Digger," who, as the story opens, finds himself witness to a crime on the streets of San Andrews on the island of Camaho (think Grenada),  a situation that ultimately (and somewhat reluctantly) lands him a job in the small police department.  The biggest incentive he has for joining is that he would have access to information about his mother, who was killed in 1999.   She was a "servant girl" in the home of Digger's father the Police Commissioner, who got her pregnant; leaving Digger to grow up as his "outside" child. DS Chilman,  who'd "recruited" him hopes to put together a younger team, meant to be part of a "separate office from San Andrews Police Central, with its own staff and resources," a
"squad of men who could navigate the forests and valleys of Camaho blindfolded, with guns at their disposal."
As Chilman says, it is "Because is not nice what I see coming in a coupla years time."

Digger is sent to the UK for training in forensics, and on his return he dives right into several cases. Chilman retires, but before doing so, tasks Digger to look into a cold case involving the disappearance of a young man named Nathan, "the ghost that DS Chilman was chasing," who seems to have simply vanished. While Digger's adjusting to his police-department colleagues, Chilman sends in a woman to help him with the case. Enter Miss K. Stanislaus, a rather unorthodox choice since she's not really a police person, but she knows the people and the island inside out.  The novel follows Digger at first on a few official cases, but the story really focuses on Digger's work on the two cases, that of his mother's death and Nathan's disappearance. But there are forces on the island who don't want the truth revealed, and trying to solve these mysteries will not be easy, especially since a) secrets and lies abound and b) what may seem apparent from the outside of things doesn't always reflect the reality of things.

We love the Caribbean islands, and reading this book took me back there for a while.  For example, the description of the little rumshops (sort of ramshackle bars) there was one in particular
"a one-room shed with a single fly-spotted bulb dangling from the centre of the ceiling. The three wooden benches against the wall looked as if they were built by drunks. The wall itself served as a back rest,"
that brought me back to the many "rumshops" we visited on each island -- they are really as he describes them and I could just taste the Puncheon rum we drank in one or two of them  in Port of Spain, Trinidad.  At the same time,  it's not just the physical setting that is impressively and realistically  evoked here -- Ross also takes us behind the scenes, if you will,  to look at how things work politically, socially, and even at the family level on this island, and does so in a way that blends in nicely with Digger's investigations.  One more thing: that the two cold cases are the biggest draw for Digger is interesting, since it allows the author to hone in on a close-up look at victimization, loss, and grief, all of which permeate this story.  Keep your eyes on the women here -- they are the strongest characters in the entire novel.  Major applause.

Moving on to what many readers have had to say about this book, it seems that more than a few had issues with the accents of the characters.  It does take a little time to get into the rhythm of the language Ross uses here, but it soon gets to the point where it just starts being natural. What this novel has that a lot of books coming off the bigger presses at the moment do not is depth, a keen understanding of behavior and human nature, and frankly, an original story/plot that will hold a reader's attention right up until the very end. Then again, I've come to expect very good things from Peepal Tree Press, which specializes in Caribbean fiction as well as "Black British fiction," as noted on the back cover.  There is no question -- I'll be adding each book in this series to my library as it's published.  Definitely a book I can recommend, especially for people looking for something completely different.