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)