Wednesday, August 30, 2017

*the first modern detective novel? John Devil, by Paul Féval

Black Coat Press, 2004
translated by Brian Stableford
originally serialized 1862
originally published in 1863 as Jean Diable
645 pp


Just recently I finished Charles Warren Adams'  The Notting-Hill Mystery which a number of very smart people have claimed as the first detective novel.   However, there's another contender, and that's this book, Jean Diable, translated into English as John Devil.  If you read this interview with Professor Paul Collins at NPR, he states very clearly that The Notting-Hill Mystery was first published in book form in 1865 (although serialized from 1862-1863),  and yet, Jean Diable came into book form in 1863 after being serialized in 1862.  So technically, if one counts the serialization, it could be a toss up between the two of these books as to which one actually wins the title.  However, I think that looking at it from translator Brian Stableford's point of view (with which I happen to agree), he says that
"most remarkable thing about Jean Diable is that, although it includes and makes much of the character of the detective, it is not a 'detective story' at all, in the sense to which we have become accustomed." (7)
He's absolutely right here -- in this book, the focus is much more on the criminal genius who is John Devil rather than on the detective who spends his career trying to bring him to justice.  Truth be told, it doesn't really matter to me in the long run whether or not this might be the first detective novel,  but I couldn't pass up this book as part of this year's ongoing look at the history of crime fiction/mystery.

Anyone wanting to know more about Paul Féval will find bio and other information here, in an article by Robin Walz in Journal of The Western Society for French History.  Something important to consider is that  Féval's  Habits Noirs (Black Coats) series, as Walz notes,
"had a profound influence upon the subsequent development of the French roman policier"; 
and Féval also made a huge impression on Emile Gaboriau, whose L'Affaire Lerouge would be published in 1866.  Look for that book to make its way onto these pages here very shortly.  Stableford has also included quite a lengthy section about the author, as well as comments about some of his other books, which thankfully are coming back into print thanks to Mr. Stableford and Black Coat Press.

Okay, so now to the book, about which I'm not going to say much, because a) reading it is an experience in itself and b) it's so convoluted at times with backstories, deceptions, a villainous plot bordering on "techno-thriller" and most definitely conspiracy fiction, and a rather huge cast of characters that I couldn't really explain it anyway.  Basically, it's like this:  John Devil is truly one of the most evil crime geniuses ever to grace the pages of fiction, and no matter what he does or what he's responsible for throughout this story, he remains virtually untouchable.  He is the nemesis of Chief Superintendent of Scotland Yard Gregory Temple, who has spent his entire career trying to bring him down  to absolutely no avail, and whose single-minded quest pushes him past the brink of madness.

This isn't a casual mystery/crime novel in any sense of the word -- it can become so  complicated in fact, that by the end of the novel I was beyond grateful to Stableford for the afterword that not only explains things, but puts it all in perspective as well.  However, once I got a feel for how this book works, I had to finish it come hell or high water, and at times I didn't know whether to loathe this master of crime or to cheer him on for being so deliciously diabolic.  In the end though, I felt so badly for Temple that I ended up siding with him against his monstrous foe.  It's such a gripping story that it will lock onto your brain not too far in, and you'll be amazed at just how much capacity one man can have for sheer evil and even more, how he manages to draw others into a web of complicity.

Again, this is probably a niche read that will appeal mainly to old-pulp fiction readers, as well as those who may be interested in the history of crime fiction or in French crime fiction of yesteryear.  For me, it's a win, although I will say it took me a while to feel completely immersed in the story. Once I was there, though, there was no getting out until it was all over and I could stop holding my breath.

I loved this book, and more of Féval's work is on its way to my house where it will be given a place of honor on my home library shelves.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Penance, by Kanae Minato: definitely not for the faint hearted

Mullholland, 2017
originally published 2012 as Shokuzai (贖罪)
translated by Philip Gabriel
227 pp


"Otherwise, you'd get revenge."
                                     -- 157

One day five little girls who formed a circle of friends went out to play, but only four returned home.  According to the back-cover blurb, Emily ends up dead at the hands of an unknown assailant after the other girls are "tricked" into leaving her alone with him. Emily's case would go unsolved over the next fifteen years, which, coincidentally, as we learn from the translator's note at the beginning of the book, was the amount of time (before 2010)  allotted for the statute of limitations in the case of murder.  

One might guess from what I've just written that the focus of this book would be on finding the murderer and solving the old case before the fifteen years are up, but that's not quite how this story works.  Three years after Emily was killed, her mother invites the other four girls  -- Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuka (all now thirteen) to her home for cake, but it isn't a social occasion: she lets them know unequivocally that it is their fault her daughter is dead, that they are "all murderers," and gives them an ultimatum:

"I will never forgive you, unless you find the murderer before the statute of limitations is up. If you can't do that, then atone for what you've done, in a way I'll accept.  If you don't do either one, I'm telling you here and now -- I will have revenge on each and every one of you. I have far more money and power than your parents, and I'll make you suffer far worse than Emily ever did. I'm her parent, and I'm the only one who has that right." (71)

 Sheesh - it's a terrible enough burden to lay on four young girls, and it's one which has stayed with each of them for fifteen years, affecting each one differently as they grew into women.   The novel is composed of five first-person  accounts from all of the main characters, and examines how the murder and then the "curse" (so-called by the back-cover blurb) put on them by Emily's mother has followed them over the years.   All I will say so as not to ruin the story that unfolds here is that what emerges from each narrative is dark moving to darker as the author delves deep into each person's troubled psyche.

The question to keep in mind (in my opinion) while reading is not exactly one of whodunit, but more to the point, it becomes a matter of who is actually responsible for Emily's death.   In that sense there is a sort of tragic irony underpinning the novel which brings it back full circle to where it begins. I'll let others discover how this is so, but in the meantime, Penance is deeply disturbing on many, many levels so reader beware.

Penance is neither for faint-hearted readers, nor is it a novel for those who prefer happy endings.  It goes well beyond a standard crime novel, moving swiftly into psychological territory, where some readers may not wish to find themselves.   Trust me on that one.

crime fiction from Japan

Saturday, August 19, 2017

diabolical craziness: *The Notting Hill Mystery, by Charles Warren Adams

Poisoned Pen Press, in association with the British Library, 2015
originally serialized 1862-1863; originally published 1865
176 pp


Good grief -- this book might possibly win the award for most convoluted murder mystery I've ever read, but it's definitely fun.

The Notting Hill Mystery was first serialized in 1862 in the magazine Once A Week, with authorship attributed to a Charles Felix.  In the introduction to this edition from Poisoned Pen Press, Mike Ashley reveals that while Charles Felix had written an earlier novel in 1864, it wasn't until 2011 that his true identity was revealed.  As "bibliophile" Paul Collins notes in a New York Times Sunday Book Review article from January 7, 2011, it wasn't an easy job:
"After months of investigating with the dogged tenacity of Ralph Henderson pursuing Baron R**, I was no closer than Symons in discovering the solution. Even an 1868 “Handbook of Fictitious Names” didn’t help: Felix is listed, but next to his pseudonym is nothing but a mockingly empty pair of brackets. More mysteriously, correspondence with the man is entirely missing from the archive of Saunders, Otley & Company, his book publisher."
Collins stuck with his quest and eventually his dogged determination was rewarded when just at the point of giving up, he "...stumbled upon a Literary Gossip column in The Manchester Times for May 14, 1864," where "the sole identification of Charles Felix had lain there for 146 years, hidden" in one sentence:
"It is understood that 'Velvet Lawn,' by Charles Felix, the new novel announced by Messrs. Saunders, Otley & Co., is by Mr. Charles Warren Adams, now the sole representative of that firm."
 The entire story appeared over eight installments into 1863, and was quite popular with readers.  According to Julian Symons in his Bloody Murder, the book was very likely an attempt to "repeat the success of The Woman in White," complete with its own Count Fosco-like villain, but was in "several ways an original work." (51) It is reputedly the first modern English detective novel, and Adams gave it a number of new, innovative twists and ingredients that set it apart from other books featuring detectives that were quite popular at the time.  For one thing, the detective here, Ralph Henderson, has nothing at all to do with the police; instead he is an agent collecting evidence for an insurance company.   For another, the book is filled with elements such as a cryptic fragment of a letter in French, a marriage certificate, statements and depositions from several witnesses, and even a floor plan of a victim's home.  Old hat you may say -- we've certainly seen the likes of those sorts of things in tons of books we've read, but while we take them for granted,  back then these were all new additions to the standard detective stories of the time. There are overlapping layers of narrative that bring with them not only new levels of mystery, but which bring the reader ever closer to the truth of what has actually happened.

The Notting Hill Mystery presents, as I said, a most convoluted murder mystery.  Ralph Henderson is trying to determine the truth behind the death of a woman after her husband had taken out several policies on her life totaling 25,000 pounds.  The novel is his report to the Secretary of the ____ Life Assurance Association, and he lays out two "alternatives" which "present themselves" after careful consideration of the evidence.  He himself, as he says, is unable to decide between the two, so offers his facts "in the form in which they would be laid before counsel."

The murderer's identity here is pretty obvious, as is the method of the main murder  (there are more than one at play here) but that's only a small part of the story given everything else that's going on here.  Mesmerism is a huge element of this story, about which Roger Luckhurst at The British Library website says
"In the 1830s and 1840s, for instance, there was a craze for Mesmerism, in which miraculous medical cures could be affected by manipulating the invisible flows of 'animal magnetism' that passed through and between bodies. The Mesmerist would throw his subject into a trance, allowing the passage of energy into the weaker body of his patient, as if literally recharging their battery."
 But wait, there's more.  This twisted knot of a novel also includes twin sisters who have an abnormal "sympathy" -- an ability to psychically feel the other's pain -- who are separated as small children when one is stolen by Gypsies.  Then there's the Baron R**, the authority on Mesmerism who just happens to be on hand to take care of the remaining and now-married sister in her adult life, as she is rather sickly.  There's also the Baron's wife, a medium who has wide feet from her career as a tightrope walker, and really, so much more is going on here that all contributes to the "convoluted" story that takes place in this short but fun novel.

I could go on but the fun is in uncovering the diabolical craziness at work here. As Symons says, the methodology underlying the murder may seem "preposterous to us," but it "seemed much less ridiculous to the Victorians," a hugely important point to consider while reading this novel.  I actually chuckled a number of  times while reading this book, but at the same time, I was completely engrossed and couldn't wait to see Henderson's conclusions at the end.  It's that kind of book, really -- as silly as it may seem, I just couldn't help myself turning pages while wondering if the murderer would actually be caught and if so, if he could even be prosecuted.

It's also an important milestone in the history of detection novels, written well before Sherlock first made an appearance in print. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the history of crime writing/crime fiction, and also to anyone who loves discovering something quite off the beaten path.  Even though it might make you groan inwardly here and there or do the inner eyeroll at places, I just loved it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Pietr the Latvian, by Georges Simenon -- the very first Maigret novel and it's a good one.

Penguin Classics, 2013
first published in serial as Pietr-le-Letton, 1930
translated by David Bellos
162 pp


"Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being."

Due to the nature of his job, my husband travels a lot, and that's the time I watch foreign television.  Normally at my house TV comes on about 7:30 pm and goes off about 10:30, but when the spouse is away, viewing time has been known to start much earlier and sometimes last until the sun comes up the next day.  Over the last few weeks of his intermittently being gone, I've slowly been watching the French-language production of Maigret on MHz, starring Bruno Cremer in the title role; on  arriving at season two, I decided that I really need to read these books.

I'm no stranger to Simenon's work, but the Maigret books have just been sitting here gathering dust for eons. Most of them are the old Penguin versions from way back when, but I'm slowly replacing those with the Penguin Classics editions for my home library.  

Bruno Cremer, who in my opinion is Maigret

Pietr the Latvian is the first of several (and I do mean several) books in this series, written over forty-plus years of Simenon's life.  As the novel opens, the Detective Chief Inspector has learned that an internationally-known, "Extremely clever and dangerous" criminal known as Pietr the Latvian is on his way to Paris on board the Étoile du Nord.  At the station as the passengers begin to depart, Maigret lies eyes on his quarry, whose physical traits he's memorized carefully.  At that moment, there's a flurry of excitement, and it turns out that there's been a body found  in Carriage 5 of the train. To Maigret's surprise, the body turns out to be that of  the man Maigret's been waiting for -- none other than Pietr the Latvian.  Or is it?   This is where the case begins, one that will become even more enigmatic before it is solved.

It's here that we begin to understand Maigret and his methods.  He is relentless to a fault as he dogs his quarry through the streets of Paris in the pouring rain, and he employs all the current tools of the profession.  But there's more to police methodology at play here -- Maigret also uses his head.  He's developed what he calls his "theory of the crack in the wall:"
"Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being. In addition, of course, there is an opponent in a game, and it's the player that the police are inclined to see. As a rule, that's what they go after." 
But Maigret has learned to bide his time, because
"...what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent."
In this case, that patience and particular ability will serve him well, but along the way to that "instant" he will undergo a lot of inner turmoil as things get to the point where it becomes, as Maigret says, "between them and me."

While being an armchair detective is fun here because of the puzzler Simenon gives us, more importantly my attention was drawn to the final chapters where all is unraveled.  Even then, it's not so much the solution -- instead I noticed that what comes out of these last few pages is the very stuff of his excellent romans durs, in which, as John Banville noted in the New York Review of Books in 2015:
"... a man who has spent his life in servitude to family, work, society, suddenly lays down his burden -- 'Lord, how tired he was now!' -- and determines to live for the moment, and for himself, in full acceptance of the existential peril his decision will expose him to."
What that "existential peril" is in this book I won't say.  However, while many readers may see Pietr the Latvian, or for that matter any of the Maigret mysteries as yet just another police procedural, it goes well beyond that into examining just what it is underneath someone's exterior self that leads him or her to do what they do. In short -- I get the feeling that as I travel through the Maigret mysteries, I'll find myself in the mind of a policeman  who genuinely understands human nature, and that's a place I want to be.

Once again, anyone considering reading this book should be aware of the times in which this book was written because there is some definite racial/ethnic stereotyping being done here, but I can definitely recommend the novel to crime readers of all sorts.

crime fiction from Belgium

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

thank you, Feedspot!

For some bizarre reason, Feedspot has awarded the crime portion of my reading journal (this thing I'm posting to right now) a slot in their top 50 crime novel blogs for crime readers and authors this year.  I am honored because I'm in the company of bloggers I hold in great awe.

I actually started doing this for my own entertainment, since my husband travels a LOT for work and I needed something to occupy my time, but now I'm addicted to doing it.   Lately I've been picking an overall topic to sort of guide my reading -- this year it's a brief history/survey of crime fiction through World War I.  I like to think people read what I have to say but I don't count on it and I'm not doing this to be noticed, but because I think it's fun.  This year has been an eye opener in terms of the history of crime literature, and not just in terms of the fiction.

So thank you people at Feedspot, and to anyone else who happens to land here.

I may never get here again, but I'll always have the badge:

*Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer, by 'Waters' -- by William Russell

serialized 1849-1853;  this volume originally published in book form, 1859
Ulan Books, 262 pp


Oh I am so bummed! I didn't even notice that I had bought Volume 2 -- in fact, I didn't know there was a volume 1 until just now, when I read the preface where the author mentions "the very flattering reception" of his first book. Oh well -- I'm sure the first is very much like this one, and it's basically a collection of short stories, so I suppose in the long run it doesn't matter.   

Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer belongs in the category of fictional detective memoirs, which were all the rage back in their day.  According to the Cambridge History of Victorian Literature, the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 allowed for the creation of a Detective Branch  in 1842, which ultimately became the CID in 1877.   According to a brief article on "The History of Scotland Yard" in Smithsonian Magazine
"When the Yard sent out its first plainclothes police agents in 1842, the public felt uncomfortable with these 'spies' on the streets."
Opponents felt that
" the disguise of plain clothes, police officers would be free to spy, incite and resort to deceitful means and corrupt practices, and in fact to engage in the kind of behaviour expected of continental police forces, particularly in France, Austria and Russia." 
Eventually, though, as the Smithsonian article reveals, the detectives came to be more accepted among the public as a result of the force having solved "several important cases;"  the "charisma of many" of the Yard's detectives also helped "to win the people's trust."  Once these detectives were out in the field,  as Haia Shpayer-Makov notes in this article,
"With the creation of detective departments in the country, and growing media interest in the activities of their agents, particularly working in London, more and more police detective figures entered fiction." 
Waters is one of these fictional detectives and his exploits were serialized "intermittently" from 1849 to 1853 in Chambers [Edinburgh] Journal.  His adventures turned out to be immensely popular,

from The First Hundred Years of Detective Fiction, 1841-1941
and were printed as "yellowbacks,"  which "came about due to a confluence of supply and demand." The supply side came as a result in technological advances in "machine-made books," resulting in lower book prices, making them more available to a much bigger audience.  The demand side, according to the Center for Digital Scholarship at Emory University,
"...came not just from the lower cost of books but also the social changes that occurred during the 19th century.  The industrial revolution saw a concentration of the population in cities like London and Manchester, a growing middle class and higher literacy rates.  The urban population had more leisure time to devote to reading while the invention of the train created a new demand for books to be read while traveling."
These yellowbacks were "the Victorian equivalent of a cheap paperback that you might read on the bus or on a plane."

All righty -- now that we're done with historical part (trust me, I could wax on forever about this stuff so you're lucky) -- on to the book itself.

As I said earlier, it seems as though I've picked up the second volume (my understanding is that there are three), but my guess is that the same sort of thing would be found in the others.  The detective who solves all of these crimes is the fictional "Waters," whose first name starts with a C, as noted in the preface of my edition, which is signed "C.W." Waters here investigates eight crimes including blackmail, forgery, lots of bigamy (mainly due to greedy people who want to get their hands on an inheritance), arson, theft, murder and fraud.  He takes us anywhere from stately British homes to farms to the slums, so there is a wide range of socioeconomic situations portrayed here.  While once in a while we hear the results of the arrests Waters makes, there also seems to be better solutions than just  legal justice in some stories when all is said and done.  In the case of the story "Mark Stretton," for example, the evildoer is arrested but jumps bail and leaves the country, which Waters saw as "the wisest course" for the sake of the woman involved.    This sort of thing happens more than once, and in the case of the bigamists, compromises for settling parts of an inheritance are happily made so that the innocent don't have to suffer.  Waters doesn't mince words about the people in his adventures -- one woman who knowingly committed adultery and seeks to profit from it was called a "limb of Satan;" a wife whom one man felt compelled to marry for her fortune is labeled as a "shrew," and well, let's just say our modern sensibilities about ethnicity aren't respected here (nor should they be, really) as one character gets the moniker of "The Jew," complete with stereotype.  Most of what we learn about detective work is that it's a lot of watching and waiting until Waters is sure he has enough evidence against his quarry to make a case that will stick; he also enlists locals in his efforts as informants as well.  He's no Sherlock Holmes, but the adventures are never dull.

Out of the eight stories here, my favorite has to be "Fire-Raising,"  which is really the best whodunit of the collection.  In most of these tales, we already know who is doing what to whom and it's just a matter of waiting them out, gathering evidence, etc., before Waters makes his move.  Here the situation is a bit different, since the mystery is focused on who is the arsonist doing mayhem in a local farm district in Essex.  The perpetrator is very clever, able to create a fire that won't actually erupt in flames for a matter of hours afterwards. I have to say that he set this one up quite nicely and I didn't figure out the who, for which I am quite grateful.

Overall, it's a fun collection of stories that belongs in the library of anyone interested in the history of crime fiction/mystery, or anyone interested in Victorian crime fiction in general. For those who don't hoard books like I do, there are also a variety of places online for downloads.  This book closes out the 1850s so onward I go.