Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

I did mention this delightful anthology in my last post, but want to say again how much I am enjoying The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013).  Otto Penzler's collection of short stories, all set at Christmas time or having to do with Christmas, manages to bring a warm holiday glow while simultaneously delivering delicious murder, mayhem, and genteel (so far) freakiness.

The too-large book (bathtub readers be warned.  AND the type is tiny and in two columns per page!) is divided into sections like "A Traditional Little Christmas," "A Pulpy Little Christmas," "A Puzzling Little Christmas," and so on.  Many of the big names are here - Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Sara Paretsky, Peter Lovesy - and yes, I'd say there is a distinct nod toward the British.  Well, they do Christmas well there (if you don't believe me, read Miranda Hart's hilarious chapter on Chrimbo in Is It Just Me?), and crime too of course, so there is a good fit.  All are short stories, no chapters, and while some feature marquee investigators, others are one-offs.  The pacing of short stories has taken some getting used to.  But the atmospherics here absolutely rock:  thickly falling snow, twinkling trees, pooling blood, dingy flats, lonely old people.  There is terrific writing too, I'm sorry I haven't dog-eared any examples for you.  Of course the advantage to the short story anthology is to highlight differences in style, so you get a taste of everything.  It all feels a bit like a splendid holiday party buffet, with one delectable once-a-year-treat after another.  

I'm not even half-way through, but have met several authors I've never heard of - Josphine Bell, Barry Perowne, Stanley Ellin - which doesn't mean anything because according to Penzler's introductions, they are pretty much all crime-fiction-world-famous, or were in their day.  My one quibble with this collection, beyond the physical structure of the book, are those introductions.  Penzler does an excellent job of introducing the author, and giving of sense of his or her oeuvre, and most famous characters.  But he almost never says when the story about to be read was actually written, only that it was previously included in some other Christmas anthology.

Dear Monsieur Poirot is here, as is grumpy old Morse and the dynamic duo of Holmes and Watson. But I've never read the famous Ellery Queen, and loved his marvelously wise-cracking tale set in New York City in the late '40s.  This whole collection can serve as one big to-read list.  The best - so far - was an eerie and ultimately horrifying number from Sara Moody called "More Than Flesh and Blood" which held me rapt for all five of its creepy pages.  Where do people come up with this stuff?

If you are searching for a good gift for a crime-passionate friend, this is the answer.  But give it early because reading about holiday good cheer, or the lack thereof, in January, is just wrong.

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Pile(s), Part Deux

Do not let my radio silence of recent weeks fool you.  In fact, I've been chipping away at the piles (and adding to them too, but that's another story).  And given that I'm up with a sick kid, I have the perfect opportunity to report in.  In the past month I've finished:

Kurt Vonnegut's famed oddity of a novel/memoir about the bombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five or The Children's Crusade (1969).  I've already returned it to the library, so can't recall the edition I read.  This is not a mystery of course, although parts of it are indeed mysterious, I still don't quite get the whole Trafalmadore bit.  Apparently this story was criticized when it first came out for, I don't even know how to say this,  not blaming the Germans enough?  Somehow trivializing the Holocaust in comparison to this event?  I guess that anyone who is involved in those brutal last months of fighting across Europe, and lives through a firestorm and has to collect the bodies afterward can write about that experience any damn way he wants.

Speaking of Nazis, I also finished a slim little book called Saving Mozart (Europa Editions, 2013) by RaphaĆ«l Jerusalmy.  This takes the form of a diary kept by an aging music critic, as he withers away in a sanatorium outside of Vienna in the early years of World War 2.  He is upset at the Nazi's appropriation of Austrian culture and music and worst of all Mozart for their own hamfisted ends.  We can't really say brutal yet - sure there are arrests, and Jews disappear, and Our Hero's Jewishness - or not - is treated obliquely.  This is a surprisingly sweet story, for all the growing squalor of the narrator's condition, but also feels a bit naive.  Still, I suppose that one's personal acts of resistance, however small and ineffective, are what give dignity to the end of existence in this world.

Michael Dobbs' House of Cards (1989, this edition Sourcebooks 2014) is most certainly not a mystery, especially if you've seen the splendid BBC production (which I have) or the Netflix version (which I have not but understand was also splendid).  You pretty much know from the first time Our "Hero" Francis Urquart (a great name to say) is crossed, how that's going to play out.  It's not even a spectacularly well-written book.  But it's a great bit of insight into British parliamentary politics, and the press that covers that it, written with the authority that only a former insider of that world could deploy.  If you want to learn how the sausage is made in England, read House of Cards.  There are sequels, apparently, but I can't quite bring myself to read them just yet.  Need to wash off the ick of this one first.

Finally, and now for a real mystery, I'm still slogging through Ruth Rendell's surprisingly dull Not in the Flesh.  I'm clearly missing something, because Ruth Rendell is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest living mystery writers.  I just find the plot dull and the characters, with a few exceptions, not particularly interesting.  Is this one of those where you need to start at the beginning of the series?  I'm almost finished, but have been sidetracked by the delightful Big Book of Christmas Mysteries.

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The collection has been put together by Otto Penzler who is apparently a very famous editor of crime fiction.  You can read about him, and wonder if he is hiring, here.  So far, all of the stories have been British and delightfully Christmas-y, although I skipped for the moment Peter Lovesey's about a wife and child abuser who may meet a bad end.  Maybe they'll get weirder and darker, and that is OK, because you need a bit of darkness in the Season of Light.  But who can resist a bit of Hercule Poirot, this time of year, twirling his moustache and querying the cook about the pudding while the snow falls outside?  Not I!

Thursday, November 27, 2014


When a shimmering star- past or present - in the Broadway firmament dies, theaters dim their lights to honor that individual's passing.  Consider Crime Pays dimmed in honor of the late, great, P.D. James.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Pile (s)

This is the ultimate in procrastination:  blogging about the books you are supposed to be blogging about but haven't finished reading.  Perhaps it is the turn of seasons, or sturm und drang at work, or thinking about a year ago when I was mostly laid up with a broken ankle, but for whatever reason I am having a terribly hard settling with books lately.  It makes everything feel a little off, not having My Book at hand, the one for which I can't wait to get a free moment at the gym or ballet, or best of all, in the tub or before sleep.

Why have none of these really stuck?  They are not all terrible.  In fact, I think some are pretty good (some are actual Great Works in American Literature).  But at that moment, when I started them, I found them either a) slow, or b) dull, or c) poorly-written, or d) depressing (that could have a whole range of triggers), or e) oddly paced, or f) trite, or e) having little discernible atmosphere or g) some unfortunate combination of these factors.

That said, in making this list, I'm reminded again why I started some of these, so you know, I might just finish them.  I'm bolding the likely contenders

Here's what's going on in the Crime Pays bookshelf.

Next to my bed (on the floor):
Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between the Woods and the Water.  Second in his walk-across-Europe before WW2.  Loved the first one, but got bogged down on the Great Hungarian Plain here.

Ruth Rendell, Not in the Flesh.  Everyone - everyone - thinks she is one of the greatest living crime writers.  I'm finding this dull, but maybe I need to try one of the 70+ other novels she's written.

Fuminori Nakamura, Last Winter We Parted.  From the Soho Crime Club.  Differing perspectives, wildly noir-ish, are making this hard to cotton to.  I should try again, though, it is certainly distinct from many of their other offerings lately.

Michael Dobbs, House of Cards.  Watched the Brit version, haven't watched the US one.  Sticking with this for the moment, the Parliamentary atmosphere is compelling, but the undercurrent of amorality is depressing.

Next to my bed (nightstand):
John Steinbeck, East of Eden.  I know, it is a classic, but it was a real downer so I put it down.

Matthew Pearl,  The Last Dickens.  After The Dante Club, which I liked in spite of its probably being Pearl's senior thesis, I tried The Poe Shadow (didn't get far) and this, in which I have not gotten far.  Don't know why, they have magnificent historical accuracy and atmosphere.  I really must give him another go.

Raphael Jerusalmy, Saving Mozart.  This is about a Jewish music critic in Austria who in his dying days tries to keep the Nazis from turning a Mozart festival into a propaganda extravaganza.  Something about the timing of this very short novel put me off.  It's written as a journal, maybe that is it, no setting.

And a bunch of sudoku books.

There are another two forgotten piles on top of a bureau under the eaves but since many of these are Bill's books I'm not going to count them.

Then there are the four separate piles next to the tub.  I don't even know what is in the far one near the candles except for Manhunt which is about the search for the assassins of Abraham Lincoln (Busman's holiday.  Actually not really anymore but still have a visceral reaction to CW books.)

The smallest pile isn't even a pile because it is usually only one book, which I've actually started and right now is Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.  This is weirder than I expected, but I'm slogging through, since it promises a worthy response to the discussions of Allied and Axis bombing raids in The Rest is Silence. 

Then there are two giant piles, made up of many books I haven't started like two more from the Soho Crime Club:  Stuart Neville, The Final Silence and Timothy Halliman, For the Dead.  I didn't love Stuart Neville the way everyone else seems to, and Halliman is one of a series that takes place in Bangkok and I think I'm scarred from Behind the Night Bazaar.  There is also one more on the Corrections from Ian Rankin, The Impossible Dead and one more John Rebus from him, Standing in Another Man's Grave, courtesy of Cathy Pfister, former First Lady of Harvard College.  Got tired of Rebus, and while the Corrections were ok, it felt like not enough depth for so much book, so I haven't started these.

In the two big piles are Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 which I had to put down because it seemed to involve children in extreme and/or violent situations, yet another Henning Mankel (did this come from Cathy Pf too?), Conor Fitzgerald's Dogs of Rome (It takes place in Rome!  Why didn't I like it?  I think the protagonist is an American, who wants to read about them?), the aforementioned Stuart Neville's Ghosts of Belfast (violence felt gratuitous but what do I really know from The Troubles?), A. D. Scott's Death in a Great Glen which I have tried about four times but couldn't get past the triteness AND there was violence against children.  Then there are a couple of books by James Hamilton Paterson which were loaned by someone whom I can't remember and I haven't started because they have the air of cutesy about them.  Finally there are of course some history books - Zinn's People's History of the United States, a book about the Cape and the Islands, and something about Empire and naval buildup in Germany I think.  And let's not forget Hell Bent which is a gentle expose of the world of Bikram Yoga, with which I have a passing familiarity.


Someone is reading!

The ACTUAL AUTHOR commented on my review of The Rest is Silence!  Holy cow, that was exciting.  Considering that I have exactly four followers (and two of them are related to me), it is nice to know that someone else reads these musings.

In other news, I'll explain the pile and my reading ennui shortly, but for now, I want to read just about every book featured in the Mysterious Bookshop's latest post.  Intrigue in Tudor England, life and death in the Hapsburg Empire, and a pulp fiction writer in a concentration camp?  Sign me up!

Finally, I really hope that The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries appears in my house, perhaps as a Saint Nicholas Day gift so that I can enjoy it all month.  But maybe Black Peter can stay at home.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Rest is Silence

James R. Benn's The Rest is Silence (A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery) (2014, Soho Crime) had several major strikes against it.

First, it came as an offering from the Soho Crime Club.  While I love the idea of the Crime Club, I don't like reading series out of order, and since what they send you are their latest publications, you get a lot of that.  Also, several of the Club's books haven't been great, so I have a growing pile of ones I haven't even started or got a few pages into and put down.  More on that next time.

I also generally dislike the appearance of Famous Real People in the story.  That's not to say that a realistic or even non-fiction backdrop to a story isn't a good thing.  You can learn something anywhere, right?  And if your learning comes from the background or setting to a novel, well, that is better than nothing.  But the lapsed historian in me balks at the putting-of-words-into-mouths that is necessary when FRP are introduced into the plot.

And the whole British country house setting for one plot thread in Benn's story felt a little too Downton Abbey, right down to loyal retainers with complicated pasts and an acerbically entertaining matriarch.

Finally, Yanks in WW2, how cliched can you get?  Our Hero Capt. Billy Boyle, a peacetime cop straight outta Southie, is no exception.

So why did this particular story, out of all the barely-started books piled next to the tub and my bed, stick, to the point where I found myself toting it along to the gym and ballet class, just to keep up with the story?

I am a bit of an Anglophile, so there's that.  And we've got tea, and country houses, and atmospheric coastline, and colorful locals, so if you are too, there's the whole package.

But wait, there's more.  The plot development is terrific:  meandering, but not slow, and it has more coves and inlets than the Devon coastline in which the story is set.  The twists built on one another in such a natural fashion that it (almost) never felt forced.  When I found myself at the end wondering what had happened to the body that started it all, but able to reconstruct the whole tale, I realized I was in the presence of some very careful planning.

Our Hero, the aforementioned Boyle (hard to take seriously if you are a fan of Brooklyn Nine Nine), is a Captain in the US Army, working for an intelligence branch of SHAEF.  His job, as detailed in eight previous novels, is to investigate crimes that might have an impact on the US' activities in the European theater during the Second World War.  I've read the first in this series, and enjoyed it more or less, but apparently quite a lot has happened to Our Hero, as is regularly alluded to by cryptic references to difficult times in North Africa and German POW camps.  (This is why I don't like reading series out of order, dammit, I don't like to not know!)

A body has washed up on a beach in Devon, where, as it happens, the Allies are engaged in top secret (well, as secret as anything involving thousands of soldiers and ships and air support can be) activities preparing for the invasion of Fortress Europe.  It is late April, 1944.  Boyle and his sidekick Kaz (a war-damaged but still urbane and lethal Polish count) are asked to find out where the body came from, because if, as feared, it is a German spy, then the entire Normandy (oops - nobody is supposed to know that) landing is potentially compromised.  While in the area, they stay with an old pal of Kaz' from Oxford, David Martindale, as his family's country estate, Ashcroft.

Upon arrival at Ashcroft, the plot veers into British country house murder territory.  No one is dead yet, but you can tell by the strained conversation, heavy drinking, and dagger-like glances that someone will be, soon.  Do I even have to mention that inheritance is at stake?  Needless to say, Billy and Kaz get drawn into these dramas, as well, not particularly reluctantly.

In yet another Brit mystery cliche, a possible illegitimate son turns up as a long-lost heir to Ashcroft, and somehow manages to knit the two plot skeins together.  This is made plausible by that historical backdrop:  the Allies really did practice their Normandy landings here, with grave consequences that you can read about at the end (or skip ahead and read the Author's Note on pp. 324-325 - it won't ruin the plot).  US Army staff really did billet all around the countryside, and famous people like Mrs. Mallowan really did give up their houses for the war effort.  And the ghastly tragedy that puts the story on fast-forward really did take place and is deeply sobering to contemplate.  There is a not-particularly-subtle subplot on the personal cost of war - physical, psychological, social - which is always interesting to consider with respect to this Good War and all of our other apparently not-so-good ones.  Some of the characters get through, others don't, and the one cliche we are spared is that of fighting for the greater good, to keep the world safe for democracy, etc.  Boyle can hide his wounds, but others cannot, and at times it feels as if only the momentum of the war - the next action must turn the tide, or the next, or the next - keeps them from sinking.

Speaking of Mrs. M, I won't say more other than to say that this was the most forced scene in the story, and if I hadn't been so deep into the plot by that point, I'd have tossed that book across the room.  Same with Ike (who, to be fair, is Billy's uncle, and so appears in many of these books) and Yogi Berra, no kidding.  But again - look it up!  The past ain't what it used to be, if you know what I mean.  (187-188)

The story is told in first-person, from Billy's perspective, and while he claims to just be a kid from Southie, he's obviously no idiot.  A Wahlberger would play him in the movie, of course.  Billy Boyle is one series I might go back to, to fill in the gaps.  But he's going to have to wait his turn because there are a lot of other books in the pile.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

"I have never much cared for flippant remarks, especially when others make them, and in particular, I don't give a frog's fundament for them when they come from an adult.  It has been my experience that facetiousness in the mouth of someone old enough to know better is often no more than camouflage for something far, far worse."  (17)

Frog's wha'?  Well, technically it means foundation or basis of something (fundamental, right?), but if you look not very hard you can find that it refers to an anatomical foundation.  So to be precise, Our Heroine in Alan Bradley's The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag (2010, this edition Bantam, 2011) is saying, rawther Britishly, that she doesn't give a rat's ass for grown-up double-speak.

That's Flavia de Luce for you:  well-spoken, unfailingly polite, insatiably curious, yet with an underlying wariness born of a lonely existence in a upper-crust British family.  If you read the first installment in this charming series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the opening scene here, wherein Flavia magnificently imagines her death and the ensuing ceremony and grief, will come as no surprise.  It is the bitter yet funny imagining of a precocious child whose closest confident is the groundsman-cum-butler and whose refuge is an antique chemistry lab in an unused wing of the crumbling family manse.  Flave, as she refers to herself at times, roams the countryside and local village on her trusty bicycle steed, Gladys, a constant reminder of her dimly remembered but nonetheless worshipped deceased mother.  An excess of intelligence and fertile imagination mean that she is always wherever interesting things happen, especially if murder or other nefarious activities are involved.

A suspect-in-the-way-that-itinerant-artists-are, yet enormously entertaining travelling puppet show has come to the charming willage of Bishop's Lacey.  It has the requisite suspicious characters - the talented yet deformed maestro who literally pulls the strings, his charming but maybe troubled assistant - and beautifully carved if disturbingly real puppets.  Someone ends up dead, and some locals with troubled pasts might be involved, and it might just be connected to the tragic death of a child some years earlier.  There are some weak red herrings, especially the dashing former German POW and his backstory which seems to take up several pages in the middle of the story and serves no purpose as far as I can tell other than to provide Flavia's sister Ophelia with someone to moon over.

That doesn't really matter, however, as I find that I don't particularly care about who killed whom.  It's the central plot element of course but what I really like about this series is the very Britishness of it all - and the gentle skewering thereof.  We have hopelessly stratified society, from Flavia's fake "prunes-and-prisms" voice that she puts on when necessary (194) to "the Spurlings [one named Bunny, natch] of Nautilus Old Hall, who, as Father once remarked, had gone to the dogs by way of the horses."  (181)  And the redoubtable Aunt Felicity*, down from London for a visit.
  "'London?' Aunt Felicity said.  'London is always the same, all soot and pigeons and Clement Atlee.  Just one damnable deprivation after another.  They ought to have men with nets to capture those children one sees in Kensington and train them to run the power plants at Battersea and Bankside.  With a better class of people at the switches mightn't go off so frequently."  (102)

We also queue, of course, especially to say good morning to the vicar after church on Sunday, as did Dogger and Aunt Felicity, "penned up somewhere in the vestibule, queueing like crewmen on a sunken submarine, waiting for their turn at the escape hatch." (181) And, we have creaky old houses that make one pause and ponder.  "At Buckshaw, time does not pass as it does in other places.  At Buckshaw, time seems to be controlled not by those frantic, scurrying little cogs in the hall clock that spin like hamsters in their shuttered cages, but rather by the solemn great gears that manage to creep through just one complete turn each year."  Here you see Flavia's marvelous imagination, her underlying desperation at her lonely situation, and yet I think also a certain devotion to it.  She is a de Luce, and de Luces live in slow houses like Buckshaw, that is how it is.

Finally we have noble family retainers (Dogger) and blissfully unaware ones like housekeeper-cook Mrs. Mullet.  The de Luces, for all their ancient lineage, have actually fallen on hard times financially - this story in particular includes vague references to some financial disaster that Father may have brought upon the household - so they are limited in the resources they can devote to high living.  Mrs. Mullet will have to do.  And does she ever, as this lengthy excerpt delightfully demonstrates.
  "'The Whiffler,' as we called it, was a dessert of Mrs. Mullet's own devising, which, so far as we could make out, consisted of a sort of clotted green jelly in sausage casings, topped with double Devon cream, and garnished with sprigs of mint and other assorted vegetable refuse.  It sat there, quivering obscenely now and then, like some great beastly garden slug."  (45)

British girls always use the word beastly at some point.

*I was quite pleased to see Aunt Felicity throw Flavia a lifeline in a brief but important conversation about her mother, her inspirations, and her aspirations.  Will she be something of a mentor in future installments?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Friend Maigret

Today at Crime Pays we meet an icon of the genre, Chief Inspector Jules Maigret, Hero of many novels by the astonishingly prolific Georges Simenon.  There is a note right at the front of the book about Simenon, in which it is noted that he wrote 75 Maigret novels, and 28 Maigret short stories, part of a larger oeuvre of over FOUR HUNDRED novels, essays, etc.  I didn't actually believe this so I used the google and sure enough, Simenon was indeed one of the most prolific authors of the 20th c.  According to this entry on Wikipedia (I know, what have I sunk to?) he wrote under more than two dozen pseudonyms.  How did he keep them all straight?  It is a . . . MYSTERY.

That distracting fact aside, I'd like to tell you more about Maigret, but the truth is that I didn't learn much from this slim novel.  It is not a complex tale - a local character has been killed, after boasting publicly about his famous friend the Parisian Inspector Maigret - and there is a small cast of somewhat colorful local characters, one of whom will surely be the perp.  My Friend Maigret (1949; this edition Penguin, 2007) comes almost half-way through the list of Maigret books, but there have been a couple dozen before this and there is a sense here that that you must already know everything you need to know about him, so we can dispense with character development.*  Maybe that is how you write four hundred novels in a lifetime.  Anyway, Maigret finds a small clue and the whole resolution spins out of that, once placed in the context of the characters.

I kept confusing Maigret with Hercule Poirot, which is funny because I've never read a Poirot novel, but I've seen David Suchet's embodiment of the fastidiously brilliant Belgian any number of times on PBS and once you've seen Poirot, you will see all French detectives comme ca.  But what else did I have to go on?  Simenon doesn't give us much.  I know that Maigret is married, likes his wife, doesn't love her brother-in-law, is a bit portly, and smokes, but who doesn't, after all this is France.  And he's a little bit of a snob.  Of the surprising Mrs. Wilcox, he notes upon meeting her that "He had imagined a lady, and she was a redhead . . . ."  (104)  What a splendid put-down.  That said, Maigret is the good kind of snob, who dislikes fakery and inauthenticity.  He is particularly repelled by the brash Mrs. Wilcox, her fawning-but-at-the-same-time-seething-under-his-striped-shirt secretary, and the cold artist/anarchist Jeff de Greef.  The most sympathetic characters here are the barmaid and the local cop.

Maigret is presented in this book as already famous, but you don't learn why other than that he's a great detective.  I feel a little bad that I never really connected with ol' Jules, because he's also famous as a character - everyone says you should know Maigret if you are interested in crime fiction (although, he does not show up on nearly as many lists of famous fictional detectives as, say, Miss Marple or Magnum P.I.).  And, he's French!  So he's quite proper, dresses well, and surely enjoys his food.  Regardless, I was happy to spend time on the lovely French island of Porquerolles, the setting of this story.  It is a rocky perch just off the coast in the fantastically clear Mediterranean.  "It was a good thirty feet below, but the water was so clear that the minutest details of the underwater landscape were visible.  And it really was a landscape, with its plains covered in greenery, its rocky hills, its gorges and precipices, among which shoals of fish trooped like sheep."  (27)  Clear water is a bit of a digression, but it reminded me of swimming in Greece on my honeymoon so here it is.**

On Porquerolles, you arrive by boat from the mainland (always a good thing), and everyone sits around drinking white wine (rarely just wine, and never cold, but almost always white wine, as in "let's go have some white wine" or "she sat, drinking white wine"), avoiding the midday sun and gathering to eat and drink and argue and laugh at the main hotel in the evening.  The whole place smells like bouillabaise all the time.  "In actual fact, there were several smells. The principal one, the smell of the house, which one sniffed immediately on crossing the threshold of the cafe, he had been trying to analyze since that morning, for it was a smell which was unfamiliar to him.  It struck him every time as he went in, and, each time, he would dilate his nostrils.  There was a basis of wine of course, with a touch of anis, then the kitchen odors.  And since it was a Mediterranean kitchen, with foundations of garlic, red peppers, oil, and saffron, this made it differ from the usual smells."  (90) Merveilleux!

My low-level dissatisfaction with this book is really about the sense I had that there is indeed something wonderful here, I just didn't find it.  Here's how I know.***  That passage about the smells of the hotel was a clue that there is occasionally something transporting in Simenon's writing, be it a scene or character or setting.  I found it late in the story.  It is Sunday morning, and in France, you know what that means.
  "Here there was an unprecedented noise of bells.  They were not proper church bells, but small, high-pitched ones, like chapel or convent bells.  One was led to the belief that the quality, the density of the air was not the same as elsewhere.  One could distinctly hear the hammer striking the bronze, which gave out some sort of a note, but it was then that the phenomenon would begin:  a first ring would carry into the pale and still cool sky, would extend hesitantly, like a smoke ring, becoming a perfect circle out of which the other circles would form by magic, ever increasing, ever purer.  The circles passed beyond the square and the houses, stretched over the harbor and a long way out to the sea where small boats were anchored.  One felt them above the hills and rocks, and they hadn't ceased to be perceptible before the hammer struck the metal once more and other circles of sound were born so as to reproduce themselves, then others, which one listened to in innocent amazement, as one watches a firework."  (156-157)
Isn't that just lovely?  I shall always think about bells on Sunday differently from now on.

*If you've been reading Crime Pays for a while you will know that I vastly prefer to read series in order.  Why didn't I start at the beginning here?  A friend gave My Friend Maigret to Bill, so we had it around the house.  Stop being so rigid about series in order, I said to myself, you'll have to read 31 of these before you can start this one!  Now I wish my introduction to Jules Maigret had been more formal, so I shall go back to the beginning.  I wish I had started there, but who has that kind of time?

**I assumed Porquerolles was fictional, but it is not and now that I've used the google again and seen some images I want to go there RIGHT NOW.

***If you want to learn more about Simenon, there was a fascinating interview with him in the Paris Review in 1955.  You can read it here.  You don't need to go far into the interview to learn about his writing style, and I'm so glad that the paragraph above made the cut.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Man Without Breath

Please don't take this the wrong way but sometimes I just really love a good story about Nazis.  Philip Kerr always delivers with point-blank perfect period detail, carefully researched and presented without a lot of hand-wringing.  A Man Without Breath (2013; Penguin paperback 2014) is a great addition to his convoluted Everyman's history of the Third Reich and its aftermath.  Kerr, and his reluctant hero Berlin cop Bernie Gunther lost their way a bit in some of these - A Quiet Flame, for example, and If The Dead Rise Not - but are back on their breathtakingly ghastly track now.

I use the word breathtaking not because it fits with the title, which is really only sort of explained on the last page, and not particularly satisfactorily, but because it is hard sometimes to feel shocked by stories from the European theater of the Second World War at this point.  We've seen it all, the agonizing photographic record of the Holocaust, the physical destruction of France and Germany and England and pretty much anywhere anywhere in Europe where the war was actually fought, and of course the increasing realism of fictional and film treatments of the War.  But two points.

First, we Americans don't really know much about the Eastern Front, other than that German soldiers really didn't want to go there.  What did they fear?  Read this book.  Even without any battle scenes, in fact, this is all set well behind German lines, the desolation and deprivation of the German-Russian conflict is sobering.  This too was a race war for the Germans at least, and the Russians responded with similar brutality.

Second and related, war is hell, yes, I know, but do we really know?  While reading this book, I heard this story about ISIS' use of sexual violence.  The piece didn't really work that well as a panel discussion because because the host kept trying to get the guests to talk about the apparent disconnect between a state for God and sexual violence - like it was somehow distinct from other violence, and maybe shouldn't be happening because ISIS is waging some kind of holy war, however perverted?  The panelists weren't biting, essentially saying God or no, there is no excuse.  During the Second World War, the Russians in particular were known for sexual violence, and references to that are casually strewn throughout this story.  We don't really consider that in America, when we think of the Second World War, do we?  That our allies for the last several years of the war were feared more by German women than anyone else, committing what some historians estimate to be up to 2 million rapes during the mid-1940s.  This figure is disputed by the Russians, and there may be some merit to the Russian argument that Germans are trying to become the victim here.  And the truth is that all of the occupying forces - British, French, and yes, Americans - perpetrated brutal crimes against German women in this period.  Look, the point here is that our Good War was not so good for everyone else.

But I digress, sort of.  Some of Kerr's Gunther stories are hard to follow because they jump back and forth in time, but this one stays in chronological order, ripped from the history books, of the Russian massacre of Polish army officers at Katyn Wood in 1940.  Our Hero is sent to Smolensk, near Katyn, in 1943, to investigate some human remains found in the area.  Why, you might be forgiven for asking, do the Germans care about a few bones in wood at this point in the death factory of their Eastern war? They are eager to show the world that they are not the only ones committing horrific crimes - see, the Russians kill thousands in cold blood, too!  We only kill the sub-humans, not fine upstanding men like other army officers!  Gunther is working for a unit of the Wehrmacht called the War Crimes Bureau; their job is to investigate war crimes perpetrated both by Germans and against Germans.  It is presented as an oasis of sensibility in this crazy Nazi world - few of the judges are Party members, for example, although of course there are no Jews.  "By state law the Wehrmacht was not supposed to be interested in politics" notes Kerr (35) and so it is a kind of haven for people like Bernie, who love Germany but hate what the Nazis have done to it, and who are trying to find a way to survive.

Bernie gets out to Poland, realizes pretty quickly that something seriously bad happened in Katyn (although references to Babi Yar and other atrocities make one wonder why anyone thinks this is any worse than everything else that is going on), and while he hopes to avoid going back, ends up leading spinmeister Josef Goebbels' plan to use the Katyn massacre for propaganda purposes.

Of course, there are a few random murders along the way, and while they are actually the crimes that Gunther must solve (and risk his neck doing so) they are completely overshadowed by the unfolding details of the massacre.  As is the noir-ishness of Kerr's style.  This is the least hard-boiled of all his books, perhaps because when the reality is so cold and dark, why would you pile on the atmospherics?*  The ending of the fictional story is a even little incredible, with that old trope of the dramatic last-minute courtroom appearance of an unexpected witness who reveals the truth.  Would that the nonfiction events surrounding these killings had been resolved as nicely but by 1943, even the Germans, though some won't admit it, the really bad parts of this war for them are just getting started.

I keep talking about the carefully researched detail, but you have to read this to believe it, and then challenge yourself by looking it up.  Think that the reference to the Grischino Massacre has just a little too much blood to be real (114)?  Look it up, it was, and is as bad as described.  In fact, go ahead, search for World War Two Massacres and even if you know a lot you will be left without breath for a minute as you take it in.  That's the thing about the Eastern Front; no novelist can concoct anything more gruesome in his or her imagination, than the Germans and the Russians did to each other in reality.

Kerr has used as his source Alfred de Zayas' The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945 (1979, University of Nebraska Press).  It doesn't take a lot of digging to understand that while Kerr may have lifted much of his source material from this monumental work (readily credited in his Author's Note), de Zayas is indeed The Source for this topic.  The point is, all of the framework of this novel is real, and many of the higher-ups are, too.  The Author's Note briefly describes the fate of several critical characters and places and events.  Kerr is artful at cloaking his crime fiction in an all-too-criminal reality - you can't tell where the one ends and the other begins.

Another piece of Kerr's oeuvre that I really like is his ability to tease apart the strands of German-ness.  I know that I've said BEFORE that it is sometimes a little too easy to have Our Hero be so precisely anti-Nazi-but-pro-Germany, but in A Man Without Breath Kerr makes the good point that by 1943, post-Stalingrad, many Germans, even those in the High Command, are privately doubting the future of the Third Reich.  Nicely complementing this is Kerr's portrayal of Junkers, the landed Prussian elite with their vons and their zus, their antipathy toward Hitler and general ambivalence about Nazis, as well as their insular society and disdain for everyone outside of it.  Their involvement in the 20 July plot to kill Hitler at Wolfsschanze is well-known.  Less famous are the many other attempts on The Leader's life, mostly by vons, in the year and a half leading up to that debacle.  But you know, Kerr gets them all straight, right down the correct insignia, and you can look all this stuff up if you want to.  You won't be disappointed.

The everyday nature of the business of war, where everyone knows what each side is doing to the other, is the most chilling aspect of all of this.  The Germans are tense, because this is post-Stalingrad and everyone knows what happened to Napoleon when he tried to conquer Russia.  The tide has turned against Germany, and all everyone in this place can hope for is to get out before the Russian counter-offensive comes in the summer.  Civilians, too, especially those who may have aided the Germans (which is pretty much everyone in one way or another) can't really decide who is worse - the conquering Germans with their race-hatred of anyone not German or the Russians with their paranoid shoot-first-and-don't-ask-questions approach to national loyalty.  Worked at the hospital for wounded German soldiers?  Ran a brothel?  You are S.O.L. when the Russians and their dreaded NKVD come back to town.

I'll offer an extended quote that I think demonstrates both Kerr's and his subjects command of the details of mass killing.  Bernie has been assigned to show a particularly odious character around the massacre site, one Paul Blobel.  Read the book or look him up, you'll find the same story:  Blobel was not only in charge of the massacre at Babi Yar, but became something of an expert on killing, and then destroying the evidence of these massacres afterwards.  He's brought to Katyn to advise on the public health aspects of mass exhumations.  Yeah, the Nazis thought of everything.  Anyway, Bernie describes the mass graves here to him.
  "'It's as you can see,' I said.  'All of the victims so far have been shot in exactly the same way.  And I do mean exctly - to within a few centimeters, from very close range, and at the same protrusion at the base of the skull.  Nearly all of the exit wounds are between the nose and the hairline.  Undoubtedly, the NKVD men who carried out this particular special action had done this many times before.  Indeed, they'd done it so many times that they had even perfected where and how the bodies would fall into the grave.  In fact, you can say with absolute certitude that on one was allowed to just fall in like a dead dog.  There are maybe twelve layers of bodies in this grave.  The heads of those in each row seem to be resing on the feet of the men below, and there was nothing about this that was not subject to thought and planning.  When all of the men were dead, or at least shot, tons of sand were bulldozed on top, which helped to compress the bodies into one large mummified cake.  Even the decomposition process appears to have been perfected by the NKVD.  The fluids leaking from the bodies seem to have formed a kind of airtight seal around the cake.  Finally, birch trees were replanted on top of the grave.  It's really very methodical . . . .'"
  Blobel is impressed.  "'I used to be an architect and I've seen foundation works that weren't made as well as this grave.'"  (284)

So, yes.  Nazi, NKVD, who was worse?  As an unlucky holder of evidence against the Russians (who is himself Russian) says, "Hitler is just a minor demon in hell, but Stalin is the devil himself."  (190) Guess it all depends on your perspective.

*But he doesn't lose it all, and this little jewel raised a smile:  "Tanya was the kind of blonde who could have stopped a whole division of cavalry with one flash of her underwear."  (298)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Complaints

When Cathy Pfister asked if I knew about Ian Rankin, I sighed inwardly because as Regular Readers know, I got off that bandwagon a while ago.  But then she said that she had The Complaints and that she'd liked it, and it is true that I'd "heard" positive reports (I can't pinpoint the sources, hence the "").  So, I received a bag with not one but three of this new-ish series from the popular Scottish author of the noir-ish John Rebus series.

Our Hero is one Malcolm Fox, awkwardly called Foxy by colleagues, a not-burnt-out-but-maybe-a-little-singed-by-life Inspector with the Complaints and Conduct bureau of the Scottish police in Edinburgh.  What we in American cop shows would call IAB, or Internal Affairs Bureau - you know, the cops who investigate the cops.  In this extremely convoluted story, Fox has just finished a successful investigation into a bad guy at another precinct, when he's asked to investigate a young colleague at that same station.  At the same time, his sister's good-for-nothing husband goes and gets himself killed, and suspicion starts to fall on Fox, even though the lead investigator is working with Jamie Breck, the fellow Fox is investigating.  (See what I mean?)  This is all set against a backdrop of failing construction projects and previously high-flying real-estate magnates which are all victims of the banking crisis and world-wide recession of 2009.  Fox and Breck manage to step on enough toes to get themselves both thrown off the murder case, but apparently gluttons for punishment keep working away at it, injuring themselves and further threatening their careers in the process. 

Malcolm Fox is described on the first page "slow and steady, and only occasionally to be feared" (3) which sums up this book.  It plods along, although the plot is complicated enough to keep you sort of engaged, but even the occasional bout of thuggery is barely enough to keep me from putting the book down.  Had I known how much I'd enjoy the latest Philip Kerr (next up!), I'd have dropped this.  It's not a bad book - it is unobtrusively well-written, and Fox is not nearly so profoundly unhappy as Rebus.  But I can't summon up any more exciting verbiage about it other than to fall back on cliche and say that it just didn't light a fire.    

BUT.  The "Reading Group Guide" at the end (what reading group would pick this?  they'd die of boredom ten minutes into their discussion about it) did provide a spectacular save for this novel, and made me glad I'd stuck it out.  Rankin offers his list of Ten Literary Crime Novels, with a solid paragraph about each one.  The list is quite eclectic:

1.  The Private Memoirs and Confessions of  Justified Sinner, James Hogg, 1824
2.  Bleak House, Charles Dickens, 1853
3.  Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1866
4.  Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
5.  Brighton Rock, Graham Greene, 1938
6.  The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler, 1939
7.  Roseanna, Maj. Sowall and Per Wahloo, 1965
8.  The Driver's Seat, Muriel Spark, 1970
9.  The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, 1980
10.  Live Flesh, Ruth Rendell, 1986

I've only heard of about half of these (probably the same ones you have), and read even fewer.  Would you consider Jekyll and Hyde to be crime fiction?  Apparently Stevenson was influenced by a crime boss in London and Rankin says he likes to think about the idea of good people doing bad things - so okay, that is one of the fundamental threads in any crime novel.  There are about a billion top-ten lists of crime fiction out there, but they are usually written by critics or "experts" or really anyone who has a list - you don't see them from authors themselves that much.  Most contain a Raymond Chandler and Graham Greene shows up occasionally, along with The 39 Steps.  Can't say that I've ever seen Dickens or Dostoyevsky, so I think it might be a treat to try and read my way through this one.  

The Guide also includes a list of Fox's favorite walks, and Breck's favorite restaurants, which, if I ever get to Edinburgh again, I'll be sure to look up.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


After something like Moby Dick, you can't just go read any old thing.  A lot of the not-quite-first-rate material that Soho Crime has sent me this year becomes positively the freshman team in comparison.  Ed Lin's Ghost Month was one that I read about four pages of, and then put away with some disappointment.

But you can always count on Benjamin Black for some fine prose, and exquisite attention to the details of his upper-crust-y Irish setting.  Vengeance (Picador, 2012) worked just fine as a post-MD read, although I think Black, and by extension, his sad pathologist Quirke (did we learn his first name?  Garrett?  He doesn't answer but I think, yes, that may be it) are phoning it in a bit here.

There is no mystery surrounding the death of Victor Delahaye, unless you want to know why he chose his business partner's son as a witness, or why he left said son, a landlubber if there ever was one, floating alone on a large sailboat after shooting himself in the chest.  But when his partner Jack Clancy is killed, well, there's your mystery.  Vengeance includes the by-now almost stock Black characters of the not-particularly-grieving-but-particularly-beautiful widow, the creepily-amoral young men who are clearly up to no good, Quirke's daughter Phoebe who presents as fragile and old-fashioned but has a dark thrill-seeking streak, and Inspector Hackett who plays up his country roots with his "Is it yourself, Miss Griffin!" greetings and the like.  (198)

Black's writing is mostly its usual marvelous self (see Christine Falls, The Silver Swan, and Elegy for April) but maybe getting a little old?  The Irish summer sun is various shades of gold:  gilded, molten, burnished, and there are just enough polished floors and crystal bowls of fresh flowers in elegant houses.  Smells, as usual, are scene-setters, culminating perhaps with one character, who is badly sunburned, and remarks "I can smell myself . . . I can actually smell my skin where it got burned.  It's like fried pork."  (59)  That detail is a bit off-putting, but has that edge that sets Black above the merely elegant mystery.  He's not gone with taste before, however, and "a lustrous Mersault that in Quirke's mouth tasted of gold coins and melons" had me rolling my eyes and wondering if I was reading a Pat Conroy novel.  (281)  Finally, some of the plot points felt a bit recycled - once again Quirke gets closer than is wise to the black widow, once again Phoebe make a poor decision and gets herself into a tight spot, and again a fine dover sole is consumed at a window table at the Shelbourne.

Quirke really isn't central to this story, he just kind of hangs around to help out his friend Hackett - who claims to need Quirke's sophisticated touch around "the quality."  Maybe that's why the story doesn't compel as much as the earlier ones, in which Our Hero was actually a more central figure.  I had much the same sense from A Death in Summer, and wonder if Black, and Quirke, need a break.

Still, weak plot devices aside, nobody bites the soft underbelly of the upper crust quite like Black.  Consider his description of the sailing set, right at the beginning:
"And they were all so jolly and brisk, smiling in a smug, self-satisfied way that set his teeth on edge.  Unlike him, they knew what they were doing, the wind-burned men in yachting caps and khaki shorts and shapeless sweaters playing at being old sea dogs, and their loud-voiced, leathery wives - sea bitches, he thought, with a twinge of bleak amusement.  He did not belong here, among these sailing folk with their lazy expertise; he knew it, and they knew it, too, which meant they had to behave twice as heartily towards him, though he could see that look in their eyes, that gleam of merry contempt."  (3-4)
You know who he's talking about, you see them around here, or in Edgartown. It's a splendidly nasty little detail that keeps you coming back for more.  Maybe with an amber whiskey in hand, because next up is Holy Orders.

Here's an interesting postscript:  Black has written a new Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde.  Does his prose translate from socially corseted Dublin to California?  Based on the earlier Quirke novels, I'd certainly give him the benefit of the doubt.  Others wonder.

Moby Dick

What, you are saying, Moby Dick is not crime fiction!  That's some endless book about a whale.  Au contraire mon frere, I would argue that it is indeed criminal, and most heinous.  Ahab is attempting to murder that poor white whale (this is from the fish's perspective), or Moby Dick is a monster of the deep intent on causing mayhem among whalemen (this is the human perspective).  Or, this very very very long novel is a terrible torture device to those who try to read it (it is not, really).  Or, if you drop it on someone's head you might kill them.

So, see, it fits here on Crime Pays.

It is pretty tempting to just note that there has been an ocean's work of ink spilled on this book, and you could just go read this review of Nathaniel Philbrick's slim collection of essays, encouragingly title Why Read Moby Dick, because it probably sums up my own position.  Like my husband says, why read the book itself when you can learn everything you need to from the New York Times review of it?

But before I read more of that review, or Philbrick's work itself, I'm going to tell you why I loved Moby Dick, and maybe you will too. MD is written by Herman Melville, by the way, a 19th c. American writer of great renown, now, but inconsistently so during his lifetime.  MD had very mixed reviews upon its publication in 1850, no wonder, because this is one crazy book.  My edition is from someone's schooldays, a Bantam paperback from 1981 (OK, I guess that means Bill) that includes an introduction, contemporary criticism, and modern criticism, all packed into less than two inches of newsprint, so with very teeny print that is pretty much guaranteed to destroy your eyesight.

But to the story.  First, as anyone who has read it will tell you, Moby Dick is, at heart, a great, salty, rip-roaring tale of the sea.  Lovers of nauticalia will be happily at home on the whale-ivory-clad Pequod, and will revel in Melville's deep and exacting descriptions of ships and sailing and life at sea.  The plot is pretty elemental:  a whaler sets sail, and has some whaling adventures, all while commanded by a completely unhinged captain who wants to catch just one whale, the one who caused the loss of his leg on an earlier voyage.  Down the South American coast, 'round the Horn, far across the Pacific almost to Japan, and then to the "cruising grounds" of Equatorial waters, the Pequod sails in search of her prey, for Ahab has made the entire crew swear to join in his quest. "Hast seen the White Whale?" is Ahab's greeting of all ships they meet on their voyage.  You probably know how this ends - you can see Jaws for a modern tribute.  

Now, anyone could write about chasing a whale and it will seem reasonably exciting because it inherently is:  a big ship sails around the vast oceans, and when someone spots a spout or a fluke or a fin or a whale breaching, several whalemen hop into a much smaller boat and take off after the impossibly big fish.*  They try to get close enough to get a line into it, basically, a sharp stick with an endless rope attached.  Then the whale, mad at being stuck, takes off at great speed, pulling the whaleboat and contents on behind it, hopefully not sounding so deep as to pull the boat down (in which case the line would have to be cut, and the whale lost).  When the whale gets tired of swimming around, the boat pulls near and the harpooneer sticks the whale again and again until puncturing some vital organ, at which point the whale's spout turns thick and red (eww) and the whale flops over and dies.  Then he (or she) is towed back to the ship, and the really eww work of breaking down the carcass begins, which takes a really long time and is also fairly dangerous.

Unlike me, Melville needs several hundred pages to tell you all that, because he goes into extraordinary detail on each aspect of the process, from outfitting the ship itself, to the chase, to the endless process of getting all the good bits out of the fish.  This is another of the great strengths of the novel, its astonishing depth on the topic, you will learn more than you ever wanted to about whaling, and you will probably like it.  And not just the process, but the fish itself, from its great head to its amazing fluke to its grandissimus.  Yes, it is a little tiresome, and you, like me, might have to take a little break from the book.  But it is completely worth it, for now I can join the ranks of whale-experts in my house, and we can converse at a very high level about such topics as the Heidelberg Tun or the chimney catching fire or the legality of a fast-fish versus a loose-fish.

I should note that it is the Sperm Whale that is the object of Melville's obsession here.  Not the Right, nor the Blue, nor any other big fish in the sea.  You might want to know what a sperm whale looks like, and you can google it, and that will help, but it won't really give a sense of the grandeur as Melville describes it, nor the vast size.  Not even skeletons at places like the New Bedford Whaling Museum (a must-visit for any readers of MD) can really convey the bulk and enormity and power and fearsomeness of the creature.  Melville himself said that no one could really know what it looked like:
" . . . the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.  True, one portrait may hit the mark nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness.  So there is really no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like.  And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself:  but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him.  Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan."  (251)

And not just the whale itself, or the fishing or processing of it, but whales in history, whales in mythology, whales in religion, whales in natural history, whales in the law, whales in science, whales in art - each get a chapter, some long, some short, some laughable, but all finely detailed and in service to the idea that this is the greatest, most fearsome, most enigmatic, and most extraordinary creature on earth.

Maybe you can tell from the above quote, but what makes this story great, and I think that on this one all critics agree, is Melville's extraordinary use of language. My copy has dozens of pages turned down at the corners, where I read sentences or paragraphs that just sang or thrilled or somehow or other just stopped me in my tracks.  How does one find such words and deploy them so well?  I guess that this (among other things) is what separates Melville from the bloggers.  I could spend weeks just noting all the bits I really liked but maybe this extract will provide an enticing example.  It is from the first lowering of the whaleboats, so, relatively early in the Pequod's voyage.
  "A short rushing sound leaped out of the boat; it was the darted iron of Queequeg.  then all in one welded commotion came an invisible push from astern, while forward the boat seemed striking on a ledge; the sail collapsed and exploded; a gush of scalding vapor shot up near by; something rolled and tumbled like an earthquake beneath us.  The whole crew were half suffocated as they were tossed helter-skelter into the while curdling cream of the squall.  Squall, whale, and harpoon had all blended together; and the whale, merely grazed by the iron, escaped.
  Though completely swamped, the boat was nearly unharmed.  Swimming round it we picked up the floating oars and lashing them across the gunwhale, tumbled back to our places.  There we sat up to our knees in the sea, the water covering every rib and plank, so that to our downward gazing eyes the suspended craft seemed a coral boat grown up to us from the bottom of the ocean.
  The wind increased to a howl; the waves dashed their bucklers together; the whole squall roared, forked, and crackled around us like a white fire up on the prairie, in which, unconsumed, we were burning; immortal in these jaws of death!  In vain we hailed the other boats; as well roar to the live coals down the chimney of a flaming furnace as hail those boats in that storm.  Meanwhile, the driving scud, rack, and mist, grew darker with the shadows of night; no sign of the ship could be seen.  The rising sea forbade all attempts to bale out the boat.  The oars were useless as propellers, performing now the office of life-preservers.  So, cutting the lashing of the waterproof match keg after many failures Starbuck contrived to ignite the lamp in the lantern; then stretching it on a waif pole, handed it to Queequeg as the standard-bearer of this forlorn hope.  There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornnness.  There, then, he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope  in the midst of despair."  (213-214)

Isn't that just great?  I think I like the imbecile candle best.  The whole book is like that.  All 521 pages.

Melville is also pretty great at character development, although one could argue that Ahab himself is a trifle one-dimensional - it's all about the fish for him.  Do we ever really learn much about Our Hero, Ishmael?  Maybe, but it might also have been lost in all the other verbiage.  And what of the marvelous Queequeg, Pacific Islander and harpooneer extraordinaire, who is such a vibrant and good-humored presence in the early chapters?  He becomes secondary once aboard, really, although it is clear that Melville loves the cosmopolitan nature of a whaler - so many nations and ethnicities and temperments represented, and he gets to them all with Tashtego and Starbuck and Dagoo and Pip and Stubbs and the rest of the gang.  And who can forget those marvelous Nantucket ship owners, Captains Bildad and Peleg?  Melville is witty and descriptive, and adept at capturing atmosphere and character, although this too falls away when the chase sets in.  As the oceans widen, the story focuses more and more narrowly on Ahab and his quest, which is really not funny at all.

You almost feel silly writing about Moby Dick because it is so damn iconic.  Like catching the white whale himself, can anyone really capture the essence of this book in a few paragraphs?**  You would need a few billion, at least, Melville did.  Why use four words, when you can use eight?  You might say, "here are two examples of what I am talking about."  Melville says:  "What I mean by these two statements may perhaps be respectively elucidated by the following examples."  You could go on and on about MD, lord knows Melville did.  But I'm not going to go all lit crit on it, and will just say that everyone should read this book because of its great story, brilliant use of language, and marvelous detail about pretty much anything that has anything to do with whales and whaling.  

I'll end with a culinary note.  There is a kind of gruesome bit where Stubb insists on having some whale cooked up for him, the first he has caught.  But my favorite bit is in a very early chapter, titled "Chowder." Here, Ishmael and Queequeg have washed up in an inn on Nantucket, before signing on for service with the Pequod.  The innkeeper, a highly competent woman of great culinary talent, asks them about dinner.
"'Clam or cod?'
'What's that about Cods, ma'am?' said I, with much politeness?.
'Clam or cod?' she repeated.
'A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?' says I; 'but that's a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain't it, Mrs. Hussey?' . . . seeming to hear nothing but the word 'clam,' Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out 'clam for two,' disappeared.
'Queequeg,' said I, 'do you think that we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?'"
[Silly Ishmael] 
"However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us.  But when that smoking chowder cam in, the mystery was delightfully explained.  Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me.  It was made of small juicy clams, scarecely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.  Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassing excellent, we despatched it with great expedition:  when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey's clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment.  Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word "cod" with great emphasis, and resumed my seat.  In a few moments, the savory steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time, a find cod-chowder was placed before us."  (69-70)

Moby Dick is about a lot more than chowder, but there is much in the world that a good you can't go wrong with either clam or cod.  

*This is important.  We know a whale is a mammal - it gives live birth, and nurses its young.  But to Melville, and apparently to all whalemen the world around, a whale is a fish.  It is fished, the profession is fishing (for profession it is - Melville's admiration of the great skill of whalemen is part of why he describes their craft in such detail, I think), and in the great tradition of fishing, you have to think like the fish in order to catch it.  At least, Ahab does and he comes pretty close.

**See, once you have read this, you just end up applying the concepts of epic and futility and mad obsession to pretty much everything in your life once you have read this.  On the other hand, you can also use it to put everything in perspective:  at least I am not trying to find one fish in the sea, that sort of thing.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Bedlam Detective

Still on shore leave from Moby Dick.

Believe it or not, I steer clear of thriller, although most of the books I read have a thrilling moment or two. And by thrilling I don't mean, how awesome!  Rather, thrilling as in tense, climactic, scary, hangs-by-a-thread, that sort of thing.  But a story that calls itself a thriller right out, well, that is a little too energetic for my taste.  So a few weeks after I bought The Bedlam Detective (Crown Publishers, 2012), I was reading the notes and quotes on the back and learned that the author, Stephen Gallagher is considered a leading British thriller-writer, which put me off the whole enterprise for a bit.

But you know, it is set in early 20th c. England, one of my favorite literary landscapes (see any review of a Charles Todd novel for more on that), which is comforting in a way, especially if you are still looking for escape from the this-can't-end-well-for-someone watery world of whaling.  Detection in this era is all in the mind, and done at the speed of ponderous early motors and bicycles rather than on cell phones and computers.  Instinct is trusted more, since there isn't technology to quickly support or disprove a theory.  Our Heroes are usually brilliant or well-educated or deeply experienced or some combination thereof, and this makes for more nuanced characters and thoughtful plot development.

The Bedlam Detective is sort of nickname for Our Hero, Sebastian Becker, who works as a special investigator for the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, which is a real thing.  The ViL, was basically psych housecalls on the rich and loony.  If there was concern that a person of means was losing it, and thereby not able to control his or her property, the investigator was despatched to determine how far gone she or he was.  In this instance, the ViL is interested in the status of a well-known industrialist and explorer, Sir Owain Lancaster who seemed perfectly normal, in a megomaniacal  captain-of-industry way, until an expedition up the Amazon went terribly wrong and his account of the fantastic events and beasts encountered on that journey were widely denounced as a hoax.  Now Sir Owain lives with a controlling doctor and loyal driver in increasingly shabby surroundings on his estate, his fortune dwindling, .

In real life, and in this story, the ViL himself was Sir James Crichton-Brown, a noted psychiatrist of the late 19th and early 20th c.  What an interesting idea, that the government oversaw this process, hiring experts of course, but still, they answered to Crown.  Such investigations were deeply entangled with property, and apparently might be instigated by family members who had their own interests in getting their hands on your stuff, so there were a lot of angles.  If you were of the stature to be investigated by the ViL, and declared insane, you might end up in a reasonably plush suite at the Broadmoor Asylum (like the other doctor, in chapter 40), with your assets under the control of a Master of Lunacy appointed by the Crown.  If you didn't have any assets, well, lunacy's just another word for nothing left to lose.  I suppose that this was all considered an innovation and part of the reform of psychiatric care, but it all seems a bit harsh and hierarchical.

As Becker arrives in the town near Sir Owain's estate, he discovers a terrible crime has taken place:  two girls have gone missing, and are found, brutally murdered.  The attack on them is reminiscent of one years earlier on two other local girls, who survived, albeit emotionally damaged.  The two threads of the attacks and the state of Sir Owain's mind appear to be intersecting, at least, Sebastian thinks they are, but Gallagher keeps it messy enough that you can never really settle with the obvious and even Sebastian can't tie it up until the very end.

There is also a kind of pointless bit involving Sebastian's wife and family, which strikes me now as just existing to move time forward in the story, but doesn't serve any other purpose.  Sebastian's autistic son provides a useful clue, but again, seems  more as a cog in the plot machine than an interesting character in his own right.  I don't like my Heroes to have a distracting family, unless it is a funny one, and this one is not.

And I never really warm up to Sebastian himself, although his policeman friend Stephen Reed is more likeable.  Our Hero carries the weight of his family's reduced circumstances heavily, but at the same time seems to involve himself in events unnecessarily - does he need to join the search for the missing girls when his remand for being in the area has nothing to do with that?  Chase down the victims of the previous attack?  Talk down the unhappy dad with the knife at the hospital where his wife works?  There is a sense of superiority here - I used to be a Pinkerton detective, and I know a lot about crazy people so you should let me handle this - that is a little hard to take.  

The strength of the book is its steady but complex plot development. The story moves along, with enough believable red herrings to keep you involved.  I wouldn't call it a thriller, although there is a thrilling (in the dark way) sequence at the end.  And, it is well-written, formal enough to evoke the period and carefully researched, even if the characters never really compel.

There IS an interesting, um, culinary note, which actually provides a key to solving one critical piece of the puzzle - did Sir Owain do it, or not?  It involves sources of protein in the remotest parts of the Amazon basin!

Treasure Hunt

God I needed a break from that blathering Ishmael and mad Ahab.  So I took the opportunity to go back to the latest Salvo Montalbano story, that I'd left because it seemed a bit slow.  Turns that the unimaginatively titled Treasure Hunt (Penguin, 2013 in English translation) heats up quite a bit at the end.

The contrast between Herman Melville's dense verbiage and Andrea Camilleri's spare prose finally made me realize what is so distinctive about the latter's style.  A Montalbano mystery is almost all dialogue.  It is what I imagine reading a television script might be like, without a lot of stage direction.  The only inner voice we hear is Salvo's, and even that is often presented in dialogue form between his good and bad sides.  When you think about it, it is pretty amazing that he manages to draw the other characters so well almost entirely through their interactions with Montalbano.  

In this story, Salvo is bored out of his gourd because nothing is going on at his station.  Well, nothing other than a daring raid he executed on the home of a nutty old sniper who was living in lunatic squalor with equally ga-ga old sister. Salvo is captured on national TV climbing into their apartment to resolved the situation, and becomes a brief local celebrity.  Still, Salvo can barely bring himself to Thanks to this unwelcome notoriety, he's also getting some vaguely creepy anonymous notes offering clues in a treasure hunt that seem to target him.  Salvo is intrigued but too lazy to do much about it until the fabulous Ingrid's nephew happens along, looking to learn more about the policeman's brain and Salvo takes him on as a sort of unpaid intern to deal with the treasure hunt.  But really, the whole story was kind of farting along (which it turns out is the point) and that's why I put it down for Moby Dick. But not long after I picked it up again, a girl disappeared and the plot snowballed down into a very dark place, with a disturbing crime that tied it all up.

I've said in other reviews what I like about Camielleri's books:  interesting characters, drawn with just a few strokes of what I realize now are largely dialogue, darker-than-you'd-expect crimes, wonderfully spare settings of sun and sand and landscape, and of course, a great attention to food.  The regular characters - Fazio and Mimi, Gallo and Gallucio, Cattarella - get a little shorter shrift in this one than I recall in others, although the enigmatic Ingrid features more prominently.  But I'm pleased to report that Adelina and her pasta 'ncasciata and swordfish involtini and arancini and eggplant parmesan and caciocavallo cheese and Enzo and his trattoria's spaghetti alle vongole veraci and striped mullett are all present and accounted for.