Sunday, June 8, 2014

Another Sun

Timothy Williams' Guadeloupe-based series has been in the to-try queue for some time now.  Another Sun (2012, Soho Press) definitely did not disappoint on the atmosphere front although I had a hard-ish time following the plot and I'm not sure if that is on me or the plot itself.

Our Heroine in Another Sun is Anne-Marie Laveaud, a French woman who is a local juge d'instruction, some sort of official whose job it is to determine if crimes have actually occurred, and against whom charges should be made.  A wealthy landowner has been shot, and the crime is pinned on an old, almost-vagrant ex-con with the mellifluous name of Hégéssipe Bray.  The victim and his apparent killer's lives have intertwined for decades, as have so many on this island of former slave plantations, populated by descendants of native Indians, slaves, white owners, and French administrators.  It is a complex creole soup and Anne-Marie soon realizes that old rages have combined with modern political dramas to tangle this killing up with some other potentially nasty doings.

The writing here is nicely unobtrusive, that is to say, it did not distract from the story in a bad way, which is just how I like it.  The characters are carefully drawn, with individual complexities except that I still don't quite follow all of their motivations.  Would these be confirmed in a subsequent book in the series?  Or is the idea just to reinforce the complicated and interwoven nature of local society?  There is just a lot going on, outside of the main crime - political issues, Anne-Marie's complicated family dynamic, other French and locals who may or may not want anything to do with her, and so on.  If you pull a thread here, you get a whole bunch of other ones that you might not have been expecting.  

The setting is terrific, lots of flame trees and cracked streets and sun-bleached buildings but not a lot of powdery white beaches and beautiful people - Williams' islands are tourist destinations only on the periphery of his story, but actual people are born, live, and die here.  This is both the tropical paradise of the BBC's "Death in Paradise" and a bleaker setting marked by age-old racial divide and endless poverty.  This paragraph, in the opening chapter, made me think of our late-night arrival in Martinique twenty-plus years ago.
  "The fronds swayed and creaked.  The pond lay in the hollow of the sloping valley.  Grass-covered hills ran down to the edge of the white dirt track and its two parallel lines of coconut trees.  To the east, against the darkening hill top, rose the gaunt silhouette of the derelict sugar refinery.  A couple of hangars and a tall, crumbing chimney that pointed to the sky and the rising half moon."  (2)
I can just smell the distilleries.  Williams does employ more romantic descriptions of these islands, but as memories from Anne-Marie's earlier married years, when she did not really know much of the world in which she was coming to live.  It is an effective way to evoke the loss of her romantic and political innocence.  

Williams clearly has a deep understanding of the complex social strata that makes up this old island complex.  (No surprise; he lives in Guadeloupe and Another Sun was first published in French.)  Modern French history is pretty darn complicated, when you start trying to suss out what happened in Algeria, and in France in 1968 and why do they still own islands in the Caribbean anyway?  We Americans don't tend to think of France's colonial past that much, maybe because we remain grateful for their help in our Revolution, and the World Wars so dominate our own history.  But of course they did get into all kinds of trouble, perhaps because that fabled devotion to liberté, egalité, fraternité is actually hard to put into practice if you are being a colonial overlord.  Any story that seeks to involve historical threads can get very complicated, very fast.  An author either has to go into deep background, as Martin Thomas did in Black Diamond, or risk his reader losing the plot as I did sometimes here, by using brief references and character vignettes.  I think I get it - basically there is an independence movement in Guadeloupe that is not particularly effective because it doesn't have much white power behind it, and that drives some of what happens here - but I kept getting distracted by references to Algeria and 1968 and hippies and the like.  I still don't know who Jerry Dupont is!

To be fair, I was moderately distracted while reading this, and the disconnect between the  the islands of Guadeloupe and the fishing camp in Maine where I started it, may well have exacerbated by occasional disconnect with the story.  I think I'd give this series a second try, if only to visit those islands again.  

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Gaudy Night

If you've been reading along with me then you know that the Dean of Harvard College has swell taste in mysteries.  Gaudy Night (1935, this edition Bourbon Street Books 2012) is one of the Dean's most favorite books, and he's read a lot more Dorothy Sayers than I have.  But I have to agree that this is one swell read.

To get the full benefit of Sayers' prodigious intellect as displayed in Gaudy Night, it helps if you a) know something about life in a residential college that just happens to be modeled on the colleges at Oxford) b) are familiar with women's colleges and c) are an Anglophile.  I happen to hit this trifecta, so reveled in Sayers' witty commentary on life in a residential college, student shenanigans, and faculty attitude.  The magisterial Warden, warm and witty Dean, and dons ranging from vague to prickly but all deeply intellectual and immensely deserving of their academic titles, combine to make one feel instantly at home.

I've said this before so I won't go into again but . . . that British upper crust command of language and intellectual allusion and gentle self-mockery is just invigorating.  This story has so many examples, but I particularly like this description of a formal portion at the Gaudy:
"The procession came into sight beneath the archway; a small crocodile-walk of elderly people, dressed with the incongruous brilliance of a more sumptuous era, and moving with the slovenly dignity characteristic of university functions in England.  They crossed the quad; they mounted the plinth beneath the clock; the male dons removed their Tudor bonnets and mortar-boards in deference to the Vice-Chancellor; the female dons a reverential attitude suggestive of a prayer-meeting.  In a thin, delicate voice, the Vice-Chancellor began to speak.  He spoke of the history of the college; he made a graceful allusion to achievements which could not be measured by the mere passing of time; he cracked a dry and nutty little jest about relativity and adorned it with a classical tag; he referred to the generosity of the donor and the beloved personality of the deceased member of Council in whose memory the clock was presented; he expressed himself happy to unveil this handsome clock, which would add so greatly to the beauty of the quadrangle - a quadrangle, he would add, which, although a newcomer in point of time, was fully worthy to take its place among those ancient and noble buildings which were the glory of our University."  (13)
If you've ever been to a Commencement or a Convocation or some other academic ceremony you know exactly how this whole scene does down.  Sayers just nails it.

Our Heroine, Harriet Vane, is returning to Shrewsbury College at Oxford for Gaudy Night, a Reunion-like event, complete with festive dinners, endless speeches by University officials, and drinks before, during, and after.  Harriet writes detective novels, and apparently just extricated herself from a murder charge (her former lover) with the help of her new sort-of beau, the witty, handsome, aristocratic, basically what-a-catch Lord Peter Wimsey.  But Harriet hasn't been asked to come to the Gaudy just because the Dean really likes her (which she does).  There is a vicious prankster at hand, terrorizing the College community with nasty notes and destructive behavior, vaguely aimed at tearing down the hard-built walls of this new, and first in Oxford, women's college.  Is it a student, faculty, staff?  All we really know is that it is a member of the College community.  The members of the college community do not want word of this discord to become public, lest it tarnish the College's new and hard-won reputation as a place of serious scholarship.  The idea of a women's college is so new, they fear that the criticism will be used to undermine the larger mission of educating women.

The long (527 pages!) story is really not that exciting from a crime perspective.  Harriet digs and probes, but doesn't come up with much.   She calls in Peter for help, reluctantly, because they have a complicated relationship.  Basically, Peter is in love with Harriet, but is too smart to push her into a relationship, and she is skittish for reasons that are not entirely clear to me but I think have something to do with the previous episode, and not wanting to give up her delightful-sounding independence for what society generally deems a subordinate position in a relationship.  I think it a bit of a cop-out on Sayers' part to have Peter be the one to solve the mystery in the end.  But perhaps by this time in the Wimsey series, Sayers couldn't get away with him not taking a central role.  There is something a bit meta about a mystery writer writing about a mystery writer, who is having trouble keeping her characters in line.

A central theme in this book therefore, is not whodunit so much as why and what does that say about this society?  This is not an unusual tack for crime fiction, which is often all about social context, but in this case it strikes rather closer to home.  One of the better known quotes from this book is "But what are you going to do with the people who are cursed with both hearts and brains?"  (74)  The first time we read this, it is during a conversation between Harriet and Peter that is really about their own relationship but is played out as a debate about whether one can maintain personal relationships and be really truly brilliant at some vocation, at the same time.  It doesn't take much for this to be applied in a feminist context, and I see it as the old working-mother debate.  As the prankster's actions become nastier, they take on a distinctly anti-feminist (if we can call these doughty academics feminists - I think they just consider themselves genderless scholars) tone. Someone really hates these women who have presumed to stray from the natural order of home and hearth.

Pretty much everyone in this book has an opinion on whether women should try and be part of a heretofore man's world, and Harriet is right in the thick of it.  At one point she rails against wasting the hard-earned spaces at Oxford on girls who don't want to take it seriously.  "We haven't got room for women who aren't and never will be scholars."  Her pal the Dean agrees.  "I know . . . but schoolmistresses and parents are such jugginses.  We do our best, but can't always weed out their mistakes.  And here's my secretary - called away, just when we're all so busy, because her tiresome little boy's got chicken-pox at his infuriating school.  Oh, dear!  I oughtn't to talk like that, because he's a delicate child and naturally children must come first but it is too crushing!"  (180)  Come on, you know you've had that same thought at some point, even if you have kids of your own.  And the child-free have certainly thought it about us.

Team Family doesn't get much of a hearing, and I think it is because the senior Shrewsbury scholars are the vanguard (as is Sayers herself), the first group to win their degrees.  The younger faculty and students are a generation removed from the struggle and while their path is not entirely smooth, neither is their every move questioned and challenged.  The only women with families are those in service, or the secretaries.  Even the younger dons, some of whom might actually be engaged, are only that - they've not become the ball and chain.

Gaudy Night does not settle the debate.  If Harriet agrees to ride off into the sunset with Peter at the end, let it be noted that it is with a career, and without a family.  One can't help but admire Harriet's glorious independence, dashing about in her roadster, making her own decisions, working away in the library when she wants, taking a break with the dons when she needs.  The story is ultimately a noble effort to secure women's place in a man's world, but at what expense?  Sayers can't answer that one satisfactorily, but then, who has?