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.