Ngaio Marsh – Artists in Crime

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Love, Art and Murder

Travelling back from New Zealand, where he has been recuperating after an operation (and solving a theatrical crime) Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn meets a rather remarkable woman on board the ship. Agatha Troy, known to all as Troy, is a well-respected artist. She is completely uninterested in flirtatious, simpering feminine wiles, full of subterfuge, but is direct, driven, and motivated to excellence in her work. Some kind of almost unwelcome frisson occurs between Alleyn and Troy. Each is a little suspicious of their own feelings, and sure only of the indifference felt by the other.

Some time later, matters murderous happen in an artist’s retreat and painting school which Troy is running, for a group of strongly egotistic, often highly competitive and unconventional artists. Chance dictates that Troy’s studio is only a few miles away from the Alleyn family home and that Alleyn is visiting his adored and wonderful mother, Lady Alleyn. Location means that the local force are more than happy to draft in the famous, brilliant investigator to solve a case beyond their normal abilities. Alleyn, along with his trusty familiar crew, Inspector Fox, Bailey-the-fingerprints, Thompson-the-photographics are also joined by the journalist with an ear to the ground about exploits Alleyn – Nigel Bathgate, happily married to Angela North from Book 1 of the series, who is about to give birth.

Still Life by Marsh

The solving of yet another ingenious and horrid crime is of course the thrust of the book, but, as always, there are other delights along the way. Not least of which is getting to know more about Alleyn’s family background. He must be a particularly unusual detective in a series, – certainly unlike most detectives in more modern series – as not only is he neither a drug or drink abusing maverick with tendency to serial bed-hopping who comes from a dysfunctional family, but he has, instead, a particularly warm relationship with his lovely, intelligent, well liked, charming mother. Mother and son clearly love, like, respect and appreciate each other, with good reasons for doing so, on both sides. Lady Alleyn, like her son, is a thoroughly good egg, with spirit, wit and individuality. She is also keenly and intelligently interested in her son’s profession. And would dearly like him to find the kind of exceptional woman who would be a fine and fitting match for him.

Unfortunately, matters of the heart are bound to be a little difficult when Alleyn is bound to consider Troy as one of the potential suspects in the artists’ murder mystery. She is someone who appears to have both motive and opportunity, as of course do the usual gathering of others in this painterly version of the classic country house murder.

This is book 6 of the series, and as enjoyable as the previous 5

Artists in Crime Amazon UK
Artists in Crime Amazon USA

Truman Capote – In Cold Blood

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Unsettling, uncomfortable account of a real crime – The Clutter Murders of 1959

Truman Capote’s 1966 account of a notorious, barely motive-driven rural multiple murder which took place in Kansas in 1959 catapulted him into the best seller lists and celebrity status.

An upstanding, hard-working family from Holcomb, a small community in the wheat-plains of western Kansas, were brutally murdered by person or persons unknown, in November 1959. The Clutter family, Herb, church-going, teetotal dairy cattle-farmer, his rather delicate but equally upstanding wife Bonnie, and his two children, 16 year old Nancy, vivacious, popular, responsible, admired, and her bookish 15 year old brother Kenton were all shot at point-blank range, having previously been tied up. Herb Clutter also had his throat cut before being shot.

Inevitably, investigation first turned to possible personal and local motive, but there was no evidence at all to suggest this. The community was a tight-knit, respectable, co-operative one, and all the Clutters were warmly regarded by their colleagues, peers, friends, family and neighbours

The hitherto peaceful congregation of neighbours and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other; understandably, they believed that the murderer was amongst themselves

The conclusion was that this might have been a burglary which went wrong. The idea of this definitely ruled out local involvement as everyone knew that Clutter did not keep money or valuables in the house, but banked it

The crime seemed to point towards something of a growing trend – murder without any real personal motive. There have always been such, in times past, but, for obvious reasons, they were more likely to take place in crowded cities, where perpetrators could quickly vanish amongst the hordes. Such crimes in isolated areas, carried out by perpetrators completely unknown, where victim and murderer had no direct connection with each other, must have been comparatively rare before owning cars became common, so that going on the run and being able to hide anywhere, became easily possible.

The perpetrators of this crime, after an intense investigation, were found to be a couple of small time crooks, who had met whilst serving time, far away from the scene of the crime. The successful solving of the crime, not to mention the capture of the pair, also depended on chance as much as skill, and the existence of mass-media (radio, TV) to highlight awareness of the crime and the search. The motive was indeed a robbery gone wrong, with the murderers, neither of whom had ever met Clutter, unaware that this rich man did not have a safe in his house (as they had assumed he would)

It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the “nonfiction novel,” as I thought of it.

Capote, quoted in a 1966 interview about his novel for The New York Times

Truman Capote’s account of the case, originally serialised in The New Yorker, was rather a literary, ground-breaking one. The book was extensively researched from documents and interviews, but Capote structured this like a converging story, rather than a linear account. The structure, the language and the shaping are that of story, not journalistic reportage. Indeed, levelled against the book was criticism (particularly locally) that some dialogue had been invented, and small human touches and potent images had been invented.

Interestingly, his researcher on the book was his friend, and later, admired author in her own right, Harper Lee.  She is one of the two people Capote dedicates the book to.

The crime was indeed a gory one, but Capote withholds the gory details until near the end of the book, Instead, he paints a low-key, un-histrionic , unheroic, un-villainous picture of all the individuals associated with the case – this includes the victims, the murderers and all connected in the investigation, bringing to justice, and the community in which these events happened.

The author avoids operatic, overblown rhetoric. The reader (well, this one) has the sense of an author listening for a way to tell a shocking story in a simple, measured way, allowing the events themselves to be revealed in a way which suggests they have objective existence, and are not driven by authorial agenda. Nonetheless, the choices he made do of course shape the reader’s own perceptions. This is not a mere recounting of facts, but the reader is not being punched by the writer’s persona. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Capote did feel a kind of fascination with one of the perpetrators, whose status as half Cherokee, half-Irish, child of a broken marriage, whose mother was an alcoholic, and who spent part of his childhood in a brutal care home, marked his card, somewhat from the start. A classic outsider who FELT like an outsider to himself. Capote, himself an outsider, clearly felt some kind of – if not sympathy, than an identification of ‘outsiderness’

My feeling is that for the nonfiction-novel form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work. Ideally. Once the narrator does appear, he has to appear throughout, all the way down the line, and the I-I-I intrudes when it really shouldn’t. I think the single most difficult thing in my book, technically, was to write it without ever appearing myself, and yet, at the same time, create total credibility.

Unlike a more modern trend in some ‘true crime’ writing, Capote avoids a ramping up of the gory details of the undoubtedly gory crime. He is not trying to titillate or be gratuitous, Instead, there is a cool restraint. There is of course no ‘excuse’ for the crime, but there is a recognition that the fact that these types of crime occur shows ‘something’ about human nature. Because the writer does not go the route of ‘aberrant, demonic, despicable, bestial monsters’ the reader is uncomfortably forced to acknowledge this too is the possibility of human choice, human behaviour.

And I was left (with no solution) with a kind of puzzle. This is a crafted work of art, and the account of a crime which clearly fascinated as well as horrified. And Capote’s book also gave rise to a film. However………there has been (continuing) criticism of book and film by residents of Holcomb at the time and their descendants. Coping with such a tragedy in their midst, difficult enough, at the time, and beyond, but the critical and commercial success of Capote’s work has kept a kind of searchlight on their lives, perhaps making moving on a far more difficult journey

Perry was always asking me: Why are you writing this book? What is it supposed to mean? I don’t understand why you’re doing it. Tell me in one sentence why you want to do it. So I would say that it didn’t have anything to do with changing the readers’ opinion about anything, nor did I have any moral reasons worthy of calling them such–it was just that I had a strictly aesthetic theory about creating a book which could result in a work of art.

“That’s really the truth, Perry,” I’d tell him, and Perry would say, “A work of art, a work of art,” and then he’d laugh and say, “What an irony, what an irony.” I’d ask what he meant, and he’d tell me that all he ever wanted to do in his life was to produce a work of art. “That’s all I ever wanted in my whole life,” he said. “And now, what was happened? An incredible situation where I kill four people, and you’re going to produce a work of art.” Well, I’d have to agree with him. It was a pretty ironic situation.

Capote by Jack Mitchell, Wiki Commons

The ‘blue’ quote is from the book itself, the green quotes are all from the New York Times interview, which is fascinating. Capote Interview with George Plimpton of the New York Times

 The book was 6 years in the writing, beginning before the case was solved, taking in the investigation, the whole legal process, and, later on going interviews and correspondence with Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, during the years they spent on Death Row whilst the due process of law and appeals by the lawyers for the defence continued. Its ‘wrap’ is the expected one.

In Cold Blood Amazon UK
In Cold Blood Amazon USA

John le Carré – Call for the Dead

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The Freezing Fog of the Cold War : George Smiley 1

Despite being fascinated by espionage – the hidden stuff of it, and the psychology of those who do it, rather than the glitzy Bond aspects – I have somehow never read le Carré, nor seen or heard the TV or radio adaptations of his books.

This, then his first book, is my first outing too with George Smiley, loner, a quiet man, with a private life full of some sorrow, as his rather glamorous, society wife, an unlikely match, has done the more expected thing and run off with a glamour playboy.

Set in the late 50’s/early 60’s, as the Cold War was getting close to freeze point, this is as much a murder mystery as a spy thriller. Smiley recently interrogated a Foreign Office official who had come under the radar of possibly passing information to East Germany. He had been pretty certain that the man, Fennan, was in the clear, and had given him understanding that this would be his conclusion. The interview, an informal one, ended amicably on both sides. Except that Fennan then killed himself, and, even more curiously, posted a letter to Smiley on the same evening requesting a meeting.

The familiar face of George Smiley: Sir Alec Guinness in dry and wintry mode

I found this an interesting and atmospheric read, melancholy, cerebral and with nice and understated humour and a good evocation of time and place, as the following section shows. Smiley has gone to the dead man’s Surrey home, there to try and make sense of events, which do not quite seem to add up :

Merridale Lane is one of those corners of Surrey where the inhabitants wage a remorseless battle against the stigma of suburbia. Trees, fertilized and cajoled into being in every front garden half obscure the poky ‘Character dwellings’ which crouch behind them. The rusticity of the environment is enhanced by the wooden owls that keep guard over the names of houses, and by crumbling dwarves indefatigably posed over goldfish ponds. The inhabitants of Merridale Lane do not paint their dwarves, suspecting this to be a suburban vice

There are some interesting relationships which are clearly quite strong ones, but hidden behind an understated English reserve. Aiding Smiley in his investigations are a couple of professional colleagues, Mendel and Guillam, both of whom go the distance in what is after all, a dangerous pursuit – the hunting down of those who are prepared to kill in the service of a theory and philosophy. There is a subtext of masculine friendships, strong, clearly, but the emotional connections are not spoken about: this is stiff upper lip land, in time and in place. ‘Feeling’ language belongs to Fennan’s widow, Elsa, a German refugee, survivor of the war :

it’s an old illness you suffer from, Mr Smiley………..and I have seen many victims of it. The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims. But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment, isn’t it. The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins….The State is a dream too, a symbol of nothing at all, an emptiness, a mind without a body, a game played with clouds in the sky

There are obviously a lot of wheels within wheels plots to be unravelled, and the reader is in that rather enjoyable place where almost everyone might come under some kind of suspicion. Histories – both personal and the history of conflicts between states and ideologies are under investigation.

James Mason in Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair

John-le-Carré

This was filmed as ‘The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet, and starring James Mason, Simone Signoret and Maximilian Schell, it presumably takes some liberties, not least of which is the renaming of George Smiley as Dobbs

Call for the Dead Amazon UK
Call for the Dead Amazon UK

Ngaio Marsh – Vintage Murder

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Murder by bubbly………..

Vintage Murder, Marsh’s 5th book in her Inspector Alleyn series, published in 1937 is, like the second one, Enter A Murderer, given a theatrical setting. This was of course the author’s true home anyway. As is the slightly surprising location of this one – New Zealand which is, again, Ngaio Marsh’s home. Just as the reader is getting used to Alleyn’s regular companions – ‘Brer’ Fox, Bailey and Thompson from the Yard and the bumptiously enthusiastic journalist Nigel Bathgate, we have to journey with Alleyn sans regulars, though assiduous readers will be pleased to see that the sensible character actress Susan Max, from book 2, is also ‘down under’ as one of the members of The Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company, touring New Zealand. Alleyn, on extended recuperation leave from Scotland Yard following some kind of major operation (we are not party to his medical records) encounters the company and renews his acquaintance with Max on the train travelling to their first New Zealand performance in North Island. The urbane Alleyn gets to meet the company, and is invited to a celebratory back stage party.

Unfortunately as a death occurs, and is, of course, murder most horrid, and Alleyn was present at the scene of the crime, he begins as a witness and potential suspect, as the local police investigate. Quickly realising his impressive credentials – he is the author of the major manual for young Police Investigators in cop school – the locals are happy to have him join the investigating team. Far from viewing the locals as ‘hicks’ and crashing in with offensive superiority, there is a nice give and take between the New Zealand professionals and the Brit, with respect shown on both sides. Something I particularly like about Marsh is her relative freedom from the class and race attitudes which are rather prevalent in ‘Golden Age’ To be sure, prejudice does show, in attitudes towards another person present at the murder scene – a Maori physician – but Alleyn is interested to gain knowledge about a culture so very far from his own.

 

                               Maori tiki

Ngaio Marsh continues to delight me with her wonderful crafted writing, depth characterisation, fiendish by believable plotting. She gets better, so far, book on book, and has effortless wit and style in the person of the marvellous Alleyn.

I was particularly enchanted, in this book, by the inclusion of various sketches from Alleyn’s notebook – the ingenious mechanism by which murder most horrid was done, and the methodical method by which Alleyn records the precise sequence of events, movements of suspects, locations, motives, alibis and all

Alleyn continues to be a romantic at heart, rather susceptible on the inside to the charms of strong-minded, intelligent, sophisticated and vibrant artistic types. Here, leading lady Carolyn Dacres causes his heart to flutter, and he is susceptible. As in the second book, he is remarkably chivalrous, neither taking his position of power or his own allure for granted. Marsh allows him no bedroom scenes, his behaviour is proper, but he does feel he could easily fall under the spell of a woman of charisma, beauty and intelligence, even if, as he half suspects, he might be being played. I assume susceptibility to alluring actresses will not trouble him much longer, because Marsh is getting to the point in the series where Alleyn will soon meet his match and well-deserved destiny…………

What good fun she has. Unlike modern crime novels, there is a lack of grisly detail on the very bloody way violent death happens, which suits me fine, having a somewhat vivid imagination and delicate stomach!

Vintage Murder Amazon UK
Vintage Murder Amazon USA

Philip Roth – American Pastoral

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Endlessly reflecting mirrors

american-pastoral-book-coverPhilip Roth’s Pulitzer prize-winning American Pastoral is beautifully written, deeply disturbing and at times offensively misogynistic. It is also bitter, angry, sharply incisive about the frailty and illusion of the American Dream – and, heart-breakingly tender about the ties that bind us, particularly the love of a parent for their child, however wayward, however lost.

And, as well as all this, it is a fascinating series of challenges about the nature of writing and the nature of the writer. Roth throws down the gauntlet from the start, asking us not to forget that one of the central characters is his continuing alter-ego , Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman. The story we reading, presented by Zuckerman, into the life of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, Zuckerman’s childhood hero, is possibly Zuckerman’s invention. Certain events happen to Levov, but the reason they happened, the psychoanalytical unpicking of them, may be only the writer in the book (not to mention the writer of the book) shaping a chimera.

Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, whose story Zuckerman tells, was a gifted athlete, an inheritor and emblem of the aspirational dream of America’s European immigrant community. Looking like a WASP, he is Jewish, his family, a generation or so back, by hard work, dedication and talent, rising in the Promised Land. Swede’s success at football, basketball and baseball, and his upright, hard-working personality have made him envied and adored, a kind of hero to others. One of whom is the slightly younger Zuckerman. Meeting again, in late middle age, it is now Zuckerman who has achieved fame, as a writer, and he is long past a time of adulating the seemingly much more simple character of a former sporting hero. Zuckerman in fact perceives the apparently settled straight as a die, unthinkingly patriotic, successful businessman, husband and father that Levov has become as a bit of a simp. The writer rather takes a position of intellectual, metropolitan, sophisticated arrogance. Though written in 1998, there are definite pointers and echoes here of the roots of our divided nation – both here and in the States, between the cultural intelligentsia and those who ‘seem’ as if they inhabit and engage with nuance less. Zuckerman indulges in various fantasies and theories, trying to worm behind the simple, satisfied persona Swede seems to represent. There are several writerly inventions Zuckerman engages in, each of which, again and again, proves wrong. Finally, Zuckerman, sophisticated in his cynicism, dismisses Levov

There’s nothing here but what you’re looking at. He’s all about being looked at……..He always was…..You’re craving depths that don’t exist……The guy is the embodiment of nothing

And then Zuckerman finds out how wrong, how very wrong he has been, and how he knew nothing of Swede, nothing of his life.

Swede had reached adulthood and maturity shortly before the end of the Second World War. Enlisting as a marine, trying to meet the manly, right, patriotic challenge of the war, he was still going through boot-camp training when the bomb was dropped at Hiroshima. He took his desire to serve his country into the post-war world. A model citizen, he worked hard, had a developed awareness of social responsibility, married his childhood sweetheart, Dawn, entered and successfully ran the family glove-making business, and fathered a beloved daughter.  Meredith, the daughter, was a teenager in the 60’s, at the time of the Civil Rights movement and resistance to Vietnam, and she became intensely radicalised, revolutionary.  Merry, the apple of Swede’s eye, committed a shocking and violent act whilst still at high school, and then went on the run, hunted as a terrorist. Swede’s family, marriage, business and life suddenly shattered.

Belatedly discovering these events, Zuckerman then weaves this into story. He creates a narrative of motive, a narrative to ‘explain’ how this normal family, and privileged, loved child could have so violently changed. However……because of the constant reminders earlier in the book that narrator Zuckerman was inventing stories and sub stories which were wrong, Roth is reminding us that this too is narrative, story, invention. We know certain facts happened, but the interpretation of why Swede, Merry and Dawn got to where they did, may not be right. Zuckerman ‘blames’ a childhood event for Merry going to the bad – but the event is Zuckerman’s imagined narrative, and may never have happened.

     Patty Hearst kidnapping/Symbionese Liberation Army – a kind of sign of those times

Going forward, to after Merry has gone underground, is a deeply disturbing, highly misogynistic section in the second part of the book, with the introduction of a young Jewish woman who may have been responsible for Merry’s violent radicalisation. This is a section distasteful to read, and highly unsettling – are we being shown an unconscious misogyny, particularly towards Jewish women, which comes from Roth himself, through his alter ego as Zuckerman – or is the author placing himself firmly and consciously on a slab, for the reader to dissect Roth himself?

And then, at the point where the reader might think they have been able to negatively ‘get’ Roth himself, as the creator of all this, comes a section, where, after many years of searching for his vanished daughter in hiding from the law, Swede finds her, living in utter degradation, weirdly, most weirdly, transformed. This is a section of utter heartbreak, riven tenderness and almost unbearably painful humanity. Roth took my breath away in this raw exposure of all our suffering, poor, magnificent, broken complex humanity. Like Zuckerman with Swede, we get it wrong with each other, again and again.

American Pastoral rightly won its Pulitzer prize. It is not in any way an easy book; it is a greatly, painfully challenging one – by turns horrible, horrific, stony, violent, hating and hateful – and full of compassion and suffering. Published in 1997, looking back over a roughly 50 year sweep, it is far from dated, and seems horribly pertinent today.

I shall for sure, read more of Roth’s later work, though I am still, months after finishing this one, processing it.

Radical Group of the times, The Weathermen, took their name from a line from this Dylan song as featured in the film Don’t Look Back

Finally I have been a long, a very long time coming to this one. FictionFan strongly, Author Philip Roth poses in New Yorkstrongly endorsed this, in her GAN quest, indeed naming it as The Great American Novel. I bought it, and there it sat on my bedside table for a couple of years. I think I had been too riven by other GANs to be able to handle further deeply uncomfortable, brilliant GANnish journeys. I got to it via a small subsection of my book group, who have embarked on some challenging American titles, and a slow, sectional read of them. This was my choice. Lacerating, and amazing, all together as FictionFan suggested, You can read her review

American Pastoral Amazon UK
American Pastoral Amazon USA

Amanda Craig – The Lie of the Land

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Something nasty in the woodshed………

I have long been an admirer of Amanda Craig’s writing. It has been a long time waiting between her last novel, Hearts and Minds (2010) and this one, The Lie of The Land. Illness, not writer’s block was the culprit.

This book, like the previous, is both literary and contemporary fiction: Craig uses the novel form to examine, indeed, the lie of the land – political, social, marital, plus the deliberate double meaning of the title, dealing, as it does, with a metropolitan family, supposedly one of the ‘haves’, in the middle of marital break-up who move out of London to the West Country. Lottie, an architect, and Quentin, a journalist, both recently redundant, are forced into putting their home up to rent, to generate income, and downsize to a cheap, mysteriously rock bottom priced rented property in Devon, till the property market recovers enough to sell their very des res London home.

Like all her books, this can be read as a stand alone, but dedicated Craig readers will as ever be pleased to discover that some of her characters pass through more than one book.

Craig is a writer who deals with serious, complex issues, but has a light touch, an incisive, crafted intelligence and wit in her use of language. Hence : this lovely contrast between how Lottie sees herself and her chosen profession, compared to Quentin, and his :

Waking with fortitude, living with compromise and sleeping with stress is normal for an architect in Britain….waking with optimism, living with laxity and sleeping without self-reproach is normal for a journalist

Craig is always a writer with intelligence and wit – and also with warmth and compassion.

Although we certainly have more sympathy with Lottie than with Quentin (who has, not to put too fine a point on it, been dipping his wick) challenges inevitably come to marriages with the arrival of children, and some of the difficulties between the two stem from how parenting changes the relationship between lovers. Trapped in a terrible place in their relationship, Quentin, Lottie and their family must struggle to find a new, and very different community in the country. There is suspicion, misunderstanding but also connections between locals and the incomers. Lottie throws herself more into making good connections than Quentin.

           Paddington Station, Gateway to the West Country

Wrapped up in a very topical narrative of unease, especially politically, between cosmopolitan cities and more insular, but also, perhaps, more rooted in longer lasting communities, country-dwellers, is also a subplot crime thriller, which begins to come more prominently to the fore, with devastating effect.

To be honest, the dramatic denouement of this (it is probably going to be obvious who the villains of the piece are going to be) was the weakest aspect, for me, and I did not always completely believe the credibility of the arch villain. However – I have never read a book by Craig which I would not want to recommend. She always has interesting, important things to say, and says them in a most interesting, entertaining manner. Intelligent page turning, with wit and pain along the way

I received this as a copy for review purposes from Amazon Vine UK. It will be published, UK and Stateside, in June 2017
The Lie of The Land Amazon UK
The Lie of the Land Amazon USA

Ngaio Marsh – Death in Ecstasy

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The odour of not-quite-sanctity: Church as Country House Murder

So, continuing with my pleasant journey through Ngaio Marsh’s 33 Inspector Alleyn books, some of which I read in any old order back in the dim and distant days when my library carried a far wider range of books than they currently do. (Moans disconsolately that the Crime Fiction shelves seem to be filled with 50 Shades of Girls on Trains, and any number of the latest dismemberment of beautiful women by serial killers)

Back to Marsh, a much, much happier encounter, by a writer with her own clear voice, travelling her own journey, and not clonally copying

Death In Ecstasy is number 4 in the journey. It is a rare one, in that I am more aware of some of the mores and prejudices of the times – this one published in 1936 – which can be a little disturbing, unsettling or even, offensive to a reader of today. Though I do find Marsh, coming from outside the Establishment, and, moreover, from outside this country, has probably had a far wider exposure to more diverse humanity than some of the other ‘Golden Agers’ whom she is bracketed with. The specific discomfort in this one, a mild degree of homophobia – some of it passes as a kind of mildly spiteful camp humour, even delivered consciously by the gay guys – dancers, of course, but, a little more unsettling is Alleyn himself, Inspector Fox and Nigel Bathgate making disparaging comments – Bathgate describing one of the men as ‘loathly, nauseating, unspeakable little dollop’ – though I suppose that, as at that time, homosexuality was illegal, it would be a rare popular book (as perhaps, compared to more literary fare) who would positively present homosexual minor characters. At least Alleyn is less deliberate in his assessment, merely riposting ‘Horrid, wasn’t it?’ agreed Alleyn absently, – clearly thinking more fruitful thoughts about the crime investigation

There is, as is the case fairly often with Marsh, more than one investigation going on. The initial case concerns a murder taking place in a fringe, cult religious organisation. The journalist, Nigel Bathgate, a sometimes self-styled Watson to Alleyn’s Holmes, lives close by the mysterious charismatic church, and, on a bored whim, wonders what goes on in the building. He happens to witness a totally unexpected death, and quickly summons his friends from the Yard. And what a tangled web begins to unravel. With some nice nods to occultic quasi mysticism and unpleasant ideologies arising in Germany (as was indeed the case) the crime investigation begins to involve the usual suspects in murder cases – lust, sexual jealousy, greed, but there are various twists involved.

As ever, Marsh’s clear enjoyment of language, and her lovely, sometimes quite spiteful character drawing – as much down to her visual, artistic abilities as her writerly ones, plus her theatrical skills in crafting tight scenes are a delight :

Mrs Candour had wept and her tears had blotted her make-up again. Her face was an unlovely mess of mascara, powder and rouge. It hung in flabby pockets from the bone of her skull. She looked bewildered, frightened and vindictive. Her hands were tremulous. She was a large woman born to be embarrassingly ineffectual. In answer to Alleyn’s suggestion that she should sit on one of the chairs, she twitched her loose lips, whispered something and walked towards them with that precarious gait induced by excessive flesh mounted on French heels. She moved in a thick aura of essence of violet

Wonderful, cruel scalpel work, and I fear I shall be unable to view anyone whose girth really should have them avoiding heels, without inner snickering

To be fair, where Marsh assassinates, there is often good reason, and the reader is aware of characters who are unlovely at core. Though, as I work my way through her oeuvre, I am beginning to be a little more suspicious of some of the suspects Alleyn initially warms to

Meanwhile, for readers who share my liking of enthusiastic Nigel Bathgate, and his admiration of Angela North, enjoy him while you can, as his days are numbered as the series progresses. The in the Yard relationships are deepening, and also, as the series goes on, we learn more about Alleyn’s rather admirable personal life, and his close colleagues within the Police Force, not to mention relatives and others will mean that others will serve the purpose of foils, sources of alternative deductions, and a kind of sparring partner of wit and repartee. Shame I love all the developing friendships and other relationships, but will be sorry when Nigel is less central

Meanwhile given Marsh’s theatre history, I am more than sure that ‘Mrs Candour’ is a kind of nod towards Restoration Comedy, where often a character’s name will alert the audience to qualities that character does NOT possess, as is certainly the case here.

Death in Ecstasy Amazon UK
Death in Ecstasy Amazon USA

Roy Jacobsen – The Unseen

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Stoicism and endurance in Lofoten’s archipelago

Roy Jacobsen’s novel The Unseen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, set early in the 20th century, is as bleak, spare and without frills, and as far from the shifting, rootless lives of modern cities as its chilly, austere setting suggests.

This is a book which moves slowly, inexorably, and at times cataclysmically : nothing happens except by natural, seasonal rhythms. The most expressive and dominant character is the landscape itself, particularly a tiny island homestead, Barrøy, settled and named by and for the family who fished and subsistence farmed it for a handful of generations.

Patriarch Martin Barrøy is reaching the end of his rule, lacking the physical strength to wrest fish from the icy waters, or repair a house constantly pounded by gales, torrential rain and driving ice and snow. His son Hans, married to Marie is the real head of the family Their toddler daughter Ingrid, barely 3, and Hans’ unmarried sister, Barbro are the only other residents on the island.

Covering a timespan of barely a couple of decades, the high dramas of human existence – birth and death, flowering and fading, are dealt with as they must be. These are lives of struggle, visceral and competent, intensely practical.

It took me some time to settle into fascination and absorption with the recounting of the minutiae of day to day existence – the fashioning of a jetty, for the better housing of the small fishing boats, the repeated destruction of the building by storms, the repeated rebuilding, the challenges of catching fish, drying, salting. Trading between the small islands and how the weather might make that impossible.

This is not a book which takes the reader into deeply expressive interior journeys of character. There is a taciturnity about almost all the characters, they do not discuss their feelings. They are do-ers, not describers. When they do speak, their language is archaic, a dialect, and they are given at times words to say which show some relationship to Northumbrian dialect. These are Norsemen and women, for sure:

“My word, hvur bitty it is. A can scarce see th’houses.” Hans Barrøy says:Oh, A can see ‘em aright.”
“Tha’s better eyesight than mysel’ then,” the priest says, staring over at the community her has worked in for the last thirty years, but has never seen before from such a novel vantage point.
“Well, tha’s never been hier afore.”
“It’s a good two hours rowin’.”
“Has tha no sails?” Hans Barrøy says.

So, right away, the reader begins to think about an isolation beyond isolation. The Barrøys must travel this long route to be able to trade their produce. Children need educating, and Ingrid, when she reaches school age, will need to make this journey to the larger island, and stay there, two weeks on, two weeks off, for the length of her schooldays. These are hardy people, daily battling with survival.

Winter, Lofotens, Commons, Pixabay

This is a strange book, in the end, alluring, seductive, alien. The Barrøys, all of them, have great dignity and authenticity. It’s strange, in some ways, to read a book where all the characters are in some ways so ordinary, so undysfunctional, so sturdy.

For those disinclined to read representations of dialect, the fact that these islanders are taciturn will no doubt be a relief. For me, the dialogue worked, the short, pithy rhythms of speech have a music, and I was taken by the way the characters met their real life challenges with fortitude and grit. In a strange, bleak way the book has a kind of life affirming quality – mainly because there is little sense of the kind of malevolence, deviousness and treachery in these lives, instead a community unsentimental, borne out of the necessity of struggle, daily, with environment. People must trust, and must be able to trust each other. Treachery comes from wind and water, but that too is respected, viscerally loved and sensibly feared

These Lofotens are clearly a wealth away from the tourist destinations they have become a scant 100 years later

I received this as a digital copy for review, from the publishers, via NetGalley. And I recommend it

The Unseen is one of the short-listed titles for the Man Booker International Prize

The Unseen Amazon UK
The Unseen Amazon USA

Manchester, Arena: In Sorrow, In Anger, In Despair : Searching for a way ahead

This is nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with faith, nothing to do with any kind of cause worth anything at all

It says nothing about humanity’s desire to leave a world in any way better for the generations which come after us. It does not resonate in any way with how life itself strives for better adaptation. There is nothing here of any rationale, nothing here of anything which might make us hope humankind has anything to admire, to desire to emulate about itself.

All of that lies only within the hearts, minds and actions of those who came forward to succour and protect those who have been victims of an act perpetrated by deluded, aberrant, distasteful and irretrievably stupid, on every possible level, individuals

Children. Targetting children, a concert appealing to, particularly, young girls. A clearly deliberate choice, no doubt with the desire to provoke the deep distaste and revulsion that it does.

This is the worst our sorry species might be capable of – any who get sucked into these kinds of acts by believing they are following a ‘cause’ are deluded and in denial of their own true dark desires – these are the bullies, these are those who sublimate their own deep mental and emotional sickness and insufficiency by pretending to themselves that they are serving some greater purpose.

All they do is reveal the generosity, compassion, and humanity of those many others who rushed forwards to help, support, save, soothe, rescue, in all the ways they could.

We may not get to know the names of the admirable many, who remind us, in our helpless rage and despair, of what we can be, of what we want to be. But they are the ones I so surely need to focus on, and to hold like a beacon in my mind. They are the health and the wholeness.

Joel Dicker – The Baltimore Boys

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“Lives only have meaning if we can fulfil these three destinies: to love, to be loved, and know how to forgive”

I had been captivated by Swiss writer Joel Dicker’s first book, the runaway critically and reader acclaimed The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair – both a murder mystery/investigation and a book about writing, writer’s block and matters literary. So I was delighted to be offered his second as an ARC, here translated from the original French by Alison Anderson.

The Baltimore Boys stands as both prequel and sequel to ‘Harry Quebert’. The central character Marcus Goldman (the writer of Harry Quebert) looks back to the original genesis of his writing inspiration – his childhood, and his friendship with his cousin Hillel, and a less privileged boy, Woody – the Baltimore Boys, and in present time, he has already published ‘Quebert’ and, once again, is finding the process of writing hard.

Why do I write? Because books are stronger than life. They are the finest revenge we can take on life. They are the witnesses from the impregnable wall of our mind, the unassailable fortress of our memory

In fact, he has taken himself away from the distractions of the city (New York) to a quiet, suburban house in Florida, where his neighbours are affluent and retired, and nothing happens. He is in search of tranquillity to help the creative juices flow.

A chance encounter with a stray dog causes Marcus’ boyhood, as a third member of the Baltimore Boys gang, to come flooding back to him, as the dog’s owner is a significant figure from his past.

Marcus was the only son of the ‘Montclair Goldmans’ . His father Nathan was the less successful Goldman Brother. The star brother, and the one whom Marcus hero-worshipped, along with his beautiful wife Anita, was Saul. Saul and Anita were wealthy, golden, successful and admired. They and their only son Hillel were the Baltimore Goldmans.

However, as we discover, at the start of the book – the Golden Baltimores somehow became mired in tragedy. Jumping back and forth in time-frames from 1989 to the present day, Marcus is writing his past, his present, and, perhaps his future. This book, The Baltimore Boys, will be a celebration of the people he loved whose lives were less blessed than he thought, and will also be a way to come to terms with accepting loss, and broken illusions.

I loved ‘Quebert’ though at times I found it a little over tricksy. Baltimore Boys, despite all the jumping back and forth in time, seems a much more traditional progression – Goldman lets us know what he intends to reveal to us, before we ever get there – the books very first sentence, its prologue, tells us that in 2004 his boyhood friend, his adopted cousin Woody, is about to start a 5 year prison sentence the next day. We are then immediately taken to Part One, which begins in 1989, The Book of Lost Youth.

I found The Baltimore Boys intensely moving. Marcus, for all his acclaimed fame, has a kind of bruised, attractive diffidence, and a much greater warmth and integrity than he believes he has. This is both a love story, a loss story, and a celebration of the importance of friendship, and of family, those difficult, sometimes impossible ties between siblings and close kin.

And it is full of delicious observations. The back and forth time frames also pinpoint subtle and not so subtle changes in society

There was a time when astronauts and scientists were the stars. Nowadays our stars are people who do nothing and spend their time taking selfies or pictures of their dinner

Above all, Joel Dicker knows how to tell an old story, the rite of passage from child to sadder, wiser man, freshly and engagingly

The Baltimore Boys will be published in English on May 18th It has already been a popular success in the original French, published in 2015, and in Spanish translation.

The Baltimore Boys Amazon UK
The Baltimore Boys Amazon USA