As obvious as obvious gets, and yet I chuckled aloud over my bai sach chrouk:
April 16th, 2015
April 14th, 2015
Our book today is The Civilization of the Renaissance, the brilliant 1860 masterpiece by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, but it’s not just any edition: I recently found (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course) a copy of the beautiful oversized edition put out by the Phaidon Press in 1939 for the English-language book market in Vienna – and done up in typical lavish Phaidon style. The text of Burckhardt’s book, here given a great galumphing translation by S. G. C. Middlemore, can easily stand on its own, of course: Burckhardt is an endlessly interesting, passionate, intelligent guide. Every time I revisit this grand book, I’m struck again by how energetically good it is, how quicksilver-intelligent and how massively, almost effortlessly eloquent it all is. Burckhardt looks at the full spectrum of the ideological side of the Renaissance – the revival of letters, the seismic shifts in blind religious faith, the rise of both the state and the individual as new kinds of works of art, the growth of secular festivals and commerce in the cities and towns, all of it – and he moves through it all with such masterful skill as to put virtually all such histories, before or since, in the shade.
And like all great books on such a level, there’s a very pleasingly reassuring proportion of rum summaries and wry opinions. As with the works of Gibbon or Adam Smith, there are plenty of bits to spark arguments, bits that always make me smile for their sheer outlandishness, like this description of that magnificent brute, Pope Julius II, hardly one single detail of which is right:
Whatever may have been the private morals of Julius II, in all essential respects he was the saviour of the Papacy. His familiarity with the course of events since the pontificate of his uncle Sixtus had given him a profound insight into the grounds and conditions o the Papal authority. On these he found his own policy, and devoted to it the whole force and passion of his unshaken soul. He ascended the steps of St. Peter’s chair without simony and amid general applause, and with him ceased, at all events, the undisguised traffic in the highest offices of the Church. Julius had favourites, and among hem were some of reverse of the worthy, but a special fortune put him above the temptation to nepotism.
But such bits are just illicit titterings; the real enjoyment of Burckhardt’s book, its real rolling magnificence, comes from its intensely empathetic descriptions of every aspect of the Renaissance itself – the soldiers for hire, the ordinary people, the kings and doges, the merchants who were suddenly voyaging everywhere in the world, and, in a wonderful passage, the key administrators of the whole Renaissance itself, the new wave of humanists who were embracing and promulgating the new learning. When Burckhardt writes about them, you get the distinct impression he’s feeling a personal connection:
The career of the humanists was, as a rule, of such a kind that only the strongest characters could pass through it unscathed. The first danger came, in some cases, from the parents, who sought to turn a precocious child into a miracle of learning, with an eye to his future position in that class which then was supreme. Youthful prodigies, however, seldom rise above a certain level; or, if they do, are forced to achieve their further progress and development at the cost of the bitterest trials. For an ambitious youth, the fame and the brilliant position of the humanists were a perilous temptation; it seemed to him that he too ‘through inborn pride could no longer regard the low and common things of life.’ He was thus led to plunge into a life of excitement and vicissitude, in which exhausting studies, tutorships, secretaryships, professorships, offices in princely households, mortal enmities and perils, luxury and beggary, boundless admiration and boundless contempt, followed confusedly one upon the other, and in which the most solid worth and learning were often pushed aside by superficial impudence. But the worst of all was, that the position of the humanist was almost incompatible with a fixed home, since it either made frequent changes of dwelling necessary for livelihood, or so affected the mind of the individual that he could never be happy for long in one place.
But in addition to Burckhardt’s great text, this Phaidon edition has a glorious addition: its final hundred pages consist of a huge gallery of absolutely gorgeous high-definition black-and-white photos of paintings, tapestries, portraits, sculptures, building plans, building models, and sketches, all of the assembled and curated by Ludwig Goldscheider, the founder of Phaidon.
It’s an incredibly enjoyable assemblage of images, all in such exquisite detail. We can see a close-up of the heavy-lidded face of vicious condottiere Gattamalata, from the statue made by Donatello; we see Dosso Dossi’s infectiously happy portrait of a laughing jester sharing a close-up with a sheep; we see a cartoon caricature by Annibale Carracci that looks like it could be found in any satirical magazine today, and there are hundreds more such illustrations. Paging through that back portion of the book, I was struck by what a sumptuous way it was to experience Burckhardt’s work. I know I have a normal paperback of The Civilization of the Renaissance somewhere in my library, but I doubt I’ll even bother to look for it now.
April 13th, 2015
Our book today is Stephen Kelley’s The Language of the Dead (the prepositional phrase isn’t explicitly necessary to get your book featured on Mystery Monday, but it obviously doesn’t hurt…), the first in a planned series of murder mysteries taking place in rural England during the Second World War, when food and resources are being rationed, when blackouts are in effect every night as an optimistic precaution against German bombers, and when the backdrop of a world war subtly shifts the very feel of murder on the home front.
The Language of the Dead is set in lovely Hampshire in 1940, and our hero is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Lamb, a married man and WWI veteran who comes to us in the novel’s opening chapters so snugly packaged in police procedural cliches that meeting him feels more like reminiscing about him. He has strained relations with both his wife Marjorie and his daughter Vera, he takes breath mints to help him with his struggle against his tobacco addiction, he’s carrying around psychological baggage from the Great War (and he shares a surname with a famous writer, for extra points), he’s much more of a plodder than a piercer when it comes to ferreting out crimes, he’s a stickler for procedure except when he’s not, etc. etc.
It’s a heavy load to throw off in the course of only one novel, and it’s to Kelly’s credit that he manages even as much as he does. Things are helped along by the plot (although even there, the ultimate villain is spottable almost from the first pertinent scene, after which you’re just waiting to learn motive, not identity), which is kicked into gear by the discovered of the body of an old loner farmhand named William Blackwell, who’s been gruesomely murdered in the village of Quimby:
Will Blackwell’s arms were flung away from his body, as if in a gesture of ecstatic welcome, and his legs spread wide. The position of the old man’s limbs put Lamb in mind of a child lying in the snow making angels. The leftmost tine of a rusting pitchfork with a worn, weathered handle was thrust into the center of his neck while a scythe with a curved blade of roughly twenty inches long – also partly rusted – protruded from his chest. A copious amount of blood had pooled in the dry grass around the body and the old man’s eye sockets were full of fleshy pulp.
Kelly does a good job juxtaposing the sordid nature of the crime with its frankly idyllic setting, which he evokes in offhand half-paragraphs of memorably unstressed pretty detail:
The twilight air had grown cool and redolent of the fragrances of wildflowers and windblown grasses. Bees and butterflies busied themselves in the meadows and the first bats appeared. Small birds occasionally darted from thickets to alight on sagging fences. The sun had eased its way down to a point just beneath the tops of the highest trees of the wood to their right, slanting shadows across the footpath.
And as more murders occur (and as a helpless and obviously traumatized boy and suspicions of local witchcraft gather around the peripheries), Kelly also does a good job of juxtaposing something else: the subtle ways the tensions of the crimes combine in all the characters with the tensions of the times. As one character says later in the book, “It’s bad enough that the damned Germans are due any day now and our men are being shot out of the sky and slaughtered before they can even get airborne. It’s too much strain for the average person.”
By the time The Language of the Dead is in full swing, Kelly has largely made you forget about the many derivative ways it got started (and, for that matter, about that peskily familiar prepositional phrase in the title), and the last fifty pages or so are genuinely exciting. In the end, the book turns out to be yet another cliché, although this time a good one: it’s a very promising debut.
April 12th, 2015
The latest big crossover event in DC Comics has now well and truly begun, although I’m predictably late getting around to writing about it here at Stevereads. It’s called “Convergence,” and part of the reason I’m late writing about it is that I’m still not entirely clear on what it IS.
DC’s previous really big event was the birth of “The New 52” a few years ago, in which the company underwent a full-spectrum reboot, tearing down decades of continuity and starting all its marquee characters – Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the rest – with brand-new first issues and entirely re-conceived origin stories. I think the company honchos viewed it as a way to clear out lots of tangled and confusing backstory and re-invent these classic characters in order to attract a wider audience of new readers (and if it simultaneously gave a whole bullpen of creators – writers and artists both – a chance to feel really invigorated about their storytelling, so much the better).
I was enormously skeptical about “The New 52,” as probably goes without saying. And my doubts weren’t exactly allayed by the initial roll-out of first issues and the changes they contained. Everything seemed to skewed for attracting new fans alright – provided all of those new fans were horny 13-year-old boys. Male characters were all grimmer and more humorless than ever (personality-wise, they were all Batman); female characters were all huge-breasted anorexics with self-esteem issues; story lines were bigger and louder but also dumber. It’s true that my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes got two ongoing titles and both those titles were very good – but both were among the first New 52 titles to get cancelled, and all of my other favorites faired little better. Wonder Woman became a one-dimensional “What ho, fellow warriors!”-type sword-slinging lunkhead (sort of like a Conan the Barbarian with even bigger boobies); Superman became first a workboot-wearing football team bully-jock and then a levitating, emotionless Visiting Alien in a Nehru collar; the Justice League became a loose collection of preening egomaniacs, none of whom trusted each other. It’s true that Aquaman got one hell of a good reboot, and of course no reconception can really dim the sheer workability of the Batman titles – but for the most part, I thought “The New 52” was a classic example of fixing something that hadn’t been broken.
Things got better. The reboot was an enormous success with fans; the story lines steadily improved; the creative teams started doing some truly excellent work. Even the Superman titles, for which I’d held out little hope, started becoming really good. Titles came and went, but over all there was a feeling of bubbling creativity that I gradually came to like quite a bit.
Now all of that is up for grabs again; “Convergence” is specifically designed to shake things up, and like I said, I’m not exactly sure why. One veteran comics-watcher snidely pointed out to me that the company can’t exactly go on calling something “new” that’s now a few years old, but that can’t have been much of a reason, since it would sure be easier to simply remove “The New 52” logo from all DC’s issue-covers than to scrap their entire publishing line for two months and foist “Convergence” and all its spin-offs on their readers.
Whatever the reason, after an initial “Issue 0” last week, the whole megilla kicked off officially this week with “Convergence” #1 and a smattering of spinoff issues. The premise, as outline in that first issue, is disarmingly simple: a super-being named Telos has plucked cities from dozens of different eras and continuity-lines in DC’s long publishing history and installed them on a barren planet Telos totally controls. He deprived the super-beings of those worlds of their superpowers that whole time (no explanation as to how he does any of this, of course), but now he wants to try something different: he’ll restore their super-powers and make them fight it out. The victorious reality will get to live, and all the others will be wiped out.
Disarmingly simple, like I said, and also droolingly dumb. Not only do a great many DC superheroes have superpowers you couldn’t just switch off without killing them, but also, if you’ve got a bad guy who’s so powerful he can at any moment idly play games with all of the good guys, what’s the point of telling superhero stories at all? The various DC continuities include wizards, aliens, immortals, and at least one agent of the Christian God Himself – the fact that “Convergence” doesn’t explain how any of these beings, let alone all of them, could become simple playthings for some random super-bad guy is certainly a big, distracting mark against it.
This #1 issue has all kinds of other marks against it. It’s written by Jeff King and Scott Lobdell (and drawn by Carlo Pagulayan), and AS a first issue, it stinks. The action opens in mid-scene, almost in mid-sentence, on some alternate Earth in the middle of some plot that quite obviously culminated in some other comic book. Alternate-world versions of Batman, the Flash, Superman and others are facing off against yet a different version of Superman, this one obviously evil. There’s not so much as a paragraph of exposition to explain any of this, not so much as a sentence of synopsis about whatever the hell preceded this opening page – instead, newcomers are I guess expected to just sink or swim.
There’s a volcanic eruption, a giant stone hand, a red-haired woman who jumps out of the ground (where apparently she’d been eavesdropping without needing to breathe?) and kisses somebody – none of it makes any sense to the newcomer, and then our heroes (at least I think they’re our heroes) are rudely transported to the world Telos has set up in order to pit all his various captured cities against each other. Our heroes are told they won’t be allowed to make common cause with any of the other heroes – instead, it’ll be a multi-part fight-to-the-death, with all of reality as the prize. What you see on the cover of the issue – our heroes preparing to fight Telos – never even comes close to happening inside.
DC put out a few spin-off comics this same week, all of them set in various alternate timelines and continuities, and with a great deal of trepidation, I bought “Convergence: Superman” #1 – mainly on the strength of the cover, which shows Superman kissing Lois Lane as the four-color comics gods intended (not Wonder Woman, his “New 52” love interest, although they don’t seem to know or like each other at all in regular New 52 comics).
The issue is firmly set in the world of “Convergence.” The pre-New 52 Superman (with enormous restraint, I’ll refrain from calling him the real Superman) has been trapped in Gotham City, of all places, with a very pregnant Lois Lane (a nod to the idea that time hasn’t been standing still in any of these continuities while we’ve all been reading the one featured in “The New 52”). His superpowers are gone, but his nature is still the same, so he’s been going out to fight crime dressed in head-to-toe black, with Lois offering commentary via an earpiece. As the issue begins, Clark is trying to foil a drug-running operation when two things happen: first, everybody hears a booming, disembodied voice (it’s Telos, announcing his tournament), and second, one of the bad guys blasts Clark with a flamethrower. Lois, not knowing that Telos’s announcement means he’s magically restored everybody’s powers, is momentarily terrified that her only-human husband has been burned to a crisp.
And when the flames clear, I got a panel I’ve been waiting years for, waiting for ever since “The New 52” began: Superman, the pre-reboot Superman, standing there with his spitcurl and his smile and his bright circus-acrobat costume.
He takes care of the criminals in short order and returns to Lois, and before he heads out to investigate the mysterious booming voice, he and Lois indulge in a little gentle, teasing chat, and it’s exactly the kind of lovely little moment that virtually never happens in “The New 52”:
The issue is written by Dan Jurgens and drawn by a favorite of mine, Lee Weeks, and it ends of a cliffhanger, so I know I get at least one more adventure of this Superman. And a glance at some of the upcoming “Convergence” titles gives me hope that there’ll be other gems I can savor before the whole thing comes to whatever its conclusion will be.
I’m still unclear on the nature of that conclusion, but I think I can tell two things for sure: a) the continuity that results from this event won’t in fact be one single winner of the contest Telos has set up but a blending of elements from several of them, and therefore b) no matter how I might have irrationally hoped for it once upon a time, that new continuity won’t simply be a return to what I consider “normal.” And it took the prospect of seeing all these different continuities jumbling together to make me realize I maybe don’t even hope for that anymore. Against my own expectations, I enjoyed a lot of what “The New 52” offered me. I’m willing to bet I’ll enjoy a lot of whatever arises from “Convergence” as well. I’ll read a bunch next week with that hope in mind.
April 10th, 2015
Our books today are three new romances hot off the presses, and they quite accidentally nagged at a small corner of my guilty conscience when it comes to my foremost guilty pleasure. In the past, veteran romance readers have accused me of disproportionately favoring historical romances over all other kinds, and although I initially bridled at the thought, the more I thought about it the more I realized it was true. It’s understandable – after all, I make no secret of my love for historical fiction (and in fact make it my sole editorial preoccupation in my other web-lit home, the Historical Novel Review) – but it isn’t exactly fair to or representative of the huge remainder of the romance field, where sizzling-hot quasi-erotica set in the present day easily outsells the bodice-rippers that were once the genre’s mainstay.
The imbalance struck me as I read my way through some of this month’s new romances from the good folks at Berkley, so I moved a few contemporaries to the top of the pile for this little round-up, starting with:
Below the Belt by Jeanette Murray – This one stars athletic trainer Marianne Cook, who has the curious job of training the male members of the Marine Corps boxing team into a well-oiled professional unit. Marianne is pert and sexy, of course, and so she’s invariably the object of unwanted attention from all of those very young and nearly brainless Marines. The book opens with a fun scene in which she’s saved from one such encounter by the book’s hero, First Lieutenant Brad Costa, who Marianne spots right away as a member of the Corps himself:
“Marine? What gave it away?” The taller, older one smiled easily, but his grip on the young man never loosened. Like his younger friend, he wore the same distinctive military markers – medium brown hair in a high and tight, polo tucked into jeans without any designer rips or holes – but it wasn’t so much a definition of who he was as it was just something he wore comfortably. He was probably in his late twenties, early thirties tops, she’d guess. Not old. But old enough to flip a switch from thinking What a silly little infant over to Oh, boy, that’s good to look at.
That pointed mention of Brad Costa’s age is the twinkle in the book’s eye throughout. He’s a bit older than the usual mid-twenties, and nobody in the book mocks that idea more thoroughly than Costa himself. The book is a light-hearted affair, certainly, although nowhere near as fluffy as our next book:
Love After All by Jaci Burton – This author will be familiar to romance readers for, among other things, her “Play-by-Play” novels (in two of which, Melting the Ice and Taking a Shot, she advances the charming idea that professional hockey players are actually a form of humans), and her “Hope” novels ( Hope Flames, Hope Ignites, Hope Burns), of which this is the latest one. It tells the story of high school math teacher Chelsea Gardner (who could “weed out a decent man from a loser in the first fifteen minutes of a date”), who’s worked out a perfect list of the qualities she’s determined to find in her ideal man. He’s got to work a 9 to 5 job; he’s got to be a natty dresser; he’s got to have a great big manly dog; he’s got to have no relationship baggage, and so on. The one person she’s certain doesn’t qualify is Sebastian “Bash” Palmer, the owner of the No Hope at All bar:
Bash was the perfect example of the wrong type of guy. She mentally ticked off all the items on her list that he didn’t fit.
He was divorced. He was a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy. And while he might look super hot in said jeans and T-shirt, it still counted against him.
The list starts getting whittled away in the book’s opening pages, when one of his ex-girlfriends storms into the bar and hands Bash a terrified little dog she claims she only adopted to impress him. Little Lulu almost immediately becomes the cement that bonds Chelsea and Bash together, and the novel that follows is a happy, air-light thing, a perfect diversion for a snowy, sleety Boston April.
But much to my chagrin – and my pleasure – the book I enjoyed most this time around was, you guessed it, a historical novel:
This Gun for Hire by Jo Goodman – I wasn’t very familiar with Goodman’s books until I read her 2013 novel True to the Law, which was very satisfyingly substantial and mighty good. So I went into her new book This Gun for Hire with high hopes, and I wasn’t disappointed. The book is set in 1888, the story of former army cavalryman Quill McKenna, who’s the bodyguard of Ramsey Stonechurch, the main power broker and mine owner of Stonechurch, Colorado. When the Stonechurch family receives threats, Quill hires scout Calico Nash to protect Ramsey’s daughter from danger – and Quill begins to find himself attracted to her. Calico is a superb gunman, but after an unexpected demonstration, he’s willing to cede top honors to Quill:
Quill fell silent, thinking. After a few moments, he said, “Well, my father called it a preternatural bent. It was not a compliment. He didn’t trust that my talent wasn’t the devil’s doing, and he was certain I would come to grief for having it.”
“And your brother? Does Israel have the same bent?”
“No, but he’s done his best to prove that you can come to grief without it.” He smiled wryly. “If my father ever saw the irony there, he’s never said as much.”
Calico walked up to him, raised herself slightly on her toes, and kissed him on the mouth. “I appreciate the irony, and I am in awe of your gift. If I thought for a moment that I could be the shot you are, I might be envious, but what you can do is something extraordinary.”
“It’s probably a little important that I’m good at it, Calico, but it’s still only shooting.”
There’s very much more going on in this book than “only shooting – the action sequences are wonderfully done, the characters are sharply drawn (with a very refreshing minimum of anachronisms), and there’s a snarky note of narrative sub-commentary running alongside the story that ended up being my favorite aspect of the book.
The book – a historical novel! Dammit! I’ll try better in next month’s Romance Roundup!
April 7th, 2015
Our book today is another slim little thing, James Winny’s 1970 entrant in Scribners’ old “Preface” series, A Preface to Donne, which at the time joined John Purkis’s A Preface to Wordsworth and Lois Potter’s excellent A Preface to Milton – and which was needed more thoroughly than either volume, as any even casual student of Donne will likely agree. This is a brain-twisting poet whose verses are only magnified in their complexity by their unlikelihood. Ben Jonson famously quipped that Donne wrote all his best poetry before he was twenty-five years old, but the Elizabethan roaring-boy contrasts so sharply with the ascetic holy man of Donne’s later years that Winny feels obliged to make some gesture of explanation before he proceeds:
There is no need to censure Donne for taking the kind of wild pleasures that often form a complement to intense intellectual activity. In his case there might have been special reasons for seeking an outlet for the impetuous energies which his poetry reveals; for according to Walton, at this period Donne had not yet decided whether to continue a Catholic or not. The frustration and uncertainty of his position, which beside its effects on his future had the power to disturb his emotional being whichever decision he took, was a direct encouragement to Donne to lose himself temporarily in amusement and distraction. He seems not to have done things by halves.
However convincing anybody might find that (I myself think the holy man sired many a brat and cared not a whit for any of them), there it sits, intended to help students new to Donne understand the weird twistings and intense appetites of his poems. This Preface to Donne follows the helpful standard schematic of the other entrants in the series; we get broad-stroke historical background, we get a very good compressed biography of the poet, and we get extremely intelligent and detailed analyses of all the major works, from The Flea, to The Relic, to The Apparition to the Holy Sonnets.
Winny is quite good at all of this – A Preface to Donne is still very much the book to give to any young person wanting a comprehensive introduction to the poet. And Winny also very skillfully includes great swatches of earlier critical reactions to Donne, including the famous one by Dryden:
We cannot read a verse of Cleveland’s without making a face at it, as if every work were a pill to swallow: he gives us many times a hard nut to break with our teeth, without a kernel for our pains. So that there is this difference betwixt his satires and Dr Donne’s; that the one gives us deep thoughts in common language, though rough cadence; the other gives us common thoughts in abstruse words.
Deep thoughts in rough cadence – yes indeed, perfectly put as always. I’m guessing Scribners never got around to a Preface to Dryden. Harrumph.
April 6th, 2015
Our book today is Inspector of the Dead, the latest novel from former University of Iowa stalwart (and the man who introduced the character of Rambo to an unsuspecting world) David Morrell. It’s the second murder mystery of his that features one of the least likely detectives of them all: Thomas De Quincey, the notorious author of that 1821 classic, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Morrell introduced the whole outlandish concept of De Quincey-as-detective in 2013’s Murder as a Fine Art, where he also introduced the character of De Quincey’s fiery, unconventional (she wears pants!) daughter Emily, as well as the stalwart detective team of Ryan and Becker to provide semi-official entree and also some much-needed muscle when the chips are down. And despite the fast-paced violence that filled the first book’s climax (this is an author who knows how to write such scenes – they’re a beauty to behold), the whole team is back for the second installment.
Their quarry this time is a serial killer who’s leaving clues on each of his victims: a series of names that at first seem random but, upon cogitation, turn out to be the names of would-be assassins, each one of whom has tried to murder Queen Victoria. Anyone who’s read Paul Thomas Murphy’s fantastic 2012 book Shooting Victoria (and that should be all of you, so make a mental note to order a copy once you’re done hanging on my every word) will recall that there were actually a surprisingly high number of such assassination attempts made on Victoria, and in this instance Lord Palmerston and the British government are worried that the killer is working up his courage to target the Queen herself. They come to De Quincey for help in cracking the case, although Palmerston himself is mystified by his guest detective’s physical vitality, given the givens. “Some people die from a spoonful of laudanum,” he observes at one point, “but you drink ounces of it, and you’re not only walking around – you never stop walking. Why doesn’t the opium make you tired?” De Quincey is ready with an answer:
When I was a university student and first swallowed laudanum to remedy illness, the increase in my energy was palpable. I suddenly had the strength to wander the city for miles on end. In markets and on crowded streets, I heard the details of countless conversations all around me. When I went to concerts, I heard notes between notes and soared with unimagined crests in the melodies. The reason I pace is to reduce the opium’s stimulation to a beneficial level.
This is the only strand running through these two books that tended to nag me right out of the willing suspension of disbelief, this implication that De Quincey was some sort of mutant who thrived on his drug of choice rather than simply acclimated to it. The idea of an addictive drug as just one more weapon in a super-detective’s arsenal strikes me as problematic to say the least, which is why I’ve always been pleased that the first fictional character to raise such a specter also simultaneously rejects it: Sherlock Holmes only resorts to his infamous seven-percent solution when he’s not solving crimes. When he’s intellectually and morally stimulated, he doesn’t need it – indeed, it would impair him. The idea that laudanum somehow made De Quincey more of a person instead of less is loudly contradicted by the written testimony of every single person who knew him – and his own written testimony.
I give Morrell the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s winkingly using it as a dramatic liberty, though, and lord knows, he doesn’t put a single foot wrong anywhere else in these two fantastic books, which combine the signature Morrell gift for moving a plot along briskly with another signature Morrell gift, and a much rarer one in historical fiction, the art of making blocks of exposition actually interesting:
In 1855, the concept of preserving a crime scene had existed for only a few decades. Disciplined investigation of a crime scene depends on organization, but not until 1829 had London’s police force been created, the first citywide unit of its kind in all England. Its principles were formulated by two commissioners, one of whom was a retired military commander, Colonel Charles Rowan, while the other was a barrister experienced in criminal law, Richard Mayne. Rowan’s military background was essential in the short term, modeling the police force on the regulations and ranks of the army. But over the years Mayne’s legal experience made the difference.
The readers with the most knowledge of Victorian history will receive the somewhat dubious reward of being the ones who’ll certainly guess well ahead of time all the revelations Inspector for the Dead has to offer, but they’ll also enjoy the proceedings, which is more than they can say for most historical fiction set in their favorite era. This author never disappoints.
March 31st, 2015
Our books today are testaments to hope: Edwin Way Teale’s 1951 North with the Spring and his 1960 Journey into Summer. In both books, Teale and his wife Nellie make an unorthodox and brilliant decision: rather than stay home and experience all the nuances of the seasons on their own immediate area, they follow the season as it swells to life:
The seasons, like greater tides, ebb and flow across the continents. Spring advances up the United States at the average rate of about fifteen miles a day. It ascends mountainsides at the rate of about a hundred feet a day. It sweeps ahead like a flood of water, racing down the long valleys, creeping up hill sides in a rising tide. Most of us, like the man who lives on the bank of a river and watches the stream flow by, see only one phase of the movement of spring. Each year the season advances toward us out of the south, sweeps around us, goes flooding away into the north. We all see phases of a single phase, all variations in this one chapter in the Odyssey of Spring. My wife and I dreamed of knowing something of all phases, of reading all possible chapters, of seeing, firsthand, the long northward flow of the season.
In North with the Spring, they begin in the Florida Everglades and progress steadily north through the American South, journeying through bogs and bayous, experiencing swamps and pine barrens, stopping frequently to admire the local flora and fauna, and writing it all up with practiced, homely, lovely charm. They eventually end up above the tree line on Mount Washington before they begin their melancholy trip back home.
In the 1960 volume, Journey into Summer, they try the same epic, rambling approach to the “second season,” summer, which they’re still free to see through the slightly idyllic lens of a half-century ago:
Between these two events in time and space stretches the season of warmth and sunshine. Summer is vacation time, sweet clover time, swing and see-saw time, watermelon time, swimming and picnic and camping and Fourth-of-July time. This is the season of gardens and flowers, of haying and threshing. Summer is the period when birds have fewer feathers and furbearers have fewer hairs in their pelts. Through it runs the singing of insects, the sweetness of ripened fruit, the perfume of unnumbered blooms. It is a time of lambs and colts, of kittens and puppies, a time to grow in. It is fishing time, canoeing time, baseball time. It is, for millions of Americans, “the good old summertime.”
Journey into Summer starts in the chilly fastness of Smuggler’s Notch and Niagara Falls and loops around the country, through the wilderness variety of the Great Lakes region, through the serene sprawling beauty of the Midwest, along the profuse flowerings of Colorado in summer, and gradually, over a total course of some 17,000 miles, making their way back to New England as the season slowly winds down.
Both books are marvelous portraits of gentle seasons the poor storm-battered New England of 2015 could be forgiven for thinking might never come again. April is upon Boston, but only two days ago, it was freezing cold and blowing snow and hail, and after a record-breaking winter of snow and cold, I’m sure I’m not the only Bostonian who’s adopting an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it skepticism toward the actual existence of any gentler weather. That’s another reason why these wonderful books (I couldn’t quite bring myself to re-visit the autumn and – shudder – winter volumes, but check back with me if the coming summer is particularly brutal) felt so good to re-read: they reassure that season do still change, and that – in Boston, anyway – relief from whatever ails you is never very far away.
March 30th, 2015
Our book today is a lean, moody debut mystery novel, Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman, and it’s the latest in an ominously popular new sub-sub-genre, “rural noir”: dark and sordid murder-and-violence plot lines taking place not in far-flung exotic locales but rather just forty miles off the interstate, in the most depressed parts of the poorest states in the richest country in the world. On the macro level, few literary developments could more chillingly reflect the widening income gap than this whole strand of fiction, but in the micro level, there’s no denying how enjoyable a lot of these books are. Earlier this year we say Christopher Scotton’s The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, featuring, among other things, violence and reprisals in the Appalachians, and Tom Bouman’s book takes us back to the Appalachians, this time to the forgotten hills and woods of rural Pennsylvania, to Wild Thyme Township in Holebrook County, which our narrator Officer Henry Farrell describes with his signature Big-Picture sarcasm:
Holebrook County is on the western edge of the Endless Mountain region. The term is a poetic one; what people mean is that it’s hilly. We’re part of the Appalachian Range, which formed almost five hundred million years ago, along with a vast inland sea to the west. Creatures in the sea died and sank, and the mountains eroded, and over a hundred million years this mix of sediment and organic matter was buried and turned into shale, the Marcellus Shale. Because of the once-living things in it, the Marcellus contains a lot of natural gas, all wrapped up in layers of rock like a present to America.
The county is changing in rapid convulsions: the “gas boom” is making sudden millionaires out of people Farrell grew up with dirt poor and happy before he struck out on his own, saw military service, and finally returned to take a job most of his constituent aren’t even sure should exist (“Why does a small rural community need not one but two law enforcement officers?” … Why should we pay taxes for a service we don’t want, when there’s a state police barracks nearby?”). The picture of country simplicity has been supplanted by fly-by-night meth labs, duplicitous government agents, and a scattered populace with a lot to hide.
A mutilated body turns up on the property of a bitter, angry old man, and Officer Farrell hasn’t been investigating it very long when a second dead body is found. Bouman unfolds his suspect-upon-suspect story with an ease that’s surprising for a first novel, but his real strength is in capturing both the furtive atmosphere and the strung-out beauty of the Pennsylvania mountains – a not entirely surprising strength, since Bouman grew up in those hills and has said in interviews that he and his family have recently returned to live there. That’s certainly what I call suffering for your art, but if it makes the rest of the books in this series as entertaining as the first one, that’s very good news.
March 29th, 2015
This particular Green Dragoon is about Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who commanded the so-called British Legion during the American Revolution (and wore a distinctive green frock, hence the book’s title), reporting to Lord Cornwallis and operating mainly in the Carolinas. Virtually every war has produced troop commanders like Tarleton: cavalrymen who could cut a dash with dramatic maneuvers and preposterous headgear, flashy figures whose own vanity and freedom of movement, you sense, counted for much more to them than The Cause or any chain of command.
But even in such a company of brigands, Tarleton stood out as among the worst. He was born in Liverpool in 1764 to a well-off merchant family that had made its money in the slave trade; the family had enough money to send him to reputable schools – London’s Middle Temple and then Oxford – where his earlier lack of promise was abundantly confirmed: young “Ban” was powerfully built, handsome, ruthless, and a smooth talker, but he was utterly uninterested in school or learning anything. From a very, very early age, the only subject that interested him was himself, and he worked hard for his entire life to advance that subject.
In 1775 he became a cavalry officer in the 1st Dragoon Guards and shipped out as soon as he could to American in order to see action (and, as he loudly proclaimed in cafes and drawing rooms all throughout London, to bring back the head of General Charles Lee in a bag), and the plentiful action he saw there allowed him to realize two things fully about himself: first, that he had genuine tactical ability as a cavalry commander, and second, that he was a bloodthirsty homicidal maniac, a twitching, dead-eyed serial killer in the disguise of a London dandy.
He did capture General Lee (didn’t decapitate him, though), and he engaged in a dozen major battles besides. He had half a hand shot away (which is why in his most famous portrait by Joshua Reynolds he’s artistically using it to reach for his sword, thus keeping it out of sight), and he famously had his forces decimated at the Battle of Cowpens, and he chased American guerrilla leaders without noticeable success, and Bass researches all of this with a comprehensive thoroughness that no previous writer had been able to match, since it was Bass himself who found a huge trove of Tarleton’s personal papers in 1956 and quickly incorporated them into his book. We get dozens and dozens of the polished dispatches Tarleton sent to Cornwallis and received from him – so many, in fact, that no subsequent biography of Tarleton is possible without a heavy debt to this book.
All the more odd, then, that it should be so incomplete. Tarleton the tactician and horseman is here in abundance, but during the portions of the book dealing with the American Revolution, Tarleton the sadistic killer is virtually invisible. The man who ordered his men to maim farmers, then had the farmers’ wives dig their graves, then ordered the wives to finish off their husbands in front of their children or the children themselves would be massacred – then massacred the children anyway, ordered the gang-raping of the wives, then massacred them too … that Tarleton, though well-attested at the time, makes no appearance in Bass’s book. It was that Tarleton, the taut-faced stormtrooper who came up with new and more diabolical means of torturing the hapless civilians who fell into his hands, doesn’t square well with the high-living swell who’s going to feature so prominently in the second half of The Green Dragoon, so he’s excised from the first half.
That second-half Tarleton is the lyric-quoting Beau Brummell who seduces Mary “Perdita” Robinson on a bet and is always living beyond his means in the more rarefied company:
Tarleton was constantly with the royal brothers. Cricket, horse racing, musicals, and card playing consumed their time and energy. “Last Friday a match at Cricket was played, on the Flat near Brighton; the Duke of York on one side, and Colonel Tarleton on the other; who chose eleven each,” said the Oracle of August 20 . “The Duke’s side fetched in their inning 292; Colonel Tarleton’s 7, having five wickets to do down.” The game was not played out for lack of time, but “The same gentlemen will play again on Wednesday for 100 guineas; Colonel Tarleton is to have Street the Miller.”
The Green Dragoon is full of such details. The more you read through its undeniably entertaining pages, the more you understand why the thing has a title like something you’d find in Georgette Heyer’s backlist.
Of course, there’s no real disguising a creature like Tarleton. It was that creature who was shunned by the convivial victors at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (aggrieved, he took aside the Comte de Rochambeau and asked, “Why? Why am I thus humiliatingly singled out? It was wartime!” to which Rochambeau, recoiling just a bit in that way the French have of forever seeming not to want to get mud on their clothes, replied, “It was wartime. But none was like you”), and it was that Tarleton who was snubbed for promotions later in life and again appealed in squealing outrage (this time to the Prince Regent, who eventually awarded him a baronetcy). And it was that Tarleton who loudly and mockingly resisted the efforts of Charles James Fox and others to urge Parliament to abolish the slave trade – and by that point in his book, Bass is so accustomed to defending his subject that he repeats his lines without commentary, refraining even from mentioning the personal financial stake Tarleton had in that vast industry of human misery:
General Tarleton had the greatest objections to this bill. He spoke of the rise of the commercial city of Liverpool. He told again of her ships in the African trade. Again he proclaimed Liverpool the nursery of England’s seamen. And again – and for the last time – he lamented the value of her property about to be destroyed.
There haven’t been many biographies of Banastre Tarleton, and the man’s own memoir defending his military service in America is thankfully long ago and permanently out of print. But The Green Dragoon makes wonderful reading despite the creature at its center. For $1 at the Brattle Bookshop, it was the right choice.