Posts from February 2013

February 27th, 2013

Penguins on Parade: The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia!

penguin-colophon

Some Penguin Classics seem to come along at just the right time – actually a great many of them do, but this time was just right for Maurice Evans’ wonderful 1977 edition of that lost, sparkling diamond-mine of English literature, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.

The Arcadia got its start in the leafy inner garden of Wilton House, the Wiltshire home of the Earls of Pembroke (and before them a place of quiet and contemplation for nearly a thousand years as an English priory); the first pages of it began as an intellectual game of ‘top this’ between beautiful young Philip Sidney and his lovely sister Mary, with her cheering him on and him rushing off to some isolated bower to dash off more paragraphs. Despite how wrathful the Pembroke blood could be, Wilton rang with laughter in those warm and breezy days of 1580 – and the earliest version of the old Arcadia was born amidst that laughter.

penguin arcadia tpIt’s the story of Arcadia’s King Basilius, who learns of a terrifying prophecy: he will lose his throne to a foreign power, he will lose his two daughters (one to abduction, one to unnatural lust), his sons-in-law will be accused of murder, and he will commit adultery with his own wife. He promptly bundles up his family and heads for the hills, hoping he can escape the prophecy in a rustic retreat. Of course that’s not how prophecies work, and when two princes in disguise conduct a rather forceful wooing campaign against the king’s two daughters, the florid, playful romance, the ‘delightful teaching’ of Arcadia takes off.

Evans was a sweet-natured and hard-working scholar (and a fine explainer of George Chapman, no small thing in this day and age), a perfect emotional match for this book. Any popular edition of the Arcadia has its work cut out for it, starting with deciding on which Arcadia to deal with at all. Philip Sidney had been working on a version of the book for a few years before his sister got her hooks into it in 1580, and then once it began to have a life of its own, once he began to see that there was something to it (and once the thriving intellectual community Mary Sidney always inspired began responding to those earliest pages), Philip began radically changing and expanding the work. He died in 1586, and his friend Fulke Greville shepherded a version of the Arcadia into print in 1590 – a jumpy and infelicitous version, although well-intentioned. Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, brought out a pretty folio version of the work in 1593 – smoothed out, softened in some of its brutalities, in every way a loving sister’s version of her brother’s book. Greville’s version would have made Sidney pat his own head in frustration; Mary’s version would have made him smile; neither is the version he would have shown the world himself, but that’s one of the prices you pay for dying a hero’s death at age 32.

Evans takes to this tangle with a gardener’s patience, pruning one version here, grafting another there, until he has a version that just might have pleased everybody (except short-tempered legendary Elizabethan translator John Florio, who not only thought Mary should have minded her own business but was churlish enough to say so in public). His notes are masterful but unobtrusive; his textual emendations are expert but almost invisible; and the encouragement he gives in his quiet, intelligent Introduction will be just enough for the curious reader. Those readers will encounter the full glory of Elizabethan prose, served up by its freakishly precocious greatest master:

But Zelmane, being rid of this loving but little loved company, ‘Alas,’ said she, ‘poor Pyrocles, was there ever one but I that had received wrong and could blame nobody, that having more than I desire, am still in want of what I would? Truly, love, I must needs say thus much on thy behalf; thou has employed my love there where all love is deserved, and for recompense hast sent me more love than ever I desired. But what wilt thou do, Pyrocles? Which way canst thou find to rid thee of thy intricate troubles? To her whom I would be known to, I live in darkness; and to her am revealed from whom I would be most secret. What shift shall I find against the diligent love of Basilius?

There aren’t many of those readers for Sidney anymore, as Evans hardly needs to note. The long, lucy reading sidneyenthusiastically rhetorical romance that reaches its apotheosis in the Arcadia (and the more action-oriented romance that reached its pinnacle with Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso) might have prepared the intellectual soil for the coming of the novel – it’s eerie to read these things and see so many of the elements in place – but it wasn’t able to grow in that soil. The joyful rush of words, the precise, Olympian employment of the temporal vernacular in the service of the eternal verities … not to mention the heavy flirtations with allegory, a fatality for the morosely egotistical modern era … all doomed The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia to the scholar’s shelf the moment Samuel Richardson first put pen to paper and rediscovered the ways to detach delight from teaching for a paying public.

It’s unlikely the exquisite entertainments of Wilton House will ever again gain purchase on the English-speaking imagination, but this wonderful Penguin Classic – in some form or other – will always be here. For the curious.

February 19th, 2013

The Rest of the Redesign in the Penny Press!

magazines

Which isn’t to say that issue of The New Republic had only one noteworthy item – far from it! I confess, I was worried after the first issue of the redesign. I knew TNR had been bought by a 15-year-old Internet gazillionaire, and I naturally assumed that could never be a good thing. I envisioned the unmitigated disaster that usually befalls a Grand Old Dame of the Penny Press when the Powers of of Evil try to force her to become topical. Suddenly, pale little toadstool-snippets of commentary on last-minute news events begin supplanting the reasoned matter at the front of the magazine, and (slightly) longer but still buzz-heavy topical pieces begin filling up the back (pieces in which “What the fuck?” is considered intelligent commentary; pieces in which flash-in-the-pan TV shows are treated as cultural barometers by idiots with paying deadlines; pieces whose subtext is all too often “The War on Women – Dispatch #2,477″). My worry was especially pointed in this case, since the back-half of TNR has for so long been a carefully-tended garden of delight.

But I needn’t have worried: this issue of 25 February (the one with the blank cover, which, it turns out, is supposed to be a clever comment on the fact that most Republicans are white)(John Byrne once got himself fired from Marvel Comics for that kind of cleverness, but I guess times change) has as powerful and talented a rear end as Tom Brady in-season.

Cass Sunstein lets rip a fun little tirade against the moronic catch-phrase “it is what it is,” which of course made me happy, since I hate that catch-phrase too. I’ll always remember the look of shocked outrage on the local gas-bag’s face when he sagely sighed “It is what it is” (about the U.S. use of killer drones, no less) and I just as casually said, “So you’re commenting that something exists, and you want that to be considered profound? That’s pretty stupid, isn’t it?” Reading Sunstein’s rant also made me glad I’d never written such a rant myself, unfortunately: it gets a little old a little fast, however entertainingly done.

Speaking of entertaining: the great historian Alan Taylor (if you haven’t read his American Colonies, you should correct that oversight) turns in a long, detailed review of the latest work by another great historian, Bernard Bailyn. Taylor takes a hard look at Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years (about pre-Revolution America’s violent birth-pangs) and, in a move that gave me a jolt of hope, finds much of it wanting, especially along the heading of the apparently now-discredited “American Exceptionalism” – hope not because I agree (there’s never in the history of the world been a nation anything like the United States, so I’m OK with a doctrine of exceptionalism) but because spirited disagreement between two titans is rapturously good for the entire Republic of Letters.

the back end

The disagreement-bait piece of the issue, however, is certainly Adam Kirsch’s great, cantankerous take-down of the current crop of quipping humorists being marketed as “essayists.” Kirsch singles out David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, and David Rothbart, but he could easily have quadrupled that number, starting with the arch-fraud Dave Eggers and moving outward in concentric circles) and rightly contends that the traditional essay form pioneered by the likes of Bacon and Montaigne has been cheapened by these Punch-style comedy routines. I mentally cheered at virtually every word (my reservation came only from what I now see as a standard industry blind spot: Kirsch never seems to consider the possibility that serious, traditional essays might be thriving online).

But my cheering reached its peak – measured, of course, in enthusiastic underlining and annotating – with Adam Thirwell’s absolutely incredible piece on Charles Baudelaire, whose poetry has naturally always eluded me but whose strange, pathetic life now fascinates me, thanks to Thirwell. This piece is so full of great, quotable chunks that it feels slightly dishonest to single one out, but this is my favorite:

He was institutionally infantilized by choice. What else, I suppose, is an enfant terrible? Baudelaire, could have done the bourgeois thing, and found himself a job; or still done the bohemian thing but lived within his means. But he was intent on a larger experiment. There was a grandeur to his double decision: to live by his writing, but in a state of extravagant debt. He cultivated humiliation as a way of life – so often begging for money, so often letting it be known that if the sum he asked for couldn’t be given, he would accept anything, “any sum WHATEVER.”

And as surreal a development as it is for me to enjoy anything connected with Baudelaire, I can top it with something even more surreal from this same issue! In an interview with Dwight Garner, the mighty – and mightily prolific – Clive James says, “It hurts everyone’s reputation to write too much.”

February 18th, 2013

A Tired Pilgrim in the Penny Press!

magazines

Novelist Ian McEwan writes a deliberately provocative little squib for the newly-redesigned New Republic (disastrously redesigned as well – it disappears on the newsstand, especially this current issue, which for no particular reason has no cover illustration, just the boring new logo on a field of white), something called “The God That Fails” and sub-titled “When I Stop Believing in Fiction.” Ostensibly it’s about the wan nature of contemporary fiction – “I don’t believe a word: not the rusty device of pretending that the weather has something to do with Henry’s mood, not the rusty device of pretending” – and the dire aftermath once that veil is pierced:

When the god of fiction deserts you, everything must go. The book-lined church and mic-ed-up pulpit, the respectful congregation, the interviewer’s catechism, the confessions disguised as questions, the reviewer’s blessing or curse … My heart fails when I wander into the fiction section of a bookstore and see the topless towers on the recent-titles tables, the imploring taglines above the cover art (HE LOVED HER, BUT WOULD SHE LISTEN?), the dust-jacket summaries in their earnest present tense: Henry breaks free of his marriage and embarks on a series of wild …

The first half of that quote undercuts the second half and points at the Achilles heel of the squib: McEwan, it turns out, isn’t exactly writing as Everyreader here. He talks about the crisis in general terms (“Novels? I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief”), but whenever he comes down to brass tacks he’s off in another – and much more rarefied – world: “Such apostasy creeps into the wide gap that separates the finishing of one novel and the start of the next” – with ‘finishing’ and ‘starting’ here referring to writing novels, not reading them. With a brisker edit (perhaps by the art editor, since he apparently has nothing else to do?), the squib should have been entirely about that interesting subject: how does a working novelist ‘refuel’ between books?

Instead, McEwan takes intermittent jabs at broadening his topic – at weighing the different rewards of reading fiction and nonfiction:

I’m 64. If I’m lucky, I might have twenty good reading years left. Teach me about the world! Bring me the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauties of numbers to the numbskull, the scholar of empires’ rises and falls, the adepts of the English Civil War. A few widely spaced pleasures apart, what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel beyond Henry’s remorse or triumph?

McEwan does eventually limp around to acknowledging that fiction can sometimes add a thrill to truth that no amount of well-written history or science can match, but I think the real point of his ramble is that ‘widely spaced.’ Because it’s true: the rewards of fiction tend to be rather thin on the ground. I try to read a large percentage of each year’s new novels (and I regularly commiserate with others who make the same effort), and there’s no getting around the fact that it’s mostly a slog. When I’m in the trough of going from one slushy, sloppy, derivative novel to the next, I can sympathize with McEwan’s yearning for the flat, flinty facts of the English Civil War. Sometimes ‘widely spaced’ doesn’t begin to cover it – you go six, seven, ten, fifteen novels without encountering anything that merits a second look, and it can get depressing.

But although he’s typically wishy-washy about his bigger point, he’s right: when fiction does work, it works better than anything. The dramatic payoff a reader can get from such modern masterpieces as The Age of Innocence, Doctor Zhivago, or Meg simply can’t be reaped from even the best nonfiction. Encountering something like Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader or Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies or John Wray’s Lowboy, something that thrills you and lifts you entirely out of yourself for a little bit, not only completely validates the genre but also acts like a drug: it hooks you, and it keeps you searching for your next rush. So far in 2013, I’ve read roughly 30 new novels and encountered that rush twice. Not the best ratio in the world, as McEwan would doubtless agree (he himself has only provided me with that rush once in his entire career, although that’s the eternal lure: his next book might do it), but it’ll suffice. The god of fiction hasn’t deserted me quite yet.

 

 

February 6th, 2013

Six for the Regicide!

Scientific reconstruction of Richard III
Scientific reconstruction of Richard III

Avunculicide would be just as accurate, since of course we’re referring to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who in 1483 became King of England after having disposed of the niggling little obstacle of the previous king of England, 14-year-old Edward V, who’d become king upon the death of his father, Edward IV, Richard’s brother. Young Edward and his brother were the famed “Princes in the Tower” whose disappearance has led to such explosions of verbiage in the last four hundred years.

Richard is in the news again lately because – in an absolutely thrilling discovery – his bones were recently excavated from a car park in Leicester. The identity of the bones was only just now conclusively established using sorcerous DNA technology, so there’s very little speculation and all that much more astonishment: here, after four centuries, are the remains of the last Plantagenet king, the loser at the Battle of Bosworth Field. It’s not every day that history steps so vividly into the popular-news limelight.

He’s always occupied the more rarefied versions of that limelight, the realm of historical speculation – and of books, especially books. Thomas More’s riveting History of King Richard III, first published in 1557, is a thriller of deceptive dramatic complexity, and it was gobbled up by Raphael Holinshed for his 1578 work Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, woven into a broader historical narrative that painted Richard as nothing less than a serpent in a garden of roses. It was all so vivid, it’s little wonder it drew later dramatists like flies – and it’s with one of those dramatists that our little tour of Richardiana must begin:

penguin richard iiiRichard III by William Shakespeare – Surely no single writer’s version of a historical figure has been this definitive since the Gospel of St. John: Shakespeare’s Richard (in the play first printed in 1597) – ruthless, venal, almost buffoonishly evil – has become so cemented in the popular historical consciousness that there’s simply no dislodging him. This “troubler of the world’s peace” is smarter and funnier than all the virtuous victims that populate the play, whose self-righteousness he wheedles when he can’t simply overthrow it. It’s an entirely masterful stage creation – Shakespeare is clearly revelling in some of his best work – and like all the best such creations, it convinces. This Richard instantly became every bit as real as the actual flesh-and-blood (and bone) Richard had ever been – real enough to cast a shadow over every single word subsequently written on the subject. This Richard is so evil we root for him. And rooting for him is just what our next author had in mind.

 

daughteroftimeThe Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey – 355 years might separate these two works, but they’ll be inseparably joined for the rest of time, and it says a lot about Tey’s 1951 murder mystery that it’s enjoyed very nearly the same sway at Shakespeare’s play – in fact, in many circles, even more. Shakespeare is easy for scholars especially to disregard as the willing dupe of Tudor propaganda, who was in any case spinning fictional stories for the stage (his fast-and-loose dealings with historical fact were well known even in his own day), whereas Tey not only researched her novel but then had he main character duplicate that research right in front of the reader – in fact, the research is the plot of the book. Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital and bored enough so that when his eyes light on a portrait of Richard he begins to wonder the famous monster of English history doesn’t look like a monster. Grant begins to read the sources in-depth and comes to the conclusion that Richard was framed – that he was in fact a generous and kindly monarch who had nothing to do with the death of his nephews. The book burst on the reading public and the historical establishment like a bombshell, and it still makes genuinely fascinating reading today, when most of Tey’s other novels have long since begun to show their age. And quite apart from its literary merits, it changed forever the nature of Richard III studies: it created the Richard Fan Club.

richard iii - kendallRichard the Third by Paul Murray Kendall – Every single biographer of Richard III from that point onward had to deal with the Richard Fan Club, even if their professional dignity (or snobbery) couldn’t allow them to stoop even to mentioning Tey’s name. In 1956 the greatest of those biographies appeared, by Professor Paul Murray Kendall, and it’s fair to say this is the first major modern biography of Richard that’s written by a member of the Fan Club. Kendall is an encyclopedically authoritative writer (the sheer sugary scholarship of his prose is still a wonder to behold), and one of his aims is the same as Inspector Grant’s: to renovate Richard’s dark reputation – to find the monarch underneath the monster. Instead of reading unrelenting evil back into the original sources for Richard’s life and reign, Kendall reads the sources themselves – and often draws from them a far more forgiving account of Richard than fans of Shakespeare’s caricature could have imagined. Although Kendall is careful not to summarily acquit Richard of the crimes history’s imputed to him (the aforementioned regicide and avunculicide), he gives us a Richard who could be acquitted.

we speak no treasonWe Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman – The Fan Club wasn’t done with Richard by a long shot, however, and those acquittals came in droves, none more floridly and effectively than Rosemary Jarman’s lush 1971 historical novel We Speak No Treason, in which readers see Richard refracted through four main other narrators, each one of whom gives us shards and pieces of a figure Jarman can hardly wait to exonerate. She didn’t originally intend this over-bursting manuscript for publication, and it shows on every page: there’s a very odd, often beautiful, gaudily ornate, and rawly personal fluorescence to these pages. The multiple narratives bring us closer and closer to Richard, and the closer we get, the more convinced we are of his inherent nobility and – in a neat elbow to Shakespeare – how easily that nobility can be ridiculed by lesser folk if it suits their needs (and how that kind of political calculation can become codified into history). The hard kernel of Richard’s guilt – the disappearance forever of his nephews – is here pulverized under a pile of partly purple prose. Readers will come away thinking just the same thing they thought when they finished Tey and Kendall: that there’s a very good chance this Richard person has been dealt a raw hand by posterity.

richard iii - rossRichard III by Charles Ross – a corrective of sorts was in order, and Charles Ross provides one in this 1981 biography. It’s thorough and balanced, even a touch on the dry side; there’s nothing in it to approach the grandiloquent mastery of Kendall’s book, but there’s likewise nothing to suggest partisan blinders. I don’t see a bit of this ‘dry’ business – I think Ross is a fine historian (his book on Edward IV is even better than this book, but Edward isn’t turning up in parking lots, so it doesn’t matter), and the extensive context he provides in this book is just what Richard III needs. Here we have the two things that tend to be overshadowed by the glitz and glitter of nephew-killing: that Richard wielded enormous power for years as Edward’s most trusted lieutenant, and that Richard did, in fact, rule the country after he stole its crown. Shakespeare the dramatist could be free to give us a Richard who was nothing but evil, but nobody in power can be only evil, all day long. Even Richard Nixon signed a few important pieces of legislation in his day. But when it comes time to weigh the evidence about those Princes in the Tower, Ross in sober judgement thinks Richard did it – and he has some unkind words to spare for all those lady novelists out there who might think otherwise! The Fan Club certainly didn’t like that!

the-white-queen3The White Queen by Philippa Gregory – The Richard Fan Club can look to quite a few more contemporary novelists for succor. The literary heirs of Rosemary Jarman (or Thomas More, if that’s your way of thinking) are legion: in the pages of historical fiction, the Wars of the Roses will never stop. Almost all the big names have dipped a toe in these waters, and unless Hilary Mantel decides to write Middleham Castle, the biggest of those contemporary names is surely Philippa Gregory, whose smash it novel The Other Boleyn Girl has already been filmed twice. In 2009 Gregory left off chronicling the Tudors and turned to York and Lancaster in her “Cousins’ War” books, starting with The White Queen, the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the Princes in the Tower and the inveterate sparring-partner of Richard. But if the Fan Club was hoping for the ultimate fictional vindication in these pages, it was disappointed: Gregory paints a human but decidedly ambiguous portrait of Richard and doesn’t exactly exonerate him of his most famous crime. It’s an elegant and fast-paced book, but it’s no white-wash.

Of course, in the time it’s taken us to get this far, a dozen more books, articles, and monographs on Richard have been written, both by the Fan Club and its enemies. Guided tours like this one through the annals of Ricardiana have been done wonderfully already (curiously, both camps tend to agree on which books are the ones most worth discussing – almost as though reading were a kingdom no grasping hands could sully?) and will continue to be done, especially now that Richard is here among us again, fit to be cellular-tested and facially reconstructed and mitochondrially analyzed. And defended anew, Gawd help us.

 

February 5th, 2013

Third-Act Stumbling in the Penny Press!

magazines

It was a decidedly non-literary day at Ye Olde PO Box: no Arion, no TLS, no London Review of Books, no New York Review of Books … not even the New York Times Book Review to further the ongoing necessary inquiry. Instead, almost as a warning of the lower elevations head, there was a new issue of Details, one of those nearly content-free lad mags that are a periodical sweet-tooth of mine. This issue had promising young actor Garrett Hedlund on the cover, looking soulful and by some miracle not in the act of smoking, as he has been in every other cover-shoot he’s done so far in his entire career (he’s smoking inside the issue, but for the cover he just looks vaguely puppyish). The interior of the issue had precious few depths (Jonathan Miles’ actual interview with Hedlund being one of them) – a quickie article on the 6 million Americans who suffer from panic attack “disorder,” yet another made-up (and therefore billable) quack-medical ‘conditions’ designed to pathologize an ordinary life-detail (in this case, simple nervousness), another quickie feature on the current flu epidemic that has the country in its, um, grip (speed at which mucus is hurled from the body during an average sneeze? 100 mph!), but precious little else to alleviate all the clothing ads.

details-1But non-literary needn’t mean non-intelligent, and the rest of today’s periodical haul amply proved that out. The latest Time had a chilling article on drone technology by the great Lev Grossman (“A drone isn’t a tool; when you use it, you see and act through it – you inhabit it. It expands the reach of your body and senses in much the same way that the Internet expands your mind”). And the latest Weekly Standard had a lovely little piece by Sara Lodge on Prince Henry, the dream-boat eldest son of King James I.

And then there were the main events, both in the New Yorker. First was an essay called “The Toll” by Ian Frazier that starts off being a very effective look at Hurricane Sandy and the devastation it wrought on Staten Island and in New Jersey. True, Frazier surrenders too often to his tendency for purple prose (“If there were a typographic equivalent of a moment of silence, I would put it here” being the most absurd example), but he’s a mighty strong writer, and any reader could start the piece hoping for one of the first great considered examinations of October’s great disaster. But no: in the third act, the piece bizarrely detours to talk about invasive species of coastal weeds and about the groundhog-handler at the Staten Island Zoo, and apparently no editor was on hand to veer the whole thing back on course. It’s new yorkerfrustrating – in fact, it almost felt disrespectful, to start a piece about people losing their homes and their lives and end it meandering about beach-combers using metal-detectors.

Fortunately, the best piece in the issue doesn’t stumble nearly so badly. The always-reliable Adam Gopnik turns in another superlative essay, this one on Galileo titled (ridiculously, but hey, you can’t win ’em all) “Moon Man.” The framework of the piece is a handful of new books on Galileo, but Gopnik spares them very little attention before beginning to expound on his subject, and the result is a string of quotable passages as long as your arm:

But the painters and poets could look at the world, safely, through the lens of religious subjects; Galileo, looking through his lens, saw the religious non-subject. They looked at people and saw angels; he looked at the heavens, and didn’t.

It’s hard to overstate how important the telescope was to Galileo’s image. It was his emblem and icon, the first next big thing, the ancestor to Edison’s light bulb and Steve Jobs’s iPhone.

Evolution is not an alternative to intelligent design; it is intelligent design, seen from the point of view of a truly intelligent designer.

It’s only at the piece’s very end that this aphoristic instinct misfires:

The best reason we have to believe in miracles is the miracle that people are prepared to die for them. But the best reason that we have to believe in the moons of Jupiter is that no one has to be prepared to die for them in order for them to be real.

But that fortune-cookie fumble only happens late in the third act of an otherwise wonderful essay. In a week without explicitly literary guidance (and with ample pictorial evidence of a talented young actor doing his best to give himself lung cancer), that’s certainly good enough.

 

February 4th, 2013

The Illustrious Prince!

the illustrious princeOur book today is E. Phillips Oppenheim’s 1910 thriller, The Illustrious Prince, which opens right away, on Page 1, with an inadvertent thrill delivered right over the heads of its contemporary readers and right to the reading cortex of its 21st Century audience. In the opening scene, a luxury liner has missed its evening tide and cannot land its passengers until morning. One unprepossessing man, Hamilton Fynes, takes the captain aside and hands him a sealed enveloped, urging him to open it and read it. Once the captain does, he immediately arranges a private slip to ferry Mr. Fynes to shore. Once there, he hires a special train to take him to London, again convincing the station-master to do his bidding by handing him a mysterious sealed envelope.

The thriller-hook Oppenheim used to snare his readers in 1910 was that shortly after Hamilton Fynes commissions that special train, he’s found brutally murdered in it.

The inadvertent thriller-hook that even as practiced a storyteller as Oppenheim couldn’t have intended was that the becalmed luxury liner is the RMS Lusitania, and five years after the publication of this novel, that ship would be struck and sunk by a German U-boat, with over a thousand dead. Our author liked to put current, recognizable up-to-date features in his novels, and in 1910 he couldn’t have guessed that the Lusitania wasn’t as permanent as a later generation would consider the World Trade Center – and the result is as quietly chilling as seeing those two boxy towers in the background of some innocent movie from the 1980s.

Of course Oppenheim had other thrills in mind when he wrote the book. He was a British-born will foster 1-1button-down master of the well-told tale, an enormously best-selling household name with well over a hundred books to his credit, most of them very successful blendings of international intrigue and murder mystery whodunit. His stories made him rich, and the first thing that strikes a modern reader about them is how easy it is to see where all that success came from: these things are perfectly-balanced gear-works of engaging dialogue, suspenseful pacing, and even-handed sly digs at pretty much all characters equally. The usual awkward compression-wait that modern readers must endure before they become sensitized to the slightly antique phrasings of older novels is entirely absent from Oppenheim’s works – they pull in the reader in 2013 just as easily and assuredly as they did the reader in 1913.

In this case, the initial pull is that sudden murder of Hamilton Fynes, and just what Miss Penelope Morse – the penniless American niece of the Duchess of Devenham (a wonderfully stiff yet sympathetic creation who pre-dates the star of Downton Abbey by a full century) – does or doesn’t know about why Fynes met his untimely end. When the news breaks in London that she had an appointment to dine with the dead man on the day of his murder, the press begins to hound our heroine, and she gets a visit from Inspector Jacks of Scotland Yard, to whom she promptly tells a pack of lies about how she barely knew the dead man.

Eluding the journalists in a London cab-chase scene eerily like Princess Diana-style farces in our own time, Miss Penelope meets up with handsome, athletic junior diplomat Dicky Vanderpole at his London club, eager to tell him secret details about Hamilton Fynes – and yet also reluctant to do so. She confesses that she doesn’t really know how much to tell the police about the intrigues involving Fynes, and when Dicky wonders what she can mean, she offers hints that seem vague to him – and will make a modern reader’s short-hairs stand on end:

“You see, things have developed with us in the last twenty-five years. The old America had only one foreign policy, and that was to hold inviolate the Monroe doctrine. European or Asiatic complications scarcely even interested her. Those times have passed, Dicky. Cuba and the Philippines were the start of other things. We are being drawn into the maelstrom. In another ten years we shall be there, whether we want to be or not.”

Unbeknownst to Oppenheim, that maelstrom was only four years off, not ten. And the Illustrious Prince of the book’s title, an enigmatic Japanese Royal named Prince Maiyo, believes any such maelstrom might be averted, if men are resolute enough. When Miss Penelope asks him to tell her something of the future, he expresses his cautious optimism:

“Surely that is easier,” he answered. “Over the past we have lost our control – what has been must remain to the end of time. The future is ours to do what we will with.”

“That sounds so reasonable,” the Duchess declared, “and it is so absolutely false. No one can do what they will with the future. It is the future which does what it will with us.”

Will foster 2-2Reading The Illustrious Prince (with its crisp, lovely illustrations by Will Foster) for these prescient chills is a bit unfair to Oppenheim, I know, who gives his audience truly first-rate intelligent escapist fare every single time. Is the killer who claims Hamilton Fynes (and, before the reader has even caught his breath, Dicky Vanderpole as well) likely to strike again, perhaps to target our heroine, who knows more than she should? Is Prince Maiyo somehow involved, as Inspector Jacks and then no less a personage than the Prime Minister begin to suspect? Might these mysterious murders complicate relations between Great Britain and the Empire of Japan itself? All of it is played out with consummate skill, without a single creak of Old World archaism to be heard.

Like so many big-name now-forgotten bookstore fixtures, Oppenheim very much repays some tardy modern-day attention. And like so much of the incomparable richness that made up the Edwardian reading world, virtually his entire works are available in neat, clean, well-curated editions from the mighty Project Gutenberg – free and ready to download to your iPad. Good as he was, Oppenheim didn’t see that coming either.