Posts from February 2014
February 25th, 2014
I let my subscription to Asimov’s Science Fiction lapse for a bit, and I was amazed at how bleak the lapse rendered my reading landscape! I renewed as soon as I felt this, and today when I jammed my hand into that most bountiful of all orifices, the mighty Open Letters Monthly Post Office box, I was very pleased to find the first of my resumed issues, a double-sized extravaganza featuring ten stories, book reviews by Paul Di Filippo, and a simple, effective hymn of praise to Google by the great Robert Silverberg, the Grandmaster ghost haunting Asimov’s machine. And also featuring the lesser-trumpeted feel of Asimov’s, with its Austerity-Years paper stock and its crinkly covers that tear apart if you keep the latest issue in a pocket of your shoulder-bag and whip it out whenever you hit a delay long enough for reading. It should annoy me, but something about the old-fashioned pulpiness of Asimov’s instead just endears me to it all the more.
And that pulp-era feeling was only enhanced by the first and best story in this latest issue, a novella called “Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key” by William Preston. This the last in a series of interconnected stories Preston has written that collectively form the greatest and most heartfelt tribute to that giant of the pulps, Doc Savage, since Philip Jose Farmer’s 1973 masterpiece, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.
The premise of this latest story is that the US government has somehow managed to capture “the Old Man,” this Doc Savage figure, and is holding him at a top-secret government facility as a suspected terrorist (fans of Doc Savage will find the whole idea of capture somewhat far-fetched – even when the general in charge of the facility marvels about how it took a ‘twenty-man team’ to accomplish – but Preston’s character is over, after all, over 100 years old, so we can nod and carry on reading)(for those of you perhaps unfamiliar with the character, Clark Savage, among his less consequential accomplishments, stood 6’5″ and was a master of every form of unarmed combat known to man – in his fighting prime, a twenty-man team would no more have inconvenienced him than it would have inconvenienced, say, Batman). He’s resisted all forms of interrogation – in fact, during all the years of his incarceration, he’s yet to speak a single word to his captors.
As a kind of last resort, the government brings in telepathic interrogator Jimmy Randolph, who spends the story studying the enigmatic prisoner but also (in a beautifully-intertwined parallel plot) getting to know about the Old Man’s shadowy world of heroics hidden from the headlines. The more Jimmy Randolph looks at himself, at his own life, the more he wants to be a part of that shadowy world, as Preston writes with extremely talented straightforwardness:
He had been wrong about the true nature of the self. After showering, he had peered again into the foggy mirror. His nose touched the glass. The man over there was motionless, but in the world at his back, violence and terror ground down ordinary people as if their lives had no purpose but to be pressed under history’s terrible weight. Good people could not allow that. There at his back, past that shower wall, past the building, people acted to lift the heel of violence.
You couldn’t locate or understand the self by looking inward. You could only make sense of a self by observing its actions in the world. A good human was not a steady noun but a sequence of unexpected verbs. No matter if one sat in contemplation or acted for all the world to see: one became a full self by doing.
The whole of this issue is full of good stuff, but there’s nothing in it to touch “Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key.” Some of this stuff is currently being sold as e-shorts on Amazon for less money than this issue of Asimov’s would cost you; that whole world of quick-turnaround e-publishing was just a dream in Gordon Dickson’s eye back when the pulps were coming out, but you’re currently living in the future, so you can take advantage of it – and you should.
February 24th, 2014
Our book today is The Crimson Patch, a 1936 murder mystery by the indomitable Phoebe Atwood Taylor, starring her recurrent character Asey Mayo and set, as all her fans know and love, on that sacred patch called Cape Cod. The Cape is a little hooked spit of land jutting out from the coast of mainland Massachusetts, and thanks in large part to Taylor’s own path-making efforts, it’s easy to see it as the ultimate locked-door room in which any number of delectable mysteries can take place. It’s perfect: it’s bordered on all sides by water, it’s got no geography to complicate things, and from Sandwich to Provincetown it’s full of clannish, moneyed eccentrics just begging to be cast in a whodunit. Visitors to Cape Cod are all transients and hence automatically up to no good, and residents of Cape Cod are all certifiably insane and hence capable of anything. It’s Bedlam, with clamming beds.
Taylor latches onto such characters with gusto. In fact, one of the best and signature things about her mystery novels is how thickly populated they are – in the first few chapters of any Asey Mayo book, things almost seem too crowded for a murder to take place. Houses fill up with pipe-smoking, cocktail-swilling guests. Everybody has cronies. Nobody dines alone. Partly this just good melodrama, and partly it reflects Taylor’s long-held belief that new influxes of people were destroying the good old-fashioned Cape. This attitude has existed as long as the Cape has existed (the Harwich Port Neanderthals deplored how those Dennis Port Cro Magnons would walk around with no shirts on), so encountering it reflected in 80-year-old novels is actually kind of heartwarming.
The Crimson Patch is a wonderfully typical Taylor affair, full of colorful characters, whip-crack dialogue, and a spring-tide running of red herrings. An obnoxious radio celebrity named Rosalie Ray has been murdered (on a dark and stormy night, of course, and with … wait for it … a whaling lance), and steadfast old Myles Witherall, one of Taylor’s favorite characters, is relieved to know Cape Cod legend Asey Mayo has been called in, although his first sight of Mayo is double-edged:
Myles watched him eagerly, was amazed to find that the man actually resembled the pictures of him printed in the rotogravure sections. Tall, lean faced, blue eyed, he looked exactly as Myles had fondly imagined all Cape Codders would look, and as, to his intense disappointment, they had not.
He wore corduroys and a flannel shirt, which the papers always mentioned, but in place of the much publicized broad brimmed Stetson was a yachting cap set at a jaunty angle. Reporters never stated his age, and Myles found himself speculating. He had hopped up on the wharf with the ease and agility of a young man, but if he had been to see in the days of sailing ships, as articles about him always said, then Asey must be as old as Myles himself.
The death – and the dark deeds that follow it – set the quiet Cape town of Skaket ablaze with rumor and speculation that stretches all the way to Boston and might involve a notorious escaped master-criminal (the very public aspect of it all is extra worrying to the natives, since, as we’re told, “Skaket keeps its dirty linen in its own back yard”). Taylor handles it all like the seasoned pro she was by the time she whipped up this book, and as usual, she saves most of her fun for the crackling good words she puts in the mouths of all her characters, like this prime suspect attempting – not very reassuringly – to defend herself:
“Death doesn’t pay scores. D’you think it does? You can mutter all you want about eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth, but had I ever thought it my job to get back at her for what she did to Father, I think I should have tried to make her suffer about something to the same degree my mother did. I shouldn’t have killed her. I should simply have made her wish she were comfortably dead.”
If you pop in to any Cape Cod used bookstore, you’ll find a required-by-statute entire shelf of the mystery novels of Phoebe Atwood Taylor (many of the books have also had lovely modern reprints that you’ll find at Edgartown Books When you make your requisite stop there to talk to the lovely ladies who run it with an iron fist), and all those books are well worth your time.
If you can even FIND a used bookstore, that is. There aren’t as many of them since those horrid Neanderthals started buying up property …
February 22nd, 2014
Our book today is a grim but charming little 1915 gem called A Hilltop on the Marne by Mildred Aldrich, an amplified collection of letters she wrote back to the United States after she moved to France and then specifically to Huiry, a little hamlet overlooking the Marne river. Aldrich had thought to “withdraw from Life” to Huiry and putter around her gorgeous flagstoned, thick-beamed country house in peace after a singularly hectic life.
She’d been for many years a hack journalist in the world of Boston letters, a marvelous book reviewer and cultural columnist, and by the time she withdrew to Huiry she was in her sixties and feeling a bit worn out. She’d always been guilt of idealizing peace and solitude (like most voracious readers tend to do), so when she took this lovely farmhouse and quickly acclimated herself to sleepy village ways, it felt almost like an ideological homecoming, a long-sought shelter from the fray of constantly getting a living.
But life doesn’t tend to work like that, especially for people like Aldrich; the last shipping-crate of her books had barely been pried open when the countryside began to rumble with the rumors of coming war. And those rumors disturbed even the quiet nights of La Creste; as she wrote at the time, “In the back of my mind – pushed back as hard as I could – stood the question, What was to become of all this?”
What became of all of it was war, and soon the fighting was happening underneath her own parlor windows. All her friends in Paris and back in Boston were alarmed when war was declared and their correspondent suddenly found herself on the front lines of a conflict everybody had dreaded but nobody had quite expected. Her response to these worried letters was always pretty much the same as the one she wrote on 10 August 1914: “I have your cable asking me to come ‘home’ as you call it. Alas, my home is where my books are – they are here. Thanks all the same.”
Her home became a makeshift way-station for detachments of the British Expeditionary Force, whose members shocked her both with their excessive youth and with their decorum which often seemed to border on folly. The sights and sounds of war became every-day parts of her world, and they found their way into her letters:
Yet, do you know, I went to bed, and what is more I slept well. I was physically tired. The last thing I saw as I closed up the house was the gleam of moonlight on the muskets of the picket pacing the road, and the first thing I heard, as I waked suddenly at about four, was the crunching of the gravel as they still marched there.
And inevitably, she herself became an object of curiosity for the men she was housing and feeding and caring for. Late in the book there’s a telling encounter, transcribed with all her usual flinty honesty:
The chef-major turned to me – caught me looking in the other direction – to the west where deserted Esbly climbed the hill.
“May I very very indiscreet?” he asked.
I told him that he knew best.
“Well,” he said, “I want to know how it happens that you – a foreigner, and a woman – happen to be living in what looks like exile – all alone on the top of a hill – in war-time?”
I looked at him a moment – and – well, conditions like these make people friendly with one another at once. I was, you know, never very reticent, and in days like these even the ordinary reticences of ordinary times are swept away. So I answered frankly, as if these men were old friends, and not the acquaintances of an hour, that, as I was, as they could see, no longer young, very tired, and yet not weary with life, but more interested than my strength allowed. I had sought a pleasant retreat for my old age – not too far from the City of my Love – and that I had chosen this hilltop for the sake of the panorama spread out before me; that I had loved it every day more than the day before; and that exactly three months after I had sat down on this hilltop this awful war had marched to within sight of my gate, and banged its cannon and flung its deadly bombs right under my eyes.
Do you know, every mother’s son of them threw back his head and laughed aloud. I was startled. I knew that I had shown unnecessary feeling – but I knew it too late. I made a dash for the house, but the lieutenant blocked the way. I could not make a scene. I never felt so like it in my life.
“Come back, come back,” he said. “We all apologize. It was a shame to laugh. But you are so vicious and personal about it. After all, you know, the gods were kind to you – it did turn back – those waves of battle. You had better luck than Canute.”
“Besides,” said the chef-major, “you can always say that you had front row stage box.”
She made the only use she could of that front row stage box: she wrote about it. A Hilltop on the Marne became a bestseller – her very first – and its success threw her right back into the literary world she’d sought to escape, only this time as a star rather than a deadline drudge. She wrote other books, accepted generous speaking fees, almost needed to hire a secretary to handle her vastly increased correspondence. Certainly the bookstores in her native Boston couldn’t stay stocked with the slim green volume that had started it all, and A Hilltop on the Marne was by far her most popular book when she died in 1928. It isn’t quite her best book (that distinction goes to an utterly remarkable volume called Confessions of a Breadwinner, which circulated to admiring readers in samizdat but hasn’t ever been published and may now for all I know be lost), but it’s her most gripping. 2014 of course marks a century since she found herself in the crosshairs of history, but even in the shot of WWI-mania, it’s doubtful any major publisher will remember this little book. But that’s a shame, and I highly recommend it.
February 19th, 2014
Our book today is Le Rouge et le Noir, the great 1830 novel written by Marie-Henri Beyle under his world-famous pseudonym Stendhal. Actually, our book today is an English-language translation of Le Rouge et le Noir, and not just any translation, oh no! Our translation today is one I came across just recently (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course) after having forgotten about it completely when it first appeared in 2003 – and now, gazing upon it, I wonder how on Earth I could have forgotten about it, since it sports a, shall we say, rather unconventional cover.
Designed by Gabrielle Bordwin (who did, among many other things, the fittingly ornate cover for Salman Rushdie’s great novel The Enchantress of Florence and the fittingly elegiac cover for the cover for David Gilbert’s & Sons), this The Red and the Black cover was for a new translation by Burton Raffel, and it features a close-up of a topless young man’s hand resting on the sinuous curve of his lower back, just at the top of his black pants – or is it a young man’s hand placed (awkwardly, but I suppose theoretically plausibly) guidingly at the base of a young woman’s back?
Either way, the book had never had a cover quite like this one before. The novel tells the story of callow Julien Sorel, a working-man’s son from the provinces of 19th century France who burns with the utterly unthinking desire to ascend to the top ranks of society and bitterly regrets that under the newly-restored and famously corrupt Bourbon regime, pathways for such social advancement aren’t as open as they were under Napoleon Bonaparte, when at least the civil service and the army gave a chance to a provincial nobody who wanted to better his station in life.
Stendhal’s satire throughout the book is fairly biting, but readers are mostly left to figure out on their own that Julien Sorel wouldn’t have risen very far under any regime, meritocratic or otherwise. He’s shallow, unsympathetic, unimaginative, and opportunistic – in fact (though this, too, is curiously muted throughout the book), the only thing he really has going for him is that he’s good-looking. That’s what leads me to suspect Gabrielle Bordwin’s cover depicts a young man and only a young man: The Scarlet and the Black is quintessentially the story of a young man who tries – and ultimately fails – to parlay his good looks into anything more substantial.
Book designers worth their salt have always seized on that theme. The sturdy 1953 Penguin Classic translation (simply rendered Scarlet and Black) features a detail from a portrait by the great Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (who was very nearly a contemporary of Stendhal, and whose studies and finished sketches of nudes are the glory of that particular sub-strata of art): the handsome face of a young man bordered in shadow and looking a bit worried.
The cover of the 1991 Oxford World’s Classics paperback makes the proposition even more openly: here we have a slightly darkened detail from a painting showing the very item itself, a very handsome, slightly foppish young man (Oxford’s later trade paperback makes the smart decision of giving us the whole portrait, so we can take in the top-hat held with false negligence, the coat-tails, the ostentatious little shoes – whether or not he actually did, this is exactly how Julien Sorel would have imagined himself dressing) – a man whose perfect face and elegant (though exceedingly Gallic!) nose would have acted as by far his most effective social trump-card, gaining him admittance to social circles that would have been denied to rude mechanicals.
In the shrewd, unforgettable second part of Stendhal’s novel, the Parisian social circle in question is that of the Marquis de la Mole, whose household Julien Sorel has joined as a kind of general secretary and factotum. It’s here that he encounters Mathilde, his employer’s daughter, and Stendhal immediately busies himself with the sexual tension between these two young idiots. So surely it’s in a scene between these two characters that we’ll best be able to determine if this 2003 Burton Raffel translation only looks sexier or in fact is sexier than all other contenders! Let’s look for example, at Chapter 20, “The Japanese Vase,” in which so many of the flirting games and serious ploys between Julian and Mathilde begin to erupt. It’s in this chapter that we’re taken into Mathilde’s cresting self-revulsion at the thought of becoming intimate with somebody so far beneath her own social rank, for instance, which translator Margaret Shaw renders this way for the Penguin Classic:
Remorseful virtue and resentful pride made her, that morning, equally unhappy. She was in some sort shattered by the dreadful idea of having given certain rights over herself to a mere humble priest, who was a peasant’s son. It’s almost, she said to herself at moments when she exaggerated her misfortune, as if I had to reproach myself with a partiality for one of the footmen.
… which is, as even my readers without French will immediately see, almost unrelievedly dreadful. Things are slightly improved in Catherine Slater’s rendition for Oxford World’s Classics:
Virtue and pride were both causing her remorse that made her equally wretched that morning. She was somehow devastated by the appalling idea of having given rights over herself to a little abbe, the son of a peasant. It’s more or less, she said to herself at times when she was exaggerating her wretchedness, as if I had a lapse with one of the lackeys on my conscience.
That at least tries to capture some of the euphony that Stendhal could toss off so casually, and “little abbe” is very good. But what about the Raffel, with its sexy cover? Here’s what it does with the same passage:
Remorse caused by virtue and by pride, had made her, that morning, equally wretched. To some extent, she was overwhelmed by a frightful idea: she had given claims on herself to a petty priest, a peasant’s son. “This is almost the same,” she told herself, in moments of exaggerating her misery, “as if I had reproached myself, having had a weakness for one of the servants.”
It might not be particularly sexy, but that’s clearly better than either of the other two, yes? More effective, more direct, if less strictly beholden to the French. And since Chapter 20 is also something of a high point in Julien Sorel’s self-awareness – and since it’s very likely his flexing abs on Gabrielle Bordwin cover – it seems only right to check in on him too, in the shocking moment when he dimly realizes that Mathilde might actually exist as a person (and a person who doesn’t at the moment seem to like him too much). Here’s Shaw from the Penguin:
For the first time in his life, Julien found himself subjected to the action of a superior mind provoked by the most violent hatred against him. So far from having at that moment the least thought of defending himself, he reached the point of self-contempt. Hearing her heap upon him such cruel marks of scorn, so skilfully calculated to destroy any good opinion he might have of himself, it seemed to him that Mathilde was right, and that she was not saying enough.
That’s a more respectable showing, especially in the neatly-navigated shoals of all those ‘s’-sounds and hard-‘c’ sounds. What about Slater for Oxford? She had it like this:
For the first time in his life Julien found himself subjected to the working of a superior mind fired by the most violent hatred of him. Far from having even the slightest thought of defending himself at that moment, he reached the stage of despising his own self. As he heard himself assailed with such cruel outbursts of scorn, so cleverly calculated to destroy any good opinion he might have of himself, it seemed to him that Mathilde was right and that her words did not go far enough.
And the balance-scales tip in the opposite direction! In this passage, Slater is clumsier than Shaw, muddying things up with ‘his own self’-style paddings and thereby muting the comparatively brutal impact of the moment. And how will Sexy Raffel handle it? Like this:
For the first time in his life, Julien found himself subjected to the workings of a superior mind, motivated by extraordinary hatred, and entirely directed at him. He was unable even to think of defending himself; indeed, he began to share her burning contempt. As he heard Mathilde heaping up her disdain, her cruelties, all cleverly calculated to destroy whatever good opinion he might have had of himself, he felt she was right, and she could not have said enough of such things.
Again, very much the best of the three – by judiciously cutting a few corners, Raffel manages give the moment a – dare we say it – muscularity that’s lacking in the two earlier, less sexy translations. His The Red and the Black is a world different from, for example, his disastrous 2008 ‘translation’ of The Canterbury Tales – it’s uniformly excellent, a fine representation of this fantastic novel.
And sexy too! A kind of companion to Wendy Lai‘s equally-sexy (and of course equally-irrelevant) cover design for Random House’s 2004 edition of “The Lion in Winter” – and let’s hear it for such treatments! War and Peace, anyone?
February 17th, 2014
Our book today is Death in the Ashes, a murder mystery by Albert Bell, the fourth in his delightful “Notebooks of Pliny the Younger” series starring, obviously, the famous first-century author and imperial kiss-up Pliny the Younger, here ably assisted (and mocked the whole time) by the even-more-famous historian Tacitus. Both of them are comparatively young men still in the course of the series, not yet famous for their own deeds but rather for their well-known connections: Tacitus is the son-in-law of one of the Empire’s most able and most controversial generals, Agricola, and Pliny, even more famously, is the nephew of the great Roman polymath and administrator and voluminous author we now know as Pliny the Elder, who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius while trying to use the Roman warships under his command to ferry survivors away from the catastrophe.
The memory of that terrible day hangs over all the “Notebooks of Pliny the Younger,” but none more so than Death in the Ashes, in which their latest investigation takes Pliny and Tacitus back to the Bay of Naples and to death-site of Pompeii itself. But as the book opens, he’s facing a peril of a decidedly more mundane kind – the fear of public speaking:
I started down the hillside toward the Forum. The largest men among my clients stepped in front of me to clear a path on the crowded sidewalks. After several days of rain the morning was clear and crisp, even a bit cool for the Kalends of October. As I took out my copy of my speech, for some reason an image came to my mind – Pompey, leaving the safety of his trireme, in a little boat taking him to shore, reading over the speech he intended to give before Ptolemy, the Egyptian boy-king, but murdered before he could set foot on shore.
Pliny is due to represent a client in the zesty open-door verbal free-for-all that is Rome’s Centumviral Court, and as Death in the Ashes begins, he and his morning’s roll-call of clients are facing not only the ordeal of the trial itself but also the ordeal of simply getting across town – seldom a casual thing in the violence-prone Rome of the emperor Domitian, especially when the group if forced to deter through the City’s worst neighborhood:
We took the street leading behind the Portico of Livia, dedicated by the deified Augustus to his wife, turned left onto the Clivus Suburanus, and followed it until it ran into the broad street known as the Argiletum. The Argiletum cuts directly through the Subura, the lowest point in Rome in more ways than one. In the Subura the city’s human dregs settle as inevitably as the lees at the bottom of an amphora of wine. Today, as we came down the hill toward it, the place had a particularly fetid smell from all the water that had collected there during the last few days’ rain, washing the garbage from higher spots down with it.
But although Death in the Ashes is a hugely enjoyable murder mystery (once again, the particularly fluid and problematic dynamics of the master-slave relationship seem to fascinate our author – both our authors, since Bell’s extensive research matches the interesting comments Pliny himself makes on the subject at random points in his collected letters), our book today could really be any of Bell’s novels – they’re all immensely enjoyable, as I’ve had occasion to point out here on Stevereads before. These books are every bit as well-written, well-plotted, and emotionally insightful (the relationship between Pliny and Tacitus continues to be the series’ heart and soul) as their bigger-press counterparts in the world of fiction set in ancient Rome – only without the guaranteed library and book-club sales the bigger publishers can lock into the roll-out of those higher-profile books. Bell (and the good folks at Perseverance Press, his new publisher), in other words, relies a lot more on that most trustworthy of all reader barometers: word of mouth.
So that’s my own word on the subject, for what it’s worth: order these books! You won’t be sorry!
February 11th, 2014
Last week’s London Review of Books started out with a dollop of crazy and just kept barreling along! The nutty topping came first, from a letter-writer out of County Tipperary who felt the need to do a little proud confessing:
I once sold a pigsty, which is now a disguised dwelling, and built a cabin from a hundred pallets nearby. I have not willingly used a flush toilet for forty years; drink only rainwater; and have never driven a car.
And while you’re still trying to figure out the darker implications of how one goes about unwillingly using a flush toilet, the LRB enlists one literary giant to take the piss out of another: the redoubtable Ferdinand Mount sets his cross-hairs on that arch-Victorian, Walter Bagehot. Mount isn’t reviewing some new biography, of course (I sincerely doubt we’ll be seeing one of those any time soon) – instead, he’s using Frank Prochaska’s The Memoirs of Walter Bagehot as his pretext.
Prochaska’s book is a deeply intelligent and deeply odd concoction from last year, in which the author distills an enormous amount of primary source reading into a quasi-fictional version of the memoirs Bagehot never in fact wrote. Yale University Press made a very pretty hardcover production out of the thing, but even so, it was one of the only new books from 2013 that baffled my own attempts at writing a review. I admired the spirit and scholarship behind the thing, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to say about it.
In my own partial defense, I don’t think Mount had a much clearer view of the thing than I did; instead of delving too deeply into the book, he takes the occasion of his article to delve into the critical myth of Bagehot himself, starting with a line guaranteed to irritate the man’s fourteen living fans: “The simplest starting point – and also the ultimate answer – is to say what Bagehot undoubtedly was, thoroughly, professionally, and ancestrally: a banker.” Hee. I’ve been watching Mount have this kind of donnish fun for virtually the whole of his professional career, and it never gets stale.
“It seems something of a mystery that Bagehot should endure as an icon of sagacity,” Mount writes. “[He] shows little sense of or interest in constitutional structure. All he is interested in is power, and what he tells us – this is his groundbreaking insight – is that power resides with the majority in the House of Commons and nowhere else …” It’ll take the Grand Old Man a few glowing praise-jobs in other periodicals to recover from this kind of unblinking scrutiny. The Weekly Standard already did their best; maybe The American Scholar will step up to the plate.
In the meantime, this issue featured another writer hitting all his marks: the always-enjoyable Andrew O’Hagan uncorks one after another great snide comment at the expense of David Plante’s new memoir Becoming a Londoner – and much of what O’Hagan writes is at least as quotable as the choicest bits of Plante’s own book:
His diaries are good because they are true to his own narcissism, revealing how, in the magic spectacle of London literary life, he is always able to pull his own self out of the hat.
Granted, Plante brings much of this mandarin abuse on himself, since he takes no trouble in his book to hide what a self-centered ninny he could be back when he was young and beautiful (in his defense, when he was an arrogant and extremely promising undergraduate in Boston, his Wildean sense of quippy entitlement didn’t seem quite so out of place). O’Hagan has an acute taste for ninny-hunting and never lets his victim up off the floor:
Plante and his partner were smart, pretty, adulatory and new – a shoo-in to the company of elderly gays and needy widows – but the vacancy at the centre of Planet’s ambition is much in evidence. He’s one of those who seems to have accepted early on the notion that, if he couldn’t be a great writer, he would be close to those who were.
(This last evaluation is a bit too abrupt, especially from a critic who considers Plante’s 1983 novel Difficult Women to be his best work, when that distinction clearly goes to 1986’s The Catholic)
But as good as both O’Hagan and Mount are, by far the most memorable piece in this particular LRB is something called “Ghosts of the Tsunami” by Richard Lloyd Parry. It’s the story of a man exorcising the troubled ghosts of those killed by the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan and killed nearly 20,000 people, and Parry is such a shrewd and powerful storyteller that you get pulled into the drama regardless of what you think about ghosts:
As the road descended towards the coast, their jaunty mood began to evaporate. Suddenly, before they understood where they were, they had entered the tsunami zone.
There was no advance warning, no marginal area of incremental damage. The wave had come in with full force, spent itself and stopped at a point as clearly defined as the reach of a high tide. Above it, nothing had been touched; below it, everything was changed.
The whole thing had such a fierce observational clarity and a perfect narrative flow that it reminded me of John Hersey’s Hiroshima on more grounds than just raw topical pathos. In fact, I’m really hoping this little essay was testing the water for a book.
February 10th, 2014
Our book today is The 12.30 from Croydon, a 1934 thriller (its boring American title was Wilful and Premeditated) by Freeman Wills Crofts, who was both a member in good standing of the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction and also that much rarer bird, an Irishman with absolutely no ear for telling a good story. It’s true that Raymond Chandler offered some measured praise of Crofts in his fantastic manifesto The Simple Art of Murder, and it’s true that no less an authority than Dorothy Sayers herself called The 12.30 from Croydon “an excellent book,” but both were clearly drunk at the time.
In fact, Crofts is a simply dreadful writer, and his clockwork mystery novels (many of which star his sad-sack signature character Detective French, whose quirky, memorable trait is that he … wait for it … works real hard) are exactly the kind of barely-flavored gristle that will only satisfy you if you have a full-blown addiction to mystery fiction and so will read anything that starts with a dead body and ends with a trial. I used to know one such addict, and during his final illness, when he was confined to bed but entirely mentally alert, he’d often ask me to buy him some murder mysteries at Brentano’s when I came for my daily visit. When I asked him which authors he preferred, he said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. Just seize the first five you see.”
For all its faults, The 12.30 from Croydon does indeed start with a body and end with a trial. The novel’s opening sequence, in which a byplane-era crossing of the English Channel is dramatized, climaxes with the moment you just know was the real-life inspiration for the whole book: the plane lands, the passengers bestir themselves – and one of them turns out to have died en route. You can picture Crofts looking at some elderly passenger sleeping on just such a plane and thinking ‘wouldn’t that make a capital opening scene in book, if that chap were dead?”
The chap in question is Andrew Crowther, an ailing invalid taking his first airplane flight. He was a wealthy, retired Yorkshire industrialist whose business went to his nephew Charles. Unfortunately for Charles, times are tough and the business needs a large infusion of cash – which dear old uncle is unwilling to bestow. Since Charles is both pressured by economics and passionately in love with a steely-nerved woman named Una who insists she’ll only marry a man who can give her the finer things in life (the “Una, O Una” passages of the book lead to the inescapable conclusion that Crofts never in his life felt romantic passion for a woman), the law-abiding nephew immediately begins thinking of killing his uncle in order to get his inheritance. And such thoughts bother him, as Crofts takes the trouble to explain to us:
‘I’ve got good news for you, uncle,’ he began cheerily as he could. But for the moment he could not go on. Unexpectedly he experienced a painful revulsion of feeling. He had always ridiculed the idea of conscience, but the effort to be cheery now made something very like conscience grip him. He felt he simply could not talk in an easy, friendly way to this old man, whose life he meditated taking. Suddenly he got a glimpse of what he was really doing, and he felt a little sick. He felt dirty also, somehow soiled, as if he were a traitor, about to stab his trusting friend in the back.
His uncle is forever popping pills for his various ailments, and this gives Charlie-boy the idea to insert some poison tablets amongst the healthier kind. As Dr. Ingram, one of Croft’s endless gallery of talking heads, makes clear:
‘Potassium cyanide is one of the most deadly and rapid of known poisons,’ he declared with the air of a professor lecturing to a class. ‘Death has occurred within three or four minutes of taking it, and unconsciousness within a few seconds. Of course its effects are not always so rapid as this, but it is usually a matter of minutes.’
So: a body on the plane, and French on the case, and soon enough Charles is standing trial for murder, prosecuted by Sir Richard Brander, who, no slouch in the talking heads department, explains things to the jury:
‘The main features of this unhappy case are not new. Probably as far back as history goes we could find parallels, continue to be paralleled. It belongs to the type of murder for gain. The prisoner, I shall show, was embarrassed financially. He was also heir to a considerable sum. He is charged with murdering the testator to obtain that sum of money and so to relieve himself of his difficulties.’
There’s not a single inch of this book that’s innovative or interesting, except for the meta-critical reason of its fascination with the comparatively new-fangled industry of commercial air traffic. Crofts was that kind of hack writer, constantly sniffing around for the cutting-edge hook on which he could hang his next tale. If he were alive and working today, his three forthcoming books would be The Sochi Strangler, The Bitcoin Murders, and Fatal Flappy Bird. Alas – or fortunately, if you, too, are a murder mystery addict – he has plenty of literary spawn to fill that void in the 21st century.
February 8th, 2014
It’s not often, especially nowadays, that the cover of The New Yorker is better than any of the contents of the issue, but that certainly happened last week.
The issue had an infuriating piece by Tad Friend about a family of irresponsible Nantucket knuckleheads whose ordeal at sea only momentarily distracts the reader from the glaring fact that they all should have died a long time ago from sheer stupidity about sailing and the sea. And James Wood opens his review of the new Jesse Ball novel with this line: “Like his earlier work, Jesse Ball’s strange, brief, beguiling fourth novel, ‘Silence Once Begun,’ flirts with the hermetic.” Good to know, good to know.
In other words, there was no real competition this time around for Tomer Hanuka’s beautiful cover illustration. It’s called “Perfect Storm,” and it more wonderfully captures what a snowstorm in New York City can feel like than any New Yorker cover has done in many years. Everything about the cover is perfect, from the warm, cozy yellows of the apartment’s interior to the old-fashioned metal radiator (the kind that whizzes and clunks and gurgles all winter long) to the slightly startled languor of the young couple looking out at the storm – to the storm itself, falling on the brownstones and mounting layers of the city in a way that looks both lovely and uninviting.
I’ve only very briefly ever lived in New York City, and that was only for a wretched, tar-sticky summer. But I’ve visited more times than I can count, and there’ve been many, many mornings where I woke up to just such a sight as the one captured in Hanuka’s painting. I remember one such morning vividly – after a wonderful, late, late evening, I was sleeping in the tall, narrow guest bedroom of an old friend’s place on the corner of Washington and Bethune. The room had one tall thin window, at 6 the next morning the bed was deliciously crowded with me and my host’s soundly-sleeping dogs. Even after all these years, I recall how warm and comfortable we all were as I looked out at a fierce, almost impenetrable snowstorm raging outside.
I’m sure that next week The New Yorker will go back to its customary balance of words and images. But for this issue, the images win easily.
February 4th, 2014
Our book today is 1812, a meaty, fantastic 1996 historical novel by David Nevin, who wrote a string of first-rate books in the fifteen years before his death in 2011. 1812 is the dramatic story of fledgling America’s second fight with the British Empire, and it centers on President James Madison and his strong-willed wife Dolley, who resisted the dire option of war for as long as they could and then were forced to flee the presidential mansion and watch helplessly as it was burned by the British (Madison mentally notes that such things aren’t done in ‘civilized’ warfare and wonders if its a harbinger of war’s future shape). Nevin did a mountain of research on all his characters but especially on the Madisons – he captures Dolley’s impossible stubbornness and irritating bravery, and he’s especially good at channelling the weird, almost otherworldly side little James Madison so often displayed. The scene where an arrogant Daniel Webster confronts the President in his sickbed is a good example – it reads like typical historical fiction artifice, but it’s actually a very good representation of the almost-finished, almost-Ciceronian way Madison talked when his dander was up:
“Do not come to criticize me, sir, with your hands black with the tars of Federalism. Do no prate cheap Federalist doctrine blind as the snows of New England. Haven’t you yet learned there’s more to this country than your parochial little corner? Don’t dare to criticize me, sir, when Federalists have done all they could to hobble their nation and cripple it in war …
“It’s your people who undermine their country, who encourage its enemies, who supply the very ships that blockade us – curs licking the book that kicks them, sir! – your governors who refuse their duty, your militia who hide behind governors’ skirts, your courts that connive with venal young men to defraud the government with false enlistments, your bankers who squat on their money like hens on their eggs, your ministers who cry from their pulpits of the devil’s work when young Americans are dying for lack of support – oh, no, sir, do not dare preach to me, do not dare! Now begone, sir! This instant, sir!”
The Madisons share Nevin’s stage with a sprawling cast of characters, many of whom – especially Andrew Jackson, of course (and my favorite in this novel, “Frank” Key) – will be familiar to history buffs. Since Nevin sets himself the task of dramatizing the whole war, his story ranges from the dining rooms of Washington City to the shot-swept decks of warships at sea – to the Niagara frontier in 1814, where we meet Winfield Scott not as the old and slightly ridiculous figure who would be so overcome by the Civil War a whole generation from now but rather in his prime, surveying the men he’ll lead into pitched battle against the British:
They were beautiful, that was the only word for it – three thousand men marching with all the snap and precision of hardened veterans, going through their paces for the last time at Flint Hill. Brigadier General Winfield Scott stole a look at General Brown – hell, yes, the General was impressed. He’d never seen anything like this. As if in confirmation, Brown turned and threw up his fist in a warrior’s gesture.
It was a brilliant day, sun blazing, cool, winy air fresh and tangy. Glad-to-be-alive weather. Scott’s throat was raw from shouting commands as he wheeled his big roan gelding about for each new maneuver. A big man needs a big horse, and the roan he called Rusty was just right, a soldier’s horse that loved the drum and danced when he heard it.
I can’t recommend 1812 strongly enough to fans of historical fiction. Nevin’s books are some of the only ones from roughly his publishing period that I consistently re-read (Max Byrd and of course Steven Pressfield also come to mind) – and every time I do, I wish he were still around to write more.
February 3rd, 2014
Our book today is The Laughing Policeman, a 1968 police procedural mystery from the phenomenally popular Swedish husband and wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo that got translated into English in 1970 and quickly racked up more critical and popular success than all the authors’ previous novels combined and is still considered something of an archetype of the whole sub-genre.
It’s an odd sub-genre, one of the oddest in the whole mystery realm. Unlike the more marquee-grabbing stories in which an eccentric dilettante like Sherlock Holmes or Lord Peter Wimsey swoop in and solve crimes, in police procedurals the cases are cracked by dint of unrelentingly ordinary policework. There may be some outstanding workers (the main character in this series, Detective Martin Beck, would be the local case-in-point), but every investigation is handled by a team. The team consists of a bunch of hard-working officers, usually presided over by querulous and moronic bosses, and when the work is done each day, the characters repair to dim cop-bars and grouse about work, or else they return to the dark, chilly apartments in which they live and drink alone. Sweden all but single-handedly inaugurated this sub-genre, and although its been played out against the backdrop of virtually every industrialized nation, even the ones set in dry, hot, sunny Africa somehow manage to feel Swedish.
I confess, I’ve never seen the appeal. Every time I read a police procedural, I always find myself wondering the same thing: don’t readers get more than enough of their own hum-drum workplaces in real life, without mentally transporting themselves to somebody else’s during their precious, precious reading time? Are minuscule differences in workplace personality really ever preferable to those singular eccentricities they replace? Who wouldn’t rather have Judge Dee’s imperious short temper or Hercule Poirot’s leetle grey cells over some down-at-heels working stiff sitting at his desk inching his way down a list of car registration numbers from the impound yard until it’s time for his lunch?
Even so, it’s easy to see why The Laughing Policeman stands out. The story opens with a horrific crime: a lone gunman opens fire on a double-decker Stockholm bus, killing eight people – one of whom is a police detective, Ake Stenstrom, an old colleague of Martin Beck’s. The news breaks at the precinct house in a typically laconic manner:
The first senior policeman to arrive at Norra Stationsgatan was Gunvald Larsson.
He had been sitting at his desk at police headquarters at Kungsholmen, thumbing through a dull and wordy report, very listlessly and for about the umpteenth time, while he wondered why on earth people didn’t go home … The phone rang. He grunted and picked up the receiver.
But our authors are good at conveying the life of Stockholm fifty years ago, a place almost entirely unprepared for such American levels of violence:
Nobody knew anything for sure, but there were two words that were whispered from person to person and soon spread in concentric circles through the crowd and the surrounding houses and city, finally taking more definite shape and being flung out across the country as a whole. By now the words had reached far beyond the frontiers.
Mass murder in Stockholm.
Mass murder in a bus in Stockholm.
The first cops on the scene clumsily contaminate the physical evidence in their confusion and fear, but the investigation moves doggedly onward just the same. When Martin Beck reflects on his old friend Stenstrom, any reader of Swedish crime fiction will be able to predict the tone of the results, if not the actual factoids:
A nice guy. Ambitious, persevering, smart, ready to learn. On the other hand rather shy, still a trifle childish, anything but witty, not much of a sense of humor on the whole. But who had?
Who indeed? The Laughing Policeman kept me every bit as entertained during this last re-reading as it did when I first read it, and while I was enjoying myself I kept wondering if maybe I’d always been too harsh on the whole sub-genre of grim, humorless, plodding, utterly quotidian police procedurals. Then I remember two things: a) the long, unending bore-fest that is the novels of Henning Mankell, and b) how exceptional The Laughing Policeman is even among the authors’ own books. Maybe it takes more of a team player than I’ll ever be to really sink into these novels and love them, but even lacking that, I can certainly love this book.