Posts from April 2015
April 20th, 2015
Our book today is William McIlvanney’s Strange Loyalties (not, as the last couple of “Mystery Mondays” might lead you to believe, Strange Loyalties … of the Dead!), the third murder mystery novels to feature Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, who stalks the mean streets of 1970s Glasgow and is routinely referred to by his superiors on the force as a “maverick.” Laidlaw first appeared in 1977’s Laidlaw, a nearly-flawless example of the ‘hardboiled’ sub-genre of mysteries, and next in 1983’s superb The Papers of Tony Veitch. Strange Loyalties first appeared 1991, and the good folks at Europa Editions deserve drinks all around for their decision to re-issue the trilogy in these stylish paperbacks as part of their “World Noir” series.
If anybody deserves a place in that series, it’s McIlvanney, who’s won a series of literary awards as long as your arm and is widely credited with inventing the whole realm of gritty Scottish noir that’s treated authors like Ian Rankin so well ever since. One of the main ingredients of that brand of noir is a main character who’s a) well-versed in literature but rusty at recalling it, b) a smart mouth, and c), needless to say, a reflexive, excuse-making, embittered alcoholic (it’s also fairly standard for this main character to have a less interesting and less edgy mother-hen style partner, in this case Laidlaw’s colleague Brian Harkness, whose compared to a worrying old lady in every book – in this one, it first happens on page 23). Laidlaw is a quintessential mixture of these ingredients; he hates every element of the law-and-order system of which he’s a part, from the judges at the top:
Those judges, I thought … Never mind having little understanding of the human heart, they often didn’t have much grasp of the daily machinery of the lives they were presuming to judge. Time and again the voice had quavered querulously down from Mount Olympus, asking the question that stunned: ‘A transistor? What exactly do you mean by that?’ ‘UB40? Is that some kind of scientific formula?’ (‘Not a formula, Your Honour. A form. An unemployment form.’) ‘An unemployment form? And what is that?’
To the lawyers in the middle:
‘A brilliant lawyer’ was a phrase I had often heard. That was all right if all you meant was an ability to play legal games. But what did that mean? Intelligence as a closed circuit. Intelligence should never be a closed circuit. Take them off the stage that is a law court, where the forms are all present, and a lot of them wouldn’t know tears from rain.
To the majority of his fellow cops, many of whom (Brian included) are irritated as Strange Loyalties opens that Laidlaw is obsessing more than usual about what seems on the surface to be a simple car accident in which the drunken victim wandered out into the road and was killed accidentally. The reason for Laidlaw’s obsession is stark: the victim was his brother Scott, a gregarious type with “a head busier than an anthill.” Now that his initial grief has worn off, Laidlaw’s relentless bent for questioning everything has kicked in:
“I know it was an accident … But where did the accident begin? That’s what I want to know. In the middle of the road? At the kerb? In the pub before he went out? In the fact that he drank too much? In the reasons why he drank too much? When did the accident begin? And why? When did my brother’s life give up its purpose? So that it could wander aimlessly for years till it walked into a car? Why? Why did it lose itself until we found it lying in front of that car? I want to know. Why do the best of us go to waste while the worst of us flourish? I want to know.”
It will come as no surprise to police-procedural mystery readers that what seems like an open-and-shut roadway accident turns out to be much more complicated; Laidlaw’s stubborn snooping is soon uncovering all sorts of things about his brother that he’d rather not know but can’t ignore. Likewise readers familiar with McIlvanney’s novels will know to expect proceedings to get more gripping (and often more darkly funny) as the plot picks up steam – and that’s certainly the case with Strange Loyalties. And readers not familiar with the Laidlaw books – well, they’re in for quite a treat. My advice would be to go to Europa’s website and buy all three … trust me, you’re going to want to binge on them.
April 18th, 2015
Our book today is a little gem: the “Golden Regional Guide” A Guide to Everglades National Park and the Nearby Florida Keys (this one is the third printing, from 1962, when Warren Hamilton was the Superintendent of Everglades National Park), written by Herbert Zim and wonderfully illustrated throughout, not only with crisp (albeit tiny) photographs but also with dozens of color drawings by Russ Smiley.
Like all the Golden Guides, this one was very much intended to be tucked into a pocket and brought along outside – in this case, out into the flat vastness of the Everglades. In fact, the last time I was there, one of my travel-companions was carrying a shiny (then) new edition of this very book, and there were times when I could have sworn he was paying more attention to it than to the wilderness all around him.
Fortunately, my other traveling companion on that particular outing (which lasted only two days) was an old, old friend of mine, somebody with whom I’d explored the Everglades and the Florida Keys at much greater length long before that guide-consulting companion had been born (and since he’s now retired and living on bottled air in Phoenix, the rest of you can just assume that all of this happened a long time ago in a galaxy far away). She and I consulted no guidebooks, although she was a good deal more comfortable in her surroundings than I was. Southern Florida in summer is a pestilential hell-hole of heat, humidity, and bugs, a hammock-and-sawgrass nightmare of steam and muck and monsters that were already old when the dinosaurs walked the Earth. I have paddled by canoe all through the waterways of the place, camping inland on the rare humps of dry land and camping on beaches on the Gulf side, and over time and over repeated visits, I reached a grudging but sincere appreciation for the otherworldly beauty of the place.
This Golden Guide takes a typically no-nonsense approach to that otherworldly beauty. It opens with a brief panoramic history of Southern Florida and the Everglades – Lake Okeechobee, the Anhinga Trail, the enormous variety of wildlife, and the outer reaches of the ecosphere, the 200-mile arc of the Florida Keys, stretching from Miami to the Dry Tortugas (I’ve sailed over every inch of those Keys, but I did most of that sailing in the sole company of a brace of beagles – not an experience I’d recommend to the faint of heart). The Guide rightly declares that the 300 species of birds here are the Everglades’ true glory, but even so, it hardly has any choice but to spend a page on the malevolent stars of the wetlands, the American alligator and the American crocodile:
Crocodiles are much rarer than alligators in this region. They live in the salt marshes and mangroves of the Park and Keys, sometimes going out into Florida Bay. They are thinner, with a narrower, pointed snout. Some teeth are exposed when their mouth is closed. Crocodiles are more dangerous than alligators, but are too rare in this country to be the problem they are in Asia and Africa.
My travel companions and I saw a few alligators during our two-day jaunt, and my old friend and I saw many, many more during our various much longer trips – eight-footers, ten-footers, and in one rather harrowing encounter, a monstrous creature much longer than our canoe, a thing probably sixty years old. That brief, glancing mention that crocodiles are more dangerous than alligators is this Golden Guide’s only semi-concession that alligators themselves are dangerous, but you only have to be around them for five seconds to feel five millennia of human civilization just slide away.
Actually, the whole place feels that way. I know of hardly any experiences on Earth more inherently despairful than watching the sun set from a tent deep inside Big Cypress Swamp and feeling the most oppressive darkness in the world closing in, teeming with vigilant aliens.
Foremost among those aliens are the alligators, but right behind them would be the innumerable snakes that infest the area. My old friend insisted during every visit that these creatures were actually beautiful, but she wasn’t bitten by as many of them as I was. The Guide is typically sanguine about that possibility:
Snake bite is more easily prevented than treated. Wear heavy shoes and use care when walking. All snakes bite. The bite of non-poisonous species may show a U-shaped pattern of tooth marks. Treat with an antiseptic. Bites of poisonous snakes often show two large fang punctures and perhaps other teeth marks as well. Learn first aid before you go. Keep the patient quiet; apply a tourniquet; cut and suck the wound. Notify a park ranger or get the victim to a doctor immediately.
There’s actually a somewhat stern tone running through a good part of this Guide – a tell-tale giveaway that despite its rosy, tourist-friendly ultimate purpose it knows perfectly well it’s describing a hellscape that wants nothing more than to consume all these clueless pink-skins tromping around with their cameras hanging around their necks:
There is little danger in the park except for that which people create themselves. Stay on trails and roads. Dress appropriately. Be prepared for mosquitoes in summer. Check charts before boating and fishing. Much of the park is wild country. Do not underestimate it.
I very much doubt I’ll ever be back to the Everglades or the Keys, so it was extra-nice to find this Golden Guide at the Brattle Bookshop the other day. The Brattle’s ecosystem doesn’t bother me at all – I suspect I’ll be back to it, no guidebook needed.
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 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 29th, 2015
Our book today is The Green Dragoon, a 1957 book by Robert Bass, and it illustrates a very good impromptu rule of book-buying: never pass up a book with a title like The Green Dragoon.
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.
March 14th, 2015
Our book today is another skimpy little thing, a 1973 Capra chapbook combining two essays by the crime fiction writer who worked under the pen name of Ross MacDonald, and although it fits in with our deep-breath respite from enormous whopping volumes, it’s also undeniable in this case that we probably don’t want this particular booklet to be much longer than it is. MacDonald led a storied life, and he wrote two dozen murder mystery novels starring his stoical, capable, boring gumshoe Lew Archer. Those novels tended to be over-praised in MacDonald’s lifetime, and some of his stuff has been ushered into the Library of America in our own time, but like so many of his fellow hardboiled-detective authors, the man could overestimate his professorial capabilities.
The two pieces in this chapbook, The Writer as Detective Hero and Writing the Galton Case, form perfect cases-in-point. In the second, MacDonald takes us through an interesting but fairly standard account of the genesis of one of his most popular novels, The Galton Case, but where his hero Raymond Chandler might have made such an essay crackle with pointed anecdotes, MacDonald hauls in Freud and Oedipus and just generally overdoes things.
He’s far more bearable in the first essay, The Writer as Detective Hero, in which he traces the autobiographical elements in the genre’s most popular characters, from Poe’s Dupin to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Hammett’s Spade to Chandler’s Marlowe. And although this analysis would be a lot more enjoyable if it weren’t so clearly encouraging the reader to end that sequence with “to MacDonald’s Lew Archer,” it’s still plenty enjoyable, with some neat observations about the nature of the genre’s gimmicks:
Nostalgia for a privileged society accounts for one of the prime attractions of the traditional English detective story and its innumerable American counterparts. Neither wars nor the dissolution of governments and societies interrupt that long weekend in the country house which is often, with more or less unconscious symbolism, cut off by a failure in communications from the outside world.
At one point MacDonald writes, “Detective story writers are often asked why we devote our talents to working in a mere popular convention.” And then he answers his own posed question: “One answer is that there may be more to our use of the convention than meets the eye.” It never seems to occur to him that another answer – more plausible and more obvious to many of his readers, then or now, is: “Because ‘mere popular convention’ is just about as much as your talents can handle.” But maybe that’s a tale for another chapbook.