Monday, December 17, 2012

Give Me Holmes for the Holidays!*

You know what sounds like a good idea but usually isn't? A Christmas mystery. Titled something like "Mistletoe Murders," or "Sugar Plum Dead." Maybe snowbound at an English country manor, tea in the conservatory, body in the library, bright young things playing charades or getting up spontaneous Christmas theatricals while the Scotland Yard inspector interviews suspects....

Somehow it never works out. It seems that Christmas and death by violence don't actually go together that well. Go figure. Christmas mysteries are either too bloody, or just too bloody boring. There is one shining exception, and of course it's by the master, Arthur Conan Doyle, and it's about the master, Sherlock Holmes. "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is the perfect Christmas mystery.

If you're not up on your Sherlock, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is the one with the hat and the goose. It includes a spectacular set piece in which Holmes deduces practically an entire life story from the stains and dust on a lost hat. Nobody dies (except the goose). Instead, an exotic jewel heist is wrapped inside a Victorian Christmas pudding of a story.

The tone is set in the very first sentence, when Watson calls on Holmes on "the second morning after Christmas," to wish him the compliments of the season. Right away we are whisked back to a merrier old England, when "the season" was the full twelve days of Christmas, as celebrated in song.

Apparently, Holmes is in the holiday spirit -- Watson reports him laughing and joking! (I'm sure this happens in other stories, but I can't remember any.) Doyle tries to introduce a slightly sinister shadow when an exotic jewel -- the Countess of Morcar's blue carbuncle, in fact -- shows up in the crop of a Christmas goose! Holmes has a nicely chilling speech about jewels in general and this one in particular:

"Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil's pet baits. In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed.... There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal. Who would think that so pretty a toy would be a purveyor to the gallows and the prison?"

But we're not fooled. It's Christmas and we know that all will be well, as long as there is a crackling fire on the hearth at 221B and Mrs. Hudson is planning to serve a woodcock for dinner. And, indeed all ends well. "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" has a particularly satisfying solution, in which Holmes dispenses his own rough justice, and mercy.

"After all, Watson," said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, "I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies.... Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature."

The end. But I do have an addendum. One of my favorite teaching experiences was studying Sherlock Holmes with 10th graders. In the tradition of "The Blue Carbuncle," I challenged my students to make Sherlockian deductions about the owners of certain objects, mostly random items of clothing culled from the school lost-and-found. But I secretly introduced a pair of my own sneakers, just to see how accurate they might be. Here's what they told me:

These shoes belong to a girl or woman who

  • loves coffee (check)
  • lives on an unpaved road or a gravel driveway (check)
  • tends to be careless or impatient (check)

Do I have to explain? It's elementary, really. The shoes had tiny stains from drops of coffee, and gravel caught in the soles. The last one is the most truly Sherlockian, though. The laces were still tied on the shoes, indicating that the owner removed them without untying them -- thus careless and impatient! Those kids SO had my number! Is it any wonder that I loved teaching?

*It should be noted that I stole my headline from a collection of Holmes pastiches, Holmes for the Holidays edited by Martin Harry Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg and Carol-Lynn Rossel Waugh. Also in researching "The Blue Carbuncle," I came across a couple of excellent blogs making much the same points about this great Christmas mystery. Check them out at:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Wild Mushrooms from Mary Oliver and Other Adventures in Bookselling

Working the Provincetown summer season is the kind of extreme experience which bonds the people who have done it, and which is hard to explain to those who have not. Working long hours non-stop to make the majority of your annual income in about 100 days, while trying to maintain a positive attitude toward the tourists who are both bringing the money and making your life hell, you seem to enter a tunnel that excludes other realities until the light of Labor Day dawns. Or maybe this is just my lame-ass excuse for not posting on this blog for four whole months.

In any case, the day after Labor Day, the whole town seems to exhale a sigh of relief that's nearly audible. Suddenly everything is easier, lighter, slower. And perversely, as things go in this bi-polar little town, this new, quieter reality quickly becomes boring. Along with fewer crowds and less stress, there's also less money and a lot less happening. So one day in late September, I was sitting at the Provincetown Bookshop feeling bored. This, I thought, was really a nothing day -- not much business, no excitement. Then I realized that in that same day I had had face-to-face conversations with not one, but two Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, Michael Cunningham and Mary Oliver! So much for the boring life of a Provincetown bookseller.

Michael Cunningham is known chiefly as a fiction writer. He is the author of The Hours, as well as By Nightfall and A Home at the End of the World, among other novels. He also wrote a lovely, book-length essay that was far and away Provincetown Bookshop's biggest best seller of 2012, called Land's End: A Walk through Provincetown. It is probably the single best book about Provincetown, certainly the best book about Provincetown as it is now (or was around the turn of the millennium). At the height of the season, we were ordering it by the carton and selling 4 or 5 copies a day.

Michael first came to Provincetown as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, and he still spends summers here. As is typical of a small town, I know Michael to say hello to, but I didn't know how to contact him to ask him to sign his books. So -- again taking advantage of that wonderful small-town thing -- I sent him a note addressed to "Michael Cunningham, Provincetown, MA 02657." Our intrepid postal workers worked their magic, and Michael dropped by the bookstore to sign some books and chat. If, like me, your heroes are writers, then you know it doesn't get much better than this. 

But wait. There's more! That same day, I had gone by Mary Oliver's house (notice how casually I drop that line) to pick up a big load of books that she signed for the Provincetown Bookshop. This is doubtless the single biggest perk of my job: I'm the lucky woman who gets to deliver and pick up the literally hundreds of books that Mary Oliver graciously signs for the Bookshop. At the same time, I get to pet Ricky, the new dog, and schmooze a little.

Mary Oliver is, of course, Provincetown's national treasure, the great nature poet of our time. She was described by The New York Times in 2007 as the best-selling poet in America. (I just looked on Amazon and saw that her new book, A Thousand Mornings, is their number two best seller in poetry, after Shakespeare.) Her nature-centered poetry is accessible and inspirational, in the tradition of Frost and Dickens. She is also famously private, letting her work speak for itself. The opportunity to interact with her -- as a townie and a bookseller, decidedly NOT as an adoring fan -- is a wonderful thing. As a token of thanks after she signed the first load of books, I brought her flowers from my neighbor's garden. Perhaps in return, or maybe just because she had too many, she offered me wild mushrooms she had picked that morning. I know nothing about mushrooms, but I believe these were Golden Chanterelles, bright orange, big and meaty. At her suggestion, I sliced them, sauteed them, and ate them plain for breakfast.

They were delicious!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tales from the Bookshop

Apparently the rumors of the death of the book are greatly exaggerated. I have been "managing" -- as if that were possible -- the Provincetown Bookshop for almost three weeks now, and every day I hear from customers about how glad they are that the bookshop is still there. The Provincetown Bookshop is the last remaining full service bookstore in the town -- or, for that matter, on the Outer Cape. (Next book stop, Orleans, 30 miles away.) There is a wonderful used and rare bookstore almost next door to us, but no other general bookstore. Not only are people voicing their love of books, bookstores, and the Provincetown Bookshop in particular, they are buying an amazingly arcane and intellectual bunch of books.

In less than three weeks, I've sold:
  • two copies of a biography of Cicero
  • two copies of the poetry of Pablo Neruda
  • two copies of The Memorial by Christopher Isherwood
  • Dharma Bums and On the Road
  • Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath
  • two biographies of St. Francis of Assissi (in this case, to the same person)
  • innumerable editions of poetry by Mary Oliver
  • obscure literary fiction, essays, and biographies too numerous to mention
  • an eclectic mix of history books on Indians, the Civil War, and WW II, none of them best sellers except the biography of John Adams by David McCullough.
This is in addition to all the Cape Cod books and music books that the store is known for. And, of course, the usual suspects: the indie bestsellers that you can find in any good independent bookstore.

Perhaps the most heartening harbinger for the future of books is the children's section. Children's books sell like hotcakes. I've noticed two patterns. Adults buy classic children's books (Winnie the Pooh, The Velveteen Rabbit) as gifts for the children in their lives -- or for baby showers, which is a great idea. And book-loving children as young as three pick out their own books, and can hardly be torn away from the shelves once a selection is made. One little one threw a total tantrum when told he couldn't walk out with every book he had picked up! Although I hate to hear any one cry -- big or little -- it was kind of cool to know that he was crying over books. I know the feeling.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Back to Bookselling

After almost a year of unemployment, I have a summer job, managing the Provincetown Bookshop! This is wonderful for many reasons. One is that I love bookselling. Another is the Provincetown Bookshop itself. In a world where bookstores are becoming extinct, the Provincetown Bookshop is a dinosaur among dinosaurs. Not only is it a local, independent bookstore, but it is the kind of old-fashioned literary bookstore that has a large poetry selection and carries all the classics (from Austen to Zola). As a friend of mine once said, "It's the place to go when you need a copy of The Iliad." It has many treasures.

The Provincetown Bookshop is a very local bookstore, with lots of books about Cape Cod. Their current bestseller is The Outermost House by Henry Beston, beautiful nature writing about a year in a dune shack on Nauset Beach -- in 1926! They carry books by local authors past and present (which happen to include Norman Mailer, Eugene O'Neil and Mark Doty). Longtime Provincetown resident Mary Oliver signs every book of her poetry in stock. Fabulous filmmaker John Waters used to work there. The bookshop was founded in 1932.

All this history can lend the store a somewhat fusty, musty aura. In fact, many people believe that it is a used bookstore (probably because that copy of The Iliad can sit around for a couple of years before it's needed). The owner and staff tend to believe that people either know their way around books or they don't. Hence there is little to help them find their way. The signs appear to have been scrawled by hand sometime back in the Fifties, probably the same summer that Tennessee Williams was at the Atlantic House, interviewing Marlon Brando for a spot in A Streetcar Named Desire. I can't wait to get in there!

Meanwhile, I have to brush up my bookselling. As you probably know, the art of bookselling is not so much to share the books that you love as to recommend to people the books that they will love. This requires a lot of information about a lot of books that you personally don't even like. I might be fine recommending mysteries, but I need to have some ideas on other fiction, biographies, non-fiction, poetry, fantasy, etc. Even dystopian young adult fiction: I'm sure some tween will want to know about another book as good as The Hunger Games.

This is where you come in! I need to know some of the best new books that are out there, and I want you to tell me. Please leave comments in answer to two questions:

  • What was the best book you read in the last six months?
  • What is the book you're most looking forward to reading?

Of course I also need to know why -- what makes it so good, or why are you interested? And it's only fair if I start.

I had real trouble picking out the best book of the last six months, and not from a surfeit of candidates. Many were enjoyable but few were memorable. But then I remembered Midnight Fugue by Reginald Hill.  After excoriating depressing British police procedurals in a previous blog I rediscovered Hill's wonderful constabulary team of Dalziel and Pascoe.  Over a couple of dozen books, Hill has created almost Shakespearean characters and plots, mixing high tragedy and low comedy in quintessentially British fashion. In particular, Superintendent Dalziel rivals Falstaff as a force of nature -- vulgar, canny, and damn near omnipotent.  Midnight Fugue is one of Hill's best because it's so tightly structured, set in a 24-hour time frame when Dalziel returns to duty after a near-death experience. As The New York Times Book Review said, "Hill writes of these tricky matters in a fluid and witty style that eventually lifts the old lion from his torpor and restores him to roaring health."

The book I'm most looking forward to is Alison Bechdel's new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? Bechdel is the brilliant cartoonist who drew the strip Dykes to Watch Out For throughout the Eighties and Nineties (from Bush Senior to the end of W, in fact). Her graphic memoir about her father, Fun Home, was smart, sharp, funnny and painful -- sometimes all in one frame -- plus classical allusions (Icarus/Daedalus, James Joyce, etc.) and fine, detailed pen-and-ink drawing. Even Bechdel's old, highly topical comics are worth re-reading, given all they pack into the language and the visuals.

Now it's your turn. Tell me about the best and most exciting books out there. And I'll tell you tales of the old curiosity shop, I mean the Provincetown Bookshop. Leave a comment.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Guilty Pleasures: Deanna Raybourn, C.S. Harris, and Diana Gabaldon

What makes a guilty pleasure guilty?

Those of us who admittedly read for pleasure, rather than chiefly for information, presumably don't need to feel guilty about it. Of course there are literary snobs, who only read critically acclaimed literary fiction, but if you are reading this blog, you probably aren't one of them. Personally, I have long since accepted that it is no shame to read genre fiction. Mysteries are the bulk of what I read. And yet, there are certain authors and series that I classify as guilty pleasures.

The pleasure is easy to define -- compelling entertainment. The book is unputdownable. The reading is easy. The characters are recognizable, feeling like old friends from the get-go. The guilt could be summed up with what the Supreme Court once said of pornography: little or no "redeeming social or artistic value."

Partly that means that I won't be learning much. I know I said I don't read chiefly for information, but I don't mind acquiring knowledge with my entertainment. I enjoyed Tony Hillerman's mysteries, for instance, as much for the insight into Navajo life and culture as for the characters and plot. Since I read a lot of historical mysteries, I usually expect to find tidbits about the time period that I didn't already know. At the very least, I expect the kind of historical accuracy that doesn't allow for modern slang or other anachronisms. My artistic bottom line is even higher. I expect well-developed characters, believable situations, strong sense of place and period, narrative flow. I will forgive almost anything for truly felicitous style. I adore contemporary thriller writer Lee Child, guilty for a lot of reasons including extreme violence, but totally brilliant for clean, sharp style.

So what puts the guilt in my current list of guilty pleasures? Some of these fall down on style, but they are all at least workmanlike. (They wouldn't be pleasures if they were not eminently readable.) Some have little to offer in terms of new information. Okay, I'm an intellectual and academic snob. I'm afraid that they are over the top, unintentionally silly. I'm afraid they're too lowbrow.

I just finished Dark Enquiry, fifth in Deanna Raybourn's Victorian series about Lady Julia Grey, and I'm just starting to get a little annoyed by her. (The character, not the author. I think.) Up till now, Raybourn's books have been almost all pleasure, however guilty. On the pleasure side, the books are ridiculously engaging and readable -- a must for guilty pleasures. The tone is quite arch and can be very funny, witness the opening of the first book, Silent in the Grave:  "To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor." (Obviously, Raybourn walks a line between humor and darkness that can be vertiginous.)

One of the joys of following this series has been getting to know Lady Julia's nine siblings. Like a Victorian version of the TV show "Brothers and Sisters," they are a group of eccentric opposites who are constantly involved in each other's lives. Julia's oldest sister, Jane, is an out lesbian -- and I know quite well that's an ahistorical statement, which is a problem. Much as I love the idea of Victorian lesbians being out, I'm pretty sure that upper-class Victorian lesbians went unannounced and almost entirely unsuspected. Merely living with and making a life with another woman, as Jane does, was not considered disreputable for an upper-class woman, however romantic the attachment. Fiercely romantic friendships were common, without any sexual stigma attached. So add to the guilty side of the equation this rather breezy approach to historical attitude, with period ambience supplied largely by the hansoms and horses and silk hats.

Now for the annoying part. In her latest outing, Lady Julia is married to private investigator Nicholas Brisbane, and her chief goal in life is to be involved in his professional business, to be a real partner in his investigations. This is a little too Lucy Ricardo for me, especially when she blows up his laboratory--for the fourth time!--experimenting with gunpowder. The plot suffers from other convolutions as well. But once we are off to a gypsy camp (teeming with atmosphere and lots of doubtless well-researched facts about the Romany), I was putty in Raybourn's hands. So I will be back for book six, even if I do have to put a plain brown wrapper over the decolletage on the cover.

Then there's C.S. Harris, whose Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries now number seven, and I've read every one -- eagerly. Yet I can hardly even tell someone the name of the hero with a straight face. He is not only Sebastian St. Cyr (one hopes this is pronounced "sincere," in the British fashion), he is also the Viscount Devlin, the youngest but only surviving son of the Earl of Hendon. And this is only the beginning of the vexed question of Sebastian's heritage. When we meet him in his first adventure, What Angels Fear, Sebastian is deeply damaged by his experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, and is deeply in love with the appealingly independent actress Kat Boleyn. Sebastian has excellent side kicks (a street urchin who becomes his servant; an opium addicted, grave-robbing doctor) and an excellent nemesis (Lord Jarvis, the power behind the power behind the throne).

If you don't see any problem with the preceding description, then this series may be for you. If it makes you laugh, maybe not so much. I'm right in the middle, conscious of how ridiculously contrived the series is, yet enjoying it immensely. C.S. Harris, a PhD historian who should know better, actually describes her hero as "Mr. Darcy with a James Bond edge." And therein, I guess, lies the problem. The characters feel familiar because they are derivative; the situations outlandish not because they are historically incorrect but because they adhere to gothic or romantic conventions. (Churches and crypts and cemeteries abound.) Worst of all, from my point of view, there is an overarching story arc that allows Harris to continually reveal more secrets in each book -- which makes it kind of like my least favorite genre, a soap opera. (I can't help but think of the scene in "Tootsie" when Dustin Hoffman takes off his wig and goes into a hysterical explanation of how and why she is really her long-lost twin brother.) Will this keep me from snapping up the next installment? Absolutely not!

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series (time travel with kilts) is one of my partner's chief guilty pleasures, but I somehow never got hooked. Not until Gabaldon detoured into historical mysteries -- with a gay hero! For me, Gabaldon's Lord John mysteries are the Godiva chocolates of guilty pleasures. Gabaldon deftly avoids the anachronistic attitudes about sexuality that crop up in Raybourn's books and elsewhere. Lord John's proclivities, although deadly serious (sodomy was still a capital crime in the 18th century), emphatically do not constitute an identity. Lord John is many things to many people -- son, brother, soldier, lover, citizen -- and he tries to discharge these duties faithfully, even when they conflict, as they often do. In addition, Gabaldon's 18th century setting is so seamlessly convincing that it practically constitutes, well, time travel.

So what's the problem? Maybe just that I'm having too much fun! I want to hide out in Lord John's club (the Society for the Appreciation of the English Beefsteak) by the fire on a snowy day in London and watch the 18th century go by. However, duty calls; and when it does, Lord John may end up with his regiment on the battle field in the Seven Years War, or having hot gay sex in the barracks. Yes, there is explicit, almost soft-porn sex in the series.That might be enough to put the guilt in a guilty pleasure.

What are your guilty pleasures? Particular genres? Particular authors and books? How embarrassing does a book have to be -- or how pleasurable -- before it constitutes a guilty pleasure? Please comment. I have revealed all and I don't want to be the only one. Besides, I really want to know.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

WW I Nurse Smackdown: Maisie or Bess?

Jacqueline Winspear writes an excellent series about former WW I nurse Maisie Dobbs, now (that is, 1929, when the first book takes place) a "Psychologist and Investigator," according to her business card. The first novel in the series, Maisie Dobbs, begins with her current investigation, then flashes back for the middle third to give Maisie's life story, before wrapping up the mystery with a nifty surprise ending. The daughter of a groom, Maisie was in service in a great house. She was given a chance at education by her employer and became the protegee of an eccentric genius, Dr. Maurice Blanche. The ninth book in the series, Elegy for Eddie, will be published in March.

Bess Crawford is the heroine of a relatively new series by Charles Todd, the mother-son authors of the Inspector Rutledge series mentioned in my last post. The three books in the series so far are A Duty to the Dead, An Impartial Witness, and A Bitter Truth. A new Bess Crawford novel, An Unmarked Grave, is due in June. Although born upper class and following in her father's tradition of service to King and country, Bess is a thoroughly modern woman who travels independently between France and England, rooming with a number of other nurses in London whenever on leave. The Bess Crawford books are the only WW  I  mysteries I know that actually take place during and in the war, with scenes set in France, in hospitals at the front. So far, however, the mysteries themselves mostly take place in England while Bess is on leave. [If you are not already a Bess Crawford reader (or even if you are), consider joining an online "Bess Crawford Read Along" at the Book Club Girl site, beginning now.]

So who wins the WW I Sleuthing Nurse Award -- Maisie or Bess? Who's your favorite WW I nurse? Please comment. Or nominate your own favorite sleuthing nurse. (Cherry Ames, anyone?)

I'm going to cheat, and divide this into two categories. As mysteries, I like the Maisie Dobbs series better, both for plot and for the overall reading experience. But for a best friend? I'd choose Bess Crawford in a nano-second.

Let's face it, Maisie Dobbs is an odd duck and a cold fish. She's so annoyingly New Age-y, always conscious of her breathing and her body language. And what exactly did she learn from Maurice, other than to pay attention to her feelings? (Use the force, Luke. Stretch out with your feelings.) To Winspear's credit, some of the elements that seem most anomalous are based on solid research. My favorite example is the time that Maurice recommended that a wounded vet try Pilates exercises, which, come to find out, were designed by a WW I P.O.W. Similarly, most of the metaphysical and even supernatural elements of the stories are rooted in the Twenties, the pre-eminent decade of spiritualism and psychoanalysis.

Nevertheless, Maisie is way too restrained and judicious to be much fun as a dinner companion. I'd much prefer her best friend Phyllis, superficially so frivolous and gossipy, but solid as a rock underneath. Some of this has to be written off to class differences, of course. This is actually another of Winspear's strengths -- the wondefully nuanced way she shows us the dilemmas of a working-class woman who is changing her status, in fact pioneering in the brave new world of professional working women. Maisie's relationships with Billie, her assistant, and her ex-employer, Lady Compton -- even her relationship with her own father, Lady Compton's groom -- are loaded with class-related complications. On the other hand, I often feel that if Maisie weren't such a bossy know-it-all, she wouldn't have a lot of these complications.  At least, she is a professional investigator, which gives her a legitimate outlet for her busybody tendencies. It also makes the mysteries so much more straightforward.

Which brings us to the chief weakness of the Bess Crawford mysteries: the (un)willing suspension of disbelief. In the first book, I was willing to believe that a WW I nurse would go to great lengths to deliver the dying message of a soldier, and to get involved when that message seemed to fall on deaf ears. By the third book, however, I wanted to scream (like Sassy Gay Friend), "What, what, what are you DOING?" Why do you even care about these people and (especially) why are you still a guest in their home?

The good news is that Todd writes sharp, suspenseful disaster sequences (including the brilliant opening sequence of the first book, A Duty to the Dead), which serves this series well. The bad news is that the mysteries all have to be solved mostly in England, mostly on leave -- which seems to happen often and/or be extended indefinitely, and that adds to the disbelief.

As a friend, however, I think Bess would be a gem. Although born an aristocrat, she seems thoroughly modern and open-minded. Bess shares rooms in London with a number of other nurses, who are almost never on leave at the same time, but if they were, you feel they could have jolly times together. Bess is brave, impetuous and even flirtatious, almost Maisie's opposite. Of course, she's backed up solidly by Mom and Dad -- and her father's right-hand man, who is always available as chauffeur, bodyguard, and surrogate big brother. Bess may be modern, but her life is not the process of self-invention that Maisie's is.

So, who do you like better and why? Please comment (or I will be sad).

Friday, February 24, 2012

WW I and Its Fascinations

"You are all a lost generation."
--Gertrude Stein, quoted by Ernest Hemingway in an epigraph to The Sun Also Rises

"The times they are a-changing."
--Bob Dylan, quoted by me

Why does World War I still haunt us?

Currently I am reading a new author, Elizabeth Speller, who has two excellent mysteries in a WW I series, The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. I love World War I, not in actuality but as a backdrop for these and the other wonderful period mysteries that are currently flourishing. Mostly, they are not even about the war itself, but rather its aftermath. For sure, the period just after WW I provides masses of melancholy atmosphere for existentially tinged mysteries.

It may be that the real changes of the 20th century did not come with the wars, but after. Certainly that is one way to understand the profound social changes of the Sixties, as well as those of the Twenties. And just as WW II feels essentially American, WW I feels essentially British, and seemingly affected Britain much more than the U.S. With more than 700,000 dead and 1.6 million wounded, about seven times the number of American casualties, England truly did lose most of a generation of young men. The closest I can come to understanding that is living through the height of the AIDS epidemic in the early Eighties and Nineties in New York and Provincetown.

Lawrence Bartram, Elizabeth Speller's hero, is suffering something similar to what many survivors suffered during the AIDS epidemic, the numbing from multiple losses -- a syndrome that surely has its own clinical name, but I don't know what it is. The fictional Bartram has lost not only many brothers in arms, but his wife and infant child. In The Return of Captain John Emmett, Bartram is slowly brought back to life by a mystery. Speller writes, "In years to come, Laurence Bartram would look back and think that the event that really changed everything was ... the return of John Emmett into his life." The titular Captain Emmett, an old but not very close friend, committed suicide while apparently on the mend in a private veterans' hospital. His sister wants to know why.

Why indeed? One might think the question for these men who suffered unimaginable horrors would be: why not? Aye, there's the rub...and that's one thing that makes these WW I mysteries so modern in feeling. They are set at the beginning of the modern age, just after the first modern war, and they raise modern questions -- about living with an absence of belief systerms, about living in the face of not just mortality but unthinkable destruction. These are serious questions worth considering, that have not been fully answered in the nearly 100 years since. They lend the WW I mystery some gravitas that is lacking in, say, the Golden Age country house mystery, even though it's set in the same time period.

As you can tell, The Return of Captain John Emmett is a real novel as well as a fascinating mystery. It's beautifully written and constructed, and it resonates beyond the questions of whodunit or whydunit. Speller also touches on a now-familiar theme: the battlefield executions of men who mutinied or deserted. Probably this is because WW I, like Vietnam, was a remarkably unpopular war at the front. It would seem that trench warfare was an extreme test of devotion to abstract notions such as duty, honor, and courage; and uncounted men opted for the reasonable response of non-compliance.

Charles Todd's series about Inspector Rutledge is brilliant on this issue, as well as the related issue of shell shock, or what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. In Todd's series (beginning with A Test of Wills, most recently A Lonely Death), Rutledge is back at work at Scotland Yard, even though he is not exactly cured of shell shock. His main symptom: he hears the voice of fallen comrade Hamish MacLeod in his head, so realistically that he feels the man is with him constantly. This odd form of survivor's guilt makes for great reading, since there is a constant internal dialogue that the reader is privy to. One might almost say that Hamish is Rutledge's Watson.

WW I was the first war in which shell shock was recognized as a real medical disorder, at least in some circles. Since shell shock sometimes took the form of non-compliance, and shell shock victims who were treated in medical hospitals temporarily escaped the fighting, many old-school soldiers and others believed it was a form of malingering, the coward's way out. Thus shell shock is in some ways conflated with the whole issue of cowardice, including the problems of desertion and dereliction that spurred battlefront executions. Veterans themselves struggled with these issues, as well. Psychiatrists, however, learned a huge amount from treating veterans, and WW I proved to be a great leap forward in the understanding of trauma.

More to come on WW I mysteries, including some thoughts on Inspector Rutledge and Siegfried Sassoon; Charles Todd's new series on Bess Crawford; and Maisie Dobbs vs. Bess Crawford for best WW I nurse. What do you think? Leave a comment. Let the voting begin.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Grim in Great Britain?

So why are British mysteries so grim? I can understand grimness in mysteries by Swedes and other Scandinavians. They've got  the long, dark nights and long, crazy-cold winters, contrasted with the bland pseudo-socialism of their political system -- it's enough to make anybody long for a good, sadistic sociopath. But friendly, normal, stiff-upper-lip Brits? If sweet tea isn't the cure for everything, surely a pint of the local pub's best would be. So why the long faces?

I'm guessing the answer has to do with the prevalence of British police procedurals, as opposed to other sub-genres. Aside from the Agathas (Christie and Raisin), there are hardly any amateur -- which is to say cozy -- detectives left in British literature. The U.S. is spawning amateur detectives and cozy mysteries left and right, with cats, bookstores, ghosts, recipes, or at least craft-and-hobby tips, galore. But I can hardly think of any amateurs in the U.K. after the Golden Age. The spirits of Golden Age gifted amateurs Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion live on, perhaps, in the poetic and/or aristocratic policemen, from Dalgleish to Lynley. But they are policemen and therefore the books are police procedurals.

Also there are hardly any British private eyes. I can't remember a British private eye since Val McDermid's Kate Brannigan. You would think that U.S. cities were full of P.I.s, they are so thick on the ground fictionally. Private eyes can range, of course, from the perky (Kinsey Milhone) to the deeply dark and pessimistic (Matt Scudder, at his most depressed), but the Brits don't seem to have this outlet for their quirks and passions, nor for the noir impulse. It's all police.

British police procedurals are not sweet little village mysteries anymore, either. No vicars or fetes in sight. Except for a few ongoing series by authors such as Catherine Aird,  M. C. Beaton and Rhys Bowen, British police procedurals lean heavily toward psychological suspense. With writers like P.D. James and Ruth Rendell making the mold, it's no wonder that others would want to write similarly dark, rich, and complex novels

I'm not about to criticize the reigning queens of English language crime writing. (Well, actually I did -- in a previous post, "P.D. James and Other Austen Imitators"). I will say, though, that even Rendell and James have become downright depressing. Gone are the days when one could chuckle gently over the wonderfully named Constable Burden, while watching the gracefully aging Inspector Wexford open his mind to the evils of sexism and racism. Lesser lights like Elizabeth George and Susan Hill tend to go way over the top. Reading British mysteries these days is to take on child murder, pedophilia, serial killers and sociopaths. Should we blame it on the economy? American TV? The post-terrorism zeitgeist of the 21st century?

It seems I'm still not done with this rant. More to come, but comments welcome.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Grumpy in Yorkshire

Why are British mysteries so grim? I'm contemplating this question because I just finished Peter Robinson's All the Colors of Darkness and I came away depressed and dissatisfied.

Not that the title didn't give me a clue to the tone -- obviously, this was not going to be tea and fairy cakes. I know Robinson's Inspector Banks better than that, anyway, or I feel I do. I know what happened to his brother and his best mate from grammar school. I know he had a relationship with his old partner, now Detective Inspector, Annie Cabot, that didn't work out. I even remember way back when his marriage broke up. I know that Robinson takes him to some disturbing places, sometimes places I'm not willing to go (usually involving serial killers, as in Friend of the Devil).

In this installment, the local theater is working on a performance of Othello, and Banks and Cabot are working on what appears to be a couples' murder-suicide. It's no great challenge to connect those dots, but why is the secret service involved?

Why indeed? Ultimately, the pieces fit together rather loosely, but they allow Robinson to make the point that these semi-military secret police are virtually all powerful and all too callous about collateral damage. I agree. If anything, this point is even more important in the U.S., as Congress strips away civil rights with the so-called Patriot Act and now the National Defense Authorization Act (which allows American citizens to be detained indefinitely without trial). I'm all for exposing the institutional bad guys.

As a reader, though, I like to have a moral center to the fictional universe, a touchstone for my own outrage, a reason for optimism, or at least a solid spot to stand in the mire. Here, the closest thing to real understanding is expressed by, of all people, "Dirty Dick" Burgess, the embodiment of amorality in Banks's world. (One other solid spot is Annie Cabot's absolute and unquestioned loyalty to Banks, against the dictates of careerism and self-interest.) The resolution of the plot leaves Banks in a state of moral, legal and ethical ambiguity, and left me feeling manipulated and dissatisfied.

What feels most true in All the Colors of Darkness is the aftermath of a random terrorist attack witnessed by Banks. Although Banks's state of mind is a merciful numbness, the details he observes are sadly, brilliantly, poignantly human. It is that feeling of shared humanness that saves us at times of public tragedy, knowing that we are all part of the pain, the sorrow, the grace and the courage. This is what Shakespeare knew, and this is why even his tragedies have other colors, light as well as darkness.

And that brings me back to my original question: why so grim? To be continued....

Friday, February 3, 2012

P.D. James and other Austen Imitators

Jane or James?

Like the hero(ine) of an Ed Wood movie, P.D. James exhibits a split personality, alternating between a creditable Austen persona and her familiar crime-writing persona, throughout Death Comes to Pemberley. Things start well enough with that all-important first sentence -- not, thank God, a truth universally acknowledged, but rather: "It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters." James goes on to summarize the plot of Pride and Prejudice (hereinafter known as P&P), which might seem unnecessary for any of her likely readers, except that she does so from the point of view of the gossiping neighbors who were convinced that Elizabeth Bennet not only married a man she despised for his money, but that "Miss Lizzy had been determined to capture Mr. Darcy from the moment of their first meeting." This sly reframing of the bones of P&P approaches brilliance, especially, of course, given that tantalizing hint of the fourth marriage. All of this in the prologue, which boded very well indeed.

Sadly, James reverts to her more familiar crime writing. Of course, she keeps up a beautiful style that strikes the right compromise between period and contemporary language, echoing Austen in its elegance if not in its all-too-rare glints of occasional irony. The sad fact is that James is not often witty, certainly not in the constant, barely suppressed fashion that Austen herself was. James gives most of her attention to plot, to evidence, and to some extent to dark atmosphere, with the comic relief confined to a couple of set pieces, such as a letter of "condolence" from Lady Catherine de Bourgh and a scene at the village church. Here she rises to Austen-ish heights ("A brutal murder on one's own property...will inevitably produce a large congregation, including some well-known invalids whose prolonged indisposition had prohibited them from the rigours of church attendance for many years."), but she abandons those heights almost immediately and entirely.

One problem is that Death Comes to Pemberley is mostly Darcy's book. James brings back Colonel Fitzwilliam and, of course, that rake Wickham, apparently to give Darcy an opportunity to reflect on, and perhaps atone for, the negligent attitudes he showed in P&P. Altogether too much time is spent rehashing P&P, with Darcy apologizing yet again to Elizabeth for the infamous proposal and unfortunate letter. Haven't they -- and we -- moved on? Worst of all, there is very little of Elizabeth in Death Comes to Pemberley -- very little of her wit, point of view, or the delightful dialogue we should expect. Whole chunks of the book are (gasp) boring. That doesn't mean that James and Austen fans won't find a lot to like in Death Comes to Pemberley, and certainly they have to read it for themselves.

Mystery or not, I haven't been particularly happy with any of the Austen sequels. The Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mysteries by Carrie Bebris seem to me to be travesties, in which she has the eminently sane and practical Elizabeth Bennet believing in magical amulets and other supernatural silliness. Their merits, such as they are, are the elaborate intertwining of all the Austen characters into one universe (also hinted at by James, with a late, off-stage appearance of the Knightleys of Highbury). For my money, the only reasonable Austen substitute (aside from her collected letters, which are frustrating to those of use who aren't Austen scholars) is the series of mysteries by Stephanie Barron featuring Jane herself. Barron leans heavily on the letters, sometimes paraphrasing or reproducing whole passages (always acknowledged in footnotes). Perhaps because of this, she comes very close to capturing Austen's style and her attitude, with plenty of arch dialogue and ironic wit running throughout. The mysteries themselves aren't always great; they often border on espionage, especially the adventures featuring the Gentleman Rogue, Lord Harold Trowbridge. His character is perhaps the most egregious departure from reality in the series, although it is nice to imagine Austen's life so full of romance and intrigue. Nevertheless, I think Barron comes closest to Austen's style and sensibility (there might be a title in there somewhere) of any of the Austen imitators. I'm very glad the series continues in trade paperbacks, with Jane and the Canterbury Tale published just last summer (August 2011).

If, however, you're willing to take Austen as your point of departure into a completely different world, somewhere between Dickens and Dumas, check out the Sarah Tolerance mysteries by Madeleine Robins, Point of Honor, Petty Treason, and now The Sleeping Partner (published Fall 2011). These are guilty pleasures that you will probably either love or hate, featuring a sword-wielding, female "agent of inquiry" who moves about Regency London in men's clothes and lives behind her aunt's brothel. The first book, Point of Honor, begins with a truth universally acknowledged, but there's little else of Austen here. In fact, Miss Tolerance occupies an alternate Regency, with changes in the royal lineage as well as widespread poverty and degradation. (This invites comparison with Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, in which the Renaissance/eighteenth century mashup evokes a wonderful fairy-tale quality, but Robins' reasons for the alternate history are not as clear.) Critics continue to cite Austen as part of the mix, however, perhaps because Austen made the template for all Regency romances, especially those with smart, independent heroines. If you love such heroines and are willing to suspend disbelief for a fine ride, go for it. Dare I say it? I'd much rather hang out in Robins' London than at James's Pemberley.