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.