Once again (2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’m keeping track of what I read this year. I’m always looking for recommendations for fiction, crime fiction series, and non-fiction titles!
Nature’s Everyday Mysteries: A Field Guide to the World in Your Backyard (1993) by Sy Montgomery. Short essays (3-6 pp each), organized by season, about the natural world of plants, animals, weather, soil, underwater life, and so on. Some of the essays felt like they ended abruptly, but most were interesting and informative with an easy-to-read style. My favourites were those on lightning, skunks, beavers, and geology.
Murder for Christmas (1949/2017) by Francis Duncan, a cozy Mordecai Tremaine mystery. Tremaine, an amateur detective, is invited to spend Christmas at a country house in England, whose owner, Benedict Grame, likes to play Father Christmas, complete with full costumes and presents placed on the tree on Christmas Eve for each guest. But from the start, Tremaine feels that the whole tableau is not quite as it’s presented, and when Father Christmas is murdered right next to the tree on Christmas Eve, he and the police have lots of questions for the uneasy guests. I quite liked it.
Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) by Lee Smith. For a bookgroup, along with Hillbilly Elegy. Really excellent fiction about the life of Ivy Rowe, from her time as a girl in a big family growing up on Blue Star Mountain in western Virginia (Appalachian mountain country), around the turn of the 20th century, through her life into the mid-1970s, all told through her letters to various people. Ivy’s confiding voice is authentic, and Ivy herself is impetuous, poetic, sometimes naive and sometimes insightful. Her character profiles of family, friends, and others are adroit. Her writing reflects the poverty and hardship of living hand-to-mouth on a hardscrabble farm, the beauty and consolation of nature in rural places, both the warmth of community and the squalor and ugliness of the coal mining town she lives in for a time, and how life changed in Appalachia in the 70+ years of her life (including the introduction of electricity, radio, TV, and store-bought clothes and foods). Highly recommended.
The Old Wine Shades (2006) by Martha Grimes, a re-read of this 20th book in the DCI Richard Jury series, introducing us to Harry Johnson, who appears in later novels in the series. Johnson tells Jury — on suspension due to events in the previous book, The Winds of Change, a story about the disappearance of a woman, her autistic young son, and their dog Mungo (but the dog comes back), which leads him and Melrose Plant to investigate. Quantum physics plays a role in the story. I particularly appreciate Grimes’ wry sense of humour and her depiction of animals and children in these novels.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J.D. Vance. After reading Lee Smith’s Fair & Tender Ladies, this book was a bit of a let-down. Prosaic, a bit boring and repetitive, Vance’s memoir takes us from his chaotic childhood — multiple men in his mother’s life, lots of screaming and fighting that are part of the hillbilly code apparently, the unpredictability and lack of stability of his home life, his mother’s opiate addiction, the family’s irrational behaviour of spending their way into the poorhouse, etc — through his success, finally, in school, acceptance to Yale Law School, and his life as a conservative hedge fund manager (and on the book tour circuit) since. He makes a number of points, including that the working poor didn’t like Obama because he was an elite (pretty much no mention of race, which seems highly disingenuous) and that people from Appalachia need to stop cutting off their nose to spite their face, stop making irrational choices because it feels good to lash out. What’s clear in his story, and he does emphasise this a bit, is that without a lot of luck — a lot of encouragement from teachers and mainly his hillbilly grandmother, and a lot of financial help, emotional support, practical advice, Yale old-boy networking — he’d never have succeeded in the way he has. His time in the Marines also mattered because it was the first time he saw people in much worse conditions than those he was raised in, yet with a good attitude and without his resentment of rich people. This interview with Elizabeth Catte (author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia) is a good critique of the book’s thrust.
The Legacy: A Thriller (2014/2018US) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, crime fiction set in Iceland. The book flap says it’s the first installment in a new series featuring psychologist Freyja and police officer Huldar, who in this book are thrown together when a young child is found in the bedroom where her mother has been gruesomely murdered; but they have met once before, hooking up for a one-night stand after meeting in a bar (and in the morning, Huldar crept out before she woke up), so there is some tension. The crime plot is complex and as the title suggests, the action that erupts now has been many years in the making (though triggered by a recent event), born perhaps of a few decisions that were the best that could be made at the time. Characters are well-drawn, even those we know are going to meet their end in a torturous way a few pages later. Looking forward to the next in the series.
Snowblind (2010/U.S. 2015) by Ragnar Jónasson, in the “Dark Iceland” series featuring rookie cop Ari Thór Arason, new to the tiny town of Siglufjörður, a small fishing village on the northern coast of Iceland, near the Arctic Circle. Although nothing ever happens there, soon after his arrival in the winter of 2008-2009 things start to happen, including the aged co-head of the dramatic society dying after a fall down some stairs and a woman found in the never-ending snow bleeding from stab wounds. Meanwhile, Ari Thór has left his girlfriend behind in Reyjkavik and is interested in another woman in Siglufjörður. I liked it until the end, where I felt it fell flat.
Nightblind (2015/U.S. 2016) by Ragnar Jónasson, in the “Dark Iceland” series featuring rookie cop Ari Thór Arason, set in the tiny town of Siglufjörður, Iceland. This is apparently the fourth book in the series, but the others aren’t available yet here in the U.S. Ari Thór’s old boss has moved to Reyjkavik but soon returns to help solve the case when the new boss is shot. The current plot is interspersed with diaries from a man in a psychiatric ward, date unknown, and of course the stories dovetail at the end. Not particularly thrilling or gripping, and again the end was a let down. I like the sparsely descriptive quality of the writing, though.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer, for a group. Everyone else in my group loved it but I felt Kimmerer was trying too hard to sound poetic. There were a few chapters I really liked (I gave the book to someone else and can’t recall them now — one about moss in the rain) but mostly it felt repetitious, overdone, and tedious to me. I think the idea was to meld and/or compare her experiences as a woman embracing the indigenous, traditional stories and rituals with a scientist looking at data.
A Thousand Acres (1992) by Jane Smiley. Novel, read for bookgroup. Set in rural Iowa over a few decades, the novel features Ginny Cook & her husband Ty; Ginny’s sister Rose Cook and her husband Pete; their other sister Caroline Cook, a city slicker lawyer who lives in Des Moines; and their father, Daddy (Larry), who’s not easy to get along with. Two things happen that trigger changes in all their lives: Daddy decides to deed his property to his daughters; and Jess Clark, a neighbor draft-dodger who’s been away on the west coast, returns after 13 years to try to mend his relationship with his father. It’s a poignant, King Lear-ish story (even down to the letters that begin the first names of Ginny/Goneril, Rose/Regan, Caroline/Cordelia, and Larry/Lear) that also reminded me of Wendell Berry’s novels, with the sharp dividing line between those who remain on the farm and those who leave — and those who wish they could leave and those who leave but come back. Themes include gratitude and ingratitude and how they’re communicated and understood; the importance of appearances and the way that being known in a small community shapes personality and actions; sibling rivalry; marital conflict and the silences and secrets that often mark it; revenge and rebellion; the vagaries of memory; the differences in the way that men and women suffer; condemnation vs. pity toward someone who’s tyrannical.
Mephisto Waltz (2018) by Frank Tallis: #7 in the Liebermann Papers crime series set around the turn of the 20th century in Vienna, featuring psychoanalyst Dr Max Liebermann — single, but now with a live-in lover, the scientist Amelia Lydgate — and his friend, the married father and detective Oskar Rheinhardt of the security service. Not quite as good as most of the others, because there were too many disparate threads that were confusing and probably extraneous. The plot concerns anarchists who, believing they are working toward world peace, the end of poverty, and some kind of equality of gender and personhood, act to assassinate emperors to destroy empires. Newfangled crime tools like fingerprinting and lie detectors are just beginning to be used. Liebermann speaks with Freud about mob psychology and the diffusion and indeed debasement of the individual’s morality in the midst of a crowd.
Sleep No More (2017) by P.D. James, subtitled “Six Murderous Tales.” None is a whodunit, most are sort of murder retrospectives. A quick semi-satisfying read.
The Knowledge (2018) by Martha Grimes, in the Det. Supt. Richard Jury series. A convoluted plot set in London and Kenya is a bit hard to follow and somehow not all that engaging. A husband and wife — whom Jury had met very recently and come to like very much — are shot outside Artemis, an exclusive London casino/art gallery, by a shooter who commandeers a black cab to the airport, where a 10-year-old homeless girl attaches herself to him. Her exploits after her landing in Kenya, then combined with Melrose Plant’s after Jury convinces him to go there as well, are interleaved with Jury’s and Wiggins’, and with Marshall Trueblood’s (who’s gotten a job as croupier at Artemis), as similarities between this murder and a past shooting at another club, in Reno NV, owned by Artemis’s owner, come to light. Grimes seems to be in a nostalgic mood as she references many of her other books in this series, and their past plots and past characters, while telling this tale. Always a few very funny lines (often Melrose’s words or thoughts), but the plotting felt almost ridiculous at times, and there was a red herring I wasn’t fond of.
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (2018) by Kate Bowler. Non-fiction, about Bowler’s Stage IV colon cancer diagnosis in 2015 and her journey before and after. Previously she studied and wrote about the prosperity gospel and churches, so when she gets incurable cancer at age 35, a year after her son is born, lots of folks associated with those churches write and say to her things like “everything happens for a reason” — you sinned, you’re being taught something or other people are being taught something by your illness, God needs a new angel, whatever — and even worse things. About 1/3 of the book is about the terrible things that well-meaning people say to her; the other two thirds are her life before and after her diagnosis, and the way prosperity churches frame life events. Could have used a little more editing — some jagged edges — but all in all, a useful, moving book about one woman’s experience of living in the awful and beautiful moments between the certainty of life and the shadow of death, plus short lists of a. things never to say to people with cancer and b. things to say and do for people with cancer. Recommended, especially for friends and family of people with cancer.
Murder by Yew (2009) by Suzanne Young, a cozy mystery set in coastal Rhode Island, first in the Edna Davies series. Edna Davies is a new resident in town, still exploring and wondering about the previous owner’s penchant for poisonous garden plants. The owner has left journals and herbal recipes, which Edna is trying out, and after her handyman Tom has some of her homemade tea and dies, Edna is suspected in his death. Not bad. Features a sort of nosy, friendly neighbour, Mary; Edna’s cat, Benjamin; and Edna’s daughter, Starling, who lives in Boston.
The Sandman (2012/2018 U.S.) by Lars Kepler, 4th (I think) in the Joona Linna series. Featuring the psychopathic serial killer Jurek Walter, who’s in a max-security prison and yet people are still being held hostage and are still dying. After one of Walter’s victims, Mikael Frost, is found walking along a railroad track and eventually reunited with his father, who has held continual parties and been continually drunk and surrounded with people since Mikael went missing 13 years ago to avoid killing himself, young and beautiful Inspector Saga Bauer goes undercover in the prison to see if she can get Walter to talk so that they can find Mikael’s sister, Felicia, still being held. At the same time, a new naive, and sexually sadistic, doctor, Anders Ronn, is temporarily in charge of the prison. (What could go wrong?) Nail-biting plot, well-written.
Tangerine (2018) by Christine Mangan. A rather simple novel, told in two similar voices, about two former college roommates with a fraught past, in their 20s now in Tangier, Morocco, Alice with her husband, John, and Lucy who has come to Tangier to find Alice. There’s been a lot of hype for this book, which begins promisingly with descriptions of Tangier (that reminded me of Camus’ The Stranger with the constant mentions of oppressive heat) and hints of psychological entanglement and abuse but then becomes both predictable in plot and at the same time, unfathomable in character (except for Lucy’s character, which is predictable throughout); and it’s just hard to believe that everyone — family, acquaintances, officials — who could question what they’re told never seem to consider doing so. The first chapter or prologue basically gives the plot’s ending away, but still I was disappointed once I knew how it was all going to go (by p. 176 of 388) and from then I skimmed the rest. Still it took me two weeks to finish, because it wasn’t captivating anymore. I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, to which this book has been (laughably) compared, and Tartt’s book was so much better, so much more complex and nuanced.
Letting in the Wild Edges (2013) by Glennie Kindred. A book meant to encourage us to spend more time in nature and aware of natural cycles in our lives, focusing on growing and foraging medicinal and native plants to make medicine and to support nature’s regeneration. There are chapters on kitchen medicine (how to make tinctures, etc) and seasonal celebrations, followed by a seasonal guide from October through September with all kinds of activities, rituals, projects, plants, and recipes pertinent to each time. An interesting read.
A Man Lay Dead (1934) by Ngaio Marsh, 1st in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series. Funny, nicely written, with some Briticisms of the 1930s that may sound quaint or be opaque to the modern American reader but which add to the stylish tone of the book. The plot was convoluted, to say the least — — wealthy man is killed at a country estate weekend, Russians abound, plus a love triangle and other murder motives — and not up to Agatha Christie’s elegant standards at all, but I’ll read a few more.
Enter A Murderer (1935) by Ngaio Marsh, 2nd in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, again with reporter Nigel Bathgate as sidekick. The setting this time is the theatre, where at rehearsal one of the actors shoots a gun with a supposed prop bullet cartridge and kills his fellow actor.
The Dark Angel (2018) by Elly Griffiths, 10th in the Ruth Galloway series.
The Nursing Home Murder (1935) by Ngaio Marsh, 3rd in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series (with Nigel Bathgate). My favourite so far. The British Home Secretary, Derek O’Callaghan, is introducing a bill in Parliament to clamp down on anarchist activities and has been threatened by anarchists/Bolsheviks, while at the same time his dalliance with a young woman (and nurse) has led to threats on his life from her and the man who loves who (who’s a surgeon). When Derek is taken to the hospital with a burst appendix and dies within an hour of the surgery, there are many personal and political suspects. Complex and interesting plot. I love this bit of musing about the relationship between Derek and his wife, Cicely, who is remote and aloof: “Their very embraces were masked in a chilly patina of good form. Occasionally he had the feeling that she rather disliked him but as a rule he had no feeling about her at all. He supposed he had married her in a brief wave of enthusiasm for polar expedition.”
The Moving Finger (1942) by Agatha Christie, a re-read, and I’ve got it on DVD as well, so when I read it I saw the sets and actors. Nominally a Miss Marple Mystery, but she only enters into it 3/4 of the way through and though she is of course pivotal in unmasking the murderer, she has very few lines. One of my favourites, anyway, because of the plotting, the setting (in the quiet little village of Lymstock), the characters (especially Jerry and Joanna, the brother and sister who come to stay in the village while he recuperates from a flying accident, and 20-year-old Megan, a sort of rural sprite), and it’s also a bit of a romance novel.
Three Act Tragedy (1934) by Agatha Christie, nominally a Poirot mystery but he plays a minor role at the start and a somewhat greater one at the finish. Instead of Poirot throughout, a Mr. Satterthwaite, who enjoys observing people, is the head sleuth until Poirot finally takes over. I rather like this one, set mostly in a British harbor town (Loomouth) and featuring a former actor, Charles Cartwright, as well as a vicar, a doctor, an actress, a playwright, and some gentlefolk. When Rev. Babbington dies after drinking a cocktail at a party, opinion is divided on whether it was a natural death. Not too long later, Sir (doctor) Bartholomew Strange, who had attended the previous party, dies of nicotine poisoning after drinking some port at his own party, attended by many of the same people; and meanwhile, after an exhumation, the verdict is nicotine poisoning in Babbington’s death, making it murder as well. Charles, Satterthwaite, and Egg Lytton Gore — a young woman in love with Charles — begin to investigate the party attendees of the two linked murders. I felt the murderer was obvious very early on but I still enjoyed the plotting.
Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie, a favourite Miss Marple re-read. Colonel Lucius Protheroe, disliked by one and all, is found murdered in Rev. Leonard Clement’s home study, and two different people confess to the killing. Jane Marple happens to live next door and exercising her deductive reasoning skills, along with the vicar’s, she gets to the bottom of the matter. I especially enjoyed the relationship between the vicar and his younger, somewhat unconventional wife Griselda.
The Gap of Time (2015) by Jeanette Winterson, a modern retelling — complete with webcams and a complex virtual reality video game, but also with a medieval and also perhaps futuristic BabyHatch for leaving unwanted babies — of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Interesting as a retelling –I especially liked how MiMi becomes essentially a living statue — and also interesting on its own, though I can’t say I really liked it or any of the characters all that well, though Pauline was probably my favourite. The plot: Leo and French singer MiMi (Hermione) are married, but Leo is jealous of this best friend, the bisexual Xeno, and irrationally, groundlessly believes that Xeno and (pregnant) MiMi are having an affair and the unborn child is Xeno’s, not his. Bad things ensue. Themes and motifs: Falling; being trapped; gaps in time (stopping time; what we can or can’t do to change the past or future; can we make things unhappen?); dark fallen angels of death, the trapped fallen angel of Gerard de Nerval’s dreams, who folds in its giant wings as it falls into a courtyard amid buildings filled with people and who will die if it can’t escape but can escape only by opening those wings and destroying everyone in the buildings; “What do you do, said MiMi, if to be free you demolish everything around you?”; redemption: can one generation’s evil and death (“necrotic longings”) be escaped by the next generation — how does the past mortgage the future, can the past be redeemed, can time be redeemed or are we ineluctably trapped in it and in ourselves? As Winterson remarks in the last pages, A Winter’s Tale and this retelling are fairy tales of a sort, but in this case the danger or threat is not external (dragon, army, sorcerer), but “Shakespeare, anticipating Freud, puts the threat where it really is: on the inside.”
The Sittaford Mystery (1931) by Agatha Christie, an early one I hadn’t heard of until now, featuring neither Poirot nor Marple nor Tommy & Tuppence. (And also published as Murder at Hazelmoor.) Christie recycles the last name of the sleuth in this book, Emily Trefusis, later in a Poirot mystery (1951’s short story “The Underdog”). The plot is that Captain Joe Trevelyan is murdered while a bunch of people miles away in a snowstorm who are table-turning (a common pastime, like playing with the Ouija board) get a message that he is dead. His friend, Major John Burnaby, is worried and tromps to his house to check on him, finding him indeed dead. When Inspector Narracott arrests Jim Pearson, his girlfriend Emily Trefusis seeks to exonerate him by finding the real murderer. I enjoyed it.
Death in Ecstasy (1936) by Ngaio Marsh, 4th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series (with journalist Nigel Bathgate). Another good one, this time set at the House of the Sacred Flame, a religious cult situated across the street from Bathgate and headed by Jasper Garnette, whose rituals involve a host of pagan gods, initiation ceremonies, and a Chosen Vessel. When Cara Quayne, the latest Chosen Vessel, drops dead at the ceremony of cyanide poisoning, Bathgate is on the spot, his curiosity of a rainy evening taking him to the monthly service, and he calls Alleyn in to investigate. Lots of clues lead to a satisfying ending. (The book’s paperback cover, on a 1983 reprint, is ridiculous and bears no resemblance to the story.) The setting, in part: “The signs of the Zodiac decorated the walls, and along the aisles were stationed at intervals some remarkable examples of modern sculpture. The treatment was abstract, but from the slithering curves and tortured angles emerged the forms of animals and birds — a lion, a bull, a serpent, a cat and a phoenix. Cheek by jowl with these, in gloomy astonishment, were ranged a number of figures whom Nigel supposed must represent the more robust gods and goddesses of Nordic legend. The gods wore helmets and beards, the goddesses helmets and boots. They all looked as though they had been begun by Epstein and finished by a frantic bricklayer. In the nearest of these figures Nigel fancied he recognised Odin. The god was draped in an angular cloak from the folds of which glared two disconsolate quadrupeds who might conceivably represent Geri and Freki, while from behind a pair of legs suggestive of an advanced condition of elephantiasis peered a brace of disconsolate fowls, possibly Huginn and Muninn.”
Vintage Murder (1937) by Ngaio Marsh, 5th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, this one set in New Zealand and without Nigel Bathgate. Another theatrical mystery, my least favourite kind. Involves a troupe of British actors en route to and in New Zealand to perform. When the producer is killed by a surprise rigging of his own (a jerboboam of champagne to be lowered to the stage for this wife’s birthday), Alleyn — who is in New Zealand on a medical leave of some vague sort — is there to assist Inspector Wade and his team as they investigate the other players and crew.
Death in a White Tie (1938) by Ngaio Marsh, 7th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series. [The 6th, Artists in Crime, which introduces Alleyn’s love interest, artist Agatha Troy, was not available through inter-library loan in NH.] This one is set during débutante season in London, with a blackmailer extorting money from wealthy women and the sociable Lord Robert informally on the case for Scotland Yard — until he is murdered in a taxi cab after a ball. My favourite so far — I just love English high society crime fiction. Complex plot, though it was fairly obvious who dun it three-quarters of the way through.
The Late George Apley (1936) by John Marquand, a classic novel, told mostly in letters, about an elite Bostonian man and his family, dating back to 1636 but mostly set during the span of George’s life, from 1866-1933, with all the cultural, sexual, literary, political, and social changes occurring then. Lots of noblesse oblige (taking care of the poor and giving them respect), the need to adhere to tradition and convention, the need to do one’s duty rather than seek pleasure. George is often appalled and perplexed by the newfangled mores of his children, John and Eleanor, and of that generation — girls entering speakeasies; girls unchaperoned with boys; men having any physical relationship with any woman not already their wife (chaste kissing might be allowed); people rejecting membership in the posh social clubs, debating societies, and Harvard-related clubs; Bostonians courting and marrying crass New Yorkers or worse, Mid-Westerners; radical agitators wanting to be paid more and not be cared for like children at the mills; and so on. Don’t even mention the Irish or other lower classes. He struggles at times with his own conformity, which he believes to be essential for the common good, even as he recognises that”conforming to type” has perhaps made his life unhappy and less vital in some way. He is also very concerned with his country house and the minute details of its upkeep. An interesting insight into that time period, quite well written, often amusing. Most of the letters are from George to his son or his (male) friends from college; women are better unseen and unheard in this book.
Artists in Crime (1938) by Ngaio Marsh, 6th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series. [Read out of order.] Alleyn meets independent and somewhat iconoclastic artist Agatha Troy on a cruise ship, falls in love with her painting and with her, then meets her again shortly after landing back in England when someone is murdered at her group studio session. Nigel appears in this one, as does Alleyn’s lovable and wise mother.
Death at the Bar (1940) by Ngaio Marsh, 9th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, this one set on the Devon coast in Ottercombe. Alleyn and Fox are called in to sort a cyanide death — accident or murder ? — during a darts dare at Abel Pomeroy’s pub. Complex. I liked this: “If Nark’s theory of how cyanide got on the dart was ever understood by him, he had no gift for imparting it to others. He became incoherent, and defensively mysterious. He dropped hints and when pressed to explain them, took fright and dived into obscurities. He uttered generalizations of bewildering stupidity, assumed an air of huffiness, floundered into deep water, and remained there, blowing like a grampus.”
Death of a Peer (1940) by Ngaio Marsh, 10th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, set mostly in London. The plot involves a quirky, charming, somewhat dysfunctional family — similar to some of Anne Tyler’s families or HE Bates’ The Darling Buds of May — who are investigated by Alleyn when a wealthy relative is killed in a gruesome manner at their home after refusing to give the family any more money. I enjoyed it.
Death and the Dancing Footman (1941) by Ngaio Marsh, 11th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, again set at an English country house, this time at the diabolically planned party of Jonathan Royal, who is bringing together romantic, family, business, and other sorts of enemies — to see what kind of drama they create. If you consider murder dramatic, he is successful. Not a favourite.
The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth. I found this somewhat autobiographical alternative history novel hard to get into but eventually I did. It reminded me faintly throughout of Neil Diamond’s song “Brooklyn Dreams,” with two brothers living on the second floor of an apartment building in a city, in this case in the 1940s in Weequahic, a Jewish section of Newark. For me, it was an extremely depressing novel to read now, with the alt-right on the upswing again everywhere. The plot, which I’ll describe below and which contains spoilers (sort of), moves from the personal and intimate family portrait to the national and international political scene seamlessly, for the most part. The effects on brothers Philip and Sandy of political rhetoric, public policies, media coverage, whispered conversations among frantic adult neighbours and their own classmates, and differences of opinion among family members are subtly and elegantly delineated. The political is shown to be extremely personal in an ordinary person’s daily life. Plot: Philip and Sandy, two brothers ages 8 and 11, and their parents Bess and Herman Roth — an insurance salesman who makes less than $50/week — live happily if frugally in an apartment house in a Jewish section of Newark in 1940, when German- (Nazi-) sympathizer Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the U.S. The neighbours are stunned and dismayed; they gather around their radios each evening to listen to gossip columnist Walter Winchell speak against Lindbergh and fascism. Soon after the election, the family takes a vacation to Washington DC and experience anti-Semitic discrimination. Phil’s brother Sandy goes to rural Kentucky to live with a gentile farm family for the summer as part of the federal Office of American Absorption’s ‘Just Folks’ program — “a volunteer work program introducing city youth to the traditional ways of heartland life” — and comes back enamored of this kind of opportunity and bitterly derisive of his parents and other adults (whom he calls “ghetto Jews”) who seem to him to be paranoid, plagued by a “persecution complex.” Their older and much-admired cousin, Alvin, joins the Canadian Army (the U.S. not taking a side in the war under Lindbergh) to fight against the Nazis and returns changed. Phil’s aunt Evelyn marries a collaborationist rabbi; they attend a fancy and highly publicised state dinner at the White House in honour of Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. Another federal policy, “Heartland 42,” aimed at dispersing Jews from urban communities and into the American ‘heartland,’ is put in place, and when “the Metropolitan,” Herman’s insurance company, is ordered to send this family to Kentucky as part of this relocation program, Herman quits and goes to work hauling fruit and veg for his brother, Monty, so they can stay in Newark. When Walter Winchell is assassinated at one of his own rallies in Louisville, Kentucky, riots break out around the country with anti-Semites smashing store windows, burning synagogues, and killing Jews.
Peculiar Ground (2018) by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. I loved this sumptuous, “densely patterned” novel, which is an historical novel-family saga, not my usual type. It’s primarily set on the large estate of Wychwood, Oxfordshire, England, in 1663-1665, 1961, 1973, and 1989, and told in the voices of a landscape designer, a gay art dealer, a journalist, an art historian, the land agent’s young daughter, the estate owner’s wife, and others, as well as narrated. The creation and destruction of the Berlin Wall separating East from West Germany is central to the plot/theme, and the Wall’s significance in terms of imprisonment, sanctuary, choosing and not choosing to be walled in or out, and exclusion and inclusion are echoed in the estate’s landscaping, with a wall around the property within which the estate owners and staff can live and walk vs. the villagers who are allowed in on occasion. Trespass, boundaries, a sense of entitlement and ownership, spying (secretly gathering information across borders), infiltrating, fleeing, internment, the Biblical Garden of Eden, prison, home, and the building of walls are all explored directly and subtly, in real time and in a handful of folkloric stories. Other motifs are celebrity, theater, illicit acts, religious oppression and stereotyping, women’s roles and the treatment of women, the force of water, et al. A fascinating book, beautifully imagined and written.
Overture to Death (1939) by Ngaio Marsh, 8th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series [read out of order due to ILL vagaries], set in the fictional village of Pen Cuckoo in England, several hours from London. When one of two nasty town busybodies is murdered while providing music on stage during an amateur production, Alleyn and Fox and team are called in. Complicating the investigation is the fact that the other nasty town busybody may have been the target, making the list of possible suspects about 100% of those with opportunity. This isn’t really a theatre crime, more of an English village cozy, and it held my attention.
Colour Scheme (1943) by Ngaio Marsh, 12th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, though Alleyn only enters midway through and without Fox, Bailey, and the others on the police force. This one’s set in New Zealand at (fictional) Wai-ata-tapu Hot Springs in Harpoon Inlet, near the real town of Rotorua on the North Island, a place teeming with geothermal activity and Maori culture (the Maoris are integral to the story). The spa is run by the hapless Claire family (parents, son, daughter, and brother/uncle), who from the start of the novel seem to variously resent, fear, suspect, and fall under the influence of Maurice Questing, a businessman staying there. When he dies in horrifying circumstances, there’s no lack of suspects. Not a favourite, though I gather from online reviews that for many who’ve read the series, it is. The scenery is dramatic, but I prefer Alleyn throughout and in full police persona. Also, I figured out a key piece of the solution fairly early in the plot, even before the murder. Favourite quote: “‘But you can’t miss your way, really,’ [Mrs. Claire] added. ‘There are little flags, white for safe and red for boiling mud. But you will take care of him, Mr. Bell, won’t you? Come back before dark. One would never forgive oneself if after all this …’ The sentence died away as a doubt arose in Mrs. Claire’s mind about the propriety of saying that death by boiling mud would be a poor sequel to an evening of social solecisms.”
Died in the Wool (1945) by Ngaio Marsh, 13th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set in New Zealand (South Island). Flossie Rubrick, a formidable member of New Zealand Parliament, disappears in 1942 after heading to the wool shed to rehearse a patriotic speech; three weeks later she turns up packed inside one of her own bales of wool. Alleyn, doing counter-espionage in New Zealand during the war, isn’t on the case until 15 months later, when Flossie’s husband’s nephew Fabian Losse invites him to re-open the case. Alleyn has to investigate the cold case by interviewing family members and staff, including Flossie’s niece Ursula, nephew Douglas (who with Fabian is working on a secret anti-aircraft device for the Allies), secretary (Miss) Terry Lynne, manservant Markins, and wool workers Cliff Johns and his father. Not one of her better plots, though the method of murder is unique.
Final Curtain (1947) by Ngaio Marsh, 14th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Alleyn is back in England and reunited with wife Troy again after a 3-years absence to NZ during the war. Just before his return, Troy has gone to the Ancreton estate, a ways from London, to paint the portrait of Henry Ancred, noted Shakespearean actor and wealthy family patriarch, but when he dies in the night after his birthday party, it’s Troy’s who’s back in London and Inspector Alleyn (and Fox) at Ancreton to sort through the temperamental family members and their motives. Good.
Murder on the Links (1923) by Agatha Christie. Re-read. Golfing really has nothing to do with the setting of this book (except that the body is left on a golf course), or with the plot, which is one of Christie’s most complicated (convoluted?). Most of it takes place in Merlinville-sur-Mer, France, after Paul Renauld writes requesting Poirot’s help; of course, as happens with some regularity in these stories, when Poirot and sidekick Captain Hastings arrive, Renauld is already dead, stabbed in the back with a special letter opener, and his wife has been bound with rope. During the investigation, Hastings — who is presented in a somewhat different light than usual — unexpectedly runs into a woman he’s met and become infatuated with on a recent train trip, known to him only as ‘Cinderella.’
Easy to Kill (1938) by Agatha Christie. Re-read. Not a Poirot or Marple. A young policeman recently returned from the Mayang Straits,Luke Fitzwilliam, meets Lavinia Fullerton, an old lady, on a train into London. She tells him she’s heading to Scotland Yard to alert them to several murders by the same person (whose identity she knows but doesn’t tell him) in her town of Wychwood. When Luke learns she’s been hit and killed by a car, he decides to visit the town, staying with a friend’s cousin, Brigit, to investigate Miss Fullerton’s claims. I like this book but the killer is “easy to suss out” fairly early on.
A Wreath for Rivera (1949, aka Swing Brother Swing) by Ngaio Marsh, 15th in the Inspector Alleyn series. I liked this one. A bit complicated as to plot and characters’ relationships, with jazz, drugs, blackmail, an Agony Aunt column in a rag, uncooperative wealthy eccentrics, servants and lowly cops in trouble with their superiors, etc., as Alleyn and Fox investigate the murder of a Latin American piano-accordion player on stage during a jazz act in London.
Night at the Vulcan (1951, aka Opening Night) by Ngaio Marsh, 16th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Another theatre mystery, this one from the point of view of a young, aspiring actress, Martyn Tarne, who hails from New Zealand and is in London auditioning with no luck. Hungry, tired, and homeless, she takes a job on the spur of the moment as a leading lady’s dresser at the Vulcan theatre. There are undercurrents of jealousy, resentment, envy, fear, and outright rows before murder occurs and Alleyn (with Fox, Bailey, et al) investigates. As one reviewer writes, “Although the play being performed exudes Existentialism, the characters (and Alleyn too) are forever quoting Shakespeare. This is fun.” It was one of her better theatre pieces, I thought, mainly due to Martyn’s engaged, wise, compassionate attitude. The killer was not a surprise, though the motive was.
Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953) by Ngaio Marsh, 17th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Asked to investigate a drug ring in the French countryside, at a chateau in which black magic is practiced, Alleyn and wife Troy decide to combine his work with a holiday for their family (including young son Ricky), possibly to meet a cousin Troy’s never met before (P.E. Garbel). While on the train heading to Roqueville, Troy and Alleyn both glimpse through a window what seems to be a murder in the chateau (as in Agatha Christie’s The 4:50 from Paddington,aka What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw!, published in 1957); also while they’re on the train, a middle-aged woman becomes ill with acute appendicitis and needs immediate medical attention — so the Alleyns take her to the chateau, where an eminent surgeon, known to be working with the drug ring, operates. After Alleyn’s cover is blown, he, the local police, and Alleyn’s driver, Raoul, enact schemes to catch the bad guys. A bit fantastical, but I appreciated Alleyn and Troy’s understated parenting, Raoul’s character, and the French slant.
Scales of Justice (1955) by Ngaio Marsh, 18th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Colonel Carterette — enthusiastic fisherman, husband of Kitty, a lower-class outsider, and father of Rose, enamored of Dr. Mark Lacklander — is killed soon after he’s asked to publish the controversial memoirs of Sir Harold Lacklander, head of the feudal Lacklander family of the English village of Swevenings. Beside Carterette’s body is a freshly killed trout. Alleyn is very interested in the trout. I liked this one a lot.
Death of a Fool (1956) by Ngaio Marsh, 19th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set in the village of South Mardian (England), a community that re-enacts the pagan Morris Sword Dance of the 5 Sons each year on the Wednesday before Christmas. The five sons in this case are the Andersen brothers, sons of the irascible William Anderson, the town smithy and Fool. When German Mrs. Anna Bünz of the Friends of British Folklore Guild of Ancient Customs comes to town to research the dance, she’s rebuffed by the men (“My dad don’t rightly fancy wummen”) but she’s persistent. After the Fool is killed during the dance, one of his sons accuses Mrs. Bünz, but Alleyn’s got a wider net of suspects. Not a favourite, but if you like folklore, you’ll probably like this.
Singing in the Shrouds (1958) by Ngaio Marsh, 20th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set aboard the Cape Farewell, a cruise ship out of London, with a handful of suspects on board. Alleyn is incognito on the ship on the slimmest of clues tying one of the passengers to the Flower Murders, a recent spate of stranglings involving broken necklaces and flowers placed on the victims (all female). So-so.
False Scent (1959) by Ngaio Marsh, 21st in the Inspector Alleyn series. Setting is a large house, probably in London. Mary Bellamy, stage star in comedic plays, is turning 50 (shh) but she’s in a very bad mood, not improved when her adopted son Richard shares with her a serious play in which she’s obviously not meant to be the lead (someone much younger is) and a couple of her acolytes are found to be involved in another play she’s not part of. Before her big party, she receives a gift of a “vulgar” perfume called “Formidable,” which she insists on dousing herself in, much to her husband, Charles Templeton’s, dismay. Templeton asked her to not to use it, and he’s asked her to throw out an insecticide, Slaypest, because it’s much too dangerous to have around, but again she refuses. Once the party starts, she has a major “temperament” (temper tantrum) and things go from bad to worse.
Hand in Glove (1962) by Ngaio Marsh, 22nd in the Inspector Alleyn series. Mr. Pyke Period, a genteel old bachelor has regrettably opened his home to Harold Cartell and his dog, both somewhat disagreeable. Things look up a bit for him when typist Nicola Maitland-Mayne, a friend of Alleyn and his wife Troy’s, arrives to help with Period’s book on etiquette, and things look up for Nicola when she falls for Andrew Bantling, Lady Desiree Bantling’s son by her first marriage, and he returns the feelings. But then things look down when a slippery thief and his besotted girlfriend, both quite without manners, make trouble for several people, and they further deteriorate when a scavenger hunt at an upper-class house party leads to murder and lots of lying. Fairly good.
Dead Water (1963) by Ngaio Marsh, 23rd in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set on fictional tiny Portcarrow Island (14 acres in size), in the UK. After a mysterious “Green Lady” speaks to young Wally near a hilltop spring and apparently rids him of his many warts overnight, the Island becomes a mecca for medical tourists who want healing and a boon to shop owners, the pub and inn landlord, the mayor, and even the doctor and the rector, all making much more money than ever before. But then Alleyn’s friend and mentor, Emily Pride, who now owns the island after her sister’s death, decides to put a stop to the crass commercialism of the Green Lady cult. Her visit to the island, to make her announcement, leads to murder and mayhew, of course. Not a favourite.
Life in the Garden (2018) by Penelope Lively, a Booker Prize winning horticultural memoir. Six fairly simple essays about gardens in history, in literature and painting, as metaphor, and in her own life. A pleasant read, nothing earth-shaking.
Killer Dolphin (1966; UK: Death at the Dolphin) by Ngaio Marsh, 24th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set in London at the newly restored Dolphin Theatre, with playwright and director Peregrine Jay at the helm — and eccentric magnate Vassily Conducis his silent partner. The plot revolves around a glove — originally worn by William Shakespeare’s doomed young son, Hamnet — that’s recently surfaced and provides the focus of the play Jay writes and directs with a handful of temperamental and star-crossed actors. I found it hard to get into but interesting enough as it went along.
Clutch of Constables (1969) by Ngaio Marsh, 25th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set largely on a small boat, the M.V. Zodiac, cruising for 5 days on a river with locks between (fictional) Longminster and Norminster, England. Troy — Alleyn’s wife and now a quite famous artist — spontaneously decides to book passage on the ship after seeing a card posted in a window of a last-minute cancellation (Alleyn is in the U.S. on business). Of course, someone on the ship is a master-mind criminal, coincidentally the same one Alleyn is hunting (Foljambe, or the Jampot), but Troy knows nothing of that; still, she gradually notices small but nagging incidences that she brings to the local constabulary’s attention, and which they all but ignore. Alleyn doesn’t really appear in the book until 3/4 through, although the story is framed by his telling it to a detective class a couple of years later. One of my favourites for the way it’s told, Troy’s outsized role, and the setting on a boat in the ancient English countryside.
When in Rome (1971) by Ngaio Marsh, 26th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in Rome. Alleyn is incognito as part of an expensive tour group, investigating international drug smuggling and sales. The group leader, Sebastian Mailer, seems a rum character (as Marsh likes to say), and in the first chapter we learn he has returned a lost book manuscript to author Barnaby Grant with a blackmailing demand that he lend his name and himself to tours of the basilica of San Tommaso.
Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson, a novel/mystery involving several “case histories”: a small girl goes missing during a night tent-camping in the yard with an older sister; a father mourns his daughter and seeks her killer; a man is killed by a woman in a frenzied moment; a former cop, now private detective, tries to piece together his own life while searching for missing persons, killers, and the truth. I enjoyed it, the way I enjoy Carl Hiaasen’s crime fiction (Jackson, the PI, reminded me of many of his PI characters), and I appreciated the plot and thematic connections among the stories, but I thought her Life After Life was richer.
Tied Up in Tinsel (1972) by Ngaio Marsh, 27th in the Inspector Alleyn series, back in England. Alleyn’s wife, Troy, is painting Hilary Bill-Tasman’s portrait at his country home, Halberds, which is staffed entirely by one-off murderers (who have done their time, if found guilty), when dangerous practical jokes occur one after the other to the guests staying there, each evoking the elements of one of the murderers’ crimes. During a Christmas performance in which a guest is to dress up like a Druid and give out Christmas gifts to local children to much fanfare, a manservant named Moult goes missing. Alleyn is called in to help the local constabulary find him.
Black As He’s Painted (1973) by Ngaio Marsh, 28th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set mostly in London near the fictitious Capricorn Mews and the Embassy of an African British commonwealth country-cum-independent nation Ng’ombwana, whose president, colloquially the Boomer, is a former public school chum of Alleyn’s. The president’s visit to England is fraught with security issues both because of the transitional and unstable nature of the country and the devil-may-care nature of the president himself. Coincidentally, former Foreign Service official Mr. Whipplestone is recently ensconced in Capricorn Mews, along with stray cat Lucy Lockett, who has a penchant for porcelain white fish. I liked this one.
The Craftsman (2018) by Sharon Bolton, a stand-alone suspense/crime novel set in 1969 and 1999 in the town of Sabden, Lancashire, England, featuring WPC Florence Lovelady, new to the police squad in 1969 and the only woman officer. She and other officers investigate several cases of missing children (later found dead) and make an arrest, her landlord and the local casket & coffin maker Larry Glassbrook; the story of the 1969 investigation is sandwiched within Lovelady’s visit back to Sabden for his funeral and her subsequent re-investigation of the case. Witchcraft is an element of both parts of the story. A quick and well-paced read.
Last Ditch (1977) by Ngaio Marsh, 29th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in a fictitious seaside village (Montjoy, Deep Cove) not far by boat from Brittany (France), where the rest of the book is set. Alleyn and Troy’s now-grown son Ricky is on the spot when murder occurs at an equestrian stable, to Dulcie Harkness, known to be a bit loose with the boys, daughter of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Alleyn himself ends up investigating the murder along with drug running in the area.
Grave Mistake (1978) by Ngaio Marsh, 30th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in “Upper Quintern,” not too far from London. When Sybil Foster goes to Greengages Hotel & Spa for a rest cure, she gets more rest than she bargains for. She seems to have killed herself, but when the autopsy casts doubt on this idea, Alleyn turns up; he smells a rat, so he and Fox look at the motives, opportunity, and means of Sybil’s obnoxious ne’er-do-well son Claude, her seemingly loving daughter Prunella — who has just become engaged to wealthy Gideon Markos against her mother’s wishes, Sybil’s new gardener, named Gardener, and the new medical practitioner at Greengages, Basil Schramm, to whom Sybil has become engaged and whom her best friend Verity Preston knew years ago, among other suspects. I liked the setting and characters, especially Verity; the plot was a bit much.
Bubba Heard a Whale (Trying to Sing) (2018) by Bubba’s Dad, illus. Faryn Hughes. Children’s book about a French Bulldog helping a shy whale who is struggling to belong and find her voice.
Photo Finish (1980) by Ngaio Marsh, 31st in the Inspector Alleyn series, set on a lavish island estate in New Zealand. Troy has been invited to paint a portrait of temperamental opera diva Isabella Sommita, and Alleyn has been invited to find out who’s been taking and publishing ugly surprise photos of Sommita (meanwhile, Scotland Yard wants him to investigate the drug trade, as usual). When Bella is murdered during a “Rosser” (a lashing rain and wind storm that cuts the island off from the mainland), Alleyn takes charge.