Brexit's Effects on Britons

Middle England     Jonathan Coe     (2018)

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The Brexit crisis in the United Kingdom fascinates me. I’ve been following all the convoluted negotiations by reading the Guardian news online, and I’ve learned more about arcane parliamentary practices than I ever thought possible. So when I noticed that a recent novel by Jonathan Coe was billed as a satire on Brexit, I immediately reserved it at my local public library.

Fear not, however, if you have little interest in Britain’s attempts to leave the European Union. Since Coe is an accomplished writer, Middle England is a perfectly fine family drama, set against the background of contemporary British cultural and political events. (The extended Trotter family and their friends have been the subject of two previous novels by Coe, but it isn’t necessary that you read those novels to follow the family dynamics.) The 50-something siblings Benjamin and Lois Trotter are depressive types even in the best of times, and Coe’s exploration of their relationships is compassionate.

Starting in 2010, Coe traces eight years in the lives of Britons of all political stripes, from bigoted, anti-immigration Brexiteers to self-righteous left-wing crusaders. He skewers them all, even as he demonstrates how the Brexit issue has divided people and damaged relationships. Friendships are shattered, and one married couple in the novel actually separate because of their political differences. Yet other characters refuse to allow Brexit to enter their bedrooms. Some scenes in Middle England are played straight, and others are piercingly satirical. The chapters that feature a left-wing newspaper writer interviewing an obfuscating communications staffer from the office of former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had me laughing out loud.

In current British political writing, “Middle England” is somewhat analogous to “Middle America,” referring to middle-class and lower-middle class citizens who do not live in urban centers—in this case, London. Some find that “Middle England” also refers to a geographic region in the Midlands region of England. For me, the title of Coe’s work has additional resonances:

  • JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth (mentioned several times in the novel)

  • Political moderation (as distinct from rabid right-wing or left wing stances)

  • Middle English from the Middle Ages (evoking the glorious literary heritage of Britain, hence nostalgic nationalism, hence isolationism, hence Brexit)

Jonathan Coe writes in a British tradition of razor sharp observers of the contemporary human condition. If you like his approach, you might also like the work of Penelope Lively or Margaret Drabble or Joanna Trollope. Or use the new Search Box at the top of this page to find all the British novels I’ve reviewed.

A Marriage Bureau Mystery

The Right Sort of Man      Allison Montclair     (2019)

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In the wake of World War II, women who had taken on substantial roles in the war effort were often expected to walk away from stimulating, remunerative work to become housewives. Recently, a number of nonfiction titles, novels, and films have been exploring the ramifications of this cultural shift. For example, in the PBS series The Bletchley Circle a cast of brilliant (fictional) female codebreakers become freelance detectives, solving murders after the war. On this blog I’ve reviewed several novels treating the issue of women adjusting to wartime and to the post-war economy and society; see links at the end of this post.

In the novel The Right Sort of Man, Iris Sparks can’t reveal her wartime work because of Britain’s Official Secrets Act, but she clearly was a spy for the Allies. The story starts in 1946, and Iris reveals her chops through her contacts in high places, her sharp intellect, and her ability to wield a knife against an aggressor. She has met Gwen Bainbridge, a wealthy widow who was so devastated by the loss of her husband in the war that she was confined for several months to a mental institution and lost custody of her young son. Iris and Gwen decide to become partners in establishing a marriage bureau—Iris to have gainful employment as a single woman, and Gwen to reclaim her place in the world. The services they offer are in demand as Britons return to civilian life and seek the comforts of home and family.

Alas, after only a few months of operation, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau loses one of its female clients to murder, and a man whom the bureau has matched her with is charged with the crime. Iris and Gwen have vetted their clients thoroughly and are convinced that the wrong person has been arrested. To see justice done and save the reputation of their firm, they set out to find the real perpetrator. In the course of their investigation, they run into black market gangs finding ways around Britain’s strict war-related rationing laws, which were not fully phased out until 1954.

The action moves forward and the personalities develop primarily through dialogue, and that dialogue is quick-witted, reflecting Iris and Gwen’s intelligence and perceptiveness.  These two women have Sherlockian powers of observation and deduction as well as skills in subterfuge and in the discernment of the truthfulness of those they are interviewing. Some complex sub-plotting centers on Iris’s sex life, which is, to use Gwen’s descriptor, “adventurous.”

Who is the novelist? Allison Montclair is a pseudonym for an experienced fiction writer who’s venturing into the mystery genre with The Right Sort of Man. It’s a highly successful venture, capturing the immediate post-war period in London and unveiling the lives of two women who survived and thrived.

For other excellent fictional treatments of women’s roles in Britain in World War II and afterwards, see my reviews of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mysteries (2003-present) and of Anthony Quinn’s Freya (2017). On the American side of the Atlantic, check out Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (2017), and for women in post-war Germany see Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle (2017).

A Riverside Mystery

Once upon a River     Diane Setterfield     (2018)

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The river of the title is the Thames, meandering its way through southern England toward London and the sea. It’s a waterway freighted with history, mystery, and folklore. Diane Setterfield calls upon all these qualities of the Thames in this mystical, magical novel.

On a blustery night at the winter solstice, in an unnamed year in the nineteenth century, some inveterate storytellers are drinking at an inn called The Swan in a town called Radcot (an actual place in West Oxfordshire). Bursting in at the door comes a badly injured man carrying what seems to be a floppy doll. The man turns out to be a photographer whose boat crashed at a weir upstream. The doll turns out to be a young girl, about four years of age, who is at first thought to be dead but then revives at the hands of the local nurse/midwife, who is called to the scene.

The basis of the book is revealed in the first few chapters, but the unraveling of the tale takes 400 more pages. Who is the little girl? She does not speak, so she cannot reveal any information. Does she belong to the photographer? Is she the daughter of a local landowner—a child kidnapped two years previously and never found? Is she the sister of the parson’s housekeeper, a fearful woman with many reasons to be twitchy? Is she the step-granddaughter of a mixed-race farmer who lives nearby?   

The narrative snakes back and forth among these possibilities, much like the flow of the River Thames, with language that evokes folk legend or fairy tale, though grounded in daily life. In keeping with this tone, the characters are drawn with broad strokes. The farmer is a most upright and kindly man; the nurse is highly skilled and compassionate. As foils, the evil characters at the fringes of the novel are truly nasty. For example, the farmer’s stepson is unrepentant as he pursues various unethical and criminal activities in the face of unrelenting kindness from the farmer.    

Novelist Setterfield keeps coming back to those storytelling tipplers at The Swan. Their speculations about the strange little girl, and their embroideries upon the events of that winter solstice night, are like the Facebook posts of their era. As a year of seasons advances, most of the plot and sub-plot components are ultimately resolved, but readers are left with some of the same uncertainties that the storytellers at the inn have.  

It’s a cracking good tale.

Historical Drama in Tuscany

The Tuscan Child     Rhys Bowen     (2018)

Rhys Bowen knows how to write a mystery, having penned dozens of them for her three series—the Constable Evans, Molly Murphy, and Royal Spyness Mysteries. In The Tuscan Child, a standalone novel, she tucks several mysteries into a package that also holds its own as a historical novel.  

The story shifts between 1944-45 and 1973 in alternating chapters. In the World War II sequences, British bomber pilot Hugo Langley lies badly wounded near the fictional village of San Salvatore in Nazi-held Tuscany, tended for many weeks by the kindly Sofia Bartoli. He hides in the ruins of a monastery as he gains strength and tries to plan an escape to the south, where there are Allied forces. 

Readers know that Hugo survives the war, because decades later, Hugo’s daughter, Joanna, is sorting out her father’s belongings after his sudden death near the family’s former estate in England. When Joanna finds a letter, returned as undeliverable, that Hugo wrote to Sofia after the war, she decides to travel to Tuscany herself to unravel the secrets of Hugo’s war service. Tangled in with these two stories are the unknown activities of the Nazi soldiers and of the Tuscan resistance during World War II, the business dealings of a wealthy landowner in San Salvatore, and a surprise murder. In 1973, World War II was still fresh in the memories of the European civilians who survived devastating conflict in their countryside, but they may choose to forget. 

Italian cuisine provides a mouthwatering backdrop to the Tuscan adventures. Raised on English food (think sausage rolls and Yorkshire pudding), Joanna has her taste buds awakened by basil and squash blossoms and homemade pasta and fresh-picked tomatoes. Even Hugo, during the severe privations of the war, learns to love flavorful Tuscan bean soup. Culinary delights prime the characters for amorous adventures.

With brisk dialogue and well-sketched protagonists, novelist Bowen kept me racing through the chapters to find out the fate of that Tuscan child and the resolution of all the other mysteries.

The Oxford Working Class

Tin Man     Sarah Winman     (2017)   

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When you picture Oxford, England, you probably think of the imposing towers of the university, the courtyards with berobed scholars fluttering by, the rowers on the river, maybe a scene in a library. You don’t usually think of the working-class people who provide the support infrastructure for this academically oriented city. In Tin Man, Sarah Winman brings these workers into focus.  

The book opens in 1996, when readers meet the middle-aged Ellis, who works as a “tin man” in an Oxford auto factory, repairing small dents in the cars being built. He’s an unhappy widower who looks back on events of his life as he tries to see a path forward. He remembers the early death of his mother, his close friendship during his teen and young adult years with a fellow named Michael, and his happy marriage to a spirited woman named Annie, who also became friends with Michael. Ellis is sad not only about the losses in his life but also about the path he didn’t follow—training as an artist—because he was forced by his father to leave school and take a blue-collar job.  

The second half of this slim volume is the diary of Ellis’s friend Michael, from the years 1989 and 1990. In this segment we learn why Michael is no longer in Oxford in the 1996 segment: he went to London and ended up caring for a lover dying of AIDS. So, you’ve probably guessed that this is a pretty sad story. But it’s nuanced, not banal, plumbing the waters of friendship and love and companionship while revealing the personalities of Ellis, Michael, and, to some extent, Annie. It’s set against the decline of manufacturing in Britain that has created another level of despair. Here’s a scene with Ellis bicycling home from work:  “Along Cowley Road, orange streetlight scattered across the tar, and ghosts of shops long gone lurked in the mists of recollection.” (16-17) 

In his diary entries, Michael captures a social order, just a few short decades ago, that did not accept his sexual orientation:  “How cruel it was that our plans were out there somewhere. Another version of our future, out there somewhere, in perpetual orbit.” (139) And he reflects on his grief:  “I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.” (177) 

If your soul can’t bear the reading of another AIDS story, I understand. I didn’t know this was an AIDS story when I started, and I stayed to the end, where I got some shreds of hope for Ellis’s future.

Two Medieval Mysteries

The Western Wind     Samantha Harvey      (2018) 

The first-person narrator of this mystery novel is a parish priest, John Reve, in an isolated English village in the year 1491. Novelist Samantha Harvey recreates the late medieval scene accurately, going against some conventional assumptions about priests, religious beliefs, and intelligence in the Middle Ages. John Reve is a smart and well-read fellow who gently corrects his parishioners’ superstitions. Readers are immediately pulled into the story of how Tom Newman, the wealthiest man in town, may have died and what Reve is going to do about the death.  

The story starts out on Shrove Tuesday, the celebratory day before the forty days of the Christian penitential season of Lent. If the tale seems cryptic at first, that’s because the rest of the novel works backwards, day by day, with Reve’s account of each day filling in more of the details of what really happened to Newman on the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday. Clever markers in the surroundings are reminders of the timeline—food noted as being left over on Tuesday is being prepared on the previous days, for example. And we step back to view the European zeitgeist at a time right on the cusp of the Reformation. In a memory of a conversation with Newman, Reve recounts how Newman pronounced a Protestant view of the primacy of the individual soul, without the need for priestly intervention with God: “I can put my case to God and he can forgive me or not, and he can punish me or not. I’m not sure he needs you to arbitrate.” (175) 

The prose throughout is simple yet elegant: 

  • “The vacant happiness of eating filled me; the meat was tastier than any lifetime of bread. One mouthful of it scythed a whole field of summer wheat to stalk and husk.” (89) 

  • “It was a warm afternoon. The church was mellow and dusty, it had its summer smell of ponds and peaches.” (175) 

As you can tell from my many blog posts about novels set in the Middle Ages, I’m a big fan, but I think that anyone who loves historical novels—especially mysteries—would find The Western Wind highly satisfying.

The Last Hours     Minette Walters     (2018)

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My family expressed cynicism upon seeing the cover of this novel: “Really? A book about the Black Death? Isn’t the daily news depressing enough?” Although I was also skeptical, this book presented an appealing plague scenario: In the absence of her husband, the wise lady of a Dorsetshire manor orders all her serfs into the manor enclosure, shuts the doors, and has the bridge over the moat burned. Of course, there are echoes of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of aristocrats sought to avoid the Black Death by holing up in a villa outside Florence, telling 100 stories to pass the time. The Last Hour is one story, not 100, but there’s that same reader’s itch to find out if the isolation gambit works. And Walters throws in a murder mystery to boot.

Like The Western Wind, reviewed above, The Last Hours offers characters who are literate and savvy—some might say they’re anachronistic in their questioning of divine retribution as a cause for the Black Death. They guess that rats might be involved instead. The portrayals of daily living and survival techniques in 1348 are well crafted if long-winded, especially in the middle third of the novel. Readers are not spared any of the squalor or cruelty of the era. I was quite let down to find on page 537 that the story is “to be continued.” So I’ll have to look for the sequel to The Last Hours to find out the fates of those Dorsetshire serfs.

For my full essay on the sub-genre of medieval mysteries, click here.                                  

Two Novels about Musicians

Love Is Blind:  The Rapture of Brodie Moncur     William Boyd     (2018)

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Brodie Moncur was born with perfect pitch, and this is his ticket out of the grasp of his alcoholic father and repressive family situation in rural Scotland in the 1890s. Brodie’s superb piano-tuning abilities take him to a shop in Paris, where he suggests an endorsement scheme to help sell pianos. This is how he comes to be the tuner for concert pianist John Kilbarron. Brodie travels around the European continent in Kilbarron’s entourage and falls in love with Kilbarron’s mistress, the elusive Russian soprano Lika Blum. Difficulties result.  

Keep the title of this novel in mind: Brodie is blind to all the danger that his head-over-heels passion draws him into. I was on tenterhooks with worry about his affair with Lika being discovered, and I got fully immersed in the melodrama of the great but erratic and fading pianist Kilbarron and Kilbarron’s slimily malevolent brother, Malachi. Flitting from city to city, the fin de siècle characters inhabit sites deftly conjured with only a few broad strokes of description by the novelist. In each locale they create great music or make love or evade discovery, always seeming very much of their era.

The writing here is lyrical and effortless, sweeping the reader along and creating sympathy for Brodie’s plight. Late in the novel he ruminates: “It was astonishing how quickly life could change, how the ground moved beneath you and the landscape you thought you were living in turned out to be entirely different. Like waking up after an earthquake.” (303)

The weaknesses of Boyd’s story lie in the failure to develop fully the tantalizing story line about Brodie’s family and the lack of substance in the depiction of Lika. Even acknowledging these faults, Love Is Blind is a solid read.

The Ensemble     Aja Gabel     (2018)

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Playing in a high-powered string quartet is challenging to the body as well as to the mind; the personal interactions of the four musicians, both on stage and off, are also a part of the mix. Novelist Aja Gabel, described on the dust jacket as “a former cellist,” has an insider’s understanding of the musical details as well as of the relationships involved in chamber music performance.

She introduces readers to the fictional Van Ness Quartet: Jana (hard-driving first violinist), Brit (reserved second violinist), Henry (note-perfect violist), and Daniel (unhappy cellist). If you played in your high school orchestra or if you’ve sung in a choral group or if you’ve collected all three of Yo-Yo Ma’s recordings of the Bach “Cello Suites,” you may appreciate the many musical insights about performances of the quartet. If you know little about classical music, you’ll miss some of the subtleties about the rehearsals and performances of the quartet, but you can still enjoy the plot and the very good character development of this novel.

For my review of another novel about a musician, click here.

A Metafictional Mystery

The Word Is Murder     Anthony Horowitz     (2018)

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Not many writers would undertake a metafictional mystery novel, and far fewer writers would be able to write a successful one. Anthony Horowitz has nailed the whole metafictional mystery bit with The Word Is Murder. So how does he do it? And what is metafiction anyway?

I think of metafiction as a kind of second narrative going on in a piece of fiction, so that the reader has one foot in the fiction and one in the real world. Metafiction draws attention in some way to the artificial construct of a literary work. In The Word Is Murder, the fictional first-person narrator is a fellow named Anthony Horowitz, who is remarkably similar to the real-life author Anthony Horowitz. The real-life Anthony has written a trove of mysteries for the BBC (including the exceptionally fine series Foyle's War), as well as the  popular Alex Rider series of young-adult books and several standalone mystery novels (see my review of Magpie Murders). The fictional Anthony has these very same writing credentials. Exactly how much the fictional Anthony resembles the actual Anthony in personality is something readers really can't know, but I get the feeling that there is considerable personality overlap between the two Anthonys.

When you launch into The Word Is Murder, you aren't quite convinced that you're reading fiction, even though you plucked the book from a fiction shelf at your library. Fictional Anthony is telling you about a murder case in present-day London, against a backdrop of his current writing projects, which you know to be writing projects of the actual Anthony. When fictional Anthony introduces you to a rumpled and idiosyncratic freelance detective named Daniel Hawthorne, you're not sure if Hawthorne is actual, fictional, or a doppelgänger of some kind. In fact, all the characters might be real or might not be. But the murder case is gripping.

Diana Cowper is a wealthy London widow, mother of the Hollywood actor Damian Cowper. One spring morning she visits a funeral home to pre-arrange her own funeral. This act is not too unusual; many people choose to spare their families the choices and expense of such arrangements. What is unusual is that Diana is murdered in her home later that same day. The London police detective assigned to the case doesn't think that the two events are connected, but another police official hires Hawthorne to poke around nonetheless. Hawthorne is Sherlockian in his deductive powers and experienced in murder cases from his days in the police force. (He was fired, but that's another story.) Hawthorne persuades the fictional Anthony to accompany him on his investigation, so that fictional Anthony can write a nonfiction "true crime" book about the case.

Aside from all the metafictional shenanigans, the mystery itself presents many avenues for inquiry by the detectives. Ten years before her own death, Diana was the driver in a tragic auto accident that killed one child and severely disabled another. Might their family want revenge? Diana’s son, Damian, is a fast-living and egotistical fellow who stands to inherit her estate. Diana has been involved in what may be questionable business investments. Her housekeeper, who discovers her body, seems less than truthful. The red herrings keep multiplying, in a way that keeps you gobbling up those pages. A warning to sensitive readers (like me): There’s one violent scene toward the end of the book, but you can sense it coming and skim over it.

Horowitz has written a tour de force in both the metafictional and mystery arenas. I read The Word Is Murder on a long train journey, and it was a good thing that my destination was the last stop, because I would have missed it otherwise!

PS—For some non-mystery metafiction, see my review of The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies.

King Lear in the 21st Century

Dunbar     Edward St Aubyn     (2017)

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The Hogarth Shakespeare Project in London has been commissioning highly regarded novelists to produce new versions of many Shakespeare tales. Edward St Aubyn has tackled Shakespeare’s King Lear with his novel Dunbar.

In St Aubyn’s version, the monarch Lear is now a modern-day oligarch, the billionaire media mogul Henry Dunbar. Like Lear, Dunbar has three adult daughters, and he hands over his kingdom/empire to the elder two, Abby and Megan, cutting out the youngest, Florence, even though he loves her dearly. Abby and Megan are a wicked pair. Even if you don’t find their sadistic sexual practices alarming (yup, these pages are steamy), you’re not likely to sympathize with them as you learn how they’ve had their father drugged and then sequestered in a nursing home in a remote area of England. “These [two elder] Dunbar girls were arrogant, imperious, and tough, but toughness was not strength, imperiousness was not authority, and their arrogance was an unearned pride born of an unearned income.” (73)

Meanwhile, daughter Florence lives with her family in the United States and doesn’t really care if she inherits the family business. She has what she considers a more than adequate bankroll. “She was only capable of being independent because she had been adored in the first place, but a man as possessive as her father could not experience her autonomy as a compliment, or protect himself from mistaking her sisters’ acquisitiveness for love.” (43) Although she doesn’t relish a battle, Florence enters the arena with her two sisters out of concern that her father is being mistreated. What ensues seems scripted for an action movie, complete with suspenseful chase scenes.

You can, of course, buzz by all this conflict in your reading and busy yourself mentally by pairing up the characters in Dunbar with their Shakespearean counterparts. (As I read, I had always in the back of my brain the famed plot of the drama.) Dunbar’s lawyer Wilson is pretty clearly King Lear’s Kent, for example, and Dunbar’s physician, Dr. Bob, is Edmund. I liked the transformation of King Lear’s Fool into the retired comedian Peter, a sidekick to Dunbar in nursing-home imprisonment. Peter is funny in a grim way, but Shakespeare’s Fool has a lot better lines.

Face it: rewriting Shakespeare is a daunting task. Anne Tyler tried it with Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold in 2016, and disappointed me, though Tyler is usually formidable as a novelist. With King Lear, a modern writer has to summon the extraordinary pathos of familial disloyalty as well as the ultimate futility of earthly life. St Aubyn doesn’t quite do that for me, though his Dunbar would be a serviceable standalone novel about the excesses of today’s moneyed classes—perhaps even a commentary on Donald Trump. While Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter inspires constant awe, St Aubyn’s prose soars only occasionally, as in this passage: “Nothing in his [Dunbar’s] ascent to power had prepared him for the experience of the last weeks and in particular of the last few days, which seemed to have overrun his mind with a kind of knowledge that he was unable to make sense of. Like a deluge rushing onto a flat, rocky plain, with no slope to direct it or soil to absorb it, it had obliterated all familiar landmarks without bringing any new life in return. How could she [Florence] reach him in the middle of that sterile flood?” (177)

I recommend reading Dunbar as simply a contemporary novel. If, however, you want a truly great retelling of King Lear, read Jane Smiley’s 1991 masterpiece, A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

 

The American Frontier

West     Carys Davies     (2018)

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The plot is preposterous, the characters are peculiar, and the language is spare. Yet Carys Davies’ West will surely make my list of “Favorite Reads of 2018.” Davies spins a tale that’s akin to ancient myth, set on the North American continent in about 1815. This was an era when the lure of the western frontier was irresistible to some people living in the East.

One of these people is Cy Bellman, a mule breeder in central Pennsylvania, who reads in a newspaper about the discovery in Kentucky of the bones of gigantic animals. Cy convinces himself that living exemplars of these animals still roam in the farthest reaches of the continent, driven west by settlement. Cy, who is a widower, leaves his young daughter, Bess, in the care of his unmarried sister and sets off to the west. He hopes to find some amazing creatures if he ventures a ways off the paths that Lewis and Clark traversed in their 1804-06 expedition through the Louisiana Purchase.

The narrative of West alternates between the experiences of Cy in the wilderness (perils: hunger, animal attack, Indian attack, winter) and the experiences of Bess in Pennsylvania (perils: predatory men, clueless aunt, lack of education). Davies builds tension artfully. She pauses in her rapid narrative sweep for descriptions at moments that capture the extremity of the threats to both Cy and Bess. Here is Cy at the end of his first winter on the road: 

“One night he heard the ice booming and cracking in the river, and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.” (21)

Despite the harsh conditions, Cy continues to be obsessed with getting a sighting of monstrous animals. But there’s also a general wanderlust at work. He muses:

“Should he have stayed in England, in the narrow lanes and what now seemed like the miniature hills of his youth, everything small and dark and cramped and a feeling inside himself that he would burst if he did not escape? Even then, a little of that prickling feeling, the vertigo; a longing for what he’d never seen and didn’t know.” (111)

A central theme of European and American literature has always been the journey, the pilgrimage, the hero’s voyage. Cy’s trip is set against the dangers for stay-at-home Bess. And uniting these two stories is a third key character, who signs on as a guide for Cy: “An ill-favored, narrow-shouldered Shawnee boy who bore the unpromising name of Old Woman From A Distance.” (27)

I was hesitant to dip into this little novel because I was suspicious of a Brit writing about early America. Such foolish prejudice I displayed! Carys Davies has produced an amazing portrait of frontier life circa 1815, but that’s only the backdrop to her exploration of ambition, fear, lust, weariness, greed, and familial affection. Read this book soon, in one sitting.

For another British novel about early America, see my review of Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. For another novel about a frontier journey, try Paulette Jiles’s News of the World.

Seeking Immortality

Birdcage Walk     Helen Dunmore     (2017)

Another historical novel, another tiny slice of insight into ordinary lives lived in extraordinary times!

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With Birdcage Walk, it’s the year 1792 in Bristol, England. Revolution is encroaching on the British—first the American Revolution, across the Atlantic, and then the French Revolution, right across the Channel. If you’re a British real estate developer in the high-end market, you watch these international events closely, since your investors will be wary if the nation’s resources are being diverted to war. John Diner Tredevant is such a developer, overseeing the building of a terrace of large, elegant homes with spectacular views, on a cliff overlooking the River Avon. He’s borrowed heavily to finance this venture, and as the novel opens, the project is moving along slowly, with most of the homes only shells.

We meet Tredevant through the first-person narration of his wife, whom he calls Lizzie. Lizzie grew up as Elizabeth Fawkes in a family of radicals who advocate change in the political order to alleviate poverty and inequality. Her mother, Julia Fawkes, is especially prolific in writing pamphlets and other ephemeral materials for this cause. Lizzie is very close to her mother, but she’s not as obsessed with social change. In fact, she ignores the advice of her mother and stepfather, Augustus Gleeson, in marrying Tredevant, the consummate capitalist.   

Novelist Helen Dunmore depicts Tredevant with subtle skill. He’s been married once before, and the death of his first wife is mysterious. He’s anxious and impulsive, seeming to be always on the edge of violence. This threat of brutality from Tredevant hangs at the edge of every page of the novel, intensifying as reports from the French Revolution become more and more bloody. The effect of major world events on individuals in small cities far from the action is certainly one of the themes of Birdcage Walk. Another theme is the evanescence of much of the writing of movements on the margins of society, particularly the writing of women. Not only has the writing disappeared, but the thoughts of these activists can no longer be captured except by novelists who make conjectures about the words that they might have spoken.

These themes are made more poignant by the fact that Helen Dunmore, who died in 2017, was terminally ill when she wrote Birdcage Walk, her sixteenth novel, though she did not know her diagnosis until the book was nearly finished. (Significantly, the title of the novel refers to a pathway through a cemetery in Bristol.) The notion that individuals might achieve some form of immortality through their creative work pervades Dunmore’s writing. John Diner Tredevant wants to leave behind well-designed houses that will last for centuries. Julia Fawkes and Augustus Gleeson want to reform society or at least to leave writings that will spur later generations to reform. Lizzie seems to want to leave a legacy in the children she raises. What does Helen Dunmore want to leave? Will any of these attempts at immortality be successful?

Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 55” is probably the best statement of the conundrum:  

Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.

When wasteful war shall statues overturn,

And broils root out the work of masonry,

Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn

The living record of your memory.

’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity

Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room

Even in the eyes of all posterity

That wear this world out to the ending doom.

    So, till the Judgement that yourself arise,

    You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

Buildings won’t last, statues won’t last, even great poetry won’t last. But love—that will always be expressed in the eyes of lovers.

The English Country Estate

Peculiar Ground     Lucy Hughes-Hallett     (2018)   

Walls: perimeter walls, border walls, the Berlin Wall, walls between persons, walls between peoples, the wall around the Garden of Eden, walls of inclusion, walls of exclusion, the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down. Walls both solid and figurative are found everywhere in Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s fascinating foray out of biographical writing into fiction. 

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The “peculiar ground” of this novel’s title is a fictional Oxfordshire estate, Wychwood, a country house and huge expanse of land surrounded by a high rock wall. Readers drop in on the construction of this wall in 1663, with a first-person narrative by John Norris, the landscaper who is rearranging the terrain all around the estate, creating a British version of Eden in conjunction with the building of the wall. We get fully settled in at Wychwood, meeting the owners, the many people who tend to the owners and their property, and the mysterious and possibly magic-making groups who glide through the surrounding forests.

Then Hughes-Hallett whisks us away to 1961, the year when a barbed-wire fence is suddenly erected one summer’s night in Berlin, and armed guards are posted to keep East Berliners from heading to the West. The British reactions to this actual Cold War gambit are the backdrop to an extensive update on the Wychwood estate and its twentieth-century inhabitants. The wall around the pastoral paradise of Wychwood still stands, in glaring contrast to that threatening one in Berlin. Or is it so different?  Various assemblages of outsiders visit, invade, or otherwise challenge the enclosure of Wychwood as the narrative moves to 1973 and then to 1989. We meet direct descendants of characters from the 1663 segment of the story as well as new blood. But tragedy can visit in the twentieth century just as in the seventeenth.

Perhaps I was especially taken with Peculiar Ground because of its embrace of the seventeenth-century tradition of poems in praise of country homes. Ben Jonson initiated this subgenre in 1616 with “To Penshurst,” written to curry the favor of a wealthy patron of the arts. I found many echoes of this tradition in Peculiar Ground, with Hughes-Hallett’s sumptuous and specific descriptions of the verdant British landscape. Horticultural references slide right on over into other descriptions. A lord of the manor tells his lady, “I will cover you with Brussels lace, as the roadside is covered with a froth of flowers this Maytide.” (423) In the twentieth-century section, a dress is made of “bias-cut Liberty lawn covered with convolvulus, silvery-green pleats like the chitons of Athenian caryatids.” (102) When a young female character visits her aunts, she loves “to feel the slithery fineness of face powder in a gilded round cardboard box . . . to sense the odd peacefulness of their house, where no one had to be decisive or busy, or do anything other than exchange fragmentary quotations from the works of unfashionable poets, and wonder aloud when it would be time, finally to throw out the dusty arrangements of dried flowers.” (123) Such sentences made me stop and revel.

Peculiar Ground has so many layers—walls, gardens, magic—that it demands the close attention of the reader. I put bookmarks at the pages with the map of the estate and with the dramatis personae so that I could turn back frequently. But the reward is a richly detailed portrait of a particular and peculiar place on Earth. There are also morals to be found, especially for the current international political situation, in which refugees and other migrants face walls both literal and metaphorical. Check out John Norris’s comment during the plague of 1665, when the gates to Wychwood are locked: “Here, those suspected of being diseased are kept without the wall. In London they are kept walled in.” (386) As the plague threat retreats, the lord of Wychwood speaks condescendingly to his underlings, inadvertently summing up, “It is not upon heaps of stone that our safety depends, but upon the loyalty of our friends.” (429). 

If you like Peculiar Ground, you might want to read Edward Rutherfurd’s The Forest (2000), another British saga about magical woodlands. And on this side of the Atlantic, see my review of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016), set in the forests of Canada and the northern United States. For different fictional approaches to Berlin and the Berlin Wall, see my reviews of Here in Berlin by Cristina García (2017) and Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2015/2017).

A Mother Disappears

Swimming Lessons     Claire Fuller     (2017)

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On the southern coast of England, across from the Isle of Wight, the sea is a relentless presence. If you’ve had swimming lessons, you might venture out into the frigid waters, to contest with the treacherous currents. Two of the characters in this novel feel an inexorable pull to the sea, and they’re both strong swimmers.

One is Ingrid Coleman, wife to Gil and mother to Nan and Flora. She disappeared twelve years before the main action of the novel, presumably drowned despite her expertise at swimming. In the month before she disappeared in 1992, she wrote long letters to Gil, recalling how they met in London in 1976, married, and moved into a ramshackle house on the beach. Ingrid’s letters form about half of the text of Swimming Lessons, though where the letters are to be found is mysterious. Ingrid slipped each one into a book that linked thematically to that segment of her story, but Gil owns so very many books that the letters would be hard to locate.

Flora is the second strong swimmer of the novel. She’s never recovered from Ingrid’s disappearance when she was a child, and she displays her anger and grief in her adult relationships. Flora’s point of view is represented in the non-epistolary portions of Swimming Lessons, taking place in the present day. She clings to the belief that her mother is still alive, and she swims on the same beach where Ingrid vanished. “The water was the colour of mint tea, and sometimes if she listened hard enough, her mother’s voice sounded amidst the swish of the weed and the tumble of the sand, telling her to straighten her legs, to keep her lead hand in motion, to swim against the current so that it was always easy to return, even when tired.” (162)

The present-day crisis that brings Flora, her sorta-boyfriend Richard, and her sister back to the family home is Gil’s hospitalization from a bad fall that he takes while chasing after a woman he thinks is Ingrid. Whether the woman actually is Ingrid or whether Gil is hallucinating is another of the mysteries in this novel, which is not officially billed as a mystery.

Despite the richness of the writing, I wanted author Claire Fuller to develop the characters of Nan and Gil more fully. From the evidence presented, Gil is a reprehensible fellow—a middling writer and a manipulative womanizer who lies obnoxiously to cover his tracks. The clutter of his life is reflected in the stacks of books that fill his house to overflowing: “Hardbacks about space and time, paperbacks about love affairs, tumbling together with poetry pamphlets and novella, knocked the top off another stack and then another, like a line of dominos.” (312)

Although I didn’t get enough of a sense of Nan and Gil, the forward movement of the narrative is kept brisk by unanswered plot questions, with twists and turns right up to the end. Meanwhile, Fuller tosses out sumptuous descriptions like this one: “She . . . took the uphill footpath through the small beech wood, the trees stained by streaks of copper where the rain dripped in slippery runnels. She slapped their trunks with the palm of her hand as she passed, as if she were whacking the meaty rumps of giant horses.” (261)

The moral of the story, if that might be allowed, may be that when people are not honest with each other they can be swept away from those they love. Claire Fuller is an author to keep an eye on.

Among My Faves—McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series     Alexander McCall Smith

Some of my friends seem abashed to admit that they read a “soft” author like Alexander McCall Smith. His novels run around 225 pages, with simple plots, mostly lovable characters, and generally happy endings. I can consume one in an evening, and I relish every minute of it.

McCall Smith writes most of his books in series, so you get to know the characters and want to find out the next events in their lives. You can, however, select any book from a series as your first foray, and McCall Smith will provide you enough background to get oriented. I’ve reviewed two of his series previously on this blog:  the Isabel Dalhousie series and 44 Scotland Street series. But the grandmother of them all is McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

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The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is set in Botswana, where McCall Smith taught law in the 1980s and for which he plainly has a great affection. After I’d read a couple of the Botswana novels, I educated myself about this nation in southern Africa (bordered by South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe), to get some context. Since Botswana is at 24 degrees south of the equator, and since the Kalahari Desert makes up about 70% of its territory, you’ll find ample references in the novels to hot, dry, dusty, sunny weather conditions. Thanks to cattle farms and the mining of gemstones and precious metals, the economy of Botswana is especially strong, and residents enjoy a good standard of living, especially with respect to education and health care. Still, the AIDS epidemic has hit the country hard, so a recurring feature of McCall Smith’s books is an orphanage that shelters children whose parents have died from AIDS. The Tswana African people are the predominant ethnic group, and Christianity is the predominant religion. English is the official language of Botswana, but you’ll find honorifics in the Setswana language:  “Mma” for women and “Rra” for men. You’ll also find the English adjective “late,” referring to the deceased, used not only as a modifier (“her late father”)  but also as a predicate adjective (“her father was late”). 

Zooming in to the series, you’ll meet Precious Ramotswe, the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in the capital, Gabarone, a bustling city with a mix of Western amenities and traditional African dwellings and family affiliations. Precious, who is 34 at the start of the series, was raised primarily by her beloved Daddy, the cattle farmer Obed, in a rural village. Although she had a happy childhood, she married the musician Note Mokote, who physically abused her and then abandoned her, leaving her unable to bear children. When her father dies, Precious is able to sell some of his herd to launch her business, the first detective agency in Botswana. She hires the capable Grace Makutsi as her secretary and sets up an office near the auto repair shop of  JLB Matekoni, an excellent mechanic. The detective agency usually takes on cases that involve domestic or business problems—cheating spouses, thieving employees, missing persons, petty vandalism.

Although Mma Ramotswe does thorough surveillance and research, she also applies levelheaded thinking to solve the cases, and she encourages her clients to utilize compromise or forgiveness as part of the solutions. Readers have access to her thoughts as she ponders motives and ethical challenges. McCall Smith’s specialty in his years as a law professor was ethics, and through Mma Ramotswe’s cases he presents many moral quandaries. Is a legal approach or personal reconciliation preferable? What are appropriate punishments for various degrees of crime? How have societal views of women affected attitudes toward domestic violence? At a much lesser level, what should the response be to a coworker who is good hearted and efficient but irritating in manner? These are the kinds of tough questions that underlie the easygoing banter of McCall Smith’s dialogues. He paints scenes of kindness, but not without pushback on ethical issues. Oh, and there’s romance in some of the novels, too.

McCall Smith churns out writing at a prodigious rate. Remember that he’s publishing books in several other series at the same time as he’s writing more for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In addition to the two series I’ve mentioned above, he has books in the Corduroy Mansions series and in the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. He’s also written versions of African folk tales for children, and he’s produced half a dozen freestanding novels for adults. I’d recommend steering away from the freestanding novels, which vary in quality.

But the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is highly recommended. I offer the list to date below. At your library or book store, be sure to look under “M” for “McCall Smith,” since that’s his full, unhyphenated surname.

  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
  • Tears of the Giraffe (2000)
  • Mortality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
  • The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
  • The Full Cupboard of Life (2003)
  • In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004)
  • Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
  • The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
  • The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
  • Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
  • The Double Comfort Safari Club (2010)
  • The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (2011)
  • The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (2012)
  • The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013)
  • The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café (2014)
  • The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015)
  • Precious and Grace (2016)
  • The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017)

Video side note: In 2008-2009, BBC/HBO broadcast seven episodes of a  television series loosely based on the early books about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I found that these episodes, filmed in Botswana, admirably captured the spirit of the books. 

20th-Century British Women

Freya     Anthony Quinn     (2017)

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My household has a treasured old photo of my husband’s parents in a restaurant on VE Day. My father-in-law is in Navy uniform, and a newspaper proclaiming “Victory in Europe” in World War II is on the table in front of the smiling couple. Roving photographers across the United States probably captured many scenes like this.

May 8, 1945, must have been even more joyous for the people of Great Britain, who had endured six years of war, including widespread bombings of civilian targets and the constant threat of German invasion. Anthony Quinn captures the exuberance of VE Day in London with the opening scenes of his novel Freya. In the celebratory crowd, the title character, Freya Wyley, meets Nancy Holdaway, and this meeting sets in motion a long and fraught friendship.

Freya is already a military veteran at age 20, having served for three years in the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Naval Service, as a radar plotter. This background is key to understanding her career motivations. She was entrusted with highly classified and complex tasks to further Britain’s war effort, often putting in fifteen-hour shifts, but at the end of the war, the need for women to perform such work evaporated. Civilian jobs went to male soldiers returning from battle. Freya had gotten a taste of high-powered career possibilities and had engaged in several brief affairs, so the prospect of attending tradition-steeped Oxford University, which had been holding a place for her, seems, in her words, “trivial.” (22)

“To her the undergraduate routine felt becalmed after the frenetic rhythms of wartime; she missed the perilous excitement of being always on-call in the Wrens. . . It was not the war she wanted back but the sense of a shared endeavor, of knowing her own role in the grander scheme and being good at it . . . It also disheartened her to realise that the age-old accommodations of male chauvinism had not been eradicated by war—merely displaced.” (108)

On that fateful VE Day in 1945, Nancy, at age 18, is fresh out of secondary school in the north of England and is thrilled to be headed to Oxford. To Freya, Nancy at first seems hopelessly naïve and introverted, but as the story unfolds, it’s clear that Nancy has a depth and solidity of character that Freya lacks. Freya is strong-willed and ambitious, priding herself on her verbal banter and profanity, traits that sometimes made me want to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to shut her sassy mouth. Both young women aspire to be writers—Freya as a journalist and Nancy as a novelist.  

In three segments, this novel traces the relationship between Freya and Nancy:  at Oxford right after the war, in London in the late 1950s, and again in London in the early 1960s. The power dynamic between the two women shifts back and forth as each builds her career. Freya senses this early on, as Quinn notes: “It was an enlivening sense of being admired, perhaps even adored, and in consequence a desire to justify that admiration by becoming a cleverer and wiser person than she actually was. She supposed this striving for a better self was rather like being in love.” (77)

Larger-than-life supporting characters enliven the tale, including the louche actor/writer Nate Fane, the dissolute photographer Jerry Dicks, and the befuddled young model Chrissie Effingham. The names of these characters alone will point you to their personalities—“fane” quite close to “fame”  and so on. Freya, Nancy, and the crew get involved in fictionalized versions of the British events of the era, including political sex scandals and criminal prosecutions of gay men. (Some of these events could have been lifted right out of the 1983 biography of Alan Turing by Andrew Hodges, made into the film The Imitation Game in 2014.) All along, Quinn dissects the roles of women in post-World War II Britain with surprising insight.

Freya is oversized in many ways, including its length (556 pages) and theatricality, so I consumed it in great gulps. Although the novel is dialogue driven, Quinn’s prose descriptors are arresting. Here’s one example:  “He was wearing an undershirt and grey trousers with thin braces pooling about his waist like the dropped strings of a marionette.” (258-9) The cover photograph, which does not at all resemble the Freya described in the text, is a disappointment. The publisher, Europa, tends to use vintage photos for its covers, usually with more success.

In recent years, several excellent BBC television series have been set in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Grantchester, The Hour, and Call the Midwife. If you’re a fan of any of these, you will likely enjoy the novel Freya as much as I did.

Sonata I: The Swiss Character

The Gustav Sonata     Rose Tremain     (2016)

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The setting is Switzerland after World War II and, in flashbacks, before World War II. Author Rose Tremain delves into the traditional stereotypes of Swiss character as well as the fraught issue of Swiss neutrality in the face of Nazi aggression.

With exceptionally spare prose, Tremain propels along the story of Gustav Perle; his widowed mother, Emilie; and his best friend, Anton Zweibel. The novel opens in 1947, when Gustav is five years old, and we learn immediately that Emilie is a harsh taskmaster to Gustav: “He never cried. He could often feel a cry trying to come up from his heart, but he always forced it down. Because this was how Emilie had told him to behave in the world. He had to master himself. “ (4)

Gustav’s life changes the day in 1948 when his kindergarten teacher assigns him as mentor to a new student, Anton, a piano prodigy from an exuberant and friendly Jewish family. Emilie is wary of the boys’ budding friendship: “’The Jews are the people your father died trying to save.’” (17) Well, as we’ll learn later in the novel, that isn’t exactly what happened during the war.

The story of the death of Gustav’s father is complicated, but his involvement with Jewish refugees in the early days of the war was perhaps partly inspired by the true story of a Swiss police officer who broke the law by aiding Jews. The closing of the Swiss borders to Jews in 1938 sent many to concentration camps and gas chambers. I don’t think that it’s accidental that The Gustav Sonata has been published when Europe is once again facing a refugee crisis with profound humanitarian and political implications.

Beyond this back story about Gustav’s father, the novel moves forward in time to the 1990s, when Gustav and Anton are both middle-aged. Gustav is the owner of a small hotel in his home town of Matzlingen. Anton, who could not survive the performance pressures of being a concert pianist, is a music teacher in the same place. One final crisis leads to the resolution of the plot, much as a final cadence ends a musical composition.

In my husband’s family there’s a phrase that’s used to describe the mindset of his Swiss ancestors: “Alles ist in bester Ordnung.”  The literal translation is “Everything is in the best order,” but the underlying message is that the Swiss have a passion for orderliness, for precision, for suppressing conflict and emotion, sometimes to the detriment of human kindness. Gustav, in particular, seems to conform to this Swiss stereotype, but Tremain’s novel shows us how he eventually breaks free.

For another novel that has “sonata” in the title, though with a very different tone and setting, check out my review next Friday!

An 18th-Century Romp in NYC

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York     Francis Spufford     (2017)

When the English prose novel debuted as a genre in the eighteenth century, it was usually characterized by realism, episodic structure, and the adventures of a hero. With Golden Hill, Francis Spufford replicates many aspects of the early novel while producing more sprightly and less rambling text. Golden Hill is set in 1746 New York City and stars Richard Smith, a Briton on a mysterious mission in the pre-Revolution American colonies.

Smith lands in Manhattan on the rainy evening of November 1, carrying a sort of money order for the enormous sum of a thousand pounds. When he attempts to collect his cash at a firm affiliated with the London firm on which the order is drawn, he understandably comes under suspicion. This may be ancient New York, but it’s still New York, and bankers seek verification. Besides, cash is in short supply in the colonies, where barter and paper money of fluctuating value serve instead.

During a waiting period of sixty days to receive—or not receive—the funds, Smith becomes intimately acquainted with the city of seven thousand souls that already has a “Broad Way” and a “Breuckelen.” He breakfasts at a coffee house and dines with the power brokers of the city. He celebrates “Pope Day” (Guy Fawkes Day, November 5) with the British inhabitants and “Sinterklaasavond” (St. Nicholas’ Eve, December 5) with the Dutch. Novelist Spufford vividly describes the local customs of colonial New York as his character Smith gets into all sorts of scrapes, acts in an amateur theater production, and falls in love with an independent-minded woman.

Sections of Golden Hill do have the ring of eighteenth-century prose, but in other sections Spufford  takes off with paragraphs that sound more contemporary. Here he is describing falling snow:

“. . .the powdery fall was already furring the cobbles with a thin grey nap like velvet, and rimming them white along all the crooked lines between. Everything seemed slowed to the speed of the descending snow. A holy expectation reigned in the thickening air, and passers-by walked as if they did not want to disturb it. Only a small party . . . made any noise. They were singing something, and carrying a small lantern on a pole which lit the flakes to swarming gold in a small globe around itself, and touched the edges of their faces—the line of a hat, the scroll of an ear, the filaments of a beard—with shadowy gilding, like statues in an ancient shrine.” (182)

Spufford’s similes can be striking:

“The awkwardness between them that danger and hilarity had dissolved was drifting back into place, like a sediment in a briskly-shaken bottle that, when shaking ceases, begins to float down again.” (89)

“When a log that has lain half-burned in a winter fire is struck suddenly with the poker, a bright lace of communicative sparks wakes on the instant. The sullen coals shatter into peach and scarlet mosaic, with a thin high tinkling sound, and pulses of the changing shades pass over the surface in all directions with rapidity too great for the eye. So it was when the news of Smith’s disgraceful liaison was suddenly released into the town.” (225)

Spufford conceals the purpose of Smith’s trip to New York until the close of the novel. I usually downrate a mystery if the author does not abide by the fair-play rule, which dictates that facts known to the protagonist cannot be  hidden from the reader. I gave Spufford a pass on this one, however, since Golden Hill is much more than a mystery. It’s an eighteenth-century romp with a serious message about justice at the end—and a coda from that independent-minded woman whom Smith met in New York.

More Medieval Mysteries

In my essay on the twelfth-century Brother Cadfael mysteries and in my subsequent posts (Fifteenth-Century Mysteries, Part 1, and Fifteenth-Century Mysteries, Part 2), I’ve introduced you to my minor obsession with crime novels set in the Middle Ages. Authors who write in this highly specialized sub-genre tend to churn out multiple books for their sleuths. Here are two more series that I liked.

The Domesday Series     Edward Marston (pen name for Keith Miles)     (1993 to 2000)          

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After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror’s Norman barons moved in to subdue the Anglo-Saxon population and redistribute land and assets. In 1086 William ordered the compilation of a massive survey of properties, known as the Domesday Book—in modern English called “Doomsday Book,” perhaps because it sealed the fates of those listed. Conflict is built in to this scenario! Enter Gervase Bret, the brilliant lawyer, and Ralph Delchard, the intrepid soldier, who travel around England investigating disputes related to the Domesday Book and, of course, solving crimes. Descriptive passages in this series are especially fine, and the stories are multifaceted. For example, the plot of The Wolves of Savernake plays well on fear, fantasy, rumor, suspicion, and superstition.

It’s fun to see how Marston works an animal into each title and plot of the eleven volumes:  The Wolves of Savernake (1993), The Ravens of Blackwater (1994), The Dragons of Archenfield (1995), The Lions of the North (1996), The Serpents of Harbledown (1996), The Stallions of Woodstock (1997), The Hawks of Delamere (1998), The Wildcats of Exeter (1998), The Foxes of Warwick (1999), The Owls of Gloucester (2000), and The Elephants of Norwich (2000)

In addition to the Domesday Series, Marston has written a mystery series about a theater troupe in Elizabethan England, featuring the stage manager Nicholas Bracewell. This series has more seaminess and sex. Under his given name (Keith Miles) and the pen names Conrad Allen, Martin Inigo, and Martin Garland, Marston has written dozens of other books set in various historical periods.

The Owen Archer Series     Candace Robb     (1993 to 2008)     

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In the early 1360s, an archer who has lost an eye in England’s never-ending war in France retires to the city of York, in northern England. Owen Archer apprentices himself to a female apothecary, Lucie Wilton, whom he marries. The mystery part comes in because Owen also works as a spy for John Thoresby, who is the Archbishop of York and the Chancellor of England under King Edward III. As Owen rides away to crack cases, Lucie tends the shop in York and gets involved in sub-plots. Although the dialogue occasionally doesn’t ring true for me, the plots in these books are complex and satisfying. The personalities of Owen, Lucie, and numerous supporting characters are believable and well-rounded.

There are ten Owen Archer mysteries: The Apothecary Rose (1993), The Lady Chapel (1994), The Nun's Tale (1995), The King's Bishop (1996), The Riddle of St. Leonard's (1997), A Gift of Sanctuary (1998), A Spy for the Redeemer (2002), The Cross-Legged Knight (2002), The Guilt of Innocents (2007), and A Vigil of Spies (2008). Two other separate mystery series by Candace Robb feature characters Margaret Kerr and Kate Clifford. Under the pen name Emma Campion, Robb also writes non-mystery historical novels set in the fourteenth century.

Applied Ethics in Scotland

A Distant View of Everything     Alexander McCall Smith     (2017)

The Isabel Dalhousie Series

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The detective is a fortyish woman in Scotland who edits an academic journal about applied ethics. Seriously? Only Alexander McCall Smith could pull this one off, and he has, for eleven books in this bestselling series of mellow mysteries.

It all started in 2004 with McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, where we meet Isabel Dalhousie. Isabel is an independently wealthy divorcée, so she can afford to pursue her scholarly interest in ethics without pay, and she has the time to investigate activities she comes across that she considers ethically questionable. “There was no reason why she should become involved in the affairs of others, but she seemed to be irresistibly drawn into them. And every time that she did it, it was because she imagined that there was a moral claim on her.” (69)

You might just call Isabel a busybody, but she has many other defining qualities. She speaks Italian, attends classical concerts, collects fine art, and works crossword puzzles. She treasures her city of Edinburgh, though she’s half American: “Her own heritage, she thought, was enviable: Scottish commonsense philosophy on one side and American pragmatism on the other. That was a perfect combination.” (163-4)

Isabel can be stuffy. She muses on sundry subjects randomly, and she can go off into quotes from the poet WH Auden (whom she calls “WHA”) at any moment. She refers casually to the writings of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Since I live with a philosopher whose specialty is Kantian ethics, I have assistance with these references, but you can always Google them. The philosophy background adds considerably, I think, to the multifaceted personality that McCall Smith is building for Isabel. (Reader friends of mine either enjoy this approach or despise it.)

Where this series gets spicy is at the third installment, The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), in which Isabel enters into a love affair with Jamie, a handsome, kind bassoonist who’s fourteen years her junior—and also the former lover of Isabel’s niece. As with other aspects of the McCall Smith novels, you’re likely to find the Isabel/Jamie affair either charming or ridiculous. The vagaries of this relationship intertwine with the mystery plots through the rest of the novels.

The mysteries don’t usually involve death. In fact, in A Distant View of Everything, the most recent of the series, Isabel investigates whether a matchmaker’s pairing of a couple is suitable. This plot line is thin, but the ongoing saga of Isabel, Jamie, and their expanding family fills in. Yes, I’ll reveal that the cougar Isabel gets pregnant in her forties, and Jamie is a doting dad.

McCall Smith uses a fair number of Scots words and phrases to add Edinburgh flavor to these novels, but he’s usually careful to provide clues to his dialect choices in the context. In case you’re wondering, though, Scots slang for a toilet is “cludgie,” and in British slang the cheap theater seats, in the highest balcony, are called “the gods.”

And one more thing: the Sunday Philosophy Club doesn’t actually meet. It’s more a pleasant idea. If you want to catch up with the Isabel Dalhousie books, here’s the list to date: The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004), Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (2005), The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), The Careful Use of Compliments (2007), The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (2008), The Lost Art of Gratitude (2009), The Charming Quirks of Others (2010), The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (2011), The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds (2012), The Novel Habits of Happiness (2015), A Distant View of Everything (2017). In addition, three shorter Isabel Dalhousie stories are available as e-books.