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 “The Best 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.

Glaswegian Misery

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine     Gail Honeyman     (2017)

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Residents of Glasgow, Scotland, often get a bad rap from the rest of Great Britain. Their accents, their cultural scene, and even their weather are disparaged. Along comes Glaswegian Gail Honeyman with this exceptional novel set in Glasgow. Given the title and the cover art, it looks to be chick lit, but (whoa, baby) hang on for a wild ride of seething misery behind that cover.

Eleanor Oliphant is a 30-year-old accounting clerk with a degree in classics and a solitary lifestyle. “Awkward” doesn’t begin to describe her. She’s an outcast among her office mates and spends each weekend downing two bottles of vodka to fog the memories of horrific events in her past. (We don’t get the full circumstances until very late in the novel.) Eleanor speaks in first-person narrative, combining stilted language from her bookish background with comments that demonstrate how isolated she is. She doesn’t understand the basics of social interaction, having been raised by a barbaric “Mummy” and then, from the age of ten, shunted from one foster home to another.

As the action of this novel commences, Eleanor is trying to update herself in order to become appealing to a local pop singer whom she’s developed a crush on from afar. She gets a new hairstyle, a cell phone, and makeup to cover the scars on her face. (Did I mention that there were horrific events in her past?) The scenes in which Eleanor has to interact with salespeople and personal care staff are simultaneously hilarious and cringe-inducing. Here is Eleanor getting a bikini wax: “She painted a stripe of warm wax onto my pubis with a wooden spatula, and pressed a strip of fabric onto it. Taking hold of the end, she ripped it off in one rapid flourish of clean, bright pain. ‘Morituri te salutant,’ I whispered, tears pricking by eyes. This is what I say in such situations, and it always cheers me up to no end. I started to sit up, but she gently pushed me back down. ‘Oh, there’s a good bit more to go, I’m afraid,’ she said, sounding quite cheerful. Pain is easy; pain is something with which I am familiar.” (15)

As her self-improvement kick proceeds, Eleanor is, quite accidentally, drawn into potential friendships with several genuinely kindhearted people who look past her social faux pas and her physical disfigurement. Having friends is something that Eleanor can’t get her head around at first, and she resists. She also, embarrassingly, continues to pursue that worthless pop singer. More about the plot of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine would introduce too many spoilers. Instead I’ll tell you that I read this book around the clock, unable to put it down. I wanted to know more about poor Eleanor and about how she got to be such an outsider. I wanted to know if her newfound friends could help extricate her from her self-imposed exile in her grim flat.

At the end of the book, one of these friends smiles at Eleanor, and she describes how she feels: “The moment hung in time like a drop of honey from a spoon, heavy, golden.” Hope springs.

Two Mysteries in One

 Magpie Murders     Anthony Horowitz     (2017)

Anthony Horowitz was the screenwriter for one of my favorite British television series, Foyle’s War, so I was pleased to see his name as the author of a book—and a double mystery at that.

This is the way it works:  Magpie Murders is a mystery novel that bestselling fictional author Alan Conway submits to his fictional publisher in contemporary England. It’s supposed to be the ninth book in the series of cozy mysteries set in a quiet English village in the 1950s, with German-Greek Atticus Pünd as the brilliant detective. If you think that this sounds a lot like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, you’re right. Horowitz inserts an amazingly accurate simulation of a mystery from the golden age of British detective fiction into this novel. (For my blog post on golden-age British mysteries, click HERE.)

Surrounding the text of the Atticus Pünd mystery is another mystery. Susan Ryeland is Alan Conway’s editor. She speaks in first-person narrative, describing her love of the detective genre:  “Whodunits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less. In a world full of uncertainties, is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed? The stories mimic our experience in the world. We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve, and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunit provides that pleasure.” (183-184)

Susan Ryeland sits down to read Alan Conway’s manuscript starring Atticus Pünd, only to find that it’s missing the last chapter or chapters, the essential resolution of the knotty plot that has all the requisite red herrings and suspicious characters. Reading along with Susan, I shared her chagrin at this situation, wanting to know how Pünd resolves the case. Ryeland’s search for the missing ending of the Pünd mystery leads her to another mystery, in the present day, involving Conway himself. Taking on the role of amateur sleuth, she uncovers the modern-day prototypes for the characters in the Pünd mystery. She also discovers innumerable wordplays and hidden references in the Pünd mystery. Never fear:  Horowitz does eventually provide satisfying conclusions for both the Pünd mystery and the Conway mystery.

I found the 1950s Pünd mystery a better story than the present-day Conway mystery, but keep in mind that I’m a stalwart fan of golden-age English cozies. The two mysteries are intertwined pleasingly, and the Conway mystery has a surprisingly violent end, but both are ultimately rewarding to the reader, going beyond just clever. Within the Conway mystery, Horowitz also provides reflections on the nature of publishing and the relations between editors and authors.

I’ll leave you with another quote from Horowitz, speaking through Susan Ryeland: “Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us—the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable?” (70)

15th-Century Mysteries: Part 2

The Roger the Chapman Series     Kate Sedley     (1991 to 2013)

Before reading this post, you may want to check out my essay “Reading Medieval Mysteries” in the Portfolio section of this website. It has a sidebar on the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, set in the twelfth century. But moving on to the end of the medieval period . . . 

Roger the Chapman is an itinerant purveyor of small household goods and haberdashery in late fifteenth-century England. He tells his tales in first-person narrative, looking back, as an old man, on the adventures of his youthful travelling days. This narrative voice gives an immediacy to the novels, and I find Roger’s voice quite believable. 

The first couple of entries in this series have some weaknesses, with tangents about, for example, how to full cloth, but the series quickly picks up speed, with less didacticism and more challenging convolutions of plot. Roger is an engaging, burly fellow with a large backpack who tramps all around the country—and even to France—to unravel mysteries. His wanderlust allows him to get involved in murders near and far and even to work as an agent for the nobility. Still, he always returns home to Bristol, in southwest England.

Roger has a complicated family history, and the secondary characters such as his wife and his mother-in-law are well developed over the course of the series. If you start with a title later in this series, you’ll still catch on, since author Kate Sedley does a good job of filling in her readers about Roger’s family connections.

Sedley doesn’t affect fake medievalisms but still conveys a sense of the period. I especially enjoyed The Christmas Wassail, in which the murders are set against the festive late medieval celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Kate Sedley is the pen name for Brenda Margaret Lilian Honeyman Clarke, who has written numerous other novels under different names. Here are the twenty-two books in her Roger the Chapman Series:  Death and the Chapman (1991), The Plymouth Cloak (1992), The Hanged Man aka The Weaver’s Tale (1993), The Holy Innocents (1994), The Eve of Saint Hyacinth (1995), The Wicked Winter (1995), The Brothers of Glastonbury (1997), The Weaver’s Inheritance (1998), The Saint John’s Fern (1999), The Goldsmith’s Daughter (2001), The Lammas Feast (2002), Nine Men Dancing (2003), The Midsummer Rose (2004), The Burgundian’s Tale (2005), Prodigal Son (2006), The Three Kings of Cologne (2007), The Green Man (2008), The Dance of Death (2009), The Wheel of Fate (2010), The Midsummer Crown (2011), The Tintern Treasure (2012), The Christmas Wassail (2013).

Soul Searching in Spain

Hot Milk     Deborah Levy     (2016)

Sofia Papastergiadis is at loose ends. She hasn’t finished her PhD dissertation in anthropology. She has a dead-end job as a barista. At age 25, she still lives with her mother, Rose, an insufferable hypochondriac whom Sofia waits on constantly. Sofia has long been estranged from her Greek father, who lives in Athens with his new wife and baby.

As the novel Hot Milk opens, Sofia is in southern Spain with Rose, who has taken out a large mortgage on her home in England to buy the services of a renowned doctor, Gómez, who she hopes will diagnose her ailments properly. While Rose undergoes medical testing by the questionable Gómez, Sofia roams rather aimlessly around the scorching beachfront town. She shatters her precious laptop, swims in waters infested with jellyfish, engages in varied sexual encounters—and then makes a quick trip to Athens to confront her father.

Sofia’s inner life and self-searching are at the heart of this tale, which is appropriately cast in first-person narrative. She constantly queries herself: “Am I self-destructive, or pathetically passive, or reckless, or just experimental, or am I a rigorous cultural anthropologist, or am I in love?” (175) It’s significant that Sofia has been trained as an anthropologist, since she often seems to be mentally documenting her own life for an individual ethnography. Novelist Deborah Levy has other characters analyze Sofia, too, as when Gómez tells her, “’You are using your mother like a shield to protect yourself from making a life.’” (111)

Although I found this novel meandering at times, the study of family dynamics is absorbing. And the evocations of the barren landscapes of southern Spain in late summer are excellent: “Cranes from the desalination plant sliced into the sky. Tall undulating dunes of greenish-grey cement powder lay in a depot to the right of the beach, where unfinished hotels and apartments had been hacked into the mountains like a murder.” (23) The wordplay is also amusing. For example, Sofia (whose name in Greek means “wisdom”) is repeatedly stung by jellyfish, called “medusas” in Spanish. When she arrives in Athens, she reflects, “Here I am in the birthplace of Medusa, who left the scars of her venom and rage on my body.” (138)

Bubbling under the surface of the story is commentary on the recent economic problems within the European Union. In Hot Milk as in real life, highly educated people are working in menial jobs, and austerity measures are crippling the Greek economy. Sofia’s father, a wealthy retired businessman, espouses his own form of austerity in refusing to help Sofia financially. One theme in the book is Sofia’s realization of the grim selfishness that is rampant in her world. Echoing her stepmother’s right-wing comments, Sofia asks herself, “Why would my father do anything that was not to his advantage?” (142)

I still don’t get the title Hot Milk. I’m guessing that it’s meant to conjure up images of a comforting drink that a mother might offer a daughter who is sick or distressed. Sofia won’t get any hot milk from her cruel mother, but readers may learn about something about themselves in this story.

British Chick Lit

My Not So Perfect Life     Sophie Kinsella     (2017)

The British writer Sophie Kinsella is a phenomenon in the chick lit genre. Her nine novels in the Shopaholic series (starting with Confessions of a Shopaholic, 2001) have sold in the millions and have been translated into 30 languages. She’s also written eight standalone novels under the Sophie Kinsella pen name. Writing under her actual name, Madeleine Wickham, she has another eight titles. I decided to find out for myself why this author is so popular around the world.

My Not So Perfect Life is one of the standalone novels, so Kinsella has to set up and then wrap up her story in one volume. In some ways it’s a straightforward romantic tale: struggling young working class woman falls for fabulously wealthy guy. But then added in to the mix is a small-scale workplace mystery, plus the British obsession with social class, accent, and county of birth.

Katie Brenner, age 28, is a low-level employee at a London branding firm that creates images and advertising campaigns for consumer products. She’s from rural Somerset, in the southwest of England, but her dream has been to live in London. Katie is barely surviving, sharing a miserable flat with two odd characters, enduring a lengthy commute, and navigating complex office politics. But she posts idyllic photos of London scenes on Instagram to lead her followers to believe that she’s happy. Her boss, Demeter Farlowe, seems to have a perfect life—perfect job, perfect family, perfect clothes, perfect makeup. Katie wants to be Demeter, and she’s taken steps in that direction, preparing a portfolio of branding designs and ideas, with hopes of rising in her profession. She’s worked to eliminate her Somerset accent and has styled herself as “Cat” instead of “Katie.” She’s also met and fallen for one of the executives of the firm.

A crisis comes when Katie gets fired. She has no choice but to return to Somerset, though she tells her family that she’s on “sabbatical” from her job. This is handy, since her father and stepmother are launching a glamping business, turning their farm into a glamorous high-end campground. Katie does a terrific job of setting up and promoting the business. Then who should appear for a week of elegant camping in Somerset but Demeter and her family. Comedy and romance ensue.

I found some of Kinsella’s plot elements contrived and tedious. For example, Demeter, who doesn’t recognize the Somerset version of Katie, agrees to undergo a fake Druid ritual that’s deeply humiliating. However, Kinsella makes Katie a pretty convincing character through first-person narrative. Readers may come to cheer Katie on as she resolves the rural/urban conflict and figures out her career and relationship options. She even becomes more honest in her Instagram posts. Here’s one of Katie’s conclusions:

“I think I’ve finally worked out how to feel good about life. Every time you see someone’s bright-and-shiny, remember: They have their own crappy truths too. Of course they do. And every time you see your own crappy truths and feel despair and think, Is this my life, remember: It’s not. Everyone’s got a bright-and-shiny, even if it’s hard to find sometimes.” (417)

A Reunion Romance

Miss You     Kate Eberlen     (2016)

Reunion Romances: You may not know the category name, but you’ve probably read one at some point. In a Reunion Romance, the two protagonists are not attracted to each other at their first meeting or are somehow thwarted in romance. They meet again at a later time—often years later—and then really hit it off romantically. Sometimes the protagonists meet several times before realizing how suited they are to each other. The tension in Reunion Romances arises from seeing the diverging paths of the protagonists and then watching those paths converge.

In Miss You, Kate Eberlen offers a Reunion Romance with a twist: the two protagonists, Tess and Gus, don’t actually meet until the very end of the novel. Well, they do see each other in passing many times over a period of about sixteen years, and through odd coincidences, they just miss meeting a couple more times. Anticipating and then spotting their meetings is kind of like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s brief background appearances in each of his films.

Eberlen has constructed, in effect, two separate coming-of-age novels, one about Tess and one about Gus, that link after 400 pages. In August 1997, when Tess is eighteen, she takes a European backpack vacation with a friend before she’s scheduled to start at university in London in the fall. Gus, who is also eighteen and also heading to university, is in Italy with his parents, and all three are still grieving from the recent death of Gus’s older brother. In Florence, Tess and Gus run into each other at tourist spots (a basilica, a gelateria) and exchange a few words, but they never introduce themselves. That’s it. Neither one remembers or thinks about the other for many years, although they meet or almost meet several more times.

In Miss You, the individual stories of Tess and Gus, each presented in first-person narrative, are well developed. Both characters face frustrations in achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves in life. Tess has to give up her plans for university when her mother dies, leaving Tess to care for her younger sister, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Gus, living in the shadow of his deceased brother, is pushed into studying medicine when he’d have preferred a career in the arts. Over time, Tess and Gus both have relationships with other people, but those relationships never quite work out.

Eberlen gives us full pictures of Tess and Gus, especially as they deal with the ongoing sadness of losing a close family member. And their sadness is not the same: Tess loved her mother dearly, whereas Gus was constantly bullied by his brother. The secondary characters, some of whom are doozies, come to life as well. The backdrop of London is lovingly described in many passages. Here’s one, with Tess narrating:  “No movie I’ve seen captures London’s variety: the serene elegance of the white stucco buildings; the improbable red-brick Christmas cake of the Royal Albert Hall, golden Albert glinting in the sunshine; horses galloping on Rotten Row; crazy swimmers diving into the Serpentine; and, near Hyde Park Corner . . . gardens with luscious herbaceous borders and pergolas of roses, planted and tended for no other reason than to give people color to look at.” (352)

Miss You is a fun read that would be especially good to take on vacation or on a long plane trip. Sure, there are a few contrived plot elements. For example, in a city with more than eight million inhabitants, it’s not likely that Tess and Gus would end up living on the same street. But that’s the stuff of Reunion Romance! By the middle of the book I was rooting for Tess and Gus, who are kindhearted and generous people, hoping that they would find happiness.

Amazing Maisie Mysteries

The Maisie Dobbs Mystery Series     Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear has recently published the thirteenth entry in her outstanding mystery series starring Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator working in London (and abroad) in the 1920s and 1930s. If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, you should definitely get your hands on this series. It’s essential that you read the books in order from the beginning, so I’ve included the list at the end of this post.

Maisie gets her start in the detective field in a roundabout manner. At the age of thirteen she goes to work as a maid in a wealthy London household. Her employer, Lady Rowan Compton, finds Maisie reading philosophy texts in the home’s library and decides to support the girl’s education. A family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, who is himself an investigator, becomes Maisie’s mentor. In 1914, as she is starting her Cambridge university career, World War I commences. Maisie drops out to train as a nurse and then spends the war in France, in hospital tents right behind the front lines.

The war scars Maisie, both physically and emotionally. Her fictional experiences remind me very much of the factual story of Vera Brittain, whose bestselling 1933 memoir of World War I, Testament of Youth, is a tragic account of the casualties of that war and of the profound impact that the deaths and injuries had on families, particularly women, in England.

On the fictional side, back in London after the war, Maisie experiences  romance and despair and hardship. Following more training with Dr. Blanche, she’s ready to open her own practice as a “psychologist and investigator” in 1929. By chance, she meets Billy Beale, a veteran who had been a patient of hers in France, and ends up hiring him as her assistant.

Other recurring characters in the novels are Frankie Dobbs, Maisie’s father, a former costermonger; James Compton, son of Maisie’s first employer; Priscilla Partridge, an affluent and fashionable friend from Maisie’s Cambridge days; Simon Lynch, a brilliant physician in the war; and Detective Inspector Richard Stratton of the London police.

What I love about the Maisie Dobbs series:

  • the character of Maisie, who is a strong, intelligent, independent woman bucking a society that often doesn’t acknowledge her gifts.
  • the way that Dr. Blanche teaches Maisie to breathe slowly, observe closely, and get an intuitive sense of people and situations in her investigations.
  • the weaving into the stories of Maisie’s romantic attachments, mostly tied in some way to World War I and its aftermath.
  • the secondary plots involving Maisie’s relatives and patrons.
  • the meticulously depicted setting of Depression-era London, including everything from the bread lines to the women’s clothing.
  • the wrap-up of every case, in which Maisie goes back, after the crime is solved, to the places and people involved and seeks closure.
  • the irony of Winspear’s placing of a female detective in the period of the great classics of detective fiction. (See my post on this subject here.)

What annoys me about this series:

  • the assumption that the British nobility in the early twentieth century would actually support the education of a teenage maid in their household. I call this plot device “The Downton Abbey Propaganda,” since the same false assumption of noblesse oblige permeated that story.
  • Winspear’s breaking of the fair-play rule of detective fiction, which dictates that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows.

I want to emphasize that, despite these two objections of mine, I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of the Maisie Dobbs novels. In This Grave Hour (2017), set at the beginning of World War II, is unfortunately the weakest of the lot, with a poorly designed mystery and repeated authorial spurning of the fair-play rule. But do read the rest of Winspear’s books, starting with the award-winning Maisie Dobbs (2003), and continuing with Birds of a Feather (2004), Pardonable Lies (2005), Messenger of Truth (2006), An Incomplete Revenge (2008), Among the Mad (2009), The Mapping of Love and Death (2010), A Lesson in Secrets (2011), Elegy for Eddie (2012), Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013), A Dangerous Place (2015), and Journey to Munich (2016).   

Drabble Tackles Mortality

The Dark Flood Rises     Margaret Drabble     (2016)

By taking her title and epigraph from DH Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death,” Margaret Drabble alerts readers that there’s going to be a lot about mortality in this book.

Drabble’s novels over the past fifty-plus years have often related to the period of life that she is in at the time of the writing. Since she’s now in her late 70s, The Dark Flood Rises features mostly characters who are advanced in age. It’s an ensemble cast, with Fran Stubbs as the one whose interior musings we learn most about.

Fran, who works as a consultant on housing for the elderly, is seventy-something but doesn’t want to retire. She still drives all around Britain inspecting housing facilities and attending conferences. Drabble takes us inside Fran’s head, where we hear her extended thoughts on architecture and traffic, on Vikings and soft-boiled eggs. Given her profession, Fran can’t help but have her attention directed to the subjects of old age and death quite frequently. In addition to Fran, we also meet an extended circle of her colleagues, family, friends, and friends of friends, who have an assortment of ailments and personal losses. Most live in Britain, but some are expats living off the coast of Spain in the Canary Islands, a popular tourist and retirement destination for Britons.

The plot of The Dark Flood Rises is somewhat diffuse but nevertheless engrossing, as Fran helps out her bedridden ex-husband, her son (whose girlfriend has died suddenly), and friends in various states of ill health. Drabble describes Fran as living “in the world of obituaries now, in the malicious crepuscular light of memorial services.” (178) Meanwhile, elderly Britons in the Canary Islands are surrounded by picture-postcard delights, but the clock ticks for them also. All these characters are drawn in detail as they turn to drugs or alcohol or denial or opera or religious ritual or adaptive technologies to ease their situations. This summary makes the novel sound grim and macabre, but it actually has many comic incidents:  Fran getting her car stuck in a muddy field, her ex-husband trying to seduce his young caregiver, her friend Josephine teaching an adult education class.

Along the way we get magnificent tours of the English landscape and extended historical observations about the Canaries. The language is very rich, as you might expect from Drabble. Her cumulative adjectives are especially impressive—for instance, “the flowing sunlit electric-green weed-fronded depths of the slowly flowing water” or “the faded painted peeling pale blue of the woodwork.”

Bubbling below the surface narrative of The Dark Flood Rises, alarming destructive forces on a planetary level reflect the grappling of individuals with transience. Flood waters inundate Britain, perhaps due to global climate change. Hordes of refugees fleeing the Middle East and Africa point to failures of political systems. Volcanic and seismic activity in the Canary Islands seem to indicate that Earth itself is groaning tectonically. Is the apocalypse near? Are people too obsessed with their own petty concerns—or even with major humanitarian issues—to notice? Is it better to over-prepare for death or to under-prepare? Is a lingering death or a sudden death preferable? In The Dark Flood Rises, life churns on, but disaster lurks in the rivers and under the mountains.

Readers over the age of about 50 will likely appreciate The Dark Flood Rises most. However, for readers at all stages of life, it’s an excellent examination of the vagaries of aging, set against the large-scale environmental and ethical challenges that humanity faces.

A Lighthearted Side of Scotland

The Bertie Project     Alexander McCall Smith     (2016)

The universe of readers of novels in English divides into those who can’t stand Alexander McCall Smith and those who can’t wait for the next installment from him. I’m in the latter camp.

The Bertie Project is the eleventh book in McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street Series (see list below). Interestingly, the chapters of all the 44 Scotland Street books have first appeared in serialized form in the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman. This publishing approach constrains McCall Smith’s chapter length and requires that each chapter have a cliffhanger, although the cliff is usually more like a small berm in your backyard.

Scotland Street is a real thoroughfare in Edinburgh, but #44 is fictional. In this multi-family building of flats, which are kind of like American condos, McCall Smith follows the lives of the inhabitants. Some of them are ordinary citizens, like Pat MacGregor (a young art student who goes to work in a gallery) and Stuart Pollock (a statistician with the Scottish government) and Domenica MacDonald (a wise anthropologist). Others are caricatures so inflated that the reader marvels that they don’t simply burst. These include Bruce Anderson (a twenty-something narcissist obsessed with personal care products), Irene Pollock (a domineering mother obsessed with the writings of Melanie Klein), and the identical triplet sons of Matthew and Elspeth Duncan.

Even when some of these denizens of 44 Scotland Street move to other residences, McCall Smith keeps an eye on their activities. And over the course of the series, Cyril, a beer-swilling dog with a gold tooth, moves into 44 Scotland Street. McCall Smith skewers affectation wherever he finds it.

The star of the entire 44 Scotland Street Series is undoubtedly Bertie Pollock, who starts out as a precocious five year old and ages very slowly toward seven. I seldom laugh out loud when I’m reading a novel, but pronouncements from young Bertie can be so hilarious that I have to stop reading to wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes. Bertie is forced by his shrew of a mother, Irene, to take lessons in Italian and saxophone and yoga. He’s dressed by her in pink overalls that embarrass him. He’s hauled off to psychotherapy sessions even though his mental health is excellent. I keep hoping that someone will rescue poor, sweet Bertie. McCall Smith dangles that possibility in front of his readers repeatedly throughout the series, notably in The Bertie Project.

Here’s one of McCall Smith’s descriptions from The Bertie Project:  “Why could Bertie not be left alone to grow up in the way that suited him? He was, after all, a particularly appealing little boy, free from any discernible character defects, obliging, gentle, and, most remarkably, utterly without guile . . . He described the world exactly as he saw it; he expressed in a completely open way the thoughts that went through his mind; if asked what he was doing or thinking he answered in a way that concealed nothing, held nothing back.” (168)

I can’t tell you too much more about The Bertie Project without spoilers. Bertie and his family are prominent. Bruce the Narcissist acquires a new girlfriend, an Australian. Matthew and Elspeth have nanny troubles.

As if a many-stranded plot with a large cast of characters isn’t enough for the 44 Scotland Street novels, McCall Smith adds complaints about the grim Scottish weather, encomiums to his beloved city of Edinburgh, digs about Glasgow, analyses of Scottish visual arts, criticisms of bad grammar, digressions on the history of Scotland, and opinions on the tensions between Scotland and England, both medieval and modern. I find most of these tangential peregrinations amusing, the one exception being the story line about Scottish nudist societies . . .  In any case, as you embark on each chapter, you never know where you’ll end up.

Maybe the unpredictability is why some people hate McCall Smith’s novels, or maybe some readers dislike his sense of Scottish superiority. My Scottish heritage probably biases me toward the books, because I also enjoy the other McCall Smith series set in Edinburgh: the thirteen Isabel Dalhousie novels. Isabel is a philosopher who edits a journal on applied ethics and solves local mysteries. She’s also an unintentional cougar. Watch for my blog post on this series in the future.

McCall Smith’s best known novels are The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, seventeen charming books set in Botswana and starring detective Precious Ramotswe. Two other McCall Smith series are Corduroy Mansions and Portuguese Irregular Verbs; these are less successful, I think, but worth reading if you’re a true fan.

Check out Alexander McCall Smith to determine if you're a fan or a detractor! Here are all the books in the 44 Scotland Street Series: 44 Scotland Street (2004), Espresso Tales (2005), Love Over Scotland (2006), The World According to Bertie (2007), The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (2008), The Importance of Being Seven (2010), Bertie Plays the Blues (2011), Sunshine on Scotland Street (2012), Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers (2013), The Revolving Door of Life (2015), The Bertie Project (2016).