Monday, October 31, 2011

Revelation: Best of Historical Crime Series

C. J. Sansom's series of detective novels set in Tudor England has reached a milestone:  Henry VIII's wife number six.  "Crookback" lawyer Matthew Shardlake is the detective again, this time in pursuit of a serial killer inspired by a passage in the Book of Revelation. 

Watching Sansom's development of his series, I note that he has improved the plotting of this novel, so that the climactic scene nearly coincides with the final pages.  In earlier novels, there were chapters full of tying up loose ends.

Now, he needs to work on character development.  In this novel, Shardlake cares for the widow of his best friend, and he nurses regret that he didn't express his love for her years before, when he had the chance to marry her.   Could her husband's gruesome death be an opportunity?   He battles his conscience over this question.  Also, Shardlake's intrepid assistant Barak's marriage to Tamasin seems to be on the rocks, as the husband broods in disappointment over a stillborn son.

Both of these are potential situations for developing character, but they feel more like padding, used to pace the story.   Each time one of the characters reflects on his feelings, they're the same feelings, and it's the same reflection.  Then, suddenly, near the end, someone says something, and -- voila! --the tension is resolved.

I hope to see more of Shardlake, with more improvement.  

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Dog Who Knew Too Much: Fun with Feeling

Three novels into a series, Spencer Quinn keeps playing within the limits of his form.   I'd say "formula," but that carries disdainful connotations, and I'd rather emphasize how fun the books are and how I admire his fresh story-telling within the framework.  Besides, he built the frame.

Image from the cover of THE DOG WHO KNEW TOO MUCH
The frame consists of detective Bernie Little accepting a job from a dubious client, learning quickly that there's more to the job than meets the private eye.  What makes the series remarkable -- and, did I mention, fun? -- is its narrator, Bernie's dog Chet.

I've written before how delightful it is to get the story through Chet's eyes, nose, ears, and highly distractable consciousness.   A prime example in this book is a moment of gun-slinging action when Chet is primarily interested in a scrap of bacon.

This particular story's core event involves an adolescent boy, and Quinn seems to have struck a rich vein of narrative here, for he seems to know adolescents as well as he knows dogs.   Pudgy twelve-year-old boy named Devin is missing from a camping expedition.   Maybe because I work with children in that age group every day, I was moved  by the scene where Bernie and Chet interview one of the boys who shared Devin's tent on the night of the disappearance.  Frightened at first, the boy gains confidence in an interview technique that might be described as "good cop, good dog."  Afraid of retribution, the boy gets up the courage to tell how he participated in bullying Devin.  The boy halts when he remembers suddenly seeing Devin's face in flashlight.  He is ashamed to have seen a boy crying "like that."  Later, Bernie takes care to ensure that Devin won't remember his ordeal solely in terms of helplessness and fear.

With the introduction of a puppy identical to Chet, conceived on the memorable last page of the series' first story, Quinn hints where this series may be headed some years down the road, when Chet -- I don't want to imagine it -- may be too old to continue.  A good series can travel with us through time the way a flesh-and-blood companion does. 

Like Haydn, who created the form of the modern symphony and then wrote over a hundred, may Quinn keep delighting us with his variations. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ah, Paris: The Greater Journey

Under construction in 1888, the Eiffel Tower was called "too large, too ugly," and too American (405)
(reflections on France generally, and David McCullough's book THE GREATER JOURNEY, published by Simon and Schuster, 2011).

With a national debt that's 120% of its gross domestic product, Greece resents the way other members of the Euro-zone look upon her as Northern Europe's freeloading cousin. "All they do is go on strikes and complain," said one European in a radio report yesterday.  This is funny, because Americans have long looked upon all of Europe the same way, making exceptions only for the hard-working and well-organized Germans. 

That's the attitude that Americans took with them to Paris in the years between roughly 1830 and 1900, chronicled by David McCullough in THE GREATER JOURNEY.   Some come to study art (Samuel Morse, John Singer Sargent), some to study medicine (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Elizabeth Blackwell, Charles Sumner) and some to relax (James Fennimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe).   They come with some anticipation that they'll see some interesting sights and learn some interesting things, but also with a sense that American vigor, American know-how, and American enterprise are the future -- and how right they were, for good and for ill, is also a part of this book.   They leave, if they leave at all, feeling that they have discovered a new world in the Old World.

It's the story encapsulated in an anecdote about influential editor and novelist William Dean Howells who interrupts a casual conversation with a younger American to grasp him by the shoulders and say,
Live all you can.  ...It doesn't matter what you do -- but live. This place makes it all come over me. I see it now.  I haven't done so -- and now I'm old.  It's too late.  It has gone past me -- I've lost it.  You have time.  You are young.  Live!  (428)
Novelist Henry James knew both men, and took this anecdote for the germ of his late masterpiece THE AMBASSADORS.  But James had already examined the same story from many different angles for many years.

McCullough tells this same story more than twenty times, and it's always interesting.  Morse puts all his skill and imagination into capturing on canvas his wonderment at the Louvre, fails to make a living as an artist, and heads home with a vague idea that he can improve upon a system of flags that the French used for telegraphing messages (99).   Sumner is astounded to see a Black student integrated with his medical class (131), and becomes the most prominent abolitionist in Congress.  Cecilia Beaux, whose lovely works on display at Atlanta's High Museum were a revelation to me a few years ago, remarked that "Paris itself" was the greatest value of study in Paris (411).  Historian Henry Adams attained an epiphany at Chartres that became focus of his vision that modern times are powered by the inhuman force of the dynamo rather than by humane faith in the Virgin Mary (448).

If my notes here seem weighted to the last portion of the book, it's not because I skipped the first part, where the stories are fascinating and amusing.   Having concentrated two years of college on Henry James -- whose WINGS OF THE DOVE and BEAST IN THE JUNGLE were, for me, a kind of Paris -- I consider his crowd to be mine, too.

My own France experience involved a plate of asparagus.   At age 24, chaperoning high school students in France, I was the typical American described  in 1830 by one of McCullough's subjects: "The French aim to gratify, we to appease appetite -- we demolish dinner, they eat it" (35).  But then, in my journal, I devoted a full page to a plate of asparagus in a lemony butter sauce.  Not hard to make, it struck me not just for its taste, but also for elegance, and also for the artistry of its presentation, set off from other courses, served on a single small plate. For this drama major, it was a revelation that dinner could be theatre.

I learned in France that "dinner" was something that started with drinks and bread at six and ended sometime after ten or eleven or midnight, with kisses all around.   At a village restaurant, an hour or two into a "dinner" of this sort, I took a hike through the village, where the entire population seemed to be in backyards, neighbors sharing tables, drinking and eating and playing around with their children. 

In a flash I understood what my roommate in college had tried to make me understand.  Andreas Pozzi, transplanted to Philly from Italy, had told me that Americans had it all wrong.  "You guys live to work," he said, "but Italians work only to live."  For him, real life was that time with family, after work is done.   I was too full of my Puritan work ethic and Rust Belt background to appreciate a world view formed in a sunny, Catholic country.

Dining was only one art in a spectrum.  McCullough's Americans are startled to see that all classes of French people dined at the cafes, attended the concerts, and crowded the galleries. "[T]he conviction of the French that the arts were indispensable to the enjoyment and meaning of life affected the Americans more than anything else about Paris," McCullough tells us (47). 

That's something that my students and my fellow countrymen still don't get.   Ulysses S. Grant was bewildered by France, commenting after days in Paris that "there's nothing to do" (356).

My Dad was a lot like Grant, who once called himself "not a noun, but an active verb," and Dad derided the French as "Frogs."  But, through the agency of his business partner Alfredo Berato, he, too came to appreciate something of this other kind of life represented by the table, the glass, the bottle, the sunset, the time spent with friends.

Seeing that this kind of Mediterranean attitude leads to financial ruin in this world of ours makes me, with Henry Adams and his compatriots, "shudder" for this world of ours.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sovereign: Roi Noire

(reflection on SOVEREIGN, third in C. J. Sansom's series of detective stories featuring Matthew Shardlake.)

In Raymond Chandler's noir novels, Marlowe narrates his pursuit of leads across LA, into clubs and bungalows and hotels, where he often meets with violence.  He thinks of himself as tough and cynical, but he's never cynical enough to mistrust the right person.  By the time I reach the end of a Chandler novel, I've long forgotten what Marlowe was looking for in chapter one, and I don't care:  Marlowe's toughness, integrity, and naivety make him a great companion for the journey into darkness. (Read my in-depth study of Chandler

England in the time of Henry VIII's brief marriage to Catherine Howard provides C. J. Sansom with a background every bit as dark and labyrinthine as 1940s LA, dominated by duplicitous and brutally violent men in authority, with cruel Henry VIII setting the tone and the agenda.   Most of the action takes place in York, decorated for the King's entourage during his royal "progress" and seething with resentments and conspiracies. 

So Sansom has half of the noir formula right, and I intend to read the rest of the series.  Still, on the off-chance that Mr. Sansom might be Google surfing, I'll offer a couple of suggestions.    While Shardlake, the "crookback" lawyer, certainly gets into physical scrapes and scary situations, he is a narrator jealous of his own authority, wrapped up in his own back-story -- pun accidental -- and cerebral.  Compare him to Marlowe, who never tells us of his past and who never thinks ahead more than one step at a time. Shardlake is a Sherlock Holmes / Marlowe hybrid, and it might be better to see the next story narrated instead by Shardlake's Watson, named Barak.  Sansom, through Shardlake, is a bit fussy about details of plot in this third book as in the first one.  While I enjoyed the book, I often felt that we were going back over the same territory.   A model better than Holmes's Watson might be Nero Wolfe's Archie Goodwin.  Rex Stout was able to have his noir and intellectual games, too, having an active, impulsive, hot-tempered agent to mediate a sedentary detective's ratiocinations.