Thinking about Prequels

I just finished reading Charles Finch’s newest book in his Lennox series, The Woman in the Water, which is a prequel to the series.  It got me started thinking about the nature of prequels.  When I bought the book at my local bookstore, Mystery on Main, the owner remarked that it seemed a bit strange to have a prequel to a well established series.  Then in this morning’s New York Times Book Review Marilyn Stasio wrote, “Prequels are fun because you get an intimate glimpse of your favorite detectives while they’re still wet behind the ears and not so full of themselves.”

So what is a prequel all about?  I’m thinking mainly about  some television series like Tennison, the prequel to the great Helen Mirren series, Prime Suspect and Endeavor about the young John Morse as well as The Woman in the Water.  When there are great characters we always want more.  We want to know more about them.  Who exactly are they?  What makes them tick?  Where did they come from?  These three prequels attempt to answer these questions.

I have to say that I could never get into Tennison.  Maybe because there was no Helen Mirren, but I think it is because it tried too hard.  Perhaps too much focus on Jane Tennison and not enough on the stories.  But I have to admit I only watched the first two episodes.  The character seemed to be much like the older Tennison without much indication of how she got there.  The same tensions with her family and her same predilection for sleeping with the wrong men exist without much explanation.

Endeavor

Fred Thursday and Endeavor Morse.  Photo copyright by ITV,

Endeavor is another story.  I’ve read a number, although not all, of the Colin Dexter books featuring Morse and I totally missed the original Inspector Morse television series with John Thaw.  (One can purchase only the European DVDs that won’t play in U.S. machines.)  So perhaps I love Endeavor because I never saw the original series, but more likely it is because they are great stories on their own plus they have the great Fred Thursday character.  We learn a great deal about the young Morse including that he was raised as a Quaker.  Through the first four seasons, one can see him mature, but also glimpse the seeds of the irascible man he becomes, at least in the books.  But he is at the core always the intuitive detective.  One does get a glimpse of the mature Endeavor Morse through the eyes of Inspector Robbie Lewis in the wonderful TV series, Inspector Lewis as Lewis recalls his old boss in several of the early episodes.  Morse even helps solve a murder from his grave.

blue deathAfter I finished reading The Woman in the Water I went back and re-read the first book in the series, A Beautiful Blue Death.  I first bought the book for my mother who, like me  was a voracious consumer of mysteries.  I remember her saying that Finch was trying too hard to made Charles Lennox into a Peter Wimsey like character.  On my re-reading, I find that somewhat true, but also that it is not as well written as the later books including Woman.  We do learn a great deal about the 23 year old Lennox including his love for Elizabeth (Jane) and how he and his brother lost their father.  In Beautiful Blue Lennox is described as being close to 40.  I wonder if there will be other books filling in that gap.  In the meanwhile, I’m like Marilyn Staiso and just enjoying the the series.

 

 

 

Reading, thinking, and the state of things

Andy Borowitz from the New Yorker Magazine posted a few days ago something like “It has been hilarious, but can we have a real President now?”  That is how I’m feeling these days as I’m bombarded with constant misspeaking, mismanagement, and simply ignorance.  Some days I wonder if anyone in the administration ever learned any history, geography or simple arithmetic.  As a defensive measure for my own psyche, I am mostly using social media to catch up on personal things posted by friends and have drastically cut the political stuff I post on Facebook and Twitter.  My sanity demands more selectivity.

Charles Blow, in an April 17 New York Times column, expressed much better how I feel.

His failures so far, I suppose, should bring resisters like me some modicum of joy, but I must confess that they don’t. Or, more precisely, if they do, that joy is outweighed by the rolling litany of daily horrors that Trump has inflicted.

The horrors are both consuming and exhausting. For me at this point they center on an erosion of equality. This by no means downplays Trump’s incessant lying, the outrage of his draining the Treasury for his personal junkets, or his disturbing turn toward war. But somewhat below the radar, or at least with less fanfare, our access, inclusion and justice are being assailed by a man who lied on the campaign trail promising to promote them.

And the very sad thing is that even with his approval rating hovering around 40%, his core still supports him despite the knowledge that his actions hurt them the most.

I’ve been reading a lot to escape and have found some very interesting books to recommend.  Rudolf Fisher was the first African-American to write a mystery.  His book, “The Conjure-Man Dies”, is set in a 1930s Harlem.  Fisher (1897-1934) was a doctor, music arranger, and writer, which explains his interest in using science to solve the crime.  Everyone in the book is black:  The police detective, the medical examiner, the victim, and all of the suspects.  “Conjure-Man” has just been reprinted and reissued.  In some ways, “Conjure-Man” is clearly a first mystery.  I’ve found that in many first mysteries the plotting is more complicated than needed, but the glimpse of life in Harlem is well worth the effort of getting though the twists and turns.

ows_136396805189380“Ordinary Grace” is a total opposite.  Set in the summer of 1961 in rural Minnesota, it is narrated by a now middle-aged man recalling the summer.  I think this is considered to be a mystery as it won an Edgar Award for William Kent Kruger, but I thought it was just a wonderfully written novel.  I read this for my book group, Malice on Main, and I was not the only one who reported crying through much of it.  “Ordinary Grace is an extraordinary book.

My final recommendation is “Writing to Save a Life” by John Edgar Wideman.  I’m not sure how to characterize this book which tells the story of Louis, Emmett, and Mamie Till.  The New York Times Book Review and the National Book Awards call it non fiction, but some of the almost stream of conscious speculation about Louis Till seemed to be excellent fiction writing.  Louis Till, Emmett’s father, was executed during World War II in Italy for the rape and murder of a young local woman.  I have to say I still am not sure how I feel about this book, but it is fascinating reading.

Reading, baseball, and gardening this summer will save my sanity – I hope.

Agatha Goes on a Little Trip

When I was shopping for Christmas books, I picked up what looked like an interesting book on the sale table.  I just finished reading The Grand Tour by Agatha Christie.  In February 1922 Christie, her husband, Archie, and others left on what we would call a trade mission.  They went to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada with a vacation stop in Hawaii.  They got back to England on December 1st.  Christie wrote letters home as a kind of diary.  Her grandson, Mathew Prichard, put them together with photographs (largely taken by Christie) interspersed with excerpts from her autobiography.

agatha

The Grand Tour provides the reader with a glimpse of the British empire in the days when change was just starting in the colonies.  People are judged by how “British” they are; natives are treated as exotic.  There are tensions between the members of the mission.  There are injuries and illnesses.  I found her descriptions of the landscapes the most interesting.  For example her description of Wellington harbor:

Great mountains all around coming down to the water’s edge – the far off ones with snow on them.  Blue sky and deep blue water and Wellington itself nestling on the side of the mountain.

But the best part was learning about Agatha Christie as a young woman.  I don’t know about you, but I think of her as either Miss Marple or the older woman in many of her pictures, a little stout and stern.

older-agatha

But on the trip she thinks nothing of going off on an 11 mile hike, she golfs, and, most surprising, she learns to surf.  My image of her will never be the same.

If you have ever read any Christie mysteries and you like travel stories, you would enjoy reading The Grand Tour.

 

Photograph from Prezi.com

 

Going around the world without leaving home

I belong to a mystery book group, Malice on Main.  It is sponsored by a wonderful bookstore, Mystery on Main, in Brattleboro, VT.  Each year we pick a theme and the bookstore owner, David, picks the books.  2016 was international mysteries.  We read eleven books (we don’t meet in January) and I enjoyed all but one which I didn’t finish.  Looking back, I think each member had at least one they didn’t care for; sometimes they finished it any way but sometimes not.  Here is the list annotated with my comments.

China:  Death of a Red Heroine (Xiaolong Qui)  A fascinating glimpse of life and police work in present day China.  I really enjoyed this one.

Japan:  The Devotion of Suspect X (Keigo Higashima)  We had quite a discussion about the writer’s treatment of the women in the book and whether the sexism was cultural or just him or just the detective.  I read the a second book by him, Malice, and the woman was more realistically drawn and much more interesting leading me to conclude that the women in Devotion were written the way they were as part of the story.  One day I will have to read it again and see if this is correct.

Venice:  Death at La Fenice (Donna Leon)  This is Leon’s first and, having read everything she’s written, still one of my favorites.  We see her detective Guido Brunnetti as she is just starting to develop him as a character.  Plus it is an interesting death that he investigates.

Cuba:  Havana Red (Leonardo Paura)  More interesting for the picture of Cuba than the mystery.

missing-servant

India:  Case of the Missing Servant (Tarquin Hall)  A lot of fun.

Ghana:  Wife of the Gods (Kwei Quartey)  Detective Darko Dawson is sent to investigate a murder with supernatural implications and solves both the murder and his mother’s mysterious disappearance over twenty years ago.

Austria:  The Truth and Other Lies (Sascha Arango)  What happens when a death causes a life built on pretense to crumble.

 

 

Turkey:  Istanbul Passage (Joseph Kannon)  This is more of a spy thriller than a mystery.  Set in 1946 or 1947, the story is wrapped around the Jewish exodus from Europe to Palestine.  I really liked this book.

Ireland:  Elegy for April (Benjamin Black)  The search for April who disappears.  Full of interesting characters including the eccentric Quirke who undertakes to find her.

France:  How’s the Pain (Pascal Garnier)  The one book I couldn’t finish.  I found the two main characters totally unappealing.  One of my fellow book group members thought it was very existential, like a Camus novel.

crack

Argentina:  A Crack in the Wall (Claudia Pineiro)  Totally absorbing with an ending I would never have predicted.  Because it centers around architecture, one can Google the buildings she talks about.

Except for The Truth and Other Lies which could be set almost anywhere, each of these books provides a glimpse of place and culture.  One of the reasons I’m attracted to mystery stories is that a good author includes lots of descriptions.  I often think that much of what I know about England, I learned from reading mysteries.  These eleven books took me to new places and taught me new things.  But I also learned that being a police detective – or an amateur crime solver – is pretty much the same no matter where you are.

“Clouds of Witness”, a mystery by Dorothy Sayers

I was introduced to the works of Dorothy Sayers by my mother when I was in my teens and have been enamored by Lord Peter Wimsey ever since.  In fact, I named three of my cats Lord Peter (now gone to cat heaven), Harriet Vane, and Mr. Bunter.  Harriet and Bunter are now in their late teens, but still active.

After the recent election, a friend remarked that we needed to escape for the duration or, at least, periodically to help us ignore the horrors of the new administration.  For some reason I thought of reading Sayers.  Looking at my bookshelf, “Clouds of Witness” jumped out at me.  “Clouds of Witness”, set in 1926, is the second of the thirteen Wimsey novels and contains most of the important continuing figures:  Scotland Yard Inspector Charles Parker, Freddy Arbuthnot, Peter’s mother, sister, brother, and sister-in-law. He has yet to meet Harriet Vane. (That happens in “Strong Poison.)

“Clouds of Witness” is an English Country House mystery – with a twist.  The house is not isolated and the occupants are not snowed in, trapped by a flood, or other natural disaster.  The action takes place at a country shooting party hosted by Lord Peter’s brother, the Duke of Denver. Of course, one of the guests is murdered under mysterious circumstances.  There are too many witnesses with conflicting stories and at cross-purposes.  It takes Parker and Lord Peter, with the help of Bunter, several trips to France, an Atlantic crossing to New York by boat and back in a small plane in bad weather to exonerate the Duke.

I hadn’t read the book for a number of years, but it remains my favorite of Sayers early works.  She is still developing Wimsey, but you can see glimpses of the character he becomes.  His “man”, Bunter, is already competent beyond competent at almost everything to which he puts his hand.  You can see the beginning of the relationship between Parker and Wimsey – and between Parker and Wimsey’s sister, Mary.

Having enjoyed my re-reading, I decided to watch the 1972 production that had been on the BBC and on Masterpiece Mystery.  I found it pretty faithful to the book until the ending.  Why does television always  have to pretty up the ending?  I have to say that one of the wonderful parts of the book is the trial of the Duke in front of the House of Lords, the jury of his peers.  Sayers’  history of such trials along with her descriptions of the preparation and of the trial itself are a wonderful piece of writing and the video does manage to capture much of it visually.

If you are looking for some enjoyable distraction from reality you could do much worse that reading Dorothy Sayers.  In fact, I think I’ll pick another to read next.

Mr. Bunter grooming Harriet.

Mr. Bunter grooming Harriet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph by Robert Wyckoff.

Likable and unlikeable heroes

I’ve spent the first part of the summer reading the John Madden books by Rennie Airth, the first two Inspector Morse books by Colin Dexter, and “The Truth and Other Lies” by Sascha Arango as well as dipping into “Swann’s Way” by Proust.  This reading has gotten me thinking about central characters which in this case all happen to be men.  Why do I like some of them and intensely dislike others?  What makes one continue to read when the “hero” is unlikeable?

A bit about the books first.

Airth

There are four John Madden books.  In the first, “River of Darkness”, Madden is an Inspector with Scotland Yard after World War I when a mass killing of a family.  Only the daughter has survived.  The story, as do all four Airth books, centers around the after effects of war:  the physical and psychological cost to society.  Madden struggles through what we call today, post-dramatic stress, to solve the crime.  We like him for admitting his uncertainties.  In the next three books, Madden has retired from the Yard but finds himself involved nonetheless.  These are complex stories set in the 1930s, during WWII and after WWII.  I first read them a number of years ago and re-read them this summer and found they lost nothing during the second read.  In fact, they have much to say about how we treat our veterans today.

I became addicted to “Endeavor ” on Masterpiece Mystery this summer.  There was something appealing about the very young Inspector Morse.  He comes across as smart, brave, and somewhat of an oddity on the Oxford police force.  Never having read anything by Colin Dexter, I started reading the Inspector Morse books from the beginning.  Much to my surprise, Morse is arrogant, treats his subordinates badly, and is obsessed with sex and pornography.  OK.  Perhaps I exaggerate, but just a little.  He is not the likable Endeavor Morse at any rate.  But the stories are great puzzles full of red herrings and false paths and I did enjoy going down them with Morse.

Finally, there is Sascha Arango’s “The Truth and Other Lies”.  This is a German mystery.  The translation made the 2015 New York Times 100 Notable Books list and I read it for my book group, Malice on Main.  The central character, Henry Hayden, lives a totally manufactured life.  He uses people and then seems to rid himself of them when they become inconvenient or no longer useful.  He is totally unlikeable and I almost couldn’t get through it.  If I hadn’t been reading for a discussion, I probably would not have finished it.  I kept hoping he’d get caught and exposed.

As for Proust, I haven’t gotten through enough to decide much except he paints his grandfather as a not very nice man and he appears to have had a very strange boyhood.

I can’t wait for the next John Madden (Airth seems to produce a new book every 5 or 6 years.) in January and I will probably read more about Inspector Morse even if I don’t like him much, but I am very happy to be done with Henry Hayden.  The difference between Morse and Hayden:  Morse may not be someone you want to be friends with but he does want justice for his victims while Hayden cares about no one but himself.

Re-writing Shakespeare

My husband and I catalog our books on LibraryThing and I often get books to review through the Early Reviewers Project.  Most recently I got Anne Tyler’s re-writing of “The Taming of the Shrew”, Vinegar Girl.  Why is Tyler re-writing Shakespeare?  Hogarth Publishing is doing a series for the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by having well known author’s take on a variety of plays.

The Telegraph story on the series started this way

Booker Prize-winning authors Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson are to write modern prose versions of two of Shakespeare’s most widely-read plays, despite admitting they maybe “mad” to do so.

Atwood will take on The Tempest, while Jacobsen, who won the Booker Prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, will rework The Merchant of Venice.

The story ends

The pair will now join Anne Tyler and Jeanette Winterson as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, producing their updated version in time for the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death in 2016.

Tyler’s will take on The Taming of the Shrew, while Jeanette Winterson works with The Winter’s Tale.

A spokesman for Hogarth, the transatlantic fiction imprint of Penguin Random House, promised the publishing house was still in talks with other esteemed writers, with more expected to be added to the line-up in the coming months.

Shakespeare

So I got Vinegar Girl to review.  I started it, didn’t like anyone in the book and put it down 25 or so pages later.  Maybe, I said to myself, if I read the Shakespeare I will like it better.  I hadn’t read The Taming of the Shrew for decades and I found it very funny, but Kate the Shrew is almost no where to be found.  The play is about Petruchio’s efforts to woo her and about the men vying for her sister.

Back to Vinegar Girl.  One has to appreciate Tyler’s attempt to put Kate front and center, but it also shows the difficulties of  having a central character who is grumpy and ill-tempered – although not without reason.  I didn’t like Kate until the very end of the book when she is a renowned plant biologist.  I don’t know if Tyler is making a statement about the importance of having a life of one’s own or not, but it certainly seems that way.  But it isn’t Shakespeare who doesn’t have many women characters.  Making Kate a real person who grows really is an update.

Many of the other reviewers for LibraryThing had never read Shakespeare and seemed to enjoy the book a great deal more than I.  I am, however, interested enough in the series to want to read Atwood’s re-telling of The Tempest, one of my favorites.

Photograph:  Alamy (from the Telegraph)