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)

G. K Chesterton, Jane Austen and Mr. Wickham

In his collection of essays, “Come to Think of It” published in 1930 we find this little gem On Jane Austen in the General Election.  I’m not interested in what Chesterton writes about how political commentators are using – or misusing – Austen to argue about the New Woman as much as I am in his observations about George Wickham.  When my husband handed be a print-out of the short essay, I was just finished with my annual re-reading of Pride and Prejudice.  This includes re-reading the novel, watching the Colin Frith/Masterpiece Theater adaptation, and more recently, re-reading the P.D. James sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, so everything was fresh in my mind.

For anyone who has not read Pride and Prejudice or seen one of the many adaptations, there is a kind of love triangle between the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett; the handsome, wealthy, brooding Fitzwilliam Darcy; and the charming, handsome, impoverished George Wickham.  Darcy is private and quiet; Wickham, open and talkative.  When we, and Elizabeth, first meet the men, Wickham is the more attractive.  Made more so, perhaps, by the fact that Mr. Darcy, proud and aloof, publicly refuses to acknowledge Mr. Wickham.

Wickham

It is Wickham’s explanation that Chesterton writes about.

….A writer in a leading daily paper, in the course of a highly optimistic account of the new attitude of woman to men, as it would appear in the General Election, made the remark that a modern girl would see through the insincerity of Mr. Wickham, in Pride and Prejudice, in five minutes.

Now this is a highly interesting instance of the sort of injustice done to Jane Austen.  The crowd, (I fear the considerable crowd) of those who read that newspaper and do not read that author will certainly go away with the idea that Mr Wickham was some sort of florid and vulgar imposter like Mr. Mantalini. [Mantalini, a character in Dicken’s Nicholas Nickerby, is a handsome man who lives off his wife and eventually ruins her.  Also described as a gigolo.]  But Jane Austen was a much more shrewd and solid psychologist than that.  She did not make Elizabeth Bennett to be a person easily deceived, and she did not make her deceiver a vulgar imposter.  Mr. Wickham was one of those very formidable people who tell lies by telling the truth.

Wickham tells Elizabeth the part of the story that puts Darcy in the wrong.  She has no reason not to believe him and neither do we until we learn the rest of the story from Mr. Darcy himself.  As the story unfolds we learn that while Wickham may not be vulgar, he has a lot in common with the gigolo, Mantalini.  But I digress.

Chesterton, thinking of the General Election, views Wickham as the perfect politician.

….For Mr. Wickham was, or is, exactly the sort of man who does make a success of political elections….And he owes his success to two qualities, both exhibited in the novel in which he figures.  First, the talent for telling a lie by telling half of the truth.  And second, the art of telling a lie not loudly and offensively, but with an appearance of gentlemanly and graceful regret.

George Wickham as the perfect member of Parliament and perfect politician.  I love it!  Maybe the problem with politics today is there are not enough George Wickhams.

Photograph is a still of Adrian Lukis as George Wickham in the 1995 BBC/Masterpiece Theater version of Pride and Prejudice.

 

 

 

 

“The Tattoo Murder Case”

It is 1947 in post-war Tokyo and the police are confronted by a locked room murder in Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tatoo Murder Case.  The book was one of several Japanese mysteries I got for Christmas from my husband.  If the others are as interesting, he and David, the owner of Mystery on Main in Brattleboro, choose well.

Akimitsu Takagi

Akimitsu Takagi

Akimitsu Takagi was born in 1920.  According to both Wikipedia and eNotes, he studied metallurgy, but became a mystery writer when a fortune teller told him that was where his future lay.  He was a prolific writer up to the 1990’s; he died in 1995.  Only three of his books, including Tattoo, have been translated into English.

As with all good books, one learns a great deal.  Post-war Japan and the destruction in Tokyo are prominent.  At one point, we visit a house untouched by the war while the house next door is destroyed.  And I learned a lot about the art of tattooing.  Did you know that people with full-body tattoos have a shorter life span because the tattoo interferes with circulation?   Picking up facts like that is one reason I love good mysteries.

In the shadowy depths of Mount Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, there lived three powerful, wicked sorcerers who were masters of the black arts of magic and enchantment.  These mysterious magicians were known as Tsunedahime, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru, and their legendary exploits have been the subjects of folk tales, Kabuki plays, woodblock prints, and some of the most spectacular Japanese art tattoos ever created.

This is the tragic story of three of those tattoos.

I’m not certain if that preface was written by Takagi or not, but assume that it was.  The folklore behind the tattoos plays as big a part in the story as the art of tattooing itself.  At the time of the mystery, tattooing is illegal in Japan, but there is a flourishing underground.  Tattooing is an art to the Japanese who are contemptuous of the random tattoos sported by the occupying Americans.  Their tattoos are referred to as sushi after a kind of rice featuring vegetables and other things scattered at random in flavored rice.  (Sushi refers to the rice and comes in many forms, not just rolled in seaweed or topped with fish.)  A good tattoo should be an entire picture and tell a story, not just be random names of girlfriends, flags, and anchors!

cover

The Tattoo Murder Case provides a glimpse into a different culture and time as well as a fascinating mystery.

Photograph of Takagi from Wikipedia.

Photograph of book cover from Amazon.

The book was translated by Deborah Boehm.