Category Archives: reviews
I was whining away on a Facebook page the other day (Golden Age Detection) about how the current “rules” for mystery novels are turning them boring. So today, a positive note: a review of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries that breaks many of those rules, Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh.
The book begins, as Marsh’s always do, with a list of the “dramatis personae.” Marsh worked in the theatre, and some of her best mysteries take place during theatre productions. (Her very best book, in my view, is Light Thickens, in which she violates the most sacred commandment of the Detection Club by…
SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read Light Thickens yet, scroll past the single line in italics immediately below this one.
…ending the story with the entirely satisfactory discovery of a homicidal maniac.
I love to make my way through the dramatis personae list, imagining likely interactions, spotting promising eccentrics and provokers of conflict. In Dead Water, the obvious candidate is “Miss Emily Pride, Suzerain of [Portcarrow] Island.”
Dead Water comprises only nine chapters, and the first of them is that major no-no, a prologue. Its title is actually “Prelude.” It recounts the alleged appearance of a fairy in a modern-day (that’s 1963) UK fishing village, and village’s resulting transformation into a folklore-y spa. Conflict is confined to minimal levels of discomfort as the whole cast of characters is introduced. Far from leaving anyone hanging from a cliff, the final sentence of the Prelude informs the reader that the story is about to leap over the following two years. This prologue takes up its full 1/9 of the text.
(“Prelude” also sets up one rule-blessed plot thread of which Marsh was fond: a romantic young couple, who will – the reader always knows – live happily ever after once the inevitable murder is cleared up.)
The first quarter of Chapter Two is very heavy to backstory, another no-no. The vivid characterization makes it perfectly smooth and perfectly fascinating. One of Marsh’s best creations, Miss Emily Pride, born ca. 1880, was formerly French coach to rising members of His Majesty’s diplomatic service. The rest of the chapter sets the scene for future confrontations, but the participants in the main conflict of the story remain hundreds of miles apart.
In Chapter 3 the enemies meet and conflict escalates, but nothing worse than threats and minor assaults occur. Not until the end of the chapter does the detective/protagonist appear on this scene of not-quite-crimes. In this reader’s opinion, the threatened victim beats out our hero for character and interest. (I’ve never been hugely enamored of Marsh’s detective Roderick Alleyn. He and the mysteries he unravels serve, it seems to me, largely as an axis for the galaxy of her dramatis personae.)
We are now 1/3 of the way through the book. The first quarter of Chapter 4 is a comic and entirely believable account of a disastrous village festival, ending in nothing worse than a thunderstorm. Not until the end of the chapter, at the 40% mark, does the first and only corpse in the story appear, and it is not a cliffhanger but an elegant switcheroo.
From that point, detection takes over, with no diminution of character interest or involvement with the setting. Marsh’s brilliant plotting picks up from the early chapters clues and red herrings –– including the fairy and the thunderstorm – so subtle as to have been invisible even to experienced mystery readers as they passed by. When the usual climactic scene of derring-do is complete (another rule that Marsh generally followed), Chapter 9 continues with an extended explanation by the detective, a happy ending for the lovers and charitable provision made for innocent sufferers. This denouement covers two days.
Marsh’s editors seem to have had no problem with passages inserted for sheer fun. Here’s one of my favorites. A now-deceased character, whose sole function is to have made a plot-generating bequest to Miss Emily, is described:
My sister, Fanny Winterbottom,” Miss Emily announced, “was not free from this fault. I recall an informal entertainment at our Embassy in which she was invited to take part. It was a burlesque. Fanny was grotesquely attired and carried a vegetable bouquet. She was not without talent of a farouche sort and made something of a hit. Verb. Sap.: as you shall hear. Inflamed by success she improvised a short equivocal speech at the end which she flung her bouquet at H.E. It struck him in the diaphragm and might well have led to an incident.
So there’s an instance of brilliant, rule-breaking mystery writing. A small prize (a blog shout-out) is offered to all who can name a recently published equal.
The annual Five Colleges Book Sale is a big deal here in the Upper Valley. Organized to fund scholarships for New Hampshire and Vermont students at Mt. Holyoke, Simmons, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley colleges, it is the largest second-hand book sale in northern New England. For this book addict, it is a blessed way to reduce my library, at least for the two weeks between when I drop off my contributions and when I attend the sale.
Today, I went down to the basement to pack up the pile of books that I have winnowed over the last year. Here are a few of the items you’ll be able to buy at a really good price, while benefitting worthy young scholars:
The German Cookbook, by Mimi Sheraton. I bought this book hoping to please my Germanophile husband with the dishes of his ancestors.
I should have checked the apple strudel recipe before I forked over the cash. It involves rolling out dough, which you have already slapped down on the pastry board 115 times, over a whole kitchen table until it is as thin as tissue paper. Guess I’ll have to think of some other way to please my husband.
Two biographies of Samuel Johnson. I tried hard to like Johnson. I read Boswell’s Life of Johnson and was sure he had to be right about his idol. So I read these books. Doubtless they are great works of scholarship. But what kind of idiot tries to write a life of Johnson after Boswell?
Six paperback murder mysteries, published between 1993 and 2014. I read them all within the last two or three years. I cannot remember the plot of a single one. This confirms me in my dreary notion that my own mystery manuscript will have to be re-re-re-revised till Judgment Day.
Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown. Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a page turner, I admit. No matter that it read like its own outline. Like everyone else, I couldn’t put it down. So I went and paid the hardback price for his earlier book. It was like The Da Vinci Code if The Da Vinci Code had never been outlined at all. It had angels and demons. I guess. Further, deponent remembereth not.
The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. His Life and Works, by Angus Wilson. I haven’t read this one. It belonged to my late husband. I’d like to read it…but there just isn’t TIME. I flipped through it… it looks fascinating…with photos, yet…a Spy cartoon…but something’s got to go. I can’t keep retrieving things from the pile.
Which brings me to the more interesting part of this list. Below are several books from the pile that the Five-Colleges sale will not be seeing. How long have they languished in this limbo? And more important, what was I thinking when I put them there?
Something of Myself, by Rudyard Kipling. I compromised. I’ll give up the biography and keep the autobiography. I flipped through this, too. I cannot discard a book that includes the sentence, “For the great J.M. [Cook] himself – the man with the iron mouth and domed brow – had been one of my father’s guests at Lahore when he was trying to induce the Indian Government to let him take over the annual pilgrimage to Mecca as a business proposition.”
The Letters of Madame, Vol. II. Princess Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, known as “Madame,” married Louis XIV’s brother in 1671. She was a woman
who did not pussyfoot. She slapped her son’s face before the whole court when she learned that he had agreed to marry one of his royal uncle’s bastards. She never had the slightest desire to participate in court intrigue, love affairs, government or fashion. She liked hunting all day, she liked her meals large and regular, and she loved to write letters. The accounts she sent to her German family and friends about the court at Versailles were so frank that the government used them to blackmail her in later life. Their demand? That she shut up about her opinion of Mme. de Maintenon, the king’s mistress. I found this second volume, without its first, in a second-hand bookstore, and I have been looking for Volume I ever since.
Howe & Hummel: Their True and Scandalous History, by Richard H. Rovere. William F. Howe and Abraham H. Hummel were New York lawyers in the second half of the nineteenth century. They got murderers off scot free. They got Lilian Russell divorced – frequently. They bought off witnesses. Hummel eventually went to jail himself. If you liked the movie Chicago, you’d love Howe & Hummel.
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. Good grief! This is a first edition, bought by my mother when it came out in 1964. Just last year, I bought the new edition that includes the parts that Hemingway’s publishers cut, and I hunted for this book to compare it with. And there it was, down in the giveaway pile. I must have been mad.
These notes are based on the contents of the first two grocery bags of books that made up the pile. There are two more. I don’t dare look into them.
Last night, I didn’t see Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet in HD at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center. He certainly played Hamlet, the melancholy Dane, only the play wasn’t Hamlet. It was a three-hour performance of pieces of Shakespeare’s play, sliced, diced, and chopped. The meal was tasty. But I went for a dinner of Hamlet and got several interesting “small plates” instead.
I don’t call in the Holy Inquisition whenever anyone alters a word of Shakespeare. New views of old masterpieces occur each time anyone first reads/sees/hears them. Experiments with the text can be fine. And Cumberbatch is a perfect Hamlet for our times: a man trying to do the honorable thing in the face of enormous evil and confusion. Cumberbatch also treads the line between verse and ordinary speech so well you don’t notice he’s doing it. The play would have been comprehensible to an intelligent high-schooler, which is not always true of more conventional productions.
But why open with Hamlet in an attic, listening to a portable record-player spew out Johnny Mathis? Well, all right, if Horatio will then appear and we can get right out on the battlements and see the ghost. But no. Horatio’s first business is to get Hamlet to for Heaven’s sake come downstairs to dinner with the court. When he gets there, everybody else is dressed in Edwardian style. (I suppose Downton Abbey now defines “the olden days.”)
When the ghost finally appears – oh, dear. He speaks his lines very well. He even disappears at one point down a very Shakespearean trap door. But he also rips open his shirt to display a precise plastic imitation of mouldering human flesh. Just like in the movies. The camera closes in, so the HD audience gets a better view than the theatregoers did. And there is a musical (?) sound track, just like in the movies, that conventionally roars its instructions to the audience: Be horrified! Be grossed out! The sound track banged on through most of the play, often drowning out the actors, while the lighting effects mimicked sharp camera cuts.
Hamlet, in case you’ve forgotten, pretends to be mad while actually being driven almost mad by his impossible situation. Poor Cumberbatch, whether willingly or not we may never know, enacts this strategy by trying on a Hallowe’en costume or two, then settling on the uniform of the traditional toy soldier, complete with snare drum. He then marches the length of the banquet table – that’s on the table – drumming. This fools everyone.
Other business is equally incomprehensible. Ophelia has hobbies: she take pictures with a Mathis-era camera and she plays the piano. And your point is? Her final madness causes her speech to soften and accelerate so greatly that she might be listing the deadly side effects of some newly advertised drug. We certainly can’t hear her.
Then, in the final scene, as we try to weigh up the pros and cons of the production, Cumberbatch gives us a performance that absolves him of all offenses. He believes entirely in his reconciliation with Laertes; he behaves and fences like the Elizabethan gentleman, athlete and scholar that he really is, and he dies reconciled to death.
I’m no tekkie, but I hope some computer nerd somewhere will make sure that this performance will be preserved for the ages.