Completed: The Woman in White

Is anyone as shocked as I am to find out that it’s the end of April already? I’m really not sure where the past month went. And alas, my reading seems to have vanished with it–despite a readathon earlier this month, I haven’t finished a single book since mid-March. Guess what my plan is for May? But at least I still have a small pile of drafts to post here–it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, even if I also wrote these up over a month ago. Sigh.

Cover: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins
England, 1859

I was determined to finally read The Woman in White last autumn as a suitably seasonal read, and although I only write it up now, I did more or less succeed in reading it during the appropriate season.

I’ve long been a Collins fan, having found The Moonstone unputdownable when I read it in high school, but somehow or another I’d never managed to read his other famous mystery. While I didn’t fly through it the way I did The Moonstone (a fault, perhaps, of me as a reader), I found is surprisingly engaging considering that the mystery seemed slight, with much of the outcome well-foreshadowed.

It is a story told through the narration of several different pens, and it begins with a long section of narration by Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher who firsts meets the mysterious woman in white on his way home one night. In his recollections, he seems unexpectedly affected by the brief encounter, though perhaps this is to be expected when only days later he discovers a strong physical resemblance between the woman and one of his new pupils. The idea of a woman in white conjures up the idea of a ghost, and indeed, this flesh-and-blood woman proves to have a sort of ghostly presence throughout the rest of novel, turning up again and again, whether in person or in conversation. The mystery of her past and her present will prove to have unexpected ramifications for the remainder of our cast of characters.

And yet, it does not seem at first as if the existence of this mysterious woman should have any true impact. Walter is to teach Laura Fairlie and Marion Halcombe drawing in the months before Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. The marriage was sanctioned by Laura’s father shortly before he died, and there seems nothing sinister in the arrangement, at least not at first. But time, money problems, and Laura’s unfortunate affection for Walter, will prove that all is perhaps not as it first seems with Sir Glyde or his friend Count Fosco.

No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace–they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship–they take us, body and soul, to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?

An early example of the mystery genre, The Woman in White remains a classic of the form. It is full of suspense and mystery and memorable characters, none of whom are extraneous to the plot. And although it sits well with the realm of Victorian sensationalist novels, I found it surprisingly feminist–it seems that Collins was not a fan of the institution of marriage, or at least the ways it could harm women. It is not merely that he gives us Marion, a strong, intelligent woman, but the undercurrent of criticism of the limitations which Laura faced as a married woman, unable to control her destiny. And although Laura may at first appear to be the prototypical Victorian lady, she has her own sort of inner strength as well, disturbed though it may be by her husband’s harsh treatment.

Suspenseful and full of great characters–Count Fosco is a fascinating study–it is no wonder that The Woman in White endures. I imagine I could read it again and get something yet different out of it. Now I’ve only to wonder why it took me so long to read it in the first place?

Christmas Reads 2018

With the New Year fast approaching, Christmas season is nearly past as well. I didn’t expect this year that I would complete any seasonal reading (too many in-progress  books already), but then my mom told me about a P.D. James short story collection, and I found that some Christmas-set reading was only my to-do list. One thing leads to another, and soon an Agatha Christie was on hold at the library as well

I’m not sure that one should really call any of James’s or Christie’s stories “seasonal” – peace, love, goodwill to all men with a side of murder just doesn’t seem very Christmas-spirit. But on the other hand, both Christie and James knew that the holidays can bring with them stress and strife, as the obligations of the season often bring together estranged family members who otherwise might conveniently forget each other’s existence. Perhaps one might say the Christmas season is actually ripe for murder?

Cover: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
P.D. James
2016, England (collection of previously published stories)

“The Mistletoe Murder”

Set during World War II, a young war widow is invited to her grandmother’s estate for the Christmas Holidays, along with a couple other  relations. But the seemingly peaceful gathering is shattered when a distant cousin is found bludgeoned to death and our young heroine feels the need to solve his murder. This felt to me rather of the Golden Age of detective fiction, though perhaps more graphic or at least more serious. In fact, it made me nostalgic for Christie (thus my second seasonal read). I was not surprised by the “who” though I was so caught up in the narrative that I’d forgotten my suspicions until all was revealed. It was my favorite of the short collection.

“A Very Commonplace Murder”

A first person narrative, told by the witness to a crime, who at each phase of the investigation confirms to himself his reasons why he shouldn’t come forward…yet. The title is both apt–and not quite. I found this little tale tawdry and out of step with the others.

“The Boxdale Inheritance”

The first Adam Dalgliesh story I’ve read. (Really, I should read some full-length PD James!) Interestingly, the actual mystery is from the past, over 60 years, as Dalgliesh is asked by a friend to investigate his uncle’s murder; Dalgliesh’s friend doesn’t fell comfortable accepting an inheritance form  his late aunt if she were really the guilty party.  Although a short story, it plays with both murder and ethical concepts.

“The Twelve Clues of Christmas”

Much like the first story, this tale seemed also to have something of Christie about it – which Dalgliesh himself notes: a country house full of family only arrived for the holidays, an unexpected death, and so many clues. Twelve, to be exact. While the mystery is no match for Dalgliesh, the story and setting bring a comfortable whiff of Golden Age detective nostalgia with them (and perhaps the question – do the British really have so many family homes in which to set murders?!).

Overall, I found the stories an enjoyable afternoon diversion, but left me wanting more…

Cover: Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot’s Chrismtas
Agatha Christie
1938, England

My immediate solution to the need for more Christmas-timed murder and mayhem was to turn to the queen of the Golden Age. A quick search turned up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (also known as Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder). It is yet another tale of long estranged family gathering at home for Christmas, summoned by the patriarch, Simeon Lee, ostensibly to reconcile for one last family Christmas. However, Simeon is an unrepentant scoundrel, more interested in setting his sons and daughters-in-law at each other’s throats than in familial bonding. Throw in a Spanish granddaughter, a son of Simeon’s former partner from his South African diamond mining days, and a sneaky valet and it is a combustible mix, with nothing good bound to happen. Fortunately, Hercule Poirot happens to be staying nearby for the holidays, so justice is bound to be served.

The mystery is solid, and the clues and personalities laid carefully, so that while I often saw the significance of Poirot’s line of investigation, I didn’t actually work out the “who” in advance of the big reveal. Which is how I prefer my mysteries: tantalizingly close to figuring it out, but not so close that the ending is a let down. On the whole, a mostly satisfying read. On the other hand, I find myself agreeing a bit with Simeon’s granddaughter Pilar: it wasn’t quite an English Christmas. Perhaps “Hercule Poirot’s Boxing Day” would have been better?

Completed: The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes

Cover: The Case Book of Sherlock HolmesThe Case Book of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Scotland, 1927

Earlier this year, several years after beginning my journey through the complete Sherlock Holmes, I finally finished reading the last collection of stories, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. (Thank you, 2018 TBR Challenge!) Although an earlier story, “His Last Bow,” is chronologically the last Holmes story (by Doyle at least), the twelve stories in The Case Book are the last of the Holmes stories actually written by Doyle, and were all originally published in The Strand Magazine between October 1921 and April 1927.

It was my impression while reading–and a quick Internet search seems to bear this up–that these stories are not among Doyle’s best work. (Indeed, there are those who think some of the stories weren’t written by Doyle at all!*) To me it almost felt like Doyle was “phoning it in,” that his heart was no longer into the writing of Holmes stories, that he was wanting to let Holmes retire to his beekeeping in peace. [Aside…if BBC/WGBH ever resume the Sherlock series, I wonder if they might choose to eventually retire Sherlock to beekeeping–or what they might decide the 21st century equivalent is?] And as I write these notes up a few weeks after finishing the stories, I realize that I don’t really remember them. (Fortunately I have a copy on hand to flip through.) They just didn’t really strike a deep impression, not even a story with such a sensational title as “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” which of course, being a true Holmes story ended sensibly enough with a perfectly logical explanation. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” on the other hand, which begins to come back to me now, bordered on science-fiction–perhaps we see here the influence of Doyle’s own Professor Challenger stories?

Although some seemed typical Holmes stories–after a while, you begin to develop a feel for the rhythm of the tales–there was also some divergence from the pattern. One story, “The Adventure of the Mazarin Man,” is written in the third person. Holmes himself narrates “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” which gives the reader an entirely different feel that Watson’s narration. This variation is not necessarily bad, but it certainly strikes a different feel from the “typical” story.

All in all, the collection proved a brief entertainment, but unremarkable. I am sure I will revisit Holmes at some point, though I feel it more likely to be among the earlier stories and novels.

This collection was read as part of my 2018 TBR Challenge list, part of my Mysteries and Detective Fiction project list and for the 20th Century Title for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I call that multi-tasking!

* For example, the Wikipedia Article quotes Kyle Freeman from his Introduction to The Complete Sherlock Holmes as doubting the authorship of “The Mazarin Stone” and “The Three Gables.”

Completed: Murder on the Orient Express

Cover: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieMurder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie
(1934, England)

I don’t usually reread mysteries. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever reread a mystery before this. But last November, when I saw the Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express in the theater (which I rather enjoyed, although David Suchet will always be my favorite Hercule Poirot—and that mustache! I almost didn’t watch this version just because of Branagh’s mustache!), I realized that I didn’t really remember the original novel all that well and was curious how closely the film aligned to its source. (Answer: rather closely, actually. There were some nationalities of characters changed, I assume to accommodate the actors in the roles, and the film added some material, especially after the final reveal. But on the whole, faithful.)

I must not have been the only one with the idea in mind, as it took a few months before a library copy was available. (And then a couple more to write this. Sigh. Must really get better at prompt blogging.) But then I found myself very happily ensconced in Christie’s world. Although I already knew the “who” of this “who-done-it,” this proved no detriment to enjoying the story. It was a delight to watch Poirot work, to see how the pieces fit together, to watch the lies spun—knowing they were lies, and why—, to simply sit a spectator in this particular setting so foreign from myself. For as dark as murder mysteries can be—even the “cozy” mysteries, when one thinks about it, are stories of the dark side of human nature—there is something about the world of Christie, whether visited via Poirot or Miss Marple, that I find akin to my favorite comfort food. I think it is in part a visit to an era past (here, I may be accused of romanticizing, perhaps) and rules and manners that are so far removed from those of today—or at least, from my experience—that is is a sort of time-travel, as well as a mystery. And there is also, of course, the reassurance that the criminal party will get their just due in the end. So unlike the messiness of reality, where there is so often little assurance that justice will be served. It has been many years since I really spent much time with the “golden era of detective fiction,” but really, between this one and Crooked House, I find myself thinking that it’s past time to continue my re-acquaintance with Christie and to finally meet some of her contemporaries. After all, it’s not like I don’t have a list to start from

Completed: Crooked House by Agatha Christie

This is the front cover art for the book Crooked House written by Agatha Christie (First Edition)Crooked House
Agatha Christie
(England, 1949)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read an Agatha Christie. High school, in fact. But when I chanced upon a trailer for Crooked House, I couldn’t help but be intrigued—it referred to Crooked House as Christie’s most “twisted tale.” Having now read it, I’m more inclined to continue to think And Then There Were None as the more “twisted” of her novels. However, the mystery itself does indeed prove that the titular setting of much of the action is well named, and not merely for its physical appearance.

The victim is family patriarch, Aristide Leonides, and the cast of suspects his household: largely family, both by blood and marriage, but also including a former nanny and a tutor. Over the course of the novel, it appears at any given time that all occupants may have quite a suitable motive to wish Aristide dead—but which is the real killer?

This is the question that narrator Charles Hayward sincerely wishes to know the answer to, for Aristides’ granddaughter Sophia will not consent to marry Charles unless the mystery is solved, so concerned is she by who might actually be the responsible party, and that a dark cloud might hang permanently over the family.

I confess that, although Christie laced Crooked House with plenty of clues as to the identity of the killer, I never did stop to think about it long enough—or perhaps pay close enough attention!—to discern it for myself. But that did not prevent my thorough enjoyment of the fast-paced mystery, or my appreciation for the clever way in which Christie lays it all out both for Charles and for us while also hiding just enough that we can choose to stay surprised if we wish.

Read as a classic crime story for Back to the Classics.

Completed: Ghostwalk

Cover: Ghostwalk by Rebecca StottGhostwalk
Rebecca Stott
U.K., 2007

Over the last two years, as I have tried to tease out the truths from the untruths in that series of evenst that seeped out through Elizabeth’s death, like lava moving upwards and outwards through salt water from a tear in the seabed, I have had to be you several times, Cameron Brown, in order to claw myself towards some kind of coherence. Sometimes it was–is–easy to imagine the world through your eyes, terribly possible to imagine walking through the garden that afternoon in those moments before you found your mother’s body in the river. After all, for a long time, all that time we were lovers, it was difficult to tell where your skin ended and mine began. That was part of the trouble for Lydia Brooke and Cameron Brown. Lack of distance became–imperceptibly–a violent entanglement.

So this is for you, Cameron, and yes, it is also for me, Lydia Brooke, because perhaps, in putting all these pieces together properly, I will be able to step out from your skin and back into mine.

(Opening, Chapter 1)

Some years back I went though a brief phase where I would randomly decide to pop in the bookstore and buy a book or two, not because I wanted a specific book, but because I wanted to buy a book, any book. It didn’t necessarily result in the best of purchases, but fortunately for my pocketbook, that store went out of business and I haven’t been impressed by the replacement.

One of the books that was a result of this shopping spree was Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott. I can’t say that I’d ever heard of it outside of the bookstore shelves, but the cover art was intriguing, as was the description—a mysteriously drowned Cambridge historian with an unfinished manuscript about Isaac Newtown, another, younger writer (Lydia Brooke) asked to finish the book, and promises of mystery, danger, conspiracy, and history.

Alas, outside of the history—far and away the most enjoyable part of the book for me—the promises failed to deliver. As I was reading, determined to actually finish (I have a fault of not being able to deliberately abandon books unless the library demands a return), I turned it over to the back and reread the blurbs:

…hypnotic brew of speculations, intrigue, and murder…” (Washington Post Book World)

You won’t have time to reflect on Stott’s metaphysics, at least not on the first read—you’ll be too eager to solve the murders.” (Los Angeles Times)

Had we read the same book?

It seems to me that Ghostwalk is trying to be too many things, or at least the “literary” version of too many things—mystery, supernatural, thriller—and not quite hitting the mark. It does belong—and I think this is perhaps one of the reasons for so much critical praise from the professionals—to that class of books commonly called “literary fiction,” and succeeds most strongly when dealing with the relationships between characters and in the history it blends into the narrative. But I never felt that the mysterious deaths had any real heft to them; they seemed more background rather than stakes-raising propositions. The only mystery that seemed to matter revolved around what was supposed to be in the missing final chapter of the manuscript, and the supernatural pathways that Lydia began to follow seemed quaint rather than serious—this despite the narrative’s assertion that one of these ghosts was really quite dangerous; the prose put too much distance between the reader and the danger. Overall, I found it an unsatisfying read. It never made me work hard, but it wasn’t light enough to be pure entertainment, and somehow even the resolution seemed rather run-of-the-mill. Alas, despite a promising premise, in the end, it just didn’t quite work for me.

Playing Catch-up – A Trio of Mini-Thoughts

I spent a good chunk of last weekend catching up on the writing about the books I’ve read the last few months. Hopefully I will get all the posts up this month (I don’t have them in WordPress format yet, just a Word document), but thought I’d start with some quick notes on books I either don’t remember well enough to write more about or didn’t have much to say about.

Cover: Eragon by Christorpher PaoliniEragon
Christopher Paolini
U.S., 2003

I read this, starting in 2015, on a sort of impulse. I’d thought of picking it up for a while, as dragon stories interest me. Alas, I’m not sure I enjoyed it enough to read the series. Early on, the entire story felt very familiar – it wasn’t until I was rewatching the original Star Wars movies before I saw The Force Awakens that I realized that there are many plot similarities with A New Hope. So not only was it very familiar, but very predictable. I have a guess for how the series ends… A series I would have enjoyed more in middle school than as an adult.

Cover: White Nights by Ann CleevesWhite Nights
Ann Cleeves
U.K., 2008

The second in the Shetland Series by Ann Cleeves, I read the first back in October of 2014. Eventually I will read the entire series, for I love the world that Cleeves creates. As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the conventions of mysteries–a small cast of characters from which the murderer must come–works so well in the small Shetland villages that populate her novels; there really is only a limited number of people from whom to pick. (Assuming, of course, no outsiders sneaked in and out–which is always possible when the victim is from out-of-town.) If only big city sleuthing were so easy! I love too the way she moves her narrative between the different characters, allowing us into multiple thoughts and motivations and to know more than just the detective well. We the reader know more than any one character, but still not enough to solve the mystery just yet. At the end I was a bit torn–on the one hand, the solution seemed rather abrupt, but on the other, looking back there were still so many clues paving the way. I just wasn’t as clever as Jimmy Perez, the local detective on the case, who managed to piece all these little clues together.

 

Cover: The Martian by Andy WeirThe Martian
Andy Weir
2011 & 2014, US

On page 36 I gasped. 64% hydrogen?! And then I remembered. This is fiction.

Such was the power of the opening chapters of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I found these early chapters, told in the form of a daily log kept by stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, so realistic*, and so engaging–math, science and all–that it was at times somewhat of a stretch to remember that this has all been made up. And unlike other thrillers where the twists and turns seem just a plot device to ramp up the tension, here each obstacle to Watney’s survival, on such a remote and unforgiving place as an empty Mars, seemed a natural outgrowth from the harsh conditions. In a way, this isn’t a science-fiction story; it is a pioneer story, a lone traveler in a foreign landscape seemingly conspiring to kill him.

I can see it now: me holding a map, scratching my head, trying to figure out how I ended up on Venus.

I was initially disappointed by a sudden switch in the narrative device, but quickly realized it only served to ratchet up the tension even more. And yet, despite all of the tension and suspense–was it even remotely possible for Watney to make it?–the humor. So much humor! It is not often that I literally laugh out loud while reading, but this novel, despite the dire picture it painted provided ample opportunity. Watney was truly the right character to strand on Mars.

Humor, science, math, suspense: quite possibly my favorite read from 2015.

*I assume. I don’t know enough of the science to say, but it seems sound.