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Now I know where to turn when I want perfectly depressing cold-weather murders: 1960s Sweden of the Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s fame. Don’t we love them all? (uh, just kidding)
But I know my limits. After Roseanna and The Man who went up in smoke, I decided to skip the next mystery in the Beck series because it involved a child murder, and Beck’s Sweden being depressing enough, I didn’t want to add insult to injury.
The Laughing Policeman is no laughing matter (except when you take a second look and start to look for dark humor, which you’ll find aplenty). It starts with a random mass killing in a public bus in Stockholm. Among the ten victims, a young colleague of Beck is found, carrying his service weapon despite not being on duty. When his girlfriend tells the police that he was working days and nights on a case, Beck and his colleagues have no idea which one. And they aren’t even sure that the murder has anything to do with their colleague’s presence on the bus rather than with any of the other victims’ dark secret.
I don’t think the whole plot goes by with any sunny day. It’s always raining and policemen are miserable with colds and sore throats, not to mention damp feet whenever they visit witnesses and suspects. You sure can’t accuse Sjöwall and Wahlöö to glorify the police, nor to work for the Tourist bureau. Detectives’ work is painstaking and ends up in many dead-ends.
Make no mistake: it may sound suspiciously boring, but it isn’t. There’s a lot of humor and warmth in the detectives team’s description of quirks and twists. Sjöwall and Wahlöö also have a terrific eye for painting society as a whole, with just as many words as necessary. Vietnam demonstrations open the book and there’s no doubt that the writers aren’t quite happy with the conservative government of the time.
I was so happy to start the year off with such a great book, but then I’m finding it so difficult to sum it up and have a clear opinion about it, other than: “wow, it’s… erh… rich!”. I’m sure you want to know more than that.
I stumbled upon this book on the Psychology shelf of a library late last year while looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, and right away I was sucked into it. And yet, it’s not an easy book by any counts. It’s a history cum psychology cum theology cum… thriller. Yes, it is possible!
Let’s present it this way: in the early 17C, a young and dashing Catholic priest, Father Urbain Grandier, arrives in the boring small town of Loudun. He’s arrogant and above all, good-looking, far more interested in his own career advancement and pleasures than in religion or even moral principles. By seducing all the available women (under the pretext of confession), he soon makes himself the enemy of about every local bourgeois. (on a simple matter of etiquette he also manages to spite the future Cardinal Richelieu, which isn’t clever). Their schemes to get rid of him all fail until they get in touch with the Mother Superior of the local Ursuline convent.
Having been neglected by Grandier, Mother Jeanne des Anges, ambitious and clever, but above all an attention-seeker, accuses the priest to have made a pact with Satan to corrupt the sisters. The whole convent turn into mass hysteria and even several exorcists can’t get rid of the devils’ possession. Grandier is tried, the powerful Cardinal Richelieu purposefully ignores his pleas because of his old grudge and the priest is condemned to be burnt alive. Not even Grandier’s death at the stake in 1634 stops the possession, fueled in part by the success of the “show” (exorcism sessions were public and attracted huge crowds, just like public executions) and by the obsession of another keen clergyman, Father Jean-Joseph Surin, and it takes many years for things to calm down.
Bear in mind that these all are historical facts, not over-the-top fiction!
There’s very little doubts from the beginning that it wasn’t a real possession (as many people of the 17C were doubtful too), but Huxley uses this particular case to paint a full picture of the time. His book touches history when he describes the links between clergy and power. It touches law and theology in relation to Grandier’s trials. He touches also psychology and psychiatry when he gets to the bottom of the possession and obsession and why people were so keen to believe it.
French history class never allowed me to “experience” 17C France under the reign of Louis 13th in such vivid details (The 3 Musketeers helped, but they were highly fictional!): it seems to have been an era of transition, brought forth in part by Reform, between a totally amoral clergy interested in wealth and honor, and a more spiritual one, interested in a more ascetic view of religion interested in mystique and religious ecstasy. The line was thin for Sister Jeanne des Anges between being possessed by a devil and being a visionary saint like Teresa of Avila, but the common ground was a psycho-sexual neurosis that these women resorted to because they had no other way to express themselves and be taken seriously by men.
This review doesn’t do entirely justice to the book because it’s so rich, but it’s also quite readable. Huxley’s name was only familiar to me for his popular Brave New World and I was not aware of his other writings. It was a great discovery!
For the last afternoon of the year, why not talk shortly of the last books I haven’t reviewed, so that tomorrow will start with a blank slate?
- P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley
It seemed like a good idea. Well, indeed, who hasn’t thought of mixing two of your favorites? My mother always says that as a little girl she tried cheese and chocolate together, hoping that the taste would be wonderful. So you can guess what comes of P.D. James-meets-Jane Austen? Disappointment. It could have been worse. It wasn’t bad, but it was bland on both counts: mystery and Austen world. Mind you, I haven’t tried Jane Austen-meets-Zombies, but I suspect I should steer clear of that too.
- Andrea Camilleri, La Rizzagliata (2009, Fr. 2012)
Discovery for 2012: I love, love, love Italian mysteries and noir. This short one, focusing on the intricate links between police, justice, politics and journalists in Sicilia, was brilliant. Despite the large cast of characters (enough for a list to be provided at the beginning, something that never fails to scare me), the plot was tight and light enough for me to read in 2 days over Christmas.
- Angelica Garnett, Deceived with Kindness
The jury’s still out on this one. A memoir by the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (except she believed for 17 years that her father was Clive Bell), this short book gave a refreshingly new look on the Bloomsbury milieu. Over here it sometimes feels as if Virginia and Vanessa have become icons or saints, so nothing bad can be said about them. But Vanessa’s daughter was a mess, a consequence of not knowing who she was and what she was supposed to do. She speaks of emotional distance and selfishness, but the trouble is that she sounds a bit self-indulgent too. Worth reading anyhow.
- Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer (2005)
My second audiobook (thankful for all the business trip and train hours over Christmas!), what a blast! I love Connelly’s mysteries, but only ever knew Harry Bosch until now. Now, I’m ready to embrace the defense side with the Michael Haller series in 2013. I was totally unaware that a movie had been made out of the book (I listened in French, and the translated title sounds like a chess opening, not a legal mystery), so I was shocked yesterday: what, Matthew McConaughey as Haller?? I would have chosen anyone at least 15 years older.
That’s it for 2012 books! See you next year and best wishes to everyone!
I stumbled upon the name of Phyllis Theroux more than once while browsing parenting blogs and her reputation was that of a compassionate and wise voice. Her name always comes up when it comes to journalling, so I decided to give it a try, but only some of her earlier essays were available for trade on Bookmooch.
I’m glad I did read it, but it’s a 1987 book, and if a mother was to go public with this kind of essays today, it would probably be a blog, not a book.
Each chapter chronicles a key moment of children growing up, but most of them are about tweens and teens. I did like Theroux’ voice, but the 1980s American life with numerous kids in a small town is way too far from mine now to really resonate with me. I guess her diary would have been a better approach. What I most enjoyed was her luminous, positive and calm approach to the mayhem of family life. And she’s not one to preach or make you feel guilty.
In some ways, I’d have loved to read a blog by Theroux, but she doesn’t seem to have one. In her book she sounds like a person very aware of privacy and boundaries, even while sharing some of her deepest emotions as a mother. Does she find that we’re disclosing too much? Yet she published an edited version of her diary. So I don’t quite know what to think. Isn’t that funny how blogs have contributed to a new way of sharing emotions?
A few weeks ago I went for a business trip and I was looking for the perfect book that filled these criteria:
- Good quality (you don’t want to take one book and discover you took the wrong one)
- Short enough to last 2 evenings
- Entertaining and riveting, yet not too complex
It seems that Simenon Maigret mysteries are matching it all. It’s been a long time since I have read any of them, but I regularly watch the European TV adaptation played by Bruno Cremer. Like a lot of French people, in my mind, Cremer is Maigret. So I’ve the idea of someone rather mellow, with a round face and a full figure, sometimes prone to fits of anger but mostly quiet and observant. He’s seen it all and nothing surprises him. He patiently waits for the suspects to unwittingly reveal their secrets and then picks up the pieces to execute justice.
But in this early novel (written in the 1930s), Maigret is more of a dry and nervous type than in the TV show (or maybe later in the series?). He’s often exasperated by the hypocrisy of petty bourgeois family intruigue and prejudices and he makes no secret of it. The most friendly character is the victim’s mistress, a cheap call girl from Pigalle. But all other characters are unpleasant and sly.
The murder takes place in Place des Vosges, in one of those appartment buildings where many social classes share a building and where the courtyard architecture enables some snooping around when windows are lit up at night (that’s why the original title is Ombre Chinoise, Shadow silhouette).
This short book inspired me to read some more Maigret next year, and to learn more about the enigmatic Commissaire. Now, who is your Maigret?
Oh the disappointment! I had such high expectations with this one, but it was such a hard read that I ended up skipping lots of pages to get me to the end. The book defeated me, in a way.
I expected a lot from Ye Zhaoyan, a respected name in contemporary Chinese literature. I’d read him before and remember liking it. Then the novel came with high praises as it was very popular in China. The title itself is ambitious, a contradiction by nature: adjoining the reference to the most horrific massacre of the Japanese army in China with the promise of a love story shows that the writer definitely isn’t afraid of challenges.
Eventually it wasn’t a harrowing reading like the Nanjing reference led me to fear, but just one that requires probably too much patience and tenacity than I could offer at this time of year. Ye Zhaoyan plays with the reader like a cat with a mouse, because everyone reading the book awaits the tragedy, but he will do everything but show it. In fact, the book’s last page just ends at the start of the massacre. Ye’s style is as convoluted as classic Chinese novels with many back-and-forth anecdotes and a myriad of characters. His angle of attack (if I may say so) is to show how blind Nanjing people were of the real risks of the war.
The novel construction is supposed to make the story more poignant, and it works to an extent. But the love story itself is the problem, because the characters are difficult to relate to. Using a literary tradition of Lao She or others, Ye chose to have a ridicule oddball as a antihero, and it’s really difficult to see why any woman, even one as ill-married as his heroin Yuyuan, would fall for him. The whole love plot is intersected with war, and love itself is compared to a military conquest. It makes sense to use this kind of character to indirectly criticize the vain and self-centered society of luxury and decadence of the nationalist capital Nanjing, but then the mix of genres doesn’t make it easy for the reader.
Make no mistake, I appreciated this book a lot, especially as a history and sociology book (showing painstaking research) of an era that was too easily dismissed by the Communists later on. But for the sake of novel-reading, on this subject I’d rather recommend Eileen Chang. Perhaps I’ll try Nankin 1937 again in a few years, or even The Besieged Fortress, a pre-Communist classics that has always intimidated, and which obviously influenced this novel.
I read somewhere (a virtual hug to anyone who knows) that when faced with writer’s block, you could write a dialogue with yourself to untie the knot. Why not give it a try?
- Smithereens, why don’t you at last sit down and review Helene Berr’s diary? It’s been like 6 months since you’ve finished it.
- Come on, you’re exaggerating. Mmh, perhaps not so much. I remember reading it during my commute wearing my large winter scarf. I could not stop reading, even though it was so sad.
- So sad? Do you fear that readers will be put off?
- I’m afraid that people, upon learning that Helene Berr was a young Jewish French woman who died in Nazi camps in 1945, will compare her to Anne Frank and say that they’ve had enough of Holocaust books, may they be first-person accounts.
- Is it about the camps? Like Primo Levi? Unbearably gruesome?
- Not at all, the diary starts in 1941, when she was still a brilliant student in English (she was soon banned from the university) and the last entry is in 1944, three weeks before her arrest.
- So why can’t you just write what you thought about this book?
- If it’s only to recommend the book and say that it’s a great piece of literature as well as a piece of history, my post will be two sentences long. Then if I need to explain everything about Helene Berr’s family background, how come she managed to survived in Nazi-occupied Paris for that long during round-ups and growing persecutions, and how her diary reached public knowledge and a large success in 2008, it will be way too long and readers will have the feeling that they know too much about the book already. I don’t want to write a wikipedia article about her, there’s already one.
- So, what did you make of it?
- It was weird, because her voice is so extraordinary that it makes her instantly present and alive on the page. She was a gifted writer, and above all, totally honest and lucid. She records her moments of joy (amidst the tragedy, she has parties in the countryside and she eats cakes or ice creams -her family belonged to the well-to-do bourgeoisie), her frivolous concerns about boyfriends, but also the horrors she witnesses as her family, member of a Jewish organization, try to save and hide persecuted children whose parents have been already sent to death camps. She knows a lot more than I thought people knew at the time, and French (goy) people around her are way more blind about the plight of the Jewish persecutions than I thought. I knew it abstractly, but it’s another matter to be shown how people keep to themselves and avert their eyes while their neighbors, friends, colleagues or acquaintances are humiliated and then purely disappear. At one time, a fellow student commiserates with her for being unable to go out dancing at nights with her yellow star. What a selfish, careless, naive ignorance! I think I would have slapped him– it seems that she just stopped the conversation at that point.
- Is she resentful, angry, revolted?
- She’s such a nice person, her moments of anger are so few and far in between that you might think she’s an angel. In some ways she must have been, deciding to stay in Paris and help others, when she could have gone to Spain or into hiding.
- Oh, isn’t she a bit irritating then?
- Never, because of her lucidity. There’s hope and despair blended together. She contemplates the possibility of being arrested, and perhaps dying, but she still choses to act with selflessness.
- You used the word “weird”, I didn’t expect it, why?
- I read another diary from the same period during winter, that of an anonymous woman in Berlin. Reading both books in parallel, both memorable in their own way, was quite an experience. Helene’s voice was so sensitive and humane, while that of the German woman, a survivor of bombs and rape and hunger in Berlin, was so tough and cold and distanced. Sadly, I thought that the German Anonyma was probably better equipped to survive the terrible events of war than Helene Berr. Never was the gap between German and French of that time so glaring under my eyes.
A short note of context: I’m sitting in the living room typing this post with some Purcell music in the background, but it’s one of those Wednesdays I would have been perfectly happy slouching in front of the telly with a glass of port in hand (come to think of it, I’ll fetch the drink– now that’s better!). But I recently heard of Clayton Christensen’ theories to measure life and his conclusion that 100% is easier than 98%. I thought it clever, until a bit of a cold and a busy workday all called for a 2% exception. Tough! (but see: I’m still typing)
So, Sarah Caudwell. Let’s say that in 4 words: I am a fan.
When it comes to the famous “suspension of disbelief”, some writers require too much from the reader and we readers end up resenting it and rejecting the book. But for some other writers, we’re happy to throw any critical thinking by the window and forget about it for as many pages as the writer will provide.
Sarah Caudwell is firmly in the second group. Nothing in the plot is quite believable, from the complex family ties that make a beautiful young woman the heiress of a great fortune, to the inexplicable yet deadly accident of her cousin falling from a roof terrace. But the ironic thing is that I’m dead certain that the fine lines of inheritance law and entailed estate she explains are all legally correct!
Her characters are so oddball-funny with their typically British deadpan humor that I’d be happy to read their adventures anywhere, anytime. After Italy and its beautiful Adonis-like young men, this time we get Greek islands and a plot mimicking the mythological family feuds. Can you see how odd it was to read this while in a remote village of Wales last month! I giggled all the way (trying my best to be silent at nap-time), but the moment I couldn’t stop myself was when Selena and Julia get involved in an orgy where due to some drug Selena loses all restraint and… reads Jane Austen in the middle of a naked lunch party while people around her try to interest her into other activities, to no avail.
Alas, as I’m reaching this fourth mystery of hers (the second in order), I’m sadly aware that I’ve read every possible Sarah Caudwell mystery ever. Perhaps I should try my hand at fan-fiction and launch a new series of adventures!
Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries are a surefire staple for historical entertainment. It’s light fare, but the research and setting make it all very worthwhile. I had tried several Thomas and Charlotte Pitt’s books, but this is the first time I tried a mystery with Inspector William Monk.
The twist of the story is that the narrator, William Monk, wakes up on page 1 in a hospital, with no memory at all of who he is and how he came there. The only information he gathers is that he is a policeman. For fear of being left without a job by his calculating and supercilious superior , he has to hide his condition and go back early to his investigations, leading to a parallel plot between the murder of a young gentleman back from the Crimean war and a research of who Monk is and how he got injured.
I don’t quite know how believable this amnesia is, but I found it a quite effective and rather innovative way to introduce us to a new character who isn’t quite friendly and straightforward. As Monk gets back to his apartment early in the book (on the basis of a note in his pocket), he looks for clues about his past life and character from his belongings discovers himself as an ambitious, driven but uncaring man. I liked that part very much.
On the whole, as in most Anne Perry’s mysteries, the fun lies more in the plot than in the secondary characters who are a bit two-dimensional. But being the first book in a series, there’s a lot of ground information handed out to us about the duo of recurring characters: Monk of course and a young woman, Hester Latterly, who has joined Nightingale’s nursing teams in the Crimean war. Both characters are difficult and conflicted, which bear promises for future adventures (although it is a bit too obvious that these two will eventually fall for each other).
As in the Pitt series, research is impeccable and veers towards Dickens world. It certainly gives a darker feeling, but sometimes the amount of awareness for Victorian inequalities and injustice by the main characters borders on anachronism. I’ll return to the series though!
Uncharacteristically, I selected this book because of the prize it received. I was looking for a mystery set in Lisbon and as Robert Wilson’s name came up with the CWA Gold Dagger seal of approval, it was enough to convince me.
As many thrillers now do, the book is written with two parallel plot lines running alternatively in chapters, one in the past (here WWII Europe), one in present-day Lisbon, where the murder of a promiscuous young teenager is investigated. Every reader will be left panting in between suspenseful chapters and guessing where the past and the present lines will intersect. That’s a perfectly oiled little machinery, and I will say no more about the plot itself for fear of giving anything away.
Reading this book was a perfect way to add a historical backdrop to our visit to Portugal. We indeed saw the sunny side of tourist places, churches and palaces, while the book painted the dark periods of Portugal’s history, especially when during the war it played a dubious role as a neutral power. The government played Allies and Nazis for its own benefits depending on circumstances, hesitating between its historical relations to Britain and its affinity with right-wing dictatorships, while it remained open for everyone, especially Jewish refugees attempting to flee European persecutions. Lisbon and the Portuguese coast were a hotbed of spies during these days… a perfect place for thriller plots!
The book’s historical setting only starts during WW2, it then goes on to explain the role of secret police to repress and terrorize political opponents during the 40 years of Salazar’s dictatorship. It’s interesting to note that at no point during our tour of Lisbon did we get any inkling about these dark decades – as if all of this was still very much taboo.
The only downside to this book is the degree of violence and lurid sex. It really takes a strong stomach to digest it, and as the resolution approached I felt that it was all too much. Perhaps I’m the one who’s softening up, but I suspect that the problem doesn’t lie only with me. So I add a cautionary note to my recommendation: to read for the perfect plotting and historical details, but don’t hesitate to skip paragraphs if it’s too disturbing!