Thursday, October 29, 2015

Long Upon the Land, by Margaret Maron

When Margaret Maron announced the publication of this, the 20th in her series of "Deborah Knott novels," she also announced that it would be the last. She said she felt that all the Knott stories have been told. Deborah Knott, the main character of the series, is a district court judge living in North Carolina, in the fictional Colleton County. She grew up on a farm, the youngest of twelve children, the only daughter. Her father Kezzie Knott was once the best-known moonshiner in the county, if not the state. An elderly man of almost 90 years, he now farms the family land, as do many of Deborah's brothers and their families. She is married to Dwight Bryant, a deputy sheriff, whose cases sometimes overlap with those she hears on the bench.

In this book, Margaret Maron has two stories to tell. The first involves a dying man, whom Kezzie Knott finds lying on a back road through their property. It takes the police a while to identify him as Vick Earp, a local man with a history of domestic violence. He had a grudge against the Knotts, because he blamed them for the loss of his family's property. Kezzie Knott bought it from his shiftless father years ago, but Earp believes it was stolen away from him. He also had some run-ins with Deborah's brothers over the years. So the local paper, looking to stir up scandal, all but accuses Kezzie Knott of murder, and Dwight of covering it up to protect his father-in-law.

Deborah suspects that her father and her brother Haywood know more than they're saying. She keeps an eye on the investigation, but she is also following a mystery of her own. Her brother Will gives her an early birthday present: their mother's brass Zippo lighter. Sue Knott died many years ago, when Deborah was 18. She was their father's second wife. Against her mother's wishes, she married someone far out of her social class: a high-school drop-out, a convicted felon and a moonshiner, a widower left with eight sons. The marriage was a happy one, and so was their family life. Now Deborah wonders about the initials engraved on the lighter, "W.R.M." and the inscription on the inside, signed "Leslie." She knows that her mother met Walter McIntyre during the war, while she was volunteering at the U.S.O. And Sue told her daughter that though she wasn't in love with him, Mac "changed her life." It's too late to ask her mother, but Deborah hopes to discover more about Mac and Leslie, and about her parents. As she asks questions, the narrative shifts to flashbacks where we meet Sue and Mac, and then Kezzie.

As always, reading this book felt like meeting old friends again. I feel like I could almost drive through Colleton County without a map. I'd stop at the BBQ house one of the cousins owns, where the family gathers to eat, and then to play and sing together. The two mysteries in this story are both interesting ones. I knew Mr. Kezzie hadn't killed Vick Earp, but there were several other suspects with various motives. I did spot one clue before the detectives, which made me feel smart for a few pages, but as usual I was on the wrong track in the end. I enjoyed meeting the younger Kezzie Knott, and Sue, who has been a large presence in the books through her children's memories. And the final chapter is an interesting one. The younger generation of Knotts has been looking to diversify the family farms, once based on tobacco. Here they have hit on what I think is a brilliant idea, and I'd love to know how it works out.

I did have two quibbles with Kezzie and Sue's story, however, at least as told here. First, it doesn't seem to fit the framework of the series. Kezzie Knott is nearly 90 in this book, which is clearly set in the present day (up to the minute, based on some of Deborah's political comments).  If he was born in 1925, he simply cannot be a widower with eight sons in 1945, when we first meet him - even that includes a set of twins. He married his first wife Annie Ruth as a young man, but he wasn't 12-13 years old. I think Margaret Maron wanted to use World War II for Mac's story, so she shoehorned Kezzie and Sue's story into it.

Edited to add: I withdraw this quibble, and I apologize to Ms. Maron for suggesting that she is guilty of sloppy plotting. In fact, just the opposite: I've been re-reading some of the earlier books in this series, and it's clear how very carefully she plotted out the family story. In the second book, Southern Discomfort (published in 1993), Deborah and her father visit the family graveyard where Annie Ruth is buried. Deborah takes notice of her grave marker, which states that she died in 1944. In the third book, Shooting at Loons (published in 1994), Deborah meets an elderly man who knew her mother Sue and Aunt Zell where they were working in the USO. Deborah remembers the man in this last book, and he is one of the people she tries to track down for more information. What I did not take into account was that the first book in this series (Bootlegger's Daughter) was published in 1992. Though these books were published over a 23-year span, only a few years have passed in the characters' world. I've read other authors' comments on this challenge, in writing a long series. Sue Grafton, for example, chose to keep Kinsey Milhone in the world of the 1980s, though the books span 30-plus years. Margaret Maron took a different approach, in moving her characters forward in time, but not tying their lives to the real timeline outside of the books, if that makes sense. As I mentioned above, it is clearly the 2010s in this last book, but Deborah and her family are only a few years older than in Bootlegger's Daughter. I also noted that in Southern Discomfort, no one even has a cell phone, and running up to a convenience store to use their pay phone is taken for granted, while in the later books they have all the latest technology.

I think she rushed Kezzie and Sue's story at the end, in a way that felt out of character (even though I only met Sue in this book).  *I stand by this quibble though!

But this just a quibble. I really did enjoy this return to the Knott family. Even if Margaret Maron feels now that all of their stories have been told, I hope that like Ursula Le Guin with the Earthsea books, she will discover that there are still some after all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Benevent Treasure, by Patricia Wentworth

I have been working on a theory that the earlier books in the Miss Silver series are better than the later, or maybe I just like them more. But I really disliked the third book, Lonesome Road, from 1939. It features Rachel Treherne, who inherited her father's fortune, to the disappointment of her relatives - starting with her sister Mabel. She consults Miss Silver, because she has come to the reluctant conclusion that someone is trying to kill her. Of course Rachel doesn't want to believe that someone in her family could really want to kill her, and she resists Miss Silver's advice. In every other book in this series that I've read, people who ignore Miss Silver's advice end up dead. Not content with ignoring sensible advice, Rachel announces one day to these relatives that she will be walking along a cliff-side path that night. When she sets off on the walk, she discovers that the battery in her torch is dying, but she knows the path so well that she has no qualms about proceeding. She is much more surprised than I was when someone looms out of the dark and pushes her over the cliff. Luckily for her, she manages to cling to a small outcropping until she can be rescued from above with a rope.

When we first meet Candida Sayle, on the first page of The Benevent Treasure, she is clinging to a small outcropping on the face of a cliff. She manages to hang on until she can be rescued from above with a rope. She didn't fall over, though. Arriving at a small seaside hotel, she found the friends she was meeting were delayed. She decided to take a walk along the shore, after two elderly ladies she met in the reception area told her that the high tide would be at 11 PM. She was caught by the high water at 9 PM and had to make a dash for the cliff face.

When the story picks up three years later, we learn that Candida is alone in the world, having lost both her parents and the aunt who brought her up. She is surprised to receive an invitation to the home of two great-aunts on her father's side, Miss Cara and Miss Olivia Benevent. She is even more surprised to learn that she is the next heiress to the family fortune, after Miss Cara. And that fortune includes the mysterious Benevent Treasure, which their ancestor Ugo di Benevento supposedly brought with him when he fled Italy in the 1700s. No one knows exactly where the treasure is - if it really exists - but an old family legend warns Ugo's descendants "Touch not nor try/Sell not nor buy/Give not nor take/For dear life's sake."  It isn't too long before Miss Silver arrives in the small town of Retley. A distant cousin of her own lives there, but she has also been asked to investigate the disappearance of Alan Thompson, who worked as a secretary to the Misses Benevent. He vanished one day, along with jewelry and money from their home, but his step-father doesn't believe him guilty. Nor is his the only mysterious disappearance.

I thought The Benevent Treasure was great, over-the-top fun. The Benevents live in a massive old house, the kind with nooks and crannies everywhere - and rumors of secret passageways. Of course, if you're going to have a hidden family treasure, you need secret passageways. And of course there is a romance for Candida, with the type of imperious young man that so frequently turns up in these stories. (Patricia Wentworth seems to have had a soft spot for angry young men in love.) There is also a surly manservant, and a slightly hysterical female one. Both are Italian, and not quite free of stereotypes (o dio mio). This is another point of similarity with Lonesome Road, where Rachel has her maid Louisa, a hysterical and smothering woman whom I found really irritating. I think Rachel should pension her off immediately, but Louisa would probably kill herself and/or Rachel at the thought of being separated from her.

I have been trying to figure out why I enjoyed The Benevent Treasure so much, and Lonesome Road so little. I think it's mainly because the first is just plain fun - a Gothic and gruesome ending, with bodies everywhere, and buried treasure - while the second feels not just serious but rather dreary. Maybe the latter reflects the unsettled times in which it was written. I still have a good few of these to read, mostly from the 1950s, and they may prove my theory completely wrong.

Oh, and for anyone else keeping track: in this book Miss Silver knits several pairs of grey stockings for her niece Ethel Burkett's three sons, and then starts on a blue jumper for Ethel herself.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Nutmeg Tree, by Margery Sharp

This is not the first book by Margery Sharp that I've read this year, it's the third. But I was having internet and other issues when I read The Foolish Gentlewoman and Cluny Brown, so I never got around to writing about them. Let me just say that with Cluny, I have serious doubts about the ending, even though the author assures us it is a happy one. And I am still trying to figure what the cover of the Perennial Library edition I read has to do with the story:

(yes, a diving helmet.)

It certainly gave me some odd - and wrong - expectations of the story I was about to read.

Of the three, this 1937 novel is my favorite. The first page introduces us to "Julia, by marriage Mrs. Packett, by courtesy Mrs. Macdermot, [who] lay in her bath singing the Marseillaise." She has locked herself in the bathroom with some of her household goods, while outside the door "the men from the Bayswater Hire Furniture Company" are removing the rest. She has hardly a penny to her name, and she needs at least £15. She has just received a letter from her daughter, asking her to come to France, where Susan is staying with her paternal grandmother. "The point is," Susan writes, "[here the small neat writing grew suddenly larger] that I want to get married and Grandmother objects. I know there are all sorts of legal complications, but you are my mother, and you ought to be consulted." Susan is the result of a brief liaison and hasty marriage in the Great War. Julia, a chorus girl, was happy to leave her child with her husband's parents after he was killed in action. A good-time girl, she found life in the country stifling. She hasn't seen her daughter in sixteen years, but she can't ignore Susan's plea for help.

On the boat-train to Paris, Julia falls in with a family of acrobats, the Flying Genocchios, and she ends up filling in for their ailing mother in the first night's show. That rang a bell with me. I realized that I had seen a version of this story in the 1948 film, "Julia Misbehaves," with Greer Garson playing Julia and Elizabeth Taylor Susan. There were some major changes to the story line, starting with the fact that Julia is still married to Susan's father, played by Walter Pidgeon. I lost interest in the film pretty early on, partly because I find Walter Pidgeon really irritating as an actor (and he was cast with Greer Garson so often). I somehow missed two actresses, Lucille Watson (Mrs. Packett) and Mary Boland (Ma Ghenoccio), both of whom were in "The Women" - which (completely off-topic), is one of my favorite films.

Dragging this back ON-topic, I knew nothing about this story going in, and I wasn't always sure where it was leading. I did want a happy ending for Julia. I took to her straight off, with her happy-go-lucky outlook on life, her generosity and her honesty (at least when it really matters). She gave up her child very easily, but she did have Susan's best interests in mind, as well as her own. And she tries so hard, meeting Susan and Mrs. Packett again, to be the right kind of mother, to be a lady, not to embarrass her daughter. I wanted her to succeed. I knew how I wanted her story to end, but I wasn't sure up until the last page that it was going to. I thought The Foolish Gentlewoman had rather a sad ending, for everyone except the self-satisfied Simon Brocken, and as I said I don't quite trust Cluny Brown's, but I do Julia's.

One puzzle: why does Julia have policemen embroidered on all the legs of her camiknickers? I know it must be naughty, because she has to buy new ones for the visit to France - along with a "Matron's Model hat," which in the end of course doesn't quite fit her. I've just been browsing over at Moira's Clothes in Books blog, where she has several entries on this book, including a hat that could be Julia's (but no embroidered camiknickers).

Jane from Eden Rock has mentioned hosting another Margery Sharp reading event. I am prepared for it, with Harlequin House and The Sun in Scorpio still on the TBR shelves. I wish her books were easier to find!

Monday, October 26, 2015

River Town, by Peter Hessler

The subtitle of this book is "Two Years on the Yangtze." It is an account of the years that Peter Hessler spent in China teaching for the Peace Corps. He was stationed in Fuling, a small city in the Sichuan province. I have been reading Mr. Hessler's pieces for years in The New Yorker, where he used to write the "Letter from China" feature. He often referred to his time in Fuling in the articles, which is probably why I bought this. It's a little hard to remember, though, since this has been on the TBR shelves for so long (thirteen years, to be exact).

Mr. Hessler and his colleague Adam Meier were the first Peace Corps volunteers to come to Fuling. They taught at the Fuling Teachers College, where most of the students were from farming families (peasants, in the local term) who were expected to return home to teach in the rural schools they themselves had attended. He wrote about his teaching duties, in a school rigidly bounded by the government's many rules and under the constant eye of the Communist Party members. He took a great interest in his students, in their stories and their futures. He was equally interested in Fuling itself, spending his free time exploring the city and trying to talk to the people there. On school breaks, he traveled around the middle part of China, sometimes with friends but often on his own. He studied Chinese (Mandarin) on his own and with tutors, to the surprise of many Chinese people that he met, who assumed that no foreigner could learn their language.

I found this book very absorbing. I know little about the middle part of China (which apparently isn't called "the midwest," as I kept picturing it). Obviously, a lot has changed in the country since this book was first published in 2001. And things had changed between Mr. Hessler's time there in 1996-1998, and the publication of the book. At the time he was writing, the Three Gorges Dam was under construction, and he wrote about the effects it would have on both the people and the land itself.  But despite the lapse of time, I could see connections to the China that I read about today - a stock market crash in 1998, industrial pollution, the slow rise in the standards of living in rural areas, tensions with the Muslim Uigher population in western China. I learned something of the middle region's history, such as the Great Taiping Rebellion of the 1840s, when "a poor man from Guangxi province . . . decided that he was the Son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ. After that, things happened very quickly." Within a few years, "Hong Xiuquan was leading twenty thousand armed followers..." In more recent history, Mr. Hessler talked with the people he met about their experiences in the "Great Leap Forward" and the Cultural Revolution, and about their parents' and grandparents', which often made for grim reading.

It was interesting to compare Mr. Hessler's account with those of Jen Lin-Liu, particularly in her memoir Serve the People. Though ethnically Chinese, and speaking Mandarin, Ms. Lin-Liu still felt like a foreigner, even in Beijing. It sounds like it was a thousand times worse in Fuling, where the two Americans instantly stood out as waiguoren, and crowds gathered just to stare whenever they went into the town. It seems like Beijing was marginally healthier than Fuling, blanketed in coal dust and smoke. Mr. Hessler managed to contract tuberculosis, among other health problems. But the friends he made there allowed him to experience something of daily life there. And many people he met were very hospitable and welcoming, eager to talk to a foreigner who spoke their language. He was equally eager to talk to anyone he met, and that openness reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Eric Newby.

The author returned to China after his Peace Corps stint ended, and he wrote two other books about the country, Oracle Bones and Country Driving. I am looking forward to reading them. I may as well confess that I have copies of them already, though this book languished on my TBR shelves for so long (a triumph of hope over experience, and/or book greed over good intentions). I also have my eye on Evan Osnos' Age of Ambition, which won the National Book Award for non-fiction last year. Mr. Osnos took over the "Letter from China" from Mr. Hessler, and I've found his articles equally interesting and informative.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Flower of May, by Kate O'Brien

   "But life isn't as Lucille would order it, you stupid child! Life is as men - I say men - make and feel it!"
   "I've noticed already," said Fanny, "that that is men's idea. But my life is mine, and it will be more or less what I make and feel it, I hope."
Fanny Morrow, just eighteen, is speaking to her friend Lucille's brother André on the Ponte Navi in Verona, on an summer evening in 1906. We first meet her several months earlier, at her sister Lilian's wedding in their hometown of Dublin. Fanny, just returned from her convent school in Brussels, is considering entering the convent herself. Instead, she travels to Belgium to stay with Lucille, and then joins the de Mellin family on a visit to Italy. When they return to Belgium, Fanny is called home to a family emergency, and Lucille goes with her, to encounter Ireland for the first time.

Both Fanny and Lucille are searching for their path in life. They know what they want: education and a life beyond the role of decorous daughter, whether in Dublin or Brussels. Lucille's family is wealthy, so she has resources and opportunities that Fanny does not. But she also has a father who hopes to see her marry into a family with business connections to their own - a German family. Fanny's parents have refused to allow her to return to Brussels, to study for her baccalaureate. Her sister's wedding was an expense, and they expect her to take her place as the eldest daughter now. To console her for that loss, they allow her to visit Lucille, and then travel on to Italy. Neither young woman finds the answers she seeks in Italy, though they find much to delight them particularly in Venice. Instead, it is in Ireland, in the midst of great trouble, that a way is opened first for Fanny and then for Lucille.

As always with Kate O'Brien's books, I found myself reading this slowly, to savor it. There were one or two places in the first chapter where I was reading slowly because I was somewhat lost in the language. The descriptions of the inner life of Fanny's mother Julia in particular reminded me of reading Henry James, where I know the words are in English but the sense of them eludes me. But either my reading eye (ear) became acclimated or the prose became clearer, because the story then flowed easily.  We see most of the events through Fanny's eyes, though the point of view sometimes switches to Lucille, and later to Fanny's Aunt Eleanor. She lives on the small family estate in the west of Ireland, which she stayed to run for her elderly father, and to care for him, after her sister married. It is still "home" to Julia, who returns there as often as she can, bringing her own children.

I have to mention two other characters who delighted me, in different ways. First is Lucille's mother, the Comtesse de Mellin, who takes the young women to Italy. She is rather scatter-brained and indolent, a bit like Lady Bertram (though much brighter). She is also a loving mother who wants her children to be happy. Personally, she finds Venice unsightly and full of disagreeable smells, but she won't deprive her children or her guest of their delight. The second is Mère Générale, Mother Cathérine Mandel of the Compagnie de la Sainte Famille.  As soon as I read that Fanny had returned from her school in Place des Ormes in Brussels, I realized that this was the same school and the same order featured in O'Brien's The Land of Spices. I did hope we were going to meet Mother Mary Helen from that book again, but no. Instead, we get Mother Cathérine, whom we know only by letter and memory in the earlier book. Here she is a wise counselor and friend, and a woman of faith, like Aunt Eleanor (who with Fanny's mother also studied at Place des Ormes). Though Mother Cathérine and Aunt Eleanor want to help these young women find their way, they know they cannot fight the battles for them.

In the end, a door has opened for both young women, but we leave them on the threshold. I very much want to know what happens next.  I have been plotting out different stories for them ever since I finished reading, while wondering if I might meet them again in one of Kate O'Brien's other books. I have several still to read, and others that I read so long ago I've forgotten them (particularly The Last of Summer and The Ante-Room). I do think that Kate O'Brien is a marvelous writer. It's a shame that so many of her books are out of print and hard to find, despite the Virago reprints in the 1980s.

N.B. I feel I should have noted that this book was published in 1953.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading this fifth book in Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series with Audrey, JoAnn and Bellezza. Most of our discussion was on Twitter, which was great fun. Comments had to be brief in that format, of course, which curtailed my tendency to quote favorite parts. On the other hand there was an immediacy to the discussion that made it seem an on-going conversation. It definitely enhanced my reading.

When Audrey announced her #6Barsets project, to mark the bicentennial of Anthony Trollope's birth this year, I happily signed on to read the six Barsetshire books with her. Technically, I would be re-reading them, most for the second or third time. However, I had only read The Small House at Allington once, more than ten years ago. Of the six books, this was the one I was most curious to read again. I disliked it at the time, but having read many more of Trollope's books in the years since, I suspected that my opinion would be different this time.

Though this is counted as a "Barsetshire" book, Allington and its Small House are not located in Barsetshire, but just outside its borders, to the west.  At the center of the story are the widowed Mary Dale and her two daughters, Bell and Lily. Their small house is part of the Dale estate, which belongs to Mrs. Dale's brother-in-law Christopher Dale, the Squire. His nephew and heir, Captain Bernard Dale, is a frequent visitor to the great house. One day he brings with him a friend from London, Augustus Crosbie. A rising young man in a government office, and a well-known man about town, Crosbie falls in love with Lily and becomes engaged to her. He does not consider his income sufficient to marry, but he has expectations of Lily's rich Uncle Christopher.

As I expected, I enjoyed this book very much on a second reading. As always with Trollope, there are multiple plots winding through the story, which he balances with his usual skill. The relationship between the Great and Small Houses is complicated. Christopher Dale wants to do the best he can for his nieces and his sister-in-law. He loves them, but he is unable to express that affection. He tends to sulk if he doesn't get his way, feeling that nobody loves him. Bell Dale also has her suitors, one of whom like Augustus Crosbie thinks himself too poor to support a wife. There is Johnny Eames, a young neighbor in love with Lily, who works at the Income Tax office in London. He is, to use one of Trollope's favorite words, a "hobbledehoy."
There is a class of young men who never get petted, though they may not be the less esteemed, or perhaps loved. They do not come forth to the world as Apollos, nor shine at all, keeping what light they may have for inward purposes. Such young men are often awkward, ungainly, and not yet formed in their gait; they straggle with their limbs, and are shy; words do not come to them with ease, when words are required, among any but their accustomed associates. Social meetings are periods of penance to them, and any appearance in public will unnerve them. They go much about alone, and blush when women speak to them. In truth, they are not as yet men, whatever the number may be of their years; and, as they are no longer boys, the world has found for them the ungraceful name of hobbledehoy.
(As I tend to do, I started to make a list of hobbledehoys in other books.  I thought immediately of Louisa May Alcott: Jo March in Little Women is a classic female version, while Tom Shaw in An Old-Fashioned Girl fits Trollope's description to the proverbial T.)

Trollope himself had great affection for these young men, I think in large part because he had been one himself, as he would later write in his autobiography. And Johnny is really the hero of this book. He has a widowed mother and younger sister Mary, who looks up to him despite his hobbledehoyhood. (Trollope calls Mary "somewhat of a hobbledehoya herself," which delighted me, since I was very much one myself.)  Down in the country, he is befriended by Earl De Guest, connected by marriage to the Dale family. Up in London, he is (despite his love for Lily) drawn into an uneasy romance with Amelia Roper, whose mother keeps the seedy boarding house where he lives. Alongside these stories, we also meet again the De Courcys, introduced in Doctor Thorne, a very unhappy family with a lot of children to settle on very little money.  I had forgotten that Plantagenet Palliser makes his debut in this book. I learned from the Oxford Companion that Trollope began writing the first of the Palliser novels just months after this was finished, in 1863 - and wrote Rachel Ray in between! Finally, in this book Trollope gives us a very unhappy marriage, one that goes wrong almost from the start, because neither party can meet the other's expectations, nor can they make each other happy. It was fascinating to read all the details, like finding a house, choosing furniture and rugs and household goods, which are usually glossed over in the Victorian novels I've read. Here Trollope uses them to highlight the problems in the relationship, which left unresolved will follow the couple into marriage.

There are so many wonderful characters in this story. I am particularly fond of Miss Spruce, an elderly cousin of the Ropers who boards with them. She watches the bad behavior of her fellow boarders but fends off any attempt to draw her in with the constant refrain, "I am only an old woman..." It's practically her only line, and it just got funnier and funnier as the story went on. I also like Earl De Guest, an old bachelor farmer who develops a real kindness for Johnny Eames. The only character I really didn't care for was the central one: Lily Dale. Trollope wrote in his autobiography that many readers considered Lily their favorite character, but he thought she "is somewhat of a female prig." I don't think she is at all "excessively precise, proper and smug," to quote Webster's dictionary. Did "prig" mean something different to the Victorians?  I just find her rather tiresome, too volatile and emotional. She reminded me of Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility. Like Marianne, she needs a good dose of sense to balance out all that sensibility.

I am very glad that Audrey inspired me to re-read this, and glad to find that I appreciated it more the second time around. The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire is up next, in November and December - and there is talk of #6Pallisers in 2016, if you are inclined to join us.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, by Vaseem Khan

I didn't sign up for #Diversiverse this year, in part because I can't stick to any kind of reading schedule for love or money these days.  But I had it in the back of my mind when I stopped in at Murder by the Book the other day.  There, this cover caught my eye:

The back-cover blurb sold me:
    On the day he retires, Inspector Ashwin Chopra inherits two unexpected mysteries.
    The first is the case of a drowned boy, whose suspicious death no one seems to want solved.
    And the second is a baby elephant.
    As his search for clues takes him across the teeming city of Mumbai, from its grand high-rises to its sprawling slums and deep into its murky underworld, Chopra begins to suspect that there may a great deal more to both his last case and his new ward than he thought.

I immediately wanted to know more about the drowned boy, and the baby elephant, and Inspector Chopra himself.  And I enjoyed this detective story very much.  I started to write "police procedural," though I suppose it doesn't really count as a police story when your detective retires in the first chapter.  But Inspector Chopra ("Retd." as the text often points out) still draws on his contacts in the force, as well as his decades of experience as a police officer.  It was interesting to compare the workings of the Mumbai police in this story with the British and American forces in other stories that I've read.

I can't however think of another detective, private or police, who ends up with a baby elephant on his hands.  It is a gift from Chopra's uncle Bansi, whom he hasn't seen in years.  The elephant, soon named Ganesha after the Hindu god, arrives with only a mysterious letter saying, take care of him, because "this is no ordinary elephant."  How someone with no experience, living in a high-rise apartment in a crowded city, is supposed to take care of him is left to Chopra to figure out, with a lot of help from his wife Poppy.  She expected to have a retired husband around the place.  Instead, she gets one who disappears for long stretches, leaving her with Ganesha and her own disapproving mother.  The little elephant actually has a part to play in the investigation, which added an element almost of magic to what otherwise feels like a very realistic story.  I had to remind myself that "this is no ordinary elephant."  And in the end, who could resist a baby elephant with a taste for Cadbury chocolate?  At one point I started googling pictures of small elephants at play, which made that day 100% better.

I learned from Vaseem Khan's website that he works at University College London, in the Department of Security and Crime Science.  I'm sure he drew on his experiences there in writing this story.  It is an intriguing mystery, with a rather dark turn at the end, before its different threads wrap up neatly together.  I also saw that Mr. Khan is working on a second book with Inspector Chopra and Ganesha, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, and two more books are planned.  I'm already looking forward to reading them.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Trent's Own Case, by E.C. Bentley

E.C. Bentley's books first came to my attention through the letters of Dorothy L. Sayers.  She wrote him a very complimentary letter in 1936 after reading this book, his second featuring the amateur detective Philip Trent.  What really surprised me was to read "I am always ashamed to admit how much my poor Peter owes to Trent, besides his habit of quotation."  That set me off to find his first Trent book, Trent's Last Case, published in 1913.  I read later that it is considered the first modern mystery novel.  Agatha Christie said that it was "one of the three best detective stories ever written."  Sayers wrote that "Every detective writer of today owes something, consciously or unconsciously, to its liberating and inspiring influence."  Bentley supposedly wrote it on a bet with G.K. Chesterton, to show a detective getting every single thing wrong.

I admit, I had pretty high expectations when I started the first book, and it didn't quite live up to them.  I probably need to read it again one of these days.  Though I wasn't thrilled with it, I still picked up a copy of the second book, Trent's Own Case, when I came across it.  I read it over the weekend, though more than once I was tempted to give up on it.  It reads like a typical Golden Age mystery.  James Randolph's valet discovers him dead in the bedroom of his small mews house.   He was shot in the back just as he was pulling off his jacket.  The police find crumpled brown wrapping paper and cut string lying on the floor, near a safe set into the wall.  Philip Trent, an artist who has retired from amateur sleuthing, visited Randolph earlier in the evening, to discuss Randolph's unwelcome interest in Eunice Faviell, an actress friend of Trent and his aunt Julia.  But the police, led by Chief Inspector Gideon Bligh, discover signs of another visitor: a luggage tag with the name of Bryan Fairman, a psychiatrist on staff at a hospital Randolph funds. The tag shows that Fairman was to travel to Dieppe on the night-boat.  Bligh sends instructions to track Fairman, who is caught just as he prepares to commit suicide by jumping off the boat.  Meanwhile, a letter he wrote confessing to the murder is on its way to the police.  Fairman is arrested, but neither Trent nor his friend Bligh is quite satisfied with the case.  There is a missing heir, a missing gun, a missing will, and whatever was wrapped in that brown paper is also missing. With Bligh's blessing Trent takes on much of the investigation (to the point that I wondered what Bligh and his team were actually doing to solve the case).

I thought the mystery was interesting enough, with a twisty plot and an ending that I only guessed just before the murderer was caught.  I did want to find out who killed James Randolph, which kept me reading.  But the denouement was a long time coming, and I found my attention wandering more than once.  This was an easy book to put down, even mid-chapter.  As with many Golden Age mysteries, there was a tendency to introduce clues but not to explain their significance - and to withhold information from the police, which always irritates me.  And while Dorothy Sayers may have taken Trent as a model for Peter Wimsey, his quotations and piffle felt a bit forced to me, nowhere near as entertaining as Peter or Psmith waffling on.

There is also a book of short stories featuring Trent, but I think I'll pass on those.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Clémentine in the Kitchen, by Samuel Chamberlain

The Chamberlain family spent a dozen blissful years in pre-World War II France, with their beloved cook, Clémentine, learning the gustatory pleasures of snail hunting in their backyard and bottling their own wine.  When war rumblings sent them scurrying Stateside, Clémentine refused to be left behind - and made a new home for herself in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where she introduced the initially suspicious Yankees to the pleasures of la cuisine de bonne femme.  First published in 1943, Clémentine in the Kitchen is a charming portrait of a family of gastronomic adventurers, and a mouth-watering collection of more than 170 traditional French recipes. [back-cover blurb from the Modern Library Food edition, 2001]
Last weekend, just on impulse, I started watching "Haute Cuisine" on Netflix.  I had never heard of it before, but it was recommended to me because I watched "Mostly Martha."  This "food-rich drama" about "Hortense Laborie's experiences as personal chef for the president of France" reminded me of this book.  When I first read about it on Audrey's blog, it went straight on my own reading list.  But like too many books, it has languished too long on my TBR stacks.

When the book opens, the author's family is living in Senlis, a small town in the Ile-de-France. (He changed his family's name to Beck for the book, as well as some other details.)  They had already learned to appreciate many aspects of life in France, particularly the food.  And once the apple-cheeked Clémentine Bouchard, a Burgundian, came to work as their cook, "we became utter sybarites, frank worshipers of the splendors of the French cuisine."  The first chapters describe life in their small town, with its shops dedicated to different types of foods, and the kitchen where Clémentine presided.  Interspersed are recipes, which have been adapted, sometimes with explanations, for American kitchens.  (Additional recipes are included in the final section of the book, organized by main ingredient.)

The shadows of the war lie over these happy chapters, though.  In June of 1939, Beck's American employers informed him that they were shutting their European offices down, directing him to return to the United States and a position in Boston. The family had only a short time to pack, and to make arrangements for what they had to leave behind.  To their joy, Clémentine wanted to come with them.  The later chapters detail the family's re-introduction to life in the United States, which was also Clémentine's introduction.  They describe their united attempts to cook the familiar dishes of France in their new home.  This sometimes meant searching out sources for hard-to-find items such as veal (according to Beck/Chamberlain, rarely served at this time).  It also meant adapting recipes for new ingredients, like the wide variety of seafood available in Marblehead.

The author's enthusiasm, particularly for good food, is infectious.  Reading this reminded me of Julia Child's My Life in France, though Beck/Chamberlain was not interested in learning to cook himself.  Like Child, he wanted to convince his readers that they too could cook good, basic French food at home.  The recipes are clear, with step-by-step instructions.  While it was difficult for the Becks to find some ingredients, particularly once war-time rationing set in, I think most would be easily available today.  The variety of pans required might be more of an issue.  I also enjoyed Chamberlain's portrait of France in the 1930s, illustrated with his own charming drawings; and of the United States, just on the eve of World War II.  Both Senlis and Marblehead sound like lovely places to live, each in its own way.

What I found least palatable about the book was actually the food - specifically, the meat-heavy dishes.  I am a "flexitarian," which I define as eating meat occasionally, usually at restaurants.  I don't cook meat at home, so I sometimes describe myself as "socially carnivorous."  Some of the descriptions and recipes actually left me feeling a bit ill, as when Chamberlain notes that his daughter "remains entirely indifferent to fudge cake, baked beans, pancakes, tomato juice, and corn fritters," but she
adores cervelle de mouton au beurre noir, those delicate little mounds of sheep's brains swimming in black butter.  At one sitting she has eaten a dozen and half husky Burgundian snails before being halted.  Sweetbreads, calf's head à la vinaigrette (including the eye), head cheese, mussels, rabbit stew - all delight her.
The family was a little slower to warm up to tête de veau à la vinaigrette - an entire calf's head, complete with eyes.  Eventually the parents at least "came to relish the jiggly parts and the ears," though they never managed the eyes.  That's one recipe that didn't make it into the book.  Many of the recipes that did include cream-based sauces, which I often find too rich.

The final section includes vegetable, egg and cheese dishes in addition to the the various meats, and I have marked some of those to try.  However, I think I'll return to this book more for the people in it, and the life it describes, both in France and in the United States.