Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Mystery Mile (#1930Club, #RIPXIV)

Mr. Albert Campion

Coups neatly executed
Nothing sordid, vulgar or plebeian
Deserving cases preferred
Police no object

That's the business card our hero hands out, and it pretty much all applies to the case related in Mystery Mile.

Judge Crowder is the target of the so-called Misfire Murders, in which four other people are murdered, presumably in attempts to kill the judge. Judge Crowder has earned the ire of the Simister gang, and has a clue as to its anonymous leader, though he's not entirely sure what he's got. He heads to England with the idea that being away from the gang's main base of operations will make him safer; but he's unwilling to hide or much change his life, and leaving New York is all he's willing to do. The novel starts when a fifth attempt on his life is made shipboard and is foiled (by accident?) by Campion. 

Since the judge won't put up with police protection, his son hires Campion to do what he can.

This is more adventure than mystery; after those first four murders that occur offstage, as it were, there are no others, though there is a kidnapping; the judge survives; the identity of Simister is only thinly hidden, I thought.

I've only read a few of the Campion stories. This is the second in which he appears, but the first where he's the major figure. Campion is famous for his non-sequiturs, his distracted conversational style. I have the feeling that gets tamed as the serious goes along, but he's in full inscrutability here, babbling (or is he?) about his pet mouse's birthday in the first chapter. The world around Campion is still being built: this is the first appearance of his formerly criminal assistant, but now his butler, Magersfontein Lugg. It's also the first appearance of that useful thing, a friend at Scotland Yard, Stanislas Oates.

Anyway, very entertaining, I thought. Made me wonder why I hadn't read more Allingham.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Custom of the Country (#CCSpin)

My Classics Club spin selection was Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, and once again the spin machine did right by me.

The Custom of the Country is the story of Undine Spragg and her quest for a suitable marriage. The Spraggs are from Apex City (wherever exactly that might be, but it's in the western United States; the Dakotas are mentioned) and Mr. Spragg has had some financial success in his hometown. His daughter convinces him to move to New York so she can mingle with old wealth. He agrees, to please her, but also to put distance between Undine and her attachment to the unsuitable Elmer Moffatt. Young Moffatt may be a man on the make, but he's of unknown provenance, and working, if at all, as a groom.

And that's about all I feel like I should say without spoiler warnings. There are novels you know will end tragically: the fate of Tess is never in much doubt; there are novels you know will end in marriage: after reading, "It is a truth universally acknowledge, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," it can only be the case Elizabeth Bennet will get married, even if you know nothing of Jane Austen. And in those sort of novels it's OK if you know what's going to happen.

But The Custom of the Country is not a novel like that. So:


The novel seems at first like it might be simply a satirical romp. Undine's two best girlfriends, but also rivals in her quest to marry a rich man, are (in their maiden nomenclature) Indiana Frusk and Mabel Blitch. Yowza. Undine is named, her father says, for a hair-curler, one of his first commercial successes.

But Undine (or Ondine) is also the name of a mythological water sprite. The description in the Wikipedia article is so comically apt (or is it?) to our Undine, I have to quote:
"Although resembling humans in form, they lack a human soul, so to achieve mortality, they must acquire one by marrying a human."
When she arrives in New York her guide to society is the rather questionable Mrs. Heeny, a masseuse. Undine and her mother know nothing about old money New York, but under Mrs. Heeny's dubious tutelage, they learn, and Undine learns quicker. Undine captivates Ralph Marvell, the heir to an old money fortune much diminished over the years. Certainly Ralph is more aware of the poetic overtones of the name Undine, though the exact nature of the legend is never mentioned in the novel. Even more than her Romantic name, though, her beauty snares him; that, and the belief she's unformed, and he can do the forming.

Well, we've seen the way she manipulates her father, so we know how that will go.

We're told of the 'Marvell tradition':
The only essential was that he should live 'like a gentleman' -- that is, with a tranquil disdain for mere money-getting, a passive openness to the finer sensations, one or two fixed principles as to the quality of wine, and an archaic probity that had not yet learned to distinguish between private and 'business' honour.
This is all pretty much satire to this point, but Ralph Marvell becomes a pretty sympathetic character; he may be a little romantically naive, but does he deserve Undine?

At one point (Chapter 15) Charles Bowen, a minor character in the old money set, tells Ralph's sister, that men become obsessively interested in their jobs, ignoring their wives, and that women become grasping and consumerist, is 'the custom of the country.' Ralph's sister asks him:
"And is Undine one of the exceptions?" 
Her companion took the shot with a smile. "No -- she's a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph. It's Ralph who's the victim and the exception."
And so it proves.

But that's not the end of the novel either. Undine spends Ralph--and her father, too--into something like bankruptcy, and abandons her child with Ralph. She plots a marriage with Ralph's richer cousin-in-law, Peter van Degen, a noted playboy, and gets a divorce.

But Peter van Degen won't marry her, and Undine is without a husband and without an income. Undine now sees the usefulness of her child, and agrees to leave the child with Ralph if he can come up with the money she needs. This is Undine at her most villainous; it's what makes her one of the most hated protagonists in literature.

Ralph can't find the money; Undine takes back their child, and Ralph commits suicide; this clears the way for Undine's marriage to Count de Chelles, French and Catholic enough to hesitate in marrying a divorced woman, but not a widowed one. But this marriage isn't a success either. Count de Chelles, unlike Ralph, is perfectly capable of ignoring Undine's tantrums, and eventually falls out of love over her inability to maintain a tone suitable for his Faubourg Saint-Germain set. (Swann's Way came out the same year as The Custom of the Country. Undine Spragg meet Duchesse de Guermantes!)

It's another low for Undine; she brought them both on herself, of course: but this one feels a little less earned than her previous low (after she was abandoned by van Degen.) Raymond de Chelles really does simply ignore her most of the time, and his sense of who her friends should be is quite controlling. Maybe this is a novel like The Red and The Black: a grasping provincial claws her way to the top, only to suffer a fatal comeuppance. But no, this isn't that novel either, and Undine Spragg is not Julien Sorel.

She divorces a second time, which will leave the Catholic Raymond de Chelles in the lurch. With no legitimate son to inherit, his spendthrift, but fecund younger brother will inherit the title and the Hôtel de Chelles. We've seen Elmer Moffatt along the way, succeeding, though with some questionable methods, but it's now he comes back into the picture in a big way, and...


...well, she marries him. But that's not the spoiler; you may not be surprised at that. The Other Reader is currently reading the novel and has already guessed that.

The surprise is she was married to Elmer Moffatt back in Apex City; that unsuitable attachment wasn't just an engagement, but resulted in the first of her three divorces. So two ambitious, not overly ethical, young people from the provinces finally discover in each other what they've always wanted. They could have been married the whole time, with none of the casualties along the way. But Elmer has now got the money to keep even Undine in jewels, and Undine has acquired a tone that, while it may not be sophisticated enough for the de Chelles family, will do just fine for an Elmer Moffatt. A happy ending? A dark comedy of sorts? And if one likes categories, that will probably have to do.

But there's one more twist. One of the Apex City set is appointed the U.S. ambassador in London, and Undine thinks that's what I really want to be, an ambassadress. But she can't, because she's been divorced. The novels ends with:
But under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador's wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.
Ha! So the scheming provincial gets her comeuppance anyway. But in a tiny way. And why was she divorced? Because her father compelled her to get divorced; back then Elmer Moffatt seemed unsuitable, though we've come to see they're all too suitable to each other. To what extent is Undine even the author of her own fate? If she'd stayed married to Elmer, as she wanted, she could have been an ambassador's wife! That is, if Elmer had still succeeded, dragging along the spendthrift Undine. And Undine had acquired the tone to be an ambassador's wife as the wife of Elmer Moffatt.

And even then would she have been happy? Or are Undine's (and all human) wants simply unlimited, as economists say? Well, you'll just have to decide.

If you got this far...ignoring all my spoiler warnings...it may be you've read it. What did you think? Did Undine get what she deserved? What did she deserve?

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Sunday Salon


My Classics Club spin choice was Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country. It's very good: post coming soon. But Indiana Frusk, Mabel Blitch, and Undine Spragg! I am very glad I don't come from Apex City if I was going to be saddled with a name like that.

Nobel Prize Watch

This is the week. The Swedish Academy were really trying for a while there to destroy the mystique of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I still get excited for the Thursday announcement. When I was an undergraduate a friend told me I should try to read a living author before winning the Nobel prize. I think that was when I had a stack of Elias Canetti under my arm. But in my defense I was a classics major...

The Italians have a word -- papabile -- for somebody who could plausibly be elected pope. And I do now sometimes read those who could be considered nobelabile, instead of just laureates. The betting shops put Anne Carson on the inside track this year, who would be a very good choice, but I just read the newest (in translation) by one of my favorites, Claudio Magris.

It's a collection of very short essays or observations, from his travels or from around Trieste, and often poignant or funny or both.

Currently Reading

I piled up a stack of books for #1930club earlier this week and started one of the two long ones: Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania.

I'm also reading Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving along with Cleo.

Where I Was

We went to New Hampshire to visit my sister-in-law and brother-in-law. The other thing I'm reading these days is Moby Dick for Brona's readalong, and while Portsmouth, NH, may not quite be the fons et origo of New England whaling, it ain't so far neither. I hadn't paid any attention to it before, but we were greeted by a whale welcome mat, and that wasn't the only opportunity for a #mobydickinthewild picture:

Hope all's well with you!

Thanks to DebNance at Readersbuzz for hosting the Sunday Salon.

Saturday, October 5, 2019


It's year book club time again and this year it's 1930. This semi-annual club is hosted at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings; the idea is participants read books set in the given year and blog about them; it gives a fun overall picture of the year in question. Naturally I used this as an excuse to pile up books:

We've got some large, medium, and small choices there. The first volume of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania count as large; J. B. Priestly's Angel Pavement, which looks bigger than it is, and Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes are my mediums; and the shorties are Margery Allingham's Mystery Mile and P. G. Wodehouse's story collection Very Good, Jeeves.

The pile is aspirational, of course,... 😉and, in particular, I'm unlikely to read both the larges. I'm tempted by Musil, which was the subject of a series of great blog posts at the Bookbinder's Daughter, but it would be a reread for me. The appeal--to me--of a book titled The Anatomy of Bibliomania is not hard to figure out, and, well, I've already started it.

Also, because I feel like I should deprecate rereads at the moment, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, and Simon Templar all stayed on their shelves. But I read Enter The Saint recently enough that I do have a blog post for it.

Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting!

Which look good to you?

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Hannah Arendt's Men In Dark Times

Men in Dark Times is a collection of Hannah Arendt's occasional pieces that came out in 1968. The pieces came out in the previous fifteen years and cover figures such Karl Jaspers, Pope John XXIII, Walter Benjamin, Hermann Broch, Bertolt Brecht. Despite the title two women are included: Rosa Luxembourg and Isak Dinesen.

Arendt is probably best known for her great book Eichmann in Jerusalem, her controversial report on the trial in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann for his part in the Holocaust. It's the source of the phrase, 'the banality of evil.' She was also a political philosopher and a scholar of totalitarianism.

I pulled off the shelf to read her essay on Hermann Broch because I was still thinking about The Death of Virgil, but that was actually the least interesting essay in the book: it's the introduction a volume out of the collected essays of Broch, and it was simply too specialized for me.

Some of the other essays are slender: she has some interesting ideas about Dinesen, for instance, but the context was a biography of Dinesen she was reviewing that she didn't think was very good, and that distracted her from the more interesting parts, I thought. Half the essays are translated from German.

But the essays on Benjamin, and particularly on Brecht, were very good. That on Benjamin was from a foreword to the collection of Benjamin essays titled Illuminations, but I thought it would serve as a pretty good introduction to Benjamin, even if you didn't go on to read that particular book. And her essay on Brecht was even better: it was a piece from the New Yorker ten years after Brecht died, and was looking at the state of his reputation at that time, the relationship between his poetry and his politics. Brecht died in a somewhat bad odor; he had been chased out of the United States after World War II for his (never very doctrinaire) communism, and further chased out of West Germany, ending up in East Germany. He was unhappy and unproductive there and most likely afraid in those last years of Stalin. Arendt, the great scholar and opponent of all totalitarianism, sensitively considers the relationship of the work to the political morality of the artist. I wondered to what extent this also reflected her thoughts on Heidegger, who had been her teacher--and lover--in between the world wars, but was later a Nazi supporter.

Recommended particularly for the essay on Brecht.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Frost

Fragmentary Blue

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue? 
Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)--
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.

-Robert Frost

We're off to New Hampshire later today to visit family, so I thought I'd better do Robert Frost, right? The photo above is from near Unity, NH, two years ago, and we'll be there again.

I was going to pick Fire and Ice, a poem by Frost I've known forever, but it didn't really fit the picture, and this was the poem immediately above it in my collected Frost. Both come from his collection of 1923 titled New Hampshire.

Hmm...'our wish for blue.' Well, heaven is not presenting it in sheets in the photo above, and even there it's fragmentary. But we seek it out anyway.

Jennifer has a lovely Mary Oliver poem this week, with a similarly New-England-looking photo. Actually as I think about it, mine doesn't look especially New-England-y, but it is.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Why Read Moby-Dick? (#MobyDickReadalong) by Nathaniel Philbrick

Why? Well, because Brona's hosting a readalong, of course!

Actually, I found out about this 2011 book from Brona who read it at the very beginning of the readalong. So I didn't need his answer to the question: I was already committed. But our library had copies and, while Brona's review of the book was not unmixed, I thought I'd take a look. It's definitely worth reading, though not least because it's short. 😉

It's not a full biography, but it does contain useful information about the relationship between Hawthorne and Melville at the time of the writing. He did make me want to read Melville's letters to Hawthorne. I did not know, but there was an earlier draft of Moby-Dick in which there was no Captain Ahab! Melville started on his new larger plan for Moby-Dick only after meeting Hawthorne in 1850.

And Hawthorne started writing The House of Seven Gables when he met Melville. Should I reread that? It would be also be a good #RIPXIV book, but that way madness lies, I fear...

Philbrick is quite interested in tying Moby-Dick to the issue of slavery, though, and I have some doubts about that. Now it is a big question in the nation already in 1850. And I agree that race issues do interest Melville: the opening comic misunderstanding which becomes friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg; or the story of Pip, the cook's boy. And while I have no doubt that whale ships were typically a motley collection of sailors from wherever, the Pequod seems to be particularly international, and that's no doubt deliberate, to represent the world in miniature. So race, yes, but I'm less certain about slavery in particular as a theme. But now I will pay attention to the idea. 

And Fedallah as Iago, and Pip as Lear's Fool? Maybe so!

Philbrick has also got some interesting things in his bibliography, though that's another direction in which an Ahab-ian obsessive madness lies...but I did order Delbanco's biography of Melville from the library, so we'll see. I also noticed Philbrick has Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville in his bibliography, which I've been thinking about rereading, but probably not until I finish the novel. I remember the Olson pretty well, though it's been thirty years since I read it (and I hadn't read Moby-Dick at the time.) I thought the Olson didn't seem to have much impact on Philbrick, but then near the very end he writes, (about Moby-Dick's afterlife) "What Moby-Dick needed, it turned out, was space."

Well, after the prologue, Olson begins his study,
"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,..."
I noticed Biblioklept highlighted an earlier post about Olson for Melville's birthday at the start of the readalong, which I enjoyed. So, you know, if you can't wait for my profound thoughts...

Anyway, on with the Pequod!