Saturday, September 30, 2017

Simon Brett's Dead Giveaway

Dead Giveaway is the eleventh Charles Paris mystery. It appears in 1985. Paris, a not very successful actor, gets a small gig as one of four real-life professionals in a new British game show called If The Cap Fits. Four contestants try to guess the job of the four professionals with the assistance of four celebrities. The host of the new show Barrett Doran is murdered by cyanide on camera during the filming of the pilot.

Paris, who has completed his part of the filming, has already found the bar when the murder is committed; he's at home the next day when the police announce they've arrested a suspect; he's inclined to have nothing to do with it. That doesn't happen: one of the production assistants seeks his help because the accused murderer is a friend of hers:

"Charles felt childishly pleased as he put the phone down. He was amused by the idea that, while his acting career remained undistinguished, his reputation as an amateur detective was spreading."

The twelve figures above plus another half-dozen members of the crew (assistant stage manager, producers, set designer, etc.) and hangers-on mean that there's a good number of potential suspects in the case, and a surprising number of them (well, not that surprising) have reason to hate Doran.

I'm afraid this one felt pretty thin to me, like the series was beginning to bore its author a bit. He remains a professional about it, but... There were too many poorly delineated suspects, and even though that list gets winnowed down pretty ruthlessly early, the characters were all a bit of a blur. The regular jokey motifs Brett uses--Paris' lackluster agent, his drinking, even the bad reviews--were less strong. While I didn't anticipate the actual murderer, the plotting felt like it had just the usual twists.

Ah, well. You may be able to solve them all, but you can't win them all.

Silver Age. Bottle of Poison. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

And it clears off the Simon Brett section of my TBR pile.

Friday, September 29, 2017

John Dickson Carr's The Man Who Could Not Shudder

Martin Clarke has just bought a house famous for its haunting, and he invites six people to test it out as it were, to see if indeed it is haunted. Four of these people are his only friends in England--he has just returned from years as a commercial agent in Italy--and two others are friends of those friends. It will be an experiment: see how different personality types handle a haunting. Though, of course, they might see nothing.

Needless to say, they do not see nothing.

The next morning after they've all arrived a revolver (featured on the cover!) jumps off the wall, shoots and kills one of the guests. Two people see the inexplicable event, and are able to say that the other did not do it. Powder burns on the wall indicate the gun wasn't in anybody's hand when it went off. But there's clearly a dead body, and it seems likely it was a murder. How was it done? Was it the ghost?

Fortunately, the night before, somebody telegraphed to Scotland Yard; Inspector Elliot and Dr. Gideon Fell in his box-pleated cape and shovel hat are there shortly after the body is discovered.

From very near the start there's not much doubt as to who the mastermind of the affair was; it's up to Dr. Fell to discover by what agency the murder was committed. He does so. It's a wonderfully intricate solution that takes years (though under 200 pages) to fully reveal itself. "This is not Roger Ackroyd all over again," he says at one point. But for just a moment it looks like it might be!

His final conversation with the murderer:

"Sir," he [the murderer] said, "acknowledge yourself beaten."
"Sir," replied Dr. Fell, "apparently I must."
"Badly beaten, I think."
"So it seems."
"In fact, made a fool of."
"So it would seem."
But, of course, Dr. Fell has not been made a fool of...

This wasn't as delightful as The Case of the Constant Suicides in my rediscovery of Carr, but it was lot of fun, and the solution was far more convincing and mysterious. Recommended.

Golden Age. Revolver. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

Monday, September 25, 2017

William Deverell's Whipped

Whipped starts with a bang, or maybe I should say a thwack.

Lou Sabatino, Montreal reporter, is shown a video by Svetlana Glinka, professional dominatrix--no, dahlingk, ethical therapist--doing her thing with the whip and the dominatee is Emil Farquist, prominent conservative and, in fact, the Chief Government Whip. A scoop! And the headlines can write themselves.

And Lou is need of something nice. After breaking a big Mafia case, he's in witness protection. Since he can't work, he's laid off. And his wife can't stand the strain, and is about to leave him, taking the kids.

But, though Svetlana is furious at Emil Farquist--he said I was too old to play his mother, dahlingk!--she's not prepared to allow her name to be used, and she won't even give a copy of the video to Lou, though he sneaks one. Without a legit copy of the video, and a witness willing to let her name be used, Lou sees his scoop slipping away. He thinks maybe he can leak it, and shows the video to Margaret Blake, the Green Party's leader.

My. This is definitely a paradisiacal alternative Canada. Not only have the conservatives been caught out in a salacious sex scandal, but also (though only briefly) the Greens hold five (!) seats and the balance of power. Woo-hoo!

Inadvertently Margaret Blake reveals the existence of the video, and she needs to find it to restore her reputation. Otherwise it will be a case of libelous slander. This is where her husband, Arthur Beauchamp comes in to the picture.

Beauchamp is a high-powered criminal lawyer, now retired and living in British Columbia, and hero of the series. This is the seventh. He's ready. He's got a convenient private eye assistant who does the legwork, and while this never makes it to a courtroom proper, there are plenty of legal scenes in which he takes depositions for the slander case.

The main plot is loads of fun, with sly digs at recent Canadian politics, and while once upon a time that might have sounded dull (Worthwhile Canadian Initiative!) these days the whole world knows about Canadian politicians caught doing something they shouldn't on video. I kept expecting a Jimmy Kimmel cameo.

But--and you suspected there had to be a but--there was a second plot involving Beauchamp's friends and neighbours in British Columbia. Now I'm new to the Arthur Beauchamp series, and I suspect these are recurring characters with whom I might be involved, but I'm not. Maybe it would be more amusing if I knew them. But I found that whole subplot much less interesting than the main plot, and it ends with a deux ex machina resolution that's not much more convincing than "...and then I woke up." But still this was fun and I would/will definitely read other volumes in the series.

ARC provided by ECW press.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet


Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet is a book I just want to copy out passages from:
It's human to desire what we need, and it's human to desire what we don't need but find desirable. Sickness occurs when we desire what we need and what's desirable with equal intensity, suffering our lack of perfection as if it were a lack of bread. The Romantic malady is to want the moon as if it could actually be obtained.
I left my room with a great goal in mind, which was simply to get to the office on time. But on this particular day the compulsion to live participated in that other good compulsion which makes the sun come up at the times shown in the almanac, according to the latitude and longitude of each place on earth. I felt happy because I couldn't feel unhappy.
Perhaps my destiny is to remain forever a bookkeeper, with poetry or literature as a butterfly that alights on my head, making me look ridiculous to the extent that it looks beautiful. 
We may know that the work we continue to put off doing will be bad. Worse, however, is the work we never do. A work that's finished is at least finished. It may be poor, but it exists, like the miserable plant in the flowerpot of my neighbour who's crippled. The plant is her happiness, and sometimes it's even mine. What I write, bad as it is, may provide some hurt or sad soul a few moments of distraction from something worse. That's enough for me, or it isn't enough, but it serves some purpose, and so it is with all of life.
These are my Confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it's because I have nothing to say.
I could have copied out an entirely different set of passages, and in fact the passages selected changed from the ones I noted in the back of my book as I went to look them up for this post and began rereading at random. I expect -- I would hope -- the next time I read the book, I would be struck by an entirely different set of passages.

Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese writer who died in 1935. He wasn't entirely unknown during his life, but he was primarily known then as a poet; at his death he left a trunk full of other poems plus prose pieces. One group of the prose was marked for inclusion in a project called The Book of Disquiet. This book was never completed, but there was enough that looked like it should belong to produce the 450 page volume that I read.

Pessoa often composed his poems and prose in the voices of imagined characters. He called them heteronyms. These heteronyms were generally given their own biography, more or less developed. The Book of Disquiet was to have been written by Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper, who wrote not very successful short stories, and there are places where the entries reflect that biography.

The edition I read was the Penguin, translated by Richard Zenith in 2001. There's a new translation by Margaret Jull Costa as well that came out just this year. One interesting distinction is that Zenith chose to arrange the sections thematically; the new translation arranges them by date of composition. Either arrangement involves guesswork: the thematic choices are obviously Zenith's, but not all the pieces are dated. Jull Costa seems to me a wonderful translator (she translates Javier Marias among others) and her edition has the advantage of being able to use the most recent Portuguese edition and scholarship. I do think I'd like the thematic arrangement better. But still  I now want to read her translation as well.

My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Penelope Fitzgerald's Innocence

It struck him that both Marta and Chiara took advantage of him by attacking him with their ignorance, or call it innocence. A serious thinking adult had no defence against innocence because he was obliged to respect it, whereas the innocent scarcely knows what respect is, or seriousness either.
Innocence is (mostly) the story of a romance and marriage between Chiara Ridolfi and Dr. Salvatore Rossi. It is set in Italy and the main events take place in the mid-1950s. Rossi (the subject of the above quote) is a rising neurologist from the South, and Chiara is the only child of an impoverished count with an estate outside Florence. Rossi is equally innocent as Chiara, if not more so, and really, there very nearly isn't anyone in the book who isn't an innocent in the face of the complexities of life.
[Of the family Ridolfi] ...a tendency towards rash decisions, perhaps, always intended to ensure other people's happiness, once and for all. It seems an odd characteristic to survive for so many years, Perhaps it won't do so for much longer.
We know from the very first pages that Rossi and Chiara do get married; from there the story moves back to how they met. The middle of the book has the elements of a fairly traditional romantic comedy plot. Boy meets girl (at a concert in Florence) and they fall in love at once, but the boy has vowed emotional independence and the girl (in 1950s Italy) can't quite make the first move, or at least not the first, second, third, and fourth, which is what it's going to take. So she tells her father she's inviting her strong-minded English friend from convent school, Lavinia Gore-Barnes, or Barney, to come help her, though she doesn't say what for.
"Shall I like this friend of yours?"
"I hope you will, I'm sure you will."
"Does she speak clearly?"
"She has a strong character."
Barney decides she needs to meet Rossi first to determine if he's suitable for Chiara; that will determine her further course of action. She arranges a luncheon at the English neighbours of the Ridolfi's main estate. Chiara is not allowed to attend. But Rossi runs away from the luncheon as fast as he can once he realizes Chiara isn't there, and Chiara runs towards the luncheon because she can't bear to stay away. The luncheon is a disaster, but Chiara and Rossi meet, and something, which involves sheets hanging out the window, happens.
...above all he [Count Ridolfi] wanted to avoid asking Chiara about it, because she would tell him the truth.
In any case, whatever happened, the marriage is now on.

Part Two of the novel begins with the marriage. There is the possibility that Barney will marry Chiara's cousin Cesare. Rossi has various entanglements with his family in the South, from whom he would (probably) just as soon escape. Chiara's aunt Maddalena undertakes a project to ensure other people's happiness, once and for all; it is not a success.
"What's to become of us? We can't go on like this."
"Yes, we can go on like this,' said Cesare. "We can go on exactly like this for the rest of our lives."
The novel alas doesn't, much as I might wish it did. Highly recommended.

My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mathias Enard's Compass

Someday I'll compose an opera called Schopenhauer's Dog--it will be about love and compassion, Vedic India, Buddhism, and vegetarianism. The dog in question will be a music-loving Labrador it's master takes to the opera, a Wagnerian dog...The dog will be a witness to the ruin of culture and the return of barbarism; in the last act, Schopenhauer's ghost will rise from the flames to save the dog (but only the dog) from destruction.

I don't know, I found that funny. Was I supposed to? I think so. And I say that without knowing anything particular about Schopenhauer, Vedic India, Wagner, or the opera. I know no more about Buddhism than the average decently literate Westerner--we spent a couple of weeks on it in my high school World Religions class. I'm not even especially familiar with Labradors. This is a cat household.

Énard's novel won the Prix Goncourt for 2015--the major French literary book prize. It's a love story of sorts, or maybe better an obsession story: Franz Ritter is in love with Sarah; for at least quite a while, we see her thinking of him as no more than a friend. They are both academics, with expertise in obscure areas: he studies the introduction of Western musical forms (such as opera) into the "Orient." Her area of scholarship is more strictly literary. They talk about intellectual things. Edward Said's Orientalism is a major touchstone.

The frame of the novel (there are frequent flashbacks) takes place in one long sleepless night of Ritter's, when he's in his home town of Vienna. The above quote occurs in a section headlined 2:30 AM, and Ritter, as he fails to fall asleep, becomes more and more absurd until he reaches peak absurdity at that hour; as the dawn approaches, he returns to something like sense.

It's a complex novel, full of things I don't necessarily know very much about. I couldn't say much without doing some serious reading around it. I haven't read Énard's two earlier novels, both of which are also available in English, though now I might. And I got this from the library and it's due soon. Really I'm only going to be able to be shallow in anything I say.

And maybe that's OK.

What all that made me wonder about is, to what extent do we as readers need to understand intellectual referents in order to enjoy a novel about intellectual characters? I've read Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus twice--Mann is another touchstone for Énard's book--without knowing very much about music theory either time; in fact, I'm quite sure that the first time I read Doctor Faustus, I knew absolutely nothing about music theory; my youthful listening to the Clash and Graham Parker did nothing for my understanding of the late Beethoven piano sonatas and twelve-tone music. In fact, until I read Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise a few years ago, I suspect that all of my knowledge of music theory came from incompletely understood passages in Doctor Faustus.

A friend of mine hasn't read Doctor Faustus, even though she liked Mann's The Magic Mountain (equally full of intellectuals talking about intellectual things) because while she knows something about Western philosophy, (the intellectual domain of The Magic Mountain) she doesn't know anything about the music theory featured in Doctor Faustus. This always struck me as strange, because I was quite sure when I read The Magic Mountain for the first time, I knew next to nothing about the history of Western philosophy, and I liked it just fine. Both of those books of Mann's left me with a list of things I wanted to read, and that's one of the things that novels can do for a reader.

We can also simply enjoy the possibility of romance, which Énard offers as well: it's a story of eggheads in love.

Anyway it, too, left me with a bunch of things I'd like to read: Nizami's Layla and Majnun or that Schopenhauer in the first sentence. At least two of them are already on the shelves, bought in earlier fits of intellectual ambition that petered out before fulfillment: al-Shidyaq's Leg over Leg and Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet.