Sunday, April 24, 2011

Book Review: Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers (1926)

While this, the second of Sayers’ Wimsey books, is a longer and more discursive volume than the first, its greater length is not due to padding. In fact what the reader is presented with is a fine and nuanced examination of English society and culture in the decade after the end of the “Great War” and before the onset of worldwide depression. England is changing and yet England has not yet changed. The class system is not what it once was and yet the class system still functions. Education is no longer solely the privilege of the upper and monied classes and yet markers of education are still evident in interactions among people.

The story itself is structured much like an onion with layers that must be peeled away in order to discover what lies at the center. The reader will find, especially upon subsequent readings, that the nature of the center is not what they thought it to be and that each layer deserves to be carefully examined upon removal.

Warning: beyond here lie spoilers.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Review: Whose Body?

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers (1923)

Rereading Sayers’ first Wimsey book, Whose Body?, reminding this reviewer why they so loved this genre of story. Sayers’ writing style is unobtrusively good. One is seldom consciously aware of the fact that the author has managed to draw deep and nuanced word portraits in a few sentences. Words are used carefully yet the author seldom makes a point of her erudition save for her choice not to translate the portions of a conversation that take place in French.

Although the method by which the murderer carried out his plans strains credulity Sayers does not resort to the all too common plot device of a massive international criminal conspiracy that one encounters in so many of English mystery/detective stories of this period. This murderer’s motivations are almost mundane in comparison to those found in the books of many of the author’s contemporaries.

A number of things stand out to this reader:

First, there is a base level of anti-Semitism in the Britain of the 1920s that may take a modern reader aback. People are described as “Hebrew” as if that was an identifier no different from “blond.” And many of the characters in this book are clearly prejudiced against Jews. Yet Sir Reuben Levy, the “self-made” and wealthy Jew around whose disappearance much of the book revolves, is not characterized as miserly or money-grubbing. Yes, he holds to the personal economies that helped him become a very wealthy man but he is also shown to be extremely generous to his wife and daughter. His marriage is portrayed as happy and sound and his wife, who braved criticism when she chose to marry a Jew is shown as having never had a reason to regret that decision.

Second, near the end of this book there is a short and stunningly effective depiction of PTSD. The behaviour described was at that time known as shell-shock but there can be no question as to what Lord Peter is experiencing. It is because of this PTSD that he sometimes withdraws in apparent fatuity. As a man who knows that deep emotions may trigger flashbacks he uses a variety of techniques to dampen down those emotions at moments of stress. This grounds Wimsey’s behaviour, and the acceptance of that behaviour on the part of those around him, not in his “class” or the fashion of his social circle but in their knowledge that he has, in a sense, earned the right to sometimes withdraw both intellectually and emotionally.

Third, Sayers treats her non-aristocratic characters as intelligent and rational people. One understands why Lord Peter would find Mr. Parker (a Scotland Yard detective) an enjoyable person with whom to dine. Parker himself is well-educated and is shown to read books that are as intellectually challenging as those that interest Wimsey. Indeed, when he and Lord Peter discuss the morality and rationale of detective work and law on a serious level it is often Parker who seems to make the better argument.

Bunter (Wimsey's 'man'), is another character who, written by a lesser author, could easily fall into caricature rather than characterization. Bunter does not drop letters from his speech and fall back on cant and argot. He, it is pointed out in the text, has been educated well. And the last line in the “shell-shock” scene makes it clear that what ties Bunter to Wimsey is not loyalty based on a class relationship but the loyalty that is forged by shared experiences in combat and physical deprivation.

Whose Body? is not the “perfect” mystery novel. The plot is over complicated and the denouement rather weak. This is, however, an impressive first outing for a detective, and a cast of characters, whose motivations and psychologies are better drawn in a scant few hundred pages than other authors can achieve after several books.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On my mother's death

It was a very peaceful end. I was resting my hand on her chest in order to check her heartbeat and I felt the last beat of her heart. I had been sitting with her all day and in the evening, after my father had left for dinner, there seemed to be something different about her breathing. Mmyspouse went to get dad and so he was there with her when she breathed her last.

It had been winter when she went into the hospital and it was spring when she died. Leaving behind the deathbed vigil was like emerging from a very long and dim tunnel to find that ordinary life had continued in our absence. At home the grass needed to cut and yard work needed to be done. In just a week my father would face his first birthday without mom in over 60 years.

Sitting day after day and then week after week in the hospital I have learned much about the amount of sadness in the world. The morning before my mother's death another patient on the floor of the palliative care unit died. The man had only been in the unit for 2 days and his family was totally unready for the his death. His daughter was sitting by him, looked away and when she looked back he was dead. She broke down in hysterics. Across the hall was a man who has been on the floor for 18 months. The doctors had given him 5 months to live when he arrived. He went home for a few hours on Sunday to enjoy the Masters with his grandsons. He and his family knew that every day could be his last. Just down from his room was that of a young woman -- maybe 24 or 25 -- who had metatastic bone cancer. Her father told me that "it sounds like a cliche but every day becomes a precious gift to you." And in yet another room a 23 year old was dying of cancer and his mother expected that he wouldn't last more than a few more weeks. And a few hours after the corpse of the man who died in the morning had been removed the room had a new occupant. The man, just transferred down from oncology, was constantly wracked by coughing and gasped as if always fighting for enough air just to breathe.

We walked out of the palliative care ward leaving one set of worries and fears and taking up another. Our  concern was now to look after my father, a man who was both heartbroken at the passing of his wife and ready for it. He loved her and he looked after her to the end. We loved her and the greatest gift we could give to her memory was to care for and cherish the man she had loved so long and so well.