Saturday, May 28, 2011

Before the Fact by Francis Iles (1992 )


If Before the Fact is remembered other than by enthusiasts of the “alternate” murder mysteries that were relatively popular in England in the 1930s it is as the inspiration of Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

BTF was published in 1932 and for the reader who knows only the England of Marsh, Allingham and Christie it may come as a shock to find a story which deals so openly, if with a somewhat oblique form of openness, with matters of sexuality. The POV character, Lina, is clearly frigid during the first weeks of her marriage before finding pleasure in sex. Her husband, Johnnie, describes her then as having been like a wet fish in bed. We learn that, if Lina had allowed, Johnnie would have experimented unspecified sexual ‘abnormalities.’ Lina, during a time when she is estranged from her husband, frankly considers the possibility of not just taking a lover but of living openly with him.

The ‘twist’ of the book is that the ‘murderee’ as she comes to think of herself, is aware ‘ Before the Fact’ that her husband intends to murder her. Indeed she knowingly takes the poisoned drink from her husband only after she is sure that he will ‘get away’ with murdering her.

My lack of patience with the book is that after one gets over its novelty one realizes that it is a comparatively well written exercise in making the victim to complicit in her victimization that one ceases to blame her victimizer for his actions. Indeed one finishes the book blaming neither the murderer or the person who stood by watching his actions. The Lina whose mind the reader sees into is suffering from masochism so great that she talks herself into seeing her husband, a man of ruthless egotism who has robbed and murdered his way through life, as a child for whom she is responsible. How many women who end up in battered women’s shelters have bought into this idea that somehow it is their fault that they were not able to reign in the weaknesses of the man in their lives? Though Iles works hard to make Johnnie an attractive cad to this reader he is merely a man who preyed on other people. The author may have written the book to explore why people stay in such oppressive relationships but on rereading it seems more like a paean to wifely martyrdom. Rather than seeing Lina as a martyr or a woman who loved not wisely but too well this reader saw her as a woman who had as weak a moral compass as her husband. This reader ended the book feeling more sorry for the other people that Johnnie will murder after he has run through every last cent of his dead wife’s money than she did for Lina.

There was, at this time in England, an amazing amount of affection for the aristocratic cad. Had Johnnie been from the working class one cannot doubt that he would have been thrown into prison and any of Lina’s set who read about his exploits would have seen him as nothing but a common thief and murderer. It is this same affection one sees in Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys wherein the reader is invited to find the fact that the titular family lives by not paying the money they owe to tradespeople and servants charming. Looking back over almost eighty years one sees the enormous degree of entitlement still enjoyed by members of the gentry and aristocracy at that time and one wonders if anything short of the intervention of a World War could have prevented serious class violence from erupting in England.

Rating: 3 stars

Book Review: The Poisoned Chocolates Case

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

This is very much a book of its time, albeit a well-written one. Roger Sheringham and the five other members of his Crimes Circle each attempt to solve a murder which has stumped Scotland Yard. Sheringham had appeared as an amateur detective in previous Berkeley mysteries and the other participants were all suggestive of one or more prominent figures in contemporary English fiction and public life.

This reviewer found Berkeley’s prose style to be enjoyable. Each character had a different “voice” and each proposed a solution to the murder that was both reasonable and predictable given that person’s (and the people for whom that person was a stand-in) understandings of the world. Reading each of these proposed solutions and the responses each “solution” elicited from the group told this reader more about a particular slice of English life and culture than would several volumes of academic exposition. The writers of murder mysteries routinely use short-cuts, exaggerations and stereotypes in order to make the story believable (for fiction is often held to a higher stand of “reality” than is reality itself) and yet the picture that they draw must adhere either the reality the reader understands or proscribes. Since different authors attracted different audiences the varied realities one comes across in these books gives the present day reader a vivid picture of the actual and mental world of the English reader of popular murder mysteries in the first half of the interwar period.

While some of the presumptions and understandings upon which the amateur detectives’ solutions are based will probably come as no surprise to today’s reader others seem to be more appropriate to a Monty Python sketch than a book that is not categorized as farce or magical realism. As this reader expected servants and clerks exist only to be questioned and to fulfill their practical functions. For example, at no point in the story did any person suggest that a member of the working or lower middle class might have played an intentional role in the murder. What was surprising was the degree to which the differences in the way in which men who went to one of the public schools and men who were “merely” well educated were considered as real, tangible evidence of who could and could not have committed the crime given the different solutions proposed. There was also a general agreement not only that men acted (and thought) differently than did women but that methods of murder would differ not only by the gender and education of the murderer but also by the gender of the murdered.

Although The Poisoned Chocolates Mystery is not a collection of short stories it can be read in a similar fashion as the the reader (and the members of the Crime Circle) are introduced to the crime and each of the six present, on separate nights, their proposed solution. There are no maps or complicated alibi checklists to reference. In short, a well written and diverting story for the reader who enjoys murder mysteries written in the early period of the “Golden Age.”

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Women's Rights and the Decline of Democracy, Part Three

  Some time ago I wrote about how "negotiable" women's rights were in much of the modern (particularly American) democratic discourse. Recent events, and more importantly coverage of recent events, have only increased my level of concern.

A number of websites (and major newspapers) covered the fact that more than one Hassidic Newspaper edited Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Counterterrorism Director Audrey Tomason out of the photo the White House published of the officials in the situation room on May 1 2011 waiting for the outcome of the bin Laden raid.

Original White House Picture:

This is not just an example of people rewriting history in order to make it more palatable ideologically this is an example of a kyriarchy aggressively thrusting a specific subset of the human race out of the public sphere. And make no mistake about it, refusing to show pictures of women (on the grounds of sexual modesty) does more to sexualize and objectify those women than would showing pictures of them naked. It is pointless to argue that the opportunities of women are not limited by the fact that they cannot be pictured just because no law says that a woman cannot own a newspaper or a television station. To function effectively in the public sphere one must be visible in the public sphere.

Prime Minster Julia Gillard (Australia), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (United States) and Michelle Obama (First Lady, United States) at the International Women of Courage Awards

If women cannot be seen then women are dependent on men deciding that women's issues are of importance. Imagine an award ceremony such as that pictured above if the public face of courageous women was a man (or a blank space.) No money could be raised, no discussions could be held if no man felt the issue to be important.

Imagine how difficult it would be for any woman to run for office if her male opponents could appear on television and be seen and heard debating and she was but a smudge mark on a photograph. Politicians must be seen to be doing their work.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard at a community cabinet in Australia

Prime Minister Sheikh Hassina of Bangladesh presiding over a joint meeting of the NDC and DSCSC at Armed Forces Division in Dhaka Cantonment.

Not showing pictures of woman allows members of the kyriarchy to live in a world in which, obviously, women aren't needed/useful in the public sphere since we have the photographic evidence that despite their absence the required functions of governments, institutions and organizations carry on. Yes, you might argue that a little girl need not actually see a picture of woman president/prime minister/doctor/lawyer/astronaut/writer/athlete in order to dream of being one herself but one wonders how hard to is to dream of working hard so that one can be obliterated from the pages of history.

If I could ask those men who wish to erase from the newspapers and history the images of all women one question it would be.....

What would Golda Meir think?

Golder Meir, Prime Minister of Israel 1969-1974

Note: All the above pictures are in the public domain. Each was available on the official website of the country in question.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Review: The Eye of Osiris: A Dr. John Thorndyke Story

The Eye of Osiris: A Dr. John Thorndyke Story by R. Austin Freeman (1911)

Sometimes one is disappointed when reading a “classic” wondering just what it was that made others rate a book so highly. That has happened to this reviewer often enough to make approaching “must-reads” and “classics” filled with trepidation. In this case, however, the reasons why so many have included this book on their lists of “great mysteries” are obvious. This is a delightfully written, nicely-placed and eminently fair example of detective fiction.

Freeman makes the interesting choice of having the book written from the point of view of Paul Berkeley, a recently qualified doctor and former student of Thorndyke. Jervis, the narrator of the first two Thorndyke books, has not disappeared but it is no longer through his eyes that the reader witnesses events. This allows the narrator to not see all that Thorndyke does without making him irredeemably slow and unteachable.  Thus there are times that the reader, already familiar with Thorndyke’s methods, will be able to infer more from things that Berkeley hears, sees or read than does he.

Beyond here there lie spoilers.

In addition to providing the reader with an excellent story of deduction and reasoning Freeman also writes one of the few believable and sympathetic love stories this reviewer has come across in the detective and mystery stories written at this time. Ruth is not simply a sweet Victorian girl she has a believable personality and an interesting mind. One understands exactly why Berkeley is drawn to her and one can watch the way their relationship progresses from being strangers, to individuals with shared interests, to becoming friends and then realizing that they have fallen love. None of it is strained nor is it extraneous. Berkeley is given believable motivations for his actions through the book.

Freeman plays so fairly with his readers that if the reader is well-versed in the detective fiction of the time they will have suspicions and inklings of understanding before at the end the truth is revealed. Yet this in no way diminishes from the enjoyment of following the story and from finding out the indications and clues one missed. No anvils are used nor does the author fall back on obfuscation.

This reader regretted the moment when the last page was turned and the story ended but then was cheered by the knowledge that there is another Thorndyke book on the “to read” shelf.

Rating: 4-1/2 stars

Book Review: John Thorndyke's Cases

John Thorndyke's Cases by R. Austin Freeman (1909)

This book is, as the title indicates, a collection of Thorndyke’s cases. Freeman seems to be “trying out” different approaches to writing detective fiction and so the cases vary from almost painfully complex to straightforward. The degree to which Jervis, and the reader, are included in the process of detection also varies from story to story. It would be tempting to presume that the more complex the method of crime the more the reader would be excluded from the ability to at least share in some of Thorndyke’s suspicions however this proves not to be the case. Although not all the stories are equally successful at mixing ingenuity and charm with serious detection this reader was left with the urge to immediate pick up the next Thorndyke book and start reading it.

 Rating: 3 stars

Book Review: The Red Thumb Mark

The Red Thumb Mark by R. Austin Freeman (1907)

This story is not only surprisingly charming to the reader but also unexpectedly relevant to the contemporary fad for forensic procedurals. Thorndyke seems, in many ways, to having been designed to be an interesting not quite anti-Holmes. Thorndyke does not call into question the necessity for the careful checking of clues and scientific examination of all possible aspects of the crime. What he calls into question is what might called the fetishization of particular forms of scientific findings without considering all the possibilities of how that “evidence" came to be found at the scene of the crime. In this case, Thorndyke, in defending Reuben Hornby, has to counter the automatic assumption of the police that “a finger-print as a kind of magical touchstone, a final proof, beyond which inquiry need not go." Indeed, Thorndyke argues that “this is an entire mistake. A finger-print is merely a fact, a very important and significant one, I admit, but still a fact, which, like any other fact, requires to be weighed and measured with reference to its evidential value.”

Thorndyke does not debunk the science behind fingerprinting nor is he skeptical of the process of scientific investigation. What he does present is the difference between true scientific inquiry and the automatic assumption that having mastered a particular scientific technique one may fall back upon it as if it were written in stone. And indeed, he demonstrates that any technique of investigation will soon be countered by criminals who take it into account and counter it with new techniques of their own. It is particularly interesting to read this book today at a time when many treat DNA evidence with reverence but without real understandings of its strengths and weaknesses. Indeed one wonders what opinions Dr. Thorndyke would have as to the reliability of many of today’s labs and many of today’s experts.

For those who are interested in the details of forensic analysis Freeman devotes a good part of the book to that very aspect of forensics which is most overlooked in most television procedurals; how does one present evidence in a way that is understandable and convincing to juries. For those who are less interested in the scientific aspect of “ratiocination” Freeman includes a wonderful analysis of the Holmesian deductive method as Thorndyke explains not only why his supposition that a figure outside the window was a stationmaster was sound but also why it was, for all that soundness, a mere educated guess.

In conclusion: This is an enjoyably written book which avoids unneeded plot complications, does a good job of introducing the reader to Dr. Thorndyke and his methods and may do well to assuage that empty feeling the reader is left with after consuming the last of the Holmes stories.

Rating: 3-1/2 stars

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: August Folly

August Folly by Angela Thirkell (1936)

In August Folly, the fourth of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, the reader finds hirself once again the world of the English gentry in the years between the two World Wars. It is tempting to categorize this as light-weight book with two main functions: to entertain and the second to sketch in more completely the existing characters that make up the cast of the Bartsetshire novels and to add a few more members to that cast.

Those functions may have been the conscious intentions of the author however August Follyleaves the modern day reader with a carefully sketched picture of the realities of provincial life among the English gentry in the 1930s. In particular the reader is given an insight in the nuanced complications of economic inequalities among people of similar class status. The England in which this story has set has already begun to undergo the changes that would lead to, if such a thing c ould exist, a partial upheaval in the class system.

Many of the characters in this book seemed trapped in the contradictions between the economic/class system that was and the economic/class system that is to come. The families around whom this book revolves all belong to the gentry (they are, in the terminology of the time, ladies and gentlemen.) The sons attend university and clearly studying at Oxford or Cambridge are their only options for acquiring tertiary education. However, unlike previous generations of young men of their class, this cohort is more conscious of the limitations of such education in providing them with the skills required to get jobs (and make money) in the world of business. Whereas earlier generations of the gentry had been content (and able) for the most part to live off dividends and perhaps the income from their land the current generation was finding it more and more difficult to do the same.

The story itself revolves around one summer in the country life of three families living in the Barset countryside:[1] the Palmers, the Deans and the Tebbens. As is not uncommon in books of this type characters meet, interact, and misunderstand each other. Their actions and interactions take place against the attempt on the part of Mrs. Palmer to stage Euripides’s Hippolytus. Usually in romance/soap operas there would be a clear echo between the themes of the play being staged and the drama enacted among those rehearsing the play and yet, in this case, there is not. The modern reader may be struck with the extent to which the English at the time had such a shared culture that one could be fairly sure that any other ‘educated’ person would have read the same plays and know the same poetry. Aside from that sense of “shared culture” the overwhelming echo from play to book is that the characters about whom Thirkell is writing live as constrained lives as those in the play. There were but a narrow number of people that any individual could pair up with and there was but a narrow range of jobs any individual could enter be they upper, middle or working class.

Unlike many other novelists who include a number of characters who all belong to the gentry Thirkell does not rely on subtle clues to indicate to the readers the differences in financial statuses of the different families. Of the Palmers we learn little save that they have no children and they are quite comfortably situated. The Deans are clearly well heeled. There are nine children in the family and at no time is there any indication that choices are made for financial reasons. Mr. Dean works and is evidently successful although one doubts that the lifestyle of the family arises only from his wages. They own more than one car. They employ more than one chauffeur. They eat caviar and spend money without consideration. The Tebbens, on the other hand, are clearly struggling to maintain the what they consider the necessities of life. Mr. Tebben holds a position as a civil servant (or which we learn precious few details) and his wife writes economic text books. They cannot afford a car but they have a (not particularly good) cook. They hire household servants but worry about the cost of tea. Though they belong to the same class as the Deans and the Palmers the economic realities of their lives are so dissimilar that a modern reader, less schooled in the nuances of class, will wonder why they consider themselves part of the same social set.

If August Folly had been set in London the counterpoint of the old ways dying set against the formation of the next generation might have become lost in the midst of its own playing out. It is says much for why Thirkell was considered a popular and accessible (but fundamentally lightweight) author by her contemporaries that it is possible to read and enjoy her books without even noticing the underlying themes and tensions yet if one considers them carefully if the thematic material was removed there would be little left to read.

This is a story a people who are at best only minor actors upon the stage of their county and their country. They react rather than act and thus are at the mercy of the fates as to the direction of their own lives. Because they are born to a class that is accepted as “the leaders” they see themselves as having some degree of control over their lives and yet, as one looks back over the occurrences of the book, one realizes that Thirkell has presented to the audience characters with as little final control over their lives as had the characters in the Greek play they were staging.

[1] For those unfamiliar with the work of Thirkell – one of the major conceits of the greater number of her novels is that they take place in the same corner of England as Trollope explored in many of his novels. Not only do Thirkell’s readers encounter place names familiar from many of Trollope’s books the reader is also explicitly informed that Thirkell’s characters inhabit Trollope’s created England by having the narrator or characters identify other characters as descendants of individuals in Trollope’s books.

Rating: 3-1/2 stars

Book Review: Tiassa

Tiassa by Steven Brust (2011)

It is difficult to write a review of Tiassa because I will not know myself exactly what I think of it until I have read it at least 3 or 4 more times. And even after those re-readings I suspect that I would find it difficult to give the book an exact grade.

So, first things first.

Did I enjoy Tiassa?

Yes indeed.

Did Tiassa live up to your expectations?

It is difficult to answer that question because I have learned to have few expectations of any of Brust's books except that the time and effort spent reading them will be worthwhile.
However I had no specific expectations as to when in Vlad Taltos life the book would be set. Nor did I have specific expectations as to which of the other characters we have previously met in the Dragaeran books we would encounter in this outing. My hope was that this book would deepen our understanding of how the Dragaeran Empire runs -- and it does so. My hope was that Brust would return to tell us more about particular characters -- and he has done that. My hope was that at the end of Tiassa I would want to immediately go back and reread all the other books in the Vladiad in the light of my new insight and understand of the Vlad's story -- and that was my second impulse after I reached the last word of the book. My first impulse was to turn back to the first page and read Tiassa again.

Is Tiassa a well-written book?

Brust shows off his technical skills as a writer in this book. This reader had already been impressed with the difference in "voice" between the Khaavren Romances, the Vladiad and Agyar. In Tiassa Brust moves from one point to another in both the life of Vlad and Khaavren and in doing so uses the right voice for the right person in the right time.

Is this a good choice for a "first Vlad" book?

To write more than this would be to spoil this book for those who have followed Vlad's saga over the years. And as much as I enjoyed this book I would not suggest it as a good "first Vlad" for someone not already familiar with the series. Brust is, as always, mercifully sparing of the infodump and therefore much of the individual reader's understanding of situations is dependent upon the having read the previously published books. In addition to problem of being "lost" without adequate backstory the reader who has never read another Vlad/Khaavren book will also miss the joy that long time readers have of trying to determine who is an unreliable narrator, who is a self-deluded narrator and who, if anyone, really understands (and could relate) what really happened.

Rating: 4-1/2 stars

Friday, May 6, 2011

On the inside looking out

I wouldn't say I surprised when various American news broadcasts described the outcome of the recent (2011) Canadian election in a way that was so simplified that it was misleading. However, I had not expected the particular way in which the coverage would distort the realities of Canadian politics. The New York Times piece on the election results, Conservatives in Canada Expand Party's Hold, discussed them without ever mentioning, Jack Layton, the man who lead the New Democratic Party (the new official opposition) to win a record-breaking number of seats. In the same article Michael Ignatieff, leader the Liberals, is mentioned three times (excluding the still incorrect corrections at the bottom of the piece.) Similarly The Washington Post article,
Harper says he won’t move Canada hard to the right after winning coveted majority in election
does mention Jack Layton by name but does so in the second half of the piece and devotes far more time talking about Ignatieff than it did the very surprising success of the leader of the NDP.

It was after reading an article about the Canadian election in Worthwhile Canadian Candidate: Michael Ignatieff may want to be prime minister too much for Canadians to give it to him. that I finally realized which presumptions/stereotypes that Canadian public's rejection of Michael Ignatieff was being filtered through.

First: Canadians are just like Americans except they like to play hockey, say "eh" and "aboot." Verities of American politics can be applied at will to Canadian politics.

Second: Separatism is a strange thing that has something to do with the fact that they speak French in places in Canada but Canadian regionalism isn't really important because they are just like Americans except for the fact that they play hockey etc...

Third: Oh, and they have these "left leaning" parties and some of them even have "socialist" roots but a conservative is a conservative is a Republican so delving any deeper into the party platforms (what! conservatives in Canada back socialized medicine!) isn't really necessary.

Fourth: People who live outside of Canada and become well-known in the United States should be recognized by Canadians as ambitious not expatriate.

Fifth: Canadians who don't immediately warm to a Harvard intellectual who spent more than 3 decades out of the country and came back and almost immediately ran for the leadership of his political party are parochial, credulous (falling for the Rovesque tactics of the Conservatives) or suspicious of ambition.

Sixth: That someone from the "outside" (if they are an American) can better understand/judge what is good for Canadians than can Canadians.

Lest these suggestions come across as simply another case of Canadian "touchiness" I would point out that all the things which annoy me about the American coverage of Canadian politics also annoys me about Canadian coverage of the politics of other countries. Just as American news writers and editors understanding and evaluate Canadian news through the filters of their prior concepts so do Canadian news writers and editors understand and evaluate other countries through prior concepts/stereotypes. As citizens of democracies we are called upon at regular or irregular intervals (depending upon one's electoral system) to make decisions and judgments that should be made out of knowledge rather than ignorance. We should be reacting to the reality of the world around us not the phantasms created by "common knowledge," media steroetypes and fact challenged news delivery systems.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review: Ankle Deep

Ankle Deep by Angela Thirkell (1933)

The opening paragraphs of Ankle Deep suggest that it is a typical example of a particular genre. The author lets the reader continue under that misapprehension for a short while then inexorably bends the story in one place and straightens it in another and discloses a few cards hidden up the narrator’s sleeve. By the last page the reader has been taken to both expected and unexpected places and has been finally set down not far from the point where they were originally swept up – in the process having experienced a ride on that strangest of beasts, the existential comedy of manners.

This early Thirkell novel, published in the same year as her first Barsetshire novel, is written with a surety of authorial voice that allows the reader for relax and enjoy this glimpse of a way of life that zie knows will only too soon come to an end. The particular problems that face the characters are both similar to and very different from those which face families today. While some of the particular problems Thirkell's characters encounter (for example, the public shame that accompanied divorce) reflect a much different world than our own other problems (especially those rooted in the personalities of the characters) remain with us today.

Although this is not one of the better remembered Thirkells it was an enjoyable read, a worthwhile reread and a spur to find and read more of the author's work.