Monday, February 17, 2020

The Private Patient by PD James

Adam Dalgleish is going to marry Emma. In requesting her father's approval, the couple are treated to a kindly teasing by the old man. Borrowing dialogue from Oscar Wilde, he inquires, tongue in cheek, about his prospective son-in-law's income. This delightful scene is interrupted by Adam's ringing cell phone.

The case he is must investigate is the murder of a post-operative patient in Dorset. The victim was recovering in "one of the most beautiful in England," now a nursing home.

Emma is sanguine when her policeman fiance is summoned to investigate. She rearrange her weekend plans to stay in London with her oldest girlfriend, newly married to her gay partner, little dreaming that a most unwelcome drama is about to erupt.

The pacing of this novel is exquisite. In the first third, we are lulled by the beauty and privacy of the nursing home where a well-known investigative journalist is about to have an old facial scar removed. She has finally managed to forgive her long-dead father for striking her in her teenage years, and tells the surgeon she "no longer needs" the mark. In this early part of the book, the violence done to Rhoda by her long-dead father is in the distant past.

However, before leaving London, Rhoda treats a male friend to a meal. Observing her gentle teasing, we sense that that she likes but does not entirely trust this handsome young man, and mild alarm bells begin to sound.

At the private nursing home in Dorset, the competent surgeon and the harmless-seeming staff lull the reader, likewise the beauty of the countryside, the tasteful decor of the manor and the delicious food served there. Only in passing do we learn that a young woman was once burned as a witch at the standing stones that flank the property.

Once the violence hits, we begin to glimpse what lies beneath. From the point of view of one character at a time, we witness the papered-over pain and resentment that lie beneath the surface of their lives. Once the detectives arrive and begin work on the case, death strikes again. Then yet again. This middle portion of the story is fraught with terrifying urgency, and filled with confusion and uncertainty.

The author takes her time in winding the story down, leaving enough hints and ambiguities for the reader to wonder -- Am I missing something? Is someone else going to get it? Was that strange confession true?

Another masterfully told story by the renowned PD James, this tale has all the elements of a cosy and much more besides. It is smart, contemporary, and philosophical in its perspectives. One lovely moment comes is a retired lawyer's response to Dalgleish's comment that he is only a policeman, not an ethicist: "all civilized people must be ethicists." For me, that notion resonated strongly. At this time of social upheaval, as traditional social contracts are being eroded and torn up around us, the only way out its in.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Tattoo by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

This translation is dated 2008; the original Spanish edition was published in 1976. Pepe Carvalho, a macho "ex-cop ex-Marxist" who once worked in Amsterdam for the CIA, is now a middle-aged private detective. This disillusioned maverick anti-hero used to love literature. Now he reads people, and uses one of his books to light the fire to cook a gourmet meal for Charo, his prostitute girl friend.

Paid to confirm the identity of a drowned man with a most unusual tattoo, Pepe follows a lead to Amsterdam, where he gets beaten up and tossed in a canal. Along the way, he drinks copious quantities of beer and liquor, eats at a fondly remembered Balinese restaurant in the Dutch capital, and despises the food he is obliged to order in inferior restaurants while pursuing leads.

The case proves even more sordid than expected; upon learning the details, he is shaken to the core. Fortunately for the gourmet detective, "the smell of frying tomatoes and onions" and the sight of a "steaming pot of mussels" makes life livable again.

Pepe is tough almost to the point of caricature. The "strange cinema he carrie[s] inside his head" portrays scenes of sex and violence, and in one real-life scene, he takes pleasure in a fight. A heavy drinker in a boozing culture, he and can read the stages of drunkenness in his informants and associates.

Although many of the characters the detective encounters are unappealing, all are beautifully rendered. The language in this unusual book is rich and vivid. Its evocative sensory descriptions locate the reader in the centre of bygone Barcelona, awash in food, alcohol, cigars, illegal drugs, and prostitutes. Amsterdam too is portrayed with clarity, as is the contrast between northern and southern Barcelona beaches, and French versus Spanish coastlines when seen from the air.

In search of leads, Pepe interviews a tattoo artist, who explains that in the past, only "sailors and crooks" wanted tattoos. Now, sailors "aren't what they used to be," and crooks are getting too smart to mark their bodies with identifiable art. Only one good tattooist remains in Barcelona, he opines, and while there are still a few artist in Tangiers and elsewhere in Morocco, Hamburg and Rotterdam no longer live up to their pre-war reputations as the best places to get tattoos.

We get a powerful sense of the society and the era through vivid and darkly humorous descriptions and comments. About Charo, Pepe cynicall observes that "in passionate solidarity mode," she becomes "a monument to class consciousness." In an effort to clamp down on illegal activity, the police close "all the brothels except the really expensive ones." Irritated by one young man's "self-satisfied grin of a jumped-up mafioso," the street-tough Pepe takes pleasure in the chance to clean his clock.

The reader senses the author's philosophy through the inner musings of Pepe Carvalho. who feels that his "journey between childhood and old age is a personal, non-transferable destiny" to be lived by him and him alone, and everybody else can "go and get stuffed." He looks back on the veterans of the Spanish Legion, "full of scorn and literature, setting off between the wars" on another armed adventure that "would never happen today," since people have now discovered "they can only do what's possible."

Lunching with two strangers from whom he hopes to glean information, the detective notices how one of them is "sacrificing an absent friend in order to keep in with the one sitting next to him." Pepe is soon bored with the men, finding their blind and belligerent expressions of nationalism stupid and unappealing.

In the era of women's liberation, the detective wearily observes the "geisha-like submission so typical of those liberated young middle-class women" who invest their "pre-matrimonial enthusiasm" in "consolation prizes for unfulfilled ambitions." Cynically, he comments on the replacement of the "ancestral tradition of setting up a girl who had brought shame to her family with a corner shop" by its modernized version: "leasing a boutique for unhappily married women suffering from existential angst."

In the "green watery landscape" of the Netherlands, Pepe Carvalho observes the foreign workers "from a whole alphabet of poor European countries" where life is hard. He notices that the Turks, "fugitives from a dry country," have "lost their initial boisterousness and gradually accepted the convention of silence imposed by this part of Europe, where everything looked as though it were drawn with a ruler." Yet however civilized this northern nation may seem, Amsterdam is home to a secret and violent CIA organization awash with connections from Indonesia to Colombia.

Feeling "a rush of blind anger" towards both his own countrymen and the "phlegmatic Dutch cycling past," Pepe Carvalho is depressed by the thought that "Some are born to make history, others to suffer it." Luckily his body, which does not betray him, is at that moment walking him towards a fine restaurant called the House of Lords, where he will console himself with an excellent meal.

Born in a seedy Barcelona barrio as the Spanish Civil War ended, Manuel Vazquez Montalban was a poet and essayist as well as a novelist. By the time he died in 2003 at the age of 64, his 22 novels had appeared in 24 languages. His detective Pepe Carvalho lives on.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

No Man's Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

Inspector Wexford is retired. In this latest novel in the series, his creator lets him have a look-in at a current case involving a woman minister called Sarah Hussein, who also happens to be a single mother of a seventeen-year-old.

Now a private citizen, Reg no longer has the powers of a "centurion" who is routinely called Sir or Inspector. On the other hand, he is now free to speak frankly to all those connected to the case, who talk far more openly to him than to his friend Mike [Burden], who is still a policeman.

Reg Wexford also has the perspective that comes with age.  Looking back over his life, he ponders how things have changed. Language flows steadily forward, carrying his daughter into middle age, marked by her use of outdated expressions like "flavour of the month."

The plot of this story is intricate, yet the social commentary is arguably more interesting, covering as it does the contemporary atmosphere of slowly evolving attitudes to class, to race, to language and to the precise levels of formality and usage that have kept an eroding social order in place.

In breaks between investigating, Wexford reads Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Enjoying the sonorous beauty of the antiquated language, he approves the author's advanced way of remarking the "absurd" attribution of "guilt and shame" placed by "imperious man" on an unwed woman. Equally, he notes Gibbon's ignorant and prejudiced certitudes.

Reg still writes letters, and he muses on the imminent disappearance of this old custom, along with so many others. Brooding over the social consequences of the contemporary ability a woman has to impregnate herself with donated sperm and a turkey baster, he does what he can to help the person who is shocked to learn she was born this way.

Unafraid to say what's on his mind, Wexford points out to his policeman friend that his summary of the Reverend Sarah Hussein's background is 'riddled with apologetic racism." A lover of language, he can't overcome his fascination at the steady march of the language of political correctness. Some of these add humour as when Reg irritates his friend Mike by his inability to resist the temptation to keep commenting on his word choices. As the ex-policeman pontificates on the usage of the words hit man, henchman, and accomplice, readers smile at this agreeable imperfection. This is all the more amusing when several days later, Mike jumps on something Reg says, taking the rare opportunity to  ask his friend "'Who's a racist now?'"

Wexford shows calm diplomacy within his own family, with daughter Sylvia and his grandson Robin. He reads the boy's actions with a view to his age, and refrains from commenting when he observes that his middle-aged daughter Sylvia, who has lost "an alarming amount of weight on that Dukan diet" [a reprise of a forgotten diet used by previous generations] now dubs "all even slightly overweight people fat." When he comments on her extreme slimness, she attributes this to envy; he does not tell her that at his age, he's more concerned with cancer.

Though language and culture changes, the class system stubbornly persists, though different in detail. The behaviour and speech of the odious housekeeper, who wallows in gossip and racial slurs, seems typical of her position in the social hierarchy. Maxine praises her immature and egotistic son, while denigrating her daughter-in-law for not knowing a woman's place. The author provides a satisfying foil for Maxine in the person of the replacement housekeeper, a modest and hard-working woman of Asian heritage, a blue-jean wearing mother of two accomplished children. Nevertheless, thinks Wexford, she shows his visitor into the room "with all the self-effacing meekness of a parlourmaid in Gibbon's own day."

Ever the observer of human nature, Wexford draws certain inferences about the new minister when he uses the antiquated phrase "How do you do?" which he himself has not heard for several years. I was intrigued to note that like many older Canadians, he is "uneasy with the metric system," and still thinks in feet and inches.

Certain pleasing ironies are woven through this story. Now that Reg is no longer a police officer but a private citizen, he is free not only to speak his mind but to offer comfort where it is needed. All kinds of people want to confide in him. Mike fears criticism in the press so much that he avoids being photographed in public eating or drinking while a murder case remains open, but the situation is now very different for Wexford, who observes how words that might once have "pierced to one's very soul" can now be "reflected on with wry humour" and "actually make one laugh."

Another important element of this rich book is a gentle meditation on aging. It brings the compensations of wide experience and perspective, even as it reveals the ignorance that drove certain past actions. Reading this recent book by Ruth Rendell felt like being plunged into a certain time and place while feeling oneself moving with the relentlessly flowing river of life.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Star of Istanbul by Robert Olen Butler

This historic thriller by Robert Olen Butler opens on board the Lusitania during its final fateful journey. The infamous sinking of that passenger liner by a German U-boat in 1915 is well known; the reader waits in trepidation for the inevitable.

Other aspects of the inevitable in this book are certain well-used tropes. Our American narrator is a tough guy hero. A knowledgeable war correspondent and journalist, this polyglot son of an actress mother has been recruited as a spy.

For the sake of his country, he finds and follows his quarry. While doing so, he meets and makes love to a mysterious and beautiful actress, then saves her life when the ship goes down. And there's more...

The story turns on the idea of acting -- people and situations keep changing, getting Kit Cobb into a lot of tight corners as they do. Kit is good at thinking, but he's learned from covering wars that 'nobody can think fast enough to live in an emergency - thinking is how you die.' In an emergency, the only way to survive is to react.

This story is well-researched and full of contemporary references to the geopolitical situation a century ago. Journalist Kit speaks of how Woodrow Wilson "invaded Mexico last spring to kick out a tin-pot dictator and to protect American oil interests." After "avidly talking neutrality in Europe," he'd expedited "ongoing sale and shipment of American arms to Britain." Will the sinking of the Lusitania bring America into the war, Kit wonders? [It did.]

This author's language is fresh and irreverent, his ironic portrayal of British cultural rituals memorable. Arriving at the Waldorf in London, Kit comments that "we who survived the Lusitania would be checking into its immobilized doppelganger, as if we'd in fact all drowned on Friday and this was a meticulously bespoke purgatory." His relentless description of the gourmet meal he shares with Mr. Metcalf is downright grotesque.

In a different tone, channeling Mark Twain or Stephen Leacock or both, he likens the profusion of minarets in Galata to that of "smokestacks in Pittsburgh." Hilariously, he states that the German helmet called the Pickelhaube protects "very little except the feelings of inadequacy of the officer beneath it." The villain's smile is "part irony, part taffeta."

As the plot gallops forward, the author brings in a lot of history. I was surprised to learn that the Orient Express -- famed for its Paris to Istanbul passenger service -- ran over a line that was part of a longer project of railway building. The narrator calls the "vaunted" Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, which would pass through the Mosul oilfields, "the great umbilical of Germany's nascent Asian empire." The geopolitical conflicts touched on in the story are chillingly similar to the ones we witness around us today.

Butler's description is evocative -- the ancient city of Istanbul rises before the reader, with its hilly narrow streets crowding along the blue Bosporus, replete with all manner of sights, smells, and sounds. In that teeming city, along with besuited and befezzed Turks, we see and hear Sephardic Jews, Armenians, and Greeks, as well as plenty of bored European tourists who dine and drink and go to the theatre in close proximity to the touristic and Frenchified Pera Palace Hotel.

In the company of the philosophical narrator, we navigate "the deep currents of history." It is, he says, the "manifesto of any band of nationalists" -- few, unfocused, disorganized and "accustomed to repression" though they may be -- that a single isolated act can change everything. Indeed, says Kit, "an anonymous, undersized Bosnian teenager with a nationalist cause and a sandwich in his hand started the war with two bullets."

We are also asked to confront "the murderous inertia humans are capable of." With Kit Cobb, we enter a Turkish coffee house where heartfelt and genuinely friendly Merhabahs are exchanged with him over coffee and tobacco -- the "infidel" is after all, a fellow human. Along with him, we consider the remarkably similar history of Christians and Muslims: "marching into countries where a bunch of folks thought differently about you and God and you ground your religious heel into their throats."

Robert Olen Butler teaches graduate fiction at Florida State University. In addition to his novels and short stories, he is the author of a book about the creative process, From Where You Dream.

The historic and luxurious Pera Palace Hotel is still a going concern. The deluxe Golden Horn room starts at 167 Euros per night. History and buffs can splash out and book the Mata Hari suite, film fans can choose the Greta Garbo corner room or the Alfred Hitchcock suite, and literary types can stay in rooms commemorating Agatha Christie or Ernest Hemingway, who also stayed there.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Word is Murder, and the genre is?

This highly unusual mystery by Anthony Horowitz is hard to describe. In an accomplished work of metafiction, the author is a character, conveying his plot through his own eyes as narrator. Horowitz leaves the reader wondering where fact ends and fiction begins. When he's not adding to the stock of highbrow literary references, he's happily exercising some time-worn tropes.

Against the stern writerly advice given in the guide by the hilarious Mittelmark and Newman, he has his articulate villain not only indulge in "a retirement speech," but also "improbably recount" all "his [or her?] evil deeds."

The possessor of enormous numbers of publication credits, this author plays with genre. His creations include youth and adult fiction, plays, journalism, TV series and films.

Well-known for Foyle's War, he is also the author of more than forty books, including new James Bond and Sherlock Holmes books commissioned by the estates of those authors.

In this page-turner, I found it unsettling to read the narrator's take on certain character who "was sitting there with that strange energy of his, that mix of malice and single-mindedness that made him so hard to read."

Every scene that features author/narrator Horowitz and (fictional) ex-policeman Hawthorne reflects their contrasting characters and approaches. Taking place near the end of the book, this description of Hawthorne's first visit to Horowitz's home is a telling revelation of the tension between the two men. Says Horowitz, "it struck me that he was completely in control of the situation, and this might as well have been his flat as mine. Hawthorne certainly had a magnetic personality. Although, of course, magnets can repel as well as attract."

In a conversation with another member of the police force, the narrator is told about "the murder manual." The existence of this book was a revelation to me. No doubt it's a boon for crime writers.

I particularly loved this fascinating glimpse into the author's writing process:

"I could see the books piling up in front of me. Sometimes, when I'm sitting at my desk I feel as if there's a dump truck behind me. I hear the whirr of its engine and it suddenly off-loads its contents...millions and millions of words. They keep cascading down and I wonder how many more there can possibly be. But I'm powerless to stop them. Words, I suppose, are my life."

Thank you, Anthony Horowitz, for the many wonderful creations you have made with your words.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Mukherjee reflects contemporary issues in historic mystery

Abir Mukherjee has done it again. This tale of London and Calcutta a century ago is fresh, astute and current. In the Author's Note, he says that Death in the East was not the novel he set out to write, nor did he intend to set so much of it in London. But he felt circumstances gave him little choice. He comments that around the world, "the rise of populism has seen the growth of anger, extremeism, fear of the other, and the erosion of tolerance and decency."

Yet this, he says, "is not the Britain I know and love, and it is not the Britain which offered sanctuary to the Jews of Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1914," going on to list more times when his native country behaved with mercy, tolerance and decency to people arriving from outside, whether they came as refugees or simply relocated to seek better lives for their families.

As he goes through a cure for opium addiction in an Assam monastery, Sam Wyndham has to look at himself a little more closely. He must face and come to terms with his weaknesses, as well as employing goodwill, empathy and effort to preserve an important friendship. Sergeant Bannerjee, he realizes, is no longer the shy boy he was when he first reported to his superior officer.

While Surindranath ignores disapproving looks and peruses the menu at the Jatinga Club, Sam contemplates the "inordinate amount of time and energy" the British waste on "petty hierarchies and bureaucracies," and the difficulty of maintaining the "middle ground of mutual respect" as Gandhi's peaceful protests cause politics to flare and polarize in India.

In London, a police Inspector muses on the cynical twisting of truth employed by hack journalists who stir up readers with inaccurate information to encourage them to blame others. Thus do they sell papers. Describing a female murder victim in London, Sam is well aware that her sex and lowly birth are "twin misfortunes." Unfortunately, "the gift of intelligence had only made matters worse."

I salute Mukherjee for highlighting the social problems we still see around us, even as he tells a cracking good story that frequently invokes rueful laughter at our history and society.

In the Afterword, Mukherjee states that he wanted this novel to be one of hope, expressing the belief that his native country will remember itself and "live up to those standards of tolerance and decency and fair play" that he identifies with Great Britain. To that I say Amen.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Disclaimer by Renee Knight

This intricately plotted novel presents various points of view. By manipulating the reader's sympathies, the author demonstrates how quickly and automatically we judge and blame others, then reveals how misguided those judgments can be. Why are the narrative perspectives so different and who is reliable? Is it human or forgivable to take out one's own grief on an unwitting child? Do the bereaved spouses unconsciously whitewash the character of their son?

The book raises troubling thematic questions as well. In an effort to protect our families from emotional trauma, is is appropriate to keep secrets from loved ones? What does it mean to trust someone? What past errors are forgiveable, and how can we choose who to believe? Are we responsible for our own suffering? A gripping read, this story offers no easy answers to these vexing questions.