“The Printed Word”: Ruth Rendell, A Judgement In Stone

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In those moments the words they cried and their pleas passed over her almost unheard, and by some strange metamorphosis, produced in Eunice’s brain, they ceased to be people and became the printed word. They were those things in the bookcases, those patchy black blocks on white paper, eternally her enemies, hated and desired.

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” is the chilling first line of Ruth Rendell’s 1977 thriller A Judgement In Stone. I’m not sure “thriller” is the right word, but “mystery” seems wrong, as obviously it is not a whodunit–and if you take that opening sentence at face value, it is not a “whydunit” either, as Rendell immediately gives away both the name and the motive of her murderer. The only suspense in A Judgement In Stone comes from wondering exactly how the massacre will happen, and it is a testament to Rendell’s skill as a storyteller that the novel is in fact gripping in spite of our already knowing who, what, when, and why.

A Judgment In Stone relies heavily on narrative devices that could easily turn into gimmicks: dramatic irony and foreshadowing. Rendell uses dramatic irony to cast a grim shadow over the lives of the Coverdale family: one of the most effective things about the novel, I thought, is how we read it doubly, as a very ordinary story of a well-to-do English family going about their privileged but otherwise basically inoffensive lives. There’s handsome George, “as trim of figure as when he had rowed for his university in 1939”; there’s Jacqueline, his second wife, “fair, slender, a Lizzie Siddal matured,” unfortunately for all of them overwhelmed with the work of maintaining Lowfield Hall; and there are the children of this blended family, including eccentrically bookish Giles and sweet-tempered Melinda. They all contribute to their eventual violent deaths by the way they treat Eunice Parchman when she becomes their housekeeper, but until the very last minute–their very last minutes–we are the only ones who know how it will all end. The effect is to infuse their commonplace activities–shopping, dining, listening to music, going to parties–with pathos, to make their cheerfully unexceptional characters accidentally tragic. “I’ll be two minutes,” says George as he goes to check what the noise is in the kitchen;

He went to the door where he paused and looked at his wife for the last time. Had he known it was the last time, that look would have been eloquent of six years’ bliss and of gratitude, but he didn’t know, so he merely cast up his eyes and pursed his mouth before walking across the hall and down the passage to the kitchen.

Rendell adds extra shots of menace occasionally with moments of explicit foreshadowing. When her parents have offended Eunice by banning her only friend from visiting Lowfield Hall, for instance, Melinda decides to intervene by being kind:

So that evening Melinda began on a disaster course that was to lead directly to her death and that of her father, her stepmother and her stepbrother. She embarked on it because she was in love. It is not so much true that all the world loves a lover as that a lover loves all the world. Melinda was moved by her love to bestow love and happiness, but it was tragic for her that Eunice Parchman was her object.

There is so little out of the ordinary about the Coverdales that they could hardly be the subject of fiction if it weren’t for what happens to them. Shortly before their deaths, they eat out, and “afterwards the waiters and other diners were to wish they had taken more notice of this happy family, this doomed family.”

rendell-2Is it true that Eunice Parchman–and her accomplice, the same friend the unknowing Coverdales tried to keep away from their home–killed this hapless family “because she could not read or write”? Rendell’s striking opening is as much provocation as declaration, I think. It is certainly true that Eunice’s illiteracy haunts, shames, and distorts her life. It is easy to imagine a version of her story in which, as a result, we pity her and direct our antipathy at a society that repeatedly fails her–fails to educate her, fails to support her, fails to make it safe for her to overcome this debilitating disadvantage–while she retreats into the safety of suspicious solitude:

When she was a child she had never wanted to read. As she grew older she wanted to learn, but who could teach her? Acquiring a teacher, or even trying to acquire one, would mean other people finding out. She had begun to shun other people, all of whom seemed to her bent on ferreting out her secret. After a time this shunning, this isolating herself, became automatic, though the root cause of her misanthropy was half-forgotten.

There are lots of painful and potentially poignant scenarios as which she struggles to hide her inability to read the family’s grocery list or to identify which papers George needs sent from home to his office. There’s something sad, too, about her absorption in the television the Coverdales provide for her room. She’s finally happy there:

She drew the curtains, put on the lamps and then the television. Her evenings were hers to do as she liked. This was what she liked. She knitted. But gradually, as the serial or the sporting event or the cops and robbers film began to grip her, the knitting fell into her lap and she leant forwards, enthralled by an innocent childlike excitement.

It’s not much, but it’s all she wants.

But this sad story is not quite what Rendell gives us–and surely that’s as it should be, unless we really do believe illiteracy leads inexorably to homicide! Instead, Eunice is a completely unsympathetic character. It’s not just the shell she has withdrawn into for fear her inability to read will be discovered. By the time she starts work at Lowfield Hall she has already committed murder: she killed her own father, who was taking a bit too too long to die: “She took one of the pillows from behind her father’s head and pushed it hard down on his face. He struggled and thrashed about for a while, but not for long.” It’s the combination of her heartless personality with the shame and anxiety of her illiteracy that’s toxic–that, and the influence of her friend Joan, who is out and out deranged, “daily growing more and more demented.” I think I would actually have liked A Judgement In Stone better if it vested responsibility for the Coverdales’ deaths squarely in Eunice and explored the ramifications of her illiteracy in a more nuanced way, rather than having it shade into moral and psychological deficits. Joan’s role is especially disappointing in this respect, as there is no “good” explanation for her behavior, no cause beyond her own unreason for the violence she instigates.

AjudgementinstoneRendell’s opening line is thus a bit of a feint, I think: it seems to set up a novel about the consequences of social and educational failures, but unlike, say, Dickens’s account of Magwitch’s history in Great Expectations, she doesn’t really account for Eunice’s criminality on those terms alone, leaving us to point the finger at ourselves for creating an uncaring system that generates criminals where there should have been (and still could be) a caring human being. Eunice seems irredeemable; Rendell doesn’t make a convincing case that she would have been a different person–and the Coverdales would have lived–if only she could read the printed word. It’s hard to be sure, though, and maybe that’s the question Rendell means to leave with her readers.

“Out of the Turbulence”: Jessica Grant, Come, Thou Tortoise

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Welcome to Qantas flight 123. This is your captain speaking.

Okay, so we just stared at the pale green wall when we were flying, but we were flying for Chrissakes. We flew all over the world. We flew to China and France and I played with the knobs and said, Ladies and gentlemen, we will be experiencing some turbulence. When we were out of the turbulence, Uncle Thoby headed for the beverage cart. My dad said, Anywhere but London. Uncle Thoby, when he walked down the aisle, pretended to lose his balance. Steady on, Airbus 320.

After I finished reading Come, Thou Tortoise, I went poking around for reviews of it and was interested to discover a thoroughly unsympathetic one from Lucy Ellmann, currently basking in critical acclaim for her recent novel Ducks, Newburyport. If for some reason you think that two novels with animals in the title are likely to have something in common, you are wrong: based at least on my reading of the first 100 pages of Ducks, NewburyportCome, Thou Tortoise is pretty much the anti-Ducks, Newburyport — and so it makes perfect sense that Ellmann didn’t like it:

We’re warned of this on the back: “A novel of love and lettuce … a warm-hearted, funny and wise book.” People who prefer unwise books, not about lettuce, may find themselves begging by the end – like the guy stuck all night in the perfume section of the department store – “Quick, give me some sh*t!”

It also makes perfect sense, then, given how much I enjoyed Come, Thou Tortoise, that I didn’t like those 100 pages of Ducks, Newburyport at all. (I might like them better eventually — we’ll see.) The two books represent profoundly contrasting sensibilities: assuming Ellmann in 2009 was about the same kind of writer she is in 2019, assigning her to review Come, Thou Tortoise is a bit like using sandpaper to clean a window.

love-lettuceMaybe the Grant – Ellmann (dis)connection is a red herring. Certainly I’m not in a position to sort it out definitively until (unless) I finish Ducks, Newburyport. For now I really just want to report how much fun I had reading Come, Thou Tortoise, a book I never would have picked up if a wise and witty student hadn’t recommended it to me. It looks twee, for one thing, plus it’s about Newfoundland and I don’t usually get along well with Canadian regional fiction. A comic novel with a talking turtle, a narrator named Audrey but known (fondly and, as it turns out, appropriately) as “Oddly,” and an eccentric cast of Newfoundlanders? It sounds all wrong for me, and yet I loved it, even though there are some things about it (including Winnifred, the hyper-articulate tortoise) that I’m not sure would stand up to the kind of strict scrutiny that demands a thematic porpoise, sorry, purpose, for every detail. That kind of wordplay is another  possibly indefensible but persistently charming feature of the novel — Audrey’s father, for example, has fallen into a comma, sorry, coma:

Uncle Thoby is stepping up the sinking stairs. Oddly. I am hugged into his noisy coat.

You said it was a comma.

I know, but it’s over.

Period.

Audrey has returned to St. John’s because her father was struck by a Christmas tree that was sticking out of a passing truck. Back home with Uncle Thoby, she has to adjust to the reality of his death while surrounded by places, objects, and people that remind her of their life together. The novel moves back and forth between that painful present struggle with grief and her family history, including Uncle Thoby’s arrival and incorporation into their eccentric household.

Come, Thou Tortoise (the title, as Winnifred discovers on our behalf, is a line from The Tempest) is certainly a quirky novel, with lots of comedic “bits” that might well irritate a dour or cynical reader, such as the swans constantly dipping their heads into the purportedly bottomless pond: “When the swans lift their heads, they look surprised. Did you see the bottom? No. Let’s check again. They have been checking for years and continue to be surprised.” I can be dour and cynical myself, but I loved the swans, and the Christmas light guy, and Winnifred, and the airplane Audrey’s father and Uncle Thoby create in their basement to help Audrey overcome her fear of flying. Audrey’s voice was the magic trick that made it all work for me. She’s a complicated narrator, part naif, part–I’m not sure exactly what! There is definitely a gap between the childlike whimsy that makes her endearing and the ruthless determination that forces her as well as others to confront uncomfortable truths. In the opening scene, she disarms an air marshal: she is also metaphorically disarming throughout, which is cute, but in any case that is not the opening gambit of a weak or truly innocent character. At one point we learn that Audrey’s school sent home a report indicating she has a “low IQ””

IQ is not even a real acronym, Uncle Thoby was saying. GOLEM is a real acronym. SCUBA is a real acronym. You can’t even pronounce IQ. Don’t take it personally.

You can too pronounce it, I said. You can pronounce it ick.

“Mine was more than a bit disappointing,” she later tells her friend Judd, who replies, “That’s because they can’t measure what you are.” “What am I?” Audrey asks. “I don’t know,” replies Judd, “but I wish there were more of you out there.”

come-tortoiseEllmann’s main complaint about Come, Thou Tortoise is that “somewhere along the way, any real feeling for people goes astray.” Though I can see why Ellmann isn’t able to go along with what she uncharitably calls the novel’s “swill of sweetness,” I think she is just wrong about its lacking real feeling. There is a great deal of tenderness in it, for one thing–though perhaps that’s too close to sentimentality to be what she means. More than that, for all Audrey’s oddities and the comic delights they provoke, the novel is quietly profound about grief. Looking for her lost mouse Wedge (a refugee from her father’s research on longevity–a motif with its own emotional weightiness in the context of his premature death), Audrey goes into her father’s room for the first time since she came home:

Why did I come in here.

For Wedge.

Well, that was stupid. He’s not here. And now you have made your dad dead in this room. And you will keep doing this. Every new room you enter, you will make your dad dead in it. Now he is dead on the second floor. He is dead on the ground floor. There is only one floor left.

The true story of her father and Uncle Thoby and their English arch-nemesis, whom Audrey knows only as Toff, is also much more complex and emotionally fraught than Audrey (and thus we) understand at first, and as Audrey’s quest to find Wedge turns into a mission to understand who they all really are and what their lives have been, there is plenty of turbulence that shows us how precarious and also how precious the comic side of life really is.

Happy Bicentenary, George Eliot!

GE DuradeThough I suppose in a technical way the bicentenary year really ended with George Eliot’s birthday on November 22, why stop celebrating before we have to? My only regret is that I’m not actually teaching any of her novels this term–in fact, because of my sabbatical, I haven’t taught any George Eliot in 2019 at all! Shocking! So I haven’t been able to integrate any bicentenary activities into my classroom time. I did point out to the students presenting in Women & Detective Fiction on November 22 that it was an especially auspicious day, but they didn’t seem convinced or otherwise excited. 🙂

My own contributions to the bicentenary since attending the big conference in the summer have both come to fruition in the last week or so. The edition of the TLS that recognizes George Eliot’s 200th includes my review-essay on novels about or inspired by her, including Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s new In Love With George Eliot, as well as essays by renowned Eliot biographer Rosemary Ashton and scholar Gail Marshall; it also reprints Virginia Woolf’s well-known TLS essay from 1919. That’s excellent company to be in!

Middlemarch 5-smallAnd speaking of excellent company, also in honour of the bicentenary I was invited to be a guest on the CBC Radio show ‘Sunday  Edition,’ to talk to host Michael Enright about George Eliot and Middlemarch. You can listen to the interview here if you are interested, or just read the story, which includes some highlights as well as a photo of me post-interview looking perhaps a bit flustered but also genuinely happy to have my battered teaching copy of Middlemarch in hand. Inevitably, no doubt, there are a few questions I wish I had answered a bit differently (including being a bit more precise about ‘the Catholic Question’ – but on the other hand, would anybody really have wanted me to get into the weeds about it?), but overall I think I represented Team George well. I only wish I had taken more opportunities to quote directly from the novel. I really do think the best advocate for Middlemarch is the novel itself.

OUP MiddlemarchAs I browsed through it in preparation for the interview, I stopped to reread many of the moments I love the best–the description of Lydgate’s discovering his vocation in Chapter XV, with its poignant commentary on “the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats,” for instance:

there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions: or perhaps it came with the vibrations from a woman’s glance.

Or the passage in which Mr. Casaubon, having met with Lydgate about his prognosis, confronts his own mortality:

Here was a man who now for the first time found himself looking into the eyes of death — who was passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace “We must all die” transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die — and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first. To Mr. Casaubon now, it was as if he suddenly found himself on the dark river-brink and heard the plash of the oncoming oar, not discerning the forms, but expecting the summons.

This is the scene that leads first to his cold rebuff to Dorothea’s proffered sympathy and then to this moment, one of the most quietly moving in the novel but also one that shows us both the beauty and the cost of its doctrine of sympathy:

“Dorothea!” he said, with a gentle surprise in his tone. “Were you waiting for me?”

“Yes, I did not like to disturb you.”

“Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not to extend your life by watching.”

When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband’s, and they went along the broad corridor together.

penguinmiddlemarchI don’t know if Middlemarch is, as the CBC headline proposes, “the greatest English novel of all time.” I think Eliot (for reasons I discuss in the interview) can reasonably be called the greatest Victorian novelist, and Middlemarch is certainly her greatest book, but there are other models of the novel and other ideas of greatness: as Henry James said, the house of fiction has many windows. One of the things I said to Michael Enright during our conversation was that our judgments of any given novel will depend on what we think the novel (both the particular example and, I think, the genre as a whole) is for. I’m not (much) interested in defending Middlemarch to people who don’t like it, but I am always happy to explain what I think is wonderful about it. I wouldn’t be much good at my job, also, if I didn’t believe we can all learn to read books–all books, any book–better than we do, if someone will just help us along. I hope my interview does some of that work for listeners, and of course for readers who want even more help, there are lots of resources at my Middlemarch for Book Clubs site.

But, as I often say and said in the interview too, I loved Middlemarch when I read it as an ardent teenager with really no understanding of the multiple layers I see in it today. In fact, it is possible that the pressure to declare it, defend it, or dethrone it as “the greatest English novel” hinders rather than helps, by making it seem less accessible than it really is. In any case, I loved it then and I love it now, and any book that withstands multiple rereadings over more than three decades is surely worth celebrating, as is its brilliant author. So, happy 200th birthday to George Eliot, and I can’t wait to teach Middlemarch again in 2020.

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This Week In My Classes: It’s November.

scare-careAsk anyone on campus — student, staff, or faculty — how they are doing and it’s likely you’ll get some version of “hanging in there.” It is ever thus, in November! The weather has turned grey and the unrelenting chill of winter has set in, deadlines that seemed far off loom, work piles up. It can be hard to keep one’s spirits up! One of the things I try to do is stay as positive as possible in the classroom, exuding as much enthusiasm as I can manage for our work in the hope that I can give a bit of a boost to my students’ understandably flagging energy. It’s sometimes a bit tricky, especially because for them I am one of the people setting the deadlines and demanding the work: I can’t really just play nice, at least not all the time. But at least I can try to show them that I scare because I care!

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The last time I posted a teaching update, we were just getting back to normal after the strange incident of the contaminated water in my building; in Women and Detective Fiction we were reading Sue Grafton and in Pulp Fiction we had just started our unit on romance. Today in Women and Detective Fiction we had our third session on Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam — the seventh of our eight readings. I worried while I was planning the class that it might seem like too many books, but I think the pace has been pretty reasonable overall, as most of them are quite fast-paced. The benefit has definitely been variety: although of course we keep circling around related questions about crime and gender and genre, we have now read books that treat them in quite different voices and versions as well as books that explore intersections between gender and class as well as gender and race. Reading Agatha Christie’s “The Blue Geranium” is a very different experience from reading Dorothy Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, which in its turn has little in common, on the surface at least, with Neely’s book.

In A Lonely Place and Blanche on the Lam are both books I hadn’t taught before–The Break, which we start next week, is another. Although it is always a bit nerve-wracking leading discussion on books I don’t know as well, it is also somewhat freeing, especially with as good a group of students as I have this term. I may not always be able to find the right example or remember the exact details of some twist in the plot (though I do try hard to be ready!), but at the same time I’m not stuck on any previous interpretation or looking for any particular outcome. I come in with ideas about how things fit together, of course, but I enjoy the work of puzzling through questions with the students, who bring their own different experience and expertise to the table.

lonelyBoth of these books seem to have gone over well. Hughes in particular seems to have been a favorite, so much so that I am contemplating assigning In A Lonely Place in the Mystery & Detective Fiction survey class next year instead of my usual hard-boiled options (The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep). But Neely too has provoked really engaged conversations: I think we all appreciated the bluntness of Blanche’s critiques as well as Neely’s resistance to feel-good outcomes. Today, for example, we talked about Blanche’s decision not to accept the position she is offered after the case has wrapped up. It would have been sentimentally gratifying for her to stay on as Mumsfield’s caretaker, but throughout the novel she highlights how condescending as well as burdensome she finds the expectation that she’ll play the “Mammy” role, and fond as she is of Mumsfield (and generously as they promise to pay her) it makes sense that she can’t say yes. More broadly, too, an ending in which she stays on with the family after everything that has happened and everything she knows–not just about them but also about the world she lives in–would endorse an optimistic but facile vision of racial reconciliation that the rest of the novel has rejected as at best naive.

1995-lord-of-scoundrelsWe are well along in our romance unit now in Pulp Fiction, and about two-thirds through Lord of Scoundrels. I think it’s going OK. Today I got peevish towards the end of class because we were working collectively through some passages–it was going pretty well, from my perspective, with a reasonable number of students participating–and as the end of our time approached quite a few students started packing up and then sat poised on the edge of their seats, clearly impatient to get away. I try not to take this personally (it happens, to some extent, almost every time): I know they are busy and anxious and for all I know the ones who were most visibly disengaging had a big midterm in their next class or something. Still, I never go over our time, and not only is it rude to me and to the students who are talking to have all that rustling going on, but it’s demoralizing to see them visibly not caring about the work we’re doing. It undermines that positivity project I mentioned! It also frustrates me that they clearly see class discussion as expendable in a way that lecture time isn’t. From my perspective, that’s the most important thing we do! I’ve made this point to the class more than once, of course. See? Peevish.

But that’s the thing: it’s November. We’re all struggling a bit to be our best selves. It doesn’t really help knowing the term will be over soon, either, because that just reminds us how much we have to get done before then!

“Blind Terror”: Mary Stewart, Wildfire at Midnight

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The foot of this buttress was lipped by the fog, which held the lower ground still invisible under its pale tide. The glen itself, the loch, the long Atlantic bay, all lay hidden, drowned under the mist which stretched like a still white lake from  Blaven to Sgurr na Stri, from Garsven to Marsco. And out of it, on every hand, the mountains rose, blue and purple and golden-green in the sunlight, swimming above the vaporous sea like fabulous islands. Below, blind terror might grope still in the choking grey here above, where I stood, was a new and golden world. I might have been alone in the dawn of time, watching the first mountains rear themselves out of the clouds of chaos. . . .

But I was not alone.

Mary Stewart’s Wildfire at Midnight is exactly what I expected from both the author and the genre: atmospheric, suspenseful, fast-paced, and predictable–not in the details of the murder plot but in the overall arc, which takes us from innocence through fear and suspicion to a pat romantic happy ending. I thoroughly enjoyed it, because Stewart performs all of the necessary maneuvers for romantic suspense so well and also so briskly (it’s just over 200 mass market paperback-sized pages) that it never feels overblown or self-important the way I sometimes feel more recent thrillers become. She isn’t trying to “transcend the genre”: she’s entirely at home in it and as a result, so was I.

Stewart is also a fine stylist–not as elegant or original as Daphne du Maurier, but in the same vein. Here, for instance, is one of many vivid evocations of the Isle of Skye, where the action takes place:

Above us towered the enormous cliffs of the south ridge, gleaming-black with rain, rearing steeply out of the precipitous scree like a roach-backed monster from the waves. The scree itself was terrifying enough. It fell away from the foot of the upper cliffs, hundreds of feet of fallen stone, slippery and overgrown and treacherous with hidden holes and loose rocks, which looked as if a false step  might bring half the mountain-side down in one murderous avalanche. . . .

I stopped and looked up. Streams of wind-torn mist raced and broke round the buttresses of the dreadful rock; against its sheer precipices the driven clouds wrecked themselves in swirls of smoke; and, black and terrible, above the movement of the storm, behind the racing riot of grey cloud, loomed and vanished and loomed again the great devil’s pinnacles that broke the sky and split the winds into streaming rack. Blaven flew its storms like a banner.

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The mountains are not just the setting for the malevolence that unfolds but (in a rather absurd but still chilling way) the motive for them–a nice touch, I thought. And they also set us up for a thrilling denouement played out against their crags and crevices:

I went up the end of that buttress like a cat, like a lizard, finding holds where no holds were, gripping the rough rock with stockinged feet and fingers which seemed endowed with miraculous, prehensile strength. . . .

The enormous wing of rock soared up in front of me up to the high crags. Its top was, perhaps, eight feet wide, and strode upwards at a dizzy angle, in giant steps and serrations, like an enormous ruined staircase. I had landed, somehow, on the lowest tread, and I flung myself frantically at the face of the next step, just as the ring of boots on rock told me that he had started after me.

The particular terrors of rock-climbing, hardly a safe or relaxing sport under ordinary circumstances (at least to a risk-averse person like me), give the necessary cliche of a chase scene some fresh excitement.

I picked this old copy off my shelf somewhat randomly and am glad I did: it was a perfect afternoon’s diversion, better, perhaps, than This Rough Magic, which I read a couple of years ago with my book group. I have a couple other vintage Stewart paperbacks on the same shelf and I also picked up some ebooks of hers when they were on sale a while ago: this is a good reminder to me to actually read them! I was also reminded on Twitter of her Arthurian novels, which I am fairly sure I read years ago and would like to revisit.

The Power of the Whodunnit: Anthony Horowitz, MagpieMurders

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I’ve always loved whodunnits. I’ve not just edited them. I’ve read them for pleasure throughout my life, gorging on them actually. You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover. That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique relationship with the reader.

Unlike Susan Ryeland, the narrator of (much of) Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, I’m not actually a fan of whodunnits–at least, not if by the term you mean the kind Magpie Murders at once exemplifies and comments on, which is the Agatha-Christie-style cozy. I just don’t find curiosity a powerful enough incentive to keep reading: if all a book ultimately has to offer me is the solution to a puzzle, I would almost just as soon skip straight to the end and get the answer already. Almost .. because of course a good puzzle mystery can offer other pleasures along the way, and also if the story-telling is brisk and skillful enough then it distracts me from the temptation to flip to the last page.

Magpie Murders was not quite good enough to keep me patient. I got bored with the embedded mystery by the fictional Alan Conway about half way through its 200+ pages–not so bored I wanted to give up, just enough that I started intermittently skimming. That said, it seemed to me a pitch-perfect imitation of a Golden Age novel, so if you like that kind of thing more than I do, you’d probably enjoy it thoroughly. I quite liked the conceit of the mystery-within-a-mystery, and for a while I was pretty engaged with the framing story about Alan Conway’s own suspicious death, but then it seemed to go on too long, and while the parallels and connections to “his” book were presumably meant to make it more fun to puzzle out both murderers, the insistent cleverness of it all eventually made me irritable. I expected a bigger payoff, too, a most stunning twist of some kind, as a reward for the book being quite so long.

magpie-2On the other hand, I did appreciate the metafictional commentary on the genre scattered throughout Magpie Murders, though it was (as far as I could tell) somewhat gratuitous or incidental to the novel(s). If the stories Horowitz was telling subverted expectations more than they do, or if their resolutions turned in some way on critiquing the ubiquity of murders on page and screen or the idea that anything about crime is in any way “cozy,” then the whole novel would (for me) have taken on much greater significance. Still, he raises good points about the perverse gratifications of the form even as he unapologetically offers them up, twice over. “I don’t understand it,” says Detective Superintendent Locke when Susan meets with him to discuss her questions about Conway’s death. “All these murders on TV–”

you’d think people would have better things to do with their time. Every night. Every bloody channel. People have some sort of fixation. And what really annoys me is that it’s nothing like the truth. I’ve seen murder victims. I’ve investigated murder. … They don’t put on wigs and dress up like the do in Agatha Christie. All the murders I’ve ever been involved in have happened because the perpetrators were mad or angry or drunk. Sometimes all three. And they’re horrible. Disgusting.

Susan Ryeland (perhaps as a proxy for Horowitz) offers the standard explanation for that ‘fixation.” “In a world full of uncertainties,” she proposes,

is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed? The stories mimic our experience in the world. We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve, and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunnit provides that pleasure. It is the reason for their existence.

Image result for foyles war season 6"That, she concludes, is “why Magpie Murders was so bloody irritating”–unfinished as it is when she first reads it. For me, though, the end of Horowitz’s Magpie Murders did not provide much satisfaction. The dotting of the i‘s and the crossing of the t’s seemed to show up the whole elaborate exercise as artificial, an impressive display of plotting but little to feed any deeper curiosity. I prefer my crime fiction more character driven, and also more embroiled in social and political contexts. I know Horowitz can write that kind of mystery, because he wrote Foyle’s War, one of my favorite series. I’d watch it all again in a heartbeat if I could (stupid Netflix Canada dropped it years ago), because it has the kinds of layers that, for all its intricacies, Magpie Murders lacks.

This Week In My Classes: Desire and Disruption

mccain-buidlingI certainly did not desire the disruption that has characterized my last few days at work! My office building was evacuated Thursday morning–just as I was settling in to do, well, a whole bunch of things! It turned out that due to some kind of maintenance mix-up, some chemicals got mixed into the building’s main water supply. As a result, they had to flush the entire system multiple times and then retest it. All the classes usually held in the building had to be relocated–which, thanks to heroic efforts by the team at the Registrar’s Office, was done more or less successfully. And all of us who ordinarily work in the building were turned loose on campus, where we set up shop for office hours and whatever else we had to do wherever we could find a spot. We were allowed to go back in with an escort from Dal Security to get essentials from our offices, but that’s not the same as having access to all our books, papers, and other supplies, not to mention our computers! Happily the test results have been good and we are going to be back in the building and back to normal operations tomorrow.

I say the relocation was “more or less” successful because on both Friday and today my Women & Detective Fiction seminar was sent to a room that turned out not to be available, which meant last minute scrambling to find alternatives and then rushing to get to the new new room as fast as we could. I’ve got a great batch of students this term–very smart and engaged and talkative–and I really appreciated their persistence as we trekked around and then made the most of the time we had left. (This is not our first “crisis” either: the power went off during one of our class sessions on An Unsuitable Job for a Woman but we weren’t ordered out of the building right away so we kept going with the lights off. Fortunately our regular meeting room has big windows, so it was dim but workable!)

graftonWe have been working through Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi, which everyone seems to have enjoyed quite a bit. It is fast-moving and sassy in a way that (IMHO) Grafton’s later novels are not; she started taking the whole project too seriously, I think, but (again, YMMV) isn’t really a deep enough thinker or a smart enough writer to pull it off. In previous years I have assigned both A is for Alibi and Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only in this seminar, and I used to alternate between them in my survey course on detective fiction. In recent years I let Grafton slip out of the rotation because I think Paretsky’s novel is better, or at least its various parts cohere better. Paretsky is clearly using the form and conventions of detective fiction for a political purpose, but I think she does it deftly enough that it doesn’t feel overly didactic.

indemnityI was reminded this week, though, that besides being a bit more fun, Grafton’s novel has its own thought-provoking elements, particularly in its development of a male character who plays the part of the femme fatale and also (as other critics have noted) of an extreme form of the Byronic hero–mad, bad, and dangerously sexy to the female protagonist. In our discussion, we found it interesting that while the male hard-boiled PI rarely seems genuinely attracted to the femme fatale, whose allure (at least in the examples we could think of) is too transparently a decoy, Kinsey and Charlie do seem to have an actual spark, even an affinity. Desire is conventionally disruptive to the detective’s work, and it is to Kinsey’s too, but at the same time it almost feels as if it’s just bad luck he’s a murderer, because otherwise they’re pretty well suited! Kinsey’s resolute independence–her refusal to be domestic or to conform to gendered expectations–is refreshing, though I think some aspects of it (like the pride she takes in pumping her own gas) also feel a bit dated now.

secret weddingIn Pulp Fiction we have been wrapping up work on the second assignment, with drafts and peer editing on Friday and the final versions due Wednesday. Today I gave my opening lecture on romance fiction. Our initial readings are two somewhat polemical primers on the genre (Jennifer Crusie’s “Defeating the Critics” and Loretta Chase’s “Rules for Romance,” from Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels) along with Liz Fielding’s “Secret Wedding” . I chose “Secret Wedding” to lead off this unit because it is at once a very straightforward and fairly sweet story and a cleverly self-conscious introduction to romance tropes: the heroine is a romance novelist and each chapter opens with a bit of advice from the her “writing workshop notes.” Also, the hero writes thrillers and his publisher has sent him to one of the heroine’s workshops to learn how to put the “humanity” back into his books–so that’s a neat way to point out that romance has different priorities than the other genres we’ve been studying. Chase’s “rules” do this as well, and they also, unsurprisingly, set us up nicely to begin our study of Lord of Scoundrels–in which desire is definitely disruptive, but in a good way!

It is a busy time of term for everyone, so it was less than ideal to have our routines so disrupted. On the bright side, we have no classes next week, so while there will still be a lot to do (for instance, all those papers coming in Wednesday will need to be marked!) it will be a welcome respite from the daily grind of classes. It’s startling to be here already, though, especially knowing that when we get back from the break we will be hurtling towards the end.