“All These Things Tell You Something”

devices2From P. D. James’s Devices and Desires:

He followed her down the hall to the kitchen at the back of the house. It was, he judged, almost twenty feet long and obviously served the triple purpose of sitting room, working place and office. The right-hand half of the room was a well-equipped kitchen with a large gas stove and an Aga, a butcher’s chopping block, a dresser to the right of the door holding an assortment of gleaming pots, and a long working surface with a wooden triangle sheathing her assortment of knives. In the centre of the room was a large wooden table holding a stoneware jar of dried flowers. On the left-hand wall was a working fireplace, the two recesses fitted with wall-to-ceiling bookshelves. To each side of the hearth was a high-backed wicker armchair in an intricate closely woven design fitted with patchwork cushions. There was an open roll-top desk facing one of the wide windows and, to its right, a stable door, the top half open, gave a view of the paved courtyard. Dalgliesh could glimpse what was obviously her herb garden planted in elegant terracotta pots carefully disposed to catch the sun. The room, which contained nothing superfluous, nothing pretentious, was both pleasing and extraordinarily comforting and, for a moment, he wondered why. Was it the faint smell of herbs and newly baked dough, the soft ticking of the wall-mounted clock which seemed both to mark the passing seconds and yet to hold time in thrall, the rhythmic moaning of the sea through the half-open door, the sense of well-fed ease conveyed by the two cushioned armchairs, the open hearth? Or was it that the kitchen reminded Dalgliesh of that rectory kitchen where the lonely only child had found warmth and undemanding, uncensorious companionship, been given hot dripping toast and small forbidden treats?

In interviews and in her own writing about her crime novels, P. D. James often remarks on the importance of setting, especially interiors. In an 1986 New York Times Magazine story, Julian Symons quotes her as saying “I believe you can describe people, and understand them, through the houses or apartments they live in,”

the furniture they choose to buy, the way they decorate the rooms. However humble or ordinary the place may be, there are still distinctions between what people do. Do they put wallpaper or emulsion paint on the walls? What’s the design on the paper or the color of the paint? What sort of pictures are on the walls? All these things tell you something.

devicesThis excerpt from Devices and Desires is characteristic of what this conviction looks like in practice. I suppose it could be argued that such long descriptive passages are not strictly necessary, that they are a form of padding in novels otherwise structured very tightly, as all of hers are, around the intricacies of a murder investigation. She treats every room this way, not just ones that clearly lead us towards revelations about the crime: readers who like their mysteries leaner and faster and more plot-driven might feel that the story gets bogged down. I don’t see it (or experience it) that way. For one thing, I enjoy James’s writing–I like the rhythm of her sentences, the meticulous care she takes to create a vivid, tactile sense of place, and the way her catalogs of specifics so often lead, as here, from exterior to interior, from setting to psychology. For another, because James’s crimes are always intensely personal, character is plot for her: thus her attention to setting as a device for exploring character serves the key purpose of her fiction. Finally, here we are seeing through Dalgliesh’s eyes: what this passage tells us is not just how the room’s inhabitant lives (and thus what she is like) but how observant he is, and how his scrupulous detachment as a professional investigator is combined with the self-awareness and sensitivity that make him not just a skilled detective but also a poet.

Skinheads and Millionaires: Helene Tursten, Detective Inspector Huss

TurstenWhen Krister came home at one a.m. the girls were asleep, but Irene was still up. After telling him about Jenny’s troubles and about the impending end to her skinhead period, she tried to seduce her husband. But he was too tired and not at all in the mood. The Christmas rush at the city’s restaurants had begun. She lay awake for a long time, her whirling thoughts of skinheads, millionaires, bombs, murderers, biker gangs, sexual relations between people who shouldn’t be having any, and sexual relations between people who should.

Detective Inspector Huss is either a really awkward and uneven novel or Steven Murray’s translation has not done Helene Tursten justice. I suspect it’s the latter, because through the clunky prose and frequent abrupt shifts of tone and topic, I caught glimpses of both a strong and interesting protagonist and some incisive social commentary reminiscent of the Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck mysteries. Unfortunately reading Detective Inspector Huss felt like a chore, though–which it sort of was, as I was reading it for my book club. We chose it because we’d all quite enjoyed Tursten’s much more recent An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, which I notice had a different translator (Marlaine Delargy). That might be evidence for  my bad translation theory, or it’s possible that Tursten got better with practice, as Detective Inspector Huss was originally published in 1998 and Tursten has published quite a few novels since then.

Instead of laying out details of the plot (which, after all, are a lot of what would be interesting to discover for yourself if you wanted to read the novel!) I’ll quote the publisher’s blurb, which it touches on the qualities of Detective Inspector Huss that made me think it was better than it seemed:

One of the most prominent citizens of Göteborg, Sweden, plunges to his death off an apartment balcony, but what appears to be a “society suicide” soon reveals itself to be a carefully plotted murder. Irene Huss finds herself embroiled in a complex and high-stakes investigation. As Huss and her team begin to uncover the victim’s hidden past, they are dragged into Sweden’s seamy underworld of street gangs, struggling immigrants, and neo-Nazis in order to catch the killer.

The details of this plot get quite intricate and a bit tedious to follow: each step towards the big ‘reveal’ took (I thought) an unnecessarily long time. One of the reasons for that is what seemed like digressions, though by the end of the novel some of them had been woven into the main case. There’s a subplot about Irene’s daughter Jenny flirting with neo-Nazism, for example, which leads to a fair amount of talk among the characters about young people today and their sense of disconnection from society as well as their distance from the history that is still so present for their elders. One of the more intense episodes involves one of Irene’s colleagues staging an intervention for Jenny in which he reveals that his own mother was conceived during the gang rape of a young Jewish girl, who died giving birth to her. Jenny, who has been raising questions about the reality of the Holocaust, is shaken up by this and by other confrontations with the real implications and horrific consequences of the anti-Semitism she had been brushing off as trivial in the song lyrics favored by her new skinhead pals.

hussThe novel’s central murder plot does not ultimately have anything to do with anti-Semitism or neo-Nazis, but it does have a lot to do with the “seamy underworld” mentioned in the précis. Even the most polished and privileged characters turn out to be at most one or two degrees of separation away from drug dealers, Hell’s Angels enforcers, or (as scary, if less socially contextualized) narcissistic sociopaths. Like the Beck books, that is, and like Henning Mankell’s novels, Detective Inspector Huss shows a pretty unflattering version of Sweden–though it’s no uglier than, say, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh or Phonse Jessome’s Halifax. It’s in the nature of police procedurals to emphasize that the city familiar to the ordinary law-abiding citizens and tourists coexists with the grittier and more dangerous one the cops know. Tursten’s Göteborg has just that dual quality.

One thing Tursten’s novel does really well is show what it’s like for Detective Inspector Huss to cross back and forth between these worlds, doing her best to keep up with the needs of her family when she’s at home while maintaining the toughness she needs to take risks and act assertively or even violently at work. Though the style of the book made it hard for me to bring her quite into focus, Irene Huss herself is an intriguing character. She isn’t presented as a “strong female character” in the way that popular culture here would typically do that–which is too often some version of “she’s not like those other girly-girls”. Irene, in contrast, is quite multi-dimensional. Compared to a lot of male cops in this genre–maybe most of them?–she has a pretty good work-life balance and relatively healthy personal relationships. She does struggle sometimes with her family life, especially because of her long hours and the emotional toll her work takes, but she also shows and experiences tenderness. On the job, she is tenacious and professional, mostly managing to keep the stress or irritation she feels to herself. She is brave, even occasionally heroic: at one point she grabs a hand grenade that has been thrown through a window into a shed where she and a colleague are captive and hurls it out again just in time to save them from the explosion; at another point she crashes a patio umbrella through a window to disrupt an ongoing attack and a shard from the glass ends up killing one of the bad guys. Afterwards, however, she feels shock and grief: she is not hardened or numb.  Probably the most idiosyncratic thing about her is that she is a judo expert; her training is a source of personal strength and mental balance.

huss-tvSomething Tursten draws particular attention to is sexism in the police force. Irene herself is aware of and angry about it, but in this book at least she mostly chooses not to confront it directly. In contrast, her colleague Birgitta–who is assaulted by a witness she’s interviewing and then informs their boss Superintendent Andersson that she has also been experiencing ongoing harassment from another officer–has eventually had enough. First, when Superintendent Andersson asks if the witness has annoyed her “in some way,”

She exploded completely. With tears gushing from her eyes, she screamed, “Annoy! He shoved me up against the wall, grabbed my crotch, and bit me on the breast! I think I’m going to report him!”

Andersson hasn’t even had time to respond when “Jonny’s irritating voice was heard from the doorway . . . ‘You probably showed him what you had to offer, eh?'” Quite understandably at the end of her rope, Birgitta “shot across the room like an arrow” and drives her knee into Jonny’s crotch. “Personal best!” she exclaims; “Two guys with blue balls in less than half an hour!”

Jonny is manifestly an asshole, but Tursten also focuses on Andersson’s quieter but in some ways even more harmful sexism. Not only does he fail to hold Jonny accountable in any meaningful way, but he repeatedly thinks to himself that working with “broads” creates all kinds of problems. “The worst thing was that there were more and more of them,” he (silently) complains; “If they chose a male profession, then they had to accept the conditions and the lingo!” But Birgitta’s report, and her expectation that he take action, do shake him up a bit: “She was still standing with a lifeless expression on her face, waiting for his answer. Andersson had an unpleasant feeling of complicity, but in what?”

WatchethBirgitta’s “blue balls” comment is an example of a quality in Detective Inspector Huss that struck me as somehow slightly alien–a reminder that I was reading a book based in a culture that is not my own. The best way I can think of to describe it is that (again, at least in this translation) the novel has a kind of bluntness uncharacteristic of the Anglo-American crime fiction I usually read. It’s not that those books aren’t (sometimes) sexually explicit or graphically violent, or that they don’t often include plenty of swearing. There was just something about the tone or the idiom of the conversations in Tursten’s novel that seemed different, though I have been struggling with how to explain it. Another example: Irene recalls a male colleague who got the mumps as an adult, which caused his testicles to swell up “so grotesquely that he couldn’t walk. Unfortunately, his name was Paul, and he was always called ‘Paul Fig-Ball’ after that.” Poor Fig-Ball comes up a few more times during the rest of the novel and nobody seems to find it in any way an unseemly nickname. (These are just the examples I thought to highlight in my ebook; one problem with this technology is that I can’t flip through the pages easily to find others, including ones that aren’t about testicles! But I know there were many others.)


I’m curious to find out if anyone else in my book club found Detective Inspector Huss faintly foreign in this way, and also if I am the only one who found the style and construction awkward and stilted. If any of you have read it, or others of Tursten’s novels, what did you think? I found the contexts and characters in this one engaging enough, in spite of everything, that I might be willing to try another in the series, especially since the later books seem to have different translators–including Marlaine Delargy, who made the elderly lady’s misadventures so entertaining.

“No one took any notice”: Helene Tursten, An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good

turstenSlowly she set off in the direction of the Rosenlund Canal. In order to make herself look a little shorter and older, she stooped over her walker. She had pulled on a white fabric sunhat with a wide brim, which hid her hair and part of her face. No one took any notice of the elderly lady. . . . The best thing was that none of the people bustling about took any notice of her. An elderly lady out and about in the lovely weather didn’t attract much attention.

Maud, the protagonist of Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, is a sly inversion of Agatha Christie’s iconic “elderly lady” detective, Miss Marple. Both are well aware that they are in the demographic least likely to be noticed or, if seen, taken seriously as decisive players in their own or anyone else’s life. While Miss Marple turns expectations of her irrelevance on their head with her ingenuity in solving crimes, Maud uses them to camouflage her guilt. A nimble octagenarian with all her wits about her, Maud uses canes and walkers to appear more physically feeble than she actually is (and also, when necessary, to trip, strike, or knock people down stairs). When pressed for information about a crime (or, as it often seems, a very unfortunate fatal accident) in her vicinity, she puts on a show of confusion that blends seamlessly with everyone’s assumption that she’s of no importance to their investigation:

A man who introduced himself as Head of Security at the hotel came over to ask Maud if she could tell him how the accident had happened. She told him she had been in the shower, and therefore hadn’t seen the woman fall.

“My hearing isn’t very good, and I had soap in my eyes. And the shower was running, so I didn’t hear anything. But maybe I sensed something, because suddenly I noticed her lying in the water. I . . . oh my goodness . . . sorry, I can’t stop crying . . . that poor woman . . . she was just lying there in the water. I couldn’t help her . . . she wouldn’t grab hold of my stick . . . all that blood . . . that poor, poor . . . ” she sobbed.

He patted her awkwardly on the arm and left her alone.

Reading about Maud’s evil deeds was wryly amusing, but I think the overall effect would have been a lot more interesting if she was more clearly either a straight-up villain or an avenger of wrongs ill-served by proper justice. One of her victims is an abusive husband, and so there’s some moral satisfaction in her scheme to take him out even though her actual motivation is just to end the disturbances his beatings create and get a little “peace at Christmastime.” Otherwise, she’s basically just going after people who annoy or disappoint her.

tokarczukI suppose Maud’s ability to get away with her petty crime spree is a cautionary tale about the dangers of ageism and sexism, which contribute to obscuring the truth about people. But compared to the moral and psychological layers that emerge from Janina’s murders in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead–to the thought-provoking questions Tocarczuk raises about how we decide who matters and who doesn’t and who, if anyone, should act in the interests of higher concepts of justice than the human–Tursten’s offering is pretty slight. It seems unlikely my book club will be meeting any time soon, but if we were able to, I’m not sure this book would give us that much to talk about. It is definitely entertaining, though, in that uncomfortable way that any relatively light-hearted treatment of violent crime can be. Tursten is a writer I’ve had my eye on for a long time: I’m still interested enough that eventually I will still try one of her full-length Inspector Huss novels.

“The cosmic Catastrophe”: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

tokarczukIt’s clear that the largest things are contained in the smallest. There can be no doubt about it. At this very moment, as I write, there’s a planetary configuration on this table, the entire Cosmos if you like: a thermometer, a coin, an aluminum spoon and a porcelain cup. A key, a cell phone, a piece of paper, and a pen. And one of my gray hairs, whose atoms preserve the memory of the origins of life, of the cosmic Catastrophe that gave the world its beginning.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a pretty strange novel. Or maybe it just has a pretty strange narrator. What would be the difference, really? It has the structure of a whodunit, but without quite the same clarity of purpose, as it also has–or its narrator Janina also has–a tendency to tip over from the literal into the metaphysical, from the gruesome to the lyrical, from the mundane to the cosmic. And yet all the things about the story Janina tells that seem to make no sense (that seem to blur the lines between magic and reality, as if we were in that kind of fictional world) turn out to make perfect sense: with the neatness of a Sherlock Holmes story, all of the novel’s impossibilities are resolved without recourse to the fantastical after all.

That doesn’t mean Tokarczuk doesn’t leave us things to puzzle over, however. It’s just that they aren’t questions about who did what, or even why: they are questions about what we should think about it all. Here Janina–eccentric, fanatical, pragmatic, occasionally poetic–is a provocative and informative but not very reliable guide. Most of the local officials she encounters concludes she is “a nutter.” They aren’t wrong, but they also aren’t quite right. At least, I don’t think so! Because she tells us the story, Janina has a lot of opportunities to show us the world as she sees it, and while it’s an odd perspective (for instance, she believes completely in the interpretive and predictive power of astrology and appeals constantly to the wisdom of William Blake–not, himself, perhaps the most straightforward guide to the meaning of life) there’s something convincing about it too.

driveJanina’s main idiosyncrasy is that (as the people around her often protest) she cares more for animals than for people.  She is particularly outraged by hunters and their hypocritical justifications for what, to her, is simply murder, and often barbarous murder, at that. “Just look at the way those pulpits work,” she exclaims to the officers taking her statement about a body that turns up in the remote mountainous region where she lives–in this case, a wild boar, though the deaths the police are actually concerned about are the human ones. “It’s evil–you have to call it by its proper name,” she goes on:

it’s cunning, treacherous, sophisticated evil–they build hay racks, scatter fresh apples and wheat to lure Animals there, and once the Creatures have become habituated, they shoot them in the head from their hiding place, from a pulpit.

Later, at the consecration of a church dedicated to Saint Hubert, the patron saint of hunting, she is outraged by the sermon, by the priest’s ardent advocacy for “the customs and traditions of hunting.” “Now it seemed clear to me,” she observes,

why those hunting towers, which do after all bear a strong resemblance to the watchtowers in concentration camps, are called ‘pulpits.’ In a pulpit Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself the right to their life and death. He becomes a tyrant and a usurper.

“Murderers!” she exclaims, as her protests lead to her removal from the church. “How can you listen to such nonsense without batting an eyelid? Have you lost your minds? Or your hearts? Have you still got hearts?”

tokarczuk_prowadz_2015_mJanina abhors the indignity and suffering humans inflict on animals: “People have a duty towards Animals,” she says, “to lead them–in successive lives–to Liberation. We’re all traveling in the same direction, from dependence to freedom, from ritual to free choice.” It appalls her that other people can go about their business indifferent, or worse–“What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?” When she proposes that the mysterious deaths in her neighborhood are actually animals exacting retribution, her theory seems at once bizarre and, coming from her, perfectly reasonable. In support of her allegations, after all, she can cite historical cases in which animals were charged with crimes and even put on trial. Who are we to be so sure animals–smarter than we are, or than we give them credit for, in so many ways–aren’t astute enough to get their revenge on the worst offenders among us?

As the bodies pile up and theories and suspicions proliferate, Janina draws us into her small circle of allies against the inanity and inhumanity of life. One of her quirks is giving people names that sum up their characters–Big Foot, Oddball, Good News. Her interactions with her friends are often lightly comical (my favorite interlude was the Mushroom Pickers Ball), and the loyalty they eventually show to her is unexpectedly touching. Looking around the table at them near the end of the novel, she thinks

we were the sort of people whom the world regards as useless. We do nothing essential, we don’t produce important ideas, no vital objects or foodstuffs, we don’t cultivate the land, we don’t fuel the economy … So far we’ve never provided the world with anything useful. We haven’t come up with the idea for any invention. We have no power, we have no resources apart from our small properties. We do our jobs, but they are of no significance for anyone else. If we went missing, nothing would really change. Nobody would notice.

And then, overcome as she frequently is with emotion so strong it makes her weep, she fights back against that verdict:

But why should we have to be useful and for what reason Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right? Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? What about the Bees and Drones, weeds and roses? Whose intellect can have had the audacity to judge who is better, and who is worse? A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made out of it. This example should raise the spirits of people like us. Everyone knows the profits to be reaped from the useful, but nobody knows the benefit to be gained from the useless.

blakeShe and her former student Dizzy share a preoccupation with Blake, and as I read the novel I wished I knew enough about him to see how much Tokarczuk is invoking his ideas. Her title is from the Proverbs of Hell, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

I don’t know how much of Janina’s way of looking at the world or being in the world is specifically connected to Blake–or, for that matter, whether there is any connection between Blake and astrology. For me, the riffs on signs and planets and horoscopes were the least compelling parts of the novel, even though they are centrally important to Janina’s world view. Sometimes, though, in spite of my disbelief, they too became compelling, poetic, even profound:

I wondered whether the stars can see us. And if they can, what might they think of us? Do they really know our future? Do they feel sorry for us? For being stuck in the present time, with no chance to move? But it also crossed my mind that in spite of it all, in spite of our fragility and ignorance, we have an incredible advantage over the stars–it is for us that time works, giving us a major opportunity to transform the suffering, aching world into a happy and peaceful one. It’s the stars that are imprisoned in their own power, and they cannot really help us. They merely design the nets, and on cosmic looms they weave the warp thread that we must complete with our own weft.

I don’t believe even for a minute in the explanatory value of astrology, but for Janina it is way of organizing and coping with the complications of life. We all need something to do that for us, especially if, like her, we are sensitive to the suffering around us. One of her theories is that the human psyche itself protects us by blocking out the truth:

Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.

Perhaps, in addition to Blake, she (and Tokarczuk) have been reading Middlemarch:

If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is about someone who reacts to the perception of universal suffering by seeking justice, not sympathy. The surprise of the novel is that someone so odd, crusty, and uncompromising turns out to be so appealing. I enjoyed her abrasiveness, her frankness about her aches and pains, her determination to live on her own terms.

Tokarczuk_okladka.cdrBy making Janina the narrator, Tokarczuk sets the novel up to test us about just how far we will go along with her: for all her wit and principle–really, because of them–she is quite a problematic character, especially if we take her at her own word about the logic of everything that happens. But what is a reasonable response to all the things we see around us, after all, or to all the things we know are going on but try not to face? “You know what,” Janina’s neighbor the Writer says to her,

sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world  that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves … And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.

Janina’s version is pretty strange, but by the end of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead we understand very clearly what’s good and what isn’t in her world, and this lets Tokarczuk wrap up her eccentric whodunit so that, at least according to the “map of meaning” it has established, the punishment fits the crime in a morally and philosophically satisfying way.

Berlin Noir: Philip Kerr, March Violets

violetsI didn’t much like March Violets–it just didn’t work for me. I should perhaps have anticipated this: in general, noir fiction isn’t really my thing. But I didn’t expect Kerr to go all in on his imitation of Raymond Chandler. Stylistically at least, I think I would have liked it better if he’d gone all in as the next Dashiell Hammett. I have to grit my teeth to get through the metaphorical excesses of The Big Sleep, and Kerr’s, while less florid, also seemed less poetic and a lot more forced. I also think there’s no excuse for perpetuating the sexism of classic hard-boiled detective novels in a contemporary pastiche. In fact, while I find Philip Marlowe’s misogyny disturbing, I give Chandler credit for showing the price Marlowe pays for it, in his embittered isolation, while Bernie Gunther’s sexism (“Her breasts were like the rear ends of a pair of dray horses at the end of a long hard day”) serves only to show off Kerr’s own hard-boiled credentials. (“There’s only one thing that unnerves me more than the company of an ugly woman in the evening, and that’s the company of the same ugly woman the following morning.”)

There were certainly things about March Violets that I thought were well done. The historical setting is one: Kerr really effectively conjures up the atmosphere of 1936 Berlin–the violence and brutality, the pomp and posturing and power-brokering, the shady corners and the moral gray areas. The plot was pretty convoluted, but that’s authentically Chandleresque, for better and for worse. I was amused by the metafictional interlude with the SS officer who is a crime fiction aficionado. “Part of the image, eh?” he says to Bernie when he takes a refill of schnaps:

“And what image would that be?”

“Why, the private detective of course. The shoddy little man in the barely furnished office, who drinks like a suicide who’s lost his nerve, and who comes to the assistance of the beautiful but mysterious woman in black.”

violets2When Bernie gets smart with him, the officer observes that “the ability to talk as toughly as your fictional counterpart is one thing … Being it is quite another.” I can’t imagine any reader of March Violets needing any such overt signals of Kerr’s knowingness about genre conventions, as there’s nothing subtle about his attempt to recreate the feeling and many of the themes of his hard-boiled predecessors, but it was still a nice light moment in an otherwise dour novel.

Something that really didn’t work for me was the episode in which Bernie goes “undercover” at Dachau. One problem, I thought, was that Kerr handled it badly: it seemed obvious that he took the responsibility of writing about Dachau seriously and the result was a tonal shift and some sudden onset “info-dumping” as Bernie turned from cynical private eye to eloquent witness (“Work sufficient to destroy the human spirit was the aim of Dachau, with death the unlooked-for by-product”). The whole sequence (which was also wildly implausible) felt like a device, a gimmick to give Kerr the opportunity to include Dachau in his scene setting–and that, in turn, felt tasteless to me.

Kerr’s concept–to revisit Chandler’s “mean streets” in the context of fascism and the fear and instability it brings, when everyone might be an informer and nobody’s life (or death) is really worth inquiring into very closely–is a really good one, and Bernie’s attempt to negotiate this world while being (in Chandler’s terms) “neither tarnished nor afraid” sets up what I can imagine become a lot of morally interesting scenarios as the series goes on. I didn’t enjoy reading March Violets, though: its tone just didn’t suit. I finished it thinking that rather than reading any further in this series, I’d rather read more of Maurizio de Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi series. They too take us down the mean streets of fascism, but they have a gravity to them–an elegance, almost, and a sadness–that I find more appealing than Kerr’s noir nastiness.

Reading in the New Year: Love and Death

love-letteringRing out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

As anticipated, my first two books of 2020 were Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s The Witch Elm. They could hardly be more different, but of their kinds, they are both, I think, excellent.

Love Lettering has many of the same qualities that have made Clayborn’s previous books–the ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy–my favorite contemporary romance series. Interestingly (to me, anyway!), these are qualities that actually dulled the books’ impact at first. Clayborn gives her characters a lot of specificity, both in their personalities and in their activities. This means a lot of backstory and also a lot of neepery (which, as I’ve figured out, is one of my favorite things). In Beginner’s Luck, for instance, one of the protagonists, Kit, is a lab technician, which I suppose might sound a bit dry, but Clayborn does a good job conveying the interest and satisfaction she finds in her job, as well as explaining the scientific work she is also involved in. In the same novel, the other lead character, Ben, helps out at his father’s salvage business–again, maybe not the first thing you’d think of as a romantic setting, but I really enjoy the details about the bits and pieces of lights and fixtures and furniture and their restoration. All this stuff isn’t just background, though: Clayborn is really deft at assembling elements that both further her story and work symbolically within it. In Beginner’s Luck, Ben is puttering away at re-assembling an elaborate chandelier: by the end of the novel it’s clear that putting things back together is what both he and Kit are struggling to do, in their different ways.

luckThe first time I read Beginner’s Luck I felt that there was so much going on that it got a bit distracting. Maybe this has something to do with my expectations for romance: though there is a lot of emotional intensity in Clayborn’s novels, the central relationship is embedded in a lot of what seemed like padding. It turns out, though, that for me anyway this is exactly what makes her books fun to reread, as more of the novels’ patterns–the connections between their parts–become clearer over time. At the same time, it’s the emotional intensity that means I give a pass to what might otherwise bother me about them, which is that the love story relies (more so in the second and third books in the trilogy than the first) on an initial set-up that seems, if you think about it hard at all, pretty contrived or unlikely. This is especially true of Luck of the Draw, which has nonetheless turned out to be my favorite of the trilogy. luck-of-draw

It is also definitely true of Love Lettering, where the relationship between the main characters, Meg and Reid, depends on his implausibly accepting an invitation that I can’t quite imagine anyone actually extending to a virtual stranger. However! Once they get started, their slow-growing friendship plays out in a beautifully nuanced way, their uneasy unfamiliarity teetering bit by bit into trust, pleasure, and of course, ultimately, love. Here too there’s a lot going on in context and character development, especially around Meg’s work doing hand lettering. Clayborn gives us a lot of detail about that work, but it never feels like she’s doing the dreaded “info-dump”: instead, Meg’s interest, her vocation, permeates her first-person narration. She sees lettering everywhere, both literally and when people talk to her–or when she and Reid kiss for the first time:

He shifts, lets his lips rest softly against my cheekbone, and instead of pressing them there, he rubs them back and forth once, as light as a strand of my own hair in the wind, and I see that word, too, drawn in the same pink that’s the color of my natural blush, the pink I turn when I’m warm or embarrassed or aroused. The t, the w, the o, all of them a heavily sloped italic. All of them on the way to somewhere.

It’s a kind of sensual synesthesia that is also elicited for her in a more aesthetic and intellectual way by her relationship with New York–which the novel is also a love letter to, as Meg and Reid’s romance unfolds as they explore the streets in search of inspiration in its billboards, awnings, and facades. Love Lettering turns out to be a novel all about reading signs, literal but also metaphorical and personal; this concept ties together its various subplots, as does the characters’ related struggle to express themselves clearly–to signal their own meaning. My only complaint about the novel is that the ending, which includes a long-deferred revelation about Reid, seemed both a bit rushed and a bit out of sync with the mood or style of the rest of the book. That revelation is also the reason we don’t get the alternating points of view Clayborn used in all three of her previous books. I liked Meg a lot, but it felt a bit odd for a romance to be so completely one-sided. Now that I know everything, however, I will be able to infer a lot more about what is really going on with Reid when I reread it, which I am bound to do before long.

witch-elm The Witch Elm has been written about a lot elsewhere; of the reviews I’ve read, I think Laura Miller’s in Slate comes closest to what I thought about it. I know some people have found it too long or too purposeless, for its first half at least, and so not particularly gripping. Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post concludes her actually fairly positive review a bit crushingly: “I’d say that without any “bang, bang” for hundreds of pages, “The Witch Elm” becomes “boring, boring.” I definitely did not find it boring! Toby’s voice worked for me from the start, though having read Tana French before I knew better than to take him completely at face value. I liked the patient progress of the story through the initial harrowing attack on Toby to the muted Gothic atmosphere of the Ivy House. Once the skull turned up I had (unusually, for me!) lots of theories about how it got there and who was implicated–and French teased me with plenty of hints and possibilities that fit and then contradicted each of them. Toby’s wavering sense of self brought layers to the novel, both philosophical and psychological. “They’re unsettled and they’re frightened,” Uncle Hugo says about the people who hire him to research their genealogies after unexpected DNA results; “They’re afraid that they’re not who they always thought they were, and they want me to find them reassurance. And we both know it might not turn out that way.” That’s Toby’s situation too, eventually, trying to figure out the truth about himself when other people’s accounts of him don’t square with his own. For him too, the result may not be reassuring–but what French conveys so well is that his very craving for stability, for confirmation, for certainty about his own identity, is itself a potent destructive force.

My only quibble with The Witch Elm is that the story about the skull in the tree eventually comes out in a really dull way (narratively speaking – the facts are plenty shocking): Toby just gets told it all in a long and inadequately motivated ‘reveal’ scene. I expected the case to be ‘solved’ in some more subtle and artful way. I realize that the novel is not, really, centered on that whodunit aspect but is actually about Toby–who he is, what he has done or not done, what has enabled him to live and think and ignore and forget the way he has. Still, that bit fell flat for me. Things took another dramatic turn soon after, though, and the novel’s denouement overall was very satisfactory.

So there we are: two new books for the new year, both good ones. What’s next? Well, for one, Pride and Prejudice, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class on Friday.




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


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.

The Power of the Whodunnit: Anthony Horowitz, MagpieMurders


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.

“Ideological Ambiguity”: Qiu Xiaolong, Death of a Red Heroine


The alliance between Chen and Yu put him in a disadvantageous position. But what really worried Zhang was Chief Inspector Chen’s ideological ambiguity. Chen appeared to be a bright young officer, Zhang admitted. Whether he would prove to be a reliable upholder of the cause the old cadres had fought for, however, Zhang was far from certain. He had attempted to read several of Chen’s poems. he did not understand a single line. He had heard people describing Chen as an avant-gardist–influenced by Western modernism.

I found Death of a Red Heroine pretty slow going at first. The prose is quite flat, almost plodding, and the slow pace was compounded by the amount of what seemed like a lot of extraneous detail. As I read on, though, I warmed to Chief Inspector Chen, who though a dedicated police officer also (like P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh) has the sensitive heart and whimsical eye of a poet. Then as his investigation began to quicken and complicate, other things got more interesting: the prime suspect is an HCC (“High Cadre Child”) and Chen’s inquiries become “politically incorrect,” his loyalty to the Party coming into question. As his career is threatened, he has to decide what is most important: justice, or what is good for the Party. He also has to come to terms with his own power, or at least his access to it: in the end, he figures out not how to stay out of politics but how to play them to win. Gradually, then, over the course of an otherwise fairly conventional murder mystery, the stakes go up, both politically and philosophically, as Chen and his little band of co-conspirators struggle to express their own freedom in a highly constricting society by holding one privileged perpetrator to account. The ending is not unequivocally triumphant, but the effort is very satisfying.

qui-xiaolongI didn’t start enjoying the novel more just because the plot became more engrossing, though it did–or because the prose became more pleasurable, because it really didn’t. The other thing that happened was I got used to the slow pace and came to appreciate all the cultural context I was getting through what initially seemed like digressions. It’s true that all the many (many!) descriptions of meals aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, but they certainly added to my sense of what life in Shanghai in the 1990s was like, as did the meticulous accounts of where and how people live:

They lived in an old-fashioned two storied shikumen house–an architectural style popular in the early thirties, when such a house had been built for one family. Now, sixty years later, it was inhabited by more than a dozen, with all the rooms subdivided to accommodate more and more people. Only the black-painted front door remained the same, opening into a small courtyard littered with odds and ends, a sort of common junk yard, which led to a high-ceilinged hall flaked by the eastern and western wings. This once spacious hall had long since been converted to a public kitchen and storage area. The two rows of coal stoves with piles of coal briquettes indicated that seven families lived on the first floor.

One of the more memorable bits of scene setting was this account of a woman prepping an eel for market:

Having slapped an eel hard like a whip against the concrete ground, the woman was fixing its head on a thick nail sticking out of a bench, pulling it tight, cutting through its belly, deboning it, pulling out its insides, chopping off its head, and slicing its body delicately … Her hands and arms were covered with eel blood, and her bare feet too. The chopped-off heads of the eels lay scattered at her bare feet, like scarlet-painted toes.

There are too many appreciative descriptions of noodles, soups, dumplings, and duck to keep track of: the book makes clear the importance of meals, not just for sustenance (though there is a lot of exuberance around eating for its own sake) but also as social and bonding rituals.

red-heroineI also really enjoyed the role of Chen’s poetry in his life and in his case–and in the case against him. The idea that his elusive (and allusive) verses harbor subversive messages at once works with the intense suspicion shown by loyal Party members towards anything suggestive of a “Western bourgeois decadent lifestyle” and seemed to me a sly play on the literary difficulty of modernist poetry and the challenge of figuring out what it means. Poring over Chen’s poem “Night Talk,” Zhang wonders if the phrase “mind’s square” is a reference to Tiananmen Square:

“Deserted” on a summer night of 1989, with no “pennant” left there. If so, the poem was politically incorrect. And the issue about “history,” too. Chairman Mao had said that people, people alone make the history. How could Chen talk about history as the result of a rubric?

Zhang was not sure of his interpretation. So he started to read all over again. Before long, however, his eyesight grew bleary. He had to give up. There was nothing else for him to do. So he took a shower before going to bed. Standing under the shower head, he still thought that Chen had gone too far.

Who hasn’t felt that sometimes, reading poetry that seems full of significance you can’t quite grasp? I liked Chen’s habit of quoting poetry as well, and the general sense that in his world it matters–being a poet gets him respect and admiration! He also translates English mystery novels, so there’s another nice self-referential strand woven into the novel. Coincidentally, he is translating Ruth Rendell, a writer I was already thinking about this week because she came up in my Women & Detective Fiction class and I realized how little of her I had read. I read Death of a Red Heroine for my book club; maybe I should suggest Rendell as our follow-up–though crime fiction is not a typical choice for us.

“Not This Time!”: Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam


Men like Nate and women like her were the people, the folks, the mud from which the rest were made. It was their hands and blood and sweat that had built everything, from the North Carolina governor’s mansion to the first stoplight. They ought to have been appreciated for being the wattle that held the walls together. Instead, they were expendable, interchangeable, rarely missed, hardly regarded, easily forgotten. Not this time!

Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam (first published in 1992) is the first of four novels she wrote featuring Blanche White, professional cleaning woman and amateur detective. The series was out of print the last time I taught ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ so although I was aware of its significance in the history of African American crime writing, I didn’t pursue it very far. Now that the books are available again, I thought I should check it out, and I’m glad I did: I think (logistics permitting) I will put Blanche on the Lam on the syllabus. It’s a brisk, entertaining read that is also sharp and self-conscious about the difference race makes to all aspects of the mystery genre, from the literal risks to black Americans in any kind of encounter with the police, to more abstract thematic questions about authority, evidence, and justice.

Blanche begins the novel in trouble for passing bad checks; the judge doesn’t care that she would have been able to cover them if her (white) employers hadn’t gone out of town without paying her on time. Right away, then, both race and class are highlighted. Amidst a disruption at the courthouse, Blanche escapes from custody, and then she takes advantage of the fact that “women like her” are indistinguishable to the wealthy white families they work for to slip into a housekeeping job that takes her–safely, she thinks–out of town for a while. It turns out, however, that she’s traveling right into more trouble, and eventually into real danger. From the start she doesn’t trust her employers, Grace and Everett, especially Everett:

Blanche on the Lam.2

He was a rich white male. Being in possession of that particular set of characteristics meant a person could do pretty much anything he wanted to do, to pretty much anybody he chose–like an untrained dog chewing and shitting all over the place. Blanche was sure having all that power made many men crazy.

As Blanche tries to figure out what is going on with these two, and with drunken Aunt Emmeline, who is confined to her upstairs bedroom, she learns more about the family from their long-time retainer Nate, who tells her stories about, among other things, how as a child Grace saved him from a roving band of KKK thugs. Although she’s upset at the first suspicious death in the novel, it’s Nate’s subsequent death that makes her particularly determined to bring the murderer to account.

Blanche also befriends and bonds with Grace’s cousin Mumsfield, a young man with Down Syndrome. I expect that his characterization and role will provoke some discussion. For Blanche, the key to their relationship is that neither of them is regarded as fully human by Grace and Everett–or, really, any of the white adults in the story. “She understood,” she thinks, that his condition

made him as recognizably different from the people who ran and owned the world as she. It was this similarity that made him visible to her inner eye and eligible for her concern.


Crucially, in terms of the unfolding mystery, nobody really listens to Mumsfield, and Blanche eventually realizes that she too has not really been paying attention to him even though he has been dropping clues for some time–without himself quite understanding what has actually happened. Blanche feels affection for him and protective of him, but she also wonders how far her identification with him can really go: “For all his specialness and their seeming connectedness, Mumsfield was still a white man.” She is wary of accepting a “mammy” role, serving as a caretaker for someone “whose ancestors had most likely bought and sold her ancestors as though they were shoes or machines.”

I already see a number of ways Blanche on the Lam will connect with–and make us look differently at–other books we’ll probably be reading. For instance, Blanche’s work as a detective has some interesting continuities with Miss Marple, who in her investigations relies on the ways people underestimate her, and on the invisibility that comes with her age. In a similar way, Blanche takes advantage of the access she gets to people’s private spaces and conversations because her race and role in the household make her unimportant to them. Being seen as “the help” is a specific kind of anonymity, insulting to her personally but also a tool she can use, as is the cheerful subservience she puts on as a mask when dealing with racism and snobbery. They both also know their way around a kitchen, and in both cases this “feminine” domesticity can be useful, though at the same time there are important differences in the ways that it defines their identities. The novel is told in close third person: I think it might have been even better in first person, but we get a lot of Blanche’s inner commentary on people and events and her voice still comes across very clearly. Although in this novel they are of necessity at a distance, because she’s in hiding, Blanche’s family and close friends are also important in establishing her character, and another point of connection to Miss Marple is the extent to which “gossip” or intimate storytelling among women is a vital element of the case.

Like other crime writers who emphasize social justice (such as, in this course, Sara Paretsky) Neely is also clear that the resolution of the specific case has done little if anything to fix the larger problems it has highlighted. At the end of the novel Blanche is moving from North Carolina to Boston, but not with any hope that it will be a safe space for her. “It seemed,” she reflects, “that enemy territory was all there was in this country for someone who looked like her.” The satisfaction she finds is individual, not systemic. “She would always be a woman who’d come too close to murder,” she thinks, but

she would also always be a woman who’d fought for her life and won. That woman, no matter how much she’d changed, was still capable of negotiating enemy territory–even without a reference from her most recent employer.