“I Have Married England”: Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon,” Part II

busmans2Now for the things I don’t love about Busman’s Honeymoon. [If you missed it, Part I, “Love with Honour,” explains the things I do love.] Some of these I’ve always noticed, some stood out particularly on this reread; some are small irritations, and some make me uneasy that, in spite of them, I still love the book. In the discussion that followed my earlier post about making excuses for Gaudy Night I suggested that some books are “like a slightly embarrassing relative you still adore.” I think it’s not just loyalty that keeps Busman’s Honeymoon in my good books (so to speak!): I think the good in it really does outweigh the bad. But I can’t deny that it has some real problems.

Worst is the novel’s off-hand antisemitism, which surfaces in the context of not one but two “financial gentlemen” who get involved in squabbling over the victim’s estate. The first, Mr. MacBride, is anticipated as “an inquisitive Hebrew”; he turns out to be”a brisk young man, bowler-hatted, with sharp black eyes that seemed to inventory everything they encountered, and a highly regrettable tie.” He also has “a trifling difficulty with his sibilants.” The second, Mr. Solomons, is “a stout, elderly Hebrew” with a pronounced lisp (“Very thorry to intrude . . . I have here a bill of thale on the furniture . . .”). They are both presented as slightly comical figures and treated with perfect, if faintly condescending, amiability by our main characters, but there’s no doubt that they are meant to represent an exotic and not altogether desirable genus characterized by money-grubbing and sharp dealing. This is the kind of thing that could be shrugged off as “a product of its times” but is more appropriately pointed out as a symptom of what was wrong with those times, or at least with too many people living in those times. In Gaudy Night villainy is strongly associated with Nazism, but antisemitism and fascism had a pretty strong hold in 1930s England too: Mr. MacBride and Mr. Solomons could come across as quaintly offensive anachronisms, but they are also salutary reminders of the conditions that made Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts possible.

Next up is the novel’s snobbery. In Gaudy Night, where so much of what matters is educational and intellectual, I tend to think in terms of elitism instead, and to see Oxford as a place that (in Sayers’s admittedly idealized version) renders class barriers, if not irrelevant, at least less relevant. But in Busman’s Honeymoon you really can’t ignore the power of class hierarchies. Though there are references to Harriet’s past life as an ordinary person (you know, the kind who buys tea biscuits in a shop and so knows which ones from the package have the cheese in the middle), she’s living in Peter’s world now, and she adapts with discomfiting ease. It takes no apparent effort at all for her to refer to the gardener simply as “Crutchley,” to accept Bunter’s deferential services, or to be high-handed with the (admittedly dreadful) housekeeper Mrs. Ruddle.

In taking on Peter’s rank, Harriet is taking up a new place in a strictly ordered world, one the novel portrays with more nostalgia and idealism than mistrust or critique:

Whatever fantastic pictures she had from time to time conjured up of married life with Peter, none of them had ever included attendance at village concerts. But of course they would go. She understood now why it was that with all his masquing attitudes, all his cosmopolitan self-adaptations, all his odd spiritual reticences and escapes, he yet carried about with him that permanent atmosphere of security. He belonged to an ordered society, and this was it. More than any of the friends in her own world, he spoke the familiar language of her childhood. In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village — no matter what village — they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares. She was curiously excited. She thought, “I have married England.” Her fingers tightened on his arm.

vintagebusmanIt’s one thing to be “immutably yourself” when you’re the duke’s son (or his new bride), but it’s another if you are a struggling mechanic or anyone else who might like to “do or become” something else. Even though Harriet’s own story could be read as one of disruptive social mobility (and that’s exactly how she is seen by the more hidebound of Peter’s family and aristocratic peers), in Busman’s Honeymoon social aspiration is cause for ridicule (the absurdly pathetic Miss Twitterton, for instance, who gives herself airs because her mother was a school teacher) or a sign of villainy; the cynicism of a world in which Mrs. Ruddle initially suspects Harriet and Peter of being film stars and “no better than they should be” is contrasted unfavorably with the noblesse oblige that requires dutiful attendance at village concerts and the vicar’s sherry party.

Peter is often a bit awkward or apologetic about the anachronism of his aristocratic identity, but he’s also profoundly attached to the continuity it represents, and Busman’s Honeymoon really indulges that feeling, particularly when he brings Harriet at long last to visit the family “pile,” Duke’s Denver, with its antiques and its peacocks and its well-mannered ghosts. The tour of the family portrait gallery brings to mind Trollope’s remarks about the wealth of the church: “Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library, and that unequalled spire, without feeling that Bishops should sometimes be rich?”

The afternoon sun slanted in through the long windows of the gallery, picking out here a blue Garter ribbon, there a scarlet uniform, lighting up a pair of slender hands by Van Dyck, playing among the powdered curls of a Gainsborough, or throwing into sudden startling brilliance some harsh white face set in a sombre black periwig.

We are all, in some ways, beneficiaries of such privilege: shouldn’t we be glad that some people have, historically, been able to collect and preserve so much beauty, to patronize artists and commission great buildings? But while it’s true that Busman’s Honeymoon does include reminders that democratic forces are at work — that in London, as Harriet observes, for instance, this “ordered society” is in flux — there’s something conservative about its yearning to keep those forces at bay and to protect “impeccable Inigo Jones staircases” from the encroachments of modern life. Along with the novel’s other nastier prejudices, this raises questions about just what kind of England Harriet has married: it doesn’t seem an altogether welcoming or progressive place.

Finally, there’s the crime itself, which Chandler was quite right to point to as contrived. The Golden Age aspects of the mystery are mostly good fun. I especially like Peter’s self-consciously Holmes-like reading of the vicar:

 “This is magnificent,” said Peter. “I collect vicars.” He joined Harriet at her observation post. “This is a very well-grown specimen, six foot four or thereabouts, short-sighted, a great gardener, musical, smokes a pipe — “

“Good gracious,” cried Miss Twitterton, “do you know Mr Goodacre?”

” — untidy, with a wife who does her best on a small stipend; a product of one of our older seats of learning — 1890 vintage — Oxford at a guess, but not, I fancy, Keble, though as high in his views as the parish allows him to be.”

“You know my methods, Watson,” he says self-deprecatingly to Harriet when she exclaims that “to the best of my knowledge and belief you’re right.” Unrealistic as they may be, too, the array of clues including clocks and cacti and wireless settings make for a good puzzle, Inspector Kirk is excellent, and the subplot with Constable Sellon adds a nice human touch. But it all feels like a puzzle set up to be solved, not (as Chandler wanted) a story of a murder by “the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Our killer does have his reasons, but given them, and given his character, there are much simpler, more obvious methods he’s more likely to have resorted to. There’s also the typical Golden Age implausibility of a body turning up on the sleuth’s honeymoon in the first place, not to mention in his own home. These are, of course, the kinds of things about which this subgenre of crime fiction requires suspension of disbelief, but there’s too much genuine human drama and feeling in Busman’s Honeymoon for them to sit quite right. While Gaudy Night elegantly fuses its mystery plot with its other elements, Busman’s Honeymoon feels like a mish-mash, an uneasy and ultimately unsuccessful compromise between two kinds of books.

“Love with Honour”: Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon (Part I)

busmansI’ve written at length about my love for Gaudy Night, but I have never really tried to sort out my views on its sequel, Busman’s Honeymoon. As I have owned and loved Busman’s Honeymoon as long as I have Gaudy Night (I have them in matching editions, inscribed to me on my 13th birthday), I thought it would be an appropriate book to write on for my 1000th post here at Novel Readings! But it turns out that I have so much to say that I’m going to do it in two posts.

I think the general consensus, even among Sayers fans, is that Busman’s Honeymoon is a bit of a let-down, not just as a detective story but for the ways it carries forward the relationship between Peter and Harriet — though I may be extrapolating much too far from the dismissive comments of critics like Julian Symons, who complained about the ‘dismal sentimentality’ of Sayers’s later novels. Still, it seems to be Gaudy Night that’s usually cited as the pinnacle, not of Sayers’s whole oeuvre necessarily, but of the four that make up the Harriet Quartet. I actually used to prefer Busman’s Honeymoon, which makes sense given how much more abstract some of the issues are in Gaudy Night, and how cerebral its romance. Busman’s Honeymoon has more going on right on the surface: both emotionally and criminally, it has more blunt objects! I don’t know quite what my 13-year-old self made of some of its details, such as the discussions of “shabby tigers,” or Peter’s “fits of exigent and exhausting passion” during the agonizing wait for the killer’s execution. There weren’t many limits on my youthful reading, so my guess is that these allusions to Harriet and Peter’s sex life raised fewer questions for me than their struggles to define their marriage as a relationship of equals. Rereading the novel now, it’s those struggles that stand out, and that remind me why Peter and Harriet have so long seemed to me one of the most interesting and important literary couples I know.

Gaudy Night makes a powerful case for finding a balance between head and heart – but accepting that as the ideal isn’t the same as living up to it in perpetuity. Busman’s Honeymoon is the next step: what does this really look like in practice? One thing I really liked about Busman’s Honeymoon this time (in my next post, I’ll get to the things I really disliked) is that we see these two fiercely independent and highly intelligent people trying very self-consciously to make sure their romantic relationship reflects their principles, not just their passions. The personal equality they value isn’t an easy thing to achieve in a world that is otherwise defined by inequalities — not least of wealth and power, of which Peter has a disproportionate share. Once they are married, of course, Harriet enjoys much of the same privilege (about which more next time), but Sayers is savvy about the challenges she faces to both her finances and her pride as she prepares for the wedding. “Oh, Mr. Rochester!” she says to Peter on receiving his extravagant gift of a mink coat, while she earns the money for the Donne manuscript that is her gift to him by writing “three five-thousand-word shorts at forty guineas each for the Thrill Magazine.” At Oxford, in Gaudy Night, none of that mattered: the interchangeability of their academic gowns stands for the meeting of their minds, for the freedom to face and love each other as peers. It’s very clear in Busman’s Honeymoon that they aren’t at Oxford any more.

Neither Harriet nor Peter wants marriage to mean compromise. After their first real disagreement — which arises when Harriet questions whether Peter needs to get involved in investigating the sordid murder that turns out to have taken place in their honeymoon home just before their arrival — she backs off quickly when faced with his argument that he shouldn’t “pick and choose what I’ll meddle in” to suit his own convenience. “This business of adjusting oneself was not so easy after all,” she thinks, and she can’t smooth things over with girlish ploys:

He wasn’t the kind of man to whom you could say, ‘Darling, you’re wonderful, and whatever you do is right’ — whether you thought so or not. He would write you down a fool. . . . He wanted you to agree with him intelligently or not at all.

Imagine that! Later, when the argument recurs, with the added stress that now there are real suspects who stand to pay the price for Peter’s “meddling,” Harriet rejects the power she wields because of his love for her, scorning to be the kind of woman who boasts “My husband would do anything for me.” “What kind of life could we have,” she demands, “if I knew that you had become less than yourself by marrying me?” “Love with honour” is their goal, and they know it’s not a conventional one: “If you go on behaving with all this reason and generosity,” Peter says admiringly to Harriet, “everybody will think we don’t give a damn for one another.”

newgaudynightIn Gaudy Night another sign of their equality is their collaboration on solving the mystery. It’s true that in the grand reveal it’s Peter who dominates, and the attack on Harriet could be seen as marking her as a victim in need of rescue (and there’s the whole dog collar thing too). Harriet works on her own at first, though, and prepares the dossier on which the solution depends. That they work so closely on the mystery reinforces both the novel’s overall theme of balance and its promise that the two of them are truly partners. In Busman’s Honeymoon the investigation is more clearly Peter’s turf: in those quarrels, he’s the one insisting that detection is his work, his vocation; it’s Peter who really puts the pieces of the puzzle together and who carries the guilt, in the end, of having brought the criminal to justice and thus (after due process) to his own violent death. Harriet still has a lot of input, though: it’s not the case that she simply stands by and observes. I don’t think she needs to get redefined as a sleuth herself to sustain the balance of their relationship: she has a career, as a writer, and that’s the expertise she brings to the case.

Something else Harriet’s presence does in Busman’s Honeymoon that has real generic significance, particularly for a novel that belongs to the “Golden Age,” is galvanize Peter’s transformation from sleuth into complex, flawed, and intensely vulnerable human being. This is a process Sayers herself undertook deliberately once she’d introduced Harriet into her novels. I don’t much like the early Wimsey books, as Peter’s such a chattering fop in them compared to the layered character he eventually becomes (he does still play the part of upper-class twit occasionally). Sayers knew he had to become someone Harriet could say yes to; that’s only accomplished by the end of Gaudy Night (in Have His Carcase, there are moments, but overall he’s not quite there). The implications of that for him as a detective are particularly interesting in Busman’s Honeymoon, as the ending of the novel is anything but triumphant for Peter even though he has solved the puzzle. Instead of this “success” setting him up as a heroic avenger, it brings back all the trauma of his wartime experience and leaves him broken and weeping. In “The Simple Art of Murder” Raymond Chandler quite reasonably mocks the artifice of English puzzle mysteries, including Sayers’s — in fact, he singles out Busman’s Honeymoon for its admittedly absurd scenario (“a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business”). It’s interesting that he doesn’t comment on the novel’s conclusion, which could surely be read as a repudiation of the entire form of the book itself, or at least of the type of mystery it sort of is, which as Chandler noted, could force “real people” (which he admits Sayers could create) to “do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot.”

With all this attention on reason and intelligence and principles and genre, I don’t want to miss the one other thing I have always loved about Busman’s Honeymoon, which rather pushes against the more intellectual merits I’ve been highlighting: it is utterly sentimental, full of declarations of love, some playful, some breathtakingly sincere. How wonderful to be caught up in these moments with Harriet and Peter, to be in a world, and a relationship, and a novel, in which the demands of reason and intelligence, and the conflicts that inevitably arise between two strong wills, don’t rule out the emotional abandonment — the ecstasy –of love. Peter and Harriet are both ever-ready with literary quotations, a game that’s played perhaps to excess (and sometimes to comic effect) in Busman’s Honeymoon. But it’s also here that poetry becomes, at last, the truth of their experience. “How can I find words?” asks Peter, in frustration at his own struggle to articulate his feelings on his own behalf. “Poets have taken them all, and left me with nothing to say or do — ”

“Except to teach me for the first time what they meant.”

He found it hard to believe.

“Have I done that?”

“Oh, Peter — ” Somehow she must make him believe it, because it mattered so much that he should. “All my life I have been wandering in the dark — but now I have found your heart — and am satisfied.”

“And what do all the great words come to in the end, but that? — I love you — I am at rest with you — I have come home.”

It seems fitting that Donne (that most cerebral of love poets) is always their touchstone. “This is joy’s bonfire, then,” reads his “Eclogue for the Marriage of the Earl of Somerset,” which ends the novel,

where love’s strong arts
Make of so noble individual parts
One fire of four inflaming eyes, and of two loving hearts.

 

This Week In My Classes: What Makes a “Teachable” Novel?

This week I decided to call my own bluff.

knots_crossesI spend a lot of time fretting about which books I assign in my Mystery and Detective Fiction course — because once you get past the few absolute “must haves” (something by Poe, some Sherlock Holmes, The Moonstone, something to represent the Golden Age, one of the hard-boiled essentials) there are many good reasons but no real imperatives to help me choose from the tens of thousands of possibilities. My guiding principles are coverage (of the major subgenres, such as the police procedural) and diversity (of voice or point of view), but that doesn’t really narrow things down that much. I’ve asked for suggestions quite a few times here, with great results: I have readers like Dorian to thank, for instance, for prodding me to read Sjöwall and Wahlöö, whose The Terrorists is currently a staple of my course reading list.

I tweak that list pretty regularly, and I’m always turning over alternatives in my mind. One of the books I’ve assigned the most is Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, which is his first Rebus novel. As often the case with the first books in a series, it is in some ways his most self-conscious, and it doesn’t assume any prior knowledge of Rebus on our part, which is useful for classroom purposes. It’s also a nifty little book in its own way, neatly constructed, with lots of clever twists; its deliberate invocations of the Scottish gothic tradition make it nicely literary and its inquiry into masculine identity, military “bonding,” and repression usually spark good discussion. It’s not the best Rebus novel, though (I know Rankin doesn’t think so either): the others, especially the more recent ones, have a broader social and political reach and do more as police procedurals, while Knots and Crosses (which was not intended as a “crime novel” to begin with) is really more of a psychological thriller. Every time I teach Knots and Crosses, then, I mutter to myself (and sometimes remark to the class) that to really see what Rankin and Rebus can do, we should read something else. Yet I have never acted on that conviction.

This week, then, I decided I should reread one of the others that has long been in my mind as an alternative: 2006’s The Naming of the Dead. Set in Edinburgh during the 2005 G8 meeting, it balances its murder investigations against political crimes and misdemeanors of all kinds. Siobhan Clarke is on the case too, but involved personally as well as professionally, and Rebus’s old antagonist, “Big Ger” Cafferty, becomes an uneasy ally. My recollection of the book is that it explored lots of themes we’re always interested in in this class, especially gray areas between crime and detection, or tensions between the law and real justice. Rereading it, this impression has been confirmed, as has my sense that its political context gives Rankin the opportunity to do something similar to what Sjöwall and Wahlöö do, that is, extend particular criminal investigations to larger critiques of systems of power. Rankin’s novels have been acknowledged as contemporary versions of the Victorian ‘condition of England’ novel: with Knots and Crosses, you can’t see why, but with The Naming of the Dead, the genealogy works and would, I think, be really interesting to discuss.

namingofthedeadAnd yet … I am not convinced that I should replace Knots and Crosses after all! Much as I’m enjoying rereading it, I’m not sure it would be as teachable as Knots and Crosses, and my hesitation over this has had me wondering: what do I mean by “teachable”? It’s not something I ever really consider about Victorian novels when choosing among them for my 19th-century fiction classes, but when I’m scouting for mystery novels to assign — or contemplating assigning some new (or new to me) novel for an intro course — “How would this work in the classroom?” is always a concern. And for the majority of mystery novels I read, the (usually unarticulated) response to this question is “it wouldn’t”: I put most of them aside without seriously considering them for my syllabus, which strikes me as interesting. Why would that be? Might it (she says a little nervously) have something to do with the “literary” vs. “genre” fiction distinction? Or, to be more precise, with the ways that methods for “teaching” a novel (at least for me) align with qualities that are more likely to occur in “literary” fiction?

What qualities am I looking for in a novel I assign? I suppose the fundamental requirement is that there be something in it for us to talk about — not just for a few minutes, but for enough classroom hours that we can spread our work on the novel across whatever seems like a reasonable amount of time for the students to read the whole thing. The formula for this will vary depending on the level and nature of the class, of course, but anything that will take up a week or more of class time has to be of a certain complexity — and not just of plot, because just rehearsing what happened is not particularly valuable or interesting. It might sound foolish to put it this way, but to teach a book there also has to be something about it that needs explaining, as well as something that rewards discussion. Not all of this has to be generated by the intrinsic qualities of the book: a book might get some of its interest from external contexts — (literary) historical, for instance, or theoretical. But you don’t (well, I don’t) want to spend a lot of time on stuff around the book and only point to the book itself in passing: you want to dig in and really get to know it!

One way of labeling the process I’m most used to, pedagogically, would be “deep reading,” or “close reading.” Not all books reward that particular kind of reading equally. An alternative is “horizontal reading,” where the individual text is seen as part of a broad array of related and perhaps even quite similar material. Its interest arises at least in part, in that case, by comparison: among things of this kind, how is this particular one different or interesting? In Mystery and Detective Fiction we actually do a combination of the two. I spend a fair amount of time describing a broad horizon of comparison (because we don’t have time to read lots and lots of examples to establish it on our own) and then we consider how our specific example fits into or revises common conventions and tropes. Mystery fiction really is strongly governed by recognizable patterns which in their least interesting versions seem simply formulaic — which is not to say that there aren’t tropes and conventions and formulas in “literary” fiction too, and one reason I’m using scare-quotes is that I am very aware that the distinction I’m invoking is a vexed and imperfect one. But it seems silly to pretend there aren’t books that are very clearly of a kind, perhaps even repetitively or predictably so, and that whatever the pleasures they afford many readers, they don’t individually hold up under the kind of scrutiny I am inclined to give them in class. Or, in another variation on the problem, they don’t do something new and thought-provoking enough to those tropes and conventions that they jump out as examples we need to consider. I’m not judging these books in any absolute way, of course. I’m just measuring them by what I perceive as my pedagogical goals.

moonstoneThen there are other constraints on teachability: more pragmatic ones. Again, with Victorian novels I mostly don’t worry too much about these, though I am wise, or cautious, or jaded, enough never to assign two genuine door-stoppers in the same term  (say, Bleak House and Middlemarch). Students who sign up for “The 19th-Century Novel from Dickens to Hardy” have to know what they are getting into! But the mystery class is a lower-level course that is purely an elective for everybody in it. I can barely get them all through The Moonstone (and in fact I am confident there are always some who never make it to the end) — and that’s a book that’s so interesting I can barely stop talking about it myself! It earns its two weeks of class time by being not just important but really complex and (for the class) quite challenging. This is actually where I fear The Naming of the Dead  falls apart as an option (though I’m not 100% sure yet). Its nearly 500 pages are not nearly as dense as The Moonstone‘s, but in a way that’s just the problem: it goes on for almost as long a time without actually being as complex. It is broad, I might say, and it’s smart, but it’s not particularly deep. I’m not sure about this, because I haven’t tried to map out any lecture topics, but it would be a bad idea to assign 500 pages and then end up feeling like we were spinning our wheels in class.

It’s true that you can find something to say about almost anything, and that there is no one uniform approach that works for teaching all novels. The Naming of the Dead seems to me an in-between case: I’m ruling it out (I think) because it requires too big an investment for the likely payoff in this particular course. It also matters to me that Knots and Crosses — which is both short and suspenseful — is always very popular with students: it is often singled out in course evaluations as a favorite, for instance, and class discussions about it tend to be pretty lively. (This year The Terrorists has been our most-discussed book so far, though.) Maybe it will inspire students to go on and read more of Rankin’s (better) novels on their own; I’m guessing that the number who are inspired to read more Wilkie Collins is very small! I suppose I could swap it out for a different example of the police procedural. I’ve tried that before, actually: one year we read Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which earned its spot on the list because the 87th Precinct series was ground-breaking of its kind. But for all that is interesting about it, Cop Hater is a really badly written novel, or so we ended up thinking by the time we’d talked it through. In that case, being teachable turned out not to be enough to teach it again!

If you’re curious about which books I’ve chosen over the years, in Mystery and Detective Fiction or in my other classes, you can get a good sense of the range by scanning the On Teaching page of this blog.

Sue Grafton: W is for Wasted [Time]

Grafton W is for WastedIt’s actually a bit harsh to imply that reading W is for Wasted is a waste of time. Grafton is too good at her craft for that: the story is multifaceted and the elements unravel and then knit up together in a satisfying enough way. But it’s such a plodding book overall. First, Grafton seems to believe that she has to recap Kinsey’s history and living situation in detail every single time. Maybe she’s right about that strategically: not everyone reading W is for Wasted will have read A through V, after all, and she doesn’t want them to be confused or feel left out. That doesn’t make it any more interesting for those of us who already know all that. I’ve been trying to think how the other authors of long-running mystery series handle this continuity problem. That I can’t remember ever being bored or annoyed by, say, Robert B. Parker, or P. D. James, or Elizabeth George for the same reasons suggests that whatever they do about it, it’s somehow more artful. Grafton’s decision to keep Kinsey in the 80s also contributes to the boredom, I think: she and her life haven’t changed or progressed very far in the 30 years the series has been coming out.

Then there’s Grafton’s T. M. I. problem, which I’ve written about beforeW is for Wasted is just as lifelessly detailed as whichever one of her novels I was reading then. I’m not a fan of the silly “show, don’t tell” rule — but that doesn’t mean you have to tell us everything. There are examples of needless specifics on pretty much every page; here’s a representative bit from Kinsey’s arrival at a low-budget motel:

I unlocked the door and flipped on the light. The interior was dank. On the beige wall-to-wall carpet there was a ghostly foot path from the bed into the bathroom. A small secondary side road ran from the bed as far as the television set. I did a quick circuit. The heating and air-conditioning system, if you want to call it that, was a narrow unit installed just under the windowsill, with seven options in the way of temperature control. Heat: off or on. Cold: off or on. Fan: on, off, or auto. I tried to calculate the number of possible combinations, but it was way beyond my rudimentary math skills. The bathroom was clean enough and the motel had provided me two bars of soap, neatly sealed in paper. One was slightly larger than the other and was intended for the shower. I unwrapped the smaller one, standing at the sink. The chrome fixtures were pitted and the cold-water knob squeaked in protest when I paused to wash my hands. I felt a tap on my head and looked up to find water dripping slowly from a ceiling fixture. I unloaded my toiletries from the duffel — shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste — and lined everything up on the vanity. True to form, there were no other amenities provided, so I was happy I’d brought my own. I tried the wall-mounted dryer and smelled burning hair.

I was getting a bit long in the tooth to stay in places like that.

 I’m getting long in the tooth waiting for you to get on with it! OK, I understand, you’re setting the scene, but (1) you really don’t have to, since Kinsey is going to spend exactly one night in this dive and nothing of significance will happen to her there and (2) even if for some reason you want us to be able to really picture it, you could pick some resonant details (the worn path on the carpet, for instance, and the smell of burning hair) and leave out the fan options, the number of bars of soap, and the list of her entirely predictable toiletries. The book is padded like this throughout, as if Grafton just can’t tell what to leave in and what to leave out:

I opened the bottom drawer and pulled out the telephone directory. I flipped to the Ss in the business listings and ran a finger down the page until I found “Santa Teresa Hospital.” There was a general number listed, a number for the emergency room, one for poison control, and then a few department numbers that could be dialed directly, including administration, billing, patient accounting, human resources, development, and public affairs.

Even setting aside the irrelevance of these details to the plot, who are the readers who need to be told this? She even makes sure to acknowledge the most mundane conversational moves:

Two rings, and he picked up.

“Is that you, Drew? This is Kinsey Millhone.”

“Hey, great! I can’t believe I’m actually talking to you.”

We spent a few minutes congratulating ourselves on finally managing to connect and then we moved on to the subject at hand.

We know how these things go, don’t we? We don’t need to be walked through them in what starts to seem like real time. I don’t see why a good editor wouldn’t point this kind of thing out. Maybe once you achieve best-selling status you don’t get interfered with by editors. Maybe I’m just too fussy. Maybe I just don’t like her style — except I don’t see this as a style but more as the complete refusal to be stylish. And one reason it frustrates me is that I think this labored method has smothered the fun of the series. I teach A is for Alibi often in my ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ seminar and it’s much more entertaining — brisk, tongue-in-cheek, and also innovative in its use of genre conventions. It’s also literally half the length of W is for Wasted. I often wish for more from the mysteries I read: more character development, more thematic richness, more interesting use of language. What I don’t want is just more words. I think I might not make it to the end of this alphabet.

“Aim at making everybody happy”: Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones

Cadfael

“Aim, he thought, at making everybody happy, and if that’s within reach, why stir up any kind of unpleasantness?”

Thanks to the generosity of a retired colleague who is pruning her book collection, I recently came into possession of not one, not two, but all twenty-one of Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael mysteries. This series has long been on my radar, as it is beloved of many of my reading buddies including Colleen (formerly of Bookphilia, now of Jam and Idleness) and Steve (of Stevereads, of course!). I have made a couple of gestures towards it in the past, getting one or two from the library, but never actually read any. Who knows why: the timing just wasn’t right. But if this gift wasn’t a sign, I’m not a mediæval Welshman.

OK, so I’m not, but Cadfael is, and now that we’ve met at last I recognize his charm, and the charm, too, of the world and the style Peters creates for her readers. The cover describes A Morbid Taste for Bones as “a mediæval whodunnit,” and it is a lot closer to the puzzle form than the denser, more character-driven mysteries I typically choose for my own leisure reading (I never read Agatha Christie except for teaching, and I eschew the endless pageant of her “cozy” successors). I also don’t tend to like historical mysteries, which (like a lot of historical fiction generally) often strikes me, fairly or not, as either facile or encumbered with its research. (I accept George Eliot’s judgment that good historical fiction requires “the rarest concurrence of acquirement with genius.”) Peters deftly triumphed over my prejudices, though: the abundant research obviously required to present Cadfael’s world in such detail — from herbal remedies to weaponry to burial rites —  is deployed very naturally into elegant descriptions of setting and character, with more complex social or cultural contexts explained through natural devices such as Cadfael’s need, as a Welshman, to interpret or observe differences in custom between his countrymen and his Saxon colleagues.

Peters’s style tends a bit to the florid here (at one point Cadfael rushes into a room like the bolt from a crossbow and out again like a thunderbolt): I wonder, and even hope a bit, that as the series progresses she calms down enough to trust to her action to provide excitement, without insisting so much on it as the narrator. But that same instinct for rhetorical flourishes leads her into some nicely poetic moments:

The wood ridge on either hand ran in oblique folds, richly green, hiding the scattered house-steads. The fields were already planted, and here and there orchards flowered. Below them, where the woods drew back to leave an amphitheatre of green, there was a small stone church, whitewashed and shimmering, and a little wooden house beside it.

 Can’t you just picture it?

It bodes well for the rest of the series that I particularly liked Cadfael himself, especially his desire to work out a solution that satisfies justice without undue vengefulness and that also does as much good to as many people as possible. His benevolence doesn’t feel saccharine, because of his pragmatism and the ruthless wiliness of his schemes to uncover the evildoers. He’s also wry and uncompromising in his judgments of his fellow man, and I expect his dislike of men who use religion to serve their personal ends will be an ongoing theme.

I was particularly interested to see how Peters would deal with religion. All things supernatural are verboten in the puzzle mystery proper, of course. In their own ways, though, all the characters in A Morbid Taste for Bones are believers, and some of what they believe is explicitly supernatural (for instance, that the murder victim will bleed afresh if touched by his murderer). I thought Peters did a nice job conveying the centrality of her characters’ beliefs to their lives and to the ways they interpret the things that happen to them, even as she and Cadfael approach the crime itself as one committed by human hands for human reasons, and solvable by human reason and ingenuity. Brother Cadfael himself is quite prepared to believe in miracles, but it’s his intervention, not God’s, that reveals whodunit. At the same time, there’s just a hint that he and his collaborators may have been helped, or served, by the Saint whose bones are at issue in the plot. We don’t have to believe that, but it makes sense that Cadfael would be willing to, and so in that way Peters gets to have her mystical cake and eat it too.

I’m not going to binge read the rest of the series, since I have a lot of other books I’m keen to get to, but having sampled it at last, I’m happy knowing the rest of them are there waiting for me. Fall term is coming, and with it a lot of busy, stressful days when a little time with Cadfael will feel like a perfect time out.

Zoë Ferraris, Finding Nouf

noufFinding Nouf was one of my choices at Hager Books on my recent trip to Vancouver. I didn’t have any specific recollection of having heard about it before, but it turns out that a couple of people I know (well, know virtually, anyway) reviewed it when it was newly out, so perhaps that’s why the title caught my eye as I browsed the mystery section. I always have my eyes open for books that might bring a new twist on the genre to my detective fiction course — I’ve gotten more than a few good ideas from comments here and on Twitter over the years, including the Martin Beck books (now I routinely assign The Terrorists) and Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress is also now a staple). Inevitably in a course like this we talk a lot about common tropes and conventions; we work through some of the works that established the ones that are now central to the various subgenres of mystery fiction, and then we look at how those conventions can be used to explore a range of different issues that extend a single crime into a broader investigation — Sara Paretsky looks at systemic crimes like sexism and corporate corruption, for instance, Mosley at racism and structural inequities, Ian Rankin at the kind of social and political conflicts that have led some critics to call his Rebus books contemporary versions of the Victorian “condition of England” novel.

It looked like Finding Nouf might do something similar by using its specific crime (the murder of a daughter from a privileged family) to explore social and cultural issues in its own context, contemporary Saudi Arabia. To some extent it does exactly that: finding out what happened to Nouf involves exposing not just the nature of her very restricted life but her feelings about that life, and they are not happy ones. The story of her attempt to escape to a new life is not really as interesting, though, as the effect discovering her story has on Nayir, a friend of the family whose skills as a desert guide lead them to ask for his help while she is still missing, and who keeps on asking questions about her fate even after the family has asked him to stop. Though I didn’t find Nayir’s motivation convincing (at times, the machinery necessary to keep the investigation moving forward seemed pretty creaky), I thought his character protected Finding Nouf — which in some ways is very predictable — from some of the clichés that plague books about “life behind the veil” aimed at Western readers. If the only investigator were his accidental partner, Katya, the novel’s ideology would be a simpler one of resistance to the oppressions of being a woman in Saudi Arabia. But Nayir is profoundly pious — the sections told from his point of view are permeated with prayers and suras from the Quran — and conventional about women’s hidden lives and faces, and he is presented very sympathetically.

Katya, who both works and readily unveils, challenges his expectations and feeds his curiosity about women, while the revelations about Nouf help him sympathize with yearnings for something different. Their work together reflects the divisions of Saudi life (he has greater mobility and access to outside spaces, but only she can enter the women’s private spaces), but the fact of their working together defies it, which makes Nayir extremely uncomfortable at first but which comes to suggest (even to him) the benefits of freer interaction and greater equality between the sexes. It’s their story more than Nouf’s, then, which carries real thematic weight. To avoid spoilers, all I’ll say about Nouf’s case is that there’s a degree of misdirection that plays rather cleverly (or so I thought) on the likelihood that Western readers would expect the crime to confirm her status as a victim of women’s oppression, whereas the truth — while related to the context of women’s narrow lives — is more personal than political. (In this respect Ferraris’s plotting reminded me of Elizabeth George’s in Deception on His Mind). It’s a salutary reminder, if you like, not to take our categories of good and evil too simply for granted, a lesson Agatha Christie also teaches when she plays on, say, our trust in nice country doctors.

Finding Nouf had a lot of interesting aspects to it, then, but as a whole package it wasn’t entirely successful. There’s the creaky machinery, which I’ve already mentioned. Then the writing struck me as uneven: some of it is interesting and evocative, and there are many interesting “insider” details about life in Saudi Arabia that were vivid without being cheaply exoticizing (I particularly appreciated the cardamom-flavored Chiclets), but there were also soggy cliches and overwrought moments that didn’t do the work I think they were supposed to of ratcheting up the novel’s emotional intensity (“standing frozen in the hall, her heart split in half and lying on the ground”). The pacing seemed slow, the discoveries a bit protracted, though the novel itself is not that long. I have been wondering whether (as Mark Athitakis asks here) Ferraris would have done better to write a straight-up novel set in Saudi Arabia instead of  using the conventions of detective fiction, but on reflection I think it was a good instinct, given the potential of the genre to do the kind of exposé and critique Finding Nouf offers. It’s just harder than it looks to perfect the balance of form and substance, formula and novelty, that such a novel requires.

I can’t see myself assigning Finding Nouf in my class: it’s not interesting enough qua mystery novel for that. But I might try the second one in the series, just for myself, to see how Ferraris develops.

Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act

oneevilactThe last time I wrote about Elizabeth George here, after reading 2008’s Careless in Red, I said that “I turned to these latest instalments [in her series] motivated far less by curiosity about the latest corpse than by the desire to know how things are going” with her main characters: Thomas Lynley, Barbara Havers, Simon and Deborah St. James. I was tiring of the detective plots that ostensibly motivated the novels but that really just provided an excuse and an occasion for personal stories and character development. Then with 2012’s Believing the Lie I admitted that these private lives were also becoming a bit stuck for me: so much angst, and so many words (I have thought for a while that George’s books aren’t getting edited as stringently as I’d like). Still, she’s a writer I trust enough to keep trying — as I kept on going even after the disaster that was 2006’s What Came Before He Shot Her (a good enough idea, but, in my opinion, really unsuccessful in the execution). We’ve been in a reading relationship since 1988, after all: that’s a lot longer than I’ve known most of my actual friends, or my husband, for that matter.

This weekend I caught up on her latest, Just One Evil Act, and it made me glad I’ve stuck with her and this series, because I really enjoyed it. I think one reason it worked so well for me is that it combines case and characters: the crime story is a big tangled mess involving Barbara Havers’ friends and neighbors Taymullah Azhar and his (maybe a little too sweet?) daughter Haddiyah. The more Barbara in the case the better, usually (Deception on His Mind, in which Barbara operates solo, is one of the most interesting books in the series), and in this case her annoyingly endearing bulldog tendencies have a certain poignancy because she really has no other friends, so her attempt to find out what has really happened has an urgency that transcends professionalism. Not that Barbara usually toes the professional line, of course, but sometimes she just seems defensive and stubborn, whereas here she is defensive and stubborn and really vulnerable. An ongoing theme of the series is loyalty, too, and here it’s not just her devotion to her friends that drives the plot but Lynley’s to her that is tested (again) to the limit.

I also enjoyed following the action to Italy: much of it takes place Lucca, which looks as lovely as George makes it sound. It was kind of a two-for-one deal, a Lynley novel plus a Donna Leon mystery, all in one!Lucca

I wonder if one reason I’m slow to pick up new mystery series these days is that I have been reading the same ones for so long — between Rebus and Kinsey and V.I. and Lynley and Dalgliesh (and, less faithfully, Banks, and Kincaid / James) I just don’t have room in my heart for many more! That’s not to say I haven’t read mysteries I’ve liked recently (I have Dorian and others to thank for putting me on to Tana French, and I’ll probably keep up with any new ones in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, for instance), but I have sampled a lot of others and just not felt inspired to go steady with them, even if they struck me as pretty good. It’s not altogether bad to know they are in reserve! I can have a big Maisie Dobbs phase later on, when some of my old standbys have retired.