A Mystery Binge: Amanda Cross’s The James Joyce Murder & Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly

Case of the Gilded Fly edmund crispin 41MKNKVM8PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Occasionally we put on our thickest glasses to read Cicero’s De Senectute or peruse an article in Classical World, “Prostitutes, Plonk, and Play: Female Banqueters on a Red-figure Psykter from the Hermitage.”

Sometimes it is amusing, sometimes it is not.

And so we balance it with a genre book binge weekend.

This weekend I lolled on the couch and read mysteries by Edmund Crispin and Amanda Cross.

The case of the gilded fly crispin penguin 2692951If you like Golden Age Detective fiction of the ilk of Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, I recommend Edmund Crispin.   Although I am not a huge fan of his most famous book, The Moving Toyshop, I  immensely enjoyed The Case of the Gilded Fly, the first of his Gervase Fen mysteries, published in 1945.  Fen, an amateur sleuth, is an eccentric English professor at Oxford whose wit and brilliance are slightly  reminiscent of Albert Campion or Peter Wimsey.

Every Golden Age mystery writer writes a novel set in the theater.  In The Case of the Gilded Fly, the premise is that a successful playwright, Robert Warner, has come to Oxford to try out his new play in a repertory theater. The actors, musicians, journalists, stage manager, and hangers-on are a congenial lot, with one exception. Everyone hates Yseut Haskell,  a  manipulative, promiscuous actress who was Robert’s mistress years ago.

So when she is found murdered in the rooms of an infatuated musician,  there are so many suspects that it is hard to keep them straight. Fortunately we have Fen to sense of everything.   This is a very entertaining mystery, and if the writing is a bit  uneven, it is, after all, Crispin’s first book.

amanda cross james joyce 51hqUh4nIXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler mysteries are, in my opinion, American classics.  Yes, put her in the Library of America!  I’m in favor.  Cross is the pseudonym of Carolyn G. Heilbrun, the feminist critic known for Writing a Woman’s Life and The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty.  She was the first tenured woman in the English department at Columbia University.  She wrote mysteries under a pen name to protect her academic career. Her sleuth, Kate Fansler, is a brilliant, witty English professor, often assisted by her assistant D.A. boyfriend, Reed Amhearst.

In The James Joyce Murder, published in 1967, Kate has become  the temporary custodian of the literary correspondence between James Joyce and Samuel Lingerwell, an American publisher.  She is not a Joycean, but is a friend of Lingerwell’s daughter.  She hires Emmett, an Austen scholar, to deal with the letters, because she knows a Joyce fanatic might attempt  to hijack bits for articles.  She has also hired William, a graduate student to tutor her nephew, Leo, and all are living in a country house..

amanda cross jamesjoycemurderThen one morning Mary Bradford, a gossipy farmer’s wife much hated by everyone in the neighborhood, is shot dead by William. All summer Leo and William have had target practice every morning with an empty gun.   Someone put a bullet in the gun, and everyone is a suspect.  Could it have something to do with James Joyce?

Fascinating, clever, and very good argument for gun control.

Is Joey in “Friends” Qualified to Review a Book on Alcott’s Little Women?

Clark The Afterlife of Little Women k2-_e2c95994-a61e-4453-afed-e85121e2cf8f.v1In the Feb. 6 issue of the TLS, there is a review of Beverly Lyon Clark’s new book, The Afterlife of Little Women (Johns Hopkins University Press), a history and analysis of the reception of Louisa May Alcott’s novel from 1868 to the present.

Clark, a feminist critic and an English professor at Wheaton College, is an Alcott scholar and an expert on children’s literature.  She was also a co-editor of Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays.

It sounds fascinating.

And then I read the review in the TLS.

Samantha Ellis, the reviewer, is not a fan of Little Women.

I am a fan of the TLS, but I have a question.

How did Samantha Ellis, an English playwright who mocks and misreads Little Women, land a plum assignment to review a book about the reception of an American classic? There are surely many Alcott scholars, among them Susan Cheever, author of Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography and American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, and editor of the second volume of Alcott’s works for the Library of America, who are much better qualified to review this.

How can we trust Ellis on the effectiveness of a book on a book she does not esteem?

The editors must have deemed Ellis an expert on children’s literature because she is the author of a new book that The Guardian calls “a warm-hearted biblioautobiography,” How to Be a Heroine.

Ellis blithely denies that Little Women is a feminist novel. She says that Clark’s reading is “unusual.”

As for [Clark’s] own response to the book, she writes that, growing up int the 1950s, Little Women allowed her to “dream of having it all—family and career.” This is a very unusual reading. Notoriously, none of the four heroines grows up to have it all. Meg (who doesn’t want a career, marries and devotes herself to family life, Beth (who has no ambitions for career or family) dies, Amy marries Laurie, who is fabulously rich, and decides that instead of being an artist she wants to be a lady philanthropist—and there’s Jo. Like most of Alcott’s readers, Clark identifies most with Jo, the misfit who wants to write. But, again, her response is singular; she did want Jo to marry Laurie, “but not passionately so.”

Heavens, the reviewer’s response to Little Women is extremely eccentric.   Jo does have a family and career.  What is this bit about “notoriously” none of the characters “have it all?”  “Have it all” is an expression that none of us takes literally.

Women raised on Alcott, as I have always maintained, are different.  We value our creative talents from an early age, believe in the equality between men and women (Marmee and Father are equals), understand the importance of charity and social justice, and that there is no shame in working at honest if unprestigious jobs since most of us women need an income.

The four girls in Little Women are clearly role models.  They are not only creative but help support their poor family at jobs they dislike:  Jo works  a companion for Aunt March, and Meg as a governess.  With the exception of Meg, the March girls are artistic.  Jo loves to write and later sells her stories to help support the family.  In the sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, she and her husband run an experimental school for indigent boys.  (Ellis thinks the school, founded by Jo and her husband with a legacy from Aunt March, is a comedown for a writer, but many of us value education.) Amy sketches and paints.  Beth is musical, an excellent pianist.  Meg is domestic, and what is wrong with that?

Little Women is not only realistic, but extremely entertaining.

And, yes, Alcott wrote this autobiographical novel for money, but that does not preclude its brilliance.

By the way, did you ever see the episode of Friends in which Joey hears that Beth dies?  He and Rachel swap favorite books and quarrel over spoilers for  Little Women (Rachel’s favorite book) and The Shining (Joey’s favorite).

Perhaps Joey could review The Afterlife of “Little Women”!

Here is the clip from Youtube.

The Amazon sample from Clark’s The Afterlife of “Little Women” is beautifully-written.  In the introduction Clark writes:

I hold my childhood copy of Little Women.  A solid, tangible object.  Unchanging, it would seem, except for the yellowing of its pages and the peeling of its laminated cover.  Unchanged, I assumed when I first read it, from what Louisa May Alcott had originally written–or at least I had assumed a kind of authenticity.  Yet what appears to be solid and unchanged is not.

For what I read was abridged–“A Modern Abridged Edition,” it says on the title page.  But back then I didn’t scrutinize title pages.

Little Women il_570xN.150449237I had that same abridged edition (albeit with a different cover).  Later, I spent my allowance on a nicer Grosset and Dunlap edition (unabridged).

The Grosset and Dunlap edition.

The Grosset and Dunlap edition.

Now I have the Library of America edition.

little women library of america 1931082731.1.zoomI am willing to take a chance on Clark’s The Afterlife of Little Women.

The great thing about the TLS is that one learns about books that haven’t been reviewed in the more popular papers.

But whether Clark’s book is good is good or bad, it was a mistake to assign it to Ellis.  I have seldom read a lazier, more superficial review.

Conrad Richter’s The Waters of Kronos

Conrad Richter

Conrad Richter

I recently discovered Conrad Richter’s The Waters of Kronos, the winner of the National Book Award in 1961.  This little gem of a novel is a dazzling example of katabasis (a descent to the underworld):  the hero’s trip to his hometown turns into a mythic, revelatory descent to the past.

My mother read Richter’s elegiac novel during my rare periods of sleep, if I ever slept, which she said I did not.  Richter’s books were  popular with her  generation, and her cronies all gave us copies of The Light in the Forest, his  beautifully-written novel about a  boy captured in a raid and raised as an American Indian, who, under terms of a treaty, is forced unwillingly to return to his white family years later. Richter earnestly chronicled the lives of Americans in small towns and on the frontier in different periods of history.

In The Waters of Kronos, the hero, John Dalton, a famous novelist, longs to revisit the past, as so many of us do as we get older.   He cannot in reality visit his hometown, because a dam was built years ago and Unionville is buried under a lake.  And so he drives from his home in Albuquerque to Pennsylvania to visit the cemeteries that were removed from the town before it was flooded

In simple, lyrical prose, John describes the terror of loss of place when he first views the dam and the lake.  The dam breast was “like the white end of a colossal burial vault…”  He reminds himself that he had known this was what he would see.

And yet he couldn’t shake off the feeling that under his feet he had come upon something frightening.  He had had a glimpse, small as it was, into an abyss whose unfathomable depths were shrouded in mist, a bottomless chasm that he had known existed, if only in the back of his mind and in the back of everyone else’s mind, but which he had never seen face to face or directly looked down into before.  Perhaps one had to be old as he to recognize what one saw, to understand first how man had struggled up so painfully and so long, and then with that sad knowledge to come upon one’s own once living, breathing and thinking people swallowed up in the abyss, given back to primordial and diluvial chaos.

This is eerily resonant. It is what we all experience as time passes, but it is twice as bad. As we age, our hometowns change:  the downtowns disappear, trees are cut down, and old buildings are demolished to make room for condos.  In my hometown, a tornado destroyed a church and floods have destroyed many university buildings, which have not yet been rebuilt.   It is as though they never existed. And so we understand why John is shocked and angry that the government decided to build the dam and destroyed a way of life and the environment.

He thought of all he had once known and loved buried at the sunless bottom of the dark water–the red roofs and green trees, the life and talk and tender thought that went on under them; the brave brick schoolhouse and its white belfry…

waters of kronos richter 41bnktvHo0L._SL256_The cemeteries are meaningless:  bodies moved from the town and buried under identical white stones, as in a military cemetery.  He drives a little further and finds the road to Unionville known as the Long Stretch.   He knows it will end in water, but fantastically the road is real.   He knows he must be ill , but when he sees a wagon he hitches a ride and descends into Unionville.  “John Donner had the feeling he was descending from where he could never return.”

Is John hallucinating?  Was Richter influenced by knowledge of the testing and experimentations with LSD in the 1950s and ’60s?  Was he reading the Beats?  I think it is more to do with the literature of katabasis, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, etc.  In Unionville, John has the eerie experience of seeing the town as it was when he was a child  He sees the people he loved:  he stands outside his father’s store, and is sure that his father, singing behind the counter, must know he is there.  But his father is 35, and does not recognize John, who is an old man.  None of his family members recognize him, except for a great-aunt, who mistakes him for hisgrandfather, who has just died.  He has arrived the day before  Pap-pa’s funeral, and all are busy.

conrad richter 03TheWatersOfKronosThe person he most frantically longs to see is his mother.  He keeps glimpsing her from afar, under a black veil, or with her face turned away.

Occasionally Richter is a bit heavy-handed, but that is in a way part of his  charm.  Yes, he is a little corny sometimes, but that is a part of American culture, and sometimes a part of American regional literature. It is very difficult to describe these little pockets of a lost way of life without sentimentality.  But I absolutely loved this book.  I highly recommend it.

I wonder if this is partly autobiographical (well, obviously not the descent).  Richter (1898-1968) grew up in Pennsylvania, lived in Albuquerque for a time, and then returned to Pennsylvania.

Oh, and I should tell you that “kronos” means “time” in Greek.  (I’m sure most of you know that.)

Richter is most famous for The Town, which won the Pulitzer in 1951, and was the third of his trilogy, The Awakening Land, about the Ohio frontier.

The Blazing Gym

the blazing world by siri hustvedt1476747237.01.LZZZZZZZThere are some books you should never take to the gym.

One of them is Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.

Perhaps your gym is like a library, but mine is like the Superbowl.

Books longlisted for the Man Booker Prize make unsuitable reading while pedaling a stationary bicycle.

“What are you reading?”

I hold up the book.  I don’t say the name.  It might jinx it.  If people know I’m reading The Blazing World, they might tease me until I put it away.  Yup.  It happens.

I pedal and flip the pages.

Siri Hustvedt

Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World takes the form of a critic’s scholarly book about Harriet Burden, an artist who challenged gender politics by hiring three men to exhibit her work under their names. The novel consists of documents:, interviews, journals, art criticism, and letters.

I  am reading an intellectual bit about Kierkegaarde when —BANGGGG–Led Zeppelin suddenly pounds my head loudly  from a speaker directly above my head.

“Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, well I’m down, so down.”

OW.  Why is the sound right on my head?  Should I move?

If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it is that I ripped my stretchpants when I bent over to adjust the pedals.  Nope, this is the only bicycle not in front of the mirrors.  I’m staying.

Meanwhile, in The Blazing World, Harriet, or Harry, as she calls herself, does not have Led Zeppelin pounding on her head.  An art dealer’s widow, she is furious rather because her art has never been fashionable or respected.  Men make the rules.   These days she is making winged penises and husband dolls and plotting revenge on the art world.

Harry feels men have the advantage in art.

…I knew that youth was the desired commodity and that, despite the Guerilla Girls, it was still better to have a penis.  I was over the hill and had never had a penis.

I wonder if she is going to become a transgender person.

She hires three men to present her art as their own.  The critics admire it.

I understand her ravings about the penis.  A vagina is problematic to some of the women at Mount Holyoke, I read recently in New York Magazine.

A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas. These sorts of episodes now hardly even qualify as exceptional.

So many smart, charming, exceedingly naive people go to the The Seven Sisters schools! I once had to  give an assertiveness training course over dinner to a friend, an alumna of Bryn Mawr or Wellesley, who said men often tried to date-rape her.   Honestly, her manners were so good that it was impossible ever to tell that she disliked anyone.  I taught her to frown and say no.

Led Zeppelin always gives me a headache, so I ‘m going to close my book now.

I’ll start it over when I get home.

“Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh,”

D. J. Taylor’s Wrote for Luck


This year I have read Trollope, Ford Madox Ford, Aldous Huxley, Stella Gibbons, and Mary Webb.

I know, I know.  I usually read the dead.

I do occasionally read a good new book, though.

In D. J. Taylor’s sharp, witty new collection of short stories, Wrote for Luck, his characters rely on gentle irony as they struggle to fulfill  social obligations and navigate the workplace.  They dine with people they do not like, sell few books at their bookstores, give readings at Oxford, break china, and argue with their bosses.

Few writers are wittier than Taylor.  In his hilarious story,  “Some Versions of the Pastoral,” Tony and his wife Jane visit the Underwoods, an elderly couple with literary leanings. The flowers in the Underwoods’ garden are so dense that “to negotiate them was to pass through a children’s book where all the animals had grown to fantastic sizes and nuance was forever kept at bay.”  Over tea, Mrs. Underwood repeatedly asks Tony to be careful of his teacup.  Tony wonders:

What heights had the teacup scaled in its past life that such efforts had to be made to preserve it?  Done service on some far-off Garsington lawn?  Been sipped out of by one of the Bloomsbury group?  There were pictures of Virginia Woolf and Carrington on the walls of the Underwoods’ tiny drawing room, and a bookcase harboring the signed first editions of Cyril Connolly and Angus Wilson.

The Underwoods are old and fragile now.  Mr. Underwood has given up writing his book about Cyril Connolly.  They have not been to the Corot exhibition at the Tate.  They don’t “gad about” anymore.  When Tony carries the tea tray into the kitchen, Mrs. Underwood complains about having caught her husband writing an inappropriate letter to an actress. Tony breaks some china, but learns with relief that Mrs. Underwood is tougher than her teacups.

Taylor’s women characters are particularly sympathetic.  In “As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still,”  Claire, a novelist, is slightly strung-out at the Holiday Inn as she studies pages of her novel before a reading in Oxford while her husband Jamie and their children sleep. She worries about Jamie’s taking the children to meet his eccentric friends without her supervision.   (Once the children were not fed.)   And at lunch after the reading, there is indeed a disconcerting accident, and the situation spins out of Claire’s control.

In the subtle, gracefully-written title story, the heroine Lucy and her partner Mark dine with his millionaire boss, Clive, and his wife, Henrietta,. Envious of their extravagant house and enraged by Clive’s superficial regrets about  breaking news of financial ruin to a client, Lucy argues about the economy and  mocks Henrietta’s taste in books. When Henrietta asks why writers write what they do, Lucy replies with the non-sequitur, “Beckett wrote for luck.”  Although this expresses her dissociation and sense of the surreal, we feel that Lucy could use some luck, too .Without  Mark’s salary (five times what she gets at the BBC) they could not afford to buy a house, but once home, Lucy learns that Mark’s absorption in the money business  will ironically get in the way of their buying a house.

The workplace is a hostile force in many of Taylor’s stories.  In “The Blow-Ins,” a couple struggles to keep their bookstore afloat when tourist season is over.  In “Teeny-Weeny Little World,” an exasperated teacher must justify teaching poetry to a new headmaster. In “Jermyn Street,” a down-and-out employee at an antique shop is exasperated by his boss’s daily fights with his wife.  In “To Brooklyn Bridge,” set in Chicago, a young woman escapes her job sewing in a sweatshop in Chicago to go to college;  on the beach she recites Hart Crane’s  poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”to her boyfriend, a salesman who does not understand…

All teachers have their breaking points.  In “Wonderland,” a realistic, beautifully-written, slightly edgy story, Amy, an unhappy English teacher who lectures on modernism at a third-rate (or fourth-rate?) university, dislikes her vacuous students.  She thinks of them as the anorexic girl, the “fat-arsed one,”the dull sisterly pair, and ” Lily Chen, formerly of the University of Taipei or some such place.”Amy especially dislikes Lily, who does not know English well enough to read Virginia Woolf and seldom comes to class. When an administrator confronts Amy about the failing grade on Lily’s paper and suggests it is racism, Amy is shocked.  But  a twist at the end of the story makes Amy sympathetic to Lily.

I very much enjoyed this remarkable collection of short stories, and am impressed, as always, by Taylor’s versatility and brilliance.

A little bit about Taylor:  His novel, The Windsor Faction, won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History in 2014.  His histroical novel, Derby Day, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.  And he won the Whitbread Award for his biography of Gerorge Orwll in 2003.