Pop Lit Weekend: Mysteries, Histories, & Historical Novels

We planned to go to Iowa City on Memorial Day. We planned to picnic at Lake McBride–without wine, despite Horace’s urgings (see yesterday’s post).  Then we would decorate my mother’s grave.   Memorial Day has long been the American Day of the Dead, without the tacky plastic skeletons.  When did it became a military holiday?

But it was too hot to travel:  100 degrees.  And so we stayed indoors and read pop lit.  Here’s what I read:

THE LIGHT READ.  Elizabeth George may be the greatest American mystery writer today, and she is by far the most fervent Anglophile.  Writing from Washington state, she sets her page-turners in the UK, and the latest, The Punishment She Deserves, is a brilliant, twisty psychological novel.  Her pairing of detectives is rooted in the Golden Age tradition of upper-class sleuths with their butlers or batsmen, or,  in its later 20th-century incarnation, police officers of different ranks like Reginald HIll’s fat, rude Detective Superintendent Andrew Dalziel and university-educated Sergeant Peter Pasco.  George’s protagonists, Inspector Thomas Lynley, the eighth Earl of Asherton, and spiky Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, an overweight working-class woman who lives on chips and cigarettes, work together brilliantly, despite divisive class differences (which are stressed).

In The Punishment She Deserves, Lynley and Havers conduct a nightmarish Rubik’s cube of an investigation of an investigation of the suicide of a deacon in police custody.  Picked up in the middle of the night 19 days after an anonymous caller accused the deacon of pedophilia, Ian Druitt is found hung from a doorknob by his priestly garb–a stole–in a room at the station. Not only is it a weird suicide, but  Gaz Ruddock, the police community support officer, had been keeping an eye on his boss’s hard-drinking son, Finn, a multi-pierced college student who volunteered with Ian at an after-school program, and reporting to his mum.  Finn insists the accusation against Ian are trumped-up, and other townspeople say the same.  And what do the drunken college students Gaz picks up from bars and drives home know?  Was Ian’s death a suicide or murder?

HISTORY OR HISTORICAL NOVEL?  Are you a fan of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius?  Do you wish you could find similar novels about the other Roman emperors?

Procopius’s The Secret History reads just like a novel. Best-known as the author of two histories which celebrate the achievements of the eastern Roman emperor Justinian, Procopius did a complete reversal in this gossipy little book. Was this page-turner in the literary form of a Greek invective an articulation of what he really thought, or was it written because he changed his mind? The translator of the Penguin edition, Peter Sarris, explores the possibilities.  He  writes in the introduction, “…Procopius comes across as an extraordinarily creative author who was able to take the inherited literary forms of antiquity and rearrange, recombine and reappropriate them in ways that look novel.”

Most historians describe Justinian’s passion for religion, law, and administration, and praise his brilliant general Belisarius.  But Procopius reviles the corruption of Belisarius, a general often called the Last Roman, his wife, Antonina, a murderous witch who has studied magic, the emperor Justinian, who he says destroyed Rome, and the empress Theodora, a former prostitute and obscenely nimble actress.  These are not the characters I know from other histories.

In the first chapter, “The Tyranny of Women,” Procopius relates many scandals about Antonina and Theodora. He begins,

Belisarius was married to a woman of whom I had something to say in the preceding books.  Her father and grandfather were charioteers who had displayed their skills both in Byzantium and Thessalonica; her mother was one of the theater tarts.  She herself in her early life had lived a profligate kind of life and had thrown off all moral restraint; she had been continually in the company of her father’s magic-mongering friends and had learned the arts essential to her trade.  Later when with all due ceremony she married Belisarius, she had already given birth to one child after another.  So it was already her intention to be unfaithful from the start, but she took great care to conceal this business, not because her own conduct gave her any qualms, or because she stood in fear of her spouse–she never felt the slightest shame for any action whatever, and thanks to her regular use of magic she had her husband wrapped around her little finger–but because she dreaded the vengeance of the empress; for Theodora was only too ready to rage at her and bare her teeth in anger.

This is a remarkable read.  But do you see why I consider it a historical novel rather than a history?

5 thoughts on “Pop Lit Weekend: Mysteries, Histories, & Historical Novels

  1. Pingback: Memorably Manic: On Folio Society Books & Reading Robert Graves’s “Count Belisarius” – mirabile dictu

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