An SF Novel Longlisted for the Booker: David Means’ Hystopia

Hystopia David Means 51sgTORYDGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

The perusal of the Man Booker Prize longlist is a summer ritual. We were jaded about the prize for a couple of years, but now we’re back. I’ve added a few of the longlisted books to my summer reading, and I highly recommend David Means’  SF novel, Hystopia, a trippy alternate history of the 1960s.

Means has constructed a flamboyant meta-1960s novel within a novel, framed by the fictional editor’s notes, including excerpts from notes of the  fictive author, Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet, and  interviews with his friends and neighbors. The editor’s notes provide a pseudo-scholarly text that offsets the linguistic pyrotechnics of Eugene’s novel, published after Eugene’s suicide.

The editor explains,

The manuscript was found in the drawer in Allen’s room by his mother, Mary Ann Allen, who gave it to Byron Riggs, professor of English at the University of Michigan, who in turn passed it on to his good friend, the writer Fran Johnson, who subsequently sent the manuscript to her agent, who, with the permission of the Allen family, submitted it to publishers, who, as they say, went into a frenzied bidding war that had little to do with the so-called marketability of the novel itself because, as most admitted, openly, the book was hardly fit for the fiction market at the time (or any time) but was publishable because of the marketability of the so-called backstory: a twenty-two-year-old Vietnam vet sits at his desk and composes a fictive world that is—as the critic Harold R. Ross stated—“ bent double upon itself, as violent and destabilized as our own times, as pregnant and nonsensical.”

In Eugene’s novel, the U.S. is fractured by violence:  Kennedy has survived the assassination attempt and is in his third term as president, but his wave-by tours in an open car attract other would-be assassins.   Vietnam veterans are shipped to Michigan to be treated by the Psych Corps established by Kennedy to treat mental illness in general but especially to deal with the problem of returning Vietnam vets. The treatment, known as “enfolding,” combines a dose of a drug called Tripizoid with a reenactment of the traumatic events by actual actors, which results in “enfolding” the memories, i.e.,  amnesia about their tours of duty.  But the drug doesn’t work on everyone, and psychotic vets are terrorizing Michigan, which is burning as a result of fires started in Detroit and Flint during riots.

The novel centers on tracking down a rogue vet, Rake, a mass murderer.  He has recently kidnapped Meg Allen (the sister of Eugene, the author), from the mental health facility where she was being treated for her nervous breakdown after the death her soldier boyfriend Billy-T.

Early on , one of the heroes of the novel, Singleton, a Psych Corp agent, is listening to his boss Klein’s analysis of Rake.  There are references to  pop culture, acting, and “Brando syndrome.”

“Yes, Brando syndrome. I’ve thought of that. And Dean. Most of the dramatic types imagine themselves as inheritors of a great rebellious tradition and see no need to find a cause for their rebellions, so they lean toward Dean. Auden said, ‘It’s the insane will of the insane to suffer insanely.’ Something like that. It’s the same with actors. The line between what they’re presenting and their own inner life thins, if they’re weak of will, and the character they’re embodying becomes the body they’re presenting, something like that. When you consider the fact that Rake is a failed enfold and he has dramatic inclinations … I hope you’re listening to me, Singleton. We’re talking about grunt-level thinking, and to get to that you have to go to the random particulars, or the particulars that seem to map out the random.”

Work in the Psych Corps bureaucracy is dull:   Singleton, an “enfolded” Vietnam vet,  wants action.  He embarks on an illicit affair with Wendy, an agent recovering from the crippling of her  boyfriend in Vietnam.  (Psych corps agents are forbidden to “fraternize” with each other). The two of them spend much time trying to understand their emotional numbness:  Vietnam permeates every aspect of American life.   Then, one day a mysterious man approaches Singleton:  he identifies himself as the chaplain in Vietnam who used to give him “the good stuff” and gives  Singleton some blue pills.  Singleton begins to remember bits of his tour of duty, and the blue pills enhance the connection between him and Wendy.  And when Singleton gets a tip about Rake’s whereabouts, he and Wendy hit the road.

Meanwhile, Rake has inflicted his violence on more people.  Rake took Meg to the Michigan woods to stay with Hank, a Vietnam vet who  was once his sidekick. Hank is a reformed character who “enfolded” himself with a dose of Tripizoid while his  Mom-Mom tied him up:  he now he is a peaceful man of the forest, and wants to stop Rake without any more killing, but it’s like living with a time bomb.   He guards Meg while Rake goes out on sprees and teaches her how to behave to survive.   He understands Rake’s psychology but doesn’t want to go one-on-one with him.

Fabulous writing, long, loopy, druggy sentences, slightly reminiscent of Samuel R. Delany’s postmodern  SF classic,  Dhalgren, (only Hystopia is more comprehensible), or perhaps Hunter S. Thompson. (Actually, I may not know what Means read!)  Means also interviewed many Vietnam vets.

Here’s one of my favorite passages, describing Singleton and Wendy on the road:

For miles, as they continued north, the needle was still making a shish pop, shish pop, as it rode the eternal runout groove at the end of Fun House on the signal out of Flint, strong off the night sky until, finally, it merged with white static and became faint background sizzle while the state unfurled—the same stubbled fields and denuded trees and finless windmills and equipment left to rust—and then, finally, Johnny Cash pushed through, his voice weary and low to the ground as he sang a lament that seemed to match the landscape, speaking from within the prison walls to a train whistle out there.

This novel is Booker-worthy, as is Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, which I wrote about here.

Are We “E”-Overwhelmed?, Do We Participate in Readalongs?, & Other Life and Death Questions

follow me A0a4PNJCUAA-OQFLory’s enjoyable post at Emerald City Book Review, “How do You Follow Other Blogs?”, made me realize that I don’t.   I am “e”-Overwhelmed by notifications of online book group schedules, catalogue sales,  Yahoo book group digests, alerts for newsletters, Goodreads author alerts, Twitter alerts (but I don’t have a Twitter account!), and links to dismaying  articles at my favorite “liberal” publications knocking even the Democrats off the pedestal (please don’t!), and political organizations demanding money. (I gave to Bernie.)

Anyway, I’m too muddled to pay much attention to “follow” notifications, but I do read blogs.  I have bookmarked at least a zillion.

Is anyone else in the e-Overwhelmed category?

2. How about readalongs?  I am happy to say that I have read and written about two books for the All Virago/All August event,  Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (here) and Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (here). (Karen of Kaggysbookishramblings let me know about the Virago edition of Eight Cousins.)  Naturally I have American editions, but I love the Viragos.  Here are the Virago covers beside my NYRB and LOA editions!

3. Are you better than other people because you read literary fiction? Yes. I learned all about it in Alison Flood’s article, “Literary Fiction Readers Understand Others’ Emotions Better Study Finds,”  at The Guardian.  It seems that David Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York did a study of 1,000 participants and found that readers of literary fiction understand other people’s emotions better than others  (and pop fiction does not improve our understanding).    Although I love to read classics and literary fiction (and pop), I find that, though I may understand the emotions of Henry James’ characters , I do not understand human beings’ emotions at all!  And my best friend shattered me when she said of Henry James, “There may have been people like that once, but there aren’t any more.”  Oh my goodness, and I love Isabel Archer!

4. Is there enough “Cli-Fi” to read in this year of new record global temperatures?  Science fiction writer Paul di Fillipo at The Barnes and Noble Review says yes.

Earlier this summer — in a year marked by new record global temperatures — I toured some of the more exotic, outré, and far-fetched works of “Anthropocene fiction” that envisioned how humanity might imprint its often lethal image onto our home planet — even distorting other planets and the whole cosmos at large. After such visions as entire worlds clad in steel, and a solar system whose components were juggled about and reprocessed, the simple notion of Greenhouse Earth — the scenario where an unintentional and relatively tiny incremental change in average world temperature brings vast environmental and geophysical disasters and sociopolitical and cultural disruption and mass mortality — is now hardly science-fictional at all. Climate change is indeed the stuff of daily headlines, to an extent than when we encounter a recent front-page feature in The New York Times reporting on “climate refugees” in the USA and South America, the pairing of those two terms requires little in the way of explanation.

He recommends several novels and new anthologies.

What have we done to our beautiful planet, turned into a hell of our own making?

A Caffeinated Readathon: Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, Eve Babitz’s Eve’s Hollywood, David Means’ Hystopia, and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

alcott loa work, rose in bloom, etc. 41hRjni4-DL

The Library of America edition.

I had a caffeinated readathon on Sunday. Too little sleep, too much coffee, and I read parts of four books, but finished only my comfort book, Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins.

It  started when I woke up on Sunday at 3:45 a.m.  I thought it was near dawn, and realized I would be up in time to watch the men’s Olympic marathon.

AND THEN I LOOKED AT THE CLOCK.

WHY WAS I AWAKE?  The marathon didn’t start till 7:30.  There was no possiblity that Bob Costas was working at 3:45, even Brazil time.

So I got up and I played String with the cats–this involves swinging a string , and my cats are so lazy that after a while they lie on the floor and bat at it.  (They learned this from the oldest cat, who is their street-wise role model in all things).

Then I read for several hours.  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Whitman Classics edition, with cover illustration by Robert

My original Whitman Classics edition from the ’60s!

Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins.  A few years ago I bought a Library of America volume of Louisa May Alcott’s work, edited by Susan Cheever, one of Alcott’s biographers.  This is a superb collection of Alcott’s children’s and adult writing, and includes the novels Work (known as “the adult Little Women”), Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, and “Stories and Other Writings.”

Alcott is witty and  her dialogue is rambunctious, her best books are so fast-paced they can be inhaled, and her female characters are never,  as Jo says in Little Women, “affected, niminy-piminy chits.”  In Eight Cousins, the heroine, Rose Campbell,  an orphan, is a bit “niminy-piminy” at first, when fresh from boarding school, she is living on the “Aunt Hill,” with her great-aunts Plenty and Peace Campbell, both spinsters, who don’t  how to raise a teenager.  In the neighborhood live four other aunts, three of whom are the mothers of Rose’s seven male cousins, and each has her own ideas about bringing up girls.  Aunt Myra, a gloomy hypochondriac whose daughter Caroline died as a child (poor Myra and poor Caroline!), is convinced Rose is not long for this world and doses her with pills. Fortunately, Rose’s guardian, Uncle Alec, a charming doctor, returns from sea and  throws out the pills and forbids Rose to drink the  coffee which was supposed to calm her nerves.  He has brought back a chest of gifts from the exotic East to bribe her with, though that word is never used:  Soon she is drinking fresh milk in a special wooden cup that is supposed to make everything taste better,  substituting colorful sashes for the tight fashionable belt, wearing beautiful loose dresses,  running (the Olympics marathon next?),  gardening, and even camping (God help her!).  Endearingly, she befriends and “adopts” the teenage maid, Phebe, who was raised at an orphanage. And the girls have fun together and prove to be equal in intelligence, as we learn when Rose later helps her with her writing.  (Phebe surpasses her in arithmetic, due to keeping accounts.)

Alcott understands boys so well, yet she had only sisters.  When Uncle Alec arrives unexpectedly, a “warning” is sent to the Campbell boys to prepare them for Uncle Alec’s presence at church.

It was evident that the warning had been a wise one, for, in spite of time and place, the lads were in such a ferment that their elders sat in momentary dread of an unseemly outbreak somewhere.  It was simply impossible to keep those fourteen eyes off Uncle Alec, and the dreadful things that were done during the sermon will hardly be believed.

My favorite of the cousins is Mac, the bookworm, and when he strains his eyes, has to wear an eye shade, and cannot reads, Rose is the best “nurse”:  she spends hours reading to him and entertaining him.  (Mac plays a big role in the sequel, Rose in Bloom. when they grow  up, but I won’t breathe a word about it.)  Anyway, Rose learns to hold her own with the boys:  when Charlie (known as Prince) and Archie stop speaking to each other–both have fallen into bad company, the one drinking too much, the other in debt for betting–Rose sets a good example and mediates.  They have an easier time talking to a girl about their problems than to each other.

Alcott moralizes more overtly in Eight Cousins than in Little Women or my favorite, An Old-Fashioned Girl. but Rose is not perfect, thank God.  When her fashionable frenemy, Annabel Bliss, tempts her to have her ears pierced, Rose cannot resist, even though she knows Uncle Alec will disapprove..  It hurts like hell–there is no numbing with ice cubes–and she plans to keep it secret for a while–but she has forgotten that her six-year-old cousin, Jamie, and his little friend Doodie were witnesses:  they were playing in the corner!  And they tell!  ( I couldn’t resist getting my ears pierced either, though, alas, I have a metal allergy!  No jewelry for this girl…)  Uncle Alec gives Rose a break, and she does wear little gold earrings/

pierced ears eight-cousins-annabel-bliss-and-rose-chapter-15

THE OTHER THREE BOOKS I’M READING.

Eve's Hollywood 41LfGk35RaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2. Eve Babitz’s Eve’s Hollywood, which I learned about this from Jacqui Wine’s blog. Babitz’s autobiographical novel about coming of age in L.A. is witty and hilarious!

As a fan of Dancing with the Stars, I especially enjoyed the chapter about ballroom dancing in gym class.  When it rains,  Eve and the other girls are thrilled, because instead of changing into smelly gym clothes, they get to dance to records by Chuck Berry, etc.  They love it, but the  best dancers are the tough, cool Mexican girls.  Here is a description of one of their dances.

The Choke was a Pachuco invention. The Pachucos were what we called kids who spoke with Mexican accents whether they were Mexican or not and who lived real lives. The Choke looked like a completely Apache, deadly version of the jitterbug only you never thought of the jitterbug when you watched kids doing the Choke. There was no swing in the Choke, it was staccato. It was Pachuco, police-record, L.A. flamenco dancing.

3. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.  What can I say?  It’s Jonathan Franzen, and it’s addictively readable.  I’m fascinated by the characters living in a squat, but it unfortunately breaks up when a wife leaves her husband.  I’ve only read 100 pages so far, but much more on this later.

4. David Means’ Hystopia, nominated for the Man Booker Prize.  So far I love it: it is reminiscent of Samuel R. Delany’s very weird post-modern SF classic, Dhalgren.   Hystopia is an alternate history of the ’60s in which Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and is in his third term, Detroit and the rest of Michigan are burning because of fires that started in riots  in Detroit, and Vietnam vets are treated with a combination of drugs and reenacting their traumas that “enfolds” their traumas  and sometimes cure them but also causes amnesia.  Some rogue Vietnam vets  have not submitted to treatment or have not responded to it and are raising hell…  (Very well-written. So far this seems Booker-worthy!)

Going to Omaha for the Books!

We live in a small, beautiful city on the prairie.  Nobody knows it’s here; nobody understands why we live here. It’s not glam, but it’s Paradise in the summer, and  has livable urban neighborhoods near shops, almost no traffic, and everything you need to be a well-adjusted 21st-century American.   A woman who moved here from California observed  in line at Starbucks,  “I can live anywhere there’s a Starbucks and Target!”

But we do lack bookstores, except for B&N, so today we headed to Omaha, the nearest big city, to browse at Jackson Street Booksellers, a huge used bookstore, and The Bookworm.

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha

First up:  I found an  irresistible Library of America volume with three of William Dean Howells’ novels, The Minister’s Charge, April Hopes, and Annie Kilburn.  Have you heard of these?  We have not, but I love Howells!

Ilka chase new york 22 bought in omahaAnd now for ’50s pop!  I could not resist this cover.  According to Kirkus, Ilka Chase’s 1951 novel New York 22 is “a chaise longue coverage of marital friction, feminine calculation and upper bracket racketing, this should have good rentals on the distaff side; and substantial sales to the gilded glamor fringe.”

There is very little about Chase online.   The daughter of Edna Woolman Chase, the editor of Vogue from 1914-1952, Ilka was a member of the Smart Set and an actress who starred in many Broadway plays, including the original Broadway version of The Women.  Ilka adapted her novel In Bed We Cry, the story of a self-made career woman in the cosmetics business.  And she had  her own  TV show called Fashion Magic!

I’ll be happy if this novel is readable in the style of a trashy pageturner like Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper or Susann’s  Valley of the Dolls (a truly great trash classic!).  There’s hope:  The characters are drinking cocktails, and the heroine, Georgiana, leaves her husband and daughter  to chase a writer who is 12 years younger than she.

Here’s a quote chosen at random:

Georgiana sat in her office at Tang, her desk spread with manuscripts and correspondence waiting her attention, but she ignored them.  She was engrossed in reading the first review of Reams’s book, The Shadowed Path.  Reams had sailed according to schedule, but Barnstable had published it that week and Georgiana read the clippings with a sense of triumph and a sinking heart.  As she had expected, Reams was accepted into high company.  Thomas Wolfe,Hemingway, Faulkner, in reference and comparison–the great names dotted the columns.

I may save this for Thanksgiving:  I like to read old pop novels while the turkey is roasting.

C by Maurice Baring omahaNext up:  Maurice Baring’s C (1924).  I’ve never heard of it, but I do love a good novel about Edwardian house parties.  Goodreads says, “Baring’s homage to a decadent and carefree Edwardian age depicts a society as yet untainted by the traumas and complexities of twentieth-century living. With wit and subtlety a happy picture is drawn of family life, house parties in the country and a leisured existence clouded only by the rumblings of the Boer War. Against this spectacle Caryl Bramsley (the C of the title) is presented – a young man of terrific promise but scant achievement, whose tragic-comic tale offsets the privileged milieu.”

Last but not least,  Tama Janowitz’s A Certain Age.  I loved Janowitz’s new memoir, Scream (which I wrote about here), and look forward to reading this  modern retelling of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.

janowitz a certain age 1769009474

I bought nothing at the Bookworm today, because I had exceeded my limit at Jackson Street Booksellers.

And, by the way, here’s the sky  snapped from the car as we tooled down the highway:

Western Iowa off the highway

Review of Two Elizabeths: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights & Elizabeth Berridge’s Tell It to a Stranger

elizabeth hardwick sleeplessnights

It is my favorite time of the summer:  if only it could always be August!  I love the light, the rushing of the creek, and the yellow leaves crackling. And for some reason  I always read many short books in August.  I have recently read:

Hardwick sleepless nights nyrb 51nPJb1iUtL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_1. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights.  Although I read the NYRB edition, this graceful autobiographical American novel is also published by Virago.  It counts as participation in the All Virago/All August event, yes?

Hardwick, a critic, essayist, fiction writer and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, was best known for her stunning essays, which often interweave  criticism with intimate observations.

Her 1979 novel, Sleepless Nights, seems experimental by today’s standards.  It  is divided into short, beautiful vignettes:   she sketches her growing up in  Lexington, Kentucky (this is the best part of the book, I think), her mother who had nine children, her studies at Columbia and early years in New York; sharing an apartment with a gay man, an experience not unlike a marriage,  and living alone in other apartments and houses in New York, Boston, Connecticut, and Maine.   She also writes about her friend Billie Holiday,  bag ladies, an amorous Dutch doctor, and the anxiety of  working women in boarding houses.  Hardwick’s language is both minimalist and poetic, in a ’70s style that I used to adore. But this time through?  Gorgeous writing, and I loved parts of the book, but occasionally found Hardwick’s point of view affected.  It just goes to show:  books seem entirely different at different times of life.

A  passage from the first page:

If only one knew what to remember or try to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself.  You can take it down like a can from the shelf.  Perhaps.  One can would be marked Rand Avenue in Kentucky and some would recall the address at least as true.  Inside the can are the blackening porches of winter, the gas grates, the swarm.

berridge tell it to a stranger 995602._UY400_SS400_2. Elizabeth Berridge’s Tell It to a Stranger.  I am very fond of Berridge’s novels, some of which I’ve acquired in Faber Finds paperbacks.  I loved Rose under Glass (and wrote about it here).

Berridge’s collection of short stories, Tell It to a Stranger:  Stories from the 1940s  (Persephone), is brilliant and engrossing.  The first story, “Snowstorm,” is set in winter in a maternity clinic outside of bombed London, where  women are bused to have their babies.  The woman doctor is emotionally cold and wintry, but her detachment and conventional ideas about motherhood are  threatened by a scornful, unmaternal young woman.

Yes, people seem to hate you for having anything on your mind,’ came the voice from the bed. ‘Calm motherhood, that’s the idea, isn’t it?  The most beautiful time of a woman’s life, preparing for a stranger–‘–her whole face twisted suddenly, but whether with pain or disgust the doctor could not make out.

Berridge does not define women by domesticity, and the twist in this story is completely unexpected.

In “Firstborn,” the heroine, Ruby, a new mother, walks across the common to her mother’s house and  is rebuked for not taking a taxi.  All attention is focused on the baby rather than Ruby, who is already tired of being an appendage to the newborn baby.  Her mother and aunt imply that she is making mistakes and does not know how to care for him.   Then she walks to her mother-in-law’s and is again confronted with being only a mother.  She is furious when her mother-in-law calls him “a real Cradock” and says she should be proud. Ruby has no intention of giving birth to a lot of  Cradocks.  Only when she goes home to her husband is she suddenly happy, reminded of who she is.

My favorite is the title story, set during World War II.  The heroine, Mrs. Hatfield, who has left London to live in a hotel in Belvedere, makes one of her periodic trips to her house in London, only to discover that it has been ransacked.  On the train trip back to Belvedere, she plans what she will say to the other residents of the hotel.  She has never been happier than she is in Belvedere.  But a strange twist prevents her telling the story.

These eleven stories are rich and varied–a great read!

The Back Cover!

What’s going on with book covers this summer?

Have you noticed the “back” cover art trend?  Why so many portraits of the back?

1. The cover photo of the comedian Amy Schumer’s back on her new memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, does her book no favors:  it’s  a riff on a scandi crime title, but also a celebrity’s overly-optimistic decision to display her back.  Did she know backs are the latest fashion in cover art when she agreed to this?  Well, probably not.  N.B. I have heard only good things about Schumer’s work, and one day will get around to seeing Trainwreck.  But think Nora Ephron’s “A Few Words about Breasts” (no photos, just words!).  And her work is still pertinent.

amy shumer the girl with the Ch3O3p8WUAAQLc8.nocrop.w529.h848

2.  The colorful cover of Gail Corriger’s SF novel, Imprudence, shows “back” attitudeIsn’t this fictional woman’s pose remarkably similar to Schumer’s?

Carriger_Imprudence-HC

(By the way, here’s the Goodreads description of the book:   “Rue and the crew of The Spotted Custard returned from India with revelations that shook the foundations of the scientific community. There is mass political upheaval, the vampires are tetchy, and something is seriously wrong with the local werewolf pack.”)

3 The designer of the cover of  E. Ardell’s new science fiction novel,  The Fourth Piece (Order’s Last Play #1), had the same idea of the back portrait as the the two above:  Here is an illustration of a tattooed back.  Goodreads says, “Life is great when you’re good-looking and popular…so long as no one knows you’re a vulatto. Being half-alien gets you labeled “loser” quicker than being a full vader. So it’s a good thing Devon, Lyle, and Lawrence can easily pass for human—until the night of the party.”

Ardell the fourth piece 29058267

4.  Why is there a woman’s back  on the cover of Sharee Samuels’ A Funeral for My Fat: My Journey to Lay 100 Pounds to Rest? Why not proudly face us?

A Funeral for my fat sharee samuels 51u23z2WRkL

5  The pretty cover of Joy Calloway’s The Fifth Avenue Artists Society shows “back. ” Actually, I am tempted to buy this because of the comparison to Edith Wharton, but I haven’t looked at it yet.  The Goodreads description says:  “An enthralling Edith Wharton-meets-Little Women debut about a family of four artistic sisters on the outskirts of Gilded Age New York high society that centers on the boldest—an aspiring writer caught between the boy next door and a mysterious novelist who inducts her into Manhattan’s most elite artistic salon.”

the-fifth-avenue-artists-society-by-joy-callaway-cover

6.  Here’s another back on the cover of a mystery, Anna Lee Huber’s As Death Draws Near (Lady Darby Mystery #5).  Goodreads says “Lady Kiera Darby and Sebastian Gage [are entangled] in a dangerous web of religious and political intrigue.”

As Death Draws Near Anna Lee Huber 261777287 .  And there’s no denying we’ve got ancient”back art” on the cover of Daisy Dunn’s Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet.  Catullus' Bedspread 61nE1tim0bLSo what is this trend about?

In Which I Imagine Myself as a Gothic Heroine/Detective: Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right & Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective

Bike 'n' Read

Equipment for a Bike ‘n’ Read (or a Collapse ‘n’ Read!)

It’s not the heat, but the humidity, they say.  Halfway through a bike ride the other day, I collapsed on a bench, whether because of the heat or the humidity I couldn’t say.  As I guzzled from a water bottle, I felt as wan as the heroine of a Gothic novel after a hard day preventing a murder in the French Pyrenees.   You know the Gothic formula:  You arrive at a convent in France to visit your cousin before she takes her vows, only to find she is dead, and then your questions are deflected by a Spanish nun impersonator who lives at the convent but has not been allowed to become a nun, and eventually you’re running through the woods and nipping down gullies  in a storm…

thunder on the right stewart old paperback 13414472That’s how things go for Jennifer Silver, the artist heroine of Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right I love Stewart’s Gothic novels of the ’50s and ’60s, which in recent years have been called “romantic suspense.” (What is “romantic” suspense?) Although Stewart’s Gothics are not available as e-books (the most portable books for a bike trip), I have a small nifty paperback that fits in my bag.

Stewart (1916-2014) was a brilliant writer of elegant novels about bright, witty young women  (actresses, veterinarians, artists, secretaries, etc.), who,  usually while traveling abroad, stumble upon a mystery, and  fall in love with a dashing man.  My favorite of her books is This Rough Magic: Lucy, an actress, visits her sister in her villa on Corfu, and not only rescues a beached dolphin with the help of a surly musician, but discusses the origins of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with his father, a famous actor who believes Corfu is the setting.  And of course there’s a crime or three to solve…

Thunder on the Right (1957), her third novel, may not be her best, but it is a page-turner.   The heroine, Jennifer,  is very smart and literary: immediately upon arrival at the creepy convent, she wryly is reminded of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Gothics.  The nun impersonator Dona Francisca’s story of Gillian’s death from pneumonia after a car accident doesn’t make sense. Why didn’t Gillian contact Jennifer after the accident? Why didn’t she tell them she had family?  And why do the nuns say the gentian was Gillian’s favorite flower because she admired the deep blue, when Gillian was color-blind? And, yes, Jennifer’s ex-boyfriend, Stephen, shows up miraculously at the hotel in France and helps her figure out what happened, but Jennifer does most of the sleuthing on her own. And that’s why we like Stewart’s heroines.  They are smart and independent.  Of course they want (and get) romance as well.

thunder on the right stewart hodder 51y4TO2Ya+LGothic novels are for girls (I’m going for alliteration), but police procedurals are for everybody.  I recently discovered Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond series, and began with The Last Detective, the first book in the series.  As Louise Penny says in the introduction to the Soho Crime edition, “Peter Lovesey plays with perspective, with the trustworthiness of the narrator, with your loyalties as a reader.  And he does this by engaging not just your head, but your heart.  What is crime fiction, after all, without caring?”

Peter Lovesey The Last Detective 51OOXqg8dPLDetective Superintendent Peter Diamond is not particularly likable:  he  is fat and surly, there has been an inquiry about one of his investigations, he is exasperated by technology, and he is unhappy with his position with the Bath Regional Police.  He and the Assistant Detective, John Wigfull, have different philosophies:  Diamond goes for hunches, interviews, and confessions, while Wigfull is a believer in technology, technology, technology.  When the corpse of a woman is found in a lake, it takes weeks to discover her identity, despite technology.

When we first meet Peter, he is napping in the morgue after a long night.  Lovesey explains,

Peter Diamond was entitled to put his feet up. Ever since the phone beside his bed at home in Bear Flat, near Bath, had buzzed shortly after 1 a.m., he had been continuously on duty. By the time he had got to the scene at Chew Valley Lake and viewed the body, the local CID lads had set the wheels in motion, but there had remained decisions only Diamond could make, strings that only the man in charge could pull. He’d pulled more strings than Segovia.

Lovesey the last detective british $_1Finally, the corpse is identified as Geraldine Snoo, a “washed-up” soap opera actress. Geraldine’s  husband, Gregory Jackman, an English professor, had not reported her missing, though he had not seen her in three weeks.  Did he kill her, or did they just have marital problems?  The other suspect is Dana, an attractive chauffeur whose son Gregory had saved from drowning.  The two have become friends, but say they are not lovers.

Not only does Lovesey describe the workings of the jaded detective Peter Diamond’s mind, but he also details the work habits of the two suspects.  Lovesey  changes t point of view to give us a window first into Gregory’s first-person narrative (a kind of interview soliloquy), and later  Geraldine’s.  Gregory  has been harried by his department chair into organizing a Jane Austen exhibition about her life in Bath–and he is not a fan of the Janeites or of the biographical approach to literature. His attention has been on the exhibition rather than on his mentally unstable wife, who spends much of her time visiting friends.  Dana, a former taxi driver  is  a chauffeur for a CEO. The job was a godsend:  she has struggled as a single mother to pay for her son’s private school, and her boss also lets her drive the car after hours, so long as she logs the miles.  As her friendship developed with Gregory, she tracked down some letters by Jane Austen (as yet inauthenticated) for him as a gift. The letters have disappeared, and Geraldine is dead.

Fascinating!  Either Gregory or Dana could have done it and…

An excellent read!  Mysteries are so good in the summer…