Friday, March 31, 2023

Reading Those Classics #6

Classic Air Pilot Memoir. I’ve not read one of these a long time, not since the West with the Night by Beryl Markham. Furthermore, given the misery of March in a Northern place – damp, cold, grey, wintry mix,  disoriented due to time change insomnia - one turns to works of inspiration, corny as they may be.

 Wind, Sand, and Stars - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

In the early days of trans-oceanic flight the writer worked as pilot delivering mail and passengers over the Andes or across the Sahara. He flew in a primitive plane, literally flying by the seat of his pants, navigating by constellations or looking out the side windows for landmarks like The Nile River. So much sacrifice and dedication to deliver bank statements, pay or quit notices, and dear john kiss-offs. Sure, one part of me wants to roll my eyes at the purple prose, another part of me (the child of two postal workers) tears up at the nobility of getting the job done despite snow, rain, heat and gloom of night.

Overwritten romanticism mars this book. Some corn on being in the moment, in appreciation of the labor that has gone into the production of a morning cup of java:

An old peasant woman finds her God only through a painted image, or a primitive medallion, or her rosary; we too must hear a simple language if we are to hear truly. And so the joy of being alive was gathered in that aromatic and burning first taste, in that blend of milk, coffee and wheat which brings communion with peaceful pastures, with exotic plantation and with harvests, communion with all the earth.

And there’s unbecoming injustice disguised as commiseration with  people who get along in the world differently from the writer.

Old bureaucrat, my companion here present, no man ever opened an escape route for you, and you are not to blame. You built peace for yourself by blocking up every chink of light, as termites do. You rolled yourself into your ball of bourgeois existence, you built your humble rampart against winds and tides and stars. You have no wish to ponder great questions, you had enough trouble suppressing awareness of your human condition. You do not dwell on a wandering planet, you ask yourself no unanswerable questions; lower-middle-class Toulouse, that’s you. No man ever grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay that formed you has dried and hardened, and no man could now awaken in you the dormant musician, the poet or the astronomer who perhaps once dwelt within you.

Careful there with that “you,” buddy, don’t cut too close to the knuckle when your readers might be among state employees that don’t cotton to be likened unto “termites.” An aristocrat such as de Saint-Exupéry would have a lofty attitude about policies and procedures and paperwork, and be too narrow-minded to see that nobody dislikes red tape more than bureaucrat.

But the stoicism is interesting and useful, given combatting the misery of March in a Northern place is a goal of the weary reader. This, on welcoming adversity to practice embracing emotional and physical discomfort and coming back from setbacks:

The earth teaches us more about ourselves than all the books in the world, because it is resistant to us. Self-discovery comes when man measures himself against an obstacle.

The writer de Saint-Exupéry provides charms, or slogans, that the stoics suggest we have ready to hand when bogies loom:

Sometimes the storms and the fog and the snow will get you down. But think of all those who have been through it before you, and just tell yourself: “They did it, so it can be done again.”

As for stoic cosmopolitanism, remember that we live in a community of human beings, and we all have roles in building something new and lasting, obligations we have to discharge:

To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to know shame at the sight of poverty which is not of our making. It is to be proud of a victory won by our comrades. It is to feel, as we place our stone, that we are contributing to the building of the world.

We get only one life, so we’d better pay attention. Look at people, places and things with care, with respect. We don’t have to fly over the Andes to get plugged into the universe. We can get that view from above in our own yard.

I used to love that ironic grass in Paraguay, pushing its nose up between the cobblestones of the capital to see, on behalf of the invisible yet always present virgin forest, whether men still hold the city, whether perhaps the hour has come to shove all these stones aside. I loved that form of dilapidation which expresses merely an excess of wealth. But here I was overcome with wonder.

Enough quoting of that sense of wonder. There are also kickass stories of survival after crashes, almost dying of thirst, and flying in an Andean cyclone, which are the prime reasons we read flying memoirs. I’ve not read The Little Prince but I have read The Alchemist so for when self-help you can’t help but despise at least a little bit is the only reading that will fit the bill (given the misery of March in a Northern place), this is it.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Color Vision Deficiency

The Island of the Colour-blind – Oliver Sacks

In an interview Sacks said he had a “soft spot” for this 1996 book because it’s a bit of everything: a travel narrative of Micronesia, a naturalistic study on ancient plants like cyads, and a treatise on color-blindness and an ALS-like condition among isolated peoples.

In the book, he explains that there are different kinds of color-blindness and people with it may develop more sensitive senses of touch and smell. Sacks examines a strange neurologic malady on Guam which resembles Parkinson’s and ALS. No cause of the malady has been identified and mercifully it no longer makes people debilitated, disabled or demented.

Overall, a good read but readers alert to an author patronizing and paternalizing won’t have fun unless being outraged and offended is their fun. This book is from 1996 – when we didn’t know exoticizing from chopped liver.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Literate British Mystery

Words for Murder Perhaps – Edward Candy

This 1971 mystery stars a modest professor of English literature, with the main backdrop of evening classes for adult education. It sounds like a yawn but this is in fact a short enjoyable read.

Our hero Gregory “Rob” Roberts has a past. His wife ran off with his best friend, a poet and scholar. Poor Rob made an attempt on his own life and spent a couple months in a rest home. As the story begins, the icy Audrey, Greg's ex-wife, receives in the mail an anonymous note that is quoting a poetic elegy. Since Rob is a literary guy, she assumes he sent it, to mock her over the disappearance of the best friend.

She reports the disappearance and the note to the authorities and thoughtfully mentions her literary ex-husband. Sure enough Rob is questioned by the police, well characterized not as ominous bullies but as serious professionals getting on with the job.

But to add to Rob’s troubles a famous professor of Egyptology is poisoned after his lecture at the school. Another poetic elegy is found. And then two more murders occur, both with poetic elegies.

Inspector Burnivel of the Yard is called in, whom readers might recall from the 1954 mystery Which Doctor. Not above other cozy elements of the genre, the author sets up a romance for Rob, unwraps red herrings, and details a scam.

The mystery is ingenious, the language highly literate. As for characterization, it’s nice to read about grown-ups in adult situations acting about as wisely as we could expect. The author was not only a writer in the genre but a fan of mysteries, too, making allusions to Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, Michael Innes, and Michael Gilbert. In his course on Crime Fiction, Rob argues:

We are not usually asked, in the classic detective story, to feel with the characters, to identify, only to perform a feat of the intellect ...We don't want, we positively fear, to have our delight sullied by any appreciable concern for victim or suspect Hence the number of mysteries where the crime has already been committed before the start of the narrative, or where the victim is a wicked person for whom no real sympathy need be felt .... The essence of the detective story is that it will tease and even frighten us a little but it won't upset or anger us.


Sunday, March 19, 2023

Harry Devlin #4

Yesterday's Papers – Martin Edwards

This 1994 mystery is the fourth of eight starring Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin. Edwards is a mystery writer steeped in the traditions of the Golden Age of Whodunnits. So even though the time and setting are post-modern, so to speak, this mystery has a steady and predictable rhythm typical of the “corpse in the library in the vicarage of a quiet village” type of Golden Age mystery by Christie, Sayers, or Allingham. Also in the tradition: great surprises and the dialogue is a little stilted but pleasant in its awkwardness.

Basically, our hero Devlin’s task is to investigate a cold case. Tall, bent over with study and with wet fox-like eyes, Ernest Miller asks the well-known lawyer help him solve a crime that took place thirty years earlier, in 1964 during the heyday of Liverpool swings like a pendulum do. Miller claims the wrong person had been accused of the terrible strangulation murder of a teenaged girl, convicted on a false confession, and then killed himself in jail before he could be hanged.

Though Devlin thinks it’s a long shot, he agrees to read the lawyer’s file on the accused and interview people of interest that are still around. Devlin compares and contrasts the various testimonies and tries to clarify attitudes and emotions obscured by the passage of time. While recognizing the pointlessness of his task, since it is now impossible to undo the mistakes caused by the vagaries of human behavior, Devlin wants to get to the bottom of the story to discover the truth. The only thing left is to restore the reputation of those who have been unjustly blamed.

For mystery, It thus has its profound aspects, which reflect on routine errors of judgement and their impact on people and on how anxiety over reputation and fear of poverty trump truth in the world. As for the actual riddle, the work is configured more as a psychological mystery than a classic one. Still, it stands an a excellent mystery because it mixes elements of the classic and modern mystery.


Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The Ides of Perry Mason 46

Note: On the 15th of every month for about the last three years or so, I have posted a review of a Perry Mason mystery. For the hell of it. But I find the ones written in the Sixties just aren’t up the usual standard and, getting older myself, I don’t feel I have the time for mediocre mysteries.

The Case of the Troubled Trustee – Erle Stanley Gardner

Some of Gardner’s productions near the end of his writing days in the mid-Sixties smacked of the routine and bordered on the garbled. This 1965 outing is easy enough to follow but the plot and incidents are not narrated in the usual smooth, organized manner.

Mason’s client, for once, is not a beautiful female, but a male investment counselor. Kerry Dutton, in his late twenties, has violated his fiduciary duties in his ham-handed attempt to protect a comely trust beneficiary Desiree Ellis, whom he loves though she’s told him she thinks of him as a brother. Kerry feels responsible for protecting his lady-love from a beatnik user and his dragon mother. A proxy fight over an oil stock that Kerry should not have sold out of the trust leads to the inevitable murder.

The trial sequence feels slightly too long, despite the fun fireworks and crafty stalking during DA Hamilton’s Burger’s cross-examination of defense witnesses. Putting two and two together, Mason effects a batty plan to catch the murderer.

The true fan finishes this mystery only because to bail out of a Mason mystery after the trial has begun just isn’t a done thing in my Perryverse.


Monday, March 13, 2023

Reading Those Classics #5

Classic Short Stories. Before I went to work in Okinawa in 1986, I bought at used book stores all the John O’Hara fiction I could find. About a dozen novels and a half-dozen short story collections, on the strength of a recommendation by either Gore Vidal or Louis Auchincloss. I read them all in the next six years. I remember Appointment in Samarra (Caroline English), BUtterfield 8 (dirty secrets), Ten North Frederick (village bigwig flops on bigger stage) and From the Terrace (the narcotic chillin’ of flat, prosaic, knowing prose a la Maugham). Of the short stories, I remember only Natica Jackson; the four novellas in Sermons and Soda Water were good but I don’t recall why, except that I like novellas. Weird. So, 30 years down the pike, I thought I’d take another crack at the stories.

New York Stories – John O’Hara

The stories collected in this book are sharp and perceptive. A master of dialogue, O’Hara was a keen observer of people. His goal was to write stories that revealed character in different, interesting ways in order to document how Americans thought and acted in situations that urban adults typically face: career setbacks, love trouble, estrangement, failure, aging, loss, health scares, the frictions of social class, the hamster wheel of financial stability, etc.

He sketches scenes or set pieces in daily life with careful precision, grabbing the reader’s attention at the beginning, holding it fast in the middle and with genuine twists at the end, meeting but shaking up expectations of a writer’s tricks. O’Hara, with masterful control over words, will merely imply a change in mood or feeling, like Chekhov. Readers that like surprise endings will like O’Hara’s subtle revelations of character in unfamiliar situations.

O’Hara The Ordinary Guy didn’t much care about plumbing the abysses of existential issues and assumed his readers didn’t either so O’Hara The Professional Writer gave the readers what they expected of him as the successful author of Appointment in Samarra in 1934.

Readers want stories told with clarity, in readable prose, with entertaining insights into character. Like his readers that liked to think they had a real good bead on things, O’Hara knows full well how unfair Lady Luck is in the distribution of advantaged origins, money, property, opportunity, success, glory, etc. At the same time O’Hara also recognizes how rigidly we apply our allocation of brains and wiles in order to pump our status at work, in the neighborhood, among acquaintances. We are what we choose to become.

Some readers – like me – will read with an implicit smugness, assuming the characters, trapped in the aimless and directionless wandering of limitless rebirth and reincarnation, will reap what they sow given their never-ending foolishness, prejudice, cowardice, and pleasure-seeking. Me, I found reading too many of the stories with insufficient space between them made initial smugness give way to sadness with the human condition. Such moods descend in northern places in March, i.e. the punishment phase of winter.

Also, as the title implies, the setting is the same city. I think I would have liked as a break stories set in good old Pottsville and Hollywood and miscellaneous spots. Actually, I want to re-read Natica Jackson.

Other readers will be more capable and willing to empathize with those who have gone through an experience they've never had.  After all, the research says reading serious fiction may contribute to a sharper ability to comprehend other people’s motivations.

With his Trollopian work habits, O’Hara wrote every single night from midnight to dawn, bent on a Nobel Prize and being counted in the number of respected writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. His wife chose as his epitaph a comment he made about himself, “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.” Snicker, sigh, or snort at “better…” but read these stories without prejudice and consider the rest.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Hilary Tamar #1

Thus Was Adonis Murdered – Sarah Caudwell

After a misunderstanding with the British tax authorities, tax attorney Julia Larwood treats herself to an edifying trip to Venice. Published in the vanished world of 1981, this novel has people pay with money orders and use the telex to transmit urgent news. And by letter, accident-prone Julia keeps up a droll correspondence with her lawyerly colleagues back in London and tells anecdotes about her colorful tour group. Particularly striking is a young Adonis, with whom Julia could imagine more ... whoppee.

Back home in London, Julia’s lawyer frenemies read her letters and roll their eyes, because scattered Julia is apt to forget maidenly modesty when confronted with male beauty. However, when a late-night fax announces that she has been arrested on suspicion of murder, her colleagues quit snickering and dispatch one of the friends to get her out of her jam. They are also aided by their older friend and Oxford mentor, the amateur detective Professor Hilary Tamar. Hilary provides an intelligent and witty narrative oomph to the story.

The story is slightly challenging to read due to the classical references and Caudwell writes long sentences with subordinate clauses and polysyllabic words. And the reveal could have been a little more dramatic or explained in more detail, but maybe that is a post-modern tweaking of whodunnit conventions of melodrama and 20-page reveals.

But this is an original mystery with plenty of flair and sparkling humor, starting with disorganized, detail-forgetting tax attorney Julia having tax troubles – delightful! There’s also a curious detail about Hilary Tamar that I will let the reader discover on their own. This novel was the first to feature Hilary and only three more were to come because sadly the author passed away when she was only 61 years old in the year 2000.

See also: The Shortest Way to Hades - Hilary Tamar #2