Staff Picks for September
As a passionate lover of the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe, I couldn’t wait to read this homage to one of America’s greatest writers. It lacks the strong narrative drive of Poe---the kind of fiction I generally prefer--but is an almost indecently invasive shadowing of Edward Fenzil as he edges ever closer to insanity. Told in first person by Fenzil three decades later, it tells of his work as a doctor and assistant to Thomas Dent Mutter and the horrible, gory operations and experiments he conducts. It also illustrates Fenzil’s personal meetings with Poe, who appears to be going slowly insane, and bringing his young friend along with him. Fenzil cannot tell whether His confrontation with his doppelganger, a dead murderer, is real, or is the vision of a ghost, or evidence that he has entirely lost his connection to reality. The principal characters, as well as several minor ones, have stories to recount that do not appear to drive the story forward but, as they mount up, they contribute to what in many ways seems to waiver between a nightmare and a descent into madness. The lush, gothic prose, enough like Poe’s to make one believe in spirit-pens, more than makes up for a thin plot. One of my favorite passages, and a testimony to the author’s psychological insights, is: “She sighed like one aggrieved who, nonetheless, takes pleasure in her martyrdom. I’ve known many, of both sexes, who delight in abasement: It bolsters their ego—a strange paradox.”
“Despite overwhelming odds…” usually sounds like the tagline for a superhero movie. In Thomas Mullen’s Darktown, however, this phrase could easily refer to the efforts of Atlanta’s first black police officers. Belittled, threatened, dismissed at every turn, these men strove for justice in a world of vast inequality and violent hatred. Set in 1948 Atlanta, the plot follows war veterans Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith as they join the nascent segregated police force. When a black woman is found dead—a woman Lucius and Tommy saw being driven around by an intoxicated white man—they not only assume foul play, but are sure that some of their fellow cops have a hand in it. What follows is a puzzling case made that much more difficult by the circumstances of the day. Darktown not only captures the period perfectly, it delivers a top-notch murder mystery to boot. Through it all these men try to safeguard their community and change the world for the better, even if it means putting their lives on the line. Come to think of it, these guys sure sound like superheroes to me…
Le Carre, John, The Pigeon Tunnel, Viking.
I’ve often thought of how thrilling it would be to sit at a dinner table with John le Carre and Simon Callow and just listen to them converse. It wouldn’t matter about what – I’m sure whatever they spoke of would be fascinating. Then again, I’m also certain that said dinner is little more than fantasy, and will never come to be in this lifetime. But I now have the next best thing: The Pigeon Tunnel, John le Carre’s new book of memoirs. Or maybe I should say, not quite “memoirs,” but “memories,” for the book is hardly a linear biography. He spends little time discussing his personal life, his marriage or his children. Instead, he speaks mostly of his extraordinary life as a writer, his travels around the world researching his books and the people who would become a part of those books. He writes, for example, of his meetings with Arafat and a female German terrorist while researching The Little Drummer Girl, and of his travels to Vientiane for The Honourable Schoolboy. He writes, too, of Kim Philby, Richard Burton, and, of course, Alec Guinness. His anecdote of meeting a man who had been a part of a Mossad team that hunted down and assassinated over one thousand Nazi war criminals who had escaped prosecution after the war is a particularly chilling episode, and another, about a British spy who acted as a Soviet agent, is by far the saddest. The longest chapter is devoted to the author’s father, Ronnie, a con man who treated his family quite poorly. It’s an unfortunate story, but a necessary one, as without it le Carre would never have become the author we know and love today.
When freshly promoted Detective Superintendent Peter Banks relocated from London to Eastvale, Yorkshire, he anticipated a quieter life and less stressful policing. That’s not quite what he got, though. Things are as lively as ever, for When the Music’s Over opens with a naked girl being thrown from a moving van. Incredibly, she survives this--only to meet her end minutes later! DS Banks supervises DI Annie Cabbot’s investigation into how a 14-year-old could meet such a tragic end.
Meanwhile, Banks is tasked with going back nearly fifty years to gather evidence in an attempt to prove rape allegations against popular television personality Danny Caxton. But how can he possibly find any new revelations in this coldest of cold cases?
The pace of this topnotch procedural is perhaps more leisurely than the contemporary reader is used to, but taking the time to allow the investigation to unfold and evidence to be considered makes the tale readable and realistic as well as a welcome respite from the 140-character mode of the twenty-first century.
Author Peter Robinson shrewdly keeps to the two storylines, maneuvering back and forth between them, and to this writer that’s a relief, not having to juggle five hundred subplots. Sometimes simple really is better!
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