Friday, 27 March 2015

The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths

published 2015

Ghost Fields

‘There are a lot of these abandoned airfields in Norfolk… They call them the ghost fields.’

The ghost fields. Nelson’s not a fanciful man but, just for a second, he imagines the sky full of lumbering Second World War planes, rising into the clouds and heading out to sea. He thinks of the men inside the control tower listening to their final briefing, not knowing whether they’ll ever come back.


[As she investigates a body found in the wrong place, Dr Ruth Galloway goes to a museum of RAF history]

‘I’ve sorted out some photographs for you,’ says Ray, pointing towards the table.

Ruth leans over to look. The faded pictures show huge aeroplanes with men standing on stepladders to reach the propellers, sprawled on the wings doing repair work or just grinning beside the monstrous creatures, dwarfed by the great khaki wings.

‘They were B24s and B17s,’ says Ray. ‘The B17s were the famous Flying Fortresses.’

Ruth is looking at the men. They are wearing overalls and leather jackets, flying goggles still perched on their heads. They are laughing and gesticulating, as if the killing machines behind them are nothing more than a backdrop. Two men are holding up a sign saying ‘Lucky Bastards Club.’

‘If you completed 30 missions, you were part of the Lucky Bastards Club,’ says Ray. ‘Not many did.’

observations: This book tells us that ‘in 1942, a new airfield was built every three days.’ The action is set entirely in the present day, but that atmosphere of the lost flyers, the planes taking off, the doomed young men with no future – is all beautifully conjured up. The plot concerns a crashed plane dug up in a field, and the body that shouldn’t have been in it.

The usual splendid cast of characters gets involved: Judy is having a baby imminently, Cathbad is ‘much in demand as a spiritual counsellor.’ Clough has quite a big role this time. Kate starts school, Ruth ponders the possibilities of a relationship with Frank. A TV crew is yet again in the offing – this might seem an unlikely repeated plot turn in the books, except that you there are so many archaeology/history programmes on the box these days that it is wholly convincing. The weather is terrible, floods are threatened, and Ruth’s part of the Norfolk Coast is as lonely and dark as ever. And the book is full of the usual clever perceptions and funny remarks.

Old photographs are a feature: I particularly liked the woman who has put the key pictures in a cookery book for safekeeping. The perfection of Elly Griffiths’ writing comes in their ‘emerging from Delia [Smith]’s Spanish Pork with Olives’ – exactly the right book, exactly the right recipe.

This is one of my favourite current crime series, Ruth is one of my favourite sleuths, and Harry Nelson is definitely my favourite policeman of all time, the thinking woman’s detective. So I am happy to report that The Ghost Fields is well up to scratch – the best so far. I hope the series goes on forever.

Past books in the series have featured on the blog, and also the first of Griffiths’ new series, Zig Zag Girl.

I am a devoted crime fiction fan, but I would happily read a straight novel about Ruth and her life.

Meanwhile, Elly Griffiths told us on Twitter that a Guardian interview with man-of-the-moment Mark Rylance convinced her that ‘he IS Cathbad’. Plainly that should be his next role after Thomas Cromwell.

Then, when I read this:
The gleam of purple cloak is unmistakable. Cathbad, in full druid’s regalia, is making her way over to her, accompanied by another, similarly dressed man.
‘Hail,’ says Cathbad, possibly thinking that the occasion calls for more than a simple ‘hallo’.
--- I knew it was time to resurrect this picture of druids from an earlier entry on Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave:
Ghost Fields 2

It is by George Henry, painted around 1890, and is from the Athenaeum website.
The top picture is from the Imperial War Museum, and shows a Bomber crew at Whitley in 1941.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Thursday List: Young Women Called Linnet, and One Old One

Linnet Death on the Nile
Boyfriend-stealer Linnet Ridgeway, with a snooty look and an expensive gown

The first time I came across the name Linnet was in Agatha Christie’s 1937 Death on the Nile, where Linnet Ridgeway, later Doyle, is the Richest Girl in England. I was intrigued by the name, because it sounded like Lynette, but obviously wasn’t. Perhaps she was called after the bird Linnet, perhaps it was like being called Wren or Robin? Where the name does exist, it definitely seems to be pronounce Linn-it, rather than Lyn-ETTE.

Linnet Henrietta's War

In wartime young Linnets did their duty 

I tucked this interesting name away, and didn’t come across another Linnet until recently when, wouldn’t you know, two came along at once. (Apparently the collective noun for linnets is a parcel….)

Joyce Dennys produced two books about the Home Front in the Second World War: Henrietta’s War and Henrietta Sees it Through. (I was introduced to them by blogfriend Chrissie Poulson). The protagonist, and avowed Dennys alter ego, has a daughter called Linnet.
Illyrian Spring Linnet

And then I read Ann Bridge’s Illyrian Spring – 1935 – and there was another young woman called Linnet.
The three young women with this name, although fictional, would all have been around the same age, so it seems the name was having a moment. According to name statistics, it never became popular enough to hit the general radar.

Elegance in Illyria

When I mentioned my interest in the name on the blog, helpful readers pointed me in the direction of some other instances.

Blogfriend Daniel Milford-Cottam told me that the name crops up in The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston, published 1954 – it’s an important Toseland family name, and the grandmother is called Linnet. (Which doesn’t quite make sense, but we’ll move swiftly on.)

Green Knowe 3

 Old lady called Linnet

Sara O’Leary mentioned that ‘There's also Linnet Muir in Mavis Gallant's stories’ – I’d read the stories but didn’t remember this character. But Mavis Gallant herself said in the Paris Review: ‘The Linnet Muir stories are fiction, but as close to autobiography as fiction can be… Linnet Muir is fiction, but people who knew me then have said, “That’s you. Every gesture, every word, every everything is what you were like.”…The Linnet Muir stories are based on things that actually did happen.’ She doesn’t explain why she chose the name. Gallant was born in 1922, so again is a similar age to the other women with the name….

Most Linnets in recent books are in romance novels – it seems to be a Mills and Boon kind of name.

But there are a couple more notable examples by modern authors. Barbara Taylor Bradford’s best-selling 1979 blockbuster A Woman of Substance was followed by a number of sequels, in which the original heroine, Emma Harte, has many descendants, including one called Linnet O’Neill. Katie Flynn’s Mersey Girls (1994) follows the story of an Irish girl called Linnet Murphy through the 20th century.

And in 2012 mystery writer Liza Cody wrote a novel called Gimme More featuring a rock widow whose name is Linnet Walker, though everyone calls her Birdie.

linnet bird

Going backwards in time from my original parcel or flurry of Linnets - there’s a 1907 book by Arthur Quiller-Couch called Major Vigoureux, which has a girl called Linnet in it.

Grant Allen, a well-known Canadian science writer and novelist of his day, wrote a book called Linnet: A Romance in 1900. This Linnet is a Tyrolean cow-girl with a wonderful singing voice – her real name is Lina, Linnet is a nickname because she sings like the bird.

And then there was Linnet’s Trial, a book published in 1864, by an author with the mellifluous name of Menella Bute Smedley. The character’s real name is Leonora, Linnet is a nickname. She is a ‘terrible bluestocking’, but very much the heroine.

None of these early examples of heroines seems sufficiently influential to have made Linnet a popular choice of girl’s name…

There is a Linnet in the Oscar Wilde story The Devoted Friend (from the Happy Prince collection) but that is plainly just a bird: other ‘characters’ are called Duck and Water-Rat.

Elizabeth Goudge wrote a much-loved children’s book called Linnets and Valerians (The Runaways in the US), published 1964, but Linnet is the last name of the family of children there.

And, still with last names, the 18th century playwright Samuel Foote’s has a Linnet family in his 1771 play Maid of Bath.

While researching the name, I came across a long thread on a mothers’ forum: a pregnant woman had quite the discussion going, asking others if she should call her child Linnet, and getting a very positive reaction. So perhaps the name will come back into favour.

I would love to hear of any other Linnets, real or fictional.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

published 1968

By the Pricking of my Thumbs 1

The door opened so suddenly that he nearly fell backwards. A woman stood on the doorstep. At first sight Tommy’s first impression was that this was one of the plainest women he had ever seen. She had a large expanse of flat, pancake-like face, two enormous eyes which seemed impossibly different colours, one green and one brown, a noble forehead with a quantity of wild hair rising up from it in a kind of thicket. She wore a purple overall with blotches of clay on it, and Tommy noticed that the hand that held the door open was one of exceeding beauty of structure…

She led him through the doorway, up a narrow staircase and into a large studio. In a corner of it there was a figure and various implements standing by it. Hammer sand chisels. There was also a clay head. The whole place looked as though it had recently been savaged by a gang of hooligans.

observations: Various people led me to re-read this book: when I wrote about The Secret Adversary recently, with my routine complaints about Tommy and Tuppence, respected blogfriends Sergio and Daniel both recommended this one as being a better book featuring the pair. 

Meanwhile Lucy Fisher made the valuable point that Tuppence (in the photo on the entry) should really have her cloche pulled down over her eyes, for reasons of tension, disguise, secrecy and of course fashion. She has demonstrated this for us:

By the Pricking of my Thumbs 3And so I was delighted to come across this in Thumbs, an elderly General reminiscing:
Cloche hats, they used to wear at one time… Had to look right down underneath the brim before you could see the girl’s face. Tantalising it was, and they knew it!
I feel he would have liked Lucy.

The book is annoying for this reason: it’s got some great ideas, great characters, and some surprises. It creates a very sinister atmosphere, and a real sense of fear. But it keeps losing its way and degenerating into long rambling pointless conversations. Tuppence talks at length to a character called Mrs Copleigh:
‘there was no chronological sequence which occasionally made things difficult. Mrs Copleigh jumped from 15 years ago to 2 years ago to last month, and then back to somewhere in the 1920s…. Mrs Copleigh just put in a lot of things which have made everything more difficult. I think she’s got all her times and dates mixed up too.’
You wonder is she a subconscious substitute for Mrs Christie: this is a fair description of the book and everyone in it. And, as Robert Barnard points out in his excellent book on Christie, A Talent to Deceive, when you look back you find that 90% of the information Tuppence gathers is completely pointless, never explained, and serves no purpose in the book. And ‘mixing up times and dates’ – let’s look at the bizarre fact that Albert – who cannot be less than 60, and has lived with T&T all his adult life - is suddenly given a wife and small children.

It’s a shame because this could have been one of the greats: even with these shortcomings, it is a very entertaining and mysterious read. The house at the centre reminded me of the one in Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair – and Christie describes it very well. The scene with the jackdaw down the chimney was memorably discomfiting, as was the old lady saying ‘Was it your poor child behind the fireplace?’ The book is about old people, which makes an interesting change. The sudden jacking up of tension and creation of atmosphere comes and goes, and suddenly there’ll be something irritating: eg Tuppence is knocked out and suffers from concussion and amnesia, and thinks she is 18 again. But then suddenly she’s all right and normal, with no mention of the incident.

In the excerpt above, ‘At first sight Tommy’s first impression’ is surely a phrase that should have been edited. I can’t decide if ‘the hand… was one of exceeding beauty of structure’ is a really terrible phrase or a good one….

The top picture is of American sculptor Betti Richard: it’s from the Smithsonian, which has a fascinating collection of photos of sculptors, artists and writers.

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Fifth Queen Trilogy by Ford Madox Ford - Thomas Culpepper

The Fifth Queen and How She Came to Court1906

Privy Seal: His Last Venture - 1907

The Fifth Queen Crowned – 1908


Fifth Queen Culpepper

Thomas Culpepper stood in the doorway, his sword drawn, his left hand clutching the throat of the serving man who was guarding her room. ‘God help us!’ Katharine said angrily; ‘will you ruin me?’

‘Cut throats?’ he muttered. ‘Aye, I can cut a throat with any man in Christendom or out.’ He shook the man backwards and forwards to support himself. ‘Kat, this offal would have kept me from thee.’

Katharine said, ‘Hush! It is very late.’

At the sound of her voice his face began to smile. ‘Oh, Kat,’ he stuttered jovially, ‘what law should keep me from thee? Thou’rt better than my wife. Heathen to keep man and wife apart, I say, I.’

‘Be still. It is very late. You will shame me,’ she answered.

‘Why, I would not have thee shamed, Kat, of the world,’ he said. He shook the man again and threw him good humouredly against the wall.

observations: Should be read in conjunction with earlier entry on the book.

Thomas Culpepper, on hearing something he likes the sound of:
‘That is the best hearing,’ Thomas Culpepper said. ‘I do absolve thee of five kicks for being the messenger of that.’
One thing that Ford does very well is show the sheer annoyingness of his version of ‘the alarming Thomas Culpepper’ as AS Byatt calls him - Ford regularly refers to him as T. Culpepper. He’s the man who is in love with Howard, probably has an adulterous relationship with her, and will be executed because of it. Ford’s Culpepper In this version (not particularly historical) has known her for many years, and is obsessed with her: he hangs around, causes trouble, speaks always at the wrong time and says the wrong thing. He is always getting angry, and insulting people, and threatening them, as the scene above shows. He compromises her fatally. And though we may not be Tudor Queens, I think all women have known someone like that – he has decided he is in love and constantly wrong-foots her. He claims to consider her above all things, but actually does the opposite.

In fact, Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies does an equally good job on the annoyingness of Harry Percy, who goes for a similar role in the life of Anne Boleyn but is turned away before being part of her final destruction, although his own and his wife’s lives are both completely messed up. (Down through the hundreds of years, it still hits home when you read that he was ‘too ill’ to be part of the panel of lords on the last day of Anne Boleyn’s trial and death sentence, he could not be part of the verdict.)

Ford’s version of the final scenes of Howard’s story resembles the end of Othello, and he also gives her a final decision which is like something from King Lear – and makes you think, yes, she is Cordelia.

There is no certainty of Howard’s date of birth – it’s something scholars have fought over – though there seems little doubt she was a teenager when she made her disastrous marriage. In this book Ford has invented a reason for confusion: that she can be made to look more guilty of early sexual activity by being made older.
He will prove against her certain lewdnesses when she was a child in your mother’s house. If then she was a child of ten or so, knowing not evil from good, this might not undo her. But if you can make her seem then eighteen or twenty it will be enough to hang her.’
Now there’s the authentic Ford touch – he has a line into forms of waywardness and lies that would shock anyone. Some of the trilogy is like walking through mud, but then something will turn up that makes you see his brilliance.

Ford uses plenty of archaic language, but then he does that anyway, Parade’s End is full of strange words. Here I liked spadassins – duelists or swordmen, and surely a great name for a band: T Culpepper and The Spadassins. There is also talk (several times) of someone being ‘a made man’ – it’s not entirely clear what it means, but it seems to be not a long way from the modern Mafia sense. (As in books – I have no knowledge of actual Mafia life.)

In the previous entry I mentioned AS Byatt’s introduction to the Trilogy. She says:
‘The Fifth Queen is concerned with sex, love, marriage, fear, lying, death and confusion – it is also concerned with the idea of the balance of power as a real force in men’s lives.’
She also warns against seeing Howard as the doomed virtuous heroine, brought down by the wicked world, and quotes a nice piece from another work by Ford in her favour. Her argument reminded me of the wonderful description in Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That – in the English Civil war, the Cavaliers were Wrong but Wromantic, the Roundheads were Right but Repulsive. She thinks Ford is lamenting the lost world, where Howard (Wrong but Wromantic) belongs, while seeing that it was a world that had to go. That is not, of course, to imply that anything, ever, could justify the beheading of this young girl.

More on Tudor books here, and on wolf references in this book here.

The picture shows the Canadian actor Torrance Coombs, who plays Thomas Culpepper in the British TV drama The Tudors - known for its historical inaccuracy and good-looking actors. But it seems pretty clear that the original Culpepper was a very handsome man: people commented on it in contemporary documents.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Theatrical Dressers in Literature

Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn

published 2015


DD Curtain Call 2The following night before curtain-up she found Dolly smirking at her queerly. She sidled over to Nina’s dressing screen and, with the proud flourish of a mayoress unveiling a plaque, plucked down a shimmering scarlet kimono.
‘Look what I found,’ Dolly crowed. It was a favourite item Nina believed had been lost, or stolen, weeks ago.

‘Where on earth - ?’

‘Only down the back of that bleedin’ sofa! If you weren’t such a slattern I wouldn’t have lost an eye lookin’ for it.’

Nina, cooing her delight, had taken the garment in her hands and pressed it to her nose. ‘Behind the sofa?’

Curtain Call DD

And saying the words she now recalled when she had last taken it off. She had been late finishing up one night – Dolly had gone home – when Stephen dropped by unexpectedly. ‘I’ve only got an hour,’ he’d said, and in the frantic tumble of clothes being shed she had tossed the kimono across the shoulder of a sofa already doing duty as a chaotic open wardrobe….
‘You’re so clever to have found it,’ she cried, quickly stripping down to her underwear and wrapping the kimono about her neat figure. ‘Ohh, this silk is like, it’s like… cool water rippling over your skin!’

observations: Second entry on this book – see first one here.

Dolly is a stock character: the classic theatre dresser, a cheerful cockney giving sharp advice, a nosey but loving gossip. No stereotypes being challenged here. In one of my favourite book/films Theatre/Being Julia, by Somerset Maugham, frequently on the blog and made into an Annette Bening vehicle, there is practically the same character, called Evie, played by Juliet Stevenson in the film (quite wasted, it’s an embarrassing performance and she should never have done it.) One turns up in Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant books too – his lovely cockney housekeeper Mrs Tinker (‘Tink’, of course, nickname essential) was a dresser in a former life, and thus has no exaggerated respect for Grant’s good friend Marta Hallard, the wonderful actress -  treats her as an equal.

You quite long for a book where the dresser is not this lovely old loyal retainer, but some vicious undermining shop steward for the dressers’ union.

There was some of that in the quite excellent 1983 film ‘The Dresser’ – Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay did a fantastic job of playing actor and minion. I just looked it up, and found that it is being remade with Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellan – there’s a film I’ll pay good money to see. I think it’s obvious who will play which… The Lear storm scene in the first film is one of the finest backstage scenes in all cinema.

Meanwhile - the backstage scenes of this book are very well done. Some of the rest of it had its problems, particularly when seen as a murder mystery. There is a lot of fuss over a sketch portrait of the man who attacked Madeleine, and all the characters behave in a manner which is exceptionally dim: could Nina not have predicted how she would get caught out, would she not have had some story to hand? Would the police treat their star witness like that? Did it really take all of them that long to come up with the screamingly obvious explanation for the differing perceptions of the two women (it was literally my first thought)? There is a long conversation about the implications of it being ‘a different man’ which makes no sense at all, there is no logic to it.

But then, the whole business of the sketch really has no effect or implications for the investigation, it’s completely irrelevant, I cannot think of any way in which the story would be different if it didn’t exist….

But this is me being crime-story fussy and picky. As a novel I very much enjoyed it, and would read more by him. I would say, more jokes and less murder.

The Red Kimono pictures are by George Heidrik Breitner from Wikimedia Commons. He did at least three pictures of a woman in this particular garment, and we used a different kimono picture by him for Evelyn Waugh’s Helena.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

published 1992

Blanche on the Lam

[Blanche has come to work as live-in maid for Grace]

Grace took Blanche up the back stairs to a small room… “It’s a pleasant enough little room, don’t you think?”

“Well, it ain’t going to spoil me, that’s for sure,” Blanche told her. She might have to sleep in this mousehole, but she’d be damned if she’d act grateful.

Grace chose not to address the issue. “I’ll be waiting in the kitchen when you’ve changed.” She closed the door firmly behind her.

In the shallow clothes closet there were two washed and starched gray uniforms with white collars and cuffs and small white aprons to match….

[Later] Blanche had hoped to slip up the back stairs to put away some of the laundry she’d done after breakfast…

“We like our bed linen changed every three days at this time of year… and please remember, just a a hint of starch in Mr Everett’s shirts.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

observations: The Blanche books are being republished as ebooks. This was the first of this 1990s series, and I read it when it came out, so can attest to the fact that it was ground-breaking. The mysteries and the settings and the characters in the books are very well-done, but not earth-shaking. But Blanche is an African-American woman who earns her living by cleaning, and that made her pretty much a unique protagonist at that time. I, like many people, relished this, and relished the simple trick of seeing the villainous goings-on through the eyes of a servant. It suits the genre: Blanche is smart, and observant, and has seen life: her employers of course under-estimate her.

As the book says ‘Usually it took three to five cleaning sessions for a new employer of the racist jackass variety to stop talking to her in loud simple sentences. It took an additional 15 to 50 before she was acknowledged as a bona fide member of the human race.’

Neely convincingly shows a world of racism, snobbery, exploitation and just plain unpleasantness – but Blanche is more than equal to everything thrown at her.

In this story Blanche takes a job to get herself out of trouble – she goes off with a white family to their country home, and can immediately tell there is something funny going on.

The rhythms of Blanche’s day form a nice counterpart to her enquiries into the crime, and sometimes they go together:
She put just a touch too much salt in the omelette and made the salad dressing a bit too tart. She knew a poorly seasoned meal could be just the irritant to snap a person’s nerves and make them say or do something rash.
One of the great things about this book is that author Barbara Neely is African-American, she isn’t just visiting Blanche, and that therefore: this book is not The Help (which was vastly over-rated imo), even though it won’t sell anything like as many copies.

Long ago I took a look at the ethics and etiquette of employing household help in the online magazine Slate.

The books are being re-published by Brash Books, who are also responsible for the resurrection of yesterday's Death of a Detective

The picture is from the Library of Congress, and shows a maid in her room in San Diego.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Death of the Detective by Mark Smith

published 1973

Death of the Detective

[The detective Arnold Magnuson is visiting the Lincoln Athletic Club, ‘one of Chicago’s most fashionable clubs’]

On the second floor of the club is the great, high-ceilinged Tudor lounge. Instant old-world age and venerability. A comfortable and respectable distance from peasant immigrations and wild frontiers. A d├ęcor demanded by the founders of the club, wealthy men of English and Scottish ancestry who, like the city they ruled, has strong isolationist and anti-British feelings. At present the few men sitting in the lounge, lost in it like some handful of commuters dispersed about the lobby of Union Station, are reading newspapers in the black leather chairs, writing at the large oak tables, staring out the windows, or, as in the case of the narcoleptic man, trying to write and keep from dozing, or, as in the case of Magnuson, thinking and while thinking brooding. They are all old. Sunshine pours through the high narrow oriel windows and ripples on the panelled walls, sneaks into the hearth of the carved fireplace, sprawls across the royal red carpet and floats up to the ceiling where it glistens on the dark oak ribs and beams. Quiet here, like a library of monks sworn to silence. And motionless, as though motions, which are often the cause of sounds, are banished just in case. Only the sunlight wandering along the walls.

observations: I first came across this book over at Col’s Criminal Library – he was logging one of his tubs of unread books, and casually remarked that this was supposed to be the best detective book ever. That grabbed my attention, given that I’d never heard of author or book, and after some discussion with Col, and some research online, I got hold of a copy – it has just been republished by Brash Books, and is now easily available after years in the shade.

My one-sentence summary when I’d finished would be: It drove me mad, but I couldn’t stop reading it – although over a period of time, it’s a huge commitment at around 700+ closely-packed pages, and I could only read so much in a session. (This blogpost is correspondingly longer than normal.) It is the Great Chicago Novel, that’s for sure – entirely set in and around the city, apparently very recognizably so, and painting a picture of life there in the round. It’s written in the present tense, which sometimes annoys me, but in this case seemed to fit the slice-of-life feel.

Chicago details would, apparently, tell you that it is set sometime before 1967, but that’s not overt. The detective, Magnuson, is a former policeman, now the head of a private security/investigation firm. He is successful, wealthy and influential. A former client, a very rich man called Farquarson, gets in touch about a long-ago problem with his wife. The POV changes with each chapter – sometimes we are with Magnuson, sometimes with Farquarson, sometimes with others of the cast of characters. It is clear that a man is prowling around the city wanting to take his revenge on Farquarson. There isn’t much mystery or crime-solving involved in this book – the characters don’t know what’s going on, but the reader does, there aren’t many surprises. Some of the chapters are straightforward and very readable, and push the plot onwards; others consist of long elaborate impressionistic descriptions of lives, of people, of places. It’s like moving from Dante to Dickens to Dostoyevsky and back again.

There is a lot of blood, violence, dead bodies and inhuman attitudes. A lakeside resort is described as ‘resembling some Bosch vision of humanity’ and that could apply to the whole book: it’s rather gloomy and has little humour or hope for the world. At one point an anthropologist tells Magnuson ‘I’m south of the Sahara’, referring to his field of study:
At first Magnuson took this remark as some slang expression he was unfamiliar with, that meant something like ‘I’m on cloud nine.’
I was so grateful for any kind of joke that that made me laugh a lot.

But despite all these criticisms and complaints, I am helpless before this book – it is long, boring at times, and lacks surprises. Nothing much will happen, and then a sudden lump of plot turns up, like an undigested short story. But it was an extraordinary feat of the imagination, it did keep me reading, and it made me think I was understanding another world.

There are flashes of character – beautiful sketches of people who only appear on one page: ‘an air about her of night courses … taken and abandoned before the final grade’. About another woman ‘in the dark from a distance she looked like a Hungarian baroness, up close in the light like a lady wrestler.’

There are memorable turns of phrase: ‘I used to shine shoes when I was a little gentleman…’ I loved the thrown-in fact that the madman (driving force of the book) has been locked up for years, but had regularly ‘demanded to be released on national holidays, and on the Fourth of July and Columbus Day most of all, and also whenever there were Polish-American picnics in the Forest Preserves.’ Smith then goes on to give us a lengthy and nightmarish description of black deeds at the Polish-American picnic.

The book reminded me somewhat of John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy in its length and thoroughness, but I enjoyed Detective a lot more.

The picture is the actual waiting room of Union Station, Chicago, in the 1940s, and comes from the Library of Congress: the photographer was called Jack Delano and this is his most famous shot. Although the reference above is, plainly, a simile, once I saw this photo it matched the description, and seemed ideal for the book – in which traditional Chicago policemen feature a lot -  and is just an outright beautiful image. So I could not resist using it.