I'm still hitting a lot of repeat letters, but I managed to get a few new ones this past month.
I'm still hitting a lot of repeat letters, but I managed to get a few new ones this past month.
A - Margery Allingham: The Crime at Black Dudley, Mystery Mile, Look to the Lady, Police at the Funeral, Sweet Danger, Death of a Ghost, Flowers for the Judge, The Case of the Late Pig, Dancers in Mourning, The Fashion in Shrouds, Traitor's Purse, and The Tiger in the Smoke (all new); The Man With the Sack (revisited on audio)
B - Anne Brontë: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (revisited on audio)
C - Helen Czerski: Storm in a Teacup (new);
Agatha Christie: The Moving Finger (revisited on audio), Crooked House (revisited on audio and DVD) and Destination Unknown (new)
G - Elizabeth George: For the Sake of Elena and Playing for the Ashes (both revisited on audio)
H - Radclyffe Hall: The Well of Loneliness (new);
J - P.D. James: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (new), Original Sin and Death of an Expert Witness (both revisited on audio)
M - Ngaio Marsh: Death in a White Tie, Off With His Head (aka Death of a Fool) and Clutch of Constables (all revisited on audio)
O - Emmuska Orczy: The Old Man in the Corner (new)
T - Josephine Tey: Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair (both new)
Free / center square:
On the card, I am only tracking new reads, not rereads.
Read, to date in 2018:
Books by female authors: 29
- new: 18
- rereads: 11
Books by male authors: 10
- new: 9
- rereads: 1
Books by F & M mixed teams / anthologies:
... and really, is there anything she can't write?
This may not be the most ingenious of plots (supermodel with "issues" falls to her death from the balcony of her high rise apartment; after the police have declared her death a probable suicide and closed the case, her brother shows up at the office of a down-and-out P.I. with a somewhat checkered past and pleads with him to reinvestigate; P.I. has a new temp secretary who gradually and reluctantly becomes his sidekick), but as always, it's all in the execution, and here, Rowling delivers on all fronts; from tone of voice to attitudes to every other aspect that's indispensable to creating well-rounded characters ... and what a cast of characters she's come up with, too. She has an impeccable ear for dialogue, for the snazzy, street-wise language that few mysteries can do without, especially those published today -- all the more those set, like this one, in the demi-monde of fashion, film, rock (music, meth / cocaine, and whisky-on-the), modeling, moguls, and money both old and new -- and for endowing her characters with entirely credible human emotions. All of her characters, that is, regardless how important they are to the story. Even today, there are few mystery writers who manage that sort of feat.
And honestly, can you possibly think of a greater name for a protagonist, a run-down P.I. at that, than Cormoran Strike?
Count me in for book 2 of the series soon -- I wonder what took me so long to get to it in the first place.
Oh, and never mind that she published this under a male pen name (nice try, Joanne) ... the cat was out of the bag within weeks, if not days IIRC, and I am SO counting this book towards the "R" square of the Women Writers Bingo / Challenge.
Meh. I think if the protagonists of this mystery had been some 3 or 5 years younger, and if I'd read this in my teens or preteens, I'd have loved it -- this is exactly the sort of book I used to swallow way back when (Enid Blyton's O'Sullivan Twins / St. Clare's and Famous Five series, The Three Investigators, the odd Nancy Drew); except that this book is set among Oxford college undergraduates. And therein, to a large extent, lies the problem: What would have been precocious in a high school student and a teenager comes across as simply silly and unreasonable in a college student, however much the author may preface her book with the warning that "[u]ndergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult". And I, in turn, am no longer the heroines' own age (and aspiring to their daring and their spirit of adventure), but several decades older, and able to look back on my own university years secure and jaded in the knowledge that even as a first year I'd likely have scorned the behavior of these girls -- and the mere attempt to solve a crime that is quite obviously in a very capable police inspector's hands anyway -- as supremely unreasonable; indeed, as risible.
It certainly also doesn't help that Dorothy L. Sayers, in my absolute favorite among her Lord Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane mysteries -- Gaudy Night, which coincidentally was published the same year as this book -- set the standard, once and for all, for how you "do" a mystery in a university setting; moreover, a mystery set, like this book, in an all-female college. And yes, Sayers's book does include undergraduates, both male (from other Oxford colleges) and female. And male and female alike, they do exhibit their share of silly behavior. But they're nevertheless decidedly more rounded, multi-dimensional and capable of rational behavior and foresight than Hay's undergraduates are here.
So, I am definitely not the right audience for this book. More than that, though, unlike Hay's Santa Klaus Murder, which I rather liked, this novel simply lacks depth; its plot is as shallow as its characters, half the clues don't seem to go anywhere in particular (even in the final reveal), and clichés abound -- including a number of jarringly racist clichés. This is a pity particularly in light of the fact that Hay does tackle a serious issue which was of tremendous relevance to women in her day, and would remain to be so for decades to come -- not only, but even more so, in a professional environment,
namely, single / illegitimate motherhood,
and which would have deserved to be put front and center and explored in depth. Still, I'm giving a fair amount of kudos to her for the fact that she is addressing this topic at all, which, together with the odd moment of more competent writing or (dar I say it?) even amusement, accounts for the fact that I'm rating this book, overall, as average instead of sub-par.
Stephen Booth, in his introduction to the British Library Crime Classics edition of this novel (yes -- for once it's not introduced by series consultant Martin Edwards) deplores that Hay only published three mysteries before turning to other things, of which this and The Santa Klaus Murder are two and Murder on the Underground is the third. Judging by The Santa Klaus Murder and by some bits and pieces of talent shining through here, that may well be true. I am glad, however, that she didn't try to make a career out of treading the same paths so successfully trodden by Enid Blyton, Robert Arthur and their ilk. Or at least, I am glad that she didn't try to make a career writing mysteries that have undergraduate college students for protagonists ...
I read this for the "Education, Education, Education" square / chapter of the Detection Club bingo (it's not one of the mysteries accorded a special essay-length portrayal in Martin Edwards's Story of Classic Crime in 100 books, but it is definitely more than merely name-checked in the corresponding chapter; and indeed, the image for the relevant square of the Detection Club bingo card is taken from this book's cover), as well as -- as an additional book -- for the "H" square of the Women Writers Bingo / Challenge.
Stephen Gordon grows up in the Malvern Hills of rural Worcestershire, the child of a rich local landowner and an Irish mother, from early on learns to hunt, fence, and engage in a plethora of other outdoor occupations, experiences first amorous stirrings for a plump and pretty housemaid, upon reaching (young) adulthood and after an ill-advised, socially disastrous calf love affair with a married woman leaves home and moves first to London and then to Paris, serves as an ambulance driver on the French front in WWI and becomes a celebrated novelist, but plunges into despair (not for the first time) upon losing out to an erstwhile friend -- a Canadian -- in affairs of the heart.
What's so special about this tale, you're wondering? Well, for one thing, Stephen is not a man but a woman, having been given a male first name by a father who had decided upon his heir's name long before the long-awaited child's eventual birth and not deterred by puny details such as that child's actual sex. More importantly, however, Stephen is a lesbian; or, as she herself calls it (taking a term from early 20th century sexologist Havelock Ellis), an "invert".
It's never entirely clear whether and to what extent the author, a lesbian herself, actually sought to portray her heroine's first name and upbringing, with its emphasis on (or at the very least, permissive attitude towards) Stephen's pronounced preference for masculine occupations and attitudes -- one prominently explored example being the fact that of course she does not ride side saddle but astride, which is what allows her to become such a superb hunter even before she has reached her teens to begin with; another equally prominent example being Stephen's insistence on wearing male clothes -- as a direct or indirect cause of her sexual leanings, or merely as a collateral effect: Hall does express unambiguously that Stephen is the way she is because God made her thus (i.e., a person's sexuality is a matter of nature, not nurture), which, though now the widely-accepted view, decidedly put her at odds with the beliefs and attitudes of her own time (of which more anon). Yet, the suggestion remains.
However, perhaps Hall was merely reflecting her own experience in that regard (or expressing a wish for the sort of tolerant and empowering childhood she would have wanted to have, but didn't actually enjoy herself) -- for unquestionably, she was speaking from her own experience: She, too, preferred male over female dress, dropped her female first name (Margaret) and adopted instead the male nickname (John) that one of her lovers had given to her, and like her heroine, she came to move in the Paris expat scene, including the salon of Natalie Barney (who inspired this novel's character of Valérie Seymour), and she, too, had visited the Canary Islands with her first llover, as does the novel's Stephen with her great love Mary. (Noël Coward, incidentally, is given quite an extensive cameo in the novel as well.)
Radclyffe Hall stated that her intentions in writing this novel were:
* "To encourage inverts to face up to a hostile world in their true colours and this with dignity and courage",
* "To spur all classes of inverts to make good through hard work, faithful and loyal attachments and sober and useful living", and
* "To bring normal men and women of good will to a fuller and more tolerant understanding of the inverted."
A staunch Catholic and conservative in her politics, Hall was in no way prepared for her novel's reception in England, even though in hindsight at the very least, it can hardly be called surprising that, only a few decades after Oscar Wilde's infamous obscenity trial, a book explicitly describing its heroine to have "kissed [another woman] on the mouth, like a lover" and (though never sexually explicit) detailing at great length a woman's emotional trials, tribulations, and pinings for the various female objects of her desire, would have swiftly engendered the same response. (In Paris and Brittany, on the other hand, the publisher Jonathan Cape, who had shifted printing to France, and Sylvia Beach -- owner of Shakespeare & Co. -- could hardly keep up with demands for copies of the novel produced on French soil.) While Virginia Woolf's Orlando (published the same year), her own "love letter" to Vita Sackville-West, flitted through centuries and even underwent a mid-novel sex change with nary a critic's batted eyelash, and Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (published a few years later) was saved from censorship by T.S. Eliot's editorial hands, Radclyffe Hall and Stephen Gordon walked straight into early 20th century England's bigoted attitude; obscenity trial, public vilification and virtually every other form of state-sponsored discrimination included. And this, mind you, over a book that is leagues from the brilliant writing of an Oscar Wilde, a Virginia Woolf, or a T.S. Eliot: Diana Souhami, in her introduction of the novel's Virago Press edition, rightly describes it as "unsensational" in both language and content and goes on to state:
"Radclyffe Hall was no stylist. Her prose is lofty and lacking in irony. She distrusted innovation in literature or art, and shunned what she saw as the modern heresies of Edith Sitwell, Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle or Gertrude Stein. In her writing she invokes the Lord with discomfiting frequency and uses words like 'betoken' and 'hath.' [...]
The Well of Loneliness has aspects of a pathological case history, religious parable, propaganda tract and Mills & Boon romance."
Decidedly more blunt, Virginia Woolf even found the novel unreadably dull: "[O]ne simply can't keep one's eye on the page," she wrote to a friend, suggesting that the book's very dullness as such was apt to successfully mask any indecency actually lurking in its pages. And while I wouldn't go quite so far as Woolf, I do agree with both her and Souhami on the nature of the writing -- oscillating between plain vanilla blandness on the one hand and excessively overwrought emotions on the other hand -- and on the elements identified by Souhami (equal parts pathological case history, religious parable, propaganda tract and Mills & Boon romance). If this book hadn't set out to do what, in 1920s and 1930s England was a complete and utter "no-no" -- to not only topicalize homosexuality but to boldly put it forth as equally worthy and deserving of acceptance and respect as heterosexual love --, this book would be long forgotten. As in so many similar cases, it is not this novel's literary merit that has bestowed on it its lasting impact, but its topic and, at least as much (or even more so), society's reaction to that topic. For those reasons alone, it is still a worthwhile read all these centuries later.
I read this for the "H" square of the Women Writers Bingo / Challenge.