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The Kentish Manor Murders – Julian Symons

Here’s a great example of not judging a book by its title. Turns out The Kentish Manor Murders (1988) is not at all a country house detective novel. It’s the title of a manuscript that is supposedly the work of Arthur Conan Doyle -- his last Sherlock Holmes novel, in fact, and written in the author's own hand. The manuscript has turned up in the hands of a private collector who is looking for authentication before offering the manuscript up for sale. Sheridan Haynes (who previously appeared in Symons’ novel A Three-Pipe Problem), renowned for his TV portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, is approached about helping to authenticate the manuscript. But complications ensue as Haynes makes his way to Copenhagen where he will be performing one of his famous readings from the Canon to The Silver Blazes, a Danish group of Holmes enthusiasts.

This has all the makings for an intriguing bibliomystery. But Symons adds a series of subplots early on in the book that unnecessarily complicate the story. We start in Castle Baskerville, the heavily secured isolated estate of millionaire eccentric, hypochrondiac, and celebrated Sherlockian Warren Waymark. He wants Haynes to perform one of his Conan Doyle reader's theater performance pieces for a private audience of one. Haynes is not up to the task as he is getting ready for his Copenhagen visit for a much larger audience in a real theater. Haynes is also immediately suspicious that Waymark might be an impostor. The millionaire is kept in a dimly lit room, he wears sunglasses indoors claiming to be sensitive to all light, and he speaks in a gravelly indistinct voice. His meeting with Waymark seems to be carefully orchestrated and Waymark does seem to know his Canon very well, but the interview feels completely wrong to Haynes.

We think Haynes is going to start checking into the possibility that Waymark was done away with and his invitation to the Castle is linked to the discovery of the manuscript. But no sooner are we invested in this plot hook thinking we are in the hands of a master concocting a devious Sherlockian pastiche, Symons pulls the rug out from under us and sends us in another direction -- literally and figuratively. Suddenly we are off to Denmark and then the Netherlands for a series of random incidents. Bombarded with plot twists and new characters that seem unrelated to the introductory story of Haynes and Waymark the reader is frustrated and confused and eager to return to the more interesting puzzles first presented at Castle Baskerville.

Like all thrillers of this era with an international flavor we also get subplots galore. And they of course deal with drug dealing, black market activities, and a variety of shifty underworld characters in a variety of seedy bars and nightclubs. There will be a signifying event (already hinted at in the very Edgar Wallace like “Prologue”) that ties the subplots to the main plot but these complications seemed burdensome and padded. Several extraneous incidents could have been dispensed with as they had nothing to do with the real story.

A superior distasteful tone pervades the book, too. Homophobic remarks, xenophobic comments bordering on bigotry, whiny intolerance for the “march of time” expressed in Haynes’ disdain for the proliferation of fast food restaurants and tourist traps that have ruined Amsterdam. I guess this passes for humor with some people. I found it snobbish and patronizing and not a little prejudicial. The book is set in 1988 and yet there is not one mention of the brown cafes where marijuana is legally sold but there is ample talk of sinister, underhanded drug dealing. For someone who is trying to paint a "seedy" portrait of Amsterdam I wonder why Symons skips over the Zeedijk and Warmoesstraat and all the sex trade those areas are known for. It didn’t ring true at all as 1980s Amsterdam.

Overall, this book has a schizoid identity: one third bibliomystery, one third international thriller, one third detective novel with a murder mystery crammed into the last 40 pages. It's not a bad book by any means, but for my tastes it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. The story becomes overcrowded with plot complexities that seemed arbitrary. I preferred the first book with Sheridan Haynes -- A Three-Pipe Problem (1975), more focused, livelier and wittier -- than this second jumbled affair.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space R2 - "Book with a place in the title"

IN BRIEF: An Easter Egg Hunt – Gillian Freeman

US 1st ed., (Congdon & Lattes, 1981)
Easter Sunday, 1915. The students at Madame Pennington's private school for girls have decided to have a charitable fundraiser for the Red Cross. The students have invited the locals to an Easter egg hunt and for the price of one penny are invited onto the school grounds to find as many eggs as they can within an allotted time. Prizes are offered. During the hunt it is discovered that Madeleine Marshal, the 17 year-old ward of Mme. Pennington has disappeared. A thorough search of the school and its grounds, including the lake, turns up no sign of the missing girl. Madeleine has vanished. Decades pass and she never returns, nor has her body ever been found. What happened to her?

An Easter Egg Hunt (1981) is a pastiche of Edwardian sensation novel told in a unique fashion. The book is presented as a three part manuscript sent to a fictional magazine called An Argosy of Mystery Stories over a period of 25 years. It's presented as a literary detective story on the part of the author who reveals herself to be one of the students at the girls' school. Part one describes in a vignette the day of the egg hunt and Madeleine’s disappearance.

Part two then tells the story of Madeleine -- her arrival at the school and how her gregarious personality and striking beauty affect everyone in the school. Too old to be a student, but too young to be a staff member, Madeleine is caught between adolescence and adulthood. She is allowed to teach French to the students but spends most of her time as a professional chaperon for the younger girls and also assists with housekeeping duties. Her very presence brings about a huge change in the way the girls behave and how the school is run.

Nearby the girl's school is a military training camp, a flight school for young cadets learning to be fighter pilots. Several of the young men are keen on some of the girls. When Madeleine arrives Will Kent falls madly in love with her. The two of them start a secret friendship meeting in a nearby cave for trysts that eventually lead to a sexual relationship. But when a horrible airplane accident ends that relationship Madeleine becomes an emotional wreck. Her changed state then affects the students and staff at the school.

UK 1st ed., (Hamish Hamilton, 1981)
The third part of the story, entitled "The Answer", reveals the true reason for Madeleine's disappearance, why she left the school and what ultimately happened to her. Encapsulated like this the brief novel seems too familiar, like an old-fashioned soap opera. Yet Freeman manages to defy all expectations of the familiar and routine. She tells her story in a compelling manner with an economy of deft prose and artful character portraits. She has an unexpected way of conveying raw emotion and turns up surprisingly poignant moments in this ultimately tragic tale of love, illusion and self-deception in wartime.

Gillian Freeman is best known perhaps for her work as a screenwriter, but has also written a handful of novels touching on often taboo topics (for the time) like gay relationships and pornography. Her first book The Leather Boys, a seminal work in gay fiction, tells the story of two young men both members of a motorcycle gang and their tenuous sexual relationship. Her screenplays include an adaptation of her first novel; I Want What I Want, one of the earliest films to deal with transgenderism; and the psycho-sexual thriller That Cold Day in the Park -- a dual review of movie and novel which is coming soon.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Bingo Card, space E2 - "Book w/ Time, Day, Month, etc. in Title" I figure Easter in the title can be applied to the "etc".

More Thoughts on The Body

Here are my notes taken while reading the beguiling novel The Body (reviewed yesterday) transcribed in digest format. This book more than any other I've read in a long time elicited some penetrating and meditative thoughts on my part.
Favorite quotes:

p. 59 "A person had to be quiet to hear what [the past] said, because the past talked in whispers of truth so random and fragile any preconceived opinion could blow it away before the opinion's organized and determined noise." (Sharon considers talking to her niece about her findings in the tomb, but holds back)

p. 73 after hearing Cardinal Pesci claim that nothing that happens in Israel is not political Folan thinks to himself: "[He] could have disputed that point for an hour and not begun to fully bury (sic) a statement so broad as to be untenable past junior high school. It was just the lazy man's way to explain away the cast and incomprehensible multitude of what went on."

p. 138 Flan to Sharon "Where do you get evidence that scientists are somehow more trustworthy than holy men?" She replies: "When you people give as much knowledge, as much light, instead of flames to the world, as archaeologists, I will give you that respect."

p. 208 Discussion between Sharon and Folan. She offers up "many possible scenarios" for why Mary Magdalene and the apostles would think they saw something that they didn't. "They were totally invested in Him. They must've been distraught." Mary could have entered the tomb and thought it was empty. Peter had given up his life as a fisherman to follow Jesus. Matthew stopped being a tax collector. They made sacrifices to be with Him for life. Folan calls them "scenarios" and Sharon calls them possibilities. Fiction vs. reality


The Dead Christ Mourned by Annibale Carracci (ca. 1604)
(sometimes called The Three Maries)
FAITH -- the ultimate mystery. The book blends politics and religion, culture and all sorts of ideology but is ultimately about Faith. Everyone's faith. What a person believes in, what makes them LIVE and go on living. Not just a faith in God or Jesus. To me having any kind of Faith is truly the ultimate mystery. Where does it come form? How do we hold on to it? What happens when you lose it? Can faith be restored? Once lost can it ever be regained and held fast? What might happen to someone when they lose Faith forever? It's such a fragile gift that needs to be cared for and nurtured.

Folan's scene w/ the true believer Mark, volunteer at the dig. "Why do you believe God's word?" This is recurring throughout the book. Folan questions everyone's beliefs, getting them to question themselves. Mark, after some obvious and naive attempts to convince Folan, finally replies: "I know my heart. If you need more, then I feel sorry for you."

1st instance of a fragile faith. Father Pierre Lavelle. Heart wrenching character. Was once a Communist but stopped e believing when the Communists became allied with Nazis (he says this based on his personal experience). Folan questions him on this ease of turning on/off a belief. Was it ever valid if it could be so easily given up? Is this why he so easily accepts that the skeleton is that of Jesus without any skepticism with out any proof to the contrary?

Lavelle kills himself! Is this going to get really ugly now?

Richard Ben Sapir
(Photo credit: Patricia Chute Sapir)
This is great! Folan is like an eccentric amateur detective: "What did you eat that day?" "What were the people at the dig wearing?" "What sort of mood were you in that day?" All sorts of idiosyncratic questions of the witnesses and the volunteers at the dig and all those involved in the discovery. Odd Qs about the mundane in order to understand the event as a whole. Also tests the veracity and the memory ks skills of those involved. Brilliant tactic

Detective work examples -- Folan learns of the odd biological phenomenon of skeletal little toes and pinkies crumbling to nothing over time.

Folan impressing Reb Nechtal with his knowledge of the Talmud. Loved this. Points out the Talmud law about proper burial, manipulates this law to his own advantage. Does not tell rabbi why the body needs to be studied but argues why it can be removed according to Talmud. Almost wins over the rabbi, but scores major points all the same, esp w/ the followers. They reach a compromise. p. 223 "The righteous Gentile is as blessed as the high priest himself." Wow!

Folan and Sharon have sex. Repeatedly. Somehow I knew this would happen. Pisses me off.

Folan "lies to himself" repeatedly afterwards. He rationalizes his life as a celibate Jesuit. Sex seems to change him radically. This is going overboard. The "Sexual epiphany" is a literary device that belongs to a much older time period and to a much younger character, I think. I can't accept this in a book publ in 1983. Even from a priest -- who was not a virgin. He had sex prior to becoming a priest. That hang up about pre-ejaculation... Is this Folan's version of what happened to Lavelle when he left the tomb? Is that Sapir's point? Sex is belonging to another? Jesus is no longer Folan's best friend (he said that several times earlier in the book). Sharon is taking that place now. Hmm... Trying to justify this choice of Sapir's, but it's really bothering me.

Folan and Sharon are acting like crooked cops now! Co- conspirators trying to find evidence that will support their theories rather than looking at what they found at the dig, the evidence of the tomb.

The "specialists" are onto them. Pointed questions, F & S resort to deceit and become evasive. Sometimes outright lying. (Has sex turned Folan into a liar too?) Dr. Sproul, the bone expert, is giving them what they don't want. Calls the skeleton a laborer, possibly a carpenter. HA!

FFB: The Body – Richard Ben Sapir

Good Friday. Today Catholics all over the world will attend special masses on this holiest of Holy Days of Obligation and remember the passion of Jesus Christ, the suffering and humiliation he endured on the day he was crucified.

In The Body (1983) Dr. Sharon Golban and her team of volunteer student archaeologists uncover a tomb in Jerusalem.  At first it appears empty, but then Sharon finds a wall of bricks unlike the stone walls of the rest of the tomb and when she removes some of those bricks finds a secret room. In that room there is a skeleton with orangish marks on the leg bones that are almost certainly an indication of oxidation from iron spikes, proof that the body was crucified. She also finds a kiln-fired piece of pottery inscribed with the Aramaic words Melek Yehudayai. Jewish King. Like the scientist she is Sharon considers these facts. Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution reserved for criminals. A king would never be crucified. This must be an sign of a game of mockery that Roman soldiers engaged in. But wouldn't the disc say something more like King of the Thieves? The only person she can think of crucified and called a Jewish King was... But, no, that can't be. Jesus Christ rose from the dead. His body shouldn't have remained on Earth in a secret room bricked up in the tomb where he was laid to rest. Sharon knows this could be a devastating discovery. She has to report it to her superiors.

Word spreads to the Vatican and they set up an international search to find a special man to head an investigation to prove or -- hopefully -- disprove that the body is that of Jesus. They select a very unusual Jesuit priest from Boston College named James Folan. Though many of the candidates for the job have backgrounds in science and archeology Father Folan does not. He is a college administrator who occasionally teaches a class in history. But he is also a former Marine who later worked in Laos for one year as part of an information gathering network for the CIA.  Because of some of his unique answers to the candidate interview process he is chosen as the man to lead the investigation in Israel. It will be a test of all he believes in leading to some drastic changes in his worldview.

Sapir is best known as one half of the writing team who created Remo Williams, aka "The Destroyer", one of the most popular and successful action heroes in the world of men's paperbacks. He also wrote a science fiction adventure novel called The Far Arena (1979) about the discovery of a Roman gladiator encased in ice who is brought back to life through some fanciful mad scientist experiments. Though much of The Body examines the political and religious implications of the possibility that all of Catholicism is based on a lie Sapir's background in pop fiction adventures unfortunately bleeds into the story. Sharon Golban is smart, feisty, and -- of course -- incredibly beautiful and highly sexualized. Father Folan does his best to fight his attraction to her, but succumbs to temptation. This is the only part of the book I found troublesome. Once Folan starts having sex with Sharon the whole books pretty much falls to pieces. His character and way of thinking drastically change. He nearly forgets the reason he is in Israel is as an emissary of the Pope for a very important task that could have earth shattering results for those who believe Jesus is God. Having Folan and Sharon become lovers cheapens a book that prior to these scenes was a thoughtful meditation on the mystery of faith and the importance of faith in the lives of devout Catholics.

I took an incredible amount of notes on this book and will try to put them into a digest form in a second post tomorrow. The Body has a lot to recommend it and provides a lot of food for thought. It would make a fantastic book club selection at any time of year not just this Easter/Passover season. Sapir includes all types of religion in the story with some provocative scenes that include radical orthodox Jews and a Palestinian living in Russia. Golban herself is half Iranian and her father an immigrant from Iran (though for some reason Sapir insists on calling it Persia). That's just scratching the surface.

The Body was also made into a movie in 2001 starring Antonio Banderas as Father Matt Gutierrez (Folan) and Olivia Williams as Sharon Golban. From one review I read online it seems to be very much updated to include all sorts of computer technology not present in the book and rewritten as one can guess by having a Latino priest in the lead rather than an Irish Catholic from Boston. It also apparently is pretty awful. Nevertheless, I've added it to my Netflix queue and plan on watching it soon. It'll be interesting to see just how different the movie is from Sapir's dense and thought provoking novel.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age Bingo Card, space I4 - "Author You've Never Read Before"

Family Matters – Anthony Rolls

“Everything was foreseen – everything except what actually happened…”

Robert Arthur Kewdingham, recently out of a job as an engineer for a manufacturing company, retreats into a private world occupying his time with his bizarre collections of insect specimens and ancient Roman artifacts and his crackpot occult beliefs. Kewdingham believes himself to be the reincarnation of Athu-na-Shulah, an Atlantean high priest and loves to talk about the wisdom of the ancients who built that lost city lecturing rapturously about their marvelous engineering skills that led to building pyramids and other wondrous feats. He dismisses Einstein's popular theories of physics admiring instead these ancient people “who truly knew the secrets of the stars.” His wife Bertha suffers in silence and maintains an outwardly polite demeanor but longs for the company of a real man. She turns her eyes to a frequent visitor and her husband’s cousin, John Harrigall. The gossipy judgmental housekeeper is eyeing these two and does not like at all what she sees. Neither does Robert Arthur’s father, Old Robert, who openly displays his antipathy for Bertha and her not so subtle way of flirting with Harrigall.

This is the Kewdingham household as we first encounter it in the first few chapters of Family Matters (1933). It is a home of jealousy, hatred, suspicion and spitefulness. We know from the outset that Robert Arthur is targeted for death and we know who is plotting his murder. The surprise comes in how the murder plans backfire spectacularly.

This is not a typical inverted crime novel by any means. We watch the two would-be murderers carry out their nefarious plans never suspecting the inevitable, but unprepared for the genuine outcome. First, there is a particularly evil plot in which Robert Arthur’s own physician Dr. Wilson Bagge uses him as a guinea pig for the development of a lethal poison. Since Kewdingham is a hypochondriac, constantly suffering from one ailment or another and taking a variety of medications both by prescription and of his own invention, Dr. Bagge sees in him the perfect victim. Bertha is the other poisoner and her method is just as insidious, perhaps moreso as she adds her poison of choice – a lead compound that looks like sugar and conveniently has a slightly sweet taste – to her husband’s meals every day over a period of weeks. The two murderers oblivious to each other’s plotting are dumbfounded when their intended victim not only refuses to succumb to each poison he seems to be healthier than ever.

Family Matters begins as an intensely detailed, ironically intimate and – dare I say it – cozy study of a bitter household at war with one another. Beneath the feigned politeness and the veiled insults are deeply felt passions that are held in check. Bertha restrains her burgeoning sexual attraction to John and all but explodes when she is alone with him. Dr. Bagge slowly reveals himself to be not the kindly village physician but a megalomaniacal mad scientist more often found in American shudder pulps. You keep thinking he is going to burst out in a insane laugh and rub his hands together. But he too reins in his passions, holding back his glee and frustrations while conducting the most unethical and deadly of his experiments.

Rolls has a cheeky omniscient narrator who practically spoofs the “Gentle Reader” tone one finds in early 19th century novels of manners by writers like Austen and Eliot. His tone, however, is subtly satiric amid the ease and comfort he initially builds upon.

"A woman’s words, [John] said to himself, have to be translated, not from one language to another, but from one sense to another. You must form your opinion of a woman (if you think an opinion is necessary) by observing what she does, not by listening to what she says."

"If it had not been for this new fear of [her husband], she might have gone on, even without hope; she might have repressed the lurking impulse. Fear, as it so often does, drove a desperate mind to a fatal decision."

"What is peculiar in this case of Robert Kewdingham is not the mere fact of murder, but the extraordinary conflict of design which is presently to be revealed."
Periodically this quaint satiric tone is dropped in favor of outright comedy as in the wonderful scene in which the prattling, piccolo-voiced Pamela Chaddlewick (so perfectly named) stuns Bertha and Robert with her tea leaf reading skills. She takes Robert’s cup and after a few expert swirls foretells a dire warning of a man and woman who will bring danger to his home. She both impresses herself and frightens the others present, especially Bertha who tries to clear the tea things as quickly as possible before Pamela decides to do a few more swirls and sees something all too clearly.

The genius of the book is how it keeps defying categorization. You think you know what Rolls is up to yet he keeps changing the rules almost at each chapter ending. What begins as an ironic novel of manners soon gives way to an inverted crime novel with detailed psychological probing yet once again sheds that label in the closing chapters and turns into a whodunit. When Kewdingham finally does die everyone is stunned to learn the cause of his death. The autopsy turns up not lead poison, not aluminum poison, but that good old detective novel stand-by – arsenic. So where did the arsenic come from and who killed him? A shocking inquest, rivalling any courtroom murder trial, bombards the reader with multiple surprises revealed one after the other until we are led to the inquest jury’s verdict and an arrest. But there are still more surprises in store in the final paragraphs.

Family Matters has been out of print for decades and is one of the few crime novels that justly deserves being reprinted. It’s not just a superior example of a crime novel. I would dare to call it a minor masterpiece. Here is an engrossing and penetrating novel that expertly combines elements of the inverted crime novel, the detective novel and the novel of psychological suspense into one rewarding package. While you may be hard pressed locating an affordable copy in the used book market you may have luck trying to find the book through interlibrary lending services. Your efforts will not be in vain; I guarantee this book will not disappoint.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space N5 - "Book by author using a pseudonym"