Saturday, April 27, 2002

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P. D. James

Continuing my survey of crime fiction, I arrive late at the bookshelf of P. D. James who, now close to eighty years old, has just published her most recent entry into the series involving a police commander cum poet named Adam Dalgliesh. In addition to the series involving Dalgliesh, Ms. James wrote two books with a young female private detective named Cordelia Gray as heroine. In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, the first of the two, Cordelia has just inherited the Pryde Detective Agency from her mentor, a cancer-wracked suicide who once worked for, was sacked by, but who worships his old boss Adam Dalgliesh. Cordelia’s training was peppered with Dalgliesh aphorisms which prove most helpful when she is interrogated by this famous officer at the end of the book. Using her intelligence and cleverness and survivor skills, Cordelia is able to outlast her mentor’s mentor and avoid arrest and prosecution as an accessory to murder.

Is Cordelia guilty? Yes she is. And, her moral ambivalence, her ability to make a quick judgment in favor of a premeditated murderer, is just one of the things that makes her a fascinating heroine. As a sometime writer of fiction it is interesting to try to analyze how a master of the genre builds a character who’s thoughts, observations and activity will keep us turning pages. Cordelia’s second and last adventure, The Skull Beneath the Skin, was publish ten years after An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I haven’t read it though I will because Cordelia is an engaging character.

So, what has P. D. James told us about Cordelia in this first book? Her mother died in the first hour of her birth. She was separated from or abandoned by her father and, as a result, spent her early years in a succession of foster homes where all her foster parents demanded that she be happy. From this unreasonable expect ion the little girl developed a stoical nature and the ability to hide her emotions when necessary. Living a childhood of emotional deprivation, Cordelia devised a mythical mother who in that last hour of life loved her daughter intensely, enough love for a lifetime, and whom Cordelia consults for advice and counsel.

At age ten, through a confusion of identities on an exam, she is entered into a Roman Catholic school, and though an incorrigible Protestant, is well-educated by dedicated nuns at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception. No longer needing to hide her intelligence and cleverness, she flourishes and aspires to a scholarship to Cambridge. But at age sixteen, for reasons not explained, her father, an itinerant Marxist poet and amateur revolutionary, calls on her to join him in Europe and she goes. For five years, they travel about as she acts as cook, nurse, companion and hanger on, spending hours in art galleries which the revolutionaries liked to use as rendezvous points for their nefarious activities.

When she is twenty-one, her father dies in Rome and Cordelia returns to London where she takes a job at a secretarial agency. She is assigned to Pryde’s Detective Agency (“we take pride in our work”) and is soon working cases with the pathetic but lovable Bernie Pryde who teaches her the rudiments of the detective business and loads her up with wisdom from Adam Dalgliesh. He also teachers her how to shoot a pistol (she becomes by her own admission a credible shot) and rents her a bedroom in his rented house. His motives seem pure and fatherly. There is no hint of impropriety, though it is clear that Cordelia is attractive.

We learn that she has had two lovers. One she saw a a mercy case and the other she might have loved but was glad to see leave her life. Cordelia has an independent nature.

Physically, she is small, a “slip of a girl” with a tough body and the face of a cat. She has light brown hair, large hazel eyes, wide cheekbones and a gentle childish mouth. We know that she can sew for she makes a suede drawstring bag for Bernie’s handgun. She is a coffee drinker, enjoys a shandy (a cold pint of lager graced with a lemonade top) and a Scotch egg (a hard-boiled egg stuffed into mashed potato and deep fried) and has a hearty appetite for a small woman.

She is a reader, always carries a paperback in her bag, often her favorite Jane Austin (but during the course of this book—Hardy’s Trumpet Major. Obviously well read, she recognizes a passage from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell an also an obscure Shakespearian allusion. During a short shopping trip in Cambridge, the setting for this novel, she buys a small volume of Keats. Cordelia has strong views on architecture and decorating, and is knowledgeable about art. She can drive a stick shift, loves clothes, especially her favorite Jaeger suit, but is determined to get her entire wardrobe in one suitcase, an fixation no doubt resulting from her life of moving and wandering. Curiously, for someone not grounded with a sense of home or place, she is obsessed with order and punctuality, perhaps as the result of six settled years in the convent school.

Detective work may in fact be an unsuitable job for a woman. But Cordelia Gray proves most adept at the work using her survivor skills, intelligence and tenaciousness to solve the crime. Her decision, then, to aid the murderer of the villain of the book catches the reader by surprise. Putting herself at great personal risk for a person she doesn’t even like, as the result of a snap emotional judgment on the righteousness of the killing, seems somewhat out of character and perhaps is only a device of the author. P. D. James clearly wants to put Cordelia in the hands of Adam Dalgliesh who interrogates her but doesn’t succeed in breaking her. Cordelia and Dalgliesh go head to head. Cordelia wins and earns his grudging respect though he knows, circumstantially, that she is guilty as an accessory to murder. But in the end, he deems her suitable. Bookman (

Monday, April 22, 2002

The Reluctant Surgeon

It’s fair to be suspicious of books with long titles such as The Reluctant Surgeon: A Biography of John Hunter, Medical Genius and Great Inquirer of Johnson’s England. The author, John Kobler, was a magazine editor and this book was published in 1960. A long title leads on to the suspicion that the author, editors and publisher weren’t sure what to call the book. As a result, they called it a whole lot of things. Trouble is the title doesn’t very accurately describe the material. For example, it’s not all about John Hunter. The first half, in fact, is about his brother—William Hunter, another renown London medico. Kobler does end up recounting the strange life of John Hunter but along the way provides much information about 18th Century medical and surgical practice and practitioners.

As a biography The Reluctant Surgeon doesn’t have much of an arc. We start with John Hunter, we leave him, we come back to him, diverting this way and that through a curiosity shop of characters, quacks, charlatans, and geniuses. We keep reading because the content, if not cohesive, is just plain interesting.

Consider the case of Mary Toft who in November of 1726 began to give birth to rabbits. The King’s surgeon himself delivered the sixteenth rabbit and attested to the genuineness of the birth phenomenon. Mary was finally exposed as a hoaxer by a man-midwife named Sir Richard Manningham who thought the placenta resembled a hog’s bladder. When finally confronted by Sir Richard and Dr. Douglas, renowned for the discovery of the Douglas Pouch (a peritoneal fold within the pelvis) Mary confessed that upon having a miscarriage, and on the advice of a woman accomplice who told her she could become famous, she began to stuff rabbits into her uterus until her body rebelled and began to reject them one at a time as if in a birth convulsion.

Dr. Douglas found his famous pouch while dissecting a human body. He, and John and William Hunter were, first and foremost, anatomists. They were students of human anatomy. From their dissections they learned early surgical techniques, though John Hunter preferred to rely on what he described as natural methods of healing and performed surgery only as a last resort. Thus, the author’s choice of the adjective “reluctant” in his title. However, the book could have easily been called John Hunter the Avid Anatomist because he was a fiend for studying the carcass of any species and amassed one of the greatest natural history collections of his time. The author reports the legend that Robert Louis Stevenson had Hunter’s laboratory in mind when he described Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory. In fact, his profligate spending for specimens of all description from around the globe bankrupted him and it was only after his museum of nearly 17,000 specimens were sold to the Crown for twenty cents on the dollar that his widow could again begin to live in some resemblance of comfort.

The study of the natural world was the rage. Collecting was the hobby of many aristocrats and great men of the age such as Sir Joseph Banks who had accompanied Captain Cook to the South Seas. Readers of Patrick O’Brian will find in characters like John Hunter a model of sorts for Stephen Maturin, Jack Aubrey’s ship’s surgeon who was, first and foremost, an enthusiastic student of the natural world.

Medical schools of the day were a collection of lectures and dissections and hospital apprenticeships. Cadavers were in such great demand that body snatching became a national disgrace until legislation made corpses readily and plentifully available. Before that happened John Hunter could have been called The Ardent Body Snatcher for his facility in dealing with London’s underworld. When the Irish giant, Patrick Cotter O’Brien was near death the corpse-watchers gathered. O’Brien, fearing what might happen to his 8’ 4” shell prearranged a lead casket and hired a group of men to take his body out to sea. But John Hunter negotiated a five hundred pounds fee to O’Brien’s body watchers and they delivered the giant to his chamber where Hunter boiled the parts down in a large copper coffin and added the skeleton to his already large collection.

Studying venereal disease, Hunter infected himself. The “great inquirer” punctured his foreskin and then the head of his penis and polluted himself with pus. What he thought was gonorrhea turned out to be a combination of syphilis and gonorrhea. He carefully noted the symptoms and let them develop before treating them with the standard mercury elixir. This scientific experiment had long-lasting health implications for his entire family.

Hunter is considered one of the greatest and most imaginative surgeons of all times. An operation for aneurysm is performed today much as he conceived it in the seventeen hundreds. He is also remembered for his writing. In his Treatise on the Venereal Disease he was the first to identify the Hunterian chancre or hard chancre—the initial lesion of syphilis. A Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gun-shot Wounds marked his observations as an army surgeon during the Seven Years War. He was also author of a two volume Natural History of Teeth in which he speculated on a biological interdependence of the teeth and body as a whole which the author cites as “perhaps the most important single principle of dentistry.” Unfortunately, a principle most modern day dentists and doctors have forgotten or ignore. He noted that teeth can become a “focus of infection” and produce diseases in other organs.

Hunter died in 1793, in debt and in controversy. Sixty-six years later his body was moved to Westminster Abbey where he was honored by the Royal College of Surgeons for his services to mankind as the the founder of scientific surgery.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men...and Other sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation.

I like Michael Moore. He’s one of the few radicals on the left who are as mean as the bullies on the right. Liberals are usually such pushovers. Mike says it himself in his informative chapter on Democrats: “Democrats have no spine. They always back down. there is no one on their side of the isle willing to go to battle for us the way a Tom Delay or Trent Lott will for his side. Those guys will not rest until they win, no matter how many bodies the road is littered with.” I don’t know if Mike is mean enough to take on a mad dog like Delay, but he’s much funnier and that’s what, in the end, makes him palatable.

This book of his, a best seller, is less a book than a blog. It’s a diatribe with a pretty short shelf life. But it’s laugh-out-loud funny in spots and is self-deprecating in a truely revealing way (Read about Moore’s run ins with the various Bushes over the years and how they always managed to get the upper hand over him). There are also interesting facts (I didn’t know that President Bush had a brother named Marvin or that a Bush family member was Mike’s cameraman on Roger and Me and is actually the one who taught him to make films).

A lot of people I know hate Mike’s act. It usually consists of showing up at some corporate headquarters, looking very dumpy and unkept, wearing blue jeans, running shoes and a baseball cap, sporting a sparse and scrufty beard, and trying to interview the CEO and getting thrown out. He once did get invited to the office of Phil Knight, Chairman of Nike, and seemed somewhat rattled by the opportunity. He took Knight on for operating sweatshops and invited Nike to open a shoe manufacturing plant in Mike’s beloved Flint, Michigan. He showed Phil a video tape of Flint citizens standing in front of city hall begging Nike to come to Michigan. Phil declined arguing that he just didn’t believe that Americans would be willing to sit at sewing machines and do this tedious job, an argument that probably has great merit. Mike pestered him until he at least got a contribution of $10,000 for the Flint School District, though Mike had to match it with $10,000 of his own.

In Stupid White Men, Mike is at his best when he pummels not Bush but the Democrats and the Clinton/Gore record of eight years of doing nothing. There he is very effective. With Bush, he recaps the usual litany and bashes the “president” for being dumb, being a drunk, being a possible felon, having stolen the election, etc. coming off a bit strident—or, one might say, “mean.”

One of his best chapters is “Kill Whitey” which is a good reminder in case we’ve forgotten, that black people still fight an uphill battle. (Ironically, while reading this chapter I was keeping an eye on Tiger Woods as he won his third Master’s Golf Tournament title). The success and acclaim Tiger and Jordan et al distract us from our innate prejudices (who wouldn’t be willing to have Tiger or Mike over for dinner and drinks) and the fact very few white people have suffered at the hands of black people. We ought to let them up says Mike. White people are the problem, not black people. “Every mean word, every cruel act, every bit of pain and suffering in my life has had a Caucasian face attached to it.” That’s what Mike has to say and vows to only hire black people from now on.

He has lots of good ideas. Some of which may actually come to pass. One good idea that won’t is for Palestinians to take a lesson from King, Mandela and Gandhi and adopt the principle of mass nonviolent civil disobedience. It’s kind of fun to think of Chairman Arafat wearing only a dhoti leading thousands in lying his body down in front of IDF tanks. Knowing the Chairman, he’d no doubt insist on wearing his pistola and screw the whole thing up.

Worth the price of the book is the Epilogue in which Mike tells his version of the Nader situation. How Nader held the election in his hand and had the power, for a few days at least, to move Gore on a couple of key issues and then release his voters, an idea Michael Moore pitched in a $140 phone call from an airliner. Also, very amusing and provocative is Mike’s “A Prayer to Afflict the Comfortable with as Many Afflictions as Possible” inspired by the Nancy Regan-led conservative turnabout on stem cell research (might have helped with Ron’s disease) and Dick Cheny’s (his daughter is a lesbian) diversion of anti gay rights initiative. Mike’s logical theory is that if more rich white people were suffering they would be more empathetic to the poor and afflicted.

Worth noting is the dust cover of the book. Mike, in denim pants and jacket, lock of hair pushing up the bill of his baseball cap, sly smirk on his scraggly bearded face, looks large, almost God-like in front of some suits, all white, seated at a board table. In his right hand he holds what could be a model of the Washington Monument which, one could presume, he plans to shove up their corporate asses. The guy who got his high school principal fired just won’t change.

Saturday, April 13, 2002

Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright

Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t know about Islandia. Both my brothers, for example, have read it. But that was back in their hippie days when I’m certain that the Islandian agrarian ways, the idealized simple life, the personal, nearly libertarian freedom of the Islandian concept had great appeal to people living in teepees and growing organic gardens. The blurb I read referred to the book as the “best utopian novel ever written.” I’m not sure I consider Islandia a utopia but it is a fascinating, attractive place—a complete fiction from the mind of an New England attorney who left a 2000 plus page typescript manuscript behind for his daughter to edit to around 1000 pages. Apparently, Wright’s father and grandfather also created fictional worlds so perhaps this kind of thing is genetic.

Here’s the gist. (This has never been a film or mini-series). A young American befriends an Islandian student at Harvard in the early 1900’s and learns the language while on a summer sailing trip with him. The Islandian fellow returns home and later our American, John Lang, is appointed consul to Islandia, a country as xenophobic as Japan before Perry. (Foreigners can stay one year only if they pass the physical and have legitimate business). Islandians are xenophobic but almost neurotically hospitable. Lang arrives in the middle of a controversy and is welcomed by his old friend’s family who establish a room for him in their home to use whenever he might decide to drop by. The controversy involves the Islandian prime minister trying to talk the national council into ratifying a treaty he had signed with Germany which would open up Islandia to development. Lang’s friend Dorn is on the opposing side and the plot of the first part of the book involves the politics between the first families of Islandia as to whether or not it would be good for the country to have choo choo trains, telephones and combustion engines or whether the Islandians would continue to travel by horse and wagon. The xenophobes fear not only foreigners but foreign inventions. In the midst of this geopolitical intrigue is the concern that the northern farms might be raided by the quaintly named “Mountain Negroes” who live across the border. (The Islandians seem to be of a Caucasian persuasion though their skins are coppery from all of their outdoor time). There’s really not much to the plot. The book is more concerned with Lang’s interaction with Islandia, its geography, culture and people, especially its ladies.

Lang has an adventure with Dorn, and a legendary mountaineer named Don, and the lone wolf King (are utopias monarchical?) of Islandia (the King of Islandia apparently has no court or castle but roams the country dropping in on people) when they come across what appears to be a German border incursion. This is somewhat of a diplomatic embarrassment for Lang as counsel and because of his friendship with the Dorns and others who oppose opening the borders, and his failure to help American business corrupt the country, he is dumped from his job. In his remaining time in Islandia, Lang travels about visiting various families, working on a farm and then volunteers for the border patrol in a sort of ad hoc militia and circumstantially becomes a national hero by surviving a sneak attack of the ...MN word...and warning the closest farms saving many, including the queen. Subsequently the treaty is defeated after a long, interesting and dramatic debate at the council. Islandia is saved from the pollution of foreign interests and Lang is rewarded with an invitation to remain in the country. He is also given permission to import a sewing machine as a gift—an exception to the Islandian preference to do every single thing the hard but natural way.

When his year is up he returns to New York to see if Islandia is what he really wants, goes to work with his uncle who got him the counsel’s job in the first place, and makes his best effort to be a successful businessman. He begins to call on a young woman who had corresponded with him during the time he had been away. In his absence she had read the book on US History which he wrote for the Islandians in Islandian. By this exercise she learned the language, and, conveniently, had become an orphan, allowing her to make decisions with no parental input and leaving her without financial resource. After a drawn out romance they decide to marry and return to Islandia where the Dorns have agreed to sell Lang one of their three farms. The rest of the book involves the rocky integration of the new wife into Islandian life, culture and society.

The real story of Islandia, however, involves the romances Lang has with two Islandian ladies and then, thus Islandized, his relationship with the American woman who will be his wife. It’s a Victorian sexual fantasy. Lang, a virgin in his late twenties, first falls in love with Dorna, Dorn’s sister. Wright brings this moody, ambitious, dark-haired, earthy beauty completely to life. It is obvious that ATW was a true admirer of females. For Lang, falling in love with an Islandian is no easy matter because they have three different kinds of love and American men have trouble with one kind of love. But Lang is up to the challenge and tries to get all three kinds lined up so that Dorna will be his. She is unlike any woman he has known. Wild and independent she goes barefoot on her little sailing craft after picking him up for a visit and they spend the night getting back to the farm and sleep in the same cabin! Unheard of in Lang’s day. Later she strips for a skinny dip as will any Islandian lass. Lang is smitten beyond description having seen no more than an ankle before landing on Islandia. But Dorna and Dorn and Nattana (we’ll get to her in a moment) all warn Lang against marrying an Islandian woman. Why this would be a bad idea we are not quite certain. But they are very clear that he shouldn’t do it. It involves the intricacies of the three kinds of love. In the end, Dorna opts to marry the gorgeous young king who has, apparantly dropped by her farm a few times. This decision also involves the three kinds of love, only one kind of which involves lust. Islandian girls are quick to admit their physical passion.

Lang, unrequited, ends up at the another farm that has quite a few daughters and becomes lovers with Hytha Nattana, the complicated, hot-to-knot weaver he had met in the early part of the book. Nattana refuses to marry him but weaves him a wardrobe (Islandians wear loose-fitting natural fabrics and comfortable, sensible shoes like sandals). The clothes are all she is able to save when the you-know-who’s attack and trash the farm. (Later on she gets that sewing machine as her handsome reward). And, then, romance number three—the wife—who after a couple hundred pages succumbs to the charms of utopia and the ardor of John Lang. We leave them on the farm, harvest completed, winter coming on, prepared to travel the country, visit Lang’s old friends while working on three kinds of love.

I wonder if the editors of Islandia were fair to the author. I wonder if they should have edited a word. Even at 1000 pages (the edition I read was 900) there seems to be much missing, or rather, much more the engaged reader would like to know about Islandia no matter how tedious it might be. There are endless descriptions of the natural beauty of Islandia, and enough about social customs to make you believe it is another culture. And, there is an attractiveness about the place. If it were to exist now we would want to travel there and ride horseback through the countryside and visit a farm or two and stay at an inn and revel at the backwardness of a 2000 year old civilization. (Lang introduced ice skating to the country!)

If you make it through page 250 you will no doubt finish the book. It would be a great summer hammock read and I wish I had saved it for those lazy days of summer.

“The sun shone hot and and the air was full of the warm fragrance of earth and of vegetation. It was a fertile region. Leaves of vegetables and grass in the meadows were lush and green; sprouting maize and grains held up strong stalks and full heads; and flowers in gardens glowed as though just watered. Even the road itself was invaded, and sometimes our horses' hooves thudded in the grass.”

It’s quite an achievement to create a world and write it down and make it coherent, consistent and enticing. One ends up yearning for a more simple, open, physical life and where skinny-dipping is as natural as water. It’s no wonder that Islandia is a cult classic with many diehard supporters. A Google search will lead you to Islandia websites and more information about ATW, Islandia and the lost manuscript (the typescript survives).

Tuesday, April 09, 2002

Rogue River Feud

Rogue River Feud is one of Zane Grey's least known novels. This is, perhaps, because it isn't a Western-it's a Northwestern. The Rogue River in Southern Oregon is the main character. Zane Grey had a cabin on the Rogue and his attachment and fascination with this epic river makes it the primary focus of the book. For this reason, the book is a great read for anyone who has been on, around, along, over or in this wonderful wild stream. There are, of course, characters and a semblance of a plot. The first chapter, however, is worth the price of the book. It is the best writing about the Rogue that has been done before or since and poetically and descriptively traces the river from its birth below Crater Lake to its dispersal into the Pacific and then picks up a school of salmon and takes them all the way back up the river to spawn. Environmental organizations attempting to save Northwest salmon should be handing Rogue River Feud to anyone who will take a copy.

Kevin Bell, our human hero, returns to Grants Pass, Oregon at the conclusion of WWI a broken man, injured seemingly beyond repair. He has been damaged by an exploding cannon, an anecdote he repeats interminably throughout the book. His memory is shaky and he has become a drunk to stop the pain in his broken jawbone-a jaw that has been repaired by mediocre dentistry (Grey was trained as a dentist and was able to work both bad and good dentistry into the story). In addition, his reputation has been ruined by a former officer of his regiment who obscures his own crime by spreading the word that Kevin had ruined a family of five (that's 5) sisters (an incident which, in our day and age, might actually enhance a reputation. Presumably, this had taken place before the cannon blew up). Incensed at the slander, Kevin assaults his accuser, now politically well-connected and squiring Kevin's ex-fiancee, and has to flee down river with his old pal, the often inebriated fisherman/riverman Garry Lord. They run rapids in the dark in a skiff just finished by Kevin's dad. The descriptions of the river and river running are marvelous.

For the first half of the book they are involved in fishing for salmon near Gold Beach at the mouth of the river, where Kevin's former fiancee's crooked father has a lock on the cannery business. The descriptions of salmon fishing by net and by line are detailed and informative and the plot and character development point to an exciting denouement whereby Garry and Kevin will expose illegal fishing activities and insure a salmon and steelhead run for the upriver folks. But the author has romance on his mind for he causes Kevin to flee upstream after losing Garry in a storm and killing Garry's would-be adversary. Hopeless, distraught, and with revenge as a driving motive and an itch for a drink, he stumbles into a camp called Solitude where he and Garry had called briefly on their way down river. A beautiful dark-haired girl calls out to him. He doesn't remember her (because his memory had been damaged by that cannon explosion). Slowly, but surely the lovely, woodsy Beryl restores the composted memory of four days they spent together four years earlier when Kevin had camped and fished at Solitude. The remainder of the book is involved with their romance in this idyllic setting, the only conflict coming when it turns out that Beryl is a much better steelhead fisherperson than is Kevin. This romance goes on and on, kept interesting only by the the river that runs through it. Finally, Kevin, restored in body and spirit by the river and the young woman who had decided four years previously that he was the one, asks her to marry him. Off they go to Portland the very next day, by mule train and choo choo train, with her trapper father's blessing, to marry and get his teeth fixed (by a kindly dentist who had appreciated a fishing tip Kevin had given him). Thence on to Grant's Pass for a triumphant homecoming to learn that Garry Lord lives and that he had cracked the case on the illegal fisheries while Kevin had been fooling around in the woods. Kevin and his bride shop til they drop and then return to Solitude to live happily ever after (on the proceeds from the little gold mine that Beryl had been keeping secret).

Zane Grey had nineteenth century sensibilities but his writing about the Rogue River will always be up to date. The Rogue is a living, breathing entity in the novel. Living close to the Rogue and having had some experience with it I found the book more interesting than most readers might. My wife came close to drowning in the Rogue River, in a very easy section that Kevin and Garry could have run blindfolded. The Rogue takes a few souls every year as people make mistakes or get overconfident (the biggest mistake). Zane Grey got much of his material from the old timers who pioneered on the Rogue. A local interest book—A River to Run by Florence Arman and Glen Wooldridge gives insights into Zane Grey’s sources.

Glen Wooldridge was a local hero who was probably the first to run the wild and scenic part of the Rogue. He, in fact, was involved with blasting channels through the tougher sections so that certain areas did not require portage. He dynamited the by-pass around Rainie Falls which is an obvious obstacle to kayakers and fishermen, though I have sat on the edge of the falls and watched kayakers take a shot at it and survive. Much has changed since the fictional time in Rogue River Feud. Rafters and kayakers now need a permit to travel below Graves Bar to the ocean, for example. There are still many arguments to arbitrate. There are the jet boaters vs the drifters and floaters. There is controversy on how to deal with the proliferation of bears. There are always arguments about logging and salmon. The feud goes on.

We can thank Zane Grey for giving us a snapshot of a time on the Rogue River before Glen Wooldridge started running upstream in powerboats and before the river was clotted on a summer day with tour groups in rafts and kayaks.

Saturday, April 06, 2002

Inspector Ghote

Book marketers like genres. They love to talk about niches. If your book doesn’t land in a niche, it falls between the cracks—forgotten; unread. That’s why detective fiction is so popular with booksellers. They know what shelf to put it on. A deeper question is: why is it so popular with readers? One answer is that a lot of it is pretty damn good.

A few years back an Englishman named John Williams who loved American detective fiction traveled to the US to seek out and interview his favorite American detective fiction authors. He toured the country and met and talked with James Lee Burke, Tony Hillerman, James Elroy, Andrew Vachss, James Crumley, Sara Paretsky, Joe Gores, Gar Anthony Harwood, Carl Hiasson, Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins and the late Eugene Izzi. If you’ve never read a detective novel, this is a pretty good track to run on. (Though Williams tastes run to what might be described as “hard-boiled”). His trip was memorialized in a worthwhile, but now out of print, memoir titled Into the Badlands.

There are so many detective novels out there that a reader needs the kind of help that Into the Badlands provides. Mystery is a great on-line source for information on the grand category of “mystery” and breaks it down into seventeen different genres! These include “private eye,” “hard-boiled,” and “history,” to name just three. Yes, a history genre. That is correct. There are shelves full of mysteries set in medieval times, for example, where nuns, or monks or retired soldiers solve murders in an historical milieu. I don’t prefer them, myself, but a couple I’ve read are very engaging and skillfully done. What I look for in a detective novel is a sense of place and a well-defined main character. On the Williams list James Lee Burke and Tony Hillerman do the best job of satisfying my need.

But back to Mr. Williams—I’m not sure that he needed to leave England to find two of the best mystery writers—R.D. Wingfield and H.R.F. Keating. Perhaps R. D. Wingfield wasn’t published yet when John Williams began his quest. Perhaps neither Wingfield or Keating is hard-boiled enough for his taste.

Wingfield is responsible for the Inspector Jack Frost series (A Touch of Frost, Night Frost, Winter Frost, and Hard Frost). Jack Frost is a rumpled, politically incorrect, anti-establishment character whose only purpose is to bumble through a case until he solves it. He is not motivated by acclaim or hope of promotion. He seems motivated only by motive. I suppose that, technically, the Frost books are procedurals. But they are procedurals not in the sense of how-the-cop-solves-the-crime but in their evocation of how organizations really work. In most murder mysteries you begin with a dead body and the detective starts talking to people. One clue leads to another until the crime is solved. With Wingfield’s books you get a clearer picture of what the life of a homicide inspector might be like with multiple cases which may or may not link together to deal with simultaneously. In addition, the interaction of the the folks in the office affect the pursuit of justice, or injustice. And, he shows how the self-serving antics of Frost’s boss, an incompetent bureaucratic numbers cruncher gets in the way of the pursuit of criminals. Frost is untidy, his life is untidy and his job is untidy. Everything in his world is a great big mess and he is relieved when he finally clears a case. Even then, there is no sense of finality. We know that Jack Frost has more to do. Wingfield’s books race at a high rate of speed, usually for about four hundred pages which is long for a detective novel, with short stops for Frost to wipe the ashes off his shirt and try to recover from insulting someone. These books are highly recommended. They are never contrived—a problem with detective novels.

But my favorite of all the detectives is Inspector Ghote, the creation of H. R. F. Keating. Inspector Ghote lives not in LA or New York, Chicago, New Orleans or London. Ghote lives and works in Bombay, India. In contrast to the detectives who people most other novels, inspector Ghote is rather soft-boiled; curried even. I’ve only read two so far but there are more than a dozen left to read.

Inspector Ghote seems mostly unknown in the United States. If you check you will see that there are virtually no reader reviews. But Keating is a proflific writer with perhaps twenty books on his resume. Without knowing his body of work I have the highest respect for his skill based on reading The Sheriff of Bombay and Dead on Time. Both are short, two hundred pages or so and quick reads. Quick but very satisfying. Anyone who has ever tried writing anything will appreciate the craftsmanship you’ll find in these books. In addition, Keating has a wonderful sense of place and if one has an affinity for or interest in India, it’s delightful to spend time with Ghote.

Inspector Ghote seems overmatched by his cases, his superiors, his suspects and witnesses. But he has extreme confidence in himself and pushes tenaciously for a conclusion to his assigned crimes. And, while we follow his progress Keating gives us some education about India, parts of India that most Westerners will never know. The Sheriff of Bombay is set in the red-light district of Bombay and we meet prostitutes of every class and caste as Ghote pursues the killer of one of the “ladies.” Yet Ghote’s trip through Bombay’s brothels doesn’t feel seedy, nasty or sinfull. It seems instead to be karmic reflecting the Hindu belief that past lives determine the present one. Karma dictates that we are each actors playing our parts. The women are treated with great sympathy and even the suspects are treated with dignity. Ghote occasionally uses a heavy hand but it is mostly through raising his voice and browbeating rather than roughing someone up.

In Dead on Time Ghote travels to a rural village where he recalls his own village boyhood and relives the vision and smells of the hour of cow dust when the cattle return from the fields at dusk. And in Dead on Time Keating has fun with his title theme contrasting city time with village time and making constant, clever word plays on time. There are persistent references to clocks and wrist watches and scenes that take place in watch towers. The murder occurs in a clock shop with a clock salesman as victim and one of the chief suspects is a watch salesman. Ghote is put on a severe time deadline by his superior who owns a beautiful new wristwatch while Ghote’s timepiece goes on the blink. Ghote is chastised by his wife for not spending enough time with his son. In the end he is “dead on time” for his deadline (as in “dead on target.”)

It’s hard to say what genre would place Ghote in for, shockingly, Keating doesn’t appear on the website at all. From our provincial point of view we can place him in the genre of Foreign Detective. H.R.F. Keating is the author of Crime & Mystery : The 100 Best Books. Presumably he knows where he belongs.

Thursday, April 04, 2002

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Is Bleak House a good airplane book? Well, it’s pretty heavy with 900 or so pages and your arms can get tired unless you can rest the tome on the tray table. I decided to try it taking off from Vancouver International Airport one recent March morning headed to what is known as “The Big Island.” I’ve come to Dickens late in life. Bleak House was Dickens #2 for me (not counting anything I might have read in high school like Tale of Two Cities). Last summer I read David Copperfield whilst stretched out in my hammock. Copperfield was as good as everyone says it is. Better even than the PBS production or the A & E production or the BBC production or any of the old movies. Because of little Davy I had already decided that Dickens was a genius and that I was something of a dunce for having waited so long. The good news is I have a long list of books to look forward to.

By the time we landed in Hilo I was a couple of hundred pages into Bleak House. It was raining, of course and, using cell phones, coordinated a pickup by my brother who was running errands, buying groceries and take out dinner for night #1 of our Hawaiian adventure. We arrived at the camp (did you think we were heading for a resort hotel?) My brother had just purchased a few acres on the ocean north of Hilo and was holed up in a temporary shelter constructed of plastic stretched over metal poles. I shouldn’t mislead you. It was pretty nice. Not bleak at all. There was a wood floor, shade cloth on the sides, a double-sized futon, rain flys, mosquito netting and enough solar power to let us have light to make up the bed and brush our teeth. This night, teeth brushing was done out on the grass under an umbrella, rinsing with water hauled in from Hilo in a five gallon container.

The house in Bleak House isn’t bleak either. In fact, it is quite a happy, warm and nurturing place headed by everyone’s favorite uncle, cousin and guardian—John Jarndyce. Mr. Jarndyce is a principal in the legal action called Jarndyce vs Jarndyce which is the thread that stitches the plot together. Jarndyce vs Jarndyce has been going on so long that it is a joke among the legal community of London and who bleed the estate until it disappears like the dust of an old bone. In Bleak House, Dickens tackles the legal profession and rolls them around, roughing them up like a free-style wrestler, with great humor and not a little bitterness.

In the afternoons at the camp, after the work of our day was done, after a simple lunch of papaya and avocado, and after a bath in the lovely stream that flows through the property I’d flop on a beanbag chair in our red-floored shelter and dive into Dickens. (My brother was well into War and Peace. My wife had picked up Dr. Phil’s latest book. It was a reading party). Looking up occasionally I could see the Pacific Ocean, bright blue sky, macadamia nut trees and hear the call of red cardinals. Ducking my head back down I was in London or at Bleak House or at Lincoln’s Inn Hall following the trail of the tragic Lady Deadlock, the perfectly perfect Ester, the very focused lawyer Tulkinghorn and a large cast of laugh-out-loud characters. Who is better than Dickens at naming his people? Snagsby, Skimpole, Badger, Jellyby, Guster, Krook and Guppy, Reverend Chadband, the deceased but ubiquitous Captain Swosser and, my favorite, Mr. Smallweed, who was so continuously angry with his wife that he was always throwing things at her.

On day 6 in Hawaii my spouse of 35 years had a fit of pique and demanded to be released from what she thought was a bleak house and taken immediately to the Kona Coast and checked into the Mauna Kea or some equally posh spa. "You promised me a hot shower!" she said stamping her foot. "You said if I didn't like it you would make sure I got a hot shower." So, that afternoon at the Hilo Surplus Store, I invested ten bucks in a solar shower, filled it from the old rain bucket and hung it from a tree. It wasn't hot, but it was warmer than the stream. In all fairness to my partner, her upset came shortly after we found the centipede in bed with us and only a couple days after we survived the thirty hours of continuous rain. By that night, the night of the day of the breakdown, when the twelve hours of horrifying lightening and thunder began, she had turned the corner and was ready for anything. Who knows how Mrs. Smallweed would have handled it? She would have muttered incomprehensibly while Mr. Smallweed chucked pillows at her. Smallweed wouldn’t have been so kind as to buy her anything.

Dickens' London gets pretty dreary weather-wise. And Hilo is known for a few inches of annual rainfall. Some days the streams was as brown as creamed coffee. So, from a weather standpoint it didn’t seem odd to be reading Bleak House. I could have fallen back on something seemingly more apropos like Six Months in the Sandwich Islands where the venerable Isabella Bird rode horseback up the Hamkoua Coast and forded the very stream where we washed each day. (Later she journalised in the form of letters to her sister, as I recall, and her book is one of the best ever about Hawaii, Big Island included). But I liked the contrast of sitting in Hawaii and reading my way into Dickens’ world. The weirdness of it was Dickensian.

I laughed out loud (Dickens is very, very funny), I cried a little, rejoiced for the happiness of the perfectly perfect Esther Summerson, reveled in the skewering of the legal profession and ended up with a couple of questions. Where did Mr. Jarndyce get all his money if his estate was being bled to death by the suit of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce? And, what exactly happened to perfectly perfect’s Esther’s face after her bout with what one might presume was smallpox?

Dickens used an interesting technique in Bleak House which I presume the academics have discussed ad naseum. Part of the story is told by Esther in retrospect and the other half or so is in author omniscient in more or less real time. It took awhile to get used to this but it works. I did find myself looking forward to Esther’s voice again.

It was too long to finish during the two weeks in Hawaii so I had plenty of pages left for the red-eye back to Vancouver. Sleepless, I jetted through the night waiting for the happy ending which it was, mostly.
Verdict in the case of Bleak House: highly recommend