Review: Mr. White’s Confession

Written by Robert Clark
Published by Picador, 1998, 341 pages

That is the sad thing about memory, I suppose. It goes without saying that search as we will, we cannot know the future; but it seems we cannot even know the past, however much we search it; and so we are always longing for it and seeing it beyond our reach, anticipating what is past as though it were to come. In that way, having a memory is terribly sad, like visiting a graveyard, where even at the loveliest of times one must finally confess that underneath the verdure there are only the dead and gone, that which is lost to us, the things we once loved, that we still love. . . . I suppose that is all memory really is, for the most part: the hunger for what we have loved. [p. 301]

Robert Clark’s Mr. White’s Confession is an atmospheric, genre-bending murder mystery, set in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1939. Someone is killing dime-a-dance girls in the city, and Police Lieutenant Wesley Horner is assigned to the case. His investigation soon leads him to a chief suspect – one Herbert White, a local eccentric with memory problems and a taste for “glamour” photography. White was a frequent customer at the dance hall where the two murdered women worked, and had taken their photographs just before they turned up dead. And when the police question him, his answers are unconventional and unsatisfying. Is it possible he’s using his claims of faulty memory to mask his guilt?

The book shifts back and forth between Horner’s investigation of the case and White’s diaries from the period. Herbert keeps detailed diaries and scrapbooks to help him remember things. Because of an injury at birth, he has a very quirky memory – he can recall his childhood and events from long ago, and things that happened within the last day or two, but has trouble with the time between – his “middle-distance” memories. And by the time Horner settles on him as the likely killer, we’ve already gotten to know and care about White through those diaries and scrapbooks – a circumstance which really adds to the suspense and tension of the story. But then there’s always the nagging question: Can we rely on him as a narrator?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters – even the minor characters – are all interesting and believable. No one is perfect – even Lieutenant Horner is troubled and flawed. As a mystery novel, it’s probably only half successful, but that’s really not its point. Much more important is its exploration of themes of guilt and innocence, truth and fiction, past and present, love, faith, and memory. Especially memory. As Herbert White writes in his diary:

. . . it seems to me that perhaps at bottom all our knowing, all our seeing, is limited to what we have remembered: What is to come is, after all, beyond our ken; and what is happening at this moment, precisely now, we apprehend only after the moment is past, after it has become a memory. So memory is more than a souvenir of what was and is no more: It is in this sense everything we know and everything we have. [pp. 333-334]

I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, although it originally came out in 1998. Before I read it, I wasn’t familiar with Robert Clark’s works. But now I’m a fan. And I’m eager to read his earlier work, In the Deep Midwinter – if only for that wonderful title.

Review: Mrs. Malory and Death By Water

Written by Hazel Holt
Published by Signet Books, 2003, 248 pp.

Not long ago I found myself in need of an outfit to wear to a funeral. And, determined not to have to shop for anything new, I ended up burrowing deep into my closet, pulling out a couple of garment bags full of “wedding/funeral stuff,” and spending an entire afternoon sorting and trying on. Well, about two hours into my quest, I suddenly realized what a very “Barbara Pym” scene it was. But then I thought no, not Barbara – more like Sheila Malory.

Sheila Malory is the fiftyish (or I suppose, by now sixtyish) amateur sleuth at the center of Hazel Holt’s “Mrs. Malory” series of mysteries. Sheila is a widow who lives in the fictional English seaside village of Taviscombe. She’s sensible and witty and erudite and self-deprecating, and she makes her own marmalade and scones. She has a grown son (who goes from university to law practice during the course of the series), a dog named Tris, and a cat named Foss. She is “deeply involved in local activities,” always helping plan the annual Christmas Fayre, or rounding up jumble for a sale to benefit Help the Aged. She’s also a writer of “the occasional volume of literary criticism – mostly about the more obscure Victorian novelists.” And in her spare time (!) she solves local murder mysteries.

The Mrs. Malory books are “cozy” mysteries, so there’s very little violence or overt nastiness. The deaths take place “offstage,” and most don’t even seem like murders at first – the victims are usually (but not always) elderly or ill, so that their deaths don’t strike anyone as too surprising or suspicious. But once Mrs. Malory starts nosing around and putting two and two together, murder always outs (how’s that for a nice chain of mixed metaphors or references or something?).

In Mrs. Malory and Death By Water (issued as Leonora in the UK), Sheila’s dear friend Leonora Staveley, a legendary journalist and foreign correspondent now in her eighties, is found dead from drinking contaminated water. And although the cause of death seems surprising, Sheila at first accepts it as not unlikely – Leonora lived alone in an out-of-the-way country cottage, with a large assortment of domestic and farm animals roaming around the place. So a contaminated water supply doesn’t seem out of the question.

But in her will, Leonora has left her voluminous library to Sheila. And once Sheila starts sorting through all the books and papers, she begins to see the death as suspicious – especially after a few questions arise about some of Leonora’s other bequests. And then there’s the fact that Leonora’s brother Vernon was anxious to acquire her cottage so he could use the land for a real estate scheme he’d been working on. Sheila also finds out about a quarrel Leonora had with her neighbors, over the placement of a boundary wall between their properties. And then strangers begin to emerge from Leonora’s past (well, don’t they always?), leading Sheila to realize that her old friend may have had an even more adventurous life than anyone had imagined. After that, Sheila of course suspects foul play, and she’s off and running. Well, not running – she’s too dignified for that.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I should think of Barbara Pym and Hazel Holt together – they were friends and co-workers for many years at London’s International African Institute, and Holt later became Pym’s literary executor and biographer. These days there are a lot of “Pymish” mysteries around, but in my opinion the Mrs. Malory series is far and away the best of the lot.

Oh, I did manage to put together an outfit for the funeral, and I didn’t have to buy a thing. And after all the trying on, I had a nice cup of tea. I like to think Sheila and Barbara would have approved.

Review: Crewel World

Written by Monica Ferris
Published by Berkley Prime Crime Books, 1999, 243 pages

If she could get into the rhythm of the needlework, she would find peace. That’s why she loved needlepoint – it worked like meditation. It was better than meditation, actually, because after a while you found you had both peace of mind and a work of art. [Chapter 9, p. 116]

Now in theory, I believe you should always start out with the first book in a series. But somehow I usually manage to jump right into the middle somewhere. Thus, I started Monica Ferris’s “Needlework” series with the fifth title, A Murderous Yarn, and followed that with the fourth book, Unraveled Sleeve. Not very organized, I know – but I loved the series and knew I wanted to read them all. So I figured it was time to knuckle down and read the opener.

Crewel World introduces us to Betsy Devonshire and her younger sister Margot Berglund. In California, Betsy’s marriage to a philandering college professor has just broken up; so Margot invites her for an extended visit in Excelsior, Minnesota, where Margot owns and operates a needlework shop, the “Crewel World” of the title. The two sisters haven’t seen each other for years when the story begins, and they both enjoy the reunion – in fact, Margot encourages Betsy to make Excelsior her new home and even gives her a job in the shop. The small town is friendly and Betsy is settling in comfortably when disaster strikes – Margot is found murdered, and Betsy is drawn into the search for her killer.

Having already read a couple of the later books, I missed out on a good deal of the mystery in this one – I knew that several of the suspects were innocent and would return as regulars in the later novels. But that certainly didn’t spoil the enjoyment. And although I sussed out the culprit pretty early on, watching Betsy develop both her sleuthing and needlework skills was lots of fun (if murder can ever be considered fun).

Of course one of the main attractions of the books, for me anyway, is their emphasis on the “needle arts” – I’ve always been an admirer if not much of a practitioner. And they’re definitely cozy mysteries – set in a small town with a lot of interesting characters and day-to-day detail, and not a lot of gore or mayhem – another reason to keep me reading.

But I think the main thing I like about the books is Betsy herself. Already 55 when the series begins, she’s not quite sure where life is leading her:

Betsy remembered reading somewhere that while men are scared of birthdays ending in zero, women are frightened by birthdays ending in five. Certainly Betsy was. Fifty-five is no longer young, even when considered while you were in good spirits. Fifty-five can see old age rushing toward it like a mighty tree axed at the root. All too soon it would be crash: sixty! [Chapter 1, p. 10]

Betsy Devonshire is someone a reader of a certain age can really identify with.

(Each book in this series includes a free needlework pattern. In this first book, the pattern is a magnificent Chinese horse, adapted from a T’ang Dynasty sculpture – a tie-in with the book’s plot, and much too ambitious for the inexperienced needle-worker. I believe the patterns in most of the later books have been a bit less intricate. You can learn more about the Betsy Devonshire books and their author by visiting the Monica Ferris web site.)

Review: The Grand Complication

Written by Allen Kurzweil
Published by Hyperion, 2001, 360 pages

The search began with a library call slip and the gracious query of an elegant man.
“I beg your pardon,” said the man, bowing ever so slightly, “Might I steal a moment of your time?”

So begins Allen Kurzweil’s The Grand Complication. The book’s narrator and protagonist, Alexander Short, is a reference librarian at a Manhattan library, very much like (wink, wink) the New York Public. Through his job, Alexander meets and is, in effect, seduced by the impressively named and impressively wealthy Henry James Jesson III, who wants the young librarian to help him “with a case.” The “case” turns out to be an actual box – an incomplete cabinet of curiosities put together by a mysterious 18th-century inventor. Alexander resists the offer at first, but eventually gives in, and the rest of the novel involves his search for the cabinet’s one missing object – a magnificent timepiece supposedly made for Marie Antoinette.

The Grand Complication is a mystery tale and, as in any good mystery tale, along the way we learn that many things are not exactly what they seem. Mr. Jesson’s story, the legendary timepiece, and Mr. Jesson himself turn out to be much more complicated than at first we might have suspected – well, at least more complicated than Alexander suspected. So we end up unraveling more than just the secret of the queen’s magnificent pocket watch.

This book has drawn mixed reviews, and I have to admit Kurzweil doesn’t produce the most sparkling prose. But I enjoyed it very much – it’s a fast-paced read, with a lot of humor and many surprises sprinkled throughout. There’s also a nice love story included – the courtship and rocky marriage of Alexander and his French wife, Nic.

Then there’s all the library arcana – my favorite part of the book – and Alexander’s fascination with “objects of enclosure” and with the Dewey system of classification:

The system lets the well-trained librarian synthesize a hierarchy of people, places, and things, of ideas and phenomena. What’s more, it encourages that hierarchy both to grow and to be remembered. Familiarity with classes, divisions, and sections means this: that if a reader walks up and requests, say, The Study of Arab Women: A Bibliography of Bibliographies, a librarian who knows the system can direct the inquirer with confidence to 016.016305488927. [Chapter 55, p. 319]

Ultimately, I suppose I was attracted to Alexander because he’s such a meticulous list-maker. At one point, he admits to Nic that his ambition is “to compose lists,” prompting her to ask if he wants to set them to music. He collects library call slips – his own and those of other library patrons. He even goes so far as to wear a journal (hand made by Nic) fastened to his clothing, for making lists and notes – in imitation of the “girdle books” employed by medieval monks. Now that’s a man after my own heart.

Review: The Flanders Panel

Written by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, 295 pages

“Life is an uncertain adventure in a diffuse landscape, whose borders are continually shifting, where all frontiers are artificial, where at any moment everything can either end only to begin again or finish suddenly, for ever and ever, like an unexpected blow from an axe. Where the only absolute, coherent, indisputable and definitive reality is death. Where we are only a tiny lightning flash between two eternal nights, and where . . . we have very little time.” [Chapter XV: “Queen Ending,” p. 269]

Julia, a 20-something art expert in Madrid, is hired to restore a painting about to be auctioned off by Claymore’s, a prominent auction house. The Game of Chess, by fifteenth-century Flemish master Pieter Van Huys, depicts the Duke of Ostenburg and one of his knights seated at a chess board, engaged in a game, while in the background a lady in a black velvet dress sits reading by a window.

When she has the painting X-rayed before cleaning, Julia discovers a hidden message in a corner of the work, presumably written and then deliberately painted over by the artist himself. The message is written in Latin: “Quis Necavit Equitem” (“Who Killed the Knight?”), and Julia’s obsession with finding out more about the inscription, the picture and the historical events surrounding its creation are the basis of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s sophisticated mystery novel, The Flanders Panel.

As she turns up more information about the painting and the characters involved, Julia begins to realize she’s uncovered a Renaissance murder mystery that seems to have ramifications in the present century. But even as violence and danger begin to erupt, her fascination with the painting and its story increases until it threatens her own life and the lives of her friends and loved ones.

As the book’s advertising claims, The Flanders Panel is truly a “mystery for the connoisseur.” The writing is sophisticated and elegant, the plot twists and turns, and the story shifts easily back and forth among many attractive (and yet somehow sinister) settings – auction houses and museums, antique shops and chess clubs, nightclubs and the streets of Madrid. The chess motif is well-researched, and runs through the whole book, but readers who know little about chess (and I’m one) can still enjoy the story.

Images of Alice and her looking-glass are sprinkled through the book – another heroine caught up in a story based on a game of chess. The author throws in several paradoxes and puzzles along the way, and many references to Edgar Allan Poe and Dupin, and to Sherlock Holmes and Watson, I suppose to emphasize the fact that the story is a mystery. And there are surprises (almost literally) around every corner.

This is the second Perez-Reverte novel I’ve read – the first was The Club Dumas; and I don’t think “Flanders” quite comes up to that level. Still, it kept me turning pages into the wee hours, several nights running, and whetted my appetite for more of his work – and I consider that a pretty good recommendation.