A quick visual recap of the action thus far:


The judging happens over at Three Percent, and today you’ll find my judging of the first second round match – Canada (Oryx and Crake) vs New Zealand (The Luminaries).

VSI Crime FictionCondensing the  history of crime fiction into 122 pages Is a challenge that Richard Bradford wins.  The output is an informative and thoroughly enjoyable little volume that takes us from Sophocles through to Nordic Noir.

Sophocles?  Bradford argues that Oedipus Is a precursor of the modern detective in that he conducts a meticulous investigation to unmask the murderer of his predecessor. Other antecedents throughout the ages, from Herodotus to Shakespeare to Fielding are discussed too.  Moving into the C19th, he argues that while Poe created the first recognisable detective in Dupin, the stories in Murders in the Rue Morgue were conceived more as philosophical exercises than crime stories.  The C19th sensation novels were the real precursors of what was to come with Collins laying the foundations of the English detective novel in The Moonstone.

Thereafter Bradford discusses the main stations in the development of crime fiction: the golden age, hard-boiled, and the transitions to modern day crime fiction and its sub-genres.  The usual suspects are mentioned, Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayers, Chandler, Cain and Hammett plus famous contemporary writers from both sides of the pond.  There’s space here too for less widely known writers and in discussing these, Bradford often reveals his personal tastes (which clearly do not gel with mine.)

I particularly enjoyed chapter 3 Transitions in which Bradford discusses the metamorphosis of crime fiction into the forms and perspectives that prevail today and chapter 4 which is devoted to International Crime Fiction.

Even though this is not a comprehensive overview, there are plenty of recommendations here for those looking for such.  As I read, I jotted down titles in my TBR.  It turned into quite a list, a surprising one at that with entries from Chekhov, Schiller and (Ellen) Wood.  I am, though, rather inclined to undertake this unexpected journey into the classics.  My first stop will be Ancient Greece.  I’m off to meet Oedipus!

A severe case of post-holiday doldrums has robbed me of blogging motivation.  A change is as good as a rest they say, so it is time for something  different …. the Women’s World Cup of Literature, courtesy of Three Percent!

Women's world cup of literature

(Click on the image for a full sized graphic.) More details over at Three Percent, and I heartily recommend you follow their blog, particularly when the tournament, which coincides with the actual Women’s World Cup, begins next Monday.  In the meantime, I’m off to read and gather my thoughts on Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood, The Ministry of Pain – Dubravka Ugresic, The Last Lover – Can Xue, and The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton because on the 22.6 I’m refereeing the 2nd round match Canada/Netherlands vs China/New Zealand.

This will either kill me or cure me!

As I had scheduled some high-brow cultural activities (including a 5-hour marathon staging of Schiller’s Wallenstein!) I decided that I would relax a little and read purely for entertainment’s sake while travelling in Germany last month.  Cue the German crime wave!

The Ludwig ConspiracyMy first destination was Munich, scene of my mid-degree year abroad and only a hop, skip and a jump from many of Bavaria’s best-known tourist attractions.  The same can be said of Oliver Pötzsch’s The Ludwig Conspiracy (translated by Anthea Bell) which starts in an antiquarian bookshop in Munich’s West End but includes “excursions” to all of Ludwing II’s famous castles.  “Excursions” – you’ll know what I mean when I describe the plot a little.

Steven Lukas owns an antiquarian bookshop in Munich’s West End.  His business isn’t thriving but he’s holding on for the love of it.  One day he discovers a book on his shelves that he hasn’t bought – it was parked there for safe keeping by a man since murdered.  Soon Lukas is the prime suspect and on the run, not only from the police, but also from a couple of mysterious organisations who would do anything to get their hands on this strange coded volume. The reason for this being that the book reveals the truth about the death of Ludwig II, Bavaria’s fairy-tale king and builder of Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee and Neuschwanstein. (The truth regarding Ludwig’s death, it must be said, is still shrouded in mystery.)

Clues to crack the codes are to be found at these locations. Hence the tour around Bavaria included in these pages.  Not that I had time to follow them this time but I have visited Ludwig’s castles and the scene of his death multiple times in the past, and I enjoyed revisiting 3stars.JPGthem in Pötzsch’s novel,  I also enjoyed the convoluted plot, the conspiracy and the exuberance of it all.  Pötzsch even manages to reincarnate the mad-king in contemporary times!

There are two narratives: the contemporary narrative solving the puzzle and the historical narrative, which emerges as the mysterious volume is decoded.  This latter gives a good indication of the tensions  in Ludwig’s court, as his fantasies threatened to bankrupt Bavaria and he refused to engage with reality.  Was he really mad? The jury’s out after reading this but I no longer see him as a romantic tragic figure.  I hadn’t realised that he hated Munich so much.  I’ve cooled towards him now …..

The Ludwig Conspiracy would make a fantastic film or mini TV series, though I suspect filming permissions at the key locations would be hard, if not impossible, to obtain.

SilenceMy second read is not located in any of my holiday destinations. Silence by Mechthild Borrmann (translated by Aubrey Botsford) won the German Crime Prize in 2012.  It too involves the uncovering of secrets from the past and serves as a warning. Sometimes the past is best left alone.

Following the death of his father, Robert Lubisch finds a photograph of a unknown woman in his papers and he takes it upon himself to find out who she is.  The only clue he has is the photographer’s stamp on the back.  Having enlisted the help of a journalis, he soons feels uncomfortable and tries to call it off, but the journalist refuses.  Which costs her her life.

Meanwhile on the Mediterranean,  Therese Mende is living in comfortable retirement, yet receiving updates on the investigation back home.  This triggers memories of her happy youth, her troubled teens and her unhappy early married life which culminated in her hasty departure from the village.   These chapters are easily the most powerful of the book as they show the insidious rise of Nazism and the effect on the German people themselves and the divisions caused in close-knit communities.

Lubisch’s research into his father’s past, the contemporary murder investigation and Mende’s memories are skillfully aligned to reveal the truth.  The silence of the past becomes “a membrane of time that cannot endure” and of all the cataclysmic revelations Lubisch discovers that he and his father “were closest when he was lying to me”.  What about? Time for me to preserve silence, I believe.

GoetheglutFinally I returned to Weimar and the second part of Bernd Köstering’s trilogy set in that wonderful place.  In Goetheruh, Hendrik Wilmut,  a renowned Goethe expert, was enlisted by the police to track down the thief stealing artifacts from Goethe’s House.  In Goetheglut, Wilmut finds himself accused of murder and needs to find a crucial piece of Goethe-related evidence to prove his innocence. It’s not easy – whoever is setting him up is intent of destroying him, slowly, surely, piece by piece. And just when he locates the evidence, the library housing – the Anna Amalia Library – burns down. This library is not just a cultural icon in Weimar – it is one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, and the fire in 2004 was real enough. I really enjoy his Köstering builds the real Weimar into these novels and I envy his character’s life there – traumas notwithstanding!

This is not a whodunnit – the haggard man with nothing is present from the start. The question is why done it and that becomes clearer as the victim count mounts. I actually had a certain sympathy with the haggard man’s grievance because Köstering’s main character showed a number of unsympathetic character flaws in these pages. Not quite the charming intellectual of Goetheruh, but then stress can bring out the imperfect side of us all!

WeltverlorenTo finish off my reading and holiday itinerary I needed a crime novel set in Dresden. I couldn’t find anything before I left but found plenty while I was there viewing the sights bookstores. Like Köstering, Beate Baum is using a local literary icon – in her case, Erich Kästner – as a building block for her Kästner-Krimi series.  There are now six volumes – I came back with book 4 – Weltverloren – for reasons that will become clear later in the year.  November, perhaps?  😉

The Ludwig Conspiracy 3hstars

Silence 4stars.GIF

Goetheglut 3stars.JPG

For obvious reasons, shared probably with most of the blogosphere,  I’m avoiding bookshops … Except when I’m at literary festivals or a chance encounter on a city highstreet.  😉  And then I’m not browsing, not book hunting.  Though it might be said the books hunt me!

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the quirky Ayewrite popup bookshop during April. (I’ve written about it before.). Quirky it may be but I always find something unusual and completely new-to-me that somehow transfers from bookshelf to bookbag.  This year was no different.

Ayewrite purchases

Let’s take it from the top.

Tartan Noir claims to be the definitive guide to Scottish Crime fiction and a quick scan of the contents page shows four sections dealing with The Detective Novel, The Police Novel, The Serial Killer Novel and The Noir Novel. Each of those sections in divided into four: a discussion of the particular sub-genre, a discussion of the Scottish variant, a roundup of the Scottish representatives and finally detailed analysis of stirling examples of such.  This is going to be a fascinating and dangerous read.  Fascinating as I will be able to compare Wanner’s analysis with Oxford’s Very Short Introduction to Crime Fiction which OUP very kindly sent recently.  Dangerous because I’m not widely read in Tartan Noir and I suspect that I’ll be taking up Wanner’s recommendations as I go.  It may take me a decade to read this cover to cover!

The book in the middle, Potter’s Field,  is written by a new voice to Tartan Noir, although Chris Dolan is no beginner when it comes to crime writing.  He was one of the screenwriters of Taggart,  a seminal Scottish detective series.  Strapline “There’s been a murder.” I desperately wanted to go to his event, which was one of four openers; 3 of which were tempting.  Unlike Hermione Granger, however, I had to settle for one. So I chose to attend Andy Miller’s  “Read yerself fitter.”  and to buy Chris Dolan’s novel.

Glasgow interiorsFinally a glossy coffee table book chronicling surprisingly glorious interiors of buildings within Glasgow.  Not just the iconic buildings that simply take you breathe away (that’s Glasgow City Chambers on the front cover) but lesser known interiors that impress in their own way.  Pubs, restaurants, tenements, churches, shopping malls all with stunning architectural features, knowledgably described and gloriously photographed.  As spring finally springs, and dry weekends are not for staying in the house, I have a wealth of new places to visit.  One thing to say though, there is no Mackintosh in these pages.  A deliberate omission by the authors who state there are plenty of other publications dealing with his work.  Their objective was to highlight the wealth of other architectural wonders in what was once the second city of the Empire.

So a very Scottish trio, that I’m looking forward to reading over the summer.

They’ll have to wait though because another trio and country is claiming my immediate attention. That’s because spring has sprung and I have wanderlust. Places to visit and not just for the weekend.  Destinations?

die Deutschen

Back soonish.

Ballad of the Hanged Men by François Villon , (translated by Richard Wilbur)

O brother men who after us remain,
Do not look coldly on the scene you view,
For if you pity wretchedness and pain,
God will the more incline to pity you.
You see us hang here, half a dozen who
Indulged the flesh in every liberty
Till it was pecked and rotted, as you see,
And these our bones to dust and ashes fall.
Let no one mock our sorry company,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

If we have called you brothers, don’t disdain
The appellation, though alas it’s true
That not all men are equal as to brain,
And that our crimes and blunders were not few.
Commend us, now that we are dead, unto
The Virgin Mary’s son, in hopes that He
Will not be sparing of His clemency,
But save our souls, which Satan would enthrall.
We’re dead now, brothers; show your charity,
And pray to God that He forgive us all.

We have been rinsed and laundered by the rain,
And by the sunlight dried and blackened too.
Magpie and crow have plucked our eyeballs twain
And cropped our eyebrows and the beards we grew.
Nor have we any rest at all, for to
And fro we sway at the wind’s fantasy,
Which has no object, yet would have us be
(Pitted like thimbles) at its beck and call.
Do not aspire to our fraternity,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.
Prince Jesus, we implore Your Majesty
To spare us Hell’s distress and obloquy;
We want no part of what may there befall.
And, mortal men, let’s have no mockery,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

Such is the power and sincerity of those words that you can tell François Villon (1431-unknown) was convinced that this would be his fate. For not only was/is he the best known French poet of the late middle ages, he was a criminal, sentenced to death in 1461.  In 1463 the sentence was commuted to banishment and, thereafter, he disappeared from view.

brotherhood of Book Hunters

Translated from French by Howard Curtis

Such mysteries are inspirational to historical novelists and Jerusalmy “solves” this one with a conspiracy involving Louis XI, the Bishop of Paris, German bookmakers, secret Jewish societies, corrupt monks, the Inquisition, a double-agent slave girl and a French poet on an adventure that turns him into a kind of medieval Indiana Jones.

It starts reasonably enough,  The condemned Villon is in prison when he is visited by the Bishop of Paris, with a message from the King. In return for his freedom he is to persuade the German bookmaker, Johannes Fust, to set up shop in Paris.  France has no printing press of its own and the King wants that to end.  Printing presses in those days conferred power on those who controlled their output and a way of weakening the power of the Vatican.  So Villon, a man of letters, is to entice Just to Paris with the rare and forbidden books that the King will put at his disposal.

If only it were that easy.

Because in the days when knowledge was power and just beginning to reach the common man thanks to that new-fangled invention, the printing press, those books had powerful enemies. Soon Villon  and his fellow brigand, Colin, are embroiled in plot and counterplot and danger to life and limb as they trek across to the Holy Land to bring more of the contraband to France.  There they must prove themselves to the secretive Brotherhood of Book Hunters, an organisation with the mission to preserve the world’s knowledge by rescuing ancient books and manuscripts from the hands of those who would destroy them.

I’m not going to pretend that I kept up with the numerous twists and turns of the plot.  I just went along for the ride.  I’m not going to pretend that the writing is brilliant. Too much narrative, not enough dialogue but then, in mitigation, there was an awful lot of ground to cover.  (France, The Middle East with diversions to Italy.)  I can’t claim to know whether The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is/was real.  There must be something in Jerusalmy’s theory because how else have ancient, and to the Inquisition heretical texts survived?  Perhaps the Brotherhood is an amalgam of all the courageous individuals in history who have braved the wrath of the establishment to preserve mankind’s intellectual heritage?

I did enjoy the warts and all characterisation of Villon and his fellow Coquillard, Colin;  heroes neither but scoundrels whose most pressing challenge is to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  I lapped up the intrigue, the journey into the past and Jerusalmy’s imagination, and I absolutely revelled in the sheer love of books and learning that infuses these pages.

Recommended for fellow bookworms.


Saturday 18.03.2015

I like my literature and, as you may have guessed from my nom de plume, I ‘m partial to a bit of art history as well. The attraction to this event spotlighting two novels drawing inspiration from the world of art was, therefore, instantaneous.  Of course, I had to read both books before the event, amd what a fantastic experience that was. Well done, Aye Write, for leading me down this particular path.

the blue horsePhilip Miller’s debut novel, The Blue Horse charts George Newhouse’s quest to find a painting by a minor Dutch master, Pieter van Doelenstraat.   Noone is sure if the painting really exists – its existence has been deduced from a throwaway comment made by Doelenstraat’s contemporary, Rembrandt van Rijn – but Newhouse is on a mission to find it.  The novel starts with Newhouse taking up his new job as curator at the Public Gallery in Edinburgh – a gallery as troubled as its curator.  How can a small gallery compete with the National Galleries of the city.  How will the new guy focus on the task to hand when he is a emotional wreck, grieving still for his beloved late wife?

Miller is an arts correspondent – so he knows the good, the bad and the downright murky of the arts world. He was at pains to emphasise that no character is based on his real life acquaintanceship, although some of the events might be. The public gallery’s crisis is precipitated when one of the collections is withdrawn to be displayed in richer galleries in the Middle East. (An echo of what happened when the Duke of Sutherland decided to sell 22 paintings, then displayed in the National Gallery of Scotland.) Strange as it may seem, it would also be quite possible to stage an exhibition of Renaissance paintings graphically depicting Christ’s most personal part (See footnote.)

Stranger still is Miller’s imagination – actually distinctly weird, gothic and surreal.   (Terrifying, said Peggy Hughes, the Ayewrite chair.  Alienating, thought I.  The key to the novel, said the author. What do I know?, thought I.) The licence for these weird images, memories, fantasies, nightmares, realities – you can’t actually be sure  – is George Newhouses’s disturbed mind which he feeds with too much alcohol and too many pills. The result is a pervading sense of menace.  Newhouse (and others) might be looking for a painting, but it appears that the painting is also looking for them!

Miller admitted that this isn’t his first novel.  The first was rejected by publishers.  Too boring, they said. Well, That’s not an accusation  they can level here.  Grief-stricken George Newhouse is an anti-hero you can feel for despite his not inconsiderable flaws.  The gothic menace hauents me still and the denouement involving a (real) underwater nightclub, Russian oligarchs, black yachts, The Blue Horse and Venice in flames left me wondering how on earth we got there?  That’s quite some some ride from Edinburgh.

Will and tomLet Venice be a seque. It was one of Turner’s oils of Venice  that switched me onto him in a huge way. Hence the itch to read Plampin’s Will & Tom, which tells of a week in the lives of painters J M W Turner (who needs no explanation) and Tom Girtin (now largely forgotten).

If George Newhouse is on a mission to find a lost painting, Matthew Plampin is on a mission to rehabilitate Tom Girtin, a talented painter who died at the age of 27, of whom Turner said “Had Girtin lived, I would have starved.”

The week in question takes place in 1797 at Harewood House in Yorkshire, when both painters were commissioned by Edward Viscount Lascelles (known as Beau) to paint his magnificent home. Whether they were both there at the same time is not certain  – the evidence is flimsy and based on Turner’s including two minute figures in one of his paintings of the estate. This one perhaps?

Will & Tom?

EDIT: No it’s not that one – it’s this one and the figures are camoflagued against the hill.

harewood d Castle from the East

Plampin feels that the figures are too considered a detail to have no meaning.  He argues that Turner is making a rather grumpy point about how the two of them conducted themselves on the estate. Grumpy? Turner?  Indeed so even as a young man of 22. An artist from humble background (Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, his father was a barber, his mother a lunatic) making his way on pure merit, earnest, no social airs or graces and no idea of how to conduct or articulate himself among the aristocracy.  Contrast this with Tom Girtin, also of humble background, but willing to adapt,  to change his accent, be charming and to engage with his aristocratic benefactors.  That’s why he is given a room above stairs while Will (if I may be so free) is billeted with the servants.  Tom is also a bit of a libertine, not hard-working.  The one Turner has painted lying on his back …

He does a fair bit of that in the novel as well.  He begins an affair with Mary Ann, Beau’s disgraced younger sister.  All Will wants to do is complete his commission and continue with his Northern tour but this complication makes him stay.  He recognises the danger but wants to ensure his friend escapes without a scandal, career intact. Therein lies a delicious irony because something underhand is at work,  and the longer Will stays, the deeper the hole he digs for himself.

Plampin wasn’t interested in portraying Turner as the institution he became in latter life.  My Will is a strange little man having an incredibly odd week, he said.  He is also naive and vulnerable, and there’s the still-room maid,  Mrs Lamb,  who knows how to play those vulnerabilities to maximum effect. Will is warned multiple times that she is no friend of his, but he will not listen.  Vulnerable and obstinate.  His own worst enemy.

Did any of this happen?  Does it matter?  Plampin feels no responsibility to the historical record.  My job as an historical novelist is to explore the realms of the possible and the probable, he said. As a reader, I felt uncomfortable  – these shenanigans were highly unlikely but then, suddenly I was worried for Tom, worried for Will and I was loving the meticulous setup.  The layers of wash and colour. The fine brushstrokes had pulled me in.  About 2/3rds of the way through, I began to fret about reaching the end!

Rich seams of historically accurate detail highlighting the attitudes of the aristocracy to their benefactees, the origins of the Lascelles’ wealth, the complex relationship between Girtin and Turner, their diverging paths, and a skillful exposition regarding the technicalities of C18th watercolouring more than balance the rather fanciful, though appropriately romantic plot.

The role that money and class plays in the fine arts is a theme shared with The Blue Horse.  There is also a lost artwork – Girtin’s Eidometropolis which perished in a fire in the C19th. Fortunately his watercolours survive and, right now, Harewood House is exhibiting the paintings that both artists produced for Beau Lascelles.  If I lived closer, I’d visit in a heartbeat.

The Blue Horse  35_stars.GIF / Will & Tom 4_stars.GIF

(Footnote: I’m not being coy, I just don’t want a particular search term leading to my part of the blogosphere.)


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