Review: The Lost Get-Back Boogie

The Lost Get-Back Boogie, James Lee Burke. New York: Pocket Star, 2006 (first published 1986).

Summary: On release from prison, Iry Paret leaves Louisiana for Montana for a new start with his prisonmate, Buddy Riordan, only to find he has landed in the midst of new troubles.

Iry Paret has been released from Angola after his sentence for killing a man in a bar fight. He arrives home just in time to be with his father in his last days. He survived Korea, with a Purple Heart. He survived the brutalities of Angola. Despite offers from the family and some inherited land, he decides to leave Louisiana, with the permission of his parole board to start life anew with his prisonmate, Buddy Riordan, who lives on his father Frank’s ranch near Missoula, Montana.

Iry is a dobro and guitar player, a blues player. He hopes for a new start, with music gigs to supplement whatever he can make at the ranch. It seems possible, amid fresh fish from the river and spectacular views. He discovers instead that he has landed himself in the midst of trouble both of, and not of his own making.

Frank Riordan has alienated himself from the rest of the people in his community in his efforts to prevent paper companies from spewing foul smelling pollutants into the pristine air. To most people who either are loggers or work in the paper mills, that is the smell of money. Anyone connected to Frank faces the cold shoulder, or worse, including Iry. The town sheriff has it out for him and would just as soon send him back to Angola. Then he discovers his friend Buddy isn’t doing so well. His difficult relationship with his father and the other perceived failures including his failed marriage to Beth, result in periods of self-medicated oblivion or mania. To top it off, Beth comes on to Iry, who is equally attracted to Beth, and he ends up cuckolding his friend while he lives with him.

And the Lost Get Back Boogie? It’s a song Iry tries to write through much of the book but can never quite get the words for. It seems to represent the longing of this blues player to somehow “get back.” Get back to what? Maybe to life before the memories of the war? To life before Angola? And yet that life seems lost in fresh troubles, and the words don’t come.

This is James Lee Burke before Robicheaux, one of his early works. Yet it already bears the trademarks of his future works. Vivid descriptions of place, albeit of the rugged landscape of Montana rather than the lush Louisiana bayous. Characters torn between longing for peace, a sense of justice, and trouble that dogs their ways. A plot where trouble brews and grows from a number of directions.

This is a book for James Lee Burke fans who discovered him through his Robicheaux stories. As it turns out, he was writing good stories well before Robicheaux. Actually, this was the last novel before Robicheaux and the various Holland stories. It might be a good place to get to know James Lee Burke again for the first time.

Review: The Nature of the Beast

the nature of the beast

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Gamache #11), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: A young boy from Three Pines, prone to fantastic tales, reports seeing a big gun with a strange symbol, and then is found dead, setting off a search for a murderer, and an effort to thwart a global threat.

I never knew about Louise Penny until a year ago. One of the benefits of hosting an online book page is you learn of interesting authors you’ve not heard of. I’ve always loved classic crime fiction, and a great detective. I’ve been converted. Louise Penny’s works, and her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache belong with this group.

I made a mistake and bought number eleven in the series, thinking it was the first. At this point, Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie are retired in the idyllic village of Three Pines in eastern Quebec, a place seemingly forgotten by GPS systems. A local theatre group is rehearsing a play by an unnamed author, She Sat Down and Wept. Gamache and a number of friends, including his successor Isabel Lacoste and his son-in-law Jean Guy are relaxing in a local bistro when Laurent LePage, a nine year old boy prone to telling tall tales bursts in with another one of a huge gun in the forest with a picture of a scary woman being drawn by seven horses on it. No one believes him and Gamache drives him home to his parents, Al and Evie, aging hippies (he, a supposed draft dodger) with a farm on the edge of town.

The next day, Laurent goes missing, and is found dead off the side of the road, apparently having lost control of his bicycle, falling and striking his head on a rock–or so it seems to all but Gamache. Something is not right about the position of the body, but no one buys it. Then Gamache realizes something else–Laurent’s favorite stick (his “gun”) is nowhere to be found. A search in the woods for the “gun” leads to a much bigger gun, hidden in camouflage for years. On it, an engraving of the whore of Babylon, being drawn by seven furious steeds. At it’s base, Laurent’s favorite stick. Laurent was telling the truth, which he paid for with his life. And no one, not even Gamache had believed him. Actually someone did, the murderer.

The story gets more complicated as an elderly physicist and two intelligence agents (“file clerks”) who all had been investigating this weapon for years, descend on the quiet village and join in a quest to unravel the tale of its makers, seeking to find the plans for this weapon, which, in the wrong hands, could bring untold devastation and global conflict.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the author of the play is a wicked, sadistic serial murderer, John Fleming, with whom Gamache has a secret, and haunting connection that has been brought back to life. That is not his only connection to Three Pines. A batty old poet and kindly old grocer also carry haunting memories of this man.

Penny does so many things so well in this book. The setting is one I’ve seen a number of people say they would love to live in. The characters have depth, especially Gamache, but also Reine-Marie, Jean-Beauvoir, Lacoste, and even Ruth Zardo, the batty old poet. Gamache at this stage is deeply conflicted, wounded and weary from his efforts to cleanse the Sureté, yet ambivalent about really calling Three Pines and retired life the only life he will know. The unsolved murder of the boy he did not believe awakens all of this. Combine all this with superb writing and an ever-more suspenseful plot and you have all the ingredients of great crime fiction.

As I write, there are fifteen books in this series with a sixteenth due in September 2020. Temptation, thy name is Gamache! I suspect this won’t be the last review of a Louise Penny work you see here.

Review: Choosing Community

choosing community

Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy L SayersChristine A. Colón. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A compilation of three lectures and responses on the theme of community running through the works of Dorothy L. Sayers.

Dorothy L. Sayers experienced real pain in her relationship with the community of the church. Yet, as Walter Hansen, in the introduction to this book notes, this was not reflected in the love of community reflected both in Sayers’ life and work. This work, drawn from the Ken and Jean Hansen Lectures at Wheaton College, examines the embrace of community reflected in Sayers work in the form of action, faith, and joy. One lecture addresses each of these followed by a brief response.

The first lecture looks at the idea of communities of action. Colón traces the development of her detective fiction, as she moves from solving a crime perpetrated by an individual and solved by a detective, a classic crime fiction trope, to a much more complex vision of community, deeply impacted by crime, and restored by the communal action of people of good will (Lord Peter, Harriet Vane, Bunter, and Inspector Parker, for example), each pursuing with diligence and collegiality their particular roles, serving the wider community.

Communities of faith are the focus of the second lecture. Colón turns to the plays of Sayers for this lecture, showing how these portray the disintegration of community, the formation of communities of faith in The Emperor Constantine and the necessity of atonement in her play The Just Vengeance. Even as Colón considers the plays, she also reflects on Sayers’ love of the players, of how the theater was a kind of community of faith for Sayers–particularly the quality of unflinching devotion to “the show must go on” no matter the personal circumstances of the players–a kind of devotion to one another and a greater purpose she longed for in the body of Christ.

Dorothy Sayers is portrayed by Colón as a joyful woman, delighting in her work, her comrades, sometimes in plain silliness, revealed in facsimiles of correspondence reproduced in the third chapter. She delighted in her associations with theater companies and the Detective Club, communities that combined serious work and celebration. She then turns back to the detective stories, Sayers development of Harriet Vane, and her finding of joy in return to her academic community in Gaudy Night, and in her marriage to Peter and return to the community of her youth in Busman’s Holiday.

Colón introduces us to a vision of community that is not sentimental but one that confronts evil, that gathers around serious work, that involves responsible action on the part of each person, that is formed around faith and devotion, and that is grounded in an undercurrent of deep joy. The responses are marked for brevity, grace, and brief expansions on each of the idea Colón introduces, reflecting the community of which Colón writes.

This is a valuable work for anyone who has enjoyed the writings of Dorothy L. Sayers. If you’ve only sampled the dramas, or the essays, or the detective stories, it takes you into the breadth of Sayers work (apart from her translations of The Divine Comedy and The Song of Roland). I came away wanting to read more of her dramatic works, having mostly read the detective stories and her theological works. It also probes our understanding of community, inviting us into both the responsibilities and possibilities open to communities of faith.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Elephants Can Remember

elephants can remember

Elephants Can Remember (Hercule Poirot #37), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2011 (first published 1972).

Summary: Poirot and crime writer Ariadne Oliver team up at the request of a mother and young couple, to learn the truth about an unexplained double suicide many years earlier.

Celia Ravenscroft and Desmond Burton-Cox want to marry. Desmond’s mother by adoption, looking for cause to oppose it, seeks out the help of crime writer Ariadne Oliver, who is Celia’s godmother. Celia’s parents died years ago in what authorities determined to be a suicide pact. Mrs. Burton-Cox want to know who killed who, and if there is a streak of mental instability that Celia might inherit. Celia and Desmond wish the truth as well.

Oliver enlists her old friend Poirot, and the two of them go in search of “the elephants,” those who remember crucial facts that might bring to light what truly happened, and incidentally, why Mrs. Burton-Cox is really so bent on discouraging the marriage. Along the way, we learn of Mrs. Ravenscroft’s deranged identical twin sister, who died by falling from the same cliffs where the Ravenscrofts took their lives three weeks later. Poirot wonders about the exceptional number of wigs worn by Mrs Ravenscroft, despite a healthy head of hair. What did French au pair know, who was staying at the time of their deaths? Finally, we wonder about the affectionate dog that inexplicably bit.

Reading the story, I was curious how much of Agatha Christie is written into the character of Ariadne Oliver. It was fun to envision Agatha going about with Poirot crime solving. I have to admit that the solution was fairly apparent before the denouement. What I liked about this story was the diverse set of characters Christie offers us: the somewhat eccentric Ariadne Oliver, the strong-willed Celia, the determined Desmond, the unlikable Mrs. Burton-Cox, and the au pair torn by love and the promise to keep a secret. We also encounter an older Poirot, one who sits and thinks even more. We wonder, as does Ariadne at one point, whether he still has his edge. As always, we discover his edge is to listen, to observe, to wait, and to think, drawing on his insights into human nature, until the pieces fall in place.

I didn’t think this was Christie at her best. She left too many clues, too few red herrings. Yet I found the story a pleasant diversion, with a great mix of characters and good pacing. This was published less than four years before her death. Some have speculated that she was struggling with the onset of some form of dementia when she wrote Elephants Can Remember. Perhaps the title was a valiant attempt to say “I’ve still got what it takes!” She was in her early 80’s when she wrote this–and still capable of writing circles around younger writers!

Review: Wolf Pack

wolf pack.jpg

Wolf Pack (Joe Pickett #19), C. J. Box. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019.

Summary: Strong-armed by the F.B.I. from prosecuting illegal drone activity, and confronting a drug cartel’s killers known as the Wolf Pack, Joe Pickett is challenged to protect a community and those he most loves as deaths mount.

It all began with the drone. Game wardens Joe Pickett and Katelyn Hamm try to investigate an illegal drone operator who is causing the death of wildlife. As they get close to prosecuting the offender, they are shut down by strong arm F.B.I. operatives from New York. What is more troubling is that the offender’s son is dating Pickett’s daughter Lucy.

Meanwhile there is a vicious group of contract killers headed Pickett’s way, after a brutal killing in Arizona connected to the mysterious residents being protected by the F.B.I. in Pickett’s town. Known as the Wolf Pack, each of the four are methodical killers, but the scariest is a woman, Abriella, seductively attractive one minute, and utterly cold-blooded in killing the next. As events unfold, she becomes the leader of the Wolf Pack.

Their target is “Mecca” who turns out to be our drone pilot in witness protection. As Pickett and his friends begin to connect the dots, the Wolf Pack closes in. Falconer Nate Romanowski sees them roll into town and suspects something foul. Innocent people start turning up dead. As Katelyn, Joe, Nate, a prosecutor, a career F.B.I. agent, a judge, and a sheriff piece together what is going on, they in turn are recognized as dangerous witnesses. They become targets as well with the reader wondering who will come out of all this alive and what will happen to Pickett’s daughter and her boyfriend and Nate’s expectant partner, who all end up in the the climactic confrontation with the Wolf Pack out of which not all will survive.

I’ve heard from other friends who love crime fiction that C.J. Box is a great read. I concur. This was the first of his novels I’ve read (the nineteenth in the series), and I could not put it down. It is not only the rising sense of tension, but the growing sense of appreciation one develops, even in a single work, of the character Joe Pickett. He’s a country game warden who outsmarts New York rogue F.B. I. agents, who is relentless in the execution of his job of protecting wildlife and enforcing game laws, while utterly loyal to his friends. He’s a survivor with a former governor as his defender, helping him get his job back.

Equally, in Abriella, Box creates a truly sinister character, one whose bloodlust is fueled by revenge against all the men who raped her, so scary in the mercurial turns of her temper that even her fellow Wolf Pack members fear her. What will happen when Pickett and Abriella finally face each other, as the reader knows they will?

Review: Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table (Hercule Poirot #15), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011 (originally published 1936).

Summary: Mr. Shaitana, who throws great parties, but seems to be feared by many, throws a party for the entertainment of Poirot, with four guests who he claims have gotten away with murder, and ends up murdered himself, but with no clue as to who the murderer was.

Mr. Shaitana was an enticing host of great dinner parties. Yet people feared him. “Mephistophelian” is a word that describes him,  after the elegant demon who deceived Faust. A seemingly chance meeting with Hercule Poirot leads to a boast of knowing murderers who had gotten away with their crimes and what proves an unwise idea of hosting a party at which Poirot, Scotland Yard Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist are invited to join four guests presumably guilty of murder. The four other guests are Dr. Roberts, daring in bridge and perhaps in life, Mrs. Lorrimer, an intelligent and proper widow, Major Despard, an adventurer, and young and seemingly vulnerable Anne Meredith.

After dinner the four guests adjourn to play bridge. The four sleuths play in one room. The four “murderers” play in the other. Shaitana joins them by the fire. At the conclusion of play Shaitana appears asleep, but has been stabbed in the heart with a sharp implement from his collection. No one but the four bridge players, the four who had gotten away with murderer had been in the room. None says they saw anything amiss.

And so begins the sleuthing. Interviews with each of the guests. An investigation to learn if they could have committed a previous murder they would cover up. Battle, shrewd but stolid pursue conventional police methods. Race pursues inquiries on Major Despard. Mrs. Oliver focuses on young Anne and her roommate Rhoda Dawes. Poirot focuses on the bridge scores and what each remembers of the play, and the details of the room. Each has been connected with a murder. Things get more exciting yet with one more murder and another murder attempt. When we think the murderer of Shaitana is arrested, there is one more twist before the real murderer is exposed. In the end, the scores and play at bridge yield the critical clue.

Many consider this among Christie’s best novels. She pokes fun at herself in the character of novelist Ariadne Oliver.

” ‘I can always think of things,’ said Mrs. Oliver happily. ‘What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve written only thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then, I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It’s all very boring.’ “

It is enjoyable to see the character and interactions of the sleuths, the subtlety of the clues, and the surprise at the end when we think we have the murderer, caught in the act of attempted murder. This is a great summer read, or for any time one needs an engaging diversion.

Review: Robicheaux

Robicheaux

Robicheaux (Dave Robicheaux #21), James Lee Burke. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Robicheaux tries to navigate his way through grief from the tragic death of his wife, his friend’s debt issues, a mobster wanting to make a movie, a demagogic politician and a serial murderer, while trying to clear himself of suspicion in the death of the man who killed his wife.

This has all the elements of a James Lee Burke mystery. A complicated plot, lush descriptions of Louisiana, Confederate soldiers in the mists, Robicheaux under a cloud of suspicion, a grown up Alafair, and a new raccoon to replace Tripod. What’s not to like?

Robicheaux finds himself caught between his loyalty to his old friend Clete Purcell, deep in debt with mobsters holding the markers. The mobster, Tony Nemo wants to make a Civil War movie with novelist Levon Broussard. Alafair, now a screenwriter, ends up writing the adaptation of Broussard’s novel, against Robicheaux’s advice. Demagogue politician Jimmy Nightingale with senatorial ambitions (or more) also wants to meet him and capture some of his lustre. Instead he ends up being charged with raping Broussard’s wife Rowena. But the evidence is shaky, and the only questionable relationship in his life is his relation with Emmeline Nightingale, somehow related to him, and deeply invested in his success.

All through this, Robicheaux struggles with the grief of losing his wife Molly, who died in a tragic car accident. In a downward spiral, he has a conversation that could be construed as threatening with the man whose truck killed her, Dartez. He goes off the wagon, gets drunk, blacks out, and learns that Dartez is dead under suspicious circumstances. Some of the clues, including fingerprints on the truck window glass, connect Robicheaux to the scene and a shady detective in his department, Spade LaBiche.

Sheriff Helen Soileau sticks with him, though she is tempted to desk him. He pursues these different investigation, and then a series of murders by an Elmer Fudd-like character, Smiley, who likes children, kills those who abuse them or cross him, as well as an index card list that someone has supplied to him, via a variety of means from expert marksmanship to up-close and gruesome murders. It all leads up to a political rally with Nightingale, who increasingly is associated with white supremacists where Robicheaux, Clete and Clete’s former girlfriend Detective Sherri Picard converge to stop Smiley before he can do more harm.

The plot and all its subplots can be challenging to follow and one wonders if Burke makes it more bewildering than it need be. Also, the graphic descriptions of violence may not be to the taste of some. Yet the mounting suspense keeps one turning the pages. Robicheaux is deeply flawed and wounded, and yet gropes his way to doing the right thing, even if it means he is guilty of murder.

Burke’s character, Jimmy Nightingale, is an exploration of the particular form of charisma that sways even such a hard-bitten character as Robicheaux. One wonders at the seductive powers of various demagogues through history, and the dark underside of wealth and power that accompanies the personal magnetism. Burke doesn’t attempt to account for such people, but this character is a warning: Beware, they are out there.

This is only the second Robicheaux novel I’ve read, and the most recent. The multi-dimensional character of Robicheaux and the challenging plots have me ready to go back and begin reading the early ones.

Review: Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide, Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2002 (first published 1944).

Summary: Six table guests meet a year after the apparent suicide death of Rosemary Barton, and when her husband dies by the same means, it is apparent there is a murderer in their midst.

“Six people were thinking of Rosemary Barton who had died nearly a year ago…”

So begins the mystery. The six will be gathered at the same table at the Luxembourg where nearly a year ago Rosemary Barton, recently ill from the flu and possibly depressed, died of cyanide in her champagne, apparently from her own hand, from the evidence found in her purse.

The six are introduced one by one.

Iris Marle is the younger sister of Rosemary. The poor younger sister, since Rosemary had received a great inheritance from her Uncle Paul, which Iris would only receive if Rosemary died childless.

Ruth Lessing is the super-efficient secretary of Rosemary’s husband George, who secretly harbors an unreciprocated love for him, and hatred for Rosemary. He relies on her to handle tough situations in work and personal life, including dispatching the devious Victor Drake, whose singular accomplishment is wheedling money from his mother Lucilla, Iris’s aunt and chaperone. She apparently succeeds, but not before Victor insinuates himself into her thoughts and arouses her hatred for Rosemary.

Anthony Browne is an American of whom little is known. He tries and strikes out in having an affair with Rosemary, and then surreptitiously wins the heart of Iris who he wants to secret away to marry, flouting her guardian, George Barton.

Stephen Farraday is an ambitious young Member of Parliament who has married into the powerful Kidderminster clan through Sandra, the shyest, but also perhaps the most politically savvy or even ruthless of the sisters. Stephen, despite his love for and appreciation of his partner, has an affair with Rosemary, realizes there is little of substance to her, and much to his wife, and painfully breaks it off, against the wishes of Rosemary who has threatened to make the affair public.

Sandra Farraday genuinely loves her husband, perhaps more than he does her, at first. He thinks she doesn’t know about the affair, but in fact she does, and despises Rosemary, reconciles with Stephen and makes common cause with him.

Finally there is George Barton. He believes the account of Rosemary’s suicide until he receives letters intimating it was murder, which leads him to move close to the Farradays, and to devise a dinner at the same table of the same restaurant nearly a year later, to expose the murderer. They arrive to find an extra place, supposedly for his friend, Colonel Race, an ex-Army Colonel and MI-5 agent who tried to warn him off this dangerous game. The empty place is set with a spray of rosemary.

After the uneasy party returns from dancing, George proposes a toast to Rosemary, and promptly collapses, also poisoned by cyanide in his champagne. It is clear this is no suicide, and that Rosemary’s death was not either. There is a murderer in their midst. But there are troubling questions. Who sent the letters? And who poisoned the champagne, when none of those at the table had an opportunity. These are the questions that stymie Race, and Chief Inspector Kemp, until an unlikely ally helps them figure it out, and thwarts a third murder in the nick of time.

The story is developed with economy and it is intriguing to see how many motives Christie contrives to make each of the parties a plausible suspect. Not unlike other Christies, it pays to attend to details, and to question your assumptions. And enjoy!

Review: In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead

electric mist

In the Electric Mist With Confederate DeadJames Lee Burke. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011 (my Avon edition, 1994).

Summary: Investigation of multiple rapes and murders, and a murder from 1957 confront Robicheaux with dark figures from his past, and pose a threat to all he holds dear.

If Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote crime fiction about rural Louisiana, he might have produced this book. I didn’t expect to encounter magical realism in this, the sixth of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux stories. It was strange, but for me it worked better than some of the Marquez I have read. The magical realism part has to do with dreams or waking visions of the Confederate dead (hence the title), appearing first to an oft-drunk movie actor, Elrod Sykes, and then to Robicheaux, who is now stone-cold sober. Robicheaux even has conversations with General John Bell Hood, who seems to be his version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, speaking in metaphors and riddles that offer clues and sometimes warnings.

The story begins with a gruesome kidnapping-rape-murder of a young woman. While investigating the murder, Robicheaux pulls over a drunken Elrod Sykes, who subsequently proceeds to tell him a story of seeing Confederate soldiers in the Atchafalaya swamp where he is being filmed by a movie company that has more or less taken over Robicheaux’s New Iberia (in more ways than one). He also tells him of finding a dead body in chains. It turns out this is no drunken illusion. The body is near a location where Robicheaux had witnessed a murder of a black prisoner in chains — in 1957 — reported but dismissed by the authorities.

He’s joined in the investigation by an F.B.I investigator, Rosie Gomez, partly because of the kidnapping element (and evidence of more murders), but also because of the presence of Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni, an investor in the film, who has returned from the New Orleans underworld to New Iberia, where his family once controlled organized crime. He and Robicheaux were also once classmates, and baseball team mates. He has a group of “associates” including his consigliere, Chollo, the movie security guy, Murphy Doucet, a former cop, and Twinky LeMoyne, Doucet’s partner.

In an unlikely turn of events, Sykes ends up living with Robicheaux after his girlfriend, Kelly is shot. He quickly becomes a favorite with Bootsie, Dave’s wife, and his daughter Alafair, and manages to discover a new-found sobriety. Robicheaux, however, as he investigates Balboni and his connections falls out of favor with the townsfolk, and then is set up taking the fall for a murder of an unarmed prostitute. Evidence exonerates him but then another murder of an old detective friend comes closer to home. Throughout, he continues to see Hood and his soldiers at key turning points. The closer he gets to the killer he seeks, and the solution to the 1957 murder he witnessed, the closer danger comes to him until an exciting conclusion.

One of the qualities of Burke’s work is his descriptive power to create an atmosphere, in which you feel the humidity, smell the trees, the ozone of the lightning, the fetid smells of the swamps. I’ve never been to that part of the country but I felt like I was there as I read. Robicheaux is a fascinating character–a Vietnam vet with troubled memories, a reformed alcoholic, someone who carries troubled memories and lives in an uneasy truce with them, who has a strong sense of rectitude, and yet will bend the rules of evidence and interrogation in pursuit of his ends.

This was my first Robicheaux novel, picked because of a recommendation of a bookseller, and the intriguing title as much as anything. Burke’s writing, and Robicheaux’s character were good enough that I am ready to come back for more.

Review: Basil

Basil

Basil (Oxford World Classics), Wilkie Collins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 (originally published in 1852).

Summary: The account of a secret marriage between an aristocrat’s son and the daughter of a shopkeeper and all the ways things went terribly wrong.

You are the second, and favored son of a wealthy aristocrat. Your older brother, Ralph, is alienated from your stern father because of his indiscretions. Your sister, Clara, adores you, and delights in your company and wants only the best for you in all things.

And then one day you are smitten with a young girl you see on an omnibus–so smitten you discretely follow her home. Subsequently you see her in her window, talking to her parrot. You know this is love. You learn she is Margaret Sherwin, the daughter of a linen draper, a shop keeper well below your social class. You know your father would never countenance such a relationship. Keeping your intentions secret from him and your sister, you manage an interview with Margaret’s father, speaking of your love, and seeking her hand in marriage. Mr. Sherwin agrees on one condition–that they marry in a week but not consummate the relationship for a year. He also has to take an insurance policy on his life. Without consulting anyone, he accepts. And so begins a strange relationship that eventuates in a betrayal, insanity, exile, death and mortal danger to the title character.

Basil goes through with the wedding, and is permitted to see her regularly, chaperoned by Mrs. Sherwin, who seems disturbed in some way about all this. Basil keeps all of this secret from his family. They know he has a secret, which estranges him, even as they respect the secret in their rectitude, and in Clara’s case, her affection and concern. At first, things seem wonderful between Margaret and Basil, with evenings spent reading and talking together.  Then Mr. Sherwin’s assistant Robert Mannion returns, with whom Mrs. Sherwin is decidedly uneasy. Margaret’s mood seems to change at this time, even as Mannion acts with unfailing courtesy toward Basil, even welcoming him to his apartment on a stormy night. As they part, a bolt of lightening illuminates Mannion’s face, giving it a sinister appearance. Only on the evening before the year is up does Basil discover the evil when he spots Mannion escorting Margaret, not to her home, but a hotel room!

I won’t spoil the rest of the story except that this is where the tale of insanity, betrayal, mortal danger, and death comes in–along with an element of family revenge. The buildup to all these things occupies roughly the first half of the book, and, at least this reader found himself wanting to shake Basil and alert him to how he is being taken advantage of by this conspiracy of father and daughter, and of the sinister Mannion. Ah, love is blind! It is the second half that is riveting as all of this blows up in Basil’s face, and his secret is exposed to his family. These pages seemed to read much more quickly, particularly as we discover the mania of Mannion (interesting name for a character!).

This is early Wilkie Collins, his second novel (the first was destroyed) and second publication, the first being a memoir on his father’s life. The plot seems a bit to obvious, and the characters are caricatures to a certain degree. It is obvious that Collins can tell a story, in this case through a first person narrative of the title character, and the story redeems some of the other flaws.

There are at least two aspects of Victorian society that Collins exposes. One is the rigid class structures that prevent marrying below one’s class and engender both the harsh rectitude of Basil’s father, and the resentments of Mr. Sherwin and the vengeance of Mannion.

The inferior place of women in this social structure also is in evidence. Basil and Mr. Sherwin really decide Margaret’s fate. Mrs. Sherwin is silenced (at least until the climactic events of the story). Clara is the loving but ineffectual sister. Ralph, the outlaw brother, is the one who gets things done. Margaret can only assert her wishes through manipulation, or an adulterous affair.

It seems here that Collins evolves in his later fiction. Consider the contrast between these characters and Valeria in The Law and the Lady (review). The Victorian structures still exist, but Collins has begun to envision stronger women characters and more creative plot possibilities for them.

If you are a Wilkie Collins fan and have read works like The Moonstone, or The Woman in White, or the above-mentioned The Law and the Lady, you will find this work of interest not only for the themes, but to see the development of Collins’s skill. If you are just discovering Collins, one of the first to write in the genre of crime fiction, I would go with either The Moonstone or The Woman in White first, and if you find you like him, then delve into other works, including this, the earliest published of his novels.