Review: 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.



Review: The Gods of Gotham

Gods of Gotham

The Gods of Gotham, Lindsay Faye. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012.

Summary: The first in the author’s Timothy Wilde series, in which Wilde, a newly installed New York Policeman in 1845, encounters a blood-covered girl, whose story leads to the discovery of twenty dead children and an assignment to find the killer before anti-Irish rage consumes the city.

Timothy Wilde and his older brother Val were orphaned when their parents died in a fire. The brothers survived by their wits, especially Val’s, who nevertheless became a New York City fireman, while dousing his pain in opiates. Timothy struggled with the life Val had chosen, and pursued a different path, tending bar on the lower end of Manhatten.

Until the fire. Until the bar was destroyed, he was burned in an explosion, and rescued by his brother. The fortune he’d accumulated was lost in the fire–a fortune with which he hoped to marry Mercy Underhill, a Protestant minister’s daughter who he had admired since childhood for both her looks and her charitable work among New York’s poor.

Val, ensconced in politics, gets both himself and Timothy a job on the newly formed New York City Police Department, the “copper stars” or “coppers.” Maintaining order in the city has become much more difficult with a mass influx of Irish immigrants driven to seek a new life by the Irish Potato Famine. Timothy is not crazy about the work, particularly after he arrests a poor woman not in her right mind who had killed her infant son and takes her to the Tombs, the New York City jail.

Returning home to his apartment above Mrs. Boehme’s bakery one night, a young girl covered in blood collides with him at his door. Gradually, he gets the story out of her, not only of little Liam’s gruesome death by the dark hooded man at Silkie Marsh’s brothel, but the other children who died similarly and were buried in a mass grave on the north edge of town. Subsequent investigation reveals that the girl, Bird Daly, is telling the truth for once, each child being cut open brutally in the shape of a cross. Chief Matsell tasks Wilde with finding the murderer before the news breaks and anti-Irish sentiment reaches a flash point.

The story takes many twists and turns from there as several letters are received, including one to the New York papers, and one to Dr. Palsgrave, the some-time coroner who determined the cause of the deaths. There is another murder, a child hung on the door of the Catholic Church, seemingly incriminating Fr. Sheehy. Timothy is warned off the investigation, and faces death several times as well as riots as feelings reach a boiling point. His relation with his brother is strained, as he thinks the brother has taken away Bird Daly, or may even be the murderer.

The novel reveals a seamy side of New York involving brothels, child prostitution and Protestant-Catholic hatreds and racial prejudice. We witness a police department that is an organ of party patronage. Yet in the end, Wilde solves the crime with the help of some butcher paper on which he works out all the evidence until he finally realizes where it points. For his troubles, Chief Matsell assigns him to solve crimes rather than prevent them. And so a new series is born!

Much of the dialogue is in “flash,” a secret language that derived from the British criminal underground and used among the working classes of the day. Chief Matsell is a historical figure and actually compiled a lexicon of the language, which he is seen doing during the story. The author provides an abbreviated glossary at the beginning with a number of terms.

Tensions between brothers, a possible serial killer of child prostitutes, the grit and bustle of mid-nineteenth century New York, and characters who are not always what they seem all make for a gripping read. I’m glad for the Barnes and Noble bookseller who recommended this book. Don’t be surprised if you see subsequent numbers of this series (now up to three) reviewed here.

Review: The Bookman’s Tale

The Bookman's Tale

The Bookman’s TaleCharlie Lovett. New York: Viking, 2013.

Summary: Peter Byerly, a recently bereaved bookseller living in a small English village, comes across a hundred year old watercolor that is a striking image of his deceased wife, a find that sets him on a trail leading to what could be a major literary discovery,  but also to danger and murder.

It seems of late that I have discovered that there is a whole genre of mysteries set around the book trade. Most, including this work, on not destined to be literary classics. What this book does is combine descriptions of the world of antiquarian bookselling and restoration, with a riveting crime mystery, and with a tragic love story thrown in.

Peter Byerly has recently lost is wife at a young age and moved to the village of Kingham, England, living in the cottage he and Amanda renovated just before her death. In an effort to resume his bookselling career he peruses the shelves of a local bookseller. Inside a volume on literary forgeries, he discovers a watercolor that must be a hundred years old that could have been a painting of his wife. The only indication of the painter’s identity is an inscription that says “BB/EH.”

He teams up with an art expert who can shed no further light on the mystery. Meanwhile, the Aldersons of Everlode Manor invite him to help them sell some of their books. Julia, the sister reveals a box of documents in a box labeled “never to be sold.” They all appear of value, but none more than what Peter finds at the bottom–a slim volume that appears to be a first edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, on which Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was based. Valuable as the edition may be, the real find are the marginal notes that appear to be written in Shakespeare’s hand–the Holy Grail of literary finds. There was something else: a list of owners where once again the initials BB/EH appear. This launches a quest to determine the book’s genuineness, provenance, and particularly the identity of BB/EH and how the book and painting are connected.

There is much more at stake than simply a great literary find. An art scholar who is working on a book that may shed light on the identity winds up dead with Peter framed for the murder. He and Liz are faced with the challenge of finding the true murderer before Peter is arrested, which brings them into greater danger yet.

This narrative is broken up with two others. One is the narrative of the Pandosto’s history, passing from one owner or bookseller to the next. The other is the growth of Peter’s two loves: for antiquarian bookselling and restoration under Francis Leland, the curator of Ridgefield Library’s Amanda Devereaux rare book collection, and for another Amanda, Amanda Ridgefield, the granddaughter of Amanda Devereaux, and whose family gave the school its name.

The three narratives alternate, tracing the book to BB/EH, Peter and Amanda’s relationship until her death, and the exciting denouement of the story. Apart from the many late night lovemaking episodes on the carpet under the portrait of Amanda Devereaux in the library, which seemed a bit creepy, the alternating narratives worked, both sustaining and relieving the plot tension. As I noted earlier, the reader gains a glimpse into the meticulous cared of book preservation, restoration, and binding, and something of the world of antiquarian bookselling and the authentication of rare and valuable works. Combine this with a murder mystery, and you have a delightful diversion for  bibliophile.


Review: Sun and Shadow


Sun and Shadow, Åke Edwardson, translated by Laurie Thompson. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Summary: DCI Erik Winter, newly bereaved of his father, is confronted with a gruesome double-homicide of two sexual “swingers”, the possibility of involvement within his own ranks, and a pattern of clues that suggests that his partner, pregnant with their first child, may be at risk.

I am a fan of Penguin mysteries. I will often buy one even if I’m not familiar with the author, because I’ve found them to be consistently well-written and well-crafted as mysteries. I came across this one in a second hand store, by Swedish crime writer Åke Edwardson. I was not disappointed but it took reading the first hundred pages to fully engage my attention. After that, I was riveted.

In the first hundred pages, we are introduced to the characters, especially Detective Chief Inspector Erik Winter, impeccably dressed, a lover of jazz, and engaged in a serious relationship with Angela, a doctor who is bearing their first child. Much of the first part of the book is taken up with his final visit with his dying father in Spain, interrupted by a bloody double murder involving sexual “swingers” back in Gothenburg. We are introduced to Patrik, a newspaper carrier who in fact saw the murderer and first suspects something is not right in the flat where the murder occurred, his girlfriend, Maria, the building caretaker who reports the murder (and is also caretaker in Winters’ building), and the police who work with Winter. As it turns out, all this scene-setting and character development is important as we follow Winter into the investigation.

Winter’s investigation centers around clues left by the murderer. A cassette of “black metal” music with its lyrics. The word “Wall” written in blood with the “W” circled. The beheaded heads of the victims swapped on their bodies. Then there are the calls to his flat when only Angela is there. The presence of someone in the caretaker’s basement cubbyhole in his building. A second murder of another “swinging” couple. A crime psychiatrist thinks the clues point toward someone who wants to be stopped. By Winter. Evidence points to a policeman or someone dressing as one. Can the people around Winter be trusted? Is Angela and their baby in danger?

One finds oneself more and more drawn into the suspense as the killer and Winter get closer to each other. Skillful misdirection has us suspecting several different individuals even as we approach the book’s climax. The plot is dark, yet we have decent people wrestling with the profound realities of life against the gruesome backdrop. I was delighted to discover at the Penguin Random House website that there are at least four other Erik Winter mysteries available. Winter is a well-drawn character, and Edwardson a fine writer whose work I want to come back to. I think you will as well.

Review: From London Far

From London FarMichael Innes is the pseudonym of J.I.M Stewart who served as a lecturer at Queens College in Belfast and eventually as a professor at Oxford until retirement in 1973. Under his pseudonym, he wrote nearly 50 crime mysteries between 1936 and 1986. His most famous character is Sir John Appleby, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. All my encounters with Innes’ work up until now were works in which Appleby appeared.

From London Far is not one of these. The plot centers around Richard Meredith, an Oxford don comfortable in the study of Martial and Juvenal, who wanders into a tobacconist shop and in a scholarly reverie mutters, “London, a poem”. This sounds close enough to a secret password gaining him admission into an underworld of art thieves, which he quickly realizes as he comes across stolen works of Titian and Giotto. He discovers he is being mistaken for a German conspirator, Vogelsang, and that a woman being held, Jean Halliwell, has also gotten mixed up in this plot. Through quick thinking, he succeeds in pretending to be Vogelsang, kills the real Vogelsang when he turns up, and leads Jean in a hair-raising escape through chutes and across rooftops.

As they compare notes, they decide not to do the sensible thing and go to the police, but to take off to an island off the coast of Scotland to confront the apparent mastermind of these art thefts, Sir Properjohn, who ends up being the front man for the real mastermind, Don Perez. Along the way, they encounter a pair of eccentric sisters living in a rundown castle on the island, learn of the abduction of Higbed, a distinguished psychiatrist, and end up captured only to be abandoned on a sinking sub.

In Bond-like style, they manage to escape, which leads to the third part of this story, their encounter with the eccentric millionaire industrialist, Otis K. Neff and his crazy conveyor-belt mansion. It turns out that he is the buyer of all the stolen works. I will leave the denouement, and the role Higbed plays in all this, for you to discover if you wish.

J.I.M Stewart (a.k.a Michael Innes

J.I.M Stewart (a.k.a Michael Innes)

It all seemed to stretch plausibility a bit, but probably not more than a James Bond novel or movie, and likewise with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. I wondered if this was Innes’ way of poking fun at this genre of books (although this novel antedates Fleming’s first Bond novel by six years). This is also another in the genre of detective fiction that revolves around Oxford settings and characters, including some of the works of Dorothy L. Sayers and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books and the Lewis  spinoff. If you like these kinds of stories, From London Far and other Innes’ works might give you a new vein to explore.

I have to say I am one who does enjoy such stories, but I still found this one a bit far-fetched, though not unenjoyable. I want to return to the Sir John Appleby stories that I have not read (a good number). For literary style, and storytelling Innes is right up there with P.D. James, Sayers, and others of his period, and worth discovering if you have not read his work.