As you know, I read a lot of crime. But I don't read it for the violence or the blood, both of which I rather recoil from. I read it for the mystery. That's why I love Sophie Hannah's books so much -- she sets you up at the beginning with an impossible situation, and you just have to keep reading to see how on earth she will explain it. And that's pretty much was happens in The Stranger.
The stranger didn't shatter Adam's world all at once. That was what Adam would tell himself later, but that was a lie. Adam somehow knew right away, right from the very first sentence, that the life he had known as a content suburban married father of two was forever gone. It was a simple sentence on the face of it, but there was something in the tone, something knowing and even caring, that let Adam know that nothing would ever be the same.
'You didn't have to stay with her', the stranger said.
So who is the mysterious stranger, and how does he know so much about Adam and his family -- more, much more, than Adam knows himself? Once the disturbing secret has been revealed, and Adam, who is a lawyer, has done enough investigation to know that the stranger's claims are true, all his beliefs and certainties are completely undermined.
So yes, this is a novel about shattering the American dream, an old old story, you might think. But Coben does it with great sensitivity, depicting the relationship between Adam and his two teenage sons in a way that is wholly believable and extremely touching. Adam is a good man forced to behave in ways that are completely out of character, and uncovering more and more disturbing secrets as he goes along. Certainly neither he nor the boys will ever be the same again, but by the end they have come through and you are left with a feeling of optimism for whatever their futures may bring.
There are twists and turns all the way through the novel, red herrings galore, and some extremely odd revelations underpin the central mystery. Cyber crime features heavily -- when does it not, in contemporary crime novels these day? I'm not sure how entirely convincing the final revelations were -- this is often the trouble, and happens with Sophie Hannah too -- the more impossible the initial situation, the trickier it is to find a plausible solution. But you know what? I didn't care in the least. It was a real page turner (or page flicker, if like me you are reading it as an ebook) and I whizzed through it with great pleasure.
As you may know, I'm constantly on the lookout for interesting paintings to show you on here. The blog has a regular Saturday art slot, which usually includes women reading, or writing, or something along those lines. But though its not Saturday, I'm sharing this one today because I thought it so strange and unsettling and didn't want to keep it to myself.
This is Thomas Dewing, The White Dress, 1901. Dewing (1851-1938) was an American artist, who apparently has a whole room to himself in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC. I haven't been able to find any commentary online about this particular painting, but can you see what I mean about it being unsettling? It's something to do with the relationship between the two figures. The seated woman seems to be deliberately keeping her back turned, and the white-dressed woman appears to have her hands on her hips, as if she's annoyed. What is going on, I wonder? Are they quarrelling? Is it a wedding dress? No idea. But he's a fascinating artist and you'll be seeing more of him soon.
Well, here's a bit of a surprise. I'd never heard of Erik Koeppel but assumed he was a little known 19th century artist. However, having googled him I've just discovered he was born in 1980! According to a website I found, 'Koeppel’s mastery of traditional techniques has led him to become one of very few young contemporary artists whose work is regularly exhibited with historic masters of the 19th and early 20th Centuries'. You can see more of his paintings on Pinterest , including this one -- unusual in that it's a portrait, as he mostly seems to do landscapes. This is called 'Portrait of a Romantic'.
I've read a great many novels by PD James, and until a few weeks ago, if you'd asked me, I might have told you that I'd probably read them all. But recently I happened on a couple that were completely new to me, and dashed through them in quick succession. The Skull Beneath the Skin (1985) was the second (and last) Cordelia Gray mystery, published ten years after Cordelia's first appearance in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and The Black Tower (1975) the fifth of the much longer Adam Dalgleish series.
It was interesting to read them end to end. Though the dates of their first publication were ten years apart, there were several noticeable similarities. Both are set in remote locations on or near the Dorset coast (The Skull Beneath the Skin takes place on an invented island), both feature rather bizarre and sinister households presided over by decidedly strange ageing men with peculiar menservants, and in both novels a small Victorian marble carving is crucial to the events surrounding the murder.
Of the two, I preferred The Skull Beneath the Skin. I think this owed a lot to the presence of Cordelia, an attractively unusual though highly professional private detective. In this novel she is asked to go to a reconstructed Victorian castle where a semi-amateur production of Webster's Jacobean drama The Duchess of Malfi is to be played for just one performance, with the celebrated actress and ageing beauty Clarissa Lyle in the leading part. Lyle has been receiving death threats, and her husband has hired Cordelia to protect her. Though she does her best, needless to say Clarissa is murdered. Most people on the island seem to have good reason to do away with her -- of course it's a classic locked room, or in this case cut-off island mystery -- but the perpetrator is, again needless to say, the person who seems the least likely in every possible way. And yes, Cordelia does work it out, though she is distressed by what she uncovers.
I have to admit I've never been all that crazy about the sensitive, poetry-writing, wife-mourning Commissioner Adam Dalgleish. In The Black Tower he is not in a good way at all. In fact as the novel begins he has just been discharged from hospital where he has been suffering from some very serious though unspecified illness, and has been told to take time off and convalesce. So he decides to answer an appeal from an old family friend, Father Baddeley, the chaplain at Toynton Grange, a home for people with incurable illnesses. Father Baddeley believes there's something sinister going on at the Grange, but by the time Adam arrives, he has died, apparently from natural causes. The patients start popping off too, and Adam -- who has made up his mind to resign from the police -- is drawn into solving the mystery. In actual fact the Grange is about the most sinister and gothic place you can imagine -- the owner and most of the people who work for him go around in monks' habits for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, and there's a very creepy black tower just along the cliffs where strange and worrying things go on. Naturally Adam gets sucked into an investigation, protesting every inch of the way, and of course he manages to solve the crime/s in the nick of time.
It sounds as if I'm being a bit sniffy about these two novels, but in fact they were both highly readable if somewhat macabre. I commented to a friend when I was reading the first one that it was nice to read some grown-up writing for a change. Good well written prose, plenty of literary references, intelligent and thoughtful, and clearly aimed at well-read adults. Call me old-fashioned if you like, and you'd probably be right. But James certainly knew how to craft a complex plot and to create excellent, if rather odd and rarely likeable, characters. Maybe there are one or two more of her novels that have slipped through my radar -- I rather hope so. She was a hugely talented writer and an unforgettable woman.
I recently read, and really loved, Peter Swanson's second novel, The Kind Worth Killing. You have to wait for the review till Shiny 5 comes out on 7 April, but my enthusiasm for it was so great that I got hold of this one, his debut, and plunged in straight away.
The Kind Worth Killing is told in chapters narrated by several different alternating narrators, and this one uses a similar device, except that this time we are constantly moving between two timeframes, the present day and a past about twenty years earlier. The main protagonist is George Foss, who is now the manager of a small Boston literary magazine. When George was eighteen and in his first year at a small New England college, he had fallen deeply in love with his first ever girlfriend. Imagine his desperation, then, when in the Christmas vacation he had heard that Audrey had committed suicide. Unable to settle to anything, he had rushed off to her Florida home, only to discover that the girl who killed herself was not the girl he knew as Audrey. Gradually the truth behind this bizarre deception had started to emerge, and he had discovered that 'his' Audrey was in fact Liana Decter, a girl from a highly dysfunctional background. But then Liana had disappeared.
Back in the present, it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that George has never really got over Liana. He's still unmarried, and though he has a delightful on-off girlfriend he's unable to commit to her. He just can't stop thinking about Liana, and has spent the past twenty years thinking, mistakenly, that he's spotted her in a bar or a café. One day, he actually does. But, though initially thrilled to be reunited with her, he soon discovers that she's using him in a big way. She tells him she's in trouble, and asks him to deliver a large wad of banknotes to someone she stole them from. Most people would say no, but poor besotted George agrees, and soon things turn from bad to worse to much much worse. There are violent hit men, tranquilliser darts, dead bodies and kidnappings galore in store for George, but despite it all he can't seem to break himself of his addiction to a woman who he knows very well is astonishingly bad news:
It was a gift, a specialty, a talent. She could become someone else, and she could then just as easily kill what she became, taking out whoever happened to be in the way. And if transformation was her special talent, then George knew what had attracted Liana to him was that he was someone who would never transform. He would always be the same.
'He would always be thesame' -- this is really the clue to George, I suppose. He isn't anyone special, just an ordinary, slightly depressed sort of bloke getting on with his life as best he can. Liana, on the other hand, is a crook of the first order. Completely lacking in morals, she blithely dashes through life, making use of anyone who happens to come in handy, and disposing of them when they have outlived their usefulness. The book's rather curious title is the way George describes Liana to himself towards the end, though I couldn't quite see what it meant apart from the obvious fact that she's completely heartless.
There's a lot of fun to be had in this novel, and excitement of a decidedly noir-ish kind. I think I've read somewhere that it's going to be made into a film, though who knows how that will turn out. I shall certainly be looking out for Peter Swanson's next novel.
Actually not that new since I used it a few years ago, but this (above) is Red Berries, by Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893), who was known for his depictions of languorous female figures set against the luxury and decadence of the classical world, says Wikipedia. I think it's particularly suitable as I'm feeling pretty languorous myself at the moment, recovering from a nasty stomach bug, hence the lack of reviews on here this week.
Curiously enough Moore used the exact same lady in the exact same pose in a completely different painting! You can see lots more of his work on google images and/or Pinterest if you like this kind of thing.
This charmingly domestic scene is by a Finnish artist, the wonderfully named Erin Kleopatra Danielson-Gambogi (1861-1919). It's called 'Sisters' and was painted in 1891. She doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, but if you google her you'll find a few sites where you can see more of her work and learn about her life. This one is particularly informative.
This gorgeously dressed lady is Julia Makovskaya, and the painting is called The Artist’s Wife (1881). The painter is Konstantin Yegorovich Makovsky (Russian, 1839-1915). We have to assume that the knife she is clutching in her hand is intended to cut the pages of the book rather than for some other more sinister purpose.
When in the late summer of 1939 Hilda and Dorothy had driven Lieselotte crouched in the back of the car across the Vale of York and had come upon the woman in hair curlers under her railwayman's peaked cap struggling with the gate of the level crossing, and when little fat Dorothy had climbed out to help her, nobody noticed that a brown paper envelope, which Lieselotte had had with her since Hamburg, and which had been handed to a flustered Hilda by the woman from the refugee movement, had slipped from her lap and out of the car on to the railway line. When Hilda had driven across the line and stopped the car again to ask the way to Shields West, and the woman had said she didn't know much because she came from Hull, it had ended in laughter. Dorothy had looked round and said she wished she could give Lieselotte a sweet.
What she had in fact given her in that moment was six years of blessed anonymity and invisibility...
I'm fairly new to the novels of Jane Gardam, having read, and loved, three in a row less than two years ago. I've kept meaning to get back to her but this is the first time I have. Though she didn't start writing till 1971, when she was in her 40s, she has published ten novels and numerous short stories, and I wasn't sure which one to choose, so picked this one, published in 2000, more or less at random. Thank goodness, it didn't disappoint.
The Flight of the Maidens is set in 1946. As it begins, three girls are sitting in a Yorkshire graveyard, talking about their futures. They've just left school, and all three have won scholarships to university. Clever Una will go to Cambridge, pretty, insecure Hetty and quiet, plump Lieselotte to London. The novel covers the few weeks of the summer vacation, as they prepare to leave home, but also explores their pasts and their families. Lieselotte knows little of hers, having come to England on the Kindertransport and been settled with a kindly, undemanding Quaker couple. Una lives alone with her rather eccentric, strong-minded hairdresser mother, her father having committed suicide. She has a boyfriend, Ray, a romantic, political railwayman. Hetty's father, irrevocably damaged by WW1, works as a gravedigger, while her mother Kitty takes refuge in an intense relationship with the vicar and daily chats with her friends in the local tearoom.
University will change these girls, but the summer changes them first. Una and Ray go on cycling weekends to far-flung hostels, hoping for and initially failing to find the privacy that will allow them to lose their virginities. Hetty, uncertain whether she is clever enough to go to university (she thinks she only got in because she was coached by her sexless, literary, boyfriend), decides to take a pile of set books to a remote cottage in Cumbria and spend her time reading them. And Lieselotte moves first to a London flat owned by an elderly pair of warmhearted, untidy Jews, and then to California where she has discovered her only surviving relative, a terrifying ancient great aunt who plays bridge all day, and expects Lieselotte to look after her in return for a massive inheritance when she finally dies.
'We never know what the hell we're writing about', Jane Gardam has said, 'not even when the book's over'. But obviously this one's about growing up, and about going out into the world, about breaking ties and forming other ones. For Una and Hetty, the biggest challenge is the ties with their mothers. Una is strong and confident, and her mother is brave and independent. They will miss each other, but neither will make a fuss about it, and their relationship will stay strong. For Hetty it's a different matter. Her mother, fussy, clinging, over-protective, drives her crazy, and she often reacts with outbursts of anger which she regrets terribly afterwards. She is infuriated when she arrives at Betty Bank in the Lake District to find a letter from Kitty already waiting for her -- a letter she realises her mother must have written while the two of them were in the room together the evening before she left. Letters arrive every day, and she throws them under her bed unopened, as she also does with the ones that come from her boyfriend. As for Lieselotte, the circumstances of her life have made her unusually resilient in one way, but she's also emotionally withdrawn and clearly in denial about the uncertain fate of her German family, something she will finally have to come to terms with. There's some sadness, even some tragedy, for all three girls, but also a final sense of them going bravely forward into a new and exciting life.
So the story is a fascinating one, and one that will ring bells with any woman who's had a mother (so that's every woman). But there's more to Jane Gardam's books than just the plot. I love the way she writes, constantly surprising you with quirky observations and peculiar, wholly believable people, like the level crossing keeper in the quotation at the top, who will never reappear but who you'll never forget. I rather gather, though I didn't know this until after I'd read it, that this novel met with quite a mixed response. Not from me, though -- I absolutely loved it and can't wait to plunge into another one. Perhaps one of her two Whitbread Prize winners, or her Booker nominated God on the Rocks? Who knows where the mood will take me.