Monday, August 27, 2012

Artists in Crime & Death in a White Tie (2 Book Reviews)

     Ngaio Marsh Artists in Crime (1937. The book in which Alleyn meets the painter Agatha Troy. They first meet on a ship leaving Suva, when Alleyn is returning from his convalescent excursion to New Zealand (Vintage Murder). From here on in, most of the Alleyn novels advance their story. Marsh was one of the first novelists to frame her puzzles in an ongoing saga of her hero’s personal life. The murder is especially nasty, the solution to the puzzle depends on careful analysis of times and distances, and of course Fox and the crew do their stuff with admirable professionalism. Marsh is a master of suggesting the tediousness of police routine without actually describing it in any detail.
     Marsh is clearly confident about her market now. The book has more scope than the first three or four, Marsh uses the background (an artist’s workshop run by Troy) as an occasion for acute comments on art, creativity, and the public image of artist as outsider. She clearly had artist friends and acquaintances; her views (such as can be inferred) feel supported by careful thought.
     I’m on a Marsh binge, and am reading a book every two days or so. So far, I don’t feel glutted. ***

     Ngaio Marsh Death in a White Tie (1938) Marsh set this story in Alleyn’s milieu of gentry and aristocracy. It’s the Season, and Lord Robert Gospell (Bunchy), a good friend of Alleyn’s, has been asked to keep his eyes and ears open for information about a blackmailer. He’s murdered, but Alleyn and Fox manage to wind up the case in just over two days (and by foregoing sleep). Since many of the cast are Alleyn’s friends an acquaintances, we get Marsh’s take on this stratum of society, and she has some mild satirical fun with them. In some ways, the murder investigation is merely a prop to hang the story on.
     Agatha Troy is also present, playing a minor role as friend and confidante of one of the blackmail victims, and Marsh advances the Alleyn-Troy love story to the point where they declare their love for each other. Marsh may have decided to involve Alleyn in love and eventually marriage because Sayers had safely married off Wimsey the year before and had a great success with Busman’s Honeymoon. The courtship sounds somewhat stilted: Marsh was not a writer of Romances. In fact, Alleyn alludes to such “false novels” when he refers to their meeting on board ship at Suva (Artists in Crime). Her portrayal of Alleyn and Troy as a married couple in the later novels is more successful.
     One of the pleasures of Marsh’s books is her characters. She of course trades in stereotypes, as all writers of entertainment fiction must do, but she varies them enough, and uses Alleyn as a commentator on them well enough, that they seem, for the brief hour that they strut and fret upon the stage, to be real people. Another winner, even if the Troy-Alleyn love story feels a bit grafted on. ***

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Case is Closed (Book Review)

     Patricia Wentworth The Case is Closed (1937) “A Miss Silver Mystery”.Wentworth was at one time mentioned in the same breath as Christie, Marsh, and Sayers, but she doesn’t really belong with them, if this book is typical. It’s a romance, of the type that came into its own in the 1950s and 60s and made the fortune of Harlequin Publishing. The crime plot adds a fillip if danger and propels the story, but the real focus is on Hilary Carew and her  wish to patch up her quarrel with Henry Cunningham, heir to his uncle’s antique shop, and the strong and usually fairly silent type. What these two have to settle is the of course who will be boss, an issue that hasn’t gone away despite our modern, enlightened ways. In the end of course they “belong”, as Henry puts it, and we know that they will have a grand time married to each other and sparring about whose turn it is to do the dishes.
     The story’s told almost entirely from Hilary’s point of view, and a right little blighter she is. She’s a good deal smarter than she knows, she talks herself into whatever attitude will justify what she wants to do, she can react smartly, she notices odd behaviours that suggest sinister motives, all which make her a determined and moderately adequate sleuth. But she’s also naive, which endangers her life. Of course Henry (and Miss Silver) rescue her just as the murderer is about to stab her.
     Hilary has attitudes rather than opinions. We see three couples, and we see Hilary realising that what she has with Henry is better than what other people have. This is of course a common misapprehension (why do we assume that other people aren’t as clever,  enlightened, and mature as ourselves?) The other two women gain a measure of happiness, but any reader who has identified with Hilary will share her relief at being reunited with Henry, this time for always.
     A good read if you’re in the mood for romantic fluff with a dash of crime. **

Malice in Miniature (Book Review)

     Jeanne M. Dams Malice in Miniature (1998) “A Dorothy Martin Mystery”. Dorothy is a 60-ish American lately married to a Chief Constable. Presumably the backstory was provided in the earlier books. Her part-time gardener, a lush, is accused of stealing miniatures, but that’s put right. Nevertheless, Dorothy wants to know what’s really going on at Brocklesby Hall, which houses a museum of dollhouses, their cranky owner, and miscellaneous staff. Two rather unpleasant people are murdered, and Dorothy (rather implausibly IMO) gets to help with the investigation.  She’s nearly murdered in her turn, but her husband arrives in the nick of time to save her. He later announces that he will fully support any future sleuthing. End of fantasy.
     Light fluff, just right for occasional summer reading, but not a series I’ll be looking for. **

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Vintage Murder (Book Review)

     Ngaio Marsh Vintage Murder (1937) The manager of a theatre group on tour in New Zealand dies when a celebratory jeroboam of champagne drops at high speed and smashes his skull instead of floating gently down into the greenery decorating the party table. Alleyn’s on holiday, and lets himself be dragged into the case. The murder is prompted by that most common of motives, money. Rivalries and other relationships muddy the trail, but paradoxically it’s a character’s attempt to divert attention from another (actually innocent) one that at first stymies the police and then provides the clue that unravels the killer’s plans.
     The colonials are a little too deferential and eager to have Alleyn’s help, I think, but otherwise the book shows the steady increase in Marsh’s mastery of the novel. The characters, the local colour, the plotting are all more interrelated than in the earlier books. The resolution rings true to character, even if the puzzle is trickier than a real life one. I don’t read mysteries in order to spot the perpetrator before the detective Reveals All; a good deal of my pleasure comes from the aura of realism. This time it’s enhanced by Marsh’s intimate knowledge of the theatre as trade, craft, and profession. Recommended. ***

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Death in Ecstasy (Book Review)

Ngaio Marsh Death in Ecstasy (1935) #4 in the Alleyn series. A Chosen Vessel dies of cyanide poisoning during her first Communion at the Temple of the Sacred Flame. Suspects:  the presiding priest and six Initiates. The complications: jealousy among the females for the priest’s attentions (Being Chosen comes with sexual services), a lot of money, stolen bearer bonds, and drug trafficking. Nigel happens to be present at the murder because he noticed the Temple’s sign from his window, was bored, and went to investigate. A neat puzzle, whose solution turns on psychology: people have trouble controlling  their speech when agitated. The murderer spent much of his life in Australia, poses as an American, but lets slip the occasional Oz expression.
     The book shows Marsh’s increasing interest in social comedy. “New age” religions have been around a long, long time. Marsh has a good eye for the kind of people they attract. She doesn’t feel especially kindly towards them, though, and there’s no doubt she intensely dislikes the practitioners who prey on the weaknesses and doubts of the gullible. Alleyn’s facetiousness has been toned down somewhat; Nigel and Angela are once again roped into a bit of teckery; and Fox’s character has been augmented. The friendship between Alleyn and him goes deep. We will see more of it in future books.
     My copy was given to me by my Aunt. It’s a Penguin, printed in 1941 on very thin newsprint that’s begun to yellow in the gutters, no doubt a reaction with the glue. On the last page we read a request to deposit the book in any Post Office, for the enjoyment of the men and women in the Services. It has a tea stain on the front. The back cover is an advert for Pears soap, which cost 6d, or about 12 cents, at the time. That’s a lot of money in 1941. The inflation calculator says it’s $1.78 today, but in terms of average income it’s about $6. See:
     I enjoyed the book. ***

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Nursing Home Murder (Book Review)

Ngaio Marsh The Nursing Home Murder (1935) The third Alleyn mystery, and Marsh has mastered novel writing. Alleyn has lost some of his facetiousness, Fox has become the sidekick and sounding board, Bathgate and Angela have been demoted to “bright young things” as hangers on. Alleyn gives them the job of finding out a few facts about anarchists (the Red Scare was current at the time the novel was written). The victim, O’Callaghan,  was a cabinet Secretary about to introduce a Bill limiting civil freedoms as applied to Communists and such. This is one of the confounding factors, another is a cast-off mistress, who is loved by the surgeon who must operate on O’Callaghan’s inflamed appendix.
     As you can see, the plot is tricky, the murder less so. Marsh provides all the clues, even the unnoticed injection puncture at the hairline of the victim, referred as a possibility by the pathologist. The murderer is a eugenics fanatic with a Saviour complex, a bit thin, but the puzzle requires some such far fetched motive. The writing is much better. The characterisation is much indebted to theatrical types; I get the impression that Marsh was as much casting a play as writing a novel. No matter, it’s good entertainment. **½

Monday, August 13, 2012

Direct Descent (Book Review)

     Frank Herbert Direct Descent (1980) Yes, it’s that Frank Herbert: Author of Dune, as the cover reminds us. Part 1 was published in Astounding Science Fiction as “Pack Rat Planet” in 1954. Internal evidence suggests that Part 2 ("Direct Descent") was written around the same time. Both are classic mid-20th century SF tales, with hints of advanced technologies, sardonic humour, serious exploration of the social implications of technical and political change, and adequate characterisation, in all of which Herbert excelled. Here, Earth has become a hollowed core of its former self and houses the Galactic Library, a vast archive of text and artifacts recording the history of humankind. “Gravitics” maintain gravity despite Earth’s vastly reduced mass. Rhomboid boxes display “realised images” of distant persons or scenes, but Herbert (wisely) says nothing about how it’s done.
     Both tales are in of the victorious underdog genre. In Part 1, a fascist oppressive regime takes over and wants to destroy the Library. By doing exactly what they are told to do, the Librarians wreck the scheme. When the broadcasts of material stop as ordered, the rest of the galaxy turns on the new government and ousts the Leader. In Part 2, a band of cost cutters who want to eliminate the “inefficient” Library is stymied when the Free Islanders, who are entitled to miscellaneous periodic payments, and on whose maintenance about 60% 0f the budget is spent, demand that the accumulated debt be paid. The ruler of the Island assumes governorship of Earth, which also helps.
     An entertaining and nostalgic read. Illustrations extend the page count, but are uncredited. **½

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Enter A Murderer (Book Review)

     Ngaio Marsh Enter a Murderer (1935) The second Alleyn book. At the Unicorn theatre, professional and personal jealousies, skeletons in various closets, and sheer nastiness lead to murder. Nigel Bathgate (whom Alleyn inexplicably allows to act as his amanuensis) has invited Alleyn to accompany him to the play, so they both witness the murder. Bathgate  is Marsh’s attempt to give Alleyn a sidekick like Holmes’s Watson or Poirot’s Hastings. It works in that it adds another point of view and opportunities for more red herrings, both of which help solve the structural problem of a puzzle story: how to keep the reader interested in the plot.
     Alleyn here is still a parody of Wimsey and other gentleman detectives. Later on, he has more gravitas, but his habit of quoting Shakespeare and other poets, as well as his tendency for zen-like pronouncements  will remain. The novel’s heavy on dialogue, and includes some neat but mild satire of the actors. A good entertainment in the classic English puzzle-plot mode. It even includes a reconstruction of the crime, during which the murderer reveals himself (of course). Even in this journeyman excursion, Marsh was showing herself to be a master of the form. **½

The Fifteenth Century (Book Review)

     Margaret Aston The Fifteenth Century (1968) A survey of the century that not only moved European civilisation from the Middle Ages to the Renascence but invented the concepts. A well illustrated overview, with enough casual detail to bring the period to life, the book reminds us that much of what we consider the modern way of living was invented 500 years ago. Technology has changed, but our attitudes towards the past, the present, and the new were first expressed back then. By the 1700s, these attitudes were already deeply ingrained enough to attract criticism from satirists such as Jonathan Swift, who mocked uncritical acclaim and enthusiasm for whatever was new and different in his A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels. On the other hand, the realisation that human reason and imagination were capable of not merely changing but actually improving human life dates from the early Renascence and led directly to the accelerating development of technology and scientific discovery that we now take for granted.
     More importantly, the notion that social arrangements and politics were not inevitable but could be altered to suit ourselves dates from this time, too. Machiavelli was vilified for his proposition that the Prince’s responsibility for the safety of the state overrode the laws of individual morality. But his actual legacy was the very idea of that responsibility. Prior to his book, the state was seen as the property of the Prince, for which he was responsible only to God. His book implies throughout that the Prince is responsible to the people to keep them safe, promote prosperity, and prevent conquest by enemies. By 1776, the Americans spoke about a King’s failures in his duties to his subjects as not merely a reason for rebellion, but as a mandate. People and rulers have a reciprocal responsibility to keep each other honest.
     These and other reflections may occur to the reader of this very handy book, which, as many such have done recently, both reminded me of what I had learned in school, and also corrected misperceptions and clarified vaguenesses. **½

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (video review)

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981) The BBC video series. Based on clips and previews of the 2005 movie, I think this video is still the best realisation of Douglas Adams’ vision. I’d use the word “definitive” if it hadn’t been used by too many critics before me.
     I’ve seen this video at least half a dozen times, and  each time I enjoy it just as much as when I first saw it on TVO many years ago. The simple computer animations displayed by the Book may seem endearingly old-fashioned, but considering how much information it must include, it represents a brilliant solution to the problem of maximising data and minimising storage. Douglas Adams’ wit sounds fresh despite repetition. As any serious (as opposed to solemn) philosopher knows, comedy and satire can express truth and wisdom more economically than any other mode. That’s why philosophers and preachers hate comedians, and do their best to make us think that gloomy mien and furrowed brow are the only true signs of deep thought.
     By this time “42" as The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is so well known that the number alone serves as a signal. That the Earth is a computer is not merely Douglas Adams’ joke: that the Universe is a computer is a metaphysical theory taken seriously by a surprising number of mathematicians. I prefer to think of the Universe as a hologram, however. ****

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Van Gogh Up Close (Art Review)

Van Gogh Up Close (National Art Gallery, 30th August 2012)
     The show did not live up to its hype, but what show ever does? It depicts Van Gogh's time in France, when he was working towards his final artistic vision. Seeing early, mid and (too few) late pieces from this time was interesting in an art-historical way, but few of the pictures moved me. Most of them looked like what they were: experiments. Van Gogh was a very self-conscious artist, who spent his life trying to find out where he wanted to go and how to get there. It took him a long time to develop his visual language. Oddly enough (or maybe not), the earlier paintings I liked were the ones that reminded me of Klimt (eg Trees and Undergrowth 1887and Monet (eg Undergrowth 1887, Rain 1889). These were all landscapes, most showed forests. The intermediate ones, in which he mostly experimented with Japanese composition and close-up subjects, showed that he was moving towards the astonishing last paintings in composition and content, but he was still trying to minimise the brushwork. A couple of the later paintings, in which he laid on the paint thick and largely unmixed, were worth a second or third look (eg Wheatfield behind St Paul Hospital 1889). The ones I wanted to see, all from his last few months of life, were not available.
     Most pictures looked faded and wan. Reproductions on postcards and posters are generally brighter and more intense. Perhaps a combination of new paint technology and cheap paint (Van Gogh often couldn’t afford the expensive ones) is the cause. It’s known for sure that some of his sunflower paintings turned brown because of a chemical reaction in the white paint that he’d added to the yellow. Or more likely I’ve come to expect originals to be even more brilliant than reproductions. Whatever, I was disappointed in the look of the show. The room of Japanese woodcuts, shown to illuminate Van Gogh’s composition experiments, was a delight. Looking at them, it occurred to me how much these pictures, with their unusual points of view, contrasts between foreground detail and mid- and background subjects, stylised drawing and colouring, resemble comic book art.
   Rating for the show: **½
   Updated 2012-08-06

The War of 1812 (Museum Review)

 The War of 1812 (Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, 31st July 2012)
     The war of 1812 is the strangest one I know of. Nobody won it. After three years of conflict and diplomacy, and some 35,000 dead, the result was pretty well the status quo ante, albeit accepted by all parties, and therefore strengthened. There were no major changes in territory. The general shape of North American political divisions was confirmed. The First Nations, who might have been able to forge the beginnings of a permanent and independent confederation if the British had won, were no further ahead. The main players, the still young and weak USA, and the loosely collaborative Canadian colonies, acknowledged each other’s territorial claims, and made them a basis for future frontier drawing as both expanded westward to the pacific. Britain, which had already shifted its geo-political focus elsewhere, reestablished friendly terms with its erstwhile colonies.
     The show at the Canadian War Museum sets out the four participant’s perspectives on the war. It’s very well done, with enough detailed information mixed into the overview to individualise the participants’ experience of the war, and to suggest what it was like for ordinary people like ourselves. The arrangement was a bit confusing, as viewing all the exhibits required a partial retracing of steps in each room; but that’s my only complaint. That, and the usual limitations of the computer survey, which began by asking which of the four parties you identified with. I identified with all and none. I could understand and empathise with all four perspectives. I have a visceral antipathy towards war, this is no doubt a reason I can’t feel comfortable taking sides.
     Rating for the show: ***-½

Online piracy article in NYT.

Piracy like Whack-a-Mole

That's what the article in te New York Times says, plus a lot more. Worth reading IMO.