Friday, October 31, 2008

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

I came to this novel with somewhat of a handicap, namely the vague memory of having read that Christie did something remarkable and startling with the set-up of this, her first (so I had thought) published mystery. So I was on the alert for a twist, for the orchestration of a twist, beginning perhaps rather early in the story. You might say I had read the spoiler.

And as I got about halfway through, my memory jelled, I remembered the brilliant twist, and I could spot the murderer. Nevertheless Christie's work was very adroitly done. And what did surprise me was the appearance in this novel of her famed detective Hercule Poirot. If I knew about his arrival, I had forgotten it. He is introduced as already retired and famous, and only persuaded out of his garden by the propinquity of the murdered body in question, and the pleadings of a pretty girl in love.

Some people adore Hercule Poirot. I find him uninspiring. He is not nearly as simply delightful as Miss Marple, though he is a sight better than the utterly annoying Tommy and Tuppence, who do nothing but talk excitedly at each other, for chapter after chapter, about the mystery they are solving. Poirot's magician-like abilities render him more adding machine than even putatively human character. He lurks about as it were off-stage, seeming to come on only occasionally to make revelations in a silly, sing-song, French-flavored English which is meant to be adorable but rings hollow considering that Christie herself claimed in her biography to have been trained to French fluency in girlhood. Surely, bilingual herself, she would have no reason to depict another bilingual person as carrying on like a dance-hall comic.

Anyway. We will leave Poirot alone. What is wonderfully entertaining about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the setting, so cozy and familiar through a hundred (mostly British) television series and movies that we forget it was probably Christie, in her books, who largely invented it. The little English town. The fine house of the local rich family. Terse, grim parlormaids in sensible shoes. The giddy daughter of the family, engaged to an unsuitable young man. The secretary or companion, unaccountably interested in poisons. English mists wafting over damp English gardens; prying spinster ladies; surreptitious meetings in the summerhouse, at nine-forty-five under a full moon -- but there was no moon. The butler distinctly said he had closed the window because it looked so like rain.

Agatha Christie must have enjoyed life tremendously, writing these delightful stories. If memory serves, she said she set about writing Roger Ackroyd after having read some other author's mystery, and being so disappointed in it that she told herself in amazement and some disgust that she could do better than that. And so she did, I am sure. I don't think I would be equal to all the weavings, thinkings, and tweakings she had to do to make the case come out right -- to get the murder done, the suspects in place, the clues both revealed and disguised, and all motivations, backgrounds, and timeframes made plausible and correct. This is not to speak of all of the foregoing being presented as a puzzle to the detective, who has to plausibly see what others do not see, but not so fast and so perfectly that the reader sees, too, and thus has nothing to chew on. When I realized that Christie had to actually figure out a way to make the murderer show an avuncular concern for a framed suspect's shoes, and more than one pair, well then -- I took off my figurative hat to her (no doubt a smart 1920s cloche).

I am not one of these people who sits down with a mystery with pencil and paper in hand, to try to solve it as I read. I simply meander along, enjoying the tale and the atmosphere as a bystander. What it means is that I can then re-read Christie later, because I've forgotten whodunit. Genuine mystery fans seem to be far more serious. Old reviews of Roger Ackroyd quoted in Wikipedia attest that, in 1926, professionals complained about it. Too many superfluous clues. A disappearance that did not matter (what! surely it did). The reader "sold up" by the ending. Her "most controversial" book, and to some "her masterpiece."

Goodness! Such passions. I hope in her long life she found time to plot a murder mystery at a mystery writers' awards banquet, or a conference of some kind. If she did, and I've already read it, I've forgotten it. Just think what I have to look forward to.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Agrippa's Daughter by Howard Fast

In order to begin to understand this story, it helps to have seen the television drama I, Claudius. That way, you can picture the actor who played Claudius' lifelong friend, the Jewish prince Herod Agrippa, and so you can at least place the heroine of this novel, Berenice, into a family, as Herod Agrippa's daughter.

The setting of this historical romance is therefore already unusual, as historical romances go. Not many take place in antiquity, and still fewer put Jewish characters, and the land of Israel, front and center. The climax of the novel deals with one of the most hideous events of the classical period or indeed Western history, the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans concluding in the year 70 A.D. (or C.E. if you prefer -- although I've always felt the use of B.C.E. and C.E. is a bit of an intellectual conceit. Granted not everyone wants to say Anno Domini, but what's "common" about the Common Era?).

Throughout this siege, as many as a million Jews were crammed into Jerusalem's few square miles, tragically fighting and murdering each other, starving, and still maintaining the ritual animal sacrifies twice a day inside the Temple, "while the most powerful legions in the world pounded at the gates" (this is not from the novel but from Abraham Leon Sachar's A History of the Jews). Tens of thousands died, thousands of survivors were sold into slavery. This was after the rest of the country, chafing under obnoxious foreign rule, had been subdued and more tens of thousands killed there. The Romans required a 50,000-man army and four years to do the job. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was on the spot in a most interesting way for part of this war, chronicled nightmarish stories of starving women, in Jerusalem's last days, eating their newborns.

(Is it any wonder that not many historical romances "go there"?) But before the Roman general and Emperor Vespasian's son, Titus, razes the ancient city and its Second Temple, we meet and follow the career of the beautiful, red-haired, green-eyed Berenice. She was a real historical figure, a client queen of Judea, or Chalcis, or Cilicia, or Alexandria, depending on whom she married, what liberties Howard Fast has taken with his tale, and depending on how one defines "queen" in an era when the whole Mediterranean world was a confused maelstrom of peoples, religions, and powers all being mixed up and sorted out by Rome. Fast has actually pumped even more complexity into Berenice's story. She was known, it seems, mostly for her scandalous love life -- ancient men writers chronicled her marriages and mentioned incest with her brother, also named Agrippa -- but Fast shunts the brother somewhat aside to give her instead a deep theological soul, and to thrust her into the company of all the political and theological parties blossoming in, or burdening, Jewish life at that time.

In a pit of existential despair after a number of sad adventures, she meets and marries a physician who is the head of the Sanhedrin and of the House of Hillel, a sort of family-run Bible study/farm/consciousness-raising school which would eventually emerge from the ruins of Israel with a moral survival plan for a people who, as of the year 70, would apparently have no more country, religion, God, or reason to exist. Life with Shimeon exposes her to the poor, ill, and enslaved, and to arguments with Shimeon's opposite numbers, spokesmen for real-life Jewish sects like the Zealots, the Sicarii, the House of Shammai (a bit like bad cops to the House of Hillel's good cops) and to the official Temple priesthood, the Sadduccees.

Because Berenice is always a queen, she also must deal with Roman governors and procurators, who can't decide what they want more, her beautiful self humbled before them, or the riches of the Temple filling their coffers at home in Italy. When the tragedy of the Jewish war falls upon the land of Israel and strips her husband from her, Berenice's fate is to fall in love afterward with Titus, who is responsible for the destruction. Though ten years younger than she is, he returns her passions, and this, too, appears to be a real-life incident. The queen actually went to Rome with Titus after the war, lived openly with him and might have married him except that Roman rage against the idea of an Empress from the most violent and impossible province of their world compelled him to stay his hand. He sent her away temporarily, to Gaul, in the novel; after he unexpectedly died, she disappeared from history and that is where Howard Fast also leaves her.

With apologies for the plot spoilers, -- this is no ordinary bodice ripper, obviously. A man's treatment of love, sex, and history in fiction is simply different from a woman's. No woman romance writer that I know of is capable of this insight about Biblical retribution, as early as page 37. The young Berenice is thinking:

She would come to understand that the "good" king is a thing that nature itself derides and deters -- even as it would be a derision to all the natural laws of things for water to flow uphill. Her own people, the Jews, had suffered a thousand years of kings, and if one was wicked, the most cursory reading of history turned up another more wicked. And since iniquity is always unstable and risky, justice appears to be done in the end. "Woe unto thee!" cried the prophets to their rulers, and time proved the logic of their predictions ....

The reader can't help but remember that this novel was published in 1964, only twenty years after the Shoah. It's just a historical romance, but the writer is concerned with suffering and with moral issues much beyond establishing the heroine's "spunk" or the glowering hero's development into a modern man who respects her in the morning. It may actually have a theme, which may be this:

In this, the Jews were apart from all the world -- in this defiance of all the tributes and implacabilities of fate; and possibly for this reason more than any other they were never tolerated, only hated or loved. ... The pagan lived in a world where defeat was accepted, where poverty and ignominy and slavery were accepted, where every turn and caprice of fate was accepted -- and where every opportunity for lust, conquest, thievery, or enrichment was also accepted. For this, the Jew despised him ....

Another reader dog-eared that page before I did, which makes me think it struck him, too.

Fast's writing is leisurely and lovely, especially in its descriptions of the scenery and climate of Israel. Sun-warmed stones, clear pools, shady farms, and sparkling morning air abound. He devotes himself to the character of a woman with a skill and sympathy that makes it startling and then irrelevant that he's a man. And what is pleasantly startling to the ignorant modern reader is the realization that, far from one mid-twentieth century author plucking one ancient queen from obscurity for whim's and creation's sake, in fact Berenice has been well-known to creative people for quite some time. Racine ... Corneille ... Mozart (La clemenza di Tito). There is even a constellation in the night sky called Berenice's Hair, but it seems this collection of stars honors the locks of another Berenice entirely, who lived two centuries earlier than our lady. But perhaps she could tell us almost as compelling, if not as horrible a story.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Knight of Maison-Rouge by Alexandre Dumas; tr. by Julie Rose

"A novel of Marie Antoinette," this book is subtitled, and although she is not quite a main character, the scenes centering on the imprisoned Queen of France are the most vivid and interesting of the tale. I have tried Dumas before, and have unfortunately found, in The Three Musketeers for example, that his endless action, his swordfight-on-every-page style, is not to my taste. He seems to have had a penchant for mysterious figures skulking through the back alleys of historical romances too, pulling strings, being hugely important, and evading capture while never descending to the level of actual human beings themselves. In The Three Musketeers it's "Milady," who I think has somebody killed at a riverside toward the end; in The Knight of Maison Rouge it is the eponymous but disguised hero, who has devoted himself to rescuing Marie Antoinette from her jailers and is also the guardian of the aristocratic heroine aiding him, who falls in love herself with the young republican Revolutionary Maurice, who ought not to want to be remotely involved with rescuing queens or aristocrats, and who is the real hero of the story.

A bit confusing. As it's a French tale, of course the young beautiful heroine is already married, to the stolid and unforgiving M. Dixmer. Passionate denunciations are always coldly polite ("you shall be punished, Madame!"). Meanwhile Maurice has a trusty friend, Lorin, who is also a good revolutionary but ends up throwing in his lot with the Queen's would-be saviors, and declaims poems on the spot to make light of any occasion. Among the fictional characters of tumultuous eighteenth century Paris there is the dreadful real life jailer, Simon, who coached Marie Antoinette's son to sing hideous songs about her after they had been separated; there is the real-life executioner, Sanson, who operated the guillotine so efficiently; and there are a number of real life prosecutors, politicians, and chiefs of police, whom -- it is faintly chilling to realize -- did have and did use real power to overturn all social order and imprison and kill those who disagreed with them.

The translation jars a little. Did Dumas, in the 1840s, really use expressions which can be faithfully translated as "flew the coop" or "pronto"? They contribute to an overall jerky feeling in the prose and dialogue. The book's foreward explains that Dumas wrote most of his novels as newspaper serials in collaboration with one Auguste Maquet, and that does explain a lot. The vivid, interesting scenes -- the Queen in prison, the Queen trying to meet her saviors halfway as they attempt heroic feats to break her out -- perhaps came from the hand of the master. The master, perhaps, was also capable of honest insight into the Majesty he obviously respected:

"...soon, in her dream, bars and bolts fell away; she saw herself in the middle of a great army, somber and pitiless; she ordered the flames to burn, the blades to shoot out of their sheaths; she took her revenge on a people who were not, in the end, her own."

The more labored parts ("Maison-Rouge! Oh! Miserable wretch that I am not to have killed both of them!") perhaps came from the junior partner.

It's a beautiful looking book, but in the end it makes most sense as something fun which Parisians in 1845 amused themselves with -- only half a century after the terrifying events, however! -- as they flipped through the papers and sipped their morning coffee. A compliment to their taste in ephemera, certainly. After that it must have gone to wrap fish, as the saying goes, which is no doubt what the honest Dumas expected. For me, my copy is going back to the local library's used book sale, so that someone else can pick it up for a dollar and enjoy it too.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ride With Me by Thomas Costain

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Thomas Costain was a prolific Canadian journalist and editor of the mid-twentieth century who, at the age of 57, published his first historical novel, and from then on became a prolific historical novelist. You are more than likely to encounter one of his books, or an anthology edited by him, in any library or at a used book sale. The Silver Chalice and The Tontine are two of his better-known works; The Silver Chalice was made into a movie that is notable, now, mostly for having been the late Paul Newman's debut vehicle.

In 1944 Costain published Ride With Me, a book meant not only to tell a good story but to draw obvious parallels between the dictator Napoleon who threatened England in the early 1800s, and the dictator Hitler who threatened England even as Costain wrote. Though the historic parallels are now many decades out of date, Ride With Me is still a pleasure to read, and that is largely because of its background -- an unusual one for a historical romance. The hero, Frank Ellery, is not a stock, brooding figure but a lame newspaperman in London during these Napoleonic wars. He sees it as his duty to publish articles urging a slothful Regency government to take a firmer stand against "Boney" before it is too late, and French troops and guillotines are already established outside a St. Paul's cathedral transformed into an English Temple of Reason.

Criticizing the government is a dangerous thing to do circa 1810, when even freedom-loving England, aghast at the regicides across the Channel, could still shut down unfriendly, chest-thumping newspapers at home. Frank's life is further complicated by his unrequited love for a beautiful, exiled French aristocrat, and by the machinations of his awful mother, who would prefer that he disappear somewhere and let his handsome younger brother lead the family.

Frank's adventures take him to Spain for a glimpse of Wellington's Peninsular campaign, and then to Russia to see Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. We are in Paris with him after Waterloo, while the city seethes with rage at defeat and occupation. Through minor characters we meet the social problems of the period, like discharged, wounded soldiers begging in London, child labor, prison conditions, and the eternal helplessness of single, impoverished women. The book is also wonderfully rich in those little details about meals and leisure activities which show the author has spent good time in the archives, researching his material.

It's a fine book, and was well-known enough for Costain to be able to bring out, twenty years later, another anthology of fiction -- punningly titled Read With Me.