Friday, October 30, 2020

61. Famous Trials 5 edited by James H. Hodge

This is the last of the Famous Trials Penguin paperbacks that I found at the Concordia book fair and bought almost out of pity and because they were just so beautiful.  Now, having finished this one, I find I am surprisingly pleased by their contents as well.  I would pick up any others that I may find in the future.  I can see why they were so popular.  Each one contains an essay, retelling of 4 or 5 famous trials.  They have a fairly consistent structure, beginning with a narrative of what actually happened, the ensuing investigation and then the trial.  They conclude with the author's thoughts on some social, legal or philosophical aspect of the trial.  Basically, they are true crime for the discerning reader (said in a slightly self-mocking snobby voice) and interesting and enjoyable at their base just for the retelling of these various disturbing and sordid human tragedies.  It is the various authors' voices that elevates these essays to sometimes quite enjoyable reading places.

Famous Trials 5 has 5 essays and I will give a brief summary of each, mainly for my own future reference. Overall, this was pretty enjoyable, highlighted by the last essay that had particularly rich writing and some nice critique of British moralism.  A bonus was that there were several Canadian connections in these trials.  Quite a lot of poison and drug use as well.

Thomas Neill Cream
Cream was a ne'er do well doctor who studied at McGill at the end of the 19th century and then went to England. His thing was hooking up with women, trying to get them to take pills that he claimed were to abort any potential pregnancy but would usually kill them. He would then send anonymous blackmail letters to some other well-known person claiming that he had evidence that they had poisoned the person.  It was all incompetent and kind of crazed, driven I guess by money needs, due to his addiction to "morphia" and his own misogyny.  

Neville George Clevely Heath
This charming fellow was recently demobbed and met two different women and horribly sexually tortured them then murdered them.  What was weird about his story is there was nothing in his past to indicate that he might become a sexual sadist. He was, however, a total cad and career criminal, getting kicked out of several armies and involved in many petty crimes.  This was one of the least interesting essays because it went on for pages and pages about how to define if someone is criminally insane (as his defense tried to do) and when to use it to excuse the death penalty.  As an empiricist, I don't really care about these kinds of arguments, though I recognize their value in making life or death decisions.

John Watson Laurie
Two young men meet on holiday in Scotland and go on a hike where one bashes the other with a rock to the head and then takes his stuff.  This was another truly incompetent murder where the killer returned home wearing the victim's clothing, among other sloppy actions.  This was more interesting for the history and geography of the Isle of Arran, which sounds incredibly beautiful.

Dr. George Lamson
A drug-addicted (and thus money desperate) doctor poisons his poor crippled 18-year old brother-in-law to get his inheritance.  This one was really quite sad because the boy, who was confined to a wheelchair because of a spinal defect, was quite loved by his housemates at a boarding school. He already had a tough row to hoe but seemed to keep up good spirits.  His death was agonizing and took hours.  The uncle once in prison and off the dope later realizes it was the addiction that drove him to do it and though not truly remorseful, you do get a feeling that it was just a shitty business all around.  

Rattenbury and Stoner by F. Tennyson Jesse
This essay was the gem of the book, so I add the author's name in case I should run across it again. It was written in a particularly enjoyable style. The author really had fun with it, including a hilarious letter from Benjamin Franklin (see image below) on the advantages of having an affair with an older woman.  The story here is that Mrs. Rattenbury, a woman in her thirties and married to Mr. Rattenbury, a wealthier man in his sixties, starts to have an affair with their 18-year old chauffeur, Stoner.  The latter becomes infatuated and kills old Mr. Rattenbury by hitting him in the head three times with a mallett.  It was portrayed in the media at the time as a classic affair murder and initially Mrs. Rattenbury tried to take the fall for young Stoner. She was aquitted and he did life but she killed herself not long after the trial by stabbing herself in the heart six times (!).  The essay is very sympathetic to her and portrays her as a bit unbalanced, but actually very loving. According to the author, the arrangement itself while the affair was going on was not even that bad of a situation.  Mrs. Rattenbury was very kindly and loving the Mr. Rattenbury, who was more concerned with his business and his nightly bottle of whiskey. He didn't seem to mind the affair. It was just the melodramatic nature of an 18-year old working class boy suddenly thrust into a grown-up love affair that turned it deadly.  Everybody suffered.  Quite sad, but very enjoyably written.

I draw your attention to the Fifth point

Monday, October 26, 2020

60. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (Robin Buss translation)

Found this hefty tome in one of those neighbourhood free shelves.  I had been wanting to read it since I saw the Jim Cazaviel movie (actually before that, but the movie cemented it from a fancy to a determination) and was happy to find this nice Penguin edition.  It turns out to be the most recent (and possibly most complete) translation in English.  I could probably have read it in french, but only if I were myself imprisoned in the Chateau d'If for 14 years.  As it was, the english edition of 1,243 pages took me almost 3 weeks!  

As the translator states in the introduction, Count of Monte Cristo is one of those books that was so popular that almost everybody knows something about it, without actually knowing it all.  The basic story is so compelling, that its impact is felt without needing the entire text (and reinforced by past incomplete translations and the many TV, movie and theatre adaptations).  I myself had a few misconceptions.  I was trying to figure out why it was so long, when he gets out of the prison within the first 200 pages.  The parts that I was most interested in, the endless training and self-improvement montage, are actually quite curtailed and even absent from the book.  He does educate himself mentally and gets a bit of aristocratic bearing while in prison, but the origins of all the combat skills, poisons, finance and the myriad other abilities that make him almost god-like are never explained beyond that he spent ten years in "the orient".  Much of the book is the more complicated narratives of the social and political lives of the families of the men upon whom he is seeking revenge and the slow, delicious unraveling of the count's revenge plot.

I got a bit confused in the early part of that, with several daughter's and wives who at first are not well distinguished as characters.  As the plot moves forward, though, and things get stickier, I figured it all out.  It's a real page-turner.  You can imagine when it was serialized how people would have awaited anxiously for the next chapter.  A lot of shit goes down and it gets quite dark and nasty.  There is even a cool lesbian cross-dressing escape from the constraints of Parisian aristocratic society.  I have to say, as well, the French really were fucking bonkers.  Their class system and its obsession with shame and duelling and all that really do make the 19th century British seem kind of staid and boring.  I guess the revolution and all the turmoil that followed it contributed to that.  This book definitely made me want to better understand that period of history.  It's just so complicated, Jesus, with so many revolutions and restorations and everything open to interpretation of the time.  No wonder historians still argue about it today.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

59. Plunder Squad by Richard Stark

This is a very auspicious moment in the life of my 50 book blog.  With the completion of Plunder Squad, the 59th book of 2020, I have now finally recuperated my losses from the early child-rearing years and restored my overall average to 50 books a year.  I almost lost the trail entirely in 2016 with a record low of only 18 books read (and looking back a 4 year-old averaging 3-5 major meltdowns a week was probably the biggest factor, though there were several others) and may have even blogfaded altogether.  I don't know what pulled me back but I am glad I stuck with it as reading has never been more enjoyable.

I wrestled for about 24 hours with which book should I read for #59 and I realized that I had also been re-reading the Parker series and Plunder Squad was next.  It's actually quite perfect since these are my favourite books and probably anchor most of my online interactions in the reading world.

What an absolute joy!  It has been long enough, and I think I only read Plunder Squad once, that I had forgotten almost everything about it.  The structure is multi-faceted and it lacks a central narrative, so aesthetically, I do not rank it high amongst the best Parkers.  Yet it is so full of Westlake as Starkian goodness and so hard at its core that I can still understand how others may consider it among his best.

Plunder Squad starts, as always, in medias res, with Parker getting shot at from behind while planning a heist in an anonymous house. The shooter is George Uhl, whom Parker left alive at the end of The Sour Lemon Score. The first half of the book is more like a series of short vignettes of Parker trying to put together jobs while also dealing with Uhl.  The second half is a truncated, traditional Parker heist where we get the planning, the perspective of some of the side characters and finally the execution.  The ending is whatever the opposite of in medias res is, with Parker barely escaping a doublecross, fleeing a burning warehouse in Soho.

There are several great moments.  The scene when he is waiting out George Uhl in the California hills after having second-guessed the other guy who led him to Uhl who now knows Parker is probably going to kill him.  Just sad and brutal and yet so efficient.  The final heist here is really cool as well in all its details.  They hijack a truck full of valuable paintings while it is being escorted from one gallery to the other in the midwest.  I love Tommy the hippy heister.  Also this one has Stan Devers, mainly anonymous but still likable.  I'm rambling.  Plunder Squad is fantastic.  And finally, this:

Lou Sternberg met Parker at O'Hare International. He had a disgusted look on his face, but he gave the standard greeting:  "Have a good flight?"

"Yes." Parker meant nothing by the word; it was simply a sound that ended the topic.

Next up, Butcher's Moon, the masterpiece.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

58. The Foundling by Georgette Heyer

I found the worst edition
I do follow some good people on Twitter in the book world, so good that it is one of the big reasons I haven't been able to delete my account and walk away.  Fans of the gothic and romance genre were talking up Georgette Heyer and how big a role they played in their own early reading.  Her stuff sounded right up my alley and I was pleased to find a copy for $2 at Chainon with a truly uninspired design, such that I would have no worries of my poor treatment of the book.

I am pleased to say that their recommendations were spot on.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Foundling.  It was delightful.  I found myself delighted from the first few pages and continuously delighted throughout the book.  I would have read it in two days if it wasn't for current events and my struggle with distraction. As it was I basically read it in two sittings but with days of wasting my life on Twitter and reading only a few pages at a time in between.

The story is about a young Duke who grew up quite sickly and though petite of frame is healthy and smart at the age of 24, about to come of age and claim his inheritance.  However, his controlling uncle and the retinue of staff conspire to mollycoddle him.  His own gentle and unaggressive nature only reinforces their maintaining a layer of protection between him and the world.  He yearns to live a bit in the world and his frustration with his uncle and servants reaches a peak when he is basically browbeaten to ask his old friend Harriet's hand in marriage.  They grew up together and he likes and respects her, but never really had a chance to develop any feelings.  When one of his cousins gets in a bit of a scrape with a blackmailer and asks the Duke for money, he decides to escape from his handlers and deal with the problem on his own.

There are so many things that I enjoyed in this story: the mannered interactions of the aristocracy, the talented and trained but never tested character off on his own, descriptions of Regency england at once so civilized and yet always simmering with potential villainy.  Ultimately, though, what really made this book for me was how it pleasant and un-tense it all was.  The bad guys really aren't all that bad, the scandals never really threaten to ruin anybody and the plot twists and miscommunications are fun and move the story forward without driving us mad.  Just a real tonic.  I am so happy to know that she has written some 60 books and everyone has their various favourites.  I think I will just keep an eye out for her and pick them up slowly, as I am sure used copies are easy to find.  They can be read between more stressful works.