Saturday, October 28, 2023

77. Mist over Pendle by Robert Neill

Another random pickup whose origin I've completely forgotten.  Reminder to self, I need to get into the habit of making a little note in the book as sometimes they'll stay on my on-deck shelf for over a year. I thought from the cover that this was going to be more of a pastoral horror story along the lines of Harvest Home.  I was quite wrong and happy to be so, at least for the first half, as Mist over Pendle is really a historical fiction and somewhat of a bildungsroman.  It is a fictional telling of the (I have since learned) famous Pendle Witch Trials of 17th century northern England.

The story starts out with the history of a puritan family which leads to their problem of the youngest daughter, who has no prospects and the family little money (or will) to provide a dowry for her to wed her off.  The real problem is that she is charming and headstrong and they all suck, just the worst kind of uptight moralists who are constantly scandalized and punishing themselves and each other.  Fucking Puritans.  Her fate seems pretty shitty until her brother remembers a distant uncle of some means who may be interested in providing for her.  He sends for her in a gruff, commanding tone that offends her family and then really pisses them off when he sends her 20 silver coins to do with what she will (and what she will is buy proper, fashionable clothes for the trip out, the horror!).  This first section is deliciously enjoyable and somewhat nerve-wracking as she has no idea what this older male relative will be like.  

He turns out to be awesome, like her when he was younger but now a Justice of the County and well respected in Pendle County.  He immediately recognized what a bunch of assholes her family was but it also surprised at what she is like, as he had expected more of a docile maiden.  The two end up making an awesome investigative team, as she has with and manners, deep learning of the scripture (which helps endear her to the Puritans in the region) and writing skills (to be his clerk).  It's such a great set up that one could see an entire television series based on these two.

Unfortunately, the adventure we get here, which is the bulk of the narrative, is only okay.  There are dark clouds over Pendle.  People and children have died in odd experiences, often after conflict with beggar women who live in the forest.  Actually, the back story is quite interesting.  It's the way it is presented that leaves it lacking, with little real suspense.  The reader pretty much knows what is going on about halfway through the book and much of the plot concerns them trying to get evidence to be able to convict the witches.  This is more than was done in the actual history and thus further critiques this book.  It was written in 1951 and Neill comes from an establishment family in the Lancashire region, so he seems to reinforce the old narrative about witches, when we pretty much understand today that these trials were a way for Protestant england to force its authority on the marginalized (and further oppress women and destroy traditions that connected people to the land).  It's ironic because by centering the narrative on a young woman and making her super awesome, he was upending some of the gender politics of the time.

The descriptions of the region, the people, their social structures and culture are rich and very well done. Despite my misgivings about the storyline in the second half, this still was a rewarding read as it helped me to better understand this period in England, and particularly the conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics in this time when the two religions traded power back and forth in England.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

76. The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

I only learned recently that Japan has a rich and plentiful tradition of the murder mystery genre.  This is probably a simplification but my understanding is that there are three broad periods/styles in the Japanese detective fiction genre.  Honkaku is the orthodox style, which I guess is the more classical mystery and follows certain conventions.  Later came the Shakai ha or the social school which is more grounded in realism and takes into account the social and political context.  More recently there has been a turn back to a neo-orthodox style called Shin Honkaku ha but more self-conscious with a real emphasis on complex mysteries that the reader could theoretically solve.  There is a ton of great books in there!

I am not sure where the Honjin Murders is located.  It's definitely orthodox in the sense that it is a classic locked-room mystery and supposedly the reader has all the elements to solve it themselves. However, it also does an excellent job of setting the place and social context:  1937 rural Japan and in particular the compound of a noble Honjin family.  Honjin were the family who managed the roadside inns for the nobility and thus were themselves conferred a high social status.  In this case with the restoration of the Emporer the Ichiyanagi family no longer ran a honjin, but they were still an upper class family in the region.

The writing is very self-conscious and involves the reader.  The narrator speaks to us, giving us context and setting the stage, acting sort of like a puzzle master who is teasing us to figure out the murder.  It feels slightly too straightforward, but this may be a product of translation where the cultural elements do not quite come across to my western mind.  In any case, it is not a flaw, just a question of style.  The way that the locations and the details of all the elements involved in the murder are presented are extremely clear.  I could visualize almost all of it, especially the layout of the compound. There also is a map of the place where the murder took place.  I am really bad at staying focused on all those details, so I have to say that this book excels at description.

It also does a really good job of explaining the social relations of the region as well some Japanese traditions and how the are changing.  There is quite a dark coda at the end where we see how the war impacts everybody beyond the murder itself.  

The Honjin Murders is a real detective mystery nerd book.  He drops the names of several authors and specific books that influenced the murder and actual detective books feature into the plot itself.  I already have a few of the John Dickson Carr books on my hunting list.  I may now have to add an A.A. Milne book!  I myself am not too motivated to try and solve these mysteries myself but I really enjoy following along with the detecting process.  My one beef is that it is only at the end that significant details of certain characters' personalities are revealed and these would have had a major influence on how I thought about the crime.  So though he lays out all the physical clues that smarter people than I may have figured out the how of the murder, he actually hides the social clues so you really could not have guessed the why.

There is a detective here, the youthful and sloppy Kosuke Kindaichi, who I guess would become quite famous in Japan.  Yokomizo wrote 77 books! Here is a great piece that better explains the mystery scene in Japan and Yokomizo's role in it.  This was a lot of fun.  I recommend.

Monday, October 23, 2023

75. The Spring Madness of Mr. Sermon by R. F. Delderfield

If you see a Delderfield, you gotta pick it up.  That's my new motto.  Can't remember where I found this, but my on-deck shelf was groaning and yet I knew I had to have it.  I took it with me on a trip to America which would involve much hanging with friends.  I thought it would offer easy reading in small bursts and this turned out to be true.

It starts out with a pretty funny bang.  Milquetoast professor at a middling prep school suddenly loses his shit and beats the snot out of a bad kid who set off a stink bomb.  He then goes home and realizes that his marriage and home life are also no longer tolerable so he takes off with a rucksack and 8 pounds in his pocket.  The first third of the book is deeply enjoyable, with a Delderfieldian collection of rough and honest and lovable English people and a series of situations that are never tense, all contributing to the awakening of confidence in Mr. Sermon.  His first encounter is really the best, where he hitches a ride with an antique seller, helps him out in his business by pretending to be a gentleman buyer and then gets totally drunk while entertaining the locals on the piano.  It's just a great party scene.

Eventually, the narrative settles down to Mr. Sermon living in this beachside town, getting a job as the waterfront supervisor and developing a friendship with a younger woman whose dad is the headmaster of the good kind of school that Mr. Sermon wishes he had taught at.  For the reader, you really want to know how it will resolve and unfortunately, the central conflict reverts back to his relationship with his wife. The book loses its spontaneous fun and starts to fall into weird early '60s gender clichés and unrealistic emotional developments.  It's all done gently and thoughtfully but is ultimately quite silly and deeply sexist, to the point where it is almost cancellable in today's environment (his wife just needed a good spanking).  I give Delderfield the benefit of the doubt and it was more the simplicity of the way they turned their marriage around that turned me off more than the stereotypes (and honestly these were much more bearable than when John D. MacDonald does them).

So the second half fell flat for me but I still really enjoyed the book.  The opening chapters are worth it alone.  It's ultimately a middle-age male fantasy, wrapped up in rich locations and characters with a love of all this good and simple in non-snobby England.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

74. All Systems Red (book 1 of the Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

This is really a novella but I didn't want to buy the entire 4-book set until I knew I would like it and if you held it in your hands you would say it's a book (albeit stretched out with lots of white space and extra pages like a high school essay).  A colleague at work who has good nerdy taste recommended it to me and it was a good recommendation!  It's a great concept and you jump right into it.  The protagonist is Murderbot or more officially a SecUnit, a cyborg of cloned human material who is a mandatory (for insurance reasons) part of the equipment package the "company" sends out when people contract it for planet-surveying services.

The company's priority is profit and does not have the tightest quality standards, which Murderbot has figured out.  It has hacked its own governance module and is therefore effectively a free-thinker. It's real goal seems to be to want to just chill out and watch endless hours of downloaded entertainments.  The concept is immediately compelling to anyone who has been trapped in an undemanding and thankless job with incompetent, uncaring management and not enough to actually engage the brain.  Despite his attempts to remain distant from the humans, however, this crew turns out to be quite cool and Murderbot does get engaged when at first they are put in danger by the fauna of the planet and more so when they figure out they are being sabotaged.

It's a tight, sparse read with only hints at the setting of the greater galaxy and the complexities of the company.  As the reader, you are caught up in Murderbot's sardonic, yet ultimately sensitive, voice and the action of the situation.  It really does a great job of combing likeable personalities and the emotions associated with Murderbot being forced to open up to them with cool tactical combat and strategy against this unknown enemy.  I can't wait to read the next one.

Monday, October 16, 2023

73. Quai d'Orsay 1945-51 by Jacques Dumaine

Another undocumented freebox find, I realize now that it is a minor classic in diplomatic history.  Jacques Dumaine was the chef du protocol of the French department of Foreign Affairs immediately after the end of WWII.  His diary was published posthumously (he sadly died a few years into a plum job as the Ambassador to Portugal) and was a big hit because of both its behind the scenes look at the political scene in France and Europe as well as a thoughtful and often humorous introspection into humanity.  Each chapter is a year which is then broken up into various days. This is an abridged edition of the original published in French.  I feel like I cheated but seeing as this one took me two weeks to read, it is probably for the best.

His opinions on Churchill and the complex relationships between the US and the other European states, especially around the potential re-armament of Germany were interesting and revealing.  Much of the internal politics around the French president, prime minister and various political parties I couldn't really follow as I know almost nothing about it.  Much of it was out of context and that contributed to the slowness of my reading.  

My uncle used to work for Foreign Affairs Canada and he once introduced me to the person who had been the head of protocol for Israel.  He said that that must have been a tough job.  I was a teenager and didn't really understand but today after having done some event planning and other semi-delicate administrative organization, I really get it.  Dumaine's job must have been an incredible pain in the ass!  Not only do you have to know all the minutest details of the rules of protocol involving super important people, you also have constant political pressure from various interested parties trying to get you to break those rules.  He kvetches about it, but always in a philosophical, positive spirit and seems to have done the job well. 

Another real pleasure in the book are his various quotations.  I'll share my favourites here:

"My personal definition of the word "relaxation" is any interval of time which separates me from a fresh irritation."

"As Cocteau says, let us give the impression of having organised that which we cannot prevent."

Analogous but more nuanced take than Churchill's on young versus old politicians:

On Truman defeating Dewey and all too relevant today concerning the media and political class's obsession over polls:

This is part of his story of Ristic, who was the Yugoslavian Ambassador to France and at first sent to Paris as basically a powerless figurehead, under the control of the communist political officers there, who then took over.  I like the idea of the quiet, seemingly meek man who is actually a badass and I especially like the middle sentence comparing him to a rod of steel:

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

72. The Blue Wall: Street Cops in Canada by Carsten Stroud

I found this at a wonderful little corner of an otherwise quite depressing place: the used bookshop/fundraiser at mountain-side entrance of the Montreal General Hospital.  I discovered it a few years ago after suffering from a basketball-caused case of Mallet Finger.  It was a miracle that I got in at all to see a specialist (though once I did, he was excellent and I got a full recovery) and a double miracle that there is this little corner crammed with english paperbacks and hardbacks mostly from the 70s, 80s and 90s.  The only problem is that it is open at limited hours, probably because it is staffed by volunteers.  I don't know if they get regular donations of books or if they have some single source because the shelves are stuffed and the few times I have come back, they seem to get restuffed.  Wherever the books come from, it is a pretty strong representation of late-twentieth century mainstream book-buying taste.  There is a heavy emphasis on big best-seller fiction, the Canadian literary establishment with a smattering of genre and British popular stuff.  I made no major finds, but a few unknown gems were lurking in there and The Blue Wall is one of them.

Though it started off a bit too wordy and descriptive for me with a geographical overview of Vancouver, once it gets into it's bread and butter the actual daily (nightly, actually) police work in various cities across Canada, it becomes eminently readable, thought-provoking and informative.  There is some implicit bias here, given that Stroud seems to have worked as a cop but he is mostly up front with his perspective and makes a real effort to think the issues through in a fair way.  In particular, there is zero mention of race other than First Nations (which both he and the cops mention treat with s surprising amount of sympathy and awareness of history; one of the cops goes on a rant about how Canada is basically enacting a slow-moving genocide), nor of corruption.  There are a couple of simplistic straw men, particularly a Haligonian college girl from money and hyper-naive socialist ideals.  There is a long and well-researched (he goes deep into the history of the gun) narrative on an officer who got killed in a bank robbery that turned into a hostage situation. He is of course a good cop with a family and it is really sad, but also plays into the classic narrative of the police officer sacrificing his life for the public.  How many innocent Canadians were also killed by police in this time and what about their long narrative?

Overall, though, this a rich portrayal of the lives of street cops in Canada in 1980 with lots of interesting context, like the history of gun laws in Canada.  He sat with the cops working the beat on Davie Street (which is a nice complement to Vancouver Vice), the badass armed robbery squad in Montreal (with a wild breakdown of how they stop bank robbers), cops in First Nations country in northern Ontario (really sad), Toronto squad cars, Winnipeg beat cops, back to Vancouver for the drug squad taking down low-level heroin dealers and addicts with little tidbits in between.  There is a small but powerful section where he interviews early women in the police force that both reminds the reader of how insanely sexist things were (though maybe still are given some of the recent shit in the Canadian military) and how strong these women were.  The ending is an excellent essay on the demise of the street cop and the growing separation between the police and the public.  This essay begins with an explanation on the difference between the values of a Canadian police officer compared to an American one, another distinction which I suspect has narrowed today with our massive increase in police budgets and culture of militarization.  According to him, Canadian cops were way less likely to go to force or violence and considered it a failure if they ever had to use their guns.  

This book really stands the test of time.  It is an excellent read just for enjoyment if you are into the culture and work of street cops.  It could also be a solid reference for anyone writing about crime in that period. It is also an informed and intelligent look at police work in the 1980s and thus a valuable sociological text for those who study policing and how it has changed.  Seek it out.