Peter Pan Must Die (Mystery) by John Verdon, 2014
John Verdon is a new author for me. The New York Times promises that his plots are good and his characters are well
depicted. Re the plots, I definitely agree; at times this book reminded me of the excitement of the chase in works like The
Day of the Jackal. Not so sure about the characters.
Dave Gurney is a retired NYPD homicide cop. His buddy, Jack Hardwick, also a former cop, persuades Gurney to help him investigate
what looks like a case of wrongful conviction. A woman named Kay Spalter is serving time for ostensibly having shot her husband,
Carl, while he was standing at his mother’s grave during her funeral. The reason Hardwick wants to prove that the investigation
into the shooting was corrupt is that he was fired from the police force on account of his bending the rules in helping Gurney
to solve another case. Showing that the cops screwed up the Spalter case will be Hardwick’s way of getting back at them.
And, because of the favour Hardwick did him in the previous case, Gurney feels obligated to help out here. The questions involved
in this new case intrigue him so much that he gets involved far beyond the point of finding enough evidence to have Kay’s
I like Gurney. The point is often made that he’s a thoughtful guy. As his son says to him, some detectives would
want to solve a puzzle so that they could catch the bad guy. "But I think you want to catch the bad guy so that you can solve
the puzzle." In keeping with Gurney’s analytical approach to mysteries, a key theme in the book is that our minds tend
to think about something a certain way, not because of what we’ve seen, but because of what we think we’ve
seen or what we’ve expected to see. As Gurney understands it: "We don’t think what we think because we see what
we see. We see what we see because we think what we think."
Further expression of Gurney’s ideas along these lines has to do with connecting the dots in a case:
What if the so-called dots were just random isolated events? At times like this he always recalled, uneasily, that everyone
on earth at a particular latitude sees the same stars in the sky. But no two cultures see the same constellations. He’d
seen evidence of the phenomenon again and again. The patterns we perceive are determined by the stories we want to believe.
This phenomenon applies particularly to one of the main questions about the shooting of Kay’s husband. Given everybody’s
assumption of what happened, it doesn’t seem possible that the shot was fired from the location the cops say it was
fired from. Every good detective novel should offer lots of obsessing over some key points and this one does so over that
question. The solution turns out to be truly ingenious.
In an attempt to give depth and history to Gurney’s character, Mr. Verdon gives us a session with a psychotherapist
who – marvelous to behold! – figures out what’s driving Gurney to take on dangerous assignments in retirement.
I don’t believe psychotherapists can do that sort of thing, especially not in one session. (Even if this therapist is
hurrying because he’s dying.) And the reason that turns up in this case and that keeps propelling Gurney forward, is
tragic treacle that doesn’t help us to respect him or identify with him.
One disadvantage to Gurney’s thoughtfulness arises in terms of his being the hero in an action sequence. The climax
of the book, which is meant to be a catastrophic calamity at a fairground, is bogged down by the author’s prosaic explanations
as to why Gurney is making each of his decisions in pursuit of the villain. That ruins the emotional punch of the episode
– in spite of the addition of thunder and lightning to try to crank up the tension. A true action hero jumps into the
fray with barely a thought about what’s coming up and your heart’s in your mouth as you rush on with him or her.
Although Mr. Verdon creates the rural atmosphere of Gurney’s home well, we’re subjected to a lot of over-writing,
particularly in descriptions. His rendition of a sleazy apartment building is over the top. In such contexts, the smell of
urine is mentioned too often. It seems like the writer is striving too hard for effect. The same could be said about a scene
where some friends of Gurney’s wife are having a conversation about crime and punishment. The episode looks like it’s
meant to add profundity to the book but the discussion doesn’t rise above the level of the banal. It takes a dip towards
the idiotic when one person turns to Gurney and asks "Suppose you had to choose. Would you rather be a murderer ... or his
The other flaw in the book, as I find it, is Mr. Verdon’s somewhat questionable handling of some characters and their
relationships to each other. Gurney and his wife, for instance. I get it that a woman may have concerns about her husband’s
putting himself in dangerous situations. Even if the wife does have her reasons here, I got tired of the constant tug-of-war
on this subject. It’s too facile a means of creating conflict that’s supposed to hook the reader. Also, I think
we’ve had enough of the preoccupied husband who’s always forgetting what his wife has asked him to do, always
putting himself in the dog house, so to speak. And it doesn’t help me warm up to this couple when it turns out that
they’ve adopted that cloying habit of ending every phone conversation with a professsion of love.
In one scene, Mr. Verdon has Gurney’s pal, Hardwick, expressing his disapproval with things like a curled lip, flexing
jaw muscles, grimaces, loathing, and an expression showing the effects of acid reflux. Enough already, Mr. Verdon! And
yet, I came to like Hardwick. One thing that helped was this comment from him: "All those saints out to save the world ought
to be ground up for fertilizer. Bullshit is good for the soul." Here’s how Gurney sees Hardwick: "He presented such
a prickly amalgam of characteristics. A sharp mind and sound investigative instincts were concealed behind a relentless eagerness
to offend." And Gurney liked being reassured – as does the reader – "that beneath Hardwick’s irritating
shell there lurked a solid, insightful detective." Hardwick even has a sense of humour about himself. Regarding his dogged
pursuit of certain evidence, he tells Gurney: "Made a real pain in the ass of myself – which isn’t my true nature
– but you wanted more information, and I live to be of service to my betters."
Among the problematic characters, there’s the daughter of Carl Spalter, the man who was shot, and she is egregiously
awful. One security guard, a former cop, can do nothing for a couple of pages but spit out unfiltered vitriol about the lesbians
and ethnic minorities who now, as he sees it, run the police force. Do some readers believe that any real person could get
stuck on such a one-note tirade? Another character, a cop of iffy morals, has "pasty saliva" accumulating at the corners of
his mouth and on the next page he sucks a wad of mucus out of his nose and spits it on the ground. Later, after a meeting
with Gurney, the cop leaves behind an aroma of sweat and alcohol. Another cop who’s giving Gurney some grief necessarily
has "clenched yellow teeth." I prefer to read about people an author has sketched with a little more subtlety. Not the black
and white figures of the classic Harlequin pantomimes .
Note: So many books have been piling up awaiting reviews, that, in some cases, I’m forced to offer only
brief comments on them.
He Said/She Said (Mystery) by Erin Kelly, 2017
Kit and Laura, a young British couple, travel around the world in hopes of catching the perfect solar eclipse. (I’m
not sure that it’s ever made clear where they get the cash that enables them to do this.) The first eclipse that they
attended together was back in 1999 at a sort of latter-day hippie festival in Cornwall. During the proceedings, they happened
to witness something traumatic involving a young woman named Beth Taylor. In the years since, Beth has become something of
an albatross around the necks of Kit and Laura. She has insinuated herself into their lives to such an extent that they have
taken on assumed identities and uprooted themselves from their previous lives in order to avoid her. But there’s still
the awful hazard of running into her at another solar eclipse.
In one respect, this book reminds me of the Barbara Vine type of mystery: something awful happened along ago and we need
to find out what it was. In other ways, the book, with its intrigue and suspense, reminds me of Gillian Flynn’s Gone
Girl. As in that book, the chapters alternate between the voices of the husband and wife, each of them jumping back and
forth from the 1999 incident to the 2015 present. The book is well-paced and exciting to read, although I’m not sure
that the theme of the solar eclipses has as much resonance as the author wants it to have.
One thing about a book like this is that it depends very much on the believability and strength of one character to support
the whole story – in this case, Beth Taylor. You wonder, at times, whether she can bear up under such a tremendous burden,
but she does in the end, particularly when you find out what’s really going on. And that’s the great thing about
this book – the dynamics of what’s happening aren’t what you think they are. When the truth is ultimately
revealed, you have to wonder about the motivation of the person who has been causing all the trouble. Did that person really
have a strong enough reason to do such dastardly things? Maybe. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter – it makes for a good
Local Girl Missing (Mystery) by Claire Douglas, 2017
Francesca Howe, a successful business woman who works in the hotel industry, receives a call from Daniel, the brother of
Sophie, who was Francesca’s best friend. Some eighteen years earlier, Sophie disappeared off the end of a pier in their
seaside town without leaving a trace. Now, Daniel says, some of her remains have been found. He wants Francesca to come in
the hopes that the two of them can figure out what happened to Sophie.
My library’s paperback edition of this book includes a collection of questions for Reading Groups – which I
usually take to be a bad sign, but I tried not to hold it against this author. She creates the atmosphere of winter in a seaside
town in a moody, noir-ish way: lots of stormy skies, turbulent seas, crashing waves and misty streets. We are, unfortunately,
subjected to the possible appearance of ghosts and such phenomena. In that respect, the book has overtones of Gothic horror.
Perhaps in keeping with that genre, several of the characters are too awful – spewing venom and spite far beyond what
anybody in real life would do.
The explanation for Sophie’s disappearance turns out to be truly startling. The theme – or lesson – of
the piece could be that we benighted human beings are condemned to existences fraught with lies and deceit. Throughout the
book, the mystery has depended entirely on our not knowing everything that’s on the narrator’s mind. When the
big reveal comes, there’s a chance that the reader may feel cheated but, never mind, it’s a brilliant ploy on
the part of the writer.
The Late Show (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2017
I take it that this is the beginning of a new series by Michael Connelly, in that the cover of the book bears the blurb:
"Introducing Detective Renée Ballard." She’s a detective with the LAPD who has been
demoted to night shift – hence "The Late Show" – because she accused a boss of sexual harrassment but she lost
the case because the colleague she was expecting to back her up didn’t. (Actually, it was never clear to me why the
colleague should have known about the harrassment.) You can see how that would lead to a lot of police politics in the book.
There’s a lot of stuff about jurisdictional disputes between the different law enforcement agencies. This is a book
that fits emphatically into the category of police procedural and then some.
As usual, Mr. Connelly has a bit of fun with a reference to his other work, thereby blurring the distinction between fiction
and reality. We’re told, for example, that Renée played a part in a television show
based on the exploits of Harry Bosch, Mr. Connelly’s well-known hero from another series. Now she’s working on
three cases. The first one, the theft of an older woman’s credit card during a burglarly, looks trivial at the outset
but it has major ramifications. The second case is that of a trans-gender woman who was found badly beaten and left for dead
in an alley. The third case is a shooting at a night club that left five people dead: a club bouncer, a waitress and three
underworld thugs. The three cases don’t dove-tail with one another in terms of any connections among the clues or the
suspects, but the cases work well together.
I’m not so sure about the character of Renée. She can be difficult to know. She’s
a smart lady who was a trained journalist until she decided that, rather than just reporting on crimes, she wanted to do something
to bring about justice. The only companion or partner in her life is Lola, who turns out to be her dog. I don’t know
why Renée doesn’t have a home and why she and Lola sleep on the beach in a tent
every day after Renée has done her paddle board workout on the water. Her designated address
is the home of her grandmother, about an hour’s drive away. The grandma appears to be the only family member in Renée’s life. Some distinctive aspects of her character do eventually emerge. She can become
mighty feisty, for instance, when she’s cornered by predatory males. On the other hand, she’s not above using
sex to get what she wants from a colleague. A scene in which she and a lawyer confront one of her abusive bosses crackles
with drama – Mr. Connellly’s writing at its best.
But it seems to me that Mr. Connelly isn’t able to inhabit this character as fully as he does in the case of his
male heroes: Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller. It may be unfair to say that, since we know so much about those two guys from
other books. But I can’t help thinking that perhaps Mr. Connelly is up against the problem that plagues so many male
writers: the difficulty of creating truly believable women characters.
Knots and Crosses (Mystery) by Ian Rankin, 1987
In a Google search for the best police procedurals, this one turned up on a couple of lists. It’s the debut of Detective
Sergeant John Rebus who has become so famous in Ian Rankin’s subsequent novels. In this case, he’s investigating
the unexplained murders of some young girls. His discovery of what’s actually going on takes him deep into some dark
aspects of his own past.
The novel is so noir-ish and gloomy that it made me think of the existential angst in Albert Camus’ work. But I found
some of the writing amateurish. The dialogue is often pedestrian – as when Rebus and his colleague, Jack Morton, are
swappping information. Some sentences include what seem to be unintentional and incongruous puns. For example: "It would make
a cracking good story when it broke, but he knew that he would be treading on eggs from here on in." The words ‘knots’
and ‘crosses’ crop up in various forms that leave you wondering whether an allusion to the title of the book is
intended or whether the echo is just coincidence. The freakishly weird solution to the mystery comes in a hypnotic state,
induced by Rankin’s brother Michael, in which Rankin goes on for fifteen pages of hokum about some trauma that occurred
when he was in military training. The editing leaves something to be desired too. On one page, we’re told that Morton
is thirty-five; further down the page we learn that he’s been a cop for two decades. A cop at fifteen years old?
Mr. Rankin himself, in an introduction written in 2005, expresses some surprise that the book eventually did as well as
it did and that it launched the fabulously successful series. (The initial sales of this book were poor; reviews were few.)
Perhaps part of its appeal was that it was one of the first mysteries to probe the less salubrious aspects of majestic Edinborough.
As one line in the book puts it: "Mass murderers belonged to the smoky back streets of the South and the Midlands, not to
Scotland’s picture-postcard city." Also, the frank treatment of the character of Rebus could have come as something
of a novelty. Here, for instance, is a detective who admits to getting an erection when he reads files on some of the ghastly
sexual crimes he’s obliged to study. On an outing with his daughter, he thinks of her as "the freakish result of a single
grunted climax, that climax which had seen a lucky sperm, crawling through the ooze, make it all the way to the winning-post."And
he doesn’t hesitate to think of a certain kind of woman as a "ballcrusher."
We’re a far cry from Ngaio Marsh’s high-minded and dignified Roderick Alleyn. On the other hand, Rebus’s
struggle with his faith and his somewhat sarcastic asides addressed to God may have helped to bring in young readers more
in touch with the 1980s scene than with Ngaio Marsh’s world.
Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life (Biography) by Sally Bedell Smith, 2017
What surprised me most about this book is that it seemed so different from the New Yorker review of it. The review
in the magazine (some time in the past year) made it sound like the subject of the book was a doofus who had an inflated sense
of his intelligence, which made his interference in national affairs a nuisance to everyone involved. He was said to have
barely squeaked through his education, largely because his tutors were indulgent towards him. And since then, he has been
influenced, supposedly, by sycophantic gurus who tell him that he has much to contribute to the world through his ideas –
which are actually cockamamie nonsense.
That’s not at all the picture that I get from the book. In fact, my reading of it gave such a different impression
that I had to go back to the review to make sure that it was talking about the same book. It was. Makes you wonder if some
people, starting out as haters of royalty – for whatever personal reaons – can only see the bad in anything they
read or hear about the royals.
Granted, Prince Charles’ pronouncements on architecture have had a disastrous effect on the fortunes of some of Britain’s
most eminent practioners of the art. And the British medical establishment has had a hard time fending off his enthusiasm
for things like homeopathy. His attempt to create a sort of charmed community according to principles of cooperation and craftshmanship
– resulting in the Disney-esque community of Poundbury – could be looked on as somewhat hare-brained (even if
the residents seem quite content with it).
But the man is constantly trying to find ways to better the lot of humankind. He collects about $200 million (US) each
year for his principal charities.With the approval of the Foreign Office, he headlined the campaign that stopped Nicolae Ceauşescu, the Communist dictator, from destroying traditional Romanian villages. Charles has
been influential in restoring the study of Shakespeare in British schools. As for his bunking out in a crofter’s cottage
and helping with the farm chores, you can see it as Marie Antoinette playing at being a shepherdess or you can see it as a
man making an honest attempt to appreciate the lives of people less privileged than he is.
Admittedly, his moods can be tricky and his interests flighty – he’s been described as an intellectual striver,
not a deep thinker – but he does often show a self-deprecating humour. It seems to me that Prince Charles has been doing
as good a job as anybody could do in the effort to have a good impact on people while being personally subjected to the most
relentless onslaught of publicity. Who of us might not look a bit kooky under such merciless exposure? Not to mention the
fact that most of us don’t have to deal with the kind of domestic turmoil he does, given the constant feuding between
his staff and that of Buckingham Palace.
As for some of his worst mistakes, it’s clear now that he and Diana Spencer were badly suited to each other as marriage
partners. (I like the fact that Ms. Bedell Smith treats Diana’s death factually and non-sensationally; she doesn’t
over-dramatize it.) Diana had absolutely no interest in the arts and no experience whatever of public life. Someone like Camilla
Shand (as she was known when she and Charles first became friends) would have been a much more suitable partner for him. Having
experience and sophistication, and knowing her way around the aristocracy, she could joke with him and tease him in a way
that made him feel completely natural and at ease. But she was deemed to be out of bounds because she didn’t have the
"virginal" aspect that the future king’s intended wife was supposed to have. So he chose Diana because that was what
he felt he ought to do.
Since early childhood, that sense of duty was drilled into him. He was forever trying to live up to his parents’
expectations. It was obvious that he was a disappointment to his father, in that he was too artistic and sensitive, not rough-and-ready.
Hence the banishment to the brutal regime at the Gourdonston school that was supposed to make him into the kind of man he
could never be. He was unable to talk about intimate matters with his parents; his only close friend in the royal family was
the Queen Mother.
One of the details of the book that struck me as particularly interesting was the way that the Queen’s public introduction
to Camilla had to be stage-managed, once Charles’ marriage to Diana had ended. First, there could only be a smile from
the Queen and a curtsey from Camilla at some social event, even though the two women had known each other long since. As one
courtier put it, the occasion was "acknowledging but not accepting" Camilla. Gradually, she was integrated more fully into
royal gatherings. Now that she and Charles have been allowed to pair up officially, it looks as though he may be finally on
the point of achieving some ease with himself and some sense of peace about his place in the world. As the Queen said on the
day of Charles’ and Camilla’s wedding: "They have come through, and I’m very proud and wish them well. My
son is home and dry with the woman he loves."
Not In Front of the Corgis (Biography) by Brian Hoey, 2011
Brian Hoey, a reporter, has gathered quite a trove of lore about the royal family in his many years of covering them. He
doles out his anecdotes in a relaxed, chatty way. Presumably he is not constrained by the kind of confidentiality contract
that palace staff are now obliged to sign. But he must have got a lot of his information from them. Sometimes you can’t
help wondering if the factuality of the incidents reported is a bit iffy; you might even suspect that you’ve heard other
versions from other sources. Still, Mr. Hoey certainly knows the royals better than you or I do, so these tales are probably
as close to authentic as we’re going to get. One thing that the palace staff quickly learn about dealing with the family,
he says, is that the royals may not always be right, but they’re never wrong!
When Mr. Hoey was first covering the royals, someone like him was allowed to wander, more or less at will, through the
palace corridors, as long as he had legitimate business there. (Nowadays, an escort is required.) The title of this little
book (just over 200 pages) comes from an encounter he had with a couple of footmen. Finding them whispering to each other,
he asked whether they were conspiring about something. They pleaded with him not to make any such joke when the corgis were
approaching. Why? If the dogs were coming down the corridor, that meant that the Queen was not far behind.
The subtitle of the book is "Secrets of Life Behind the Royal Curtains" but it doesn’t deliver anything like the
kind of scuttlebutt that that blurb would appear to promise. For the most part, it’s a somewhat laborious explanation
of how the royal households work. Who the top bosses are, what their responsibilities are, what the various underlings’
jobs are like – that sort of thing. If you want to know exactly how you, as a valet, need to perform all the meticulous
steps involved in waking up a gentleman in the morning, you can find the instructions here. You’ll also learn that you
have to iron Prince Charles’ shoe laces when he takes off his shoes at the end of the day. Given all the staff required,
considerable detail is given on the finances of running these households. It transpires that you get paid less than you would
get for a comparable job in the private sector but people take on these jobs because Buckingham Palace looks good on a résumé.
The book does offer some thumbnail sketches of the top-ranking members of the royal family as seen by the people who work
with them daily. The main thing we learn about the Queen Mother is her close friendship with William Tallon, a servant whose
official title was "Page of the Backstairs." A gay man who was constantly at her beck and call, he made no effort to disguise
his relationship with Reg Willcox, another servant. The Queen Mother, like most of the family, was quite relaxed about any
such alliance within her household. Mr. Hoey says that, over Mr. Tallon’s years of service, the Queen Mother and he
became closer and closer in a platonic way "without the relationship ever beoming in any way the slightest bit improper, in
spite of snide comments from some quarters." Sometimes at night, when everybody else had departed, he would put on some records
and he and the Queen Mother would dance together. But "neither forgot for a moment who the other was – it was mistress
and servant, and that was the way both preferred it."
Princess Margaret’s reputation for arrogance stands up under Mr. Hoey’s scrutiny. She would never allow anyone
to forget her lofty position. Once, when a guest at a dinner party asked her about the ailing King George VI, referring to
him as her father, she replied haughtily "Are you referring to His Majesty?" And she snubbed the dinner guest for the
rest of the evening. She refused to speak to anyone on the phone who was not equal to her in rank or higher; everybody else
had to leave a message with an aide.
Prince Philip can be bad tempered but he doesn’t bear grudges and he’s fair. His loyalty to his staff is remarkable;
he’ll go out of his way to protect any of them if he believes they are in the right. He likes an argument and he will
listen to an opposing point of view.
Prince Charles, on the other hand, can’t stand conflict; he wants everyone to like him. His lifestyle is considered
lavish, even by his parents. He’s the fussy, moody one; you never know about him, he can be unctuous and familial one
day and bad tempered the next. As long as everything’s going his way, he’s the ideal employer.
All we learn about Charles’ wife, Camilla, is that she’s a committed smoker. Footmen have to make sure that
there are silver cigarette boxes containing her favourite brand in every room, accompanied by matchbox holders in silver containers
placed upright, one match half withdrawn. The moment she leaves a room, the ashtrays are emptied, readied for her return.
Prince Charles has tried, without success, to persuade her to give up smoking. But she never smokes at Buckingham Palace;
a strict no-smoking rule applies there.
Princess Anne is well liked because she is forthright and candid with her staff; you always know where you stand with her;
she doesn’t pretend to be your friend. She makes do with a skeleton staff and informality reigns in her premises. She
maintains a cordial friendship with Mark Phillips, her former husband, who lives nearby.
Prince Andrew comes across as something of an uncultured layabout. He can be boorish, given to child-like tantrums and
mood swings, but he’s generous in his hospitality. His ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, visits frequently and she’s the
life of the party whenever she shows up.
Prince Edward, surprisingly, is the one who is the stickler for formality and protocol – although he was once seen
to be carrying photo equipment into his house for a photographer on assignment. His wife, Sophie, is a great favourite of
the Queen, but staff find that she can, at times, be a little too aware of her prestige, even though she is royal by marriage,
not by birth.
No actual sketch of the Queen is offered, but, thoughout the book, you get the impression of Her Majesty as a sensible,
practical person who would rather finesse her way around difficulties than create a scene. Mr. Hoey makes the point that the
expenses incurred by the Queen’s great love of horses are paid for out of her own money, not the State’s.
In discussing the staff’s duties for setting up a glitzy event at the palace, Mr. Hoey makes the point that there
is only one standard: perfection! It strikes me that that note, in a way, sums up the whole story. If there is any place in
the world that things should be done perfectly, surely it is the Queen’s home. Isn’t that the point of royalty
– to show how things can be done at their best, when all the circumstances conspire to produce the finest events that
humans are capable of? Maybe an anti-monarchist, enraged by what would seem to be extravagant frippery, would not agree with
me, but I tend to think that the splendour of the royal context is meant to inspire people. What would be the point of royalty
living in drab conditions?
The Devil in the White City (History) by Erik Larson, 2003
Sometimes you get your best tips on books while perusing reviews about other books. In this case, a review of Erik Larson’s
more recent book about the sinking of the Lusitania in the First World War mentioned that his previous book, The Devil
in the White City was better.
It combines two stories. One is about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893; the other is about a serial killer who was
operating in the area at the time. I don’t find that the two tales are inter-twined in an especially effective way.
It’s not as if the killer was using the fair as a hunting ground or was terrorizing the fair-goers. His only connection
with it was that the influx of visitors to Chicago because of the fair gave him the opportunity to find more victims. However,
Mr. Larson tells both stories so well that the book makes for excellent reading.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the World’s Fair of 1893 – its official title being The World’s
Columbian Exposition, in that it was supposed to be commemorating Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the "New World" –
was that Chicago was desperate to use the fair to promote its image as a world-class city (although that clichéd term wasn’t bandied about then). The city fathers, so to speak, wanted to do something so spectacular
and amazing that it would eradicate Chicago’s reputation as nothing but a meat processing town. The citizens were tired
of New Yorkers looking down their noses at Chicago as a hick town with no culture or refinement. The World’s Fair would
stop that condescension. And it was also hoped that, when it came to amazement, the fair would surpass the Paris World’s
Fair of 1889 with its marvellous Eiffel Tower.
Once the jubilation died down after the announcement that Chicago’s bid for the fair had been successful, the problems
set in. The main one: location, location, location. When an acreage on the edge of town was finally chosen, the architects
and builders found themselves up against enormous challenges in that the unstable terrain required ingenious adaptations to
support the planned buildings. The designing and construction amounted to almost nothing but panic as the clock wound down.
While trying to cope with a perilous downturn in the economy, the planners were also having to grapple with the demands of
the uprising union movement. The hope was that something as splendid as New York’s Central Park would be created but
that had taken decades to accomplish, whereas this project had to be finished in barely more than two years. (The chief landscape
designer, F. L. Olmsead, wanted everything to look as natural as possible: no gaudy or extravagant floral displays.)
Dedication day, in October of 1892 took place in a bleak setting, with few buildings ready. By Opening Day, though, on
May 1st, 1893, the fair was ready for the festivities. Although attendance was piddling at first, it gradually
built. By the time of its closing in October that year, the fair smashed attendance records for any such event to that date.
In one day, 751,026 people attended, compared to Paris’ paltry one-day total of 397,000.
Meanwhile, the dastardly H.H. Holmes, as he called himself (his real name was Herman Webster Mudgett), was quietly executing
people he lured into his lair. A graduate of medical school, he’d purchased a Chicago pharmacy and built a small hotel
across the street, on a corner not far from the fair grounds, with businesses on the street level, offices and bedrooms on
the upper levels. His main victims were beautiful and vulnerable young women whom he wooed and seduced, but he also killed
a few men and children who got in his way. The lure of the fair, the promise of excitement, tended to make young women from
quieter places more susceptible to his advances. One of his favourite methods of killing them was to stash them into concrete
boxes that he’d had made and infusing noxious gas into the boxes. Then he paid someone – who didn’t ask
any questions – to pick the corpses clean, whereupon he would sell the skeletons to medical schools – again no
If this man didn’t have one of the most fiendish criminal minds that the human race has ever produced, his was certainly
one of the worst ones we’ve ever come to know about. Not only was he an expert killer; he was also a supreme and masterful
con man. He almost never paid for anything and if he did, it was usually with money loaned by someone else – who was
never going to get it back. Occasionally, his creditors managed to corner him – once they did so in a formal meeting
– and he was so contrite about his financial troubles, so earnest in his promises to set things straight with them,
that his opponents were practically reduced to tears, concluding the meetings with promises to see how they could help him
resolve his difficulties.
One of the reasons that Holmes’s killings were not noticed was that he was careful to pick victims who seemed relatively
alone in Chicago and whose departures from the scene wouldn’t likely cause much stir. In the cases of women victims
who were more involved with him socially – such as a woman who thought she was engaged to him and who visited often
with his neighbours – he would make up some story about how she had suddenly jilted him and returned to a former beau.
Or the missing woman had suddenly been called to England to attend to a family he had known nothing about. No one has ever
been able to determine a motive for the killngs; it seems that Holmes did it just for fun. At the very least, he killed nine
people but no one doubted that he killed many others, perhaps dozens.
Amazingly, Holmes might never have been caught if it weren’t for the persistance of a Detective Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia
cop, who was investigating Holmes. At that point – 1895 – he was incarcerated in Philadelphia for insurance fraud.
When things had begun to get a bit too hot for Holmes in Chicago, he’d started moving to other cities, sometimes having
two intended victims living in different parts of the same city. Detective Geyer’s searches eventually led to the basement
of a house in Toronto where the buried bones of two of Holmes’s child victims were found. The house, near St. Mary’s
and Bay Streets, was on St. Vincent, a street that has since been incorporated into Bay Street. Holmes was executed in 1896,
at the age of thirty-four, for one of his murders. At his trial, he confessed to several others.
Erik Larson tells all this with tremendous verve and panache. At times, he describes some of Holmes’s killings with
novelistic detail that struck me as somewhat questionable. However, in his footnotes Mr. Larson cites the reliable sources
that gave him the licence to employ a bit of creativity in these scenes. But I do find several examples of over-writing in
the book. Like this:
The train clicked by the Union Stock Yards, double pungent in the day’s strange warmth, and skirted sierras of black
coal capped with grimy melting snow. Burnham treasured beauty but saw none for miles and miles and miles, just coal, rust,
and smoke in endless repetition until the train entered the prairie and everything seemed to go quiet. Darkness fell, leaving
a false twilight of old snow.
The light in the room was sallow, the sun already well into its descent. Wind thumped the windows. In the hearth at the
north wall a large fire cracked and lisped, flushing the room with a dry sirocco that caused frozen skin to tingle.
The only other problem I have with the book is something that might be seen as a virtue or a flaw, depending on how the
individual reader takes it: the narrative skill is almost too good. It’s as if Mr. Larson is thinking too much about
the realm of the best-seller, which is his habitual abode. For instance, he opens his book with a scenario involving two men
who had been key figures in the build-up to the fair. It’s now about twenty years later and both of the men are at sea,
on different ships. One of the men is trying to send a telegram to the other but the telegram won’t go through. Guess
why! Because the telegram has been sent to the Titanic which is in the process of sinking! That’s apparently
supposed to give readers a frisson. But it has nothing to do with the story of the fair.
Mr. Larson’s crafty way of building suspense and making you turn the page sometimes makes me feel that I’m
being jerked around. For instance, there’s the case of a demented Irishman who is pestering the Chicago politicans and
who is ultimately going to have an unfortunate effect on the fair. But we keep getting little smidgens of information about
him without knowing why he’s in the story. My reaction: Come on, Mr. Larson, quit dicking around and give me the
information straight up!
And then there’s the question of how the fair will come up with some marvel to out-do the Eiffel Tower. Various crazy
schemes are proposed and rejected. Gradually, we’re introduced to a certain enterprising young engineer who has an idea.
It’s something utterly original and unprecedented. The build-up to its revelation takes place in stages scattered over
several pages. His invention will turn out to be genuinely mind-blowing and fantastically successful but we’re not given
any hint of what it might be until...lo and behold!... recognition begins to dawn when we learn his name: G.W.G. Ferris.
Phantom Prey (Mystery) by John Sandford, 2008 and Field of Prey (Mystery) by John Sandford, 2014
My first impression on encountering Lucas Davenport, the hero of these two books: What a pleasure to meet a detective
who’s a happily married, cheerful family man who loves his wife and kids. He’s a detective working for the
Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul, Minnesota. When asked about the odd name of the organization, he explains: "In
Minnesota, see, we actually apprehend the assholes, instead of just investigating them."
Davenport is a hunky, attractive to women (he’s had quite a history with them before his marriage) and, while his
thoughts are markedly sexist, almost pornographic, his behaviour is impeccable. In one case, he’s thinking about a vivid
sexual fantasy that he’d like to enact, except for other circumstances – "the other circumstances being that he
was happily married and pathetically loyal." He doesn’t much care for cemeteries but, when he happens to be looking
over a particularly peaceful one, he thinks that "if somebody told him that he’d be buried there, after a life of say,
a hundred forty years and much more sex and barbeque, he would have been content with the prospect."
In Phantom Prey, the main plot is about the murder of a young woman in her mother’s home. Did the killing
have something to do with her Goth connections? Or was somebody aiming for the mother and got the daughter instead? A sub-plot
has Davenport and some colleagues keeping an eye on the apartment of the wife of a mobster, in the expectation that he’ll
Field of Prey is about the killing of several young women over a number of years, their bodies dumped into a cistern
in an abandoned field. A special feature of the book is that we’re following the bad guys as they gloat over their crimes
and plan the next ones. In this respect, we know something the cops don’t know. They think they’re chasing just
one guy, and that’s what makes the mystery so difficult for them to solve. Part of the fascination of our reading is
watching to see when the cops’ knowledge will catch up with ours.
I think Field of Prey puts far too much emphasis, though, on the media pressure on the cops. It’s not my impression
that the media berate the cops so fiercely about murders that aren’t solved. (But maybe I’m thinking more of the
Canadian media?) Also, there are some side stories – not quite subplots – involving colleagues of Davenport’s
– that aren’t of much interest unless, I assume, you know the characters from other books about Davenport. The
main story involves a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing among small towns in the "tri-state" area that includes Minnesota,
so I’m guessing that somebody familiar with that geography would follow the goings-on better than I did.
Gradually, a reader picks up several aspects of Davenport’s character that are probably well known to readers of
other books in the series. He’s rich, as a result of a game that he invented, he’s Catholic (he uses a nun psychiatrist
to help him on some cases), he has a child from a relationship before his marriage, a couple of young children with his wife
and a ward. She’s a young adult named Letty who offers perspicacious insights into his cases. His wife is a surgeon
who, although not figuring largely in the story, steps in to offer gems from time to time such as this one about television:
"It’s like if you’re not on it, you don’t exist. The single most pernicious idea in our culture."
Enjoyable as both books are, Mr. Sandford plays a disconcerting trick in both of them. In one case, we think we’re
dealing with two characters but they turn out to be the two sides of one person who has what appears to be a split personality.
In the other book, one character eventually turns out to be dead and the dialogues with that person are a figment of another
character’s imagination. These discoveries come as quite a jolt to the reader but, once you get past those rough spots,
the reading carries on satisfyingly. Near the end of Field of Prey, however, there’s a scene of sexual torture
and violence that I found hard to read; I had to skip most of it. But the climax of the book, coming soon after, was so emotionally
charged, so gripping, that it left me all choked up. That tells us a lot about the quality of a book, I’d say.
The Art of Losing Control (Psychology) by Jules Evans, 2017
I can’t offer an actual review of this book as I didn’t read all of it carefully. But I did read the long introduction
and two or three chapters, then skimmed the rest of it. So I think I’m entitled to offer my impressions and my reason
for abandoning it.
The title made me think it was going to be a book about being less retentive, about letting go and going with the flow.
It seeemed to me that that would be a good attitude to cultivate at my time of life. The author is billed as "research fellow
at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London" so I thought he ought to know a thing or
two about developing good attitudes.
However, the book turns out to be about, not so much going with the flow, as attempting to achieve a kind of transcendence
or ecstasy, a state of being in which one feels raised out of ordinary humdrum existence and exalted to a state of being where
one feels a mystical connection with the rest of humanity, the planet and the cosmos. (That may not be quite doing justice
to Mr. Evans’ subject, but it’s the best I can do.) Mr. Evans explores the various ways that people have tried
to reach this state: religion, psychedelics, the arts, meditation, sex and so on. Each chapter shows him embarking on an excursion
into one of these realms in the quest for the ultimate high. The chapters tend to end with a well-practised caveat: yes, finding
bliss in these ways can be enriching but there are always pitfalls to avoid.
My dissatisfaction with this book may have two causes. Firstly, I’m not much interested in these rapturous experiences.
Ordinary everyday life is quite enough for me, thank you. But perhaps the more basic reason for my disliking the book has
to do with the genre. It’s the kind of thing where an author digs up all the research he can find on a topic and, with
painstaking literary labour, weaves all the disparate facts into one fabric. You can hardly read one page without numerous
quotes from – or references to – the likes of Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Carl Jung, John Lennon, Abraham Maslow,
John Locke, Mick Jagger, Lady Gaga, Meister Eckhart, Martin Luther, David Lynch and whoever. (The index, mostly names of people,
runs for ten pages.) I find this tiring. I much prefer a book where the author knows enough about a subject to take us through
it on the strength of his or her own thoughts, without constant reference to so many other thinkers. It would be unfair to
suggest that Mr. Evans simply Googled his subject and then strung together all the quotes he could find. But the format of
the book makes you wonder about that possibility.
Every now and then, Mr. Evans brings us back to his personal experience of the subject. He’ll tell about his arrival
at a retreat centre or he’ll mention his anger at the guy who was snoring during the night, or his irritation with the
guy who makes dry-mouth noises during meditation. I’m like: That’s it, Jules, come on, give us more of your
personal experience! Maybe I’m just a sucker for narrative, for story. Maybe I’m past the point in my life
when I can groove on exhaustive academic digging into a subject. If Mr. Evans had given us more of himself, the person, I
might have liked the book better. On the Internet, I find his short video about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy engaging. I
like him. Maybe I’d get more of him in his earlier book, one that was greeted with world-wide acclaim: Philosophy
for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations.
The October List (Mystery/Thriller) by Jeffery Deaver, 2013
When we’re told that a novel has been written backwards, that could mean several things, some of them rather difficult
to grasp. In this case, it means that the chronology is reversed. The first chapter in the book, #36, is the end of the story;
the events in each subsequent chapter have taken place a little bit earlier than the incidents in each preceeding chapter.
To help keep matters clear, the timing is indicated at the start of each chapter. Working our way from the book’s opening
in Chapter 36, we’re told that chapter 35 took place forty minutes before chapter 36 and chapter 34 took place one hour
and fifty minutes before chapter 35...and so on.
The opening chapter – i.e. the end of the story – shows us a woman nervously waiting in her apartment for the
return of her six-year-old daughter who has been kidnapped. A ransom has been paid, other demands have been met, but the mother
is still not confident that the deal will go through as promised. As we work back in time, chapter by chapter, we find out
how this situation came about. It’s a great test of a reader’s patience, though, to assemble the pieces of the
puzzle in such a counter-intuitive way. I kept thinking: that first chapter, i.e. chapter 36, suggested pretty clearly
that this business wasn’t going to end well, so why would I want to read the build-up to it??? I got so frustrated
with the reading that, at about two-thirds of the way through the book, I skipped to the end to see how it all started. Then
I gradually read back through the chapters I’d skipped.
Don’t do that. Stick with the reverse chronology as Mr. Deaver has laid it out for you. That way, you’ll get
the most enjoyment out of the devious cleverness of the book. You will be astounded as the surprises are revealed, bit by
bit. You’ll find out that nothing was what it appeared to be. The final chapter, i.e. the beginning of the story, may
be one of the most shocking things you’ve ever read.