I finished reading seven books this month. I’ve already written about Jenny Diski’s On Trying To Keep Still here, John Pollock’s Wilberforce here and Anne Tyler’s Digging To America here. The other books –
- Death’s Jest-Book – Reginald Hill
- The Poe Shadow – Matthew Pearl
- King of the Streets – John Baker
- Theft – Peter Carey
all deal with crime and death. It seems that murder has become somewhat of a theme in my reading, especially as the next book I’m reading is Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a fascinating novel set in 12th century England concerning the investigation into the death of three children in Cambridge by a Adelia, a doctor from Salerno – more in a later post on this one.
However it may look, I don’t have a reading plan at all and pick up a book as it appeals to me. So, I am surprised to find connections between the books, even when it seems that they are widely different. For example, The Poe Shadow contains many references to slavery, one of the main topics in the Wilberforce biography and is set mainly in Baltimore, as is Digging To America, although more than a century later. The Poe Shadow is a long novel about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s death in 1849. It is based on authentic details, combined with the results of research in various archives and libraries. It uses historical figures as well as fictional characters in the search to explain how Poe died in a hospital in Baltimore, after being found in an inn, dressed in dirty, shabby clothes. His visit to Baltimore was unexplained and over the years numerous theories have been put forward to explain how he died. The novel also explores who was the real ‘Dupin’ of Poe’s mystery tales. Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination was on my parents’ bookshelves and I dipped into them as a teenager. I’ve now dug out a copy and have started to read The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring Dupin. I was surprised that the opening of this tale is a detailed analysis of analysis, using as comparison the games of draughts, chess and whist.
I have always found Poe fascinating and previously read The American Boy by Andrew Taylor, a novel about Poe’s childhood. The Poe Society has much more information on him.
Murder is of course a staple subject of the detective story, and Reginald Hill and John Baker are both experts in the field. Reginald Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book and John Baker’s King of the Streets cover violent murders in graphic detail, some of which I found hard to stomach, but as one of the characters in the Mistress of the Art of Death says: ‘To ignore his [ie man’s] capacity for evil is as obtuse as blinding oneself to the height to which he can soar.’
I read Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book quickly, even given that I had to look up the meaning of several words and the long, rambling letters from Roote, an ex-convict, which troubled Pascoe so much that he became obsessed with finding Roote guilty again. There are a number of sub-plots running through this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, particularly exploring the psychology of the criminal mind.
Baker’s King of the Streets is also a quick read, although the subject matter of the abuse and murder of children is neither easy nor pleasant to contemplate. This is the third book I’ve read by Baker, all featuring the private detective, Sam Turner and his assistant Geordie (naive, but street-wise). It’s well written, giving insight into the minds of both the detective and the criminal characters. I particularly liked the nickname ‘Gog’ for one of the ‘minders’, who trashes Sam’s office. Gog is, as the name suggests, a huge giant of a man, with little reasoning power, but plenty of brawn, looked after (not very successfully) by his brother, Ben. Gog and Magog, hills near Cambridge, crop again in Franklin’s book, ‘British giants as pagan as their name’. Baker also refers to Gulliver’s Travels in describing Gog as ‘Brobdingnagian’. All, very appropriate.
Theft, by Peter Carey, ends this month’s list of books. This is a very different book from the others, but is still on the theme of crime, although the sub-title is ‘A Love Story’, which it is as well. This time it is in the art world, with forgeries and details of the international art scene. The book ranges from Australia to Japan and America, split between alternating accounts from the two Boone brothers, Michael the artist, and Hugh his ‘Broken’ brother, who he is ‘looking after’. Another shared theme in the King of the Streets and Theft, is that both books feature brothers, one of whom is ‘damaged’ and cared for by the other. Hugh’s sections of the books counter-balance Michael’s, giving additional insight into the action of the book. I found it hard to read in parts, not knowing anything of the technicalities of the art world, but feel I’ve learned quite a lot. This is only the second book by Carey that I’ve read, and whilst I prefer Oscar and Lucinda I think Theft is still worth reading.