Thursday, October 30, 2014

TO LOVE AND BE WISE by Josephine Tey

In Josephine Tey’s 1950 book To Love And Be Wise, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant tries to decide whether what appears to be an accidental drowning actually is.

The first third of the book sets up the story. 

American photographer Leslie Searle shows up at a sophisticated party.

Author Lavinia Fitch invites Searle to Salcott St. Mary, a small town that has become an artists’ colony.

While there, Searle teams up with a minor national celebrity Walter Whitmore to write a book on the area. Whitmore will write the text and Searle will take the pictures.

Searle also seems to be in competition for Whitmore’s fiance.

Searle falls into the Rushmere River and drowns. And the story goes from there.

What happens is socially complex. The story ends with a surprise. 

To Love and Be Wise is what I would call a novel of manners, a mystery involving social and family intrigue.

The title comes from Sir Francis Bacon’s quote, “It is impossible to love and be wise.”

I was surprised that I liked the story. It made me think about the nature of clue-driven mysteries. (To Love and Be Wise is a combination police procedural and clue-driven, Agatha Christie-type story.)

At one point, this dialogue occurs-- 

“Have you ever seen a lady sawn in half, sir?”

“I have,” Bryce said, eyeing him with a wary disapproval.

“It seems to me that there is a strong aroma of sawn-lady about this case,” Grant said.

Are stories like To Love And Be Wise magic tricks? Or is there something more to them?

I found something more to Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise.

Friday, October 24, 2014

not a mystery--YELLOW CROCUS by Laila Ibrahim

Laila Ibrahim’s Yellow Crocus features two courageous women in a terrible situation.

Mattie, the slave, has to give up nursing her own son to become the wet nurse for Lisbeth.

Lisbeth, born to privilege, is destined to marry the son of a prominent Virginia slaveholder. She will govern the big house on a large plantation.

But the two women come to love one another as a mother and a daughter would. 

Lisbeth sees the injustices of slavery. She watches as her family sells Mattie’s son, separating him from his mother, apparently forever.

Lisbeth thinks she understands why Mattie has to take her second child, a daughter, and run away. But she doesn’t understand at all.

Finally, the story hinges on a rape. That rape changes Lisbeth’s view of the role of slave women on the plantation. She, too, breaks away.

All of this takes place in the midst of blind self-delusion. Lisbeth’s family pushes her to marry the prominent slave holder, telling her that if she does, her position will be assured for the rest of her life.

Ironically, these scenes take place within four years of the start of the Civil War. Soon, these people who see themselves as aristocrats will lose everything.

I had several thoughts about this book. Yellow Crocus shows the evils of slavery through the eyes of strong women. It also celebrates the men who make it possible for these women to do what they have to do.

The book graphically describes personal experience in slave quarters, on the underground railroad, and in large plantation houses.

Shallow values, greed and position, govern much of what is happening.

Yellow Crocus makes those of us born in Southern states think about our own lives.

I grew up in a town which some historians have called the Bushwhacker capital of the confederacy. Somehow, my parents sheltered me from all that.

As young children, my sister and I each had a black baby doll. We never gave it a thought. Nothing was ever said. But when I look back on it sixty-five years later, I wonder where my parents got the dolls. (I’ve since thought they probably ordered them from J.C. Penny.)

Our town was proud of its history that the sun couldn’t set on a black person. Black people had to be out of town by sunset, even in times after the Civil War. (Fortunately that did change.)

So many things influence our attitudes toward race, sexual orientation (another area were my parents were accepting), and cultural position.

Today, my hometown has a series of beautiful Civil War murals. The town has much other history, but most of all, they chose to remember the Civil War. (Admittedly, they probably see it, in part, as a tourist attraction.)

Our growing up touches everything we are, and that was true for Lisbeth too.

I had one other thought. So far as I could tell, the Unitarian Universalist press originally published this book. Then Amazon publishing picked up the book and (apparently after some revision) promoted it.

I bought the book on Kindle for $3.99.

There are so many different ways to publish good books nowadays. Books traditional mass market publishers might ignore can see the light of day.

I’m glad Yellow Crocus saw the light of day. I thought it was well worth reading.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

IN A DARK HOUSE by Deborah Crombie

I found Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House hard to follow.

Superintendent Duncan Kincaid works a case involving a murdered woman. Rose Kearny, a new firefighter, found the nude body of the murdered woman in a burned-out warehouse. The fire could well be arson.

Kincaid’s live-in lover Detective Inspector Gemma James searches for another apparently missing woman. The woman is a friend of a parishioner of Gemma’s sister, the substitute minister in a local parish.

At one point, at least four women appear to be missing.

Someone has kidnapped nine-year-old Harriet Novak and is keeping her in a dark house.

To top it off, Gemma and Duncan are about to lose custody of Duncan’s son.

In many mystery novels, disparate cases dovetail into a single solution. This book is different. Some crimes dovetail and some don’t. Some are separate crimes which happened to coincide.

I found the parts of In a Dark House interesting, but the characters smushed together for me. The new firefighter Rose was the most intriguing character. I also liked Gemma’s sister, the compassionate minister.

I read this book on my Kindle. I wished the publisher had enabled the x-ray function of many Kindle stories. That way, I could have looked up who the characters were when I lost track. 

In a Dark House ends with excitement, as these kinds of books often do.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Nicola Upson’s The Death of Lucy Kyte is a strong, tragic story.

The book mixes history and fiction.

Upson bases The Death of Lucy Kyte on the 1827 red barn cottage murder in Suffolk, England. A century later, Josephine Tey learns the hidden details of the murder.

Tey’s godmother wills her the red barn cottage. That cottage has a violent history. William Corder, the son of a disintegrating upper class family, impregnates his lower-class lover, Maria Marten.

Maria had been a servant in the red barn cottage. Corder came from his larger estate to have trysts with Maria in the red barn near the cottage.

To cover his indiscretion, Corder murders Maria in the red barn.

Someone later burns the barn.

The terror of the one-hundred-year-old murder still haunts the property and the village.

Actors, including Josephine’s godmother and her husband, have become famous dramatizing the story.

Maria’s friend Lucy Kyte (a wholly fictional character) chronicles the original events. Her diary also tells her own tragic story.

Lucy’s ghost haunts the cottage. Josephine suspects her godmother's death may have been a murder too.

One climactic scene takes place on the night of King Edward’s abdication. Josephine Tey had previously seen King Edward and Wallis Simpson during a tryst at a resort.

Josephine Tey, the central character, is a fictional evocation of the well-known mystery writer of the same name.

So the book weaves history and fiction in an indescribably tragic way.

Few people in the story end up happy, though Josephine makes her peace with red barn cottage. She still has a strong relationship with her lover.

I found the story fascinating. I expect to read more of Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey Mysteries.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A NOTE FROM JOE--My top ten books

It is a fad right now. People list their top ten favorite books.

I’ve seen all kinds of lists on Facebook. People seem to do it so easily.

I couldn’t do it.

Because of what I’ve just read, I’ve been thinking about it.

I think I could list three (at least for right now) and a few other possibilities.

Right now, number one on my list would be Josephene Tey’s A Daughter of Time. That book, based on Sir Francis Bacon’s comment that truth is the daughter of time, has to do with the nature of reality. What we think is real isn’t.

There would be a fight for numbers two and three on my list between the Bible and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Interestingly, both books live in the truth of Josephene Tey. Their meanings are relative.

My thinking has also gone to other books I might put somewhere on the list, and so far, I’ve come up with three--Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

So I guess I’ve got a start, but every book on the list is shadowed by the first book’s insights. Truth is the daughter of time.