Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Originally published 1942
This edition, Stark House Mystery Press, October 2003
My latest foray into older domestic suspense is a definitely creepy story called Lady Killer. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding wrote mysteries from the late 1920’s until the early 1950’s, and a few of her books have been reissued by Stark House Press. See the following post for a bit more information about her books.
Lady Killer tells the story of Honey Stapleton and her much older husband Weaver who embark on a boat trip from New York to the Caribbean at the beginning of the novel. Their marriage is beginning to deteriorate, and the challenges of being on a small ship with a decidedly strange cast of travelers make their marital problems stand out even more. Honey begins the journey feeling suspicious of the couple in the neighboring cabin, the newlyweds Captain and Alma Lashelle: she worries that the Captain is trying to murder his wife, and the rest of the book involves her attempts to get any of the other passengers or crew members to take her suspicions seriously. There also is a mysterious death on board and a couple odd forays onto islands for short excursions, all which seem ominous as well.
It’s a compact novel, it’s a creepy novel, but it’s not exactly my favorite kind of story. I gravitate towards more plot than suspense. Holding is so good at creating the claustrophobic atmosphere on the boat and in Honey’s head that I felt myself having to take breaks. The payoff was quite good, though. I’m glad I tried this author, and I’ll return to her when I’m looking for something really suspenseful again.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
My edition: Vintage, 1999
Originally published 1955
The Talented Mr. Ripley has been languishing on my shelves for a number of years, and the #1955book challenge led me to pull it off the bookcase. Thankfully, I forgot a great deal of the Matt Damon/Jude Law version of the movie as I settled into the story, but even knowing the story did not keep me from being surprised by the novel.
Tom Ripley is a young American of modest means with some sort of background as a con artist whom we meet in New York City in a bar where he is approached by the industrialist father of Dickie Greenleaf. Mr. Gleenleaf the father hires Tom to travel to Italy to convince his wayward son to return to the United States to take his place in the family boat-building business and be closer to his ailing mother. The rest of the book details Ripley’s adventures and crimes in Italy.
What most impressed me was the tone: I was in the head of one of the strangest characters I’ve read about, and it was profoundly disturbing and at times seemed utterly normal. I was also impressed that I didn’t grow bored of the rich-expatriates in southern-Europe storyline which I’ve found tiresome in other stories. Ripley is fascinating, and the pacing and the plotting he takes on were quite intricate. I’m also a fan of briefer books, and the length of this one felt much shorter than contemporary books I typically read.
All in all, this was a good foray into a more classic story: the psychological work, the creepiness of the plotting: this book stood out a lot more than the only other Highsmith I have read.
Other reviews appear in Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, Past Offences, and Existential Ennui (lots of old covers in this post).
I bought my copy of the book.
Irène by Pierre Lemaitre, translated by Frank Wynne
MacLehose Press, December 2014
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher
Book 1: Commandant Verhoeven
I read Irène without knowing much about it. I’ve had the second book in the trilogy but first to be translated book, Alex, in my TBR folder on my Kindle for ages, I know Lemaitre’s books tend to be quite violent, but other than that I went into the book blind. But while I went into the book blind, I unavoidably have to talk about what to expect.
Irène involves the short Commandant Verhoeven with a very pregnant wife, Irène, leading the investigation into a series of killings inspired by crime novels. The murders are quite brutal, and I admit that I skimmed some gruesome sections in order to get on with the story. I admit that I missed some of the resonances because I’ve only read one of the books that inspired one of the murders, but that particular section was a very good homage to the original.
The rest of the story focuses on the dynamics within Camille’s team, and they are an interesting bunch. I’m also particularly interested in their police interrogation techniques because I recently read an old New Yorker article about the Reid interrogation technique in the United States and how it may contribute to false confessions. Seeing a different approach in fiction in France was a good antidote to that approach.
The book feels very indebted to other crime novels, and not in a disturbing way like the serial killer’s homage to those fictional murder scenes. But there is a major twist in the story that explains why the violence is so incredibly brutal in the majority of the book, and for that I’m inclined to give Lemaitre a pass for the horrible murders. I’m a bit reluctant to do so despite the twist and despite the explanation. See also Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool. It’s hard to get involved with a story that seems to be so much about proving a point about violence (or misogyny in Koch’s case) because I’m still reading a very violent or misogynistic book. I’m still unsettled by the book.
Act of Passion by Georges Simenon, translated by Louise Varèse
Originally published 1947 as Lettre á Mon Juge
This edition: New York Review Press Classics, 2011
Act of Passion is the most disturbing book I’ve read this year. It’s one of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels, ones he called romans durs. It’s also rare in Simenon’s novels because it’s a first person story. Dr. Charles Alavoine after being found guilty of manslaughter (the act of passion in the title), writes a letter to the examining magistrate explaining how actually he planned the murder. The letter is his plea to be understood, and it’s pretty obvious that someone who wants to declare how he planned murder is not the most easy character to read.
It’s a book about a criminal’s mind, and the story gets worse as it goes along as we approach the recap of the murder. Alavoine’s view of women is quite horrid, and his crime is quite horrible as well. I couldn’t stop reading in part because this book is such a contrast to the Maigret series and because I mistakenly thought the narrator would have a flash of insight.
A few things in the novel place it in 1947 for me: (1) the focus on psychoanalysis; (2) Alavoine’s journey from the provinces to a larger city strikes me as particularly of the period; and (3) the mention of tubercular husbands..
It’s not a pleasant book. Alavoine is not a sympathetic main character. And it’s a book where the main character’s rationalizations do not make sense to me either. I don’t feel like a psychoanalyst, but I do feel like a gawker by reading this very unsettling book.
Finally, a couple suggestions for further reading: first an interesting conversation in the comments about recommended Simenon novels see Asylum, and this lengthy piece in Open Letters Monthly discusses the romans durs along with a spoiler-laden discussion of this particular novel.
I borrowed the book from the library.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Henry Holt, October 2014
Disclosure: I received a review copy via LibraryThing Early Readers.
I really wanted to read Being Mortal after reading an excerpt several months ago in The New Yorker. The chapter is called “Letting Go,” and the piece followed a young mother diagnosed with cancer making end-of-life care decisions. The book as a whole is a combination of policy discussion and narratives, and overall it’s very affecting stuff.
Gawande starts the book with some history of medicine and elder care options (he’s part sociologist, part gerontologist, part surgeon, part son throughout the book). As a book about things that people find difficult to talk about, this book is invaluable. As a manifesto about reforming nursing homes and assisted living centers, it’s very effective.
As tough as the subject of this book is, it was a very good: the writing is not dry. And because he uses stories about his own family members as well as some stories of his patients, Gawande is constantly providing context to his points about how to lead a meaningful life while you are dying.
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Blogging for Books.
Before I started reading lots of crime fiction I was an English major who read a bit of everything. I read Middlemarch just a few months before I graduated and was very impressed: it was a soapy, serialized drama, it was serious, and Eliot was so generous to her characters. I picked out My Life in Middlemarch not only because of my fondness of the book but because of my fondness of Mead’s writing in the New Yorker (lots of profiles as well as other pieces, and her book about the wedding industrial complex is entertaining and fascinating too). If you don’t love Middlemarch, I’d avoid this book.
This is a biblio-memoir, which means it’s part a close reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, part memoir of Rebecca Mead as she’s reread the book since she was a teenager, part biographical sketch of Eliot and those close to her, and part a travelogue as Mead tries to understand the world Eliot wrote in and lived in. It’s a book that I dipped in and out of because the structure, which follows the structure of each installment of the novel, didn’t have the forward momentum I usually look for in my reading. That’s not to say the book was uninteresting: I just felt the need to take breaks occasionally.
Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman
Knopf, March, 2014
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.
I picked up Ayelet Waldman’s newest novel because I really liked Red Hook Road, which I read before my blogging days. I was expecting a smart novel with affecting characters, and I wasn’t disappointed. So much literary fiction drives me crazy or I feel like I can’t write about it much, but Love & Treasure was a great read and I have a few things to say about it.
The story centers on art looted by the Nazis and held by Americans after World War II on the Hungarian Gold Train, the treasure of the title. Specifically, the story centers on an enameled brooch of a peacock and a Hungarian painting featuring the brooch on a woman with a peacock head (it’s a bit surreal). It takes place in three timelines: the present, where the granddaughter of Jack, a deceased US Army captain, inherits the brooch; the aftermath of World War II when Jack lives in Salzburg and guards the train, and, finally, the early twentieth century in Budapest where the first owner of the brooch lived.
It’s a complicated story both politically and personally: none of the characters are totally good or totally bad, the issue of reparations for art stolen by Nazis is complicated, and most importantly, Europe after World War II was a mess in terms of dealing with displaced persons. I tend to gravitate to fiction more than non-fiction, and I’m grateful to have delved into such a complicated issue in a novel that was evidently very thoroughly researched instead of just reading a really long New Yorker magazine article about it. Fiction is more affecting, I think. It’s hard to tell people to pick up a Holocaust novel, even though I know lots of people picked up Sarah’s Key, for example as it was made into a movie or lots of book groups read it, but I encourage you to give this book a chance. It’s not manipulative, and it’s very well-researched.
Every six months or so I like to check in with my reading and posting plans for the blog, so here are my thoughts:
- I’m joining the 2014 Global Reading Challenge at the easy level (one book from each continent), and I’ll try to read from as many countries as I can throughout the year, regardless of the continent. I’ve added a countries visited page to keep track of how diverse my reading is by setting. Now I need to get to updating the page.
- I’m also joining the 2014 USA Fiction Challenge, and I’ve added a states visited page to track my progress over the coming years. My main goal for this challenge is to read books that don’t take place in New York and California.
- My two reading challenges for the year are perpetual challenges for me because I’d like to add a bit more flexibility to my reading choices than I had last year. I’d like to return to some favorite authors I’ve discovered since I started blogging and reading crime blogs, I’d like to dig into my own bookshelves a bit more, and, like I mentioned last summer, I really want to read more books published for 2000.
So what can you expect over the next few months? Lots of translated crime novels, the occasional non-crime novel because I’m getting a bit burned out by crime reading, some authors I first read in 2012, and nothing too noir.
Last updated 26 June 2016
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
- New York
- New Jersey
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
South Atlantic (2/9)
- District of Columbia
- West Virginia
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- New Mexico
I’m happy to have completed the expert level of the 2013 Global Reading Challenge: it was a challenging challenge, and I discovered some great books along the way. I read three books from each continent, and my wild card continent (to substitute for Antarctica) was for books that take place in more than one country. Without further ado, here is the list of books I reviewed for the challenge:
- The Power of Three by Laura Lippman (Maryland)
- A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry (New York)
- Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman (California)
Central & South America
- Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo (Argentina)
- The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero (Chile)
- The Silence of the Rain by Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Brazil)
- The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (England)
- Misterioso by Arne Dahl (Sweden)
- Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (France)
- Pale Horses by Jassy Mackenzie (South Africa)
- Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley (Botswana)
- Black Star Nairobi by Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Kenya)
- Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seichō Matsumoto (Japan)
- The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (China)
- Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage (Thailand)
- Food of Ghosts by Marianne Wheelaghan (Kiribati)
- Frantic by Katherine Howell (Australia)
- The Mistake by Wendy James
Wild Card (Multiple countries in one book)
- The Name of a Bullfighter by Luis Sepúlveda (Chile, Germany)
- The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Sweden, Czechoslovakia)
- The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (US, India)
Now for a few observations about my reading:
- This challenge is great for getting me to try new authors from countries I don’t typically read about, but I think I need to take a step back for the coming year and read one book from each continent instead of trying to find translated books from three countries in each continent. I hope to spend more time reading more of the authors I’ve discovered this year instead of pushing for a large number of new-to-me authors in 2014.
- It’s difficult finding crime novels set in Asia that are translated into English from a multitude of countries. There are a few from Japan, but little elsewhere, or maybe I need to focus on lots of small presses or ebook only releases to find them. Africa was also difficult. I’m not sure how much of this is because of the lack of crime novels written in those countries and how much is related to what publishers decided to translate for the English-speaking market. I am thankful to my fellow challenge participants for suggesting so many interesting authors.
- My favorite books of the challenge were by Laura Lippman, Ernesto Mallo, Elly Griffiths, Angela Savage, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for hosting the challenge this year.