Monday, June 29, 2015

Materena's advice for writers 1

In her opinion, writing is like talking, except that she has to worry about spelling mistakes.
Celestine Vaite, Frangipani

Materena Mahi is the young Tahitian woman at the heart of Celestine Vaite's novel Frangipani, which was first printed in Australia in 2004. Materena already has a little boy underfoot and she is six-months pregnant with her second child when she decides to apply for a job as a cleaner. This means writing a letter, something she has never done in her life. But, she tells herself, she can talk, so she should be able to write.

So often this isn't true, however. I have often wondered about people who can talk nonstop and tell wonderful stories yet claim they cannot write. Indeed, when they try to write something, the result is often a disaster. Why, I wonder, can't they simply imagine saying what they want to say, then write down the words?

It's just not that simple, for talking and writing are quite different skills. I, for example, have always been a competent writer, but put me in a social gathering, even with people I know, and I won't be able to think of a thing to say to anyone. Small talk can be a very big deal for me. I just can't seem to do it.

As Materena observes, there are differences between talking and writing. Spelling, though important, is hardly the only one. She buys a dictionary to help her with that problem, although inexperienced writers don't recognize certain words are misspelled in the first place, so they won't even know to look them up.

Then there's the matter of which words to capitalize, how to punctuate sentences and the correct use of grammar. You can get away with things in speech, including even incomplete sentences, that can be glaring in written form. Mistakes in speech are quickly forgotten, but mistakes in writing, especially factual errors, can potentially last forever.

Speaking and writing also seem to require different kinds of minds. Good speakers think quickly. They always seem to know where they are going next. Writing, at least for most of us, takes time. Fast thinkers need to be able to slow down and put their words down one at a time, instead of letting them pour out as they think them. Those of us who are slow thinkers to begin with may have a bit of an advantage when it comes to writing, while fast thinkers may get easily confused and frustrated when their hands on a keyboard can't keep up with their minds.

Yet for all the differences between talking and writing, I still think Materena Mahi is right. If you can do one, you should be able to do the other. It may just require a little effort, and perhaps a good dictionary.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Historical science fiction

For a science fiction writer, Connie Willis does an amazing amount of historical research. So many sci-fi novels are set in the future, but hers seem to focus more on the past. And she goes to great pains to get the past right. Black Out and All Clear, the first Willis novels I read, tell of historians of the future who go back to London in World War II to study the effects of the German bombings firsthand. In Bellwether, a researcher attempts to discover how fads, like bobbed hair in the 1920s, get started.

I have just finished reading her first novel, Lincoln's Dreams, published in 1987. Although set in the present, the story remains preoccupied with the Civil War. Jeff Johnston is a researcher for a historical novelist. For his next Civil War novel, The novelist wants answers to such questions as where Willie Lincoln was first buried, before his body was dug up and taken to Spingfield with that of his father, and what did Abraham Lincoln dream about before his assassination.

Yet Jeff gets distracted by Annie, a beautiful young woman who seems to be dreaming the dreams of Gen. Robert E. Lee.  Are these dreams figments of her own vivid imagination. Are they perhaps the dreams a guilt-ridden general dreams in his grave? Or are they, like Lincoln's most famous dream of his own body lying in the White House, a warning of the future?

I can't say that I enjoyed Lincoln's Dreams as much as those other Willis novels. Still, more than ever, I am impressed with her research.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Authors are fictional

Hundreds of thousands of people live in my library. Some are real, others are fictional. The real ones are the so-called imaginary characters in works of literature, the fictional ones are their authors.
Jacques Bonnet, Phantoms of the Bookshelves

From a reader's perspective, Jacques Bonnet has it right. It is the story's characters who are real. The authors are pure fiction. They aren't that important. It's the characters who matter.

In some cases, of course, the authors truly are fictitious. Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll and George Eliot were just made-up names. Those people didn't really exist. Yet Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy are hardly more real or more substantial. Each biography of these writers reveals something new about their lives and about their personalities. No matter how much we might study them, we can never really know them. Yet their characters are revealed in their totality. We know everything there is to know about them, including often what they are thinking about. As Bonnet says, "Hamlet is a great deal more present to us than Shakespeare, about whom we have only a few scraps of information."

I am reminded of The Great Divorce, the C.S. Lewis story in which visitors to heaven discover that the people there are much more solid, much more real than they are. As in heaven, so it is in the library. Things are reversed. It is the characters who are real. The authors are the ghosts.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Something big from something small

"Franny," the J.D. Salinger short story first published in The New Yorker in 1955, begins with a stereotypical college romance and ends with a spiritual crisis. In between, as a transition between the two, Salinger gives us an unusual literary discussion between the story's two characters, Franny, a student at one college, and Lane, a student at another. They meet at the train station in apparent rapture at the prospect of spending the weekend together. I love this line early in the story: "Lane spotted her immediately, and despite whatever it was he was trying to do with his face, his arm that shot up into air was the whole truth."

Little things often develop into big things in Salinger stories. The prime example has to be "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" in which Seymour Glass, Franny's older brother, talks with a four-year-old girl on a Florida beach, then goes back to his hotel room and kills himself. What happens to Franny in this later story proves almost as dramatic. And the change begins with that literary discussion so common among college students.

Franny makes two observations. First she accuses Lane of "talking like a section man." This is a graduate student who temporarily takes over a professor's literature class and begins spouting his narrow views about a particular author, thereby ruining that author for the students, or at least one as sensitive as Franny Glass. Lane, naturally, does not take this criticism well.

Then Franny complains about those who write poetry but in her mind are not true poets. "If you're a poet, you do something beautiful," she says. "I mean you're supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you're talking about don't leave a single, solitary thing beautiful."

From there Franny goes on to tell Lane about a book she's reading called The Way of the Pilgrim and about the value of meditating on the phrase, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." Within minutes she has fainted and is last seen lying still, her lips "forming soundless words."

Any good story opens itself to a multitude of interpretations, and "Franny" is no exception. Is Franny having a mental breakdown, an emotional breakdown or a spiritual breakdown? Is Lane a part of the crisis or just an interested observer? What is really going on in her life? I like the way Salinger uses his story to make connections between artistic things and spiritual things, between idealism and reality, between literature and life,  between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Been there, done that, so what?

How many thrillers can you reread? They are disposable, open and shut, throwaway, leave-on-a-train books. To stand up to years of repeated readings, there has to be more than blood and thunder, especially as, once you know what happens next, you lose the element of surprise.
Susan Hill, Howards End Is on the Landing

That, anyway, is how most of us feel about thrillers, and about murder mysteries, too. If you've read them once, you might be interested in seeing the movie, especially if it's something like Gone Girl, but you never want to open the book again. My wife will often pick up a John Grisham or David Baldacci novel and ask me if she has read it, as if I can remember what books she has read. I usually tell her, "If you can't remember reading it, there's no harm in reading it again," but she doesn't feel that way. If she's already read it, she doesn't want to read it again whether she remembers anything about it or not.

Yet Susan Hill goes on to explain why she enjoys rereading James Bond novels. She loves revisiting the villains, the settings, characters like Miss Moneypenny and the exciting chases and escapes. The stories, she says, give pleasure whether you know what's going to happen or not.

Wait long enough and you almost certainly won't remember what happens in a thriller or who the murderer is in a mystery. Recently I read James Grady's Six Days of the Condor for the first time in 40 years and it was like reading it for the first time. Last year I again watched the movie, 3 Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, and it was that that was in my mind as I read. But after the initial scenes, the movie, as the change in title suggests, is totally different from the novel, so I was in for a lot of surprises. It made be glad I had kept that paperback all these years.

To open up more shelf space, I removed several fat Robert Ludlum thrillers with the intention of donating them to the Friends of the Library for their book sale. That was a year ago. The books still sit on the floor of my library, along with other books I can't quite decide whether I really want to part with or not. I was never a big Ludlum fan. I have so many of his books because I was sent them for review. Yet I keep thinking I may want to return to them someday. As with Six Days of the Condor, I've seen the film version of The Bourne Identity and may want to see how they compare.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reading recommendations in a mystery

Literary references in murder mysteries are not unheard of. Laura Lippman occasionally tosses one into her novels, as do other writers, and Robert Parker named his hero, Spenser, after the poet. But I was particularly interested in those in Susan Hill's fine mystery The Shadows in the Street because just a few months earlier I had read another of Hill's books, Howards End Is on the Landing, about the year she devoted to rereading books in her home, rather than acquiring new books. It turns out that both books were published in 2010, meaning she must have been working on both of them at the same time. It shows.

Howards End Is on the Landing has one chapter called "Reading for the Soul," much of which Hill devotes to discussing the books of Michael Mayne. I was so impressed by what she wrote about Learning to Dance that I bought the book. So I sat up a little straighter when in The Shadows in the Street Mayne's Learning to Dance is announced as the book for discussion at a book club's October meeting. Hill seems to be recommending Mayne's work a second time in a second book.

Hill makes several references to P.G. Wodehouse in Howards Ends Is on the Landing. At one point she writes, "Humour in books is a very personal thing and not a subject about which to be superior. I am always overjoyed when my recommendation of P.G. Wodehouse is successful. Only recently when I recommended a friend start with The Mating Season, the next e-mail I got from him was headed 'What ho!' But it ain't always so. Another friend said he couldn't see the point of spending time with such silly asses. You can't convert someone like that, you just have to let it be."

She makes much the same point in her novel.

"He gave her a sharp glance but ignored the comment, saying instead: 'I have started my grandson on his first book by The Master.'

"'Wodehouse? Bit old and dated for Sam, isn't he?'

"'Neither. We shall see. I heard promising chuckles coming from his bedroom. I decided Lord Emsworth was the right place to start rather than Jeeves.'

"'Maybe it's skipped a generation. Neither Simon nor Ivo ever took to him.'"

In other words, Wodehouse, or any other humorist, isn't for everyone.

Hill also makes reference to Marilynne Robinson's Gilead in her novel, yet I haven't been able to find any mention of that book in Howards End Is on the Landing, although the lack of an index makes it difficult to be sure it's not in there somewhere. There is a chapter devoted to female writers Hill admires, including Margaret Drabble, Penelope Fitzgerald, Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf, but I have no idea why Hill thought highly enough of Robinson to mention her in one book, but not the other.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Padded mysteries

Novel, n. A short story, padded.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

After a mystery writer passes the 200-page mark, it's all ballast.
Joe Queenan, One for the Books

So when is the last time you read a mystery novel that wasn't more than 200 pages long? I looked back at some I have read over the past six months and found just one under Joe Queenan's arbitrary 200-page limit. That is The Lolita Man by Bill James, which came in at just 158 pages. Nothing seemed to be missing. Others I've read include Live from New York by Dick Belsky (a fellow I worked with on the Ohio University Post back in the Sixties), 248 pages; A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George, 412 pages; Murder on the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner. 292 pages; Railway to the Grave by Edward Marston, 348 pages; Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane, 324 pages; Wings of Fire by Charles Todd, 294 pages; Through the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 355 pages; The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith, 257 pages;  If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O by Sharyn McCrumb, 316 pages; and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, 323 pages. George's book is 200 pages times two, and A Great Deliverance is one of her shorter novels.

Then there's the book I just finished, The Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill, which is 372 pages long in the trade paperback edition. This mystery in the Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler series involves a serial killer preying on street prostitutes. Does the novel seem padded, as Ambrose Bierce would say, or full of ballast, as Queenan might prefer? Well, yes. Hill includes several tedious chapters where not much happens that seems to advance the story. She throws in a lot about church politics, the home life of prostitutes with children and Serrailler's love life.

Yet I see reasons for all this padding and ballast, not just in Hill's mystery but in the others, as well. One is character development. In some of the shorter classic mystery novels Queenan praises, including those by Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and Georges Simenon, the heroes sometimes seemed to have no private lives. What did we know about Jane Marple's life when she wasn't solving mysteries or before she started solving mysteries? Not much. Alexander McCall Smith could easily tell his mystery stories in fewer than 100 pages. His novels are mostly about the personal lives of his main characters. We read his novels for the padding, not for the mysteries.

The ballast in mystery novels also serves to misdirect the reader. Not knowing until the end who the murderer is, we don't know which of the seemingly unimportant bits of the story might prove to be important after all. The killer is usually hiding in those pages and pages of details. One reason the Bill James novel was so short was that the plot involved just finding a killer, not in picking the killer out of a number of possible suspects. To do the latter in a convincing way requires a few pages, and a lot of apparent padding.

Finally, Susan Hill, like so many other contemporary mystery novelists, strives to be a "serious writer." That is, her novel purports to be something more than just a murder mystery. Hill uses her book to comment on changes occurring in the Church of England and on programs for helping prostitutes improve their lives and the lives of their families. The mystery may interest her readers, but the padding may be what most interested Hill.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Believing in libraries

Broun has never believed in libraries -- he keeps books all over the house, and whenever he finishes with one, he sticks it he sticks it into the handiest bookcase. I offered once to organize the books, and he said, "I know where they all are."
Connie Willis, Lincoln's Dreams

I am drawn to the word libraries in that passage from the Connie Willis novel. It doesn't seem to refer to the public libraries found in virtually every American town of any size. Why wouldn't Broun believe in those? Nor does it seem to refer to those rooms filled with books some people, mostly wealthy people, have in their homes. No, the word appears to refer to an organized collection of books, not the haphazard collection Broun has in the novel. Under one of the definitions of the word library in the dictionary I have before me is the phrase "especially when systematically arranged." Organization turns a collection of books into a library, although this obviously doesn't apply to bookstores or book warehouses, no matter how well their books may be organized.

Jacques Bonnet
As someone begins to accumulate books, there usually comes a time when some kind of organization becomes needed. You may do this to make books easier to find or simply so they will look better on the shelves. I first started arranging my books when at the age of 13 or 14 I joined the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club. Within a matter of months I had already had a nice collection of books, but I wanted to keep the sci-fi books separate from my other books. For one thing, they were all the same size and looked very nice shelved together. All these years later, these same books remain sitting side by side.

Jacques Bonnet devotes a chapter to organizing books in Phantoms of the Bookshelves. He credits Georges Perec with this list of the various ways one might classify books:

by continent or country
by color
by date of acquisition
by date of publication
by size
by genre
by literary period
by language
by frequency of consultation
by binding
by series

Often we may use two or more of those systems at the same time. For example, those old science fiction books of mine, which at one time were shelved in order of acquisition, are now arranged alphabetically by author. Most of my novels are arranged alphabetically, but I also keep mass market paperback novels apart from the novels in hardback or trade paperback editions. Some unusually large works of fiction, such as an annotated collection of Ring Lardner's baseball stories and a copy of The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Michael Hague, are kept on a shelf with mostly nonfiction books of large size. Few of my bookshelves are large enough to hold big books, so I don't want to waste that space on books of ordinary size.

As for most of my nonfiction, I have separate areas for history, natural history, religion, show business, sports and so forth. It helps me to find what I am looking for, at least most of the time.

Organizing my books has become more challenging as I have run out of shelf space and been forced to just pile books on the floor of my attic library. Yet I attempt to keep these piles somewhat organized, unread books in this pile, for example, and those I've read in that one. The novels in stacks are still organized by the names of their authors. There is an M stack and an R stack and so on.

Bonnet has a telling phrase in another chapter of his book: "they are classified somewhere in my mind, as they are in my library." I see this in reference to the Willis character, Broun. He claims to know where all his books are despite their apparent lack of organization. In the same way, I resist my wife's offers to organize my desk, fearful I may not be able to find anything ever again. Perhaps it is really in our minds, not on our shelves, where collections of books turn into libraries.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Failure to communicate

I happened to be reading Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, a soon-to-be published book by Carl Safina, and Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct at the same time I read Carolyn Parkhurst's 2003 novel The Dogs of Babel. Pinker quotes the tower of Babel story from the book of Genesis in his chapter, called "The Tower of Babel," about the incredible number of languages, many of them radically different from each other, spoken by human beings around the globe. Safina writes about how animals, without using words or speech as we know it, nevertheless manage to communicate amazingly complex messages to each other. Campbell's monkeys, for example, have one alarm call that means a leopard has been spotted in the distance and another that means the leopard is nearby. Other monkeys react very differently to the two distinct messages.

Parkhurst's novel has more to do with the communication between species, namely between humans and dogs. Paul Iverson is a linguist who comes home to find that his wife, Lexy, has fallen from the top of a tree and died. Was it an accident or suicide? Why would she have climbed a tree? The only witness was her dog, Lorelei. In his grief, Paul, a student of languages, determines to try to find a way for Lorelei to tell him what happened. His research gets him involved with an underground group of amateur scientists attempting to use surgical means to enable dogs to talk. One thing Lorelei is able to communicate to Paul is her extreme fear of these strange people.

Things get a bit weird, but fortunately Paul has his memories of his life with Lexy, a strange, tortured artist who specialized in masks, plus a bookcase in which she had apparently rearranged all the books just before her death. Might there be a message here more revealing than anything Lorelei might be able to communicate?

All three of these books are about communication, whether from one person to another, one animal to another or one species to another. Yet Parkhurst's novel is not just about what is said but also, perhaps more significantly, about what could be said but isn't.

Monday, June 8, 2015

More equal than others

When I first read George Orwell's Animal Farm 50 years ago, the Soviet Union was at the height of its power and influence, and it was easy to see how Orwell might have had that repressive regime in mind when he wrote his fable, published in 1945.

Yet the story of animals who take over a farm, only to have their revolution taken over by a pig more ruthless than the farmer ever was, seems no less timely today, long after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Orwell speaks of the corruptive nature of power in general, whether it's power in government, power in corporations or power in the playground. Those with power tend to use it to gain even more power.

What interests me most about the book is how language is used as a tool for manipulation. Early in the revolution the animals write on a wall the Seven Commandments of Animalism, their constitution, in effect. These seem simple enough, "No animal shall wear clothes," "No animal shall kill any other animal," and "All animals are equal," among them. Yet in time the ruling pigs, led by Napoleon, rephrase or reinterpret each of these commandments to make them mean something entirely different from what they meant originally. The most famous of these restatements is when "All animals are equal" becomes "All animals are equal, but some some animals are more equal than others." Anyone who feels powerless in a society where everyone is supposedly equal can identify with that.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Hard reading

One of the books in my library I have never read and never expect to read is The Presidential Transcripts, a transcription of the Nixon tapes that, perhaps more than anything, forced President Nixon to resign. Countless copies of this book were sold back in the 1970s -- my copy was part of the third printing -- but I can't imagine anyone reading all 693 pages who didn't have to.

I took the book down from its shelf this week after reading what Steven Pinker says about it in The Language Instinct. Pinker writes that the Nixon transcripts shocked Americans in three ways. A few were shocked that the president had taken an active part in covering up a crime. A few more were shocked that "the leader of the free world cussed like a stevedore." But what shocked most people was how difficult to read transcribed conversation can be. Surely Richard Nixon, John Dean, H.R. Haldeman and the others understood what they were talking about, but understanding what they said by reading it can be a challenge.

One of group of people who, better than most others, could understand the transcripts were journalists, Pinker says. That's because journalists must, as part of their job, train themselves to convert ordinary speech into a written form that anyone can understand.

Listen closely to a conversation and you will discover that people tend to talk in incomplete sentences, throwing in a lot of "uhs," "likes" and "you knows." They also use a lot of facial expressions and gestures that are impossible to put into a transcription. Simply the manner in which something is said tells a listener whether the speaker is serious, sarcastic or whatever. You can't always tell when those words are put down on paper.

Yet reporters are expected to insert direct quotes into their stories. That can mean converting jumbled, incomplete sentences into something readers can understand while still being faithful to what the news source said. During my days as a reporter I once had a city council member tell me, "You know what I mean. Put it in your own words." While I appreciated his vote of confidence, I was not about to make up a quote just to have one. Polishing a quote and making it read better than it otherwise would have is another matter, however. Journalists do that all the time, although sometimes I'm sure they take too many liberties with their quotes.

inker recalls when former Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens complained the Boston Herald always misquoted him. So the newspaper started reproducing the ball player's postgame comments word for word, making Clemens look ridiculous in the process.

Clemens, Nixon, Haldeman, et al, were not alone. Most of us would be embarrassed if our everyday speech were put into writing and distributed to the world.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Queenan quotations

I like to play with my books, to mark them up, to give them a lived-in look.
Joe Queenan, One for the Books

Thirty or 40 years ago I underlined frequently in my books, especially nonfiction books. It seemed like the best way to find the lines most worth returning to later. Then I became obsessed with keeping my books as pristine as possible. I started making notes on 3-by-5 cards that doubled as bookmarks and avoided any marking in books. I removed dust jackets before reading a hardback book, and I tried keep paperbacks looking like new, however impossible that task turned out to be. Dog-eared pages is something I have always tried to avoid.

Reading Joe Queenan's essays about his reading life in One for the Books inspired me to lower my standards a bit, at least for this book. If he likes to mark up his books, perhaps I should let myself mark up his book, too. The book has so many good lines in it that I am likely to keep it, not give it away. So why not mark it up? Here are a few of the lines I allowed myself the pleasure of underlining in One for the Books:

"From the moment I own a book, even before I open it to the first page, I feel that it has in some way changed my life."

"Great writers say things that are so beautiful, the very act of repeating them makes life itself more beautiful."

"Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past, because I find their presence emotionally enriching."

"...the single most feared creature on the planet: the self-published poet."

"The people I know who attend book clubs are generally intelligent, but they are rarely what I would call interesting."

"Libraries provide cost-free reading material so that tightwads and misers can tell local writers that they borrowed their books and then expect them to be grateful."

"Most people read drivel."

"Sometimes I think that I am reluctant to finish books because I want to let the joy of reading them go on and on forever."

"I do not ever want to reach the point where I have nothing left to read but Middlemarch."

"Well, I've already gotten to Ulysses. I've been getting to Ulysses for the past thirty years."

"I think it is important to have goals in life, as long as you understand that achieving those goals will not make you happy."

"Only the greatest books can withstand the damage inflicted on their reputations by bad movies."

"Staff recommendations are pitifully generic -- Fight Club, Outliers, Infinite Jest. It's like soliciting dessert tips from four-year-olds."

"Purchasing a secondhand book does absolutely nothing for a writer. Less than nothing."

"Some, like Arrowsmith and Manhattan Transfer, were books that I was actually looking forward to not reading."

"Indeed, one of the reasons I became a book reviewer was that it gave me the opportunity to read a steady stream of hopelessly  moronic books and get paid for it."

"Shockingly bad books have an important place in our lives, because they keep our brains active. Good books don't make you think, because the author has already done all the thinking for you, but a terrible book can really give your brain a workout."

"The Bridges of Madison County is a corn shucker's Madame Bovary."

"Reading books may make you smarter than other people. It does not make you better."

Now those are some lines worth marking up a book for.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Handed the solution

Inspector Robert Colbeck, the hero of Edward Marston's Railway Detective mystery series, does his best work in Railway to the Grave  detecting who didn't kill Miriam Tarleton, not who did.

In this otherwise excellent seventh entry in the series, published in 2010, Colbeck gets called in when Colonel Aubrey Tarleton, Miriam's husband, takes a stroll right into the path of an oncoming train. Tarleton was a close friend of Superintendent Tallis, Colbeck's boss, who wants his man not only to solve the mystery of the strange suicide and the missing wife but also to prove that Tarleton was of sound mind at the time, that he did not kill his wife and that, in fact, the Tarletons were a happily married couple. It's a big job, made all the more difficult when Tallis, at first, insists upon leading the investigation. Only when their ill-tempered superior returns to London can Colbeck and his associate, Sgt. Victor Leeming, get down to the business of discovering what really happened.

The climax of this enjoyable murder mystery proves disappointing when Colbeck is simply handed a package of letters discovered by a maid that reveal a previously unknown motive for murder, and these letters lead to a quick confession. A reader wants fictional detectives to work a little harder than this to solve perplexing cases.

Yet Colbeck does shine in dismissing three other suspects, all which whom Leeming is ready to slip the handcuffs on. Colbeck deduces that while they may be guilty of other crimes and other sins, none of them killed Mrs. Tarleton.

The novel is filled with interesting characters, most of whom have something to hide, and interesting subplots, including one of Colbeck trying to work up the nerve to tell Tallis of his plans to be married. With a satisfying solution to the mystery, this book would have been top-notch.