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.

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