Book Review: The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer

 

by Renee Kimball

“The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage.”

In 2003, Scribner published The Wife by Meg Wolitzer—a short novel of 219 pages, and it packs a punch.  For those women of a certain age and time, it is a knock-out punch that is visceral and blinding.  Wolitzer’s writing is exacting, deeply pointed, writing that draws the reader into the heart of the story, towards the character—the wife.

It is a story of women born in the ’40s and ’50s who were expected to became wives and mothers—the only worthy feminine social contract of the age.  The goal was respectable: women, as mere women, had no other option for fulfillment than as wife and mother.  Many women today cannot relate to this story; it will come at them like a foreign language, no meaning, gibberish—make-believe murmurings, not acceptable, unbelievable.

For this story describes the kind of woman who went to college to obtain a MRS. Degree; if she didn’t marry, she graduated to become a secretary or teacher or nurse until she found Mr. Right.  Mr. Right was enough for a life’s goal; there really wasn’t anything else needed or desired.

Although women had earned the right to vote in 1920, during the ’40s and ’50s they were still somehow something less; feminists’ rising voices were in the future.  A successful marriage—a good husband, a home, children—was the purpose of womanhood.  It was a long time before society would accept that women might want more, or could contribute outside the home, offer something other than what had been preordained by a male dominated world.

It is hard to imagine that being a woman during that time offered limited life choices and failed to offer much that could be achieved without male approval.  The gender differences were deeper then, more difficult, more ingrained.  Being a wife, the wife of a successful man, keeping a home, raising children, was the goal.

The Wife is the story of a woman who becomes the wife of a “great” novelist—a man who wants it all—sexual conquest, notoriety, money, lasting fame—and her part nurturing and ensuring that those dreams come true.  She sits on the sidelines through the years, willingly relinquishing the loss of herself and her own innate talent as a writer.

 

“He was Joseph Castleman, one of those men who own the world.  You know the type I mean: those advertisements for themselves, those sleepwalking giants, roaming the earth and knocking over other men, women, furniture, villages.  Why should they care? . . There are many varieties of this kind of man: Joe was the writer version, a short, wound-up, slack-bellied novelist who almost never slept, . . . who had no idea how to take care of himself or anyone else. . .” (p. 11).

 

Meg Wolitzer, by Larry D. Moore. CC BY-SA-3.0. Via Wikipedia.

In this marriage, the wife doesn’t shrink from exposing her own weaknesses and her acquiescence to play her part—she proclaims her personal failures loudly—admitting surrendering her life to a man who basically exploited her mind, talents, and body to enrich his own life.  She quietly works and goes along to get along; she plays nice and gives up everything without a fight.  She blames herself, stating she was lazy, she was too easy; she is remorseful she was not stronger, more forceful, more demanding of her worthiness.

In The Wife, Joan is a young earnest co-ed at Smith, enraptured by her mesmerizing married English professor, Joe Castleman.  An affair ensues, and Joe divorces and abandons his wife and newborn daughter.  Joe—with Joan in tow- moves to New York to pursue becoming a famous author.  While Joan is forced to work to sustain them; Joe stays in their squalid apartment with roaches in attendance and writes his novel.

 

“It kills me to say it, but I was his student when we met. There we were in 1956, a typical couple, Joe intense and focused and tweedy, me a fluttering budgie circling him again and again. . .None of us was in the thick of anything in 1956 we understood that we were being kept separate from the world that mattered. . .We were being preserved for some other purpose, willingly suspending ourselves like specimens in agar for four years.” (p. 38-39).

Throughout it all, the marriage is held together by Joan’s efforts, through the birthing of Joe’s first novel, the further birthing of three children that follow, long years of Joe’s constant infidelity, and Joe’s unending neediness and whininess, and at last, the attainment of his final monumental success, the Helsinki Prize for literature.

Withstanding all the humiliation, the pain, the children and attendant issues, and her sheer monstrous personal sacrifices —Joan remains stoic, supportive, ever willing to smooth, console, and face whatever crisis assaults them all over the long years.  Joan never strays, she doesn’t waiver, she lives to make her husband successful and proud, she never says no to his demands no matter how outrageous, even if those demands degrade her morally, ethically, while crushing her belief in herself, she remains steadfast in her purpose—Joe’s dream—that the world acknowledge him as a literary author, a writer of great fiction, memorable for all time.

 

“Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life.” (p. 183).

 

In the face of her personal loss of her creative self, Joan passes that talent on to her husband gladly, keeping silent, working tirelessly to enrich his life and career in confirmation of their union as man and wife.  As Joe’s fame increases, she benefits and does not deny that; yet, she suffers in silence, knowing there is more to the literary success than Joe’s brilliance: it is her brilliance that brought this about for him, out of love, adoration, anger at his infidelity, even her own deep seated confusion, she isn’t really sure.

As Joan ages, becoming angry with herself, with her silence, with Joe, with the life of secrecy that she allowed to grow layer by layer around her, angry at the lies that kept the children outside her life safely unaware of the truth behind their father’s prodigious output, their mother’s silent necessary secret.  Joan knows that speaking the truth at this late date would not only destroy their carefully crafted life, splinter their family, eradicate their hard-won position in the elite literary circles, but destroy her life’s mission—the belief that Joe is a great novelist.  In turn, the truth would then erase her as well.

All throughout the marriage she remains his rock and muse—but she is more, so much more, and we do not know the extent of her worth until the end of the story.  While she simmers and her distaste for her life grows out of control, her repulsion, her self-loathing rises even more, and she reaches the decision to break free for whatever time she is left, reaching towards a life without Joe, a life of freedom.

Not all women can relate to this story—it seems farfetched that a woman would give up her intellectual gifts so easily to live in the shadow of a well-known author, allowing him the spotlight, the adulation, the honors.  Sadly, many know this tale in one form or another, and it exists in many relationships even now, but we hope that there are more options today for these bright and talented women.

But there is so much more to Joe and Joan’s story in the end.  It will not be spoiled for you here; read it for yourself.  The Wife is not a novel for all women, but it is not so narrow a tale that the subtleties and nuances of the relationship have no meaning—it is a worthy read.

***

**The Finlandia Prize (Finlandia-palkinto) is a literary award in Finland by the Finnish Book Foundation. It is awarded annually to the author of the best novel written by a Finnish citizen (Finlandia Award), children’s book (Finlandia Junior Award), and non-fiction book (Tieto-Finlandia Award). The award sum (as of 2010) is 30,000 euros (previously 100,000 Finnish Marks). Works may be in Finnish or Swedish but non-Finnish citizens are not allowed to enter. However, in 2010 the Finnish Book Foundation made an exception for a nominee.

***

The movie adaptation of The Wife stars Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce.

Book Photo: Courtesy by Amazon.com

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

Learning from Memoir–Surviving Catastrophe and Loss

by  Renee Kimball

Memoir – noun:  a narrative composed from personal experience  – Merriam Webster Dictionary.

Every memoir reminds us of the faraway and long ago, of loss and change, of persons and places beyond recall  –  Abigail McCarthy

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. –  Viktor E. Frankl

Thirty-five miles south of Austin Texas, is the small rural town where I have lived for over twenty years.  I am still considered an outsider—I was not born here, nor were my “people.”  In mid-January, local social community media posts were largely dismissive of the potential disaster headed our way.

The media had announced the first confirmed case of Covid-19 on January 19, 2020, in Snohomish County, Washington.  Central Texas was slow to acknowledge what was coming. *  Mid-February, stronger warnings in the air; March gusted full of tangy-tangible fear, and hoarding toilet paper became a joke-du-jour.

Then Central Texas’ Covid-19 cases mounted; Stay-At-Home orders followed.  The only entity that was prepared for the looming crisis was the Texas grocery chain H.E.B., and for that, all Texans must remain eternally grateful. ** One day it was garage-sale-car-wash-fund raising small-town normal, then just like that, the world melted.

Now mid-June, many seek an end to quarantine because we must save the economy, we are impatient, we are bored, the pandemic is a hoax, our liberties are being abridged, we are out of money, we can’t go on like this, this isn’t living, they say, people will die either way, a 1%-2% death rate is acceptable, or is it?

In the Southern states, the pandemic is not abating; the news says cases are rising.

People keep saying these are extraordinary times, we must be flexible and compromise, we must continue to stay home, the recovery will be slow, maybe after the summer.  Will schools be open in the fall?  No one knows for certain and people continue to sicken, and many, to die.

For some during times of stress, books offer comfort, friendship, and escape-they are a testament to survival.  Personal memoirs show how inner strength and perseverance can sustain the survivor.  Despite heartbreaking cruelty and immense loss for some, memoirs show that on the other side of great trauma, the sufferer can rise to thrive again.

Night by Elie Wiesel (1956).  Elie Wiesel was an adolescent when his Jewish family was forced by the Nazis to take their fatal trip to the death camps.  Wiesel’s mother, father, and sister all died there.  Elie survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  Night is the first of several books by Wiesel about the Holocaust, known as the Jewish Shoah.

In 1986 Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for his life’s work.  After living a full life of grace, love, and generosity, Wiesel passed away at the age of 87.  He is still quoted and revered today for his singular, razor-sharp intellect and life-long activism on behalf of Jews, Israel, and the oppressed everywhere.

“. . . Convinced that this period in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness. . .I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. . . Hunger—thirst—fear—transport—selection—fire—chimney; these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else.” (Night, p. viii)

“. . . I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago.  A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night.  I remember his bewilderment; I remember his anguish.  It all happened so fast. . . The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.” (Night, p. 118)

“. . .And now the boy is turning to me. “Tell me,” he asks, “what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?” And I tell him I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” (Night, p. 118).

“. . .And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must take sides. . .” (Night, p. 118).

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1985).  Unlike Wiesel, Victor E. Frankl was an adult with a medical degree when he was sent to the camps.  From his experience, Frankl derived his psychiatric theory of Logotheraphy, its foundational premise–man’s search for the meaning of life.

“. . . I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions even the most miserable ones.” (Frankl, p. 12).

“. . .This story is not about the suffering and death of great heroes and martyrs. . .nor well-known prisoners. . .Thus it is not so much concerned with the sufferings of the mighty, but with the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims. . .” (Frankl, p. 17).

“   In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.  Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain . . .but the damage to their inner selves was less. . .” (Frankl, p. 47).

“. . .In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was not the result of camp influences alone.  Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. . .” (Frankl, p. 75).

Childhood by Jona Oberski (1978).  Oberski’s story is fictional, but drawn from his real-life Holocaust experience.  The narrator of Childhood is a four-year-old Jewish boy who lives in a concentration camp with his mother.  In life, Oberski was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at four years of age and released at age seven.  Both of Oberski’s parents died in the camps.  After liberation, a friend of his mother’s took Oberski to Amsterdam, where he was adopted.  The success of Childhood is the narrative’s sparseness, the childlike focus and intensity of his experience.

. . .His mother’s voice, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s all right. I’m right here.” (Oberski, p. 1).

“. . .My father took me with him to his office.  My mother had sewn a yellow star on my coat. She said, “Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy. . .” (Oberski, p. 15).

“. . . A man was shouting, I woke up.  The door of my room was pulled open.  Somebody stomped in. . . . “Hurry, hurry, “the man yelled. “We’ve got to go; I have my orders.” He slung his gun over his shoulder and left the room. The gun banged against the door.” (Oberski, p. 15).

“. . .Then we had to go outside.  All along the street there were people in black coats.  We had to follow them.  And behind us there were still more people. . .We go into the train. . .” (Oberski, p. 19).

“. . .Now listen carefully,” my mother said. I’m going to show you something without using my finger.  And you mustn’t point either.  And you mustn’t look that way too long.  Just do exactly as I say.  Look over my shoulder.  Do you see the watchtower?
“. . . That hut is the watchtower.  There’s a watchtower on every side of the camp. Didn’t you know that? (Oberski, p. 41).

Survival in Auschwitz The Nazi Assault on Humanity by Primo Levi (1947).

Levi was 25 years old, a trained chemist, and a member of the Italian Resistance when taken prisoner by the German Reich.  Transferred numerous times, he landed in Auschwitz, staying there almost a full year before liberation.

Levi writes that his account was not to be used to add to the list of Nazi atrocities already reported, but as a study in human nature.  His story starkly reveals how effective the Nazi methods were in the systematic dehumanization of prisoners.

After the war, Levi returned to Turin, Italy, resumed his post as a chemist, moved into management.  In 1977, Levi retired to devote full-time to writing poetry and novels, and became a well-respected author.  Levi passed away in 1987; his writings remain influential even today.

“. . .As an account of atrocities, therefore, this book of mine adds nothing to what is already known to readers throughout the world on the disturbing question of the death camps. . . it should be able, rather to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.  (Levi, p. 9).

“Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’.  For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason.  But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. . .” (Levi, p. 9).

“. . .I have never seen old men naked. . . shaved and sheared. What comic faces we have without hair! . . .Finally, another door is opened: here we are, locked in, naked sheared and standing, with our feet in water—it is a shower room. . .” (Levi, ps. 22-23).

“. . .Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.  In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom.  It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so.  Nothing belongs to us any more. . .” (Levi, p. 27).

“. . .They have even taken away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.” (Levi, p. 27).

“. . . The days all seem alike, and it is not easy to count them.  For days now, we have formed teams of two, from the railway to the store-a hundred yards over thawing ground. . .” (Levi, p. 42).

Endings and Beginnings

America is not the first country, nor this generation the first, to face a catastrophe of momentous proportions–weighty words.  Like Levi’s days, the Covid-19 days “seem alike, and it is not easy to count them.”

When this is over, and we look back to the time of Covid-19, will we be like Wiesel, Frankl, and Levi, finding our language incapable of describing what we saw, what we did, the horror, the shock of what we experienced?  In the future, when we speak of quarantine, masks, hand-sanitizer, ventilators or  Personal Protection Equipment, will our voices catch?

What can we learn from what is happening to our country, the world, and everyone around us?  What are our responsibilities now and going forward?  Will we rally for change in healthcare? Will we face our responsibilities to ensure that this doesn’t happen again or will we forget?  What is our duty to ourselves our country?  Do we know?  We do know that Covid-19 does not discriminate, everyone equally vulnerable, a potential victim.

Like Wiesel, we must speak out against injustice where we can, and when able, to help one another in whatever capacity we can.  There are many hurting now; there will be many after.  We have to find a way to ensure the greater good of all before anything else–somewhere that lesson has been lost to us as a nation.  If we are to save ourselves, we must earnestly help everyone else, even those who would fight against our helping others.

And as Frankl clearly explains, any time, but particularly now, is the time for self-reflection, a time when “. . . any man can, . . . decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.” It is our time to build a rich inner life; if we are able, and are lucky enough, to shelter in place, or not, now is the time to look inward.  Ultimately, how we react, how we go forward, is up to each of us individually.

Lastly during this time of Covid-19, I give to each of you Levi’s words, if I know you or if I do not. . . To all of you the humble wish, That autumn will be long and mild.” (Levi, To My Friends).

(Italian) Benedizioni a te e alla tua famiglia  – Blessings to you and your family.

(Romanian) Binecuvântări pentru tine și familia ta. – Blessings to you and your family.

(German) Segen für Sie und Ihre Familie – Blessings to you and your family.

*

To My Friends 

Dear friends, and here I say friends
the broad sense of the word:
Wife, sister, associates, relatives,
Schoolmates of both sexes,
People seen only once
Or frequented all my life;
Provided that between us, for at least a moment,
A line has been stretched,
A well-defined bond.
I speak for you, companions of a crowded
Road, not without its difficulties,
And for you too, who have lost
Soul, courage, the desire to live;
Or no one, or someone, or perhaps only one person, or you
Who are reading me: remember the time
Before the wax hardened,
When everyone was like a seal.
Each of us bears the imprint
Of a friend met along the way;
In each the trace of each.
For good or evil
In wisdom or in folly
Everyone stamped by everyone.
Now that the time crowds in
And the undertakings are finished,
|To all of you the humble wish
That autumn will be long and mild.

– Primo Levi

***

References

Images “Toilet Paper Basket” and “Corona Virus” via Pixabay
Images of book covers via Amazon.com

“Our New COVID-19 Vocabulary—What Does It All Mean?”

*First Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States

**“Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic” 

Logotherapy is a term derived from “logos,” a Greek word that translates as “meaning,” and therapy, which is defined as treatment of a condition, illness, or maladjustment. Developed by Viktor Frankl, . . logotherapy is the pursuit of that meaning for one’s life.

“Conavirus live updates”: Trump announces federal ‘blueprint’ for testing”

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them

Beware, Sherlock Holmes!

 

By K.P. Gresham

The spring of 2020 has provided me with the opportunity to return to one of my favorite pastimes…and escapes.

READING!

And why not get back to my favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes?

I’ve spent the last few months catching up present-day iterations of the iconic and prolific Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective first saw publication in 1887. Since then, authors (and screenwriters) around the world have given a go at their take on the famous detective.

My first selection was The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas.  As its title suggests, Sherlock Holmes is actually a woman names Charlotte Holmes. This turned out to be a delightful read. Thomas creates a storyline that sounds far-fetched but pulls it off with insightful references to the original Doyle short stories. The mysteries she’s created don’t allow you to put the books down.

Next, I turned to Laurie King’s bestselling novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In this book and those following in the series, an aging Sherlock is befriended by (or is it she who befriends him?) a highly observant, seventeen year-old woman who rivals his abilities in observation and deduction. She soon becomes his apprentice in the detective game, and then…well…the game’s afoot!

Anna Castle writes a delightful series, The Professor and Mrs. Moriarity Mysteries. In her incredibly believable way, Castle creates a world where Professor Moriarty is the good guy, and Sherlock Holmes is not. Not exactly, anyway.

Other authors have had their own way with Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes – Anthony Horowitz Series comes to mind as well as the Anna Elliott and Charles Veley series, The Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James Mysteries. Even Kareem Adbul-Jabar co-wrote a series based on Mycroft Holmes.

Now the warning. Reading all these Sherlock Holmes iterations (and binge-watching movies/series featuring Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch) puts one in a mood to eat. Apparently I’m highly suggestible when reading a good book. When the characters have tea, I want tea. And I’m not just talking about the beverage. I’ve been chowing down on tea sandwiches, scones, pastries, desserts–and I’m not even a sweets lover. And when a character in the book has had a shock or a close call, whiskey is handed out in short order. Now I don’t drink whiskey, but I manage to find my own libation. I hate to see a character drink alone.

So thanks to that lean, tall Sherlock Holmes, I have put on the extra pounds that he willfully sheds when he’s on the hunt for a villain.

Alas.

If you’re looking for a comfort binge in these difficult times, I suggest you give Sherlock Holmes a try. But remember! You’ve been warned that you might come away with more (weight) than you bargained for!

Neil Gaiman’s Art Matters: “Make Good Art”

by Renee Kimball

Neil Richard Gaiman will turn 60 this year. Gaiman’s stories and characters are now in our hearts and embedded in our lexicon. These stories are part of the story of us.

Who does not know the tale of Coraline, little girl lost, or American Gods, a tale of forgotten cultures and religions? And Anansi Boys (American Gods Book 2), a captivating yarn springing from African lore? And the popular collaborative work with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, now a Netflix production.

Gaiman is more than a fantasy writer, he reveals encyclopedic knowledge of world mythologies, world religion, world history, and a smorgasbord of other oddly relatable facts.

Mostly, people are drawn to him because he was and is a bookish person, and was once a very lonely boy who lived in libraries nurtured by librarians.

That lonely boy grew up and became one of the most famous graphic artists in the world, pushing graphic arts to new heights with his Sandman series. He has become a well-respected author for his research, and his multiple adult and children’s fiction. And he is the champion of Libraries and Librarians.

In 2018, Gaiman published a small book illustrated by Chris Riddell titled Art Matters-Because Your Imagination Can Change The World.

The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.’ Neil Gaiman

This book is a story about reading, libraries, librarians, writing, life choices, disappointments, and the belief that Art Matters.

Gaiman’s credo:

I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast.”

Gaiman stands as the champion of the freedom of ideas and against suppression of any ideas. He is a believer in the right of expression; whether these notions are correct or not, they are yours. Your idea of God, the state of the world, or anything else is individual—if you don’t agree, you can ignore or object—it’s your choice.

And Gaiman believes that our future, your future, “Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.”

“I suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m making a plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.”

Simply, librarians are unique in their position in the world. More than ever, they provide a universe in which “the love of reading” is encouraged, they show that reading is a “pleasurable activity.” 

. . .Everything changes when we read. . .Fiction builds empathy. . .”

I was lucky I had an excellent local library growing up, and met the kind of librarians who did not mind a small unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives of witches or wonders. . .”

A Library is a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it.”

For writers there is a personal desire that people should want to read, buy your books, your stories, become engaged in what you write. But more importantly there needs to be a concerted effort by everyone to teach all children “to read and enjoy reading.” To do that, libraries and librarians are the key, without them, we have nothing.

Neil Gaiman, by Rhododendrites. CC BY-SA 4.0. Via Wikipedia.

And where did all this reading lead this small bookish boy? Gaiman admits that starting a “career in fine arts, you have no idea what you are doing,” and that is a good thing, because you will not be held back by others’ limitations. Regardless of what befalls you, he admonishes, “Make Good Art.”

If you do decide to pursue a career in fine arts, know that not everything is going to work. It will make you uncomfortable, it will make you want to stop, it will make you want to hide. The point is, try again, write or draw and explore again. If we listen to Gaiman’s message, the message to create in your own way, even if it is uncomfortable or not understood, even if you feel like a fraud, or even if you are criticized, you will survive it.

“Be bold, be rebellious, choose Art. It Matters.” Neil Gaiman

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

 

The New Girl Will Scare You Stiff

by K.P. Gresham

 

I can’t put down THE NEW GIRL–Daniel Silva’s latest book, that is. I have long been a fan of Silva’s series featuring Gabriel Allon, art restorer and master spy. The New Girl (Harper Publishing, July 16, 2019) is the 19th book featuring Allon, and, in my opinion, the best. It’s a fast-paced, fact-filled, emotional, beautifully written suspense thriller, that mirrors the times we are living in.

It begins with the kidnapping of the Saudi Crown Prince’s daughter. Allon, head of Israeli intelligence, is directed by his Prime Minister to help the prince find the girl. The two become unlikely allies in a race against time to stop a Russian move to take control of the Middle East.

The book weaves fiction into the baffling aspects of Middle East intrigue in a way that actually helps explain what the heck is going on “over there”. Usually when I read such a book I spend my time wondering, how much of this is fiction and how much of this is fact. Luckily, I accidentally did something that provided a clear vision of where that line is drawn.

I mostly listen to audiobooks during my dog’s three miles walk every morning. (I tag along as company.) By mistake I played the end of the book complete with Mr. Silva’s acknowledgments and comments. I’m glad I did. I recommend this “oopsie” to those who pick up Mr. Silva’s book. He clearly sets out what is fact and what is not. This makes the reading of this suspenseful page turner even more meaningful because I could trust the author. He wasn’t trying to pull the wool over my eyes. He was trying to tell a good story, yes, and he was making it even more realistic by using facts to back up his plot line.

Full disclosure, because I enjoy a good night’s sleep, I wish the book had included fewer facts.

I love Bob Woodward’s quote about Mr. Silva’s book. “At times a brilliant novel tells us as much about the times we live in–and the struggles of the world, the global deceptions and tragedies–as or better than journalism. Daniel Silva’s The New Girl is such a novel.”

Pick up this New York Times (and USA Today and Wall Street Journal) #1 Bestseller. You’ll be enlightened.

And scared stiff.

The New Girl by Daniel Silva Amazon Link

***

 

K.P. Gresham

K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling show and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, I.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.

BOOK REVIEW: FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King

Written by Renee Kimball

From the start . . . I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal.” (Full Dark, No Stars. p.365).

There are some who avoid works by Stephen King. Literary elitists have shown disdain towards King for years arguing his writing is story-telling for the masses. This review isn’t about the literary merits of King’s works, or his overwhelming success, or even about the monumental effect King’s life-long dedication to writing has had on the horror genre. This brief review is a discussion of four novellas which are found in Full Dark, No Stars, released in 2010.

Short stories and novellas are not a new format for King. King has published very successful short stories and multiple novellas over his 35-year long career. He has clearly succeeded yet again, with Full Dark, No Stars. Full Dark contains a common theme of each novella, a theme that explores the darker human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice. Redemption is not found, but retribution appears in each. Even evil acts can result in a twisted kind of justice—black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.

1922: NOVELLA ONE

The first novella, 1922, is set in Depression era Nebraska. The story involves a barely solvable working family farm, a life of constant work, brutally harsh and unrelenting. The wife and mother, Arlette, is a bitter and manipulative character who constantly harps to her husband to sell the farm and a plot of 100 acres that Arlette inherited from her father. Arlette’s dream is to leave the country life and start again in the city of Omaha.

The husband, Wilfred “Wilf,” verbally dominated and hen-pecked, is the browbeaten beleaguered husband whose only desire is to stay on his land. Wilf tells Henry, their only child, of Arlette’s plan. Wilf then convinces Henry to help him murder Arlette. Wilf intones that if Henry does not help with this, then they will be forced to leave the farm, and Henry will never see his girlfriend, who lives on a close by, ever again. Henry, a meek and obedient boy, resists but finally agrees to help with the murder of his mother.

As Arlette’s demands to sell increase, Wilf and Henry, determine it is the time for murder. It is a clumsy and brutal murder, both father and son are deeply shaken afterwards. Arlette’s murder becomes the prelude to the story that evolves into a twisted tale of backwoods justice and supernatural interference. Their deed results into the ultimate destruction of both father and son. The darker psyche of Wilf bobs and weaves throughout the tale, and in the end, destruction follows. (Spoiler: If you have a phobia against rats, you may not want to read this dark tale). (Photo Wikipedia.org)

BIG DRIVER: NOVELLA TWO

Big Driver is the second story in the collection. The main character, Tess, is a resourceful and successful mystery writer. She is the author of a “cozy” mysteries series and well known for her work in that type of genre. To ensure a little extra for retirement, Tess travels and gives readings of her books. She receives an invitation to read in a small-town library not too far from her home, and readily accepts. After reading, she takes a shortcut home on the advice of her hostess, the local librarian.

Things become dangerous when she has a flat tire in an isolated and abandoned area. When a seemingly well-intentioned good Samaritan stops to change her tire, instead of helping her, Tess is beaten and raped. Left for dead, Tess awakes to find herself in a culvert along with several decomposing female bodies. Pulling herself together, she leaves the area on foot and begins walking towards her home. She reaches her home and begins to plans her revenge.

Tess shows both sharp intelligence and quiet bravery, and no one portrays a woman’s strength better than King. Tess is a force who leaves the reader applauding her quiet inner strength and problem solving skills. When she meets up with her rapist/ would be killer, Tess achieves her revenge on a much larger scale than she imagined.

FAIR EXTENSION: NOVELLA THREE

While King’s Tess is resourceful and brave, the third novella, Fair Extension, is written from the perspective of a male, Streeter, who is a bitter and unlikable character.

Streeter, suffers from incurable cancer secretly blames his bad health, career, marriage, and lack of income, on the twisted idea that if he had not promoted and helped his best friend, Tom Goodhugh, through high school, Streeter would have had all the successes that Tom enjoys –money and success and a perfect family. Streeter believes that Tom should suffer the trials and tribulations Streeter has endured, after all, it is only fair.

 Late on evening on his way home, Streeter takes an unplanned detour to a kind of roadside market. He had seen a sign reading “FAIR EXTENSION,” and became curious. A lone man named George Elvid, sits at the table with the sign. When Street askes what kind of “extensions” Elvid offers, Elvid responds all kinds but the type of extension depends upon the requestor. All extensions are tailored made and could be anything- credit extensions, love potions, to corrective eyesight. A Faustian trade ensues, and Streeter exchanges the extension of his life for the life of his best friend, Tom.

The Streeter story is a black tale of harbored grudges and selfishness. As Tom experiences horrific setbacks and death, he is slowly physically and mentally broken. As this is happening to Tom, Streeter becomes healthy and rich. In the end, Streeter remains unrepentant by his part in Tom’s tragic decline. FAIR EXTENSION fails to arouse the reader’s sympathy, and there is no retribution, rather, it is a tale of cruelty and Jealousy.

A GOOD MARRIAGE: NOVELLA FOUR

The fourth and last story, A Good Marriage, is thought provoking and believable. The main character is a stay-at-home wife, Darcy, whose children have gone to college and left to start their lives. Darcy has been married to the same man, Bob Anderson, (who she believes she knows well), for over 25 years. She thinks she is living the American dream, or a semblance there of—not perfect, but predictable. Then, by shear accident, she trips over a misaligned carton in the garage. Darcy then realizes that the man that she believes she knows as well as herself, has a double life and is a serial killer.

Once Darcy does her research and confirms her suspicions, she realizes that there has not been a killing for 16 years. She attempts to come to grips with what she knows for certain. Her husband, Bob, intuits that she knows about his secret life realizing that the carton has been moved. Bob confronts Darcy, and manages to convince her that it is all up to her what happens. But that as long as she keeps quiet, he will suppress his killing urges, he then promises he won’t kill again.

Bob explains Darcy is the reason he took a break from killing, being with her has allowed him to suppress and ignore his need to kill. Bob also says that it can all start up again if she doesn’t keep quiet and if she turns him in, then the children’s lives will be ruined and Darcy will suffer the consequences and will be ostracized by the very people she believes to be her friends.

Several years go by with both partners ignoring their shared secret and no killings. But Darcy, never feels at ease and in limbo. Darcy is ashamed and feels responsible because she knows she is the only one that can reveal thebtruth and bring Bob to justice.

Finally, Darcy stages and then succeeds in killing Bob. When a bit too tipsy from an evening celebration, Darcy manages to push Bob down a flight of stairs. Darcy is cleared of any foul play, but she knows there will be someone knocking on the door sooner or later who knows she staged Bob’s murder. And, the day did come, and someone came knocking, but it wasn’t who she expected.

There is retribution in the end, and a good dose of twisted justice, but you have to read the book.

You will enjoy this collection, it is something that will make you think, even if that is not King’s aim and may even surprise you. One can never really know what they might do if pushed to the absolute edge.

Happy Reading . . .

From the Afterword:

“I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing…and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.” (Stephen King).

“Stephen King has proven himself to be one of the finest chroniclers of the dark side of the human psyche over the 35 years of his successful career. While literary snobs sometimes cock a snoot at his mainstream appeal, there is no doubt that on his day he can spin as compelling a yarn as anyone” . . . These tense tales delve into the dark heart of a knitting society and a serial killer’s last stand.” (Doug Johnstone. Independent. November 14, 2010. (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/full-dark-no-stars-by-stephen-king-2130460.html).

 

References

King, Stephen. FULL DARK, NO STARS, 2010. Simon & Schuster, New York. New York.

Kirkus Review. “Deals with the darkest recesses of the human soul. . .” Kirkus Review. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-king/full-dark-no-stars/ Nov 10, 2010.

Johnstone, Doug. Independent. November 14, 2010. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/full-dark-no-stars-by-stephen-king-2130460.html

Image of Stephen King, press photo, via https://www.stephenking.com/the_author
Image of Full Dark, No Stars cover via Amazon.com
Image of semi truck by Kcida, free licence, via Wikipedia
Image of “Faust” by Harry Clarke, public domain, via Wikipedia

*****

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

 

New Mystery Series: Bullet Books Speed Reads at Texas Book Festival

No matter what they tell you, Texas isn’t all cowboys and cactus and bullets and brush.

Texas is also BOOKS, and this weekend there’s proof: This morning, the Texas Book Festival  opens on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin.  Exhibitor tents and food trucks will line N. Congress Avenue from Colorado Street, on the west side of the Capitol, clear down to 8th Street. An international slate of authors—John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, Alexander McCall Smith, and Terry Tempest Williams among them— will speak and sign books, and appear on panels. There will be books for display and for sale.

And in Exhibitor Tent #4, a new mystery series will be launched: BULLET BOOKS SPEED READS.

BULLET BOOKS is the brainchild of Manning Wolfe, author of the Merrit Bridges, Lady Lawyer series. Each Bullet Book is co-authored by Manning and another writer of crime fiction. The books are short, designed to be read in two to three hours—the length of a plane or train ride, or an afternoon spent lying under an umbrella on the beach.

Twelve Bullet Books will be introduced today. They range from mystery to suspense to thriller. Among the characters are spies, lawyers, terrorists, gun runners, trash collectors, and teachers. Settings range from courtrooms, to classrooms, to comedy clubs, to embassies.

A trailer for each book appears on the website. Here’s a look at the trailer for Bullet Book #1, Bill Rogers’ KILLER SET DROP THE MIC:

Trailers for the other books can be viewed on the Bullet Books website (links below). Follow the link to Youtube if you’d rather watch there.

Bill Rogers – KILLER SET DROP THE MIC
Billy Kring – IRON 13
Helen Currie Foster – BLOODY BEAD
Mark Pryor – THE HOT SEAT
Kathy Waller – STABBED
Jay Brandon – MAN IN THE CLIENT CHAIR
Kay Kendall – ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME
Suzanne Waltz – DANGEROUS PRACTICE
Scott Montgomery – TWO BODIES, ONE GRAVE
Laura Oles – LAST CALL
V.P. Chandler – THE LAST STRAW
Elizabeth Garcia – THE NEON PALM

The first twelve Bullet Books are available from Amazon in both paper and ebook formats.  Another thirteen volumes will be released in 2020.

Authors will sign their books at the Starpath Books booth 405 in exhibitor tent #4, this Saturday and Sunday, October 26-27.

By the way, Bullet Books Speed Reads will meet an even wider audience next weekend at Bouchercon, the largest annual international convention of mystery readers and writers, which will take place in Dallas, October 31-November 3. Billy Kring, Laura Oles, Kay Kendall, Jay Brandon, Bill Rodgers, Manning Wolfe  will participate in a Co-Authoring Panel, October 31 at 2:30 p.m.

Eleven Bullet Books authors will attend the convention. They’ll sign on November 2 at 3:30 p.m.

If you’re anywhere near Austin this weekend, stop by the Capitol and see a side of Texas that doesn’t get nearly enough press.

And be sure to visit the Starpath booth and let Manning Wolfe and the other authors introduce you to Bullet Books Speed Reads.

Further Thoughts on Smell in Literature, or The Dog as Watson

by Helen Currie Foster

An author can get great mileage by giving the point of view to a Watson sort of character. The Watson can be present for all events, hear all dialogue and see all clues—while not understanding them. The Reader feels clever for having grasped the significance of clues the Watson missed or smellmisunderstood. The Watson can admire Sherlock’s astounding mental feats while deploring Sherlock’s shortcomings (sometimes his manners, sometimes cocaine). Meanwhile the reader can identify with the Watson and can experience, perhaps, the feel and sound and… yes, the SMELL of a scene, while Sherlock is detecting or explaining arcana.

The best Watson I’ve met is…a dog. Yes, it’s Chet, the large (hundred-pounder!) companion and partner of detective Bernie Little in the Chet and Bernie Series. Spencer Quinn (nom de … plume? Or de tail?) of Peter Abrahams is the genius who most recently gave us The Heart of Barkness.

You say you won’t read a mystery told by a dog? I’m not a dog person, and that’s what I said too, turning my inadequate human nose up in the air. (I have donkeys, not dogs.)

Then I met Chet. Chet opened up the astounding sensory richness of the world that lies beyond human (that is, Bernie’s) detection, and, particularly, the world of smell.

Here’s a scene—a scent?—from The Dog Who Knew Too Much:

“Autumn didn’t mention your sense of humor.” Anya gave him a not-very-friendly look when she said that, but at the same time I picked up a scent coming off her—faint but unmistakable—that meant she was starting to like Bernie. Nothing about humans is simple: I’ve learned that lots of times in my career.

Here’s Chet using his ears as well, when Bernie is banging on the door of the RV where he hopes to find Lotty Pilgrim, the country-western star accused of murder In The Heart of Darkness:

Silence from inside. Then came footsteps, very soft, but there’s no such thing as footsteps too soft for my ears. Also I could hear breathing on the other side of the door. Plus there were smells of cigarette smoke, coffee, and perfume—and the specific smell of Lotty Pilgrim, which had an interesting milky quality. The door might as well not have been there.

At least in my case. Did Bernie realize Lotty was standing pretty much right in front of us? He raised his voice. “Lotty? Lotty?” Raised it to a level that meant the answer to my question was no.

No answer from Lotty. The milky smell changed, went the tiniest bit sour. I’ve tasted milk both sour and not, don’t like either kind. Water’s my drink. The best I ever tasted came right out of a rock, but no time to go into that now.

Right there, we see Chet’s astounding ears in action, and his nose. We learn exactly what Lotty could smell like to our human noses, if only the dadgum door weren’t in the way. We learn that Chet can detect that some emotion—fear?—has turned Lotty’s milky smell “the tiniest bit sour.” Then we may wonder whether our human noses could possibly notice, at a subliminal level, what Chet detects as smell? Is our human sense of smell so low-level (Chet’s opinion) that our minds can’t really register certain smells as smells? Instead, perhaps our minds register an emotion, a suspicion, instead of a smell. That is, if we’re on Lotty’s side of the door, which Bernie is not, at least here.

Bernie and Chet make a great team. Chet hears a faraway car sneaking across the desert toward Bernie, way before Bernie hears it. Chet tries to let Bernie know…but Bernie’s slow on the uptake. We readers know peril impends. Listen, Bernie! Pay attention! He won’t, but not until the last second, when Chet must leap into action.

My love affair with Chet is not just his sheer joyousness. It’s his masterful specificity about smell. Here he is, on the job, searching a mountain campsite for traces of a lost boy camper:

When it comes to nighttime security, you can’t go wrong by sniffing around.

Nothing new to pick up, the scents of the boys still all over the place—although growing fainter—plus Bernie’s scent, Turk’s, and my own, the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupçon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir. Chet the Jet was in the vicinity, wherever that was, exactly.

Here’s a challenge for you dog people. Give us as detailed a description of your dog’s smell as Chet’s description of his own! Oh, okay, I’ll try to do the same for my donkeys. In November.

Last month I was bemoaning the stinginess of some of my favorite writers in using smells in their writing. Maybe Virginia Woolf—hey, she loved her dogs, wrote about her dogs, doubtless could have described their smells as well as Chet described his, if the times, or the Times Literary Supplement, had permitted—will rise to the challenge. Watch this space.

***

Image of dog by CT70 via Pixabay
Image of man by StockSnap via Pixabay
Image of mink stole, public domain, via Wikipedia

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Book Clubs for Writers: A Doggone Good Time!

By K.P. Gresham

I’m a fiction writer, and my world pretty much revolves around my profession. My friends, my colleagues, my editors, my publicists are comprised mostly of people in the writing business. To make that world even smaller, I write mysteries, and I love to read mysteries. Noir, suspense, thriller, cozies, you name it, I’m in. Sisters in Crime, I love you! Writers League of Texas? You’re the best! Austin Mystery Writers? Your support and critiques are off the charts.

I existed in a happy, but small little world of people who get together to figure out how best to kill other people. (Fictionally, of course.)

Until…

Marni, a good friend of mine from water aerobics, invited me to join her book club. I asked what do you read? She gave me the list for that year’s selection.

I knew one or two of the novels by name recognition. The rest? Not so much. Surprised that I was so poorly read across the genres, I joined Marni’s book club. I also quickly learned that not only was I not well-read, I’d lost touch with folks in the real world as well.

It’s been seven years since I joined that club, and I have no intention of leaving any time soon.

Interested in a narrative about the rise of communism in Russia? Check out The Gentleman from Moscow by Amor Towles. World War II stories from Italy? Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Okay, you’re more into the French point of view? Check out Wolves at the Door: America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith Pearson. Okay, the last two were historical narrative fiction, but I learned so much from reading them.

I’m figuring with seven years at one book a month, that puts 84 books in my head that I probably would have never read. 84 books which used styles I’d never heard of before. 84 books of history, biographies, tragedies, comedies, science, science fiction–one of our group’s main goals is to read across the genres and experience new writers and subjects. I’ve read first person, second person, and third person POVs. Books that have been written in present and past tense, as well as time travels. This experience has been a microcosm of study on subjects I knew about, but had never really studied.

All right. Not every book was great. But as a writer I learned a great deal from those selections as well. Too many characters? After a while I didn’t care about any of them. Switching point of view from sentence to sentence? What a pain in the neck for the reader. No description of setting? Little to no sense of character development? A cop out ending? Yeah. They drove me nuts. BUT that also provided me with a cautionary tale to avoid those pitfalls.

What’s the book club’s biggest pay-off? The friendships I’ve had the privilege to develop with these well-educated, well-traveled, successful women. (Men aren’t banned. They just don’t ever come.) And we have a great time. Wine and snacks are involved. We always discuss the authors and their backgrounds, oftentimes showing You Tube author interviews. Some of us are very opinionated (me!), but the atmosphere is never hostile or uncomfortable. We genuinely want to hear each other’s opinions and personal experiences that relate to the book, all the while trying to figure out what we’ll recommend when the time comes for the next selections.

So authors, consider joining a book club that takes you out of your genre. Besides expanding your writing skills, you’ll have a doggone good time!

***

K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling show and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, I.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.

Watching the Watcher: Navigating Venice with Commissario Brunetti

 

 

My heart speeds up on news that Donna Leon’s got a new police procedural, because I love her Guido Brunetti. Not in a romantic way, of course—I must respect his deep fidelity to his wife Paola, an expert on Henry James and Italian cooking—but because it’s another blissful chance to follow Brunetti through Venice, watch him navigate the internal politics of the Venice Questura, and think with him as he solves a murder. Another murder.

Leon invites us in by using Brunetti’s point of view, letting us share his reflections and observations.

Barely computer literate, he relies for key financial and personal investigations on the astounding internet skill of Signorina Elettra Zorzi, secretary to his adversary and boss, Palermo native Vice-Questore Patta. Brunetti thinks of Zorzi as “quick-witted, radiant—the other adjectives that presented themselves all suggested light and visibility.” Neither we nor Brunetti question how she manages to get her hands on such information. Leon amplifies the mystery of Zorzi’s improbable presence in police headquarters by Brunetti’s frequent observations of Zorzi’s clothes, which reflect her precision and elegance. But Brunetti’s observations also remind the reader that he’s a Venetian through and through, thus susceptible to and respectful of beauty:

Behind her desk, looking as though she was there only to meet the photographers from Vogue, sat Signorina Elettra Zorzi, today arrayed, as were the lilies of the field, in a white crepe de chine dress that fell in diagonal, but decidedly provocative, folds across her bosom. (Death and Judgment)

Or:

Her blouse, he noticed, was the colour of beetroot and had white buttons down the front and on the cuff. It fell with the liquid grace of silk. (The Temptation of Forgiveness)

On the dark side, we also see Brunetti’s adversaries at the Questura through his visual observations of the two Palermo natives, Vice-Questore Patta and Lieutenant Scarpa. Here’s the “universally despised” Scarpa:

Scarpa propelled himself away from the door jamb with a quick shove of his left shoulder. One instant he’d been lounging casually; the next he was upright and much taller. The speed with which he uncoiled his easy, limp posturing reminded Brunetti of snakes he’d seen in television documentaries: leave them alone and they lie coiled, still as death; make a sound and they become a whiplash unbraiding in the sun, multiplying the range within which they can strike.

We get it, Guido. Through your eyes we get Scarpa’s character completely, just as we do with the boss, Vice-Questore Patta. In the following scene Patta wants Brunetti to investigate a leak from the Questura that apparently reflects badly on Patta:

Uncertain how to respond…Brunetti returned his glance to his superior’s jacket and the hand-stitched buttonholes. Beauty was where you found it, and it was always comforting to see.

When Patta demands what Brunetti’s looking at, Brunetti responds honestly that he’s admiring the buttonholes. But when Patta insinuates that Brunetti must know about the leaks because his subordinates talk to him:

Hearing Patta’s suspicion relaxed Brunetti and told him that, though the subject might be new, the old, adversarial order had been restored. He tossed away his momentary warming towards Patta and returned to his native good sense.

His native good sense requires eternal caution as to Palermitans. In later books Leon makes Patta more layered, almost sympathetic—but Brunetti can’t drop his defenses:

“Ah, good morning, Commissario. Please have a seat, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you,” Patta said, giving a toothy smile that set Brunetti’s own teeth on edge.

“Yes, Vice Questore?” Brunetti inquired neutrally.

“Actually,” Patta began, his teeth now hidden behind his lips, perhaps being sharpened for their next appearance. “It’s about my…it’s about my wife.

“Ah,” was all Brunetti would permit himself. He decided it would be best to seek shelter, so placed a look of mild concern on his face and hid behind that. (Unto Us a Son is Given, 2019)

Leon similarly uses Brunetti’s interactions with his Questura allies to deepen their characters. In the same book, probing the possibility of a drug motive with his hard-working Inspector Vianello, Brunetti inquires about Vianello’s own experience with drugs:

Vianello laughed at Brunetti’s tone and said, “I try to keep some secrets, Guido.”

Just that laugh, that response, tells us the trust level between the two. We all know that how a boss interacts with subordinates exposes the boss’s character. Brunetti trusts his inspector, who returns the favor. Later, trying to respond to a plea for information from his own father-in-law, Brunetti asks Vianello to lunch:

When Vianello demonstrated no desire to discuss the varieties of religious experience, Brunetti thought he’d take further advantage of his friend’s good sense and said, “I’d like to have your opinion about something else, Lorenzo,” using his first name and thus signaling that this was a personal matter.

Had Vianello been a deer grazing in a forest, he could have been no more alert to the change in the normal sounds around him. He raised his head quickly from what he was eating, set his fork down, and gave his attention to his friend.

Here’s another of many examples of how Leon uses Brunetti’s point of view, his visual observations and reactions, to color the atmosphere of a mystery. At the beginning Brunetti has climbed the stairs to his office:

On his desk, Brunetti found what he did not want to find…He had last seen it, perhaps two months ago, when it had spent a week in his in-tray, resting there in the manner of a person a friend brings to dinner, who drinks too much, says nothing during the meal, and then refuses to leave even after the other guests are long gone. (The Temptation of Forgiveness, 2018)

What an image. We feel ourselves standing there with Brunetti, looking at a report we (and Brunetti) do not want to touch. But he’s obliged to deal with it. We feel how Brunetti values good manners and proper behavior, how he would distrust a breach of hospitality. We feel the shivery intrusion of murder just from the unwelcome sight of that sheet of paper in the in-tray, and Brunetti’s unwelcome recognition that he must pick up that paper.

Donna Leon uses other points of view as well—see the beginning of Acqua Alta, where she puts us in the heads of an opera singer and her partner describing the invasion of their apartment by two men who beat up the partner.

Still, I find Leon’s use of Brunetti’s point of view to build the characters of his compatriots and adversaries at the Questura succeeds in giving us one of the most satisfying cast of characters in police procedurals. Brunetti’s point of view, with his idiosyncratic observation of visual detail, provides a sense of immediacy. We practically breathe the atmosphere of the Questura and its inhabitants; at the same time we see into Brunetti’s own character. With good reason, Brunetti’s the man we love to follow through the streets and canals of Venice. As he walks along, allowing us to hear his thoughts, wonder what he’s wondering, and see what he’s seeing, we’re with him as he thinks his way to the solution. We trust Brunetti to lead us there, to finally unmask the murderer. We’re with him all the way.

Next time, thoughts on Fred Vargas and another commissario—Commissaire Jean-Louis Adamsberg of Paris.

***

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery novels, the most recent of which is GHOST NEXT DOOR. For more information about Helen and her books, see her website.