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Wednesday: Return of the Reading Meme

What I've Just Finished Reading

A Wreath for Rivera, by Ngaio Marsh. I ended up liking it pretty well, though only about a tenth as well as Died in the Wool. This one takes a long, slow time to set up before the murder, but picks up immediately once the investigation begins. There's a middle-aged Upper Class Twit who buys his way into a swing band and stages (FATALLY?) cheesy musical numbers, some equi-posh and unhappy young women, and a few unkindly delineated musicians. The murder victim was such a bad Halloween dummy of "Latin" sterotypes that I thought maybe he was going to turn out to be an overacting Englishman in disguise. [Spoiler:]He doesn't.

P. D. James has a thing in Talking About Detective Fiction about how one of the temptations a muder investigation offers to the the writer is the way it destroys the privacy of both the deceased and the survivors. One of Marsh's biggest strengths, as far as I can tell after only two books, is how well she depicts people trying and failing to preserve their carefully constructed facades in the face of a lot of meddling detectives asking inconvenient questions. I think this aspect of both books works as well as it does partly because Inspector Alleyn is not an intrusively interesting character -- as an interrogator, he's always more mirror than image. The main thing he does in his role as inspector is stand around listening and/or being quietly insistent while the survivors try to fix the tiny holes the murder has made in their webs of lies and pick them all helplessly to pieces instead.

I have mixed feelings about Inspector Alleyn's relative non-existence. When I was reading Wimsey novels all the time, Alleyn's total lack of traits was refreshing, like drinking a big glass of water after too many Turkish Delights. I appreciate that he's just a guy doing his job with no shenanigans, and his colorlessness is completely functional from a plot standpoint. But it's not my favorite thing? I like eccentric detectives and annoying detectives and maiden-auntly detectives and extremely comfortable detectives, but I don't know how to feel about a detective whose only observable quality is "being good at his job." I don't even know whether I would want to invite him to dinner or not! This is irrelevant to his success at solving complicated crimes, but highly relevant to whether or not I'm inclined to read a million books starring this guy. I don't have to want to invite him to dinner; I just need to feel like I know where to place him on the Dinner Scale.

I also feel like I'm probably being slightly unfair to Alleyn. He does have a few other traits, such as calling his police associate Fox "Brer Fox" and having a wife. Probably he got at least a little more exposition in the early books and Marsh reasonably enough doesn't want to do the Baby-Sitter's Club thing of awkwardly reviewing for her readers what his deal is every Chapter One. Now that I'm resolved to use the library, I can read something earlier and see if the Dinner Scale problem takes care of itself.

Also finished: And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. There are two things to note about And Then There Were None:

1) It's a successful, emotionally exhausting suspense novel that completely deserves its glowing repuation (despite a gimmicky reveal)
2) It's built inextricably out of a racist nursery rhyme from the American minstrel show circuit

In reprints, the title and song were altered somewhat unhelpfully to "Ten Little Indians," but with lots of echoes of the original rhyme retained in the text, for a still racist but weirdly pasted-over reading experience. This is the edition I read. It made me a little disappointed: thanks to unsystematic reading, I'd developed the impression that Christie was The One With Slightly Less Casual Racism, but this appears not to be the case across the board.

After I finished the book, I learned that in later editions, the "little Indians" of the poem were further changed to "little soldier boys" and the island renamed to "Soldier Island." I wonder if it still retains the original echoes about "our little black brothers" etc. in the text? At some point I might get a newer edition and see if the job was more thorough this time.

The ORIGINAL original title of the song was "Ten Little Injuns" and was written for minstrel-show use in 1868. There's a brief history of the song and the book here.

I don't think I agree with the author of that website that "the use of the word in the book is completely gratuitous," though I do agree that taking it out completely is a good idea. It's repeated so frequently and hammered on so heavily, especially in connection with the way some of the "guests" justify their past actions, that it's very obviously meant to be doing some kind of meaning-making work, possibly even one with some anti-racist intentions buried under all the racial slurs. I just don't think that whatever it's doing is worth it.

De-racializing the whole setup with "Ten Little Soldiers" and a note to indicate the change is probably the best move for most editions -- even if "Soldier Island" is a slightly less plausible 1930s English island name than either of the original versions. In my edition, the original word survives in a couple of colloquialisms that are clearly meant to mirror the poem but don't anymore -- a disconnect that total elimination would improve slightly.

Otherwise, though? It's extremely well-paced, like just about everything I've read by Christie, effectively creepy despite its superificial silliness, and bottomlessly sad in that sneaky Agatha Christie way.

Also finished recently: A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King, the third novel in the Mary Russell series. I skipped the second book entirely and got this one just for the Wimsey cameo. The cameo is nothing special -- writing a lot of Wodehousian fugue-chatter and including other people's OCs without winking at the audience twenty times are both highly specialized skills that I can't blame LRK for neglecting to develop -- but the rest of the book was so much more enjoyable than The Beekeeper's Apprentice that I read it all the way through anyway. There is also a Completely Gratuitous Tolkien Name-drop and probably a bunch of other cameos I didn't pick up on due to my ignorance of history -- part of the fabric of this series seems to be "Holmes and Russell meet RL famous people and then discuss them briefly for the benefit of an audience in the know," which is one of those things that I can sort of see the appeal of from a distance but don't really care about myself.

I thought the story had a tremendous amount of missed potential and I still don't quite believe in Russell at all, but her narration is less intrusive this time. I don't believe in the alleged Holmes-Russell marriage, either, but I like it lot better as an established (alleged) fact than as a looming threat. It helps that they don't talk about Watson much in this book. The ending is, if anything, more unsatisfying than the ending of The Beekeeper's Apprentice, because I liked the rest of the book so much more. There's a Hypnotist Ex Machina and several other cop-outs. I don't know yet if I'll dip into the next book, The Moor, or move on -- I'm kind of torn between liking the idea of the books and being unhappy with the execution.

What I'm Reading Now

I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me, and should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.

Back to Jane Eyre after a minor hiatus. It's so good. I don't have anything to say about it right now execept maybe a couple of sideways heart shapes and the name Jane: <3 <3 JANE <3 <3.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has gotten a lot better since I started it, but I still feel weirdly shut out. It's the opposite problem from that of the Dragonlance books -- there, I felt the worldbuilding was just a lot of game pieces, but I could easily go and walk around on the board if I wanted to and examine all the little painted figures and the dice and the big picture of a cave. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has beautiful worldbuilding, as far as I can tell -- but I feel like I'm seeing it from behind glass most of the time, because the narrator, Yeine, isn't always a good guide. Unfortunately she isn't (for me) a very interesting character, either -- at least, not as a narrator. Her situation is interesting, and how she's choosing to deal with it is intrinsically interesting, but I think third person would have been better for this book. Asking Yeine to tell her story seems like an unnecessary duty imposed on her on top of all the other unpleasantness. I'm still not completely sure why. But it has picked up a lot since the beginning, so we'll see. It hasn't sucked me in completely yet, but it's felt like it was about to start getting good for the past thirty pages or so.

I've also just started The Silmarillion, which I've read lots of bits of but never read all the way through -- I'll probably make a separate post about that. Mixed feelings are forecasted, giant spiders guaranteed.

What I Plan to Read Next

My public library has The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders, and I am going to get it immediately after I post this. It comes highly recommended and has a skull on the cover.

Also scheduled for the near future: The Fleet Street Murders, The Moving Toyshop, and a non-mystery with a promising first paragraph, The Untelling by Tayari Jones.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 1st, 2015 03:28 pm (UTC)
I don't think I've read that Ngaio Marsh book! She wrote so many, it's hard to keep track. And I agree about Alleyn's blandness: it's good at getting the other characters to unravel their own stories (and that's something Marsh does very well), but it can get frustrating in large doses. Don't you have any quirks at all, sir?

I have not read any of the Mary Russell books, but isn't Mary a teenager when they start and Holmes quite a bit older? The idea of them getting married disturbs me.
Jan. 1st, 2015 05:54 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad to hear it's not just me! Honestly. In A Wreath for Rivera he turns up at the crime scene unnamed and a few pages later, everyone is talking to Alleyn -- I had to keep flipping back to try to find where he came in, and finally realized that he was the "tall man in evening dress." I understand not wanting to participate in the Accessory Detective cliché, but if you're going to have a Dramatic Unnamed Description-Based Entrance, it would help to use a description that didn't also apply to half the people in this club. You can't have it both ways! Oh, well.

Mary is 15 when she meets Holmes in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, which covers -- maybe 4-5 years? There's no romance in that book, just apprenticing, but there is a deeply unfortunate instance of Holmes muttering to himself about "if I were only twenty years younger." :/

There's a second book which I skipped, that reportedly has more Holmes/Russell content. In A Letter of Mary, Mary is in her early 20s and they're already married, which mostly doesn't come into the story since the author has wisely chosen to make both of them Not The Demonstrative Sort. Scenes intended to illustrate a romantic connection between them are pretty sparse and almost entirely unconvincing, which, if you're skeeved by the age difference, is kind of a mercy: it's harder to be skeeved by something you don't really believe is happening.

The one really icky thing in ALOM is a flashback to Holmes sneaking into teenage Mary's bedroom, Edward Cullen-style, to apologize for some earlier misunderstanding.

To be honest, it's a little odd to me that King goes to the trouble of making Mary so young when she meets Holmes. Nothing really happens plot-wise in TBA for several years, and Mary isn't that convincing as a teenager anyway (and shows no signs of maturation in Book 3); I don't know that anything would be lost if she met Holmes in her early or mid twenties instead of at fifteen; it would still be May-Decemberish, but a huge part of the skeeve factor would be gone.

I think Russell's extreme youth when she meets Holmes, and the "apprentice" thing in general, is appealing to Laurie R. King in some way. She chooses to emphasize it when most readers would prefer to gloss over it and move on -- but at the same time, she seems to be trying to de-skeeze and un-Pygmalion the situation by making Russell independent-minded and hypercompetent in the extreme, from the very beginning and to an extent that makes her (imo) completely unbelievable as a character.

Sorry, that was a lot of words! The point is, it disturbs a lot of people. I had gotten the impression that most fans of the book are fans in spite of Holmes/Russell, but then there are a number of Amazon reviewers who seem to like the romance and to be impressed by Holmes' transformation into One of the Most Romantic Heroes of All Time (a dubious claim not supported by the text).

It's sketchy, in conclusion? But in a weird way that I'm not sure I completely understand.
Jan. 1st, 2015 10:27 pm (UTC)
I am trying to envision Holmes as One of the Most Romantic Heroes of All Time and I just can't wrap my brain around it. It just seems non-Holmesian.

And it is odd that the author decided to make her a teenager even though the story would make more sense if she were a few years older. Maybe making her a twenty-something would make her seem less special.
Jan. 1st, 2015 11:11 pm (UTC)
He's not! I have some bones to pick with LRK's characterization, but her Holmes isn't that non-Holmesian; he's not bad most of the time, except that the occasional conversation with Russell seems to warp him a little out of his natural shape.

But those were reviews for a different book (book 2 in the series), which I haven't read -- so I guess anything is possible? I'm not interested enough right now to check it out, but if I ever do, I'll report back.
Jan. 7th, 2015 04:48 pm (UTC)
Here goes...

Anyway, in my first comment I was saying that I liked Ngaio Marsh, but she kind of is like that - you're reading a novel about people putting on a play of Macbeth or whatever, and then over halfway through suddenly there's a murder and Alleyn turns up and it's like, oh, wait, yes, this is a murder mystery! I forgot. But I like her, and the way she does that. It sounds as if she may not really be your thing, but also since you sound as if you're after some books that have more Troy (and therefore more of Alleyn as a person, too) to find out, I can give you some of the titles to watch out for when you're in the library. :-)

The first few themselves are probably not the ones to go for if you're feeling a bit lukewarm about it (though, of course, you can), as they were her first novels and it does show - she has a 'Watson' type character she soon realises she doesn't need, and in the second one, The Nursing Home Murders it's as if she gets so worried about the mechanics/science of her murder, she gives too much detail and it all gets rather dry. NHM is my least favourite as a result, though it is at least one of the shortest! (The first is actually quite fun, though - one of those stories where someone has a murder mystery weekend that turns into - surprise! - real murder.)

Troy first turns up in Artists in Crime, then returns in Death in a White Tie (which I am pretty sure is also one of the ones that feature Alleyn's mother). She's also the main POV character in a few later ones, like Final Curtain (where she's painting a portrait of a theatrical Grand Old Man, and waiting for Alleyn to come back from New Zealand), and Clutch of Constables where she goes on a canal holiday with a charming murderer. I always think that Death at the Bar is probably the most technically perfect as a murder mystery, as well as having some particularly nice Alleyn & Fox stuff. My own personal favourite is A Surfeit of Lampreys, about a girl from NZ, who goes to stay with this eccentric English aristocratic family. (A murder happens at some point), but that may be because it was the first I read - I don't know! A lot of people seem to like Death at the Dolphin, too (which apparently is Killer Dolphin in the US, which is priceless, sorry. I really hope some lazy cover artist did a literal illustration of that one time. And Surfeit of Lampreys is Death of a Peer in the US.)

There are lots of others I like, of course, but maybe those might be helpful if you're after getting at Troy and Alleyn as a human being instead of a very polite detective who turns up late in the book.

The BBC did do a TV series of it in the 1990s. It was beautifully made and impeccably cast (they got John Gielgud in at one point), but it drives me up the wall for messing with her books, removing some of the romances, having Troy all wrong, and sticking random Nazis in. (Even if you think Ngaio Marsh needs livening up, I don't think random Nazis are ever the way to go.) I found quite a nice clip of Alleyn and Fox from it, though if you want to stay unspoiled for the solution of Death at the Bar, best stop once it shifts scene from the beach!).
Jan. 7th, 2015 06:03 pm (UTC)
Ngaio Marsh's thing, insofar as I understand it, is a thing I like; I'm just not sure that it will ever be my favorite thing. But it's interesting enough to keep me reading for now. I'm reading Artists in Crime right now (I thought it was the first novel in the series, but it very quickly became obvious that is was not). I like Troy, and the artist-colony shop talk is fun, though I don't know what to make of the narration coyly reminding me, after the characters have already discussed it, that one of the characters is said to be a nymphomaniac. Thanks, narration?

I've only read the two books so far, plus the first five chapters of AIC, but so far I don't feel like the books want livening up. I don't actually think the fact that I don't know where to place Alleyn on the Dinner Scale is a problem with Marsh, because he works very well as a detective and the scenes where everyone just sort of comes apart under very polite questioning are great! Within the context of the book & how it's structured, it's probably more a feature than a bug, but it goes against my detective expectations (detexpectations?) to have read two books and have no real sense of the detective as a character in his own right. (In Artists in Crime Alleyn embarrasses himself several times, and I am clinging to that embarrassment like an earnest baby sloth).

Thanks for the suggestions! I just found out that the university library has basically all of her books (or at least a very large number of them). I'll probably decide after I finish AIC whether I want to go back to the beginning or jump around.

So Killer Dolphin is not actually about a dolphin that kills people? Good to know :)
Jan. 7th, 2015 06:14 pm (UTC)
Ngaio Marsh's thing, insofar as I understand it, is a thing I like; I'm just not sure that it will ever be my favorite thing.

Which is fair enough, indeed.

Alleyn and Troy are very awkward around each other a lot, so you should get some more bits of embarrassment to cling to, and possibly Alleyn's mother, too. I can't remember if she's in AiC, though. Probably not. I forget!

I just found out that the university library has basically all of her books (or at least a very large number of them). I'll probably decide after I finish AIC whether I want to go back to the beginning or jump around.

Either way works, though if you do go for just reading them in order, it's not a bad idea as they follow on from one another in quiet ways more than some detective series do.

So Killer Dolphin is not actually about a dolphin that kills people?

I was happily making you recs, and then realised that the book you were describing in the post was one I know as Swing, Brother, Swing, so went to check if any of the others had different US titles before everything got too confusing, and found that. :loL: I have no idea why the publisher thought implying there was a KILLER DOLPHIN!! in it was a good idea. Mind, I suppose Marsh does go in for some seriously bizarre deaths, but even so, killer dolphins don't really sound very her. But, yeah, the Dolphin is a theatre! (And I'm pretty sure the theatre didn't kill anyone either.)

ETA: probably, as a dinner guest, you could sit Alleyn anywhere, because he has beautiful manners and would be polite to your really awkward guests, so you maybe shouldn't worry too much? ;-)

Edited at 2015-01-07 06:15 pm (UTC)
Jan. 7th, 2015 06:41 pm (UTC)
Alleyn's mother is in AIC; she appears early in the book and attempts to set him up with Troy when he returns from The Boat Trip of Embarrassment.
Jan. 8th, 2015 01:14 pm (UTC)
Cool. I had a feeling she was, and then I couldn't remember. :-)
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )


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