Furious Hours by Casey Cep

Harper Lee, Truman Capote and the Reverend Willie Maxwell…

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In June, 1977, a man walked into a funeral home in Alabama during a service, accused one of the mourners, Reverend Willie Maxwell, of murder and shot him dead. When the shooter, Robert Burns, was subsequently tried for the murder of Maxwell, everyone wanted a seat in court. Harper Lee got one. Years after helping Truman Capote with the research that lay behind his best-selling In Cold Blood, Lee had decided to write her own true-crime book, and the Maxwell case promised to provide plenty of material. In this book, Cep tells both stories: of Maxwell, the crimes of which he was suspected, his own murder and the trial of his killer; and of Harper Lee and her failed attempt to turn the Maxwell story into a book.

Cep starts by describing the still racially divided area of Alabama in which Maxwell operated, a place of black poverty and strong religion. The son of a black sharecropper, Maxwell received only a basic education. He served in WW2, then when he came home he married and worked in various jobs but found it hard to keep them. He took to preaching and gained a following, but he was hardly a good man even then – he used his preaching as a way to find vulnerable women he could seduce. After twenty years of marriage, his wife, Mary Lou, was brutally murdered. The evidence pointed to Maxwell and he was duly indicted. Between the indictment and the trial, with the breathtaking hubris that he would show time and again, Maxwell claimed on the insurance policy he’d bought not long before Mary Lou’s death. Despite this, he was found not guilty. Over the next few years, several of his relatives would die suspicious deaths, and Maxwell would make many insurance claims, but somehow he continued to evade the law, until Robert Burns, a relative of the girl assumed to be his latest victim, took justice into his own hands.

Rev Willie Maxwell

As with all great true crime, Cep uses this basic story as a jumping-off point to look at various aspects of the society of the time. First she looks at the birth and growth of the insurance industry and how it became open to abuse by both buyers and sellers. Amazingly, it was perfectly legal for someone to take out a policy on the life of another person without that person’s agreement, or even knowledge. It gave me a real insight into why so many American crime novels and movies of the mid-twentieth century feature insurance as a motive, especially in noir.

One of the reasons Maxwell continued to evade justice was that often it wasn’t possible to determine the cause of the deaths associated with him. Everyone suspected him, everyone feared him, but no one could prove his guilt. This led to rumours that he was practising voodoo, and Cep uses this aspect to look at the history of voodoo in the South, referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological efforts to record rituals and practices.

Zora Neal Hurston beating a hountar, or mama, drum in Haiti 1937.

For years, Maxwell was represented by Tom Radney, a lawyer who not only defended him at trial but who assisted him with his insurance claims. Radney was a well known Democrat, and Cep goes into his biography in some depth too, expanding out to discuss the Wallace era in Alabama – segregation, white supremacy, etc. I found this very interesting, though I found it hard to reconcile the decent young liberal Tom Radney with the one who would assist Maxwell so enthusiastically a decade later. In an even more interesting twist, Radney would later defend Maxwell’s killer and become a friend of Harper Lee as she researched the case. A man of contradictions, and I’m not sure Cep managed to fully explain him.

In the second section of the book, Cep concentrates on Lee’s story, starting with a look at her childhood and student years, and her friendship with Capote. To be truthful, Lee came across to me as eminently unlikeable at this stage, rather arrogant and thinking she was above the common herd (which, of course, she was). Cep then goes into detail on the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, including a discussion of how the book evolved from what we now know as Go Set a Watchman under the advice and guidance of her agent and publishers. Once the book was finished, there was a long wait until publication and it was during this period that Lee worked with Capote on the research for In Cold Blood. Cep gives her a lot of the credit for it, suggesting that it was she rather than Capote who was able to persuade the townspeople to open up to her.

Truman Capote signing copies of In Cold Blood with Harper Lee in 1966.
Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Cep next talks about Lee’s life after Mockingbird. Burdened by success, grieving for her father and always complaining about punitive taxes, her friends and family worried about her mental state, and this would continue for most of her life. She wrote constantly but, never satisfied with her work, then destroyed the manuscripts. She drank to excess, often turning up drunk unexpectedly at friends’ houses. Then, after meeting Capote again and becoming acquainted with Tom Radney, she decided to try her hand at her own true-crime book.

Cep gives a brief but interesting account of the rise of true crime reportage in the US, from early pamphlets to the modern day. She discusses In Cold Blood and its impact in creating the “non-fiction novel”. She highlights the factual inaccuracies in In Cold Blood and reports some of the adverse reaction to it. She suggests that Lee was unpleasantly surprised by Capote’s fictionalising of the story, and that this fed into their growing coolness and separation. So when Lee decided to write her own book, she intended it to be true and based strictly on the facts.

Harper Lee

Cep also highlights Lee’s continuing desire to write a book showing that white segregationists could still be good people but, as now, that view didn’t fit the liberal consensus and would have been unpublishable at the time. (This made me think for the first time that perhaps she actually was happy to see Watchman finally published, and changed my reluctance to read it into eagerness.) Cep then tells of Lee’s research into the Maxwell case and her long and ultimately failed attempt to bring it together into a coherent book.

Casey Cep

The section on the Maxwell case is very good true-crime writing in its own right, but what makes this one stand out from the crowd is the association with Harper Lee. The whole section of analysis of Mockingbird and In Cold Blood is excellent, succinct and insightful. It’s not so much a literary analysis as an examination of the two authors’ creative processes, casting a lot of light on their personalities; all of which would be sure to make this book appeal to admirers of either of those works as well as anyone interested in true crime for its own sake. An excellent book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

(If you want to go for total immersion, my suggested reading order would be: first Mockingbird, then In Cold Blood, then this, then Watchman.)

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Sleeping with the Lights On by Darryl Jones

Just when you thought it was safe…

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Since I started reading more classic horror and revisiting some classic science fiction, I’ve come across Darryl Jones many times, as the editor of various anthologies and as the writer of entertaining and informative introductions for some of the Oxford World’s Classics series. So when I discovered he had written a book on the history of horror, I felt there could be no better guide to a genre in which I’ve dabbled but still don’t know well. Jones is Professor of English Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin.

The book is deceptively small, but it’s packed full of concentrated juicy goodness and, as I always find with Jones, written in an engaging and accessible style that avoids the tendency towards lit-crit jargonese so beloved of so many academic authors (and so hated by me).

It begins with a great introductory chapter that discusses how horror has been around since at least the beginning of written records. Jones then gives manageable definitions for all the terms used in describing horror literature – horror, terror, Gothic, uncanny, weird, etc., (a true boon for the struggling amateur reviewer!). He talks about how horror in popular culture reflects the anxieties of its time: fear of invasion, nuclear armageddon, climate change, etc. Along the way he cites zillions of examples from both books and film, and what I really loved about it is that the ones he cites are the popular and familiar ones, rather than obscure ones known only to specialists and hardcore fans. This meant that I had the pleasure of knowing enough of them to enhance my understanding of what he was saying, while at the same time adding loads more to my must-read/watch list. He gives a clear idea of where they fall on the spectrum, so that I found it easy to decide which ones would be too gruesome or graphic for my moderate tastes.

The following chapters are themed, again each packed full of examples. Starting with monsters, he discusses the origins of vampires and how they changed over time from aggrieved peasants into the aristocratic version of today, narcissistic, sexualised and romantic. Zombies originated as a response to plague fears, were later used as a commentary on slavery, and now, Jones suggests, as a response to extreme capitalism, especially after the crash.

Next up, he discusses the supernatural – ghosts and the Devil. I found this chapter particularly interesting as he discusses the modern (i.e. 19th century and on) rise of the ghost story as a response to the shock to the Victorian psyche brought about by Darwin’s evolutionary theories – a theme I’ve become aware of in so much writing of that era. Likewise, the modern surge in stories starring the Devil and his worshippers, he suggests, may have risen out of Catholic attempts to redefine evil for a modern age and of Protestant beliefs in impending apocalypse.

The next chapter looks at the use of the human body in horror, from werewolves and other forms of metamorphoses, through to pain, sadism and torture porn. Although this is the aspect of horror that appeals least to me – not at all, in fact – I still found the discussion interesting and was happy not to add too many new items to my to-be-read list.

Horror and the mind is much more my kind of thing again, and Jones takes us into a world of madness and asylums, with Poe’s succession of insane narrators leading the way. He discusses perceptions of madness and how they have changed over time – is madness a symptom of evil, or is it a social and political construct? He mentions the prevalence of highly-qualified fictional madmen and muses as to whether madness is seen as a symptom of intelligence or over-education. He talks about the double – for example, Jekyll and Hyde – and how this has been used to portray a fracturing of the individual. And he leads us on to the serial killer, perhaps a response to the terrors of the anonymity of suburbia and of fractured communities, leaving people vulnerable to victimhood.

No history of horror could be complete without the mad scientist. Jones takes us on a jaunt through the impact of Darwinism – Frankenstein, Dr Moreau, etc – and onto more modern iterations – the fear of nuclear holocaust, then evil machines, out-of-control androids and, most recently, the perils of artificial intelligence and the online age.

In his afterword, Jones looks at how horror is faring in the new millennium. Though he is critical of the tendency towards remakes of old classics, he gives many examples in both book and film of original horror arising from today’s concerns – the economic crash, the environment, the continuing racial divide in America, etc. He discusses the rise in popularity in the West of horror from Asia, particularly Japan and Korea, and hints that this is perhaps an indication of the beginning of the decline of American cultural domination. He finishes with a brief look at horror moving online, into podcasts and memes and creepypasta*– a word I had never before heard but am now determined to use at every opportunity.

(*Urbandictionary.com tells me that creepypasta are “essentially internet horror stories or a myth passed around other sites, to frighten readers and viewers”. The above image is The Slenderman, a creepypasta star.)

Overall, an excellent read – short enough to be approachable but with plenty of breadth and depth in the discussions. And with five million (approximately) titles for me to follow up on… isn’t that a truly horrifying thought??

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Detecting the Detection Club…

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During the Golden Age of crime fiction in Britain – between the two world wars – some of the leading authors got together to form the Detection Club, an organisation that’s still going strong today. At the time of writing this book, Martin Edwards had been elected to membership and was the archivist of the club, although he has since become President, following in the prestigious footsteps of such luminaries as GK Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and, more recently, HRF Keating and Simon Brett.

Although the Club was largely social in nature, Edwards sets out to show how the interactions of its members helped to define the style and direction of detective fiction in these early years. He suggests that in fact the existence of the club may be part of the reason that the Golden Age style of detective fiction lasted longer in Britain than elsewhere. Membership was by election only, so that existing members decided which writers could get in, and, as a result, exerted considerable control over which types of book were highly regarded within the community. Over the years several of the original members had a go at defining the “rules” of detective fiction, usually half-jokingly, but clearly indicating their own opinion of what fell within the definition.

Ruler: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Will you honour the King’s English?
Candidate: I will.

Extract from the initiation ritual for the Detection Club in the Thirties.

The book is clearly very well researched – not an easy task since apparently many of the records of the Club were lost during the years of WW2. It’s written in what I’ve come to see as Edwards’ usual style for non-fiction – conversational, feeling as if one were having a discussion with a knowledgeable friend – and is therefore easy and enjoyable to read. It covers a lot of the same ground that he covers in his introductions to the various British Library Crime Classics and in his most recent The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels. By their nature, those other books force a structure on the way he gives information. In contrast, this one struck me as much looser in structure, often going off at tangents – one chapter, for example, starts with Agatha Christie meeting her second husband, then goes on to talk about séances in various writers’ work, then ends up with a discussion on the Depression and the formation of the National Government! Personally, I enjoyed the structured style of The Story of Classic Crime more, but I think this is very much down to reader preference.

Detection Club Dinner 1932

Where this book differs is by going much more deeply into the personal lives of the various authors who were members of the Club during the Golden Age – Sayers, Christie, Berkeley, the Coles, et al. I’ve said this before, but I’m not keen on knowing a lot about the authors whose books I enjoy since, if I end up not liking them on a personal basis, it can affect my enjoyment of their books. There were undoubtedly aspects of this that I found verged on the intrusive – tales of secret love affairs, unacknowledged illegitimate children, etc. But for the most part, Edwards is warm and affectionate towards his subjects, so there’s no feeling of a hatchet job being done on any of them. Edwards also shows how these hidden episodes of their lives may have influenced their writing, which I suppose is a justification for revealing things they tried hard to keep private while they were alive. (Do I sound somewhat disapprovingly judgemental there? I tried hard not to, but I think I failed…)

Two important Club members – Dorothy L Sayers and Eric the Skull.

To a degree, the book follows a linear timeline although with a lot of digressions. Edwards talks informatively about how detective fiction was influenced by current events, such as the Depression of the ’30s, or the rise of the various dictatorships in the pre-WW2 years. He also discusses and rather argues against the idea that Golden Age crime fiction was culturally snobbish – I disagree – but suggests that it was often intellectually snobbish – I agree. I do find that just occasionally Edwards comes over as somewhat dogmatic in his opinions – he has a tendency to be a little dismissive about anyone who holds a different point of view. He also clearly has favourites amongst the authors – Sayers is mentioned more often than everyone else put together, I suspect! But that all adds to the personal, conversational feel of the book. I’m sure if I knew anything like enough to write a similar book, Christie would appear just as often.

Martin Edwards (left) taking over from past President, Simon Brett, 2015

Overall, then, an enjoyable and informative read, maybe more geared towards people who enjoy personal biographies of their favourite authors, but with plenty of stuff about the history of the crime novel for the rest of us. And because there’s quite a lot of crossover between this and The Story of Classic Crime, they could easily be read either as companion pieces, or the reader could select the style that would most suit – more biographical about the authors in this one, more concentration on the books in the other.

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London Fog by Christine L Corton

london fog coverThe story of The Smoke…

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From the early 19th to the mid 20th century, London spent large parts of the winter months shrouded under dense and dirty fogs, so thick that people quite literally could walk into the Thames without seeing it. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period.

As the Industrial Revolution got underway, factories began belching their coal smoke into the air of a city that was already at the heart of a great Empire and, for its time, huge – a mass of people, living cheek by jowl, often in intolerable conditions of poverty. And in winter, these people would huddle round their coal fires adding to the polluted atmosphere. As the population grew, so did the smoke. The location of London meant that it was already prone to mists and with the addition of all this coal smoke, the mists became fogs – fogs that worsened throughout the 19th century, reaching their peak in the 1880s and 90s, but remaining significant for several decades after that, until finally legislation and health concerns abated the worst of the pollution.

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835
The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835

Corton tells us that Herman Melville coined the expression “pea-soup” to describe the thick consistency and colour of the London fog – yellow, as pea-soup was commonly made from yellow peas at that time. But it was Dickens who first made use of the fog in literature, descriptively at first but later, as he developed as a writer and as fogs worsened, as a metaphor for the corruption and social degeneracy of the city.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…

… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Gradually the fog became such an all-pervasive feature of London life that other writers began to use it in similar ways. Corton gives many examples, from writers famous or forgotten, showing the different ways they used fog in their work. Sometimes it would be used as a cloak for hideous crimes, sometimes as a tool to show the poverty, not just physical but also a poverty of aspiration, in society. Some writers used it as metaphor for the restrictions placed on women, while others allowed their female characters a freedom they could only have when shielded by the anonymity that the fog gave. And as the fogs worsened, a sub-genre developed of apocalyptic fiction – the fog shown as finally sucking the life from the inhabitants, or as a cause for moral corruption so severe that it and the inevitable destruction of the city that followed took on almost Biblical proportions.

Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening
Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening

Artists, too, became increasingly fascinated by the fog – the colours in it depending on the type of pollution and the invisible sun above. And not just local artists – famous artists travelled from Europe, America and even the Orient to try to capture this phenomenon. (I guess once they managed to pollute their own cities enough, they were able to stay home!) The book is wonderfully illustrated with examples of this art – I read it on my Kindle Fire which is good for colour illustrations, but I wished I’d been reading the hardback.

Alongside this, Corton tells the story of how the fog impacted on people in real life and of the long fight by reformers to have the use of coal smoke regulated and reduced. The story of the beginnings of the fog and the various theories that were propounded as to its cause fascinated me, as did the descriptions given in journals and newspapers of how it actually felt trying to get around during a fog. Corton shoes how real-life criminals could use its cover for their activities, including the linklighters – the boys who carried torches to light people as they travelled – who were notorious for their criminality. The dangers for women in particular are emphasised, with a feeling that they were unsafe in the fog without the protection of a man.

Ivor Novello in Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927
Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927

At first, I also found the tale of the political fighting to do something about the fog interesting but, after a while, I began to find the telling of it too detailed, especially the Parliamentary side of it, and it began to drag. I found I was increasingly glad to get back to the literary and artistic sections. The problem of the fog decreased gradually over the 20th century, but wasn’t finally resolved until the 1950s. As a result, Corton continues her story of how it was used in literature and art well beyond the Victorian era, but as the fog faded, so did its usefulness as a metaphor. Corton makes the point that writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though writing well into the 20th century, often based their stories back in the 1880s and 90s so that they could use the fog to its fullest effect.

Overall, I found this great in parts and rather dull in other parts. The effect of reading for review is that I have a tendency not to like to skip, otherwise I would fairly early on have been jumping the sections relating to the various politicians and reformers. The sections on writers and artists were of much more interest, to me at least, although here I did feel that sometimes Corton was stretching too far, and drawing conclusions about fog as metaphor that aren’t always justified by the reading of the books. But then this is a fault I routinely find in literary criticism. Despite that, one that I am sure will be enjoyed by anyone interested in either crime or literary fiction of the period. And it occurred to me it would be great as a research tool for any writer out there wanting to set their book in the London of that period…

Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet
Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvard University Press.

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The Year of Lear by James Shapiro

the year of lear“Let every man be master of his time.”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In 1606, Shakespeare wrote three plays – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. James Shapiro sets out to show how this burst of creativity reflected the events and concerns of the times and to reveal what Shakespeare may have been thinking as he wrote.

Shapiro reminds us that Shakespeare was as much a Jacobean playwright as an Elizabethan one, and suggests that these later plays show how the English world had changed since James I came to the throne in 1603. For most of the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, the major concern of the political classes had been the question of succession, but now that question had been resolved. Not only had James succeeded peacefully to the throne but he had two sons, securing the continuance of his dynasty for at least another generation. There was now a new question – as King of both Scotland and England, James was eager to create a union between them, a plan that was less attractive to the powerful elites in either nation. It was in this context that Lear was written, though Shapiro makes the point that it’s unclear whether the play is pro- or anti-Union – apparently scholars have continued to argue it both ways over the intervening years.

Derek Jacobi playing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse Photo: Johan Persson
Derek Jacobi playing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse
Photo: Johan Persson

As well as the contemporary context, Shapiro looks at Shakespeare’s use of sources. In the case of Lear much of the play is based on an earlier play, King Leir by Samuel Harsnett. Shapiro shows how Shakespeare retained the basic structure and some of the language of the earlier work, while changing much of the text and creating a considerably darker ending. He speculates on how these changes would have played with the expectations of a contemporary audience familiar with the earlier play, making Shakespeare’s ending even more shocking in its unexpectedness.

The end of 1605 was marked by the Gunpowder Plot which, though it failed, revealed the rising anxiety over religious divisions and led to an atmosphere of fear and tension. Shapiro shows the links of the plotters to the Midlands and hence to the society that Shakespeare knew well. Following the plot, there was a threatened uprising near Stratford with friends and neighbours of Shakespeare on either side. Shapiro gives a good picture of how small the world of the gentry was at this time, and how Catholicism may have gone underground but hadn’t gone away. All of this would have meant that Shakespeare would have felt more than interested – involved almost – in the plots and their aftermath.

This was also a time obsessed with tales of witchcraft and demonic possession, subjects in which James himself was deeply interested, becoming personally involved in investigating some of the cases of alleged possession. Shapiro shows how both these contemporary concerns – plotting and the supernatural – fed into the writing of Macbeth.

Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth For me, the definitive production - and available on DVD!
Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth
For me, the definitive production – and available on DVD!

Shapiro’s own writing is very readable and it’s clear he has researched both the period and the plays thoroughly. However, I feel the book sometimes lacks focus, becoming more of a history of the year than an analysis of the plays. While he ties contemporary concerns well into both Lear and Macbeth, I felt the section on Antony and Cleopatra was looser and therefore less successful. He also discusses some other aspects of the year, such as theatre closures due to plague, which, while interesting in themselves, didn’t seem to have much relevance to the creation of these specific plays. I feel the book rather falls between two stools – the attempt to tie everything back to the plays makes the history feel a bit superficial and occasionally contrived, while the lack of information about Shakespeare’s life means that a lot of Shapiro’s analysis is necessarily based on assumption rather than fact. In terms of interest, I found parts of it fascinating and other parts frankly rather dull – of course, I realise that much of that is subjective. But I felt that a tighter structure focused more clearly on the plays would have worked better. Or alternatively perhaps, a structure that focused exclusively on the events and concerns of the year with less of an attempt to show their relevance to the plays. Trying to do both somehow left me feeling a bit shortchanged on each.

Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra Wow! I wish I'd seen that one!
Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra
Wow! I wish I’d seen that one!

However, there is certainly enough of interest to make the book well worth reading even if it didn’t quite meet my expectations. In amongst the other stuff, Shapiro gives a good picture of contemporary theatre, from Ben Jonson’s masques to the collapse of the boys’ companies as a result of the plague. He discusses how Shakespeare’s own company was ageing by this period, allowing Shakespeare to write some older parts. He shows the pressure that companies were under to produce new plays to feed the appetite for performances at court. But he also goes off at a tangent at times – for example, discussing how Kings were traditionally expected to ‘cure’ the King’s Evil (scrofula) – leaving me wondering about the relevance to the subject of the book.

A bit of a mixed bag then – I’d be tempted to recommend it more strongly to people with an interest in the society and culture of the period than to people primarily interested in Shakespeare. And, since I am interested in the period, in the end I got enough from it to feel my time had been well spent.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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Huck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy

huck finn's americaLooking beneath the mythology…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Not so long ago, I re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time since childhood, and came away from it puzzled as to why, firstly, it has such a reputation as a literary masterpiece and, secondly, and more importantly, it is seen as a great anti-slavery/anti-racist tract. My own feeling was that the portrayal of the slaves was hardly one that inspired me to think the book was in any way a clarion call for recognition of racial equality – I said “…the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result it left me feeling quite uncomfortable.” The blurb for Huck Finn’s America promised that Levy would be taking a fresh look at the book, arguing that “Twain’s lifelong fascination with minstrel shows and black culture inspired him to write a book not about civil rights, but about race’s role in entertainment and commerce, the same features upon which much of our own modern consumer culture is also grounded.” As you can imagine, I was predisposed to find his arguments persuasive.

Andrew Levy is Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University, Indianapolis, and it’s clear that he knows his subject thoroughly. He also has the gift of writing in a style that is enjoyable and easily accessible to the non-academic reader. His position is that Huck Finn must be seen through the double prism of Twain’s own experiences and the questions that were exercising society at the time he was writing, so the book has elements of biography as well as literary criticism, and also takes an in-depth look at the cultural and political debates that were going on in the public arena.

Jim_and_ghost_huck_finn

The other main aspect of Huck Finn is, of course, childhood, and here Levy argues that, rather than being some great paean to the joys of a childhood freed from the constraints of education, it is actually a reflection of the concern of society around bad-boy culture. He looks at contemporaneous news reporting to show that there was a huge debate going on around adolescent criminality, and the state’s role in tackling this through education. There was concern that boys’ behaviour was being influenced by the pulp fiction of the day, that bad parenting was a contributing factor, and there was a split between those who believed that more regimentation in education was the cause or the cure. If this all sounds eerily familiar, Levy suggests that is partly Twain’s point – that history goes round in circles – nothing ever really changes because man’s nature remains the same.

And, in Levy’s opinion, Twain is saying something similar about race. He is making the point that emancipation had failed to achieve its aims at the time he was writing. Slavery may have been nominally abolished, but black men are being imprisoned in their thousands for minor criminality and then being hired out as labour for pennies. The Jim Crow laws are on the near horizon – segregation in the South is well under way. Levy suggests that the problematic last section of the book, where Tom keeps Jim imprisoned despite knowing that he is now a free man, should be seen as a satire on the status of black people nearly thirty years after emancipation.

Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).
Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).

However, while Levy accepts Twain’s anti-racist stance in this last section, he also shows convincingly that much of the rest of the portrayal of race in the book comes out of Twain’s nostalgic love for the minstrel shows of his youth. Thus Jim is not exactly a representative of ‘real’ black people, so much as the caricatured version of the blacked-up minstrels. Levy tells us that in the early days of minstrelsy, in Twain’s childhood, the shows were less racist than they became later, and often were in fact used as vehicles for some fairly liberal views. But he also makes it clear that Twain was trying to recapture the ‘fun’ of this form of entertainment. He suggests that this aspect of the book would have been recognisable to contemporary audiences but, because minstrelsy has now become such a taboo subject, is generally missed by readers today.

Tying these arguments together, the fact that contemporary audiences would have recognised Huck as a ‘bad boy’ would have made it much more acceptable to associate him with a black man – both were seen as low down on the social scale, primitive even, and quite probably criminal. Levy acknowledges Twain’s intellectual anti-racism in his later years, but suggests that he retained a nostalgia for the slave-holding world of his childhood and always continued to think of black people as being there to ‘serve’ him. Rather than a call for equality, Twain was using black culture to entertain white people, and only those from the Northern states at that. And again Levy makes the point that black culture is often adopted by white people in much the same way still – as Twain suggested, history is a circle.

Andrew Levy  Photo Credit: Randy Johnson
Andrew Levy
Photo: Randy Johnson

I found this a very well-written and interesting book. Already having doubts about the extravagant claims made for Twain’s anti-racist credentials, I admit that part of my enjoyment was because it gives a solidly researched and explained base to my own instinctive reservations about Huck Finn. That’s not to suggest that Levy is doing some kind of hatchet job on either Twain or Huck – he clearly greatly admires both the man and the book. But he has brushed aside some of the mythology that has grown up around it over the last century and put it firmly back into its own context. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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Failure and the American Writer by Gavin Jones

Dressed up in the language of academia…
(…or Where’s my Gobbledegook-English dictionary?)

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

failure and the american writerIn recent years, in the fields of history and science, there has been a marked and welcome move towards academics writing books in language that makes them accessible to the wider public, while maintaining high standards of research and scholarship. Sadly, in my limited experience, this trend has not yet spread to the field of literary criticism. This book is so mired and obfuscated in academic gobbledegook language, that large parts of it are well-nigh incomprehensible to someone who only speaks standard English – which is unfortunate, since the glimpses I got into the author’s meaning suggested that the subject could be interesting.

As far as I could gather, the author’s argument seems to consist of three main points: that American literature of the 19th century and beyond tends to deal with the subject of failure; that the great writers of the 19th century struggled to find new literary forms in which to portray this literature of failure; and – it gets very unclear here and I may well be misrepresenting badly – that this struggle for form, combined with failures in the authors’ own lives, led directly or indirectly to their works themselves failing, especially in the eyes of contemporary critics and readers.

“Hawthorne and his Mosses” is Melville’s effort to account for Hawthorne’s relative lack of popularity, by laying blame on a market that purportedly valued literary trash over works of quality. Rather than studying the way to success, however, Melville’s essay offers an explicit theory of failure in a culture whose faltering standards of taste made failure seem a necessity, if not a condition of genius itself.

When I was a student, and even when writing policies in the workplace, I was always taught that you should “say what you’re going to say, then say it, then say what you just said”. If Jones had followed this simplistic but effective device, then his introduction would have made clear what his argument was going to be – unfortunately he leaps straight into his discussion of the works he has chosen to prove his argument without ever clarifying exactly what his argument is. And the conclusion, which I found I was eagerly anticipating, did little to elucidate. The result is that, having finished the book, I wasn’t much closer to getting Jones’ point than I was at the beginning. That’s not to say the book is uninteresting – just unfathomable in parts.

Critics have noted the “subjunctive” reality of Strether’s world, his enabling bewilderment and epistemological provisionalness. Placing this in historical context, Ross Posnock has described Strether’s groping and bewildered contemplation as a form of pragmatic fallibilism, which “emphasizes the self as contingent, inseparable from the process of experimental inquiry and interpretation…”

The first strand – that American authors tend to write about failure – seems clear and fairly indisputable. In each chapter, Jones concentrates on one author and usually on one particular work of that author. So in the chapter on Melville, for instance, while referring to many of his works, Jones concentrates on Moby Dick, while the chapter on Twain deals largely with Pudd’nhead Wilson. In each chapter, Jones sets the work into the context of the author’s life and the wider society of the time. His view is that the 19th century itself was felt to have been a failed century, with recurring economic problems, increasing mechanisation and subsequently urbanisation and the decline of the rural economy, and in particular the failure of the Civil War to lead to the kind of society that its proponents had envisaged.

…in Poe we see the glimmering of an attitude that looks forward to the modernist writers of the twentieth century: not a struggle with failure as a problem to be debated or transcended, but an acceptance of failure as an inevitable condition of identity, one of the necessitating qualities of a style.

The second and third strands are both more complex and less well-argued, in my view – certainly less clearly argued. Jones seems to be suggesting that it was the attempt to find ways to portray this failure that led to these great authors producing often messy books. He uses the authors’ own writings and contemporaneous critical and peer reviews of their works to back up his arguments, and to some degree he convinced me that some at least of the authors were indeed trying to find new literary forms. Where I found his argument completely unconvincing was that it was this that led to the contemporary failure of the books. Now, I have only read a handful of the books discussed, so I am basing my comments purely on Jones’ own analyses of them, but it seemed to me that in fact all he proved was that some of the books were simply badly written, and that the reasons for this varied from case to case. I also felt he proved indirectly that a form of intellectual elitism was creeping into the works of many of these authors which could be summed up as “if people don’t like my books, it’s because they’re stupid”, and that, in that sense, commercial and critical failure was almost seen as an endorsement of literary success (an attitude still very recognisable today, I fear). But his central argument, if I have grasped it at all, that the failure of the books was related to the authors’ attempts to find new forms to portray failure, remained unproven to me. But then maybe that’s not what he was trying to say at all!

In his phenomenological study, Paul Armstrong argues that James’ approach to man is most properly understood as ontic, not ontological: he is concerned with real existence, with experience, rather than with the properties of being.

Overall, I found the analyses of the various books and authors very interesting, but found the arguments so dressed up in the language of academia that they were hard to understand and, perhaps as a result, remained largely unproven, at least to me. I’m sure this book may be of great interest to other academics, but for the casual reader may prove a little disappointing, as ultimately it was for me.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cambridge University Press.

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The Crime Fiction Handbook by Peter Messent

the crime fiction handbookAn academic approach to crime fiction…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

This is an academic analysis of crime fiction looking at how it has evolved since its inception, which Peter Messent dates back to Poe’s Dupin tales. Messent discusses the different types of crime fiction which he categorises as Classical, Hard Boiled, the Police novel and Transgressor fiction and shows how each category affects and is affected by wider aspects of society such as gender, race and politics. He gives particular importance to the increasing urbanisation of society in the development away from the straightforward murder mystery of early crime fiction towards the more noirish approach of many writers as the 20th century progressed. In the final section, Messent looks in depth at certain books in each of the categories, relating them to his previous analyses.

the murder of roger ackroydThe book is interesting if a little dry at times. While occasionally I felt that Messent was over-analysing or reading things into the texts that weren’t completely justifiable, on the whole his arguments were convincing and well supported with evidence. His analyses are based largely on American fiction with a substantial minority of British writers, especially from the classical era, but with very little from other countries. Messent accepts this himself as a weakness of the book, pointing out that there is so much crime fiction that an exhaustive analysis would be difficult. He expresses the hope that the work he has done in this book will be seen as a jumping off point for future academics to extend the arguments beyond the authors he has chosen.

the big sleepOverall, I enjoyed the book, particularly the final part with Messent’s reading of specific texts such as The Big Sleep, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd etc. Any crime fiction enthusiast will be familiar with the majority of the texts he has chosen and this helps to put his analyses into context. Recommended for anyone who would like to look a little more deeply into the place crime fiction has carved out for itself in literature and, indeed, in the wider context of society as a whole.

Peter Messent is Emeritus Professor of Modern American Literature at Nottingham University.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Carmilla: A Critical Edition by J Sheridan Le Fanu

‘But dreams come through stone walls…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Carmilla book coverAlthough overshadowed by the later Dracula, Carmilla still stands out as one of the best of the gothic vampire stories. This book includes the story itself in its original form, together with an introduction and four critical essays that set out to analyse the text from a variety of perspectives.

Atmospheric and chilling, Carmilla has everything we could want – gothic ruins, beautiful victim, even more beautiful and extremely sexy vampire, midnight terrors and a climactic graveyard scene. Throw in some very Victorian-style lesbian eroticism and Le Fanu’s fine writing and it’s no surprise that Carmilla continues to be influential on writers and filmmakers even today. It’s been years since I read it last, as part of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection, and I found I enjoyed it very much on re-reading.

However the main purpose of this book is to critically re-analyse Carmilla and (somewhat to my surprise) I found the critical essays at least as enjoyable, if not more so, than the story itself. Kathleen Costello-Sullivan’s introduction describes how the story’s psychological aspects, representations of gender and sexuality, and aesthetic and narrative characteristics have led to scholars returning again and again to re-assess the book over the years. She also justifies its inclusion in this Irish Studies series on the grounds that it is generally accepted that the story is drawing parallels with the political and cultural life of Le Fanu’s Ireland.

(One of the three engravings in the book)
(One of the three engravings in the book)

The first essay is by Jarlath Killeen, who takes this Irish aspect of the story and argues that the picture Le Fanu gives us of Laura and her father as English people clinging to their Englishness while living abroad is representative of Le Fanu’s own position as an Anglo-Irish protestant at a time when the Church was being disestablished and Home Rule was a major topic. So far, so convincing. However, I found Killeen’s positioning of Carmilla within this Irish-ing of the story less convincing. He seems on the one hand to be arguing against a Catholic Carmilla (based on her disgust at the Catholic forms followed by the villagers) and then claiming her as a metaphor for the Catholic aristocracy on grounds that I felt were either shaky or not well enough explained.

J Sheridan Le Fanu(source: wikipedia)
J Sheridan Le Fanu
(source: wikipedia)
In the second essay, Renee Fox suggests that the mutual attraction between Laura and Carmilla prevents a simple reading of Carmilla as a Catholic metaphor rising to crush the Laura-as-Protestant metaphor. In fact, she sets out to show the ‘indistinguishability’ of victim and vampire, the blurring of which is predator and which is prey. ‘The attraction and affinity between Laura and Carmilla functions not to demonize the Catholic Irish, but to express an ‘atrocious’ cycle of political vampirism in which Protestants and Catholics make monsters of each other, reproduce each other’s aggression, and ultimately become indistinguishable from one another.’ From a rather tetchy beginning in which Fox ticks off previous academics somewhat testily, this turned out to be a particularly interesting and well-argued analysis providing much food for thought.

Next up is Lisabeth C Buchelt who examines the ‘aesthetic’ positioning of the book. A subject about which I knew nothing, I found Buchelt’s arguments clear and easy to absorb. She argues that the story ‘forges a connection between popular ideas about the picturesque and what constitutes the vampiric’ and that Le Fanu uses the ‘popular literary trope of medievalism’ in constructing a ‘vampire aesthetic’. My initial reaction to that was to gulp a bit – quite a bit, in fact. However, she then goes on to explain this in a way that meant I not only understood it but was convinced by her argument. An interesting and informative essay.

Terror in the CryptLastly, Nancy M West takes us on a run through of the films that have been either adapted from or influenced by Carmilla, with a look at how the lesbianism in the story has been dealt with over the years as social mores and, perhaps more importantly, censorship rules have changed. Lighter than the other essays, this was an enjoyable finish to the book.

In conclusion, if you are interested in the story but not the criticism, then much better to get this as part of In a Glass Darkly. However, I found the criticisms very interesting, much more than I anticipated to be honest, and for me they have enhanced the story without destroying any of its original impact. I therefore heartily recommend this book.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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