Wednesday, February 21, 2018

STALLION GATE – Martin Cruz Smith

I liked Stallion Gate so much I feel obligated to find at least one nit to pick about it so it won't look as if I'm on Martin Cruz Smith's payroll. Of course, were I actually beholden to Smith in any way I'd have no choice but to pick a nit, wouldn't I, if only to create an illusion of independence. Then again, one should be able to find a nit in damned near anything, shouldn't one? The answer, of course, is indubitably. Therefore, as the subject somehow has wormed its way this far into my report, it really has become incumbent upon me to find a nit and then to pick it. Oh, mercy--nit nit come out come out wherever you are...ahhh, Got one! The hero. He's too good to be true.

Handsome enough to have two women seduce him, one of them a raven-haired mathematician beauty working on the Manhattan Project, and the other the flirtatious wife of the Army captain who pulled him out of the brig to drive bigshots around the Los Alamos site in New Mexico where the first atomic bomb was about to be tested. A third woman, Kitty Oppenheimer, wife of the project's head scientist, makes it clear at a drunken party she wants our hero, too. He balks at this point, though, possibly because he and "Oppy" had been childhood friends. Or maybe Kitty didn't try hard enough. When we meet her she's wearing a "frowzy" dress but has a "flat, pretty face...and dark, thick hair." At the party, where our hero is standing guard in the garden, she comes out, hands him a drink and trips over a scooter in the garden where she reclines on her back, resting, she tells him. Maybe when Martin Cruz Smith isn't looking she pulls him down under the azalea bushes and...hey, the guy's a babe magnet, what?

Staff Sergeant Joe Peña, our hero, is modest and sophisticated, too. Played piano in New York with Charlie Parker. And tough. Eighth-ranked world heavyweight boxing contender before joining the Army and fighting in—and escaping from—Bataan. Legitimate hero. And wise? How about this, from his own mouth: I hate arguments. I’m a coward. Arguments are full of words, and each person is sure he’s the only one who knows what the words mean. Each word is a basket of eels, as far as I’m concerned. Everybody gets to grab just one eel and that’s his interpretation and he’ll fight to the death for it."
And this, explaining his attraction to music: "You hit a C and it’s a C and that’s all it is. Like speaking clearly for the first time. Like being intelligent. Like understanding. A Mozart or an Art Tatum sits at the piano and picks out the undeniable truth.”

Have I said "too good to be true?" Am I right? Look, okay, I do remember saying this would be only a nit, and I meant it, because that's all it is. There's a certain allegorical value in larger-than-life characters, even those disguised as lowly army enlisted men like Peña, insulted to his face here by Capt. Augustino: "the Army is setting up a project at Los Alamos. Dr. Oppenheimer is in charge, and he will need a driver. You are, in almost every particular, the perfect man. Violent enough to be a bodyguard. Ignorant enough to hear classified information and not understand a word." From that alone, in the first chapter, we know the stakes. We've already picked the soldier over the captain.
It soon becomes apparent Stallion Gate is Sgt. Peña's story, despite the elephant in the room...or, more precisely, the mushroom cloud on the horizon. Tony Hillerman, in his Los Angeles Times review of the 1986 novel, put it this way: "Smith uses history to make the heavy background music while Peña's story provides the melody. We see the founding giants of the atomic age only as their paths cross Peña's, and we see the Manhattan Project bearing its fruit only as it would have been seen by the director's handyman. The Bomb provides the tension, but Peña tells the tale."

Well, in truth Martin Cruz Smith tells the story, with craftsmanship as stunningly brilliant as in the first novel of his I read, Gorky Park. According to Hillerman, whose Navajo Indian mysteries are set in and around New Mexico, Smith lived in Santa Fe while preparing the book, "picking up a feeling for the Rio Grande pueblo culture and interviewing old-timers from the project. He absorbed oddity, anecdotes and personal quirks--stuff that makes historic personages come alive."
Of all the characters, fictional and historical, only two are out-and-out villains. Capt. Augustino, the fictional heavy, tries to get Peña to help him frame Oppenheimer as a Communist traitor. Klaus Fuchs, the physicist portrayed here as an arrogant, humorless ass, was in fact caught spying for the Soviet Union. In a delicious scene early in the novel, Peña humiliates Fuchs by deliberately changing tempos while playing piano at a party for the scientists. Fuchs, who earlier had disparaged Peña's musicianship, was trying to dance with the woman soon to become Peña's lover. She ended up on the dance floor laughing at his awkward attempts to adapt to Peña's playing. Later, Peña reflects on this incident: "Why had he picked on Fuchs? Because he was angry and the German was the first easy target to waltz onto the dance floor. Jesus, how shameless would he get before this war was over?" The perfect hero.

Smith has woven history and fiction together so seamlessly I would have to read some serious history to know whether in fact the Army was preparing press releases contingent upon whether the bomb was a dud or not, or had a more powerful explosive effect than anticipated. "If we blow up the desert and everyone in it," says a psychologist assigned to the project's personnel, "then we’ll have to come up with a different story."
And here's the psychologist waxing philosophical about the larger implications for humanity: "It’s really an opportunity to be here if you think about our psychological history being built on anxieties. Of a sexual nature or a religious nature or a combination of the two. We may be on the ground floor of the primary anxiety of the rest of history.” That one sent a frisson of understanding up my spine.
And a macabre-comic glimpse: "On a gentle rise stippled with piñons a radiologist had strung wires on the branches and was hanging white mice from the wires by their tails in order to determine the effect of the blast on living organisms. The first mice had already perished from the heat.
“He’s been out in the sun too long himself,” Joe said after Oppy had sent man and mice back to the Base Camp.
“It all looks so sane on paper." 

As the countdown preparations moved toward detonation on the test site, a radio channel intended for communication only among site personnel crossed frequencies with a Voice of America broadcast, which "wandered in and out, like a spectator who couldn’t keep his mind on the event at hand. Now it was playing “Sentimental Journey.”
The site, dubbed "Trinity" by Oppenheimer, had long been known as Stallion Gate by Mescalero Apaches, who rounded up wild horses there they'd chased out of the surrounding mountains. On the night scheduled for the test Peña was supposed to be out making sure no Apaches had wandered too near "Ground Zero." Instead he'd left Los Alamos for a boxing match behind a bar in nearby Antonio. It was to be a high-stakes fight pitting Peña against a much younger Texas boxer who many thought could beat Peña without breaking a sweat. Peña needed the money he'd earn, win or lose, to buy a nightclub that was up for sale. The fight scene, described with amazing knowledge and insight by Smith near the end of the novel, is one of the best I've ever read.
You already know how one of these climatic episodes concludes. The other you'll have to find out on your own.
5:30 a.m. 16 July 1945
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

OF ALL SAD WORDS – Bill Crider

One of the ironies of this title ts only partly apt. I knew Bill Crider was in hospice care when on Sunday I read Of All Sad Words, but I chose it for a less obvious reason from the dozens of Dan Rhodes mysteries I’d not yet read. It was one I downloaded recently after reading a review by Steve Lewis, one of Bill’s friends. Early Tuesday I learned we had lost Bill several hours before. So that sad irony is the apt one. The one Bill had in mind when he selected the title wasn’t so grim. He explained it at the beginning of chapter one. The thoughts are those of his chief character, Sheriff Dan Rhodes, reminiscing on his high school days and his inability to remember poetry: “the only rhyming lines he remembered were a couple that went ‘of all sad words of tongue or pen / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’
“Rhodes, having had those words stuck in his head for a large part of his life, might even have believed them at one time. Now, however, he was convinced that they were baloney. The saddest words of all were ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’”

And of course the sheriff’s notion of saddest words is a recurring theme throughout the series, for him and many of the richly believable characters who populate Bill’s fictional Blacklin County, Texas. Some of these seemingly good ideas get folks in trouble with the law, and some of them, such as Rhodes’s Citizens’ Sheriff’s Academy, get Rhodes in trouble. At least it can seem like trouble in Of All Sad Words when, for example, Judge Jack Parry calls Rhodes into his office.
“You’ve created a bunch of vigilantes is what you’ve done,” the judge tells him. Rhodes does not roll over at this judicial thrust. “I think you’re wrong,” he parries. “We don’t have any vigilantes.”
Yet, as we’ve come to expect, Rhodes’s defense of his “good idea” runs into some rough water when the Academy’s most enthusiastic graduate, C.P. Benton, seems to have become a vigilante in the eyes of several in the community including Judge Parry who believes Benton to be a “wild-eyed radical.”
Now, many of us who are reading the Dan Rhodes series out of sequence are already familiar with “Seepy” Benton, the local college’s recently arrived math professor, amateur songster and self-proclaimed expert on pretty much anything, you name it. Benton makes his debut in Of All Sad Words, and, by gum if he doesn’t come across as an incorrigible community busybody if not the flaming nemesis of solid American capitalist values Judge Parry suspects him to be. Even some of us who’ve come to know Seepy might—like I did—worry a tad our brilliant gadfly was wandering a little farther into the danger zone than would be prudent for anyone not carrying a gun (Seepy, however, knows various fierce martial arts poses and does seem to be oblivious to fear, so there’s that). Just to be safe, though, I checked back with Steve Lewis at one point to make sure it was Seepy’s debut in the series and not his...ahem...valedictory, so to speak.

Anyway, Seepy (whom Lewis tells us Crider based on a friend) suspects his neighbors, a couple of bumpkin brothers, are making methamphetamine in their trailer home. But Rhodes hasn’t noticed the telltale odor given off by such an operation, and tells Seepy unless there’s evidence, there’s nothing the law can do about the brothers. Then the trailer blows up and one of the brothers is found shot to death near an illegal still in a wooded section of the property. This plot element quickly thickens with Rhodes trying to solve not only the murder but where in Blacklin County the moonshine the brothers were brewing was being sold.
As we’ve come to expect there are plenty of other plots, smaller ones, funny ones, such as the flying saucer phenomenon chronically bothering Dave Ellendorf, who’s complained the damned things “were spying on him, trying to abduct his two dogs, causing his chickens to stop laying, or making his house shift on its foundation.
“After each of the calls, Rhodes had paid a visit with his special ‘saucer detector, which consisted of a couple of circuit boards from old transistor radios. No saucers had been detected, and Ellendorf had been happy. Until the next time...”
Catching the drift, are we?
Rhodes is a likeable guy as well as being a good sheriff, but not nearly the star material Sage Barton is. Barton’s a fictional sheriff created by two local female novelists who’ve made it clear Rhodes is the model for their sheriff. Rhodes makes it clear to us he’s neither as slick with the ladies as Barton, nor as deft in a gunfight. Barton shoots guns out of bad guys’ hands and executes the occasional back-flip while doing so. Rhodes gets into his share of scrapes and dire situations, including exchanging gunfire with a couple of baddies who turn up from time to time in Blacklin County. This time their big black pickup truck tries to run Rhodes down at least twice and does manage to crush to death a suspected moonshine peddler against a dumpster behind a restaurant.
Oh, and we mustn’t forget Rhodes’s Indian Head penny. His father gave it to him when he was about to enter the first grade in school. He keeps it now and sometimes carries it, but not as a good-luck piece, so he claims.
“He didn’t really believe in luck,” we are told, “but he did believe in the whimsical nature of things.”
And so did Bill Crider.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


Murmur, my ass
clearly more
not that, either...tinkle

A myriadation of tintinnabulation
a cacophonous eruption
from the marshes in the south
an interminable, chittering gush over Court House Main

Swirling into the town's winter trees
filling bone-bare branches for a moment's break
its iridescence lost in silhouette against a near-dawn sky, the teeming, treble-voices
socializing, confabulating whither to next?

m.d. paust

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


World renowned detective Nero Wolfe and his chief deputy, Archie Goodwin, taught me a valuable lesson and reaffirmed a prejudice while presenting their three most dangerous cases for public inspection. The lesson was to look twice before leaping; the prejudice, to take nothing seriously unless necessary, The second one, the prejudice, is exemplified in extreme by Goodwin, who's a smoker, a joker, and, quite perhaps in spirit anyway, a midnight toker. I've outgrown two of those habits, but it's comforting to find such a wholesome fictional character celebrating insouciance with a merry vengeance, a trait which eight out of ten leading health professionals might well agree would retire the entire tranquilizer industry if practiced universally. This feature is true of all the Wolfe/Goodwin novels I have read, albeit a mere fraction of the dozens Rex Stout wrote. The lesson, though, was narrower in scope, limited to the three novels featuring the mysterious master-villain and Nero Wolfe arch-enemy Arnold Zeck.
Maury Chayklin as Nero Wolfe

I learned of the Zeck trio from Yvette Banek, my chief advisor on Nero Wolfe. Yvette's reviews sold me on the three-title omnibus TRIPLE ZECK, which doesn't exist in a Kindle edition, so I had to download each title separately. This was no problem—a breeze, Archie would say—except that when I started reading them I forgot the order in which they appeared. It didn't occur to me this might be inadvisable, especially as Yvette had said it didn't really matter. At least that's what I'd remembered she said, when it was too late, and after I realized my mistake I checked again, and this is what she did say: "you do not have to have read the first two books in the trilogy to read the third. The actions in the last Zeck book are not predicated on anything that happened in the first two." Ordinarily I like to read series books in order, and I'd sort of thought I was doing this with Triple Zeck. But I'd forgotten the titles, and simply opened them in the order I'd downloaded them to my Kindle app.
Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin
I understood my blunder with chagrin shortly after beginning the third book without realizing it
was the third book and that I still had the second one to go, rendering it anti-climactic in light of Yvette’s comment that the third was the “most incredible book” in the trilogy. She, of course was most correct. It didn’t help me much that reading them out of order mightn’t have bothered her at all because she rereads all three “every few years.”

Not that I was devastated. Yet, I do wish I’d read her review more closely, or at least a second time, before leaping into the series with both feet and no clue as to where I would land. Therefore I shall list below the three titles, linking them to their Amazon page, in the order they were published, i.e. 1948, ‘49. and ‘50.

Another thing I’ve learned reading Wolfe/Goodwin mysteries is it’s not cool to be a fool (not that I’d ever entertained the notion it might be, but I had to do some heavy analyzing to distinguish foolery—or, as Wolfe calls it, flummery—from the smartassery that enters into just about every conversation Archie Goodwin has with anyone, including his boss. The line between the two might not be all that thin, and yet on occasion when I find myself trying to be clever, a la Goodwin, and suddenly sense my attempt at humor is in fact bombing horribly, I vow to read another Wolfe/Goodwin novel in the hope it might help me improve my act.

Here, for example, Goodwin applies some drollery to what ordinary detectives might handle with a cliché or with no indication they’re aware it could be delivered with even a wink of irony: “what stuck out was her basic assumption that rich people can always get anything they want just by putting up the dough. That’s enough to give an honest workingman, like a private detective for instance, a pain in three places. The assumption is of course sound in some cases, but what rich people are apt not to understand is that there are important exceptions.

This, however, was not one of them.”

And here he is mixing a cocktail of sarcasm and dead-on accurate description. I could smell the boozy air and see men contributing to it in this brief sketch: “Barry Rackham had me stumped and also annoyed. Either I was dumber than Nero Wolfe thought I was, and twice as dumb as I thought I was, or he was smarter than he looked. New York was full of him, and he was full of New York. Go into any Madison Avenue bar between five and six-thirty and there would be six or eight of him there: not quite young but miles from being old; masculine all over except the fingernails; some tired and some fresh and ready, depending on the current status; and all slightly puffy below the eyes.”

This: masculine all over except the fingernails. As Wolfe loved to say of himself, “genius.” Even though that thought reaches us from the fictional mind of Archie Goodwin, it was born in the mind of his creator, Rex Stout. The true genius behind all this fantastic flummery.

Oh, if you’ve been holding your breath waiting for me to review the three Zeck books, fuhgettaboutit, as is heard routinely in certain sections of the Wolfe/Goodwin New York milieu. I’d be breaking my second lesson, playing the fool, thinking to reinvent the very fine wheel I found on Yvette Banek’s blog, and so will once again give you a link to her reviews of these very same books. Click here.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Sunday, February 4, 2018


So this is it! The emotions poured from their hiding places when the understanding cleared, when the very last trace of doubt flared in a desperate final grab for validation, and winked out. Gone like a wisp of smoke carried off in a wind gust all uncertainty I was dead. Up to then I'd resisted the suspicion I was experiencing something other than dream state, something substantive beyond the extended lucid yet intuitively illusory suspension of gravity, of consequence, of judgment.

Up to then the only misgiving to slip past my resistance arrived with the notion that whatever was happening was lasting overlong. This qualm, its visit itself lasting no longer than the flick of a nervous eyelid, had slithered into focus atop a sensation of drowning and awareness the accompanying panic was failing to wake me. In the next instant I grasped with startling clarity that indeed all bets were off, that my crisis certainly had gone on longer than it should, longer than a likely chance of instinctive wake-up rescue. My conceit of essential control took a nosedive.

The subsequent whirl was kaleidoscopic, presenting edges of unkind remembrances that revived accusing sorrows and anxieties, peered into stubborn denials. The most insidious were the ambivalent fragments, gentle laughter of someone forfeited, chirps of merry birds carrying a poignancy that mingles joy with memories cringing from tender moments botched. I was a helpless Scrooge on a vengeful, frenzied, endless Christmas Eve. Endless. It continues as I dictate this, and I presume it will do so until, if ever, my mind shuts down for good.

What enables my coherence here I credit to the advent of a new discernment, a subtler initiative that emerged in simple curiosity and enabled me to catch and hold glimpses of more affirming visions in the whirl, and with the hunger of a shrew I leaped upon this respite from the sodden dread, drawing nourishment from memories in particular of mutual curiosity--others drawn to me as I to them and grown with some to a welcome intimacy lasting long beyond its early passion. Short of deliverance, though, these euphoric promises were held in check by spores of ambiguity drifting in and out in celebration of my intrinsic frailties.

A counter-intuitive comfort arrived with the inversion of my panic in imagining this suspense would last forever, that I would be stuck reliving my life over and over eternally with no recourse except to pray the torturing sentience would end with blessed oblivion. The surprise came with understanding my sense of time itself was in fact a blessing, freeing me from the tyranny of expectations, freeing me from myself.

Abstraction then became and remains in charge, if only because cognition has commandeered all physical sensation. I've learned to shift my focus from the unfathomable pain my bursting lungs send shrieking constantly through my nerves. The pain has been here all along, and I can visit it at will but thus far have found scant need to do so, and then only as a touchstone to remind me of my situation. Ah, my situation! Trying to explain it to anyone who might read this, and first of all to myself, is the whole purpose of this exercise.

The “anyone who might read this” is for me a cosmic leap of faith. Not a blind one, I should add, as I have reached a level in my cerebral expansion to perceive evidence of what I shall call, for convenience, the Cloud. I'm aware that anyone who might be reading this, having read the previous sentence, is quite apt to abandon the piece with a figurative shake of head and a mental note to skip anything by the “author” hereafter. Yet, should you feel ambivalent kindly take heart from the writer who bounded over his or her intuitive chasm at this point, swallowing grave doubts and pushing ahead half-wittingly to allow my thoughts free passage regardless of the fierce questions that must have resisted each keystroke along the way.

My advantage in our collaboration is a sense of the forever. I became aware at some point this sensory illusion could vanish with no warning. A subjective soap bubble. But I've ridden it so long the cringing I felt initially has faded to irrelevancy along with some immediate questions and my struggle with physical pain. The notion my consciousness could end in an instant is itself an abstraction now, as it had been when I was too young to comprehend such an event. For the sake of this narrative I shall try to divide into two categories the many concepts that have evolved in my mind since what I shall regard simply as my death. I'll group these concepts into process and implications.

Process first, as no doubt you and anyone else reading this would like to know what in hell I'm talking about, what seems to be going on. My best guess is that I'm experiencing an extreme—perhaps ultimate--episode of what is known as tachypsychia, a word I learned in my army infantry training to mean the elongation of perception into increments that progress as in a film presentation of slow-motion animation or a slide show of sequential scenes. We trained to anticipate this phenomenon in combat or other high-adrenalin situations where the brain focuses so keenly on a threat to life all motion seems to disaggregate into components of the threat and our counter moves. These fragments unconsciously take instant unshakeable priority over every other physical and mental stimulus. The effect is to perceive that all action has slowed to where it seems as if it's taking forever. In my case by now I've come to accept there's no more “seems.” This presupposes the fantastic paradox of my mind continuing on, expanding into a timeless spectrum despite the body that houses it evincing zero vitality. I'm dead, in essence, and yet I live.

Curiosity occupies me now, to the exclusion of most anything else. So the musings I'm dictating here will be to frame questions that have taken form over what already seems to me an eternity.

It's obvious that whoever transcribed these thoughts (if in fact someone does) could not have done so synchronized with my thinking them. For one, it's taking me vastly longer subjectively to compose this narrative than would be reasonable for someone to sit at a keyboard and type what I'm thinking at the precise moment each word occurs. Objectively I'd be long dead physically before the first word appeared in the mind of the typist. This problem brings me back to my Cloud theory, that my thoughts are stored in some cosmic library where another mind—living or in a state such as mine—has access. The mind of a living person might reach something in this library in the form of an inspiration. Whoever typed these thoughts might say, in an interview or an explanatory note: “The words just came to me, sort of bubbled up from somewhere in my subconscious. All I had to do was keep my fingers on the keyboard, and the thing composed itself!”

What's needed is a way for anyone reading (or typing) this to gain a sense of authenticity, that what they perceive here is what I believe to be truthful. Not easy to do. My name's not useful. Too common, and with any significant detail I'd not be able to spare my daughter the embarrassment of notoriety (for her, though, I will say this: Sweetpea, I shall never forget the many times you saved my life testing those milkshakes for poison before handing them to me on our happy upriver weekend drives when you were my little girl).

My death is likely unverifiable, unless the body turns up some day. Presumably my automotive tomb rests on the bed of a very deep body of water, and the people who were pursuing me when I lost control on the curve are in no position to notify anyone but their employers.

I can summon the physical at will, experiencing it simultaneously with cerebral adventures far distant and along entire spectra of immediacy that include and extend from my awakening in the womb. Time is solely subjective, amorphous, an imaginary sequential measurement I apply here merely to shape my account. All is at once present. In fact it was this cacophony I found hardest to adjust to once I understood what had happened.

I thought at first it was my tinnitus, the interminable electric rasp of locusts I'd had singing constantly, insistently in my ears for most of my adult life, the fault, I suspect, of inadequate hearing protection in my army years. I'd learned to ignore it, would notice it only when I brought it to mind. I tried that trick this time—directing my attention elsewhere--half knowing it wouldn't work, that the rasping was something other than nerve endings in my ears. And soon I detected a new texture to the pressing noise, the edges of identifiable components—musical, verbal, conceptual—and almost immediately my conceit shifted from a sense that I was onto something to one of something being onto me. The voices and tonalities were interacting with my thoughts. The first of my countless bouts of posthumous insanity arrived almost simultaneously with this notion.

No part of it comforted or offered any nuance of encouragement. The voices harsh, the interweaving tones complicit, hovering, funereal, implications unmanageable. My mother's weakened voice, Where are you, Beebs? Please. Please come, Beebs. Hold my hand... My sin was helplessness, trapped in a jar, a classroom specimen. The regret eternal.

Unable to hide in denial from the scolding onslaught, which seemed inevitably to shatter my consciousness into atoms, I sensed rescue in a sustained shriek that emerged without prelude and grew relentlessly in volume to quickly override the hostile voices and their unsettling accompaniment. But before my gratitude was fully comprehended the cerebral scream blocked everything save itself.

The ever-recurring cycle of reproach smothered by infinite scream and back again continued to evolve, with the scream, which initially brought relief, becoming a pest and, worse, I felt, something of a crutch as my capacity to interact with the unfriendly barrage grew. I'd learned to parse out and focus on single hostile factions, in some instances feeling my rebuttals gaining weight, and then the interruption—the blip of cavernous doubt, and the pouncing scream. I had come to resent the scream more than the other, and this dynamic between the two continued to intensify, though with progressively dilating intervals, until a new sensibility appeared in what I see now was a transitory struggle.

It emerged as a smirk of double irony I sensed had been lurking in plain view a long while as recognition rose from nonverbal intuition with apparently no particular urgency. When at last it popped into focus the burst of clarity was seismic. Mortal laughter, were it possible, would have shattered glass. My fiery cognizance celebrated its enlightenment gleefully recalling the Bob Dylan tenet, those not busy being born are busy dying.

Thursday, February 1, 2018


Terrible cover. At first glance, a cutesy black cat sandwiched between a so-so title and an unknown author, all on a plain blue-green background. Pfui, as Nero Wolfe would say. My eye wouldn't even pause on it scanning an airport kiosk's books in the hope of finding something to take my mind off the terror of hurtling through space in a supersonic tin can with suicidal religious nuts as potential fellow passengers. Fortunately I don't have to fly anymore, and I am doubly fortunate that one of my new literary advisers, Yvette Banek, sold me on the author in one of her reviews for Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books blog feature. Yvette reviewed the third book in this ten-book series, which features archaeologist Ruth Galloway, and, as I've secretly regretted not pursuing a career in archaeology ever since I saw Raiders of the Loast Ark, I walked my fingers to Amazon, scanned the series list, and one-click downloaded the one at the top. It didn't hurt that what I'd thought was a cutesy black cat on the cover is actually an ominous black owl, and, I subsequently learned a "Rare Long-Eared Owl", does in fact come into play in The Crossing Places.

The novel opens with police asking Ruth Galloway to look at some bones found in a remote salt marsh in the remote county of Norfolk on the North Sea. Galloway's not done forensic work before, but, teaching at nearby North Norfolk University and living on the edge of the marsh, she was a natural choice for Norfolk's Chief Inspector to get a fix on the bones, which appear to be those of a child. Galloway quickly determines the bones are too old—2,000 or so years in fact--to be of police concern. But Chief Inspector Harry Nelson has told her he'd thought maybe they belonged to a little girl who'd gone missing ten years ago. Nelson tells Galloway about the weird letters he's been getting about that case displaying knowledge of archaeology. He enlists Galloway's help in deciphering the letters.
Romance, I soon began suspecting. Galloway's single and Nelson marriage is not a happy one. But both are cautious on that front—Galloway fearing she's too overweight to be attractive and Nelson reluctant to be the one to break up the family. They have two children.
Here's Galloway after first meeting Nelson at the college, about to drive to the site of the bones: "Ruth climbs in, feeling fat, as she always does in cars. She has a morbid dread of the seatbelt not fitting around her or of some invisible weight sensor setting off a shrill alarm. ‘Twelve and a half stone! Twelve and a half stone in car! Emergency! Press ejector button.’"
Elly Griffiths

And now Nelson ponders his impression of Galloway: "She interests him. Like all forceful people (he calls it forceful rather than bullying), he prefers people who stand up to him, but in his job that doesn’t happen often. People either despise him or kowtow to him. Ruth had done neither. She had looked him in the face, coolly, as an equal. He thinks he’s never met anyone, any woman, quite as sure of themselves as [Dr.] Ruth Galloway. Even the way she dresses—baggy clothes, trainers—seemed to be a way of saying that she doesn’t care what anyone thinks. She’s not going to tart herself up in skirts and high heels just to please men. Not that there’s anything wrong with pleasing men, muses Nelson, kicking open the door to his office, but there’s something interesting, even refreshing, about a woman who doesn’t care whether or not she’s attractive."
Nearly forty and with no mating proxpects in sight, she's nonetheless able to laugh at herself (silently), "By now I have resigned myself to spinsterhood and godmotherhood and slowly going mad, knitting clothes for my cats out of my own hair." Yet, the chemistry with Nelson seems to be taking hold. Her inner cat sharpens its claws when she sees him with his wife: "Michelle certainly looked attractive enough, a definite prize for a man who is letting himself go a bit, a man who doesn’t look as if he has a gym membership or spends more than five pounds on a haircut." But then she zeroes in on Michelle, deciding Nelson's wife looks "like a woman who knows her own worth, as if she knows the value of her good looks and how to use them for her own purposes. She remembers seeing her laughing up at Nelson, her hand on his arm, soothing, cajoling. She looked, in short, like the sort of woman Ruth dislikes intensely."
Oh, it's simmering, no missing that. But the boil's a ways off, at least in The Crossing Places. I would assume, though, that if these two continue working together throughout the series something will be bubbling out of the kettle before too long. Meanwhile another little girl from the same neighborhood has gone missing, and Chief Inspector Nelson's still getting spooky letters, and, of course, Ruth Galloway's on this case, as well.
She's everywhere, she's everywhere!
 The things I like about the book are, first off, the characters. Running a close second is the archaeology with its remnants of a prehistoric culture and its myths. And right on its heels comes the bleak, Norfolk salt marsh setting. Author Elly Griffiths, says The Crossing Places, her first crime novel after four books with an Italian setting, grew out of a holiday she spent in Norfolk with her
husband, had recently given up his city job to study archaeology. "We were...walking across Titchwell Marsh," she says in her webpage profile, "when Andy mentioned that prehistoric man had thought that marshland was sacred. Because it’s neither land nor sea, but something in-between, they saw it as a kind of bridge to the afterlife. Neither land nor sea, neither life nor death. As he said these words the entire plot of The Crossing Places appeared, full formed, in my head and, walking towards me out of the mist, I saw Dr. Ruth Galloway."
I found the narrative voice authentic and engaging, especially the interiors, the silent thinking and reflections. The writing is solid. I stumbled a little at first getting used to the English country idiom, but regained my footing with only a graceful skip to cover the embarrassment. Plotwise, The Crossing Places has crises and suspense galore. I had a pretty good idea quite soon who the murderer was, but there were enough red herrings to keep me a tad off balance and to hold the suspense where it belonged—several times I found myself on the verge of shouting NO! For God's sake don't!! I didn't utter a sound, though, but only for fear a neighbor might call 911.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]