I was in West Germany in 1964 wearing a headset and listening to Morse code day and night when Jane Langton's first Homer Kelly crime novel hit the streets in the U.S. of A. Had I learned of it somehow, I couldn't have cared less. I was reading Norman Mailer for recreation back then. Had I been prescient, of course, I might have known somehow that fifty-five years and seventeen more Homer Kelly novels hence I would fall in love with the novel Ms. Langton had written for me, unwittingly, of course, unless she was prescient. As I am too skeptical of the idea of prescience to feel comfortable with that explanation I must resort to crediting pure happenstance if not its loftier cousin cosmic convergence for the blessed union of me and The Transcendental Murder—with a celestial introduction, I am delighted to add, by friend Tracy at her blog Bitter Tea & Mystery.
Lest my enthusiasm seem a tad extravagant, let me emphasize with some detail. Let's see, ah, it has a glorious murder, one I myself would have loved to commit, as would many of the other characters who knew the malevalent, hateful victim and thus had righteous motive, which, with ample opportunity and the obvious means, could have performed the deed. There’s a second murder, presumably executed by the first murderer, which trims the list of usual suspects and paints the murderer with a hue nearly as heinous as that of the first victim, having the effect of switching sentiments from congratulating the perpetrator of the first murder to wishing him/her extreme punishment for the second.
A pause here to note that the first murder is by 60-caliber flintlock-propelled lead ball, while the second is by marble bust of Louisa May Alcott hurled from a balcony unto the victim's head.
With that I've given you another detail! History, both military and literary, joined in present day lethal mischief in—yet another detail—Concord, Mass., during a span of several cruel mid-April days commemorating the grand inception two centuries prior of our country's glorious, painful birth. And there's romance! Undeclared for most of the book but understood by everyone else, between two tall people: the literary cop who scoffs at Concord as “a polite little suburban pest-hole, living on its picayune history,” but is enchanted by the riveting eyes of the town’s assistant librarian whose infatuation—nay, deep, abiding love—is reserved for the long-deceased Concordian favorite son Henry David Thoreau.
And there are yuks. One that almost took the wind out of me was undoubtedly the consequence of a mischievous auto-correct feature in preparing the novel for this Mysterious Press revival, unless the culprit is the typist who no doubt is still in the stocks in some proper New England town enduring well-deserved public shame. Should you happen to be reading this in a public place, you’re advised to restrain yourself when reading the following, copied directly (I’m leaving sic off the questionable word to obviate confusion as to who might have wrought the sic-warranted noun) from the Kindle text:
“The lanyard men stuck their long pricks in the touchholes to free loose powder from the powder bags inside...”
Picks, I presume. Else I’d have to say those artillery reenactors were better men than I, in perhaps more ways than one (I always make a point of approaching touchholes prudently).
|Blazing touchholes at Concord Bridge|
Good Lord, where were we? Ah yes, the plot—or plawt as I imagine “Old Concords” might say. Anyway, the plot--as we shall spell it--bursts into cacophonous lethality when Ernest Goss, the primary victim-to-be, reads a series of titillating love letters between members of historic Concord’s august society, including Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mrs. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Fuller, which he claims to have obtained mysteriously and intends to publish. The setting is a meeting of the Committee on Public Ceremonies and Celebrations Relative to the 19th of April Ceremony (a celebration called Patriot’s Day involving a parade, speeches, and reenactions complete with the firing of Colonial era cannons and muskets).
Goss ignites vastly more than powdery touchholes when his pompous voice lets fly with the first letter:
My dear Waldo,
Oh, thou, other half of my thought, other chamber of my heart! Thou the castle’s King, I the Queen! Long have I waited in the dust to behold thy golden litter! At first I feared thou wert cold, but now thou hast raised me to reign in full-orbed glory beside thy infinite majesty! That thou shouldst have worshipped poor Mignon’s body as well as her soul transports her humanity to heaven’s height. O, what rapture in Mrs. O’Flannigan’s back sitting-room! O, divine divan! I am chosen among women! And thou, O sage, hast a Queen for thy Soul-wife!
Lilacs perfume the air with ecstasy.
But what of Lidian, who shares thy earthly home? Would a more transcendent honesty veil from her the dazzling light of Truth, lest it bring pain upon her lower nature?
Oh, the horror, the horror, the Old Concords responded, with their gasps, their voices, and their shocked, jerking body language and glaring visages. There are more letters, more shocks, more hoots, cries, and raging faces. Enough enmity to get Goss got right there in Orchard House, home of the Alcotts.
Suspects in his shooting death following the Patriot’s Day festivities also include his family. He’d laughingly shot one of his two sons in the leg with a musket ball, and deeply humiliated one of his daughters at a reception in his home, and there was a sense of estrangement with his wife—I would have thought because metaphorically his general conduct suggested the personality of a hemorrhoid, but we are told the head librarian, Alice Herpitude, knows a deep, dark Goss family secret. [one of the things I especially love about The Transcendental Murder is a listing of the
principal characters at the beginning,
each with a little hint of their persona and role in the story.
With Mary Morgan, the assistant librarian, for example, we have
“Concord? Mary would never have said as much out loud, but she felt
herself walking on holy ground. (Looking at her, Homer found himself
mumbling a phrase by Thoreau, ‘The eye is the jewel of the body.’)
Homer? This would be Homer Kelly, the cop/history buff and namesake
of Langton’s eighteen-book mystery series.]
Jane Langton? You would have to ask. Wikipedia tells us she was born in Boston, had a couple of master’s degrees, and lived in Lincoln, Mass., near Concord, joining her ancestors last Dec. 22. I mourn her loss, and intend to read more Homer Kelly mysteries, for the history, the romance, the cleverly executed mysteries, and the humor—hers. The typist’s in this book was a bonus.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]