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[688] Defend and Betray – Anne Perry

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” He despised cowardice; it was the root of all the weaknesses he hated most. Anger he could understand, thoughtlessness, impatience, greed, even though they were ugly enough—but without courage what were there to fire or to preserve any virtue, honor or integrity? Without the courage to sustain it, not even love was safe. ” (Ch.11, p.359)

William Monk Mystery #3

The third William Monk mystery involves another prestigious house, that of a Colonel Carlyon. The Victorian London society is shocked by the bizarre but grisly killing of General Thaddeus Carlyon during a dinner party at the elegant home of Maxim and Louisa Furnival. It looks like sheer misfortune: the general, a revered man with the most upright character and virtue, has fallen over the banister so hard and so accurately upon the point of a halberd held by an inanimate suit of armor. Immeasurably worse is that it’s no accident. Even more shocking is the admission of Alexandra, the General’s wife, that she had murdered him in a jealous rage.

Better than that, the attention in Alexandra’s eyes betrayed trhat she was still acutely involved in the matter. In no way had she resigned interest merely because the answer eluded them but left the guilt undeniable. (Ch.5, p.153)

Meanwhile, the General’s sister Edith is convinced that Alexandra had another motive—it must be something so secret and dreadful that she would rather hang than tell anyone. She enlists the help of her close friend Hester Latterly, who brings into the case famed lawyer Oliver Rathbone, and ex-police officer Thomas Monk. Together, they delicately probe the lives of the Carlyon family—Thaddeus’s father, a retired colonel; his forbidding mother Felicia, who insists that a fit of madness in Alexandra has turned homicidal and calls for case closure; Thaddeus’s high-strung daughter Sabella, and his young son Cassian. Monk manages to prove beyond any question at all that it was Alexandra who killed her husband, but out of a completely different and darker motive.

The murder mystery becomes a quest for truth and why she did it. The uncovering of Alexandra’s secrets comes about halfway through the book and the rest is to prove and to convince jurors. Along the way Perry drops a few red herrings indicating that Alexandra might not be the killer, but the question always rewinds back to square one. The pace quickens and the intrigue intensifies as Alexandra’s trial nears. The final revelations—over a prolonged court proceeding with many cross-examinations and twists and turns—are shocking and riveting. The real tragedy of the book is the monstrous social condition in which women, regardless of their social and married status, live in. Women are deprived of rights to protect their children and to divorce abusive spouses. Hester’s determination to be herself in spite of society’s prejudiced, ill-formed attitudes of women perfectly accentuates the monstrosity into which Alexandra and Felicia are trapped. It’s a book that shows how we all have tendency to see people as good and evil; and it is so much easier on the brain and emotions.

429 pp. Ballantine Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries

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The descent of fall marks a slight change in reading habit. The early-morning cool calls for a cup of warm tea and a mystery. I’m currently on my William Monk #3 by Anne Perry. On the shelf are recently acquired Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series. Now the covers of James Runcie’s The Grantchester Mysteries lured me into them. A detective with a dog on leash walking toward a castle—how can I resist?

The Grantchester Mysteries is a projected series of six novels by James Runcie. Beginning in 1953, and ending in 1978, the series features the clergyman-detective, Canon Sidney Chambers. Tall, with dark brown hair, eyes the color of hazelnuts and a reassuringly gentle manner, Sidney can go where the police cannot. These are moral fables, whydunnits as much as whodunits, which combine murder with morality and humor.

Three volumes are now published: Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death, Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night, and Sidney Chambers and The Problem of Evil. They all end up in my vacation pile, saved for the annual year-end trip to Asia.

Author’s background also intrigues me. With James Runcie’s background (son of an Archbishop of Canterbury), one might have thought that when he turned to crime-writing he would opt to defy family shibboleths and write gritty, uncompromising novels about alcoholic coppers in urban Britain. But his continuing series of Grantchester mysteries featuring Canon Sidney Chambers (a linear descendant of Chesterton’s Father Brown) would have made for a perfectly relaxing read over a cup of Earl Grey for his famous father (after a hard day at the coal face struggling with gay and women priests).

Shakespeare

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

Okay, show of hands … who has read Shakespeare OUTSIDE of school required reading? Do you watch the plays? How about movies? Do you love him? Think he’s overrated?

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I only read Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet in high school, and I read under time’s constraint. I always thought Romeo & Juliet was very clichéd and I never cared for it. Hamlet was read as an exercise of in-depth character study in 11th grade. Taming of the Shrew was the first book I read outside of school—and it was years after high school that I picked it up.

The Taming of the Shrew has a powerful appeal for the Elizabethan audience at the time it opened because the struggle for mastery in a marriage remained a fact of existence and hot topics for writers. A true-to-life domestic scene opens the play and instantly grasps attention: Signor Baptista forbids all suitors to court his younger daughter Bianca until he finds a husband for the ill-tempered, difficult, and waspish elder daughter Katherina. It’s one of Shakespeare’s more rhetorical work.

I was concerned that A Midsummer Night’s Dream might be a reprise of Romeo & Juliet. Shakespeare nudges the story to a direction in which the style does not involve the audience too snuggly in the lovers’ emotions. The love entanglement engenders enough body and reference to larger concepts to be viewed as image of some universal human experience: one so true-to-life that it inevitably and in no time provokes sympathy.

Twelfth Night has a whimsical plot. It addresses a subtler and yet precarious issue in the situation of identical twins teetering on the risk of being mistaken. Identical twins are automatically ripped off their uniqueness, the unmistakable self. The broad appeal of Twelfth Night as a good-humored play is sharpened by its comedy of mistaken identity between the long-lost twins Sabastian and Viola. Although they are of different sexes, other characters in the play cannot distinguish them from one another when Viola disguises as a young man.

[687] The Natural Order of Things – Kevin P. Keating

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” There are too many moral crusaders in the world, each with an equally improbable scheme to lead a man to salvation, a million cures for a million vices—through prayer, repentance, self-flagellation—but when he looks through the portal that separates reality from the hereafter, de Vere sees not the treasures of heaven but the fiery pools of hell. ” (Part I, The Deer Park, Section I, p.64)

Set in a derelict Midwestern town where the Jesuits school for boys dominates the atmosphere of the community, The Natural Order of Things is a collection of interwoven stories that follows the lives of several “reprobates who have descended into Hades.” All the stories revolve around events leading to the fateful day of the Big Game, in which the ambitious team met a Waterloo defeat. The star, who is target of college scouts, is one Frank “Minateur” McSweeney, who is brought to his ruin after a night of drinking and romp with a prostitute, Tamar, who gets around and beds half the man in town.

In this world, there is no shortage of insidious plots, and behind each one there is a Judas willing to make a moral compromise for a short-term gain. (Part II, Uncreated Creatures, Section V, p.220)

Corruption seeps from every page. A rich kid throws Halloween Party to get the football star laid. His father, who is on the brink of bankruptcy, is booked for soliciting prostitution with Tamar. According to Keating’s world, there’s a great deal of evil—and the natural order of things leads to moral decay. Each story is a vignette of evil: debauchery, stealing, adultery, fraud—and Keating is discriminate about his culprits, who range from widow, teacher, prostitute, priest, student, and businessman. At the Jesuits school, which has been regarded as “a beacon of uncompromising moral standards,”a teacher, rumored to be a sexual omnivore, seduces a student; and boys lock an old priest in a basement closet. At the Zanzibar Towers and Garden, an unkempt apartment building where the lascivious landlady takes her male broke tenants to bed for free accommodation, teenagers and adults go for parties and prostitutes. The school and the apartment building together form a perfect picture of a dark underworld of poverty and debasement.

After all, it’s not violence but the threat of violence that has proven so effective the world over. People are driven by fear and self-preservation, and powerful men know how to exploit this weakness to achieve their own wicked ends.” (Part II, Ghost Dance, Section VIII, p.163)

Corruption, lunacy, and evil irradiate. When a teenager sets homeless people on fire in their sleep, and a teacher decides to bring a gun to work for protection, society is past its breaking point. Through Keating’s contemplative and poetic language, there’s a sense, from each story, that things are falling apart and the characters are on the verge of losing it. At times the situations and dialogues can be unrealistic and painstakingly (and ludicrously) exaggerated. His language has saved the crass and ugliness of the overwrought content. Keating doesn’t offer much resolution nor does he mete out judgment, just merely shows them with an apathetic eye. The end leaves one disturbed and unconsoled, about the never-ending parade of human ruin in the scope of the book as well as in our surrounding.

305 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

A Powerful Quote

“After all, it’s not violence but the threat of violence that has proven so effective the world over. People are driven by fear and self-preservation, and powerful men know how to exploit this weakness to achieve their own wicked ends.” (from The Natural Order of Things, p.163)

So true, and yet disturbing. This is exactly how the world works. History repeats itself. As in Communist China, which oppresses freedom and insists on screening candidates for the next election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. As in America, where religious institutions, under the pretext of defending marriage values, suppress gay rights. How does church get to wield such power? Nobody should have the right to vote on someone else’s marriage or have any say about the validity of any couple’s commitment. A church can refuge marriage services to anyone, but the state and federal governments should not be allowed to. People are driven by fear and ignorance. This is how power can manipulate—the masses sway from one end to another, basically based on how much propaganda is being spewed. And the motive of the creator or propaganda is usually selfish.

Banned Books

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In observance of National Banned Book Week (September 21-27), circulated around the web is a list of 33 must-read books that man doesn’t want you to read. It’s a very diverse and comprehensive list that includes YA literature, classics, fiction and nonfiction. Which one have you read? I’ll highlight some of the ones I read.

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson was a controversial children’s book because the penguin parents happen to be the same sex, which set off the alarm of many social conservatives across the country. They wrote to request the book from the children’s section, if not from the library altogether. Many bookstores were unable to carry Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book when it was published in 1971, not because it teaches people how to make pipe bombs, grow marijuana, but because they thought the title would, appropriately, make people shoplift it. The book has nonetheless become a cultural phenomenon.

Heart of Darkness was at one point banned for its violent content, and the use of the “n-word” that has been banned from US schools. I read it for AP English in my senior year, and the school didn’t even fuss about it. Native Son by Richard Wright was also challenged because of it was a total package—with violence, sex, and profanity. It was not required but knowing that is very vulgar, it was a must-read!

Like Huckleberry Finn, another of the greatest anti-racism book of all time is often censored and banned for its “n-bombs.” I remembered the heated in-class discussion over To Kill A Mockingbird and how this book was ironically banned in history since never ever has a book made it so clear who the good people are and who the bad people are. Another one that stayed with me over the years, and that I read in school, is George Orwell’s 1984. Obviously democratic government has no tolerance for the pro-Red and dystopian society portrayed in the book. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is a heart-felt story, the classic coming-of-age story about finding one’s place in society. It was banned solely for its profanity, but totally readable if you just skip all the f-words.
Finally, if The Handmaid’s Tale, which I find brilliant and is my all-time favorite of Margaret Atwood’s, was banned (in Texas), after a parent complained that it was sexually explicit and offensive to Christians, I wonder why Lolita was never banned. The nonfiction Nickel and Dime was also banned for its language and profanity. But at the end of the day, those who fiercely ban books are out of touch with reality. Where in the world do you not find profane and obscene language? To the zealots and bigots and false patriots who live in fear of discourse, how often do they even read? Many of the books that drew attention end up defending a generation, if not shaping America.

[686] A Dangerous Mourning – Anne Perry

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” And you are at a disadvantage that you can never observe them except under the most artificial of circumstances. How can you possibly ask them the questions you really wish, when they are so forewarned by your mere presence that all their answers are guarded and designed to protect? You can only hope their lies become so convoluted as to trap some truth. ” (Ch.5, p.129)

In this second William Monk crime mystery, murder in an aristocratic London household pits the inspector against the Victorian sense of propriety, a bootlicking superior who just wants to close the case, and a family’s fierce determination to protect its reputation. Sir Basil Moidore’s widowed daughter, Octavia Haslett, was found stabbed in her bedroom. At first it was presumed an intruder had disturbed her during the night and murdered her. Monk is able to prove that there was no outside intruder. Suspicion now descends on the numerous servants and the resident family, who all harbor different opinions and gripe but are tied inextricably to Sir Basil and the family’s status.

She was convinced Lady Beatrice knew something, and every day that passed in silence was adding to the danger that it might never be discovered but that the whole household would close in on itself in corroding suspicion and concealed accusations. And would her silence be enough to protect her indefinitely from the murderer? (Ch.6, p.151)

In the event of a closed-door mystery, knowing no one would speak the whole truth, and nobody would override the wishes of Sir Basil who is the sole provider, Monk covertly arranges to introduce Hester Latterly, the nurse who served in Crimea, as a nurse in the Moidore house to care for the distressed Lady Beatrice Moidore. Hester quickly discerns that the Moidore is no ordinary household. The difference of opinion and the quarrels, which seem such trivial nastiness, had been so deep they had led to a violent and treacherous death. Arguments betray deep-rooted resentment built over the years. Hierarchy and social stratification have also singled out a disliked footman, who entertains ambition beyond his station, to be a scapegoat just out of convenience. Monk refuses to arrest this footman because he doesn’t believe him guilt. Although a gross miscarriage of justice occurs, Monk and Hester persist in pressing the case to its chilling and shocking conclusion.

Someone in my own family murdered my daughter. You see, they all lied. Octavia wasn’t as they said, and the idea of Percival taking such a liberty, or even imagining he could, is ridiculous. (Ch.10, p.293)

Perry really Victorian age into its rightful perspective by pitting the murder mystery against the struggle between upstairs and downstairs, between the elites and their servants. Servants are as convenient a crime suspect as they are victims of amorous intentions—all because of their lower social class. To the upper class it’s absurd for a lady to be in rivalry with a maid for the love of a footman. All these period details and psyche are used to set up the story and to create conflicts. The book itself is masterly layered and plotted. From the beginning, it’s clear that the Moidore is mostly concerned with hushing the scandal and finding a guilty party from among the staff as soon as possible, the ending still comes as a huge shock. It’s the classic case of how far people would bend the truth to bring about what they see as justice.

345 pp. Ballantine Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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