The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

Many thanks to Kim for giving me this copy of The Moonstone which I’d wanted to read ever since she’d given me The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (see my blog from December 2008), about the Road House Murder, a real crime that captivated Victorian England. Elements of that crime and the detective who investigated it show up here, transmuted into a different story altogether.

Authors are often asked where they get their ideas for stories and whether events and/or characters come from the author’s life. The answer is, of course, that ideas come from everywhere: chance encounters, overheard conversations, current events, etc. And most authors select bits and pieces from people they’ve encountered or heard of, turn the fragments this was and that, and recombine them with a startling glue of their own to create entirely original characters. They then put these characters into unusual situations or up against different people to create a combustion of events that grow naturally out of the conflicting elements.

I recently read Collins’s Woman in White (see my blog from June 2007) which I recommended as a masterpiece of suspense. Here as well, Collins demonstrates his skill at maintaining the suspense, with just enough ebb and flow to keep it interesting. At the same time, he gives us characters who ring true even when we are convinced they are lying, and devises twists and turns of the story to keep us guessing.

In this book, published in 1868, the first and some say still the best detective story, Collins starts with a scene worthy of Raiders of the Lost Ark, an account of the storming of Indian town of Seringapatam by the English army, full of riot and confusion, death and plunder. The marauding army is obsessed by the tales of the Moonstone, a fabulous jewel that carries a curse on whoever steals it, said to be somewhere within the town. Exploiting the vogue for Orientalism sweeping England, Collins creates a tangle out of a country house weekend, a returning prodigal son, family tensions, and the long wake of repercussions from a single act of treachery and heartlessness.

And it’s a love story too.

How he pulls all this together is simply amazing. The book consists of a series of narratives contributed by various participants, each with a strong, unique voice, from Mr. Candy, the local doctor, and his mysterious assistant, Ezra Jennings, to Franklin Blake, the prodigal himself, to Betteredge, the long-time servant of the Verinder family, who consults Robinson Crusoe for guidance.

It’s an amazing tale, and I won’t spoil it for anyone by divulging any details. I’ll just recommend the book as one of the best I’ve read this year.

As We Are Now, by May Sarton

This intense, first-person narrative begins as Caro, a 76-year-old woman, is delivered to a private nursing home by her even more elderly brother and his wife. Living with them after Caro had to give up her house following a heart attack has not worked out.

Formerly a residence, the home is owned by Harriet Hatfield, who runs it with the assistance of her daughter, Rose. The other inmates are a gaggle of old men, sedated into senescence, as though age alone were not enough; a disabled younger man named Jack, who can only communicate in bursts of lucidity; and Standish Flint, deaf and too weak to move, furious at being exiled from his farm and the wife whose long illness has drained their savings and who now lives in another home.

Caro is horrified at being dumped among these crocks, terrified of giving in and becoming a lump stationed in front of the television, and determined to resist Harriet’s tyranny. Standish is her ally in these endeavours, waging his own war against Harriet, often refusing to eat. Sarton’s strong, expressive prose keeps this story from becoming a typical nursing home horror story, as does our reliance on Caro’s testimony. She herself begins to doubt her own memory of the incidents she recounts, and her interpretation of Harriet’s motives.

Remembering my own mother’s endless, self-pitying complaints about the luxurious retirement home she referred to as The Prison, I tried to keep an open mind. Harriet is not necessarily a bad person, as even Caro allows, and may even have started out running the home with generous intentions. But this story is about what happens when helpless beings are completely in your power.

Sarton pulls the reader into Caro’s journey, her daily ups and downs: rejoicing in a bird in the garden or a visit from the minister, raving when Harriet refuses to call a doctor for Standish when he is in great pain. Without sentiment or self-pity, Caro never lets us forget that her journey is toward death, inevitable for all but coming sooner for some than others.

During my friend Kate’s long descent into Alzheimer’s, she stayed for a while in a home similar to this one: a house in Catonsville that had been converted into a nursing home for a handful of patients. Much nicer, of course, than Harriet’s. In my weekly visits, I never saw anything but cleanliness and kindness. In Sarton’s story, it is the isolation that enables Harriet and Rose to go as far as they do. Visits from relatives are rare, perhaps discouraged by Harriet, and official oversight non-existent. When Caro manages to get inspectors called in, she finds the small improvements barely worth the revenge that Harriet seems to exact. As with Kate, though, Caro’s real prison is her treacherous brain, letting her down at crucial moments, making her distrust herself.

Sarton handles this wavering confidence masterfully. Our narrator recognises that she may be unreliable. Because she can give us no guideposts to enable us to assess when she has gone astray, we feel all her uncertainty, all her terror. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I don’t read horror stories. This is a different kind of horror story, more chilling than any gory slasher novel.

The Water’s Lovely, by Ruth Rendell

I have long been a fan of Ruth Rendell’s dark mysteries. She is somehow able to bring the most sinister characters to life and make me understand and care for them. When you add to that the complex stories she presents and the suspenseful pacing, you’ve got a winning package. So I turned to this audio book as though to a safe haven on a recent long trip. The book I’d selected wasn’t holding my attention and, being a bit sleepy to start with, I needed something to keep me on my toes.

I’ve heard that some people don’t consider listening to audio books to be equivalent to reading a hardback or paperback book. Me, I’m agnostic about book delivery mechanisms. I read and listen to many books and consider both to be “reading the book”. I don't believe that one method or the other is necessarily a higher quality reading experience. Perhaps the difference is that when I listen to an audio book, I really listen, and I am not afraid to rewind if temporarily distracted. It’s not just background noise.

Of course, certain books are better suited for one delivery method or the other. There have been books I couldn't stand reading but enjoyed listening to (e.g., the Harry Potter books) and vice versa (e.g., Robert B. Parker's books). Much depends on the narrator; much on the text. And certain activities are better suited to one or the other: I love listening to a book while I walk but would never just sit in a chair and listen. Obviously, I listen to books while driving, but I try to choose suitable books. They cannot be so subtle or complex that I must give them my entire attention and perhaps even reread passages several times. At the same time, they cannot be too exciting or I’ll start to drive too fast.

Rendell’s story is indeed well-suited for drive-time. Ismay shares a London flat with Heather, the younger sister whom she has spent her life protecting, ever since they were teen-agers, ever since the day Ismay and their mother returned from a shopping expedition to find Heather dripping with water and the girls’ stepfather drowned in the bathtub upstairs. The official verdict was accidental death, but although they never spoke of it, both Ismay and their mother remained convinced that Heather had killed him, Ismay believing that Heather did it to protect her (Ismay) from Guy’s attentions.

Their mother has since descended into schizophrenia and lives upstairs with her sister, the girls’ aunt. Ismay is passionately in love with Andrew, who resembles Guy, but the antagonism between Andrew and Heather may drive him away. Heather meanwhile has been asked out by Edmund, an acquaintance from work, causing Ismay to wonder if she should warn Edmund about Heather’s background. What if Heather should feel the need to protect Edmund from someone, or to protect the children who may follow? Edmund himself is trying to escape the clutches of his mother and her attempts to set him up with the sycophantic Marion, a young woman who latches onto lonely, older people. Well-off, lonely, older people.

I love the way Rendell does suspense: not a pounding beat constantly accelerating, but a tension that ratchets up and down, subtly, as the story progresses, and doubts and suspicions wax and wane. However, I found some of the characters a bit one-dimensional. Edmund’s mother for example: she’s certainly believable (and I’ve known my share of controlling, narcissistic hypochondriacs who happen to be mothers) but she seems a bit overdone to me. Her next door neighbor, Barry Phoenix, with his mustaches and Indian relicts, is a stereotypical English gent of the what-ho, pip-pip school. Although of a higher class than Edmund’s mum, Andrew, Ismay's boyfriend, exhibits the same controlling narcissism and not much else; I found his motivations hard to understand. The sisters themselves, though more complex certainly, seemed oddly flat to me, perhaps because of their solid devotion to each other, never marred by jealousy or competition or resentment, even as they make such huge demands on each other’s emotional lives.

I’m not sure I would have noticed the slight flatness of these characters if I’d been reading the book instead of listening to it. While the narrator was good, hearing the voices of the characters aloud seemed to hit those single notes even harder. The characters I found most interesting were two peripheral ones: the aunt, who despite being middle-aged, is still searching for love and willing to try even bizarre dating services to find it; and Marion’s down-and-out brother Fowler—what a great name!—who brings Marion treasures he finds in trash bins and expects her to take care of him based on childhood promises made in the Wendy-house in the garden. The book kept me fascinated (and awake) all the way home.

Oxford Mourning, by Veronica Stallwood

Actually I read three books by Stallwood, the first three in her Kate Ivory series set in Oxford. Often an author’s second book fails to live up to the promise of the first. Usually, that first book has been labored over for years while the author tried to get it published. Not only is it impelled by the vigour that pushed the author into writing in the first place, it has been critiqued by writing classes, polished and repolished by the hopeful author. The second book is often a rushed affair, to meet a contract deadline, and suffers from the lack of a long gestation and multiple revisions.

Not here. Well, technically even the first book in the series, Death and the Oxford Box, is Stallwood’s second crime novel, her first being the stand-alone Deathspell. Reading these three books in succession, the second being Oxford Exit, gave me the opportunity to watch the author grow from book to book, trying increasingly harder techniques, achieving more complex and resonant stories.

In the first book, writer Kate Ivory takes time out from working on her latest historical romance to jog each morning with a local running group. The members are absorbed with planning both a club race and a crime: they have decided to help Rose, a member of the group, steal back the valuable enamel boxes that her delinquent husband took with him when he left to live with the hateful Lynda. Kate is given the job of coming up with a plan. I found the book entertaining, though the clues were a bit obvious.

In Oxford Exit, Kate is asked by ex-lover, now-friend Andrew to help figure out who is stealing books from the Oxford University libraries. This is a much more complex and assured narrative, with significant clues not so loudly broadcast. I particularly liked the exploration of the mind of the murderer in alternating chapters written from the murderer’s point of view.

This third book goes even further, with more subtle characters and clues. To my astonished pleasure, it boasts multiple narratives woven within the chapters that are perfectly clear even while being fully integrated, something that few writers are able to accomplish without making me crazy. There’s even a post-modernist wink at the reader about three-quarters of the way through. Kate is looking for something to spice up her latest novel about the sister of Dickens’s mistress, and learns that an Oxford tutor is engrossed in research that could be just what she needs: Dr. Olivia Blacket is transcribing newly discovered letters and diaries written by the sisters. Kate, fearful after her last two encounters with murder, feels pretty safe approaching Dr. Blacket, only to find herself immersed in another adventure.

Excellent. I enjoyed spending time with Kate, who is spunky and smart, but forthright about her failings. Most of all, though, I reveled in the unromantic descriptions of Oxford and the various colleges—no dreaming spires here—which brought back memories of my many visits to the town. I’ll be looking for more in the series. How much better can Stallwood get?