Trip Wire, by Charlotte Carter

tripwire

Another mystery, this time set in Chicago in December of 1968. It’s the end of a tumultuous year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Summer of Love, and in Chicago itself the violence around the Democratic National Convention.

Seeking independence, Cassandra has left the home of her well-off grandaunt and granduncle to live in a multiracial commune in a questionable part of town. She’s in her early 20s, cutting college classes to read books on politics and social justice. When she met Wilt, a charismatic Black man, she found a friend who was on the same wavelength, and was delighted when he encouraged her to join the commune where he and his white partner Mia lived along with several others.

She delights in her new freedom and friends, happy to have found a family she has chosen rather than the over-protective relatives who took her in after her parents’ death. There are tensions, not only family issues but also marijuana use perhaps affecting her schoolwork, sexual freedom coming up against learned ideas about relationships, decisions about who else to admit into the commune.

Then they discover the brutally murdered bodies of two of their members. As Cassandra tries to untangle why they were killed, she is confronted by how little she knows about her new friends, while navigating the questionable tactics of the police and resisting her family’s attempts to make her come home.

The secrets and hidden agendas that make mysteries so fascinating are well-constructed here. The story kept me guessing, surprising me at times. I also found Cassandra a realistic and intriguing woman, simultaneously familiar and different, someone I enjoyed spending time with. All the characters come alive, not just their flaws and fine points, but also the different worlds they straddle.

Carter succeeds in capturing this period, which I remember only too clearly. Seeing it again through the eyes of a young Black woman, with all the additional hurdles and advantages, fascinated me. For example, much as most of us hippies distrusted the police, a person of color has more factors when deciding whether to call them when a crime is committed.

And thinking of the differences and similarities of the country during that election and the current one has given me a slightly different perspective on today. Change is hard, and the Age of Aquarius which once seemed within reach is something we are still seeking.

Anyone who is interested in a glimpse of what the 1960s were like, looking beyond the memes and stereotypes, will enjoy this book, as will mystery readers. I’ll be looking for more books in Carter’s Cook County mystery series.

What do you look for in a mystery series?

In a Dry Season, by Peter Robinson

dry season

This summer’s drought and the dire predictions of a shortage of potable water made me think of this mystery from the author of the DCI Banks series. Of course, the metaphorical interpretation is just as important. The disasters roaring across the U.S. and the world have left many writers—and others—paralysed.

It’s been 20 years since I first read this book and found it even more fascinating this time around.

A prolonged drought has uncovered a Yorkshire village that had been buried under a reservoir for decades. Although it is supposed to be off-limits, a local boy can’t resist exploring the buildings and unexpectedly discovers a skeleton. Banks is sent to investigate by his Chief Constable as punishment for an earlier clash between the two.

Assisted by the local DS, Annie Cabbot, Banks tries to identify the skeleton and reconstruct the events of 50 years earlier. At the same time, the events resonate with him, reminding him of Jem, a friend from his younger days who came to a sad end. Then there’s Annie Cabbot. Still mourning the end of his marriage ten years earlier, for the first time Banks feels the stirrings of attraction.

As if those threads were not enough, interwoven with the investigation and Banks’s memories is a first-person account by a then-young woman of the village during the Second World War, as well as the story of an elderly novel-writer being harassed by anonymous phone calls.

A writer in the middle of writing their first novel remarked to me the other day, “This is hard! There are so many things to keep track of.”

It’s true. Novels have so many moving pieces, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Has this minor character appeared often enough that a reader wouldn’t have forgotten them? Did this theme work its way into every part of the story? Did I remember what season it was, what day of the week, what color that character’s eyes are? Writing a mystery is even worse; you have all those red herrings and unreliable characters to work in.

I’m stunned by how well Robinson manages the complexity of his storylines here. I use spreadsheets, outlines, journals and hand-drawn maps, and have replaced physical index cards with virtual ones. It’s not uncommon to peek into an author’s study and find one or more walls completely covered with notes and drawings and maps. Novelist Laura Lippman sometimes posts pictures of her insanely complicated charts.

I don’t know what Robinson’s process is, but the effect here is amazing. So many disparate threads, each with their own continuity, bouncing off each other. The timing is perfect. Just when you are starting to think, What has happened to . . .? that thread reemerges.

And with each scene, information emerges prompting new questions, heightening the suspense, making me ask—as my three-year-old friend often bursts out with in the middle of a story—What’s going to happen? Best of all, everything that does happen grows organically out of the story, without artificial dramatics.

Reading and thinking about an amazing story helps to bring rain to my dry places. Writing a novel is hard, but Peter Robinson makes it look easy.

Have you read any of the Inspector Banks series? Is there another mystery series you’d recommend?

Old New Worlds, by Judith Krummeck

Subtitled A Tale of Two Immigrants, this book is both a memoir and an historical reimagining. In February of 1815 Sarah Barker, formerly a servant, and her new husband George, a missionary, set sail from Portsmouth, England bound for South Africa.

Whatever we may think of missionaries and colonialism today, it was an extraordinarily courageous thing to do. It is a brave thing to embark on a marriage—how much more so when it means leaving behind your country and culture; knowing that you will rarely, if ever, be able to return for a visit; unsure of what you will find when you arrive.

Two hundred years later, Sarah’s great-great granddaughter, writer and broadcaster Judith Krummeck, newly married, left South Africa for the United States. (Full disclosure: Krummeck and her husband are friends of mine.)

With a gentle but assured touch, Krummeck explores that transition, showing this country from an outsider’s point of view. She looks at the nuances of belonging, of creating a home in a new place. Unlike Sarah, her experience is complicated by the possibility of return, for visits or perhaps even permanently.

Much of the memoir portion also invites us into her process of learning about her great-great grandmother, not just burying herself in library reading rooms, but figuring out how to walk the tightrope between being true to the time period and the urge to impose today’s values on the actions of her imagined great-great grandparents. To her relief, the records show that George Barker did in fact treat his parishioners with respect and tried to protect them from the colonial administration.

The book is well-researched, drawing on Barker’s letters and journals as well as other sources. An extensive bibliography is provided. For all that, Sarah’s life, her thoughts and feelings are undocumented. Krummeck explains that Sarah is almost never mentioned in George’s writings, so she has had to use her imagination to fill in the gaps.

Of course it is no surprise that so little is known about Sarah. At that time, the lives of ordinary women were not considered worth documenting. Indeed, it is only recently that historians have begun concerning themselves with ordinary life, much less the lives of women.

For Sarah’s story alone I love this book, as I love any that fill in that empty space in the shape of a woman. Entwining it with Krummeck’s physical and emotional adjustment to America adds depth and resonance to the themes explored here.

As the pandemic spread and stayed, most of us have had to rethink our ideas of home. We look at our once adequate spaces with new eyes, trying to gauge where work can be done, children can be schooled, perhaps even an infected family member isolated. I remember how, as a child in a large family, I was constantly seeking out spaces to be private. Confined to the house, many people are experiencing that now.

So it is a good time to consider what it means to be at home: the place where we are born and the one we choose, the house we create and the family we construct, the country we call home and the landscapes we inhabit. This delightful book reminds us of what we inherit and what we make for ourselves.

What does home mean to you?

A Visit to London

Tavistock Sq

Today is a Significant Day for me, and I am celebrating by going to London.

Not really, of course. With the pandemic restrictions and my own abundance of caution, I can’t just hop on a flight. But I can visit one of my favorite cities virtually.

When I go, I always visit the Tate to see the Turners and the National Gallery for the Pre-Raphaelites. I can’t explain it, but I am fascinated by the National Portrait Gallery and by the Foundling Museum (though it makes me cry). I always try to get to the British Museum, especially since I usually stay in Bloomsbury. I go to the Royal Maritime Museum and am shocked all over again by the size of the James Caird, the tiny boat Shackleton and a few men used to travel 800 miles in terrible conditions to reach South Georgia Island and get help for his stranded crew. Many of these collections are available online.

My favorite parks are, well, all of them. I try to walk through St. James’s Park and visit the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. I’m partial to the Chelsea Physic Garden and Holland Park’s Kyoto Garden. There are plenty of London videos online to supplement my photos from previous visits.

And I always try to go to the theatre. One long weekend I saw five plays, with incredible actors such as Jeremy Irons, Judi Dench, and Alan Rickman–or was that another time? I very much enjoyed the National Theatre Live and Shakespeare’s Globe productions that were available online for free last summer. Some shows are still available at both, though you may have to pay for them, but it’s good to support these venues. I’ve enjoyed their shows in London, too. Once the only seat available for Warhorse was in the front row, which gave an astonishing view of the “trenches”.

Toast and marmalade for breakfast, a cheese and chutney sandwich for lunch, and fish and chips for dinner should set me up quite nicely.

Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) has a wonderful listing of online resources for a virtual tour of London.

But of course books are my ultimate imaginative vehicle, so I’ll dip into Mrs. Dalloway, have tea with Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, and see the changing of the guard with Christopher Robin and Alice. I’ll tour Sir John Soane’s quirky museum again via Christopher Woodwards In Ruins and walk along the Embankment with Elswyth Thane’s Tryst.

And of course I’ll draw on my own memories for this tryst with a city where I—to my surprise—have always felt as though I have found my real home.

Where are you going today?