The Charming Quirks of Others, by Alexander McCall Smith

quirks

I’ve been working my way through this series set in Edinburgh featuring Isabel Dalhousie. Well, work isn’t really correct since each story is delightful. As a moral philosopher, Isabel “considers” problems and mysteries that others request her help with. Once someone has asked for her help, she believes she is morally obligated to try.

In this, the seventh entry in the series, Isabel has been asked by the wife of a trustee to help an exclusive boy’s school in their search for a new headmaster. The shortlist contains only three names, but the trustee has received an anonymous letter saying that one of the three has a skeleton in his closet that would disqualify him. Isabel is asked to look into their backgrounds to determine which is the problematic candidate.

After agreeing, despite her fiancé Jamie’s usual objection to her investigations, Isabel is surprised to discover that her niece Cat’s new boyfriend is one of the three. Cat is rather intense, going through boyfriends like candy and frequently arguing with Isabel, yet the young woman runs her successful deli with a firm hand. Jamie was once one of those boyfriends, and his relationship with Isabel—they have a charming toddler and plan to marry imminently—is a constant, if minor, source of tension between Cat and Isabel. However, underneath it all, the two women are devoted to each other.

Isabel practices her philosophy not only as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and the now-defunct Sunday Philosophy Club of the earlier books in the series, but in every aspect of her life. When one of her former colleagues-cum-enemies on the Review magisterially informs her that he is going to write a review of the new book from his partner in crime—the crime of trying to force Isabel off the magazine—Isabel debates the ramifications of each possible response. If she refuses, would that be seen as an act of vengeance? Should she be generous and forgive the two men for present and past indignities?

She also considers just how generous she ought to be when a tragic young cellist falls for Jamie. Jamie is a bassoonist and rather younger than Isabel which feeds her insecurity about their relationship.

It is this application of philosophy to the smallest details of life that I find intriguing in these books. Many people know the author from his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Like those books, the Dalhousie books belong to what Dave King calls the gentle genre: “straightforward tales of ordinary people in mostly every-day, low-key situations.” Authors like D.E. Stevenson, Miss Read, and James Herriot manage the difficult task of composing these stories that become comfort reads for many of us, without falling into “either banality or saccharine gooeyness.”

The solution Dave King identifies is the use of a small town with many characters interacting, noting that “Even Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books, technically set in Edinburgh, are limited to a neighborhood that acts in most ways like a small town.” “In fact,” he goes on, “most gentle novels draw their tension from this forced association. The connections with people who think very differently from yourself can help amplify the importance of small things.”

That’s certainly true here, with a variety of characters, some new and some familiar from earlier books. However, it’s the philosophy that elevates Isabel’s stories, not the labored dense prose that I struggled with in Philosophy 101, but a common-sense application of moral considerations to the minutiae of daily life.

Added to that are the descriptions of Edinburgh itself and the surrounding countryside. I recently visited that city for the first time, and I love the memories these books call up. The books aren’t perfect, of course. Jamie and Cat are rather two-dimensional, and Isabel herself doesn’t change much as the series progresses. Also, her rather privileged life may rub some readers the wrong way.

For me, they make a nice counter-balance to my other, more challenging reading. Like Alexander McCall Smith’s other books, these make for perfect bedtime reading, when you want to calm your mind and prepare to enter a world of good dreams.

Which Alexander McCall Smith series is your favorite?

Death in a Strange Country, by Donna Leon

Leon

It’s been a few years since I’ve read the early books in Donna Leon’s mystery series set in Venice. With all the nonfiction books I’ve been reading that are set there, it seemed like a good time to revisit them.

In this second book in the series, Commissario Brunetti is called when a body is pulled out of a canal, apparently the victim of a mugging. It turns out to be an American sergeant, a health inspector from the U.S. base at Vicenza. Brunetti’s superior officer, Vice-Questore Patta, whose only concern is politics, wants the case tied up quickly so tourists are not spooked and the Americans in Vicenza placated. However, Brunetti believes there is much more going on here than a mugging.

As you would expect for a senior police officer, Brunetti is working other cases, including the theft of paintings from a well-connected businessman—someone whom Patta wants to cosy up to.

One of the unusual features of this series is the weight given to Brunetti’s life outside of work, primarily his home life with his astute wife Paola and their two children—sixteen-year-old Raffi and thirteen-year-old Chiara—who are growing up too fast for Brunetti. The theme of parents and children runs through all the storylines here, subtly enough that I didn’t realise it at first.

We might all wish to have a Paola in our lives: a wise counselor who can bring us back to earth when we get carried away or confused, not to mention creating a delicious risotto for dinner. The warmth of their family life—Chiara bargaining to stay up to finish her book, Paola joining Brunetti on the balcony—is lovely, while the occasional irritations or silences keep it realistic.

Writers often talk about making the setting a character in a novel, and certainly Venice is a major character in Leon’s books. The author accomplishes this by incorporating details of the culture and customs as well as the buildings and canals. There are Brunetti’s movements around Venice, stopping for a coffee and noting the slight nod that orders a shot of grappa be added. There’s the game he plays with himself where he rewards himself with a drink when he spots a previously unnoticed architectural detail. And the way a night watchman slips an orange card into the iron grating outside each shop to prove that he has come by.

The evocation of Venice and Brunetti’s life there is more important for me than the mystery. I would be perfectly happy with these books even if there were no mystery at all.

Brunetti’s efforts to solve the mysteries are complicated by the corruption and profiteering in government and business, both deeply intertwined with the mafia (the novel was first published in 1993). Naturally this made me squirm a little, since here in the U.S. these crimes have been flagrantly committed at the highest levels of the government in the last few years.

Much here reminded me of John Berendt’s portrayal of Venice and the shenanigans around rebuilding La Fenice. My understanding of the geography gained from that book and the others I’ve been reading enhanced my enjoyment of this book, filling out my imagination as I traveled the streets and canals of Venice with the commissario, a character with whom I would gladly spend any amount of time.

Have you read a mystery or other novel set in Venice?

Nuclear Option, by Dorothy Van Soest

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At 77, Sylvia Jensen believes her activist days are over. She is still involved with community groups and delivers Meals on Wheels, doing what she chooses to do rather than what she feels she ought to do. Then, at a funeral for a woman who had been an inspiring leader during Sylvia’s years protesting domestic and military nuclear proliferation, she is astounded to meet a ghost from the past.

In her 40s, at a meeting planning protests against Nectaral, the biggest military contractor in the state, Sylvia had met Norton, a kindred spirit with green eyes and a crooked smile. Since he was married and had a young son, they tried desperately to keep to friendship. What Sylvia didn’t know was that Norton had a time bomb inside, that he was an atomic veteran.

Now, all these years later, Norton’s son Corey, full of rage and anguished loss, crosses her path, ready to take his protests to another level. How can Sylvia not try to save him from himself?

The mystery unfolds on two levels: the past, where Sylvia and Norton and their friends are on trial for their part in the protest, and the present, where Sylvia has to draw on all her skills as a former foster care supervisor, her courage, and her friendship with investigative reporter J. B. Harrell to untangle the webs being woven around her beloved Norton’s son.

I did not know about the atomic veterans—no surprise since their existence was hidden behind the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreement Act until it was repealed in 1996. They were ordinary soldiers used as guinea pigs during nuclear tests, ordered to stand without equipment near the blast in order to study the effects of radiation, or sent in to clean up afterward, again without protective gear or being informed about the danger.

I did know about and was involved in the 1960s in protests against nuclear proliferation. The bomb and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were very much in the forefront of things to worry about. Yet until Van Soest’s book (Full disclosure: Dorothy is a friend of mine), I hadn’t realised that anti-nuclear protests were still going on; that fear had receded into the rear of my personal chamber of horrors.

Like Sylvia and, I’m sure, others who were active in the 1960s and 70s, I have been reluctant to get involved in protests and marches again. Busy raising children and keeping a roof over their heads, I focused on what seemed immediately most important, I suppose making me no better in a way than the corporate heads prioritising short-term profits.

But the last four years have dragged me out of my comfort zone. Protestors fill our streets once again. And now this story, with its interweaving of past and present, invites me to consider what more I might be doing. It chimes with what I’ve been reading and discussing and thinking about all summer: how can I leverage my privilege—for I am surely privileged in many ways, despite my years of poverty—to help make the changes our stricken society so badly needs?

What Van Soest has accomplished in this, her fourth novel, is quite remarkable. She has given us a gripping mystery, with characters who will haunt us long after the last page is turned, placing them within a real-world context that alerts us to dangers we may not have considered. The story never falters, as we are swept into Sylvia’s quest for justice and safety for us all.

Have you read a stirring mystery lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Word Is Murder, by Anthony Horowitz

Horowitz

Coming up with a title for the book you’ve written is surprisingly hard. It needs to be catchy while giving a hint about what the book’s about and its genre. The title here, which is a bit of a running joke in the story, certainly meets all three criteria.

This is the first book I’ve read by the prolific Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider YA series and two Sherlock Holmes mysteries among others, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The one thing I knew about him at first was that he is the creator and main writer for Foyle’s War, one of the best TV series I’ve ever seen. I wondered how that brilliance would translate to a genre mystery.

The answer is that it is unlike any mystery I’ve read, while still fitting within the conventions of the mystery genre.

What baffled me at the beginning is that our protagonist, our amateur sleuth, is Anthony Horowitz, author of Foyle’s War, the Alex Rider series, etc. Anthony is finishing up his Sherlock Holmes mystery House of Silk and ripe for a new writing project when he is approached by a curt and rather intimidating former policeman named Daniel Hawthorne.

Hawthorne has a deal for Anthony: write up the case Hawthorne is working on and the two of them split the proceeds 50/50. I had to laugh. So often that it’s become a running gag, writers get people coming up and saying they have a great idea for a story; the writer should just write it up and they’ll split the profits.

After initially refusing, Anthony agrees. It is a fascinating case: a seemingly healthy woman goes to a mortician to organise her eventual funeral arrangements and six hours later she is murdered.

The dynamic between the two is fascinating. Hawthorne immediately establishes dominance by calling the writer Tony, even after Anthony says that no one calls him that and he doesn’t like it. Hawthorne works as a consultant for the police on this case, and expects Anthony to follow him around and take notes but not participate. He also expects to critique the manuscript. Close-mouthed, he doesn’t want to share his thoughts on the case or any personal information. Reluctant to be relegated to the Watson role, Anthony tries to get ahead of Hawthorne in the investigation, with mixed results.

Disconcertingly, Anthony constantly refers to real people, many in his sphere: actors, producers, etc. I was surprised that he would name names: he takes a meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson; he recounts an incident with Michael Kitchen; and so on. My writer’s mind whirled. Did he get permission or just assumed they are public figures? Would using them poison the well for him as a writer? Did it add to or detract from the story? It’s one thing for a novel like Ragtime to refer to real historical figures and another to refer to those still with us.

With all that swarming around in my brain, I still found the story engaging, both the interplay between the two men and the mystery itself. I’m not sure I’d want to read a lot of novels in this style—mixing reality with fantasy—but here I found it refreshing.

Have you read a mystery that stretched the rules of the genre?

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?

Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha, by Dorothy Gilman

pollifax

My mother and I had a complicated relationship. We were never close. I had a passel of younger siblings and, what with one thing and another, she seemed largely absent as I was growing up. Looking back I can see and appreciate the small, generous things she did for me, but at the time she seemed like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons: offstage, uttering strange quacking sounds.

Once I had children, I appreciated her more, not surprisingly. We developed a casual friendship where we emphasised the things we had in common and didn’t discuss the many areas where we disagreed. We both liked watching ice skating competitions and Masterpiece Theater. I became infected by her love of dark cherries and sandwiches made of parsley and cream cheese. In return I taught her to use mushrooms in cooking and to make bread. Together we learned how to can peaches from Baugher’s in Westminster, Maryland.

We both liked reading Georgette Heyer’s novels, she for the romance and me for the wit and historical accuracy. And we both loved Dorothy Gilman’s series of Mrs. Pollifax novels. Although we believed ourselves to be complete opposites, my mother and I both saw ourselves in Emily Pollifax. If we were a Venn diagram, Gilman’s character sits firmly in the sliver shared by our two circles.

Becoming somewhat bored with her New Brunswick, New Jersey life, her Garden Club and nosy neighbors, Mrs. Pollifax, a widowed senior citizen, decided to do something new, something she’d always wanted to do. She walked into the CIA and applied to be a spy.

As it turned out, the CIA had a use for someone who didn’t look or sound like anyone’s idea of a spy.

In this seventh book in the series, Mrs. Pollifax is sent to Hong Kong to check on an agent, one well known to her from a previous adventure. This agent has gone curiously silent, and the CIA has become convinced that his superior in Hong Kong is compromised.

On the flight out she meets a gentle man who turns out to be a psychic, though he can never see his own future. And in the hotel, to her surprise, she runs into a reformed cat burglar she met in an earlier story, now posing as the third richest man in the world.

One of the fun quirks in these stories is the way Mrs. Pollifax meets odd people, some of whom turn out to have skills she needs. I love discovering the interesting qualities they are hiding and also her thought process as she decides whom she can trust. Another wonderful aspect of the series is the exotic locale of each, astutely described: just enough to give you the flavor without overwhelming you.

In Hong Kong Mrs. Pollifax is taken aback by her reception at Feng Imports, where the agent she is looking for should be working undercover. Complications ensue, with danger around every dark corner. Suspense builds to a nail-biting climax.

If I can ever hold off being gripped by the story, maybe someday I can work out how Gilman manages to balance humor with these dark and dangerous adventures. Mrs. Pollifax herself is one way: the surprise of a suburban grandmother who enjoys gardening and espionage, who has tea with her neighbors and takes karate lessons.

I think it is this clear-eyed view of how complex an average woman can be that appealed to both my mother and me. We loved Mrs. Pollifax’s normality, her practical and no-nonsense understanding of right and wrong. We liked these tales of an ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary situations, bringing to them the same courage and common sense that women everywhere display when faced with concocting a dinner out of what’s in the frig or dividing a pie among a horde of hungry children.

My mother has been gone for 13 years now, but I still buy cherries for her when they first appear at the grocer’s in June. And I still get the urge to pick up the phone and ask her if she’s read the latest adventure of Mrs. Pollifax.

Do you and your parents or children share books with each other? What are some that appeal to both of you?

The Hunting Party, by Lisa Foley

Foley

For their annual New Year’s reunion, nine friends travel to a remote lodge in the Scottish Highlands. It becomes even more remote when cut off by a massive blizzard on New Year’s Day, just as Heather and Doug—the two staff who live at the lodge—discover the body of the missing guest.

The bruises on the neck indicate murder, which means the murderer must be one of the people at the lodge, though there is a serial killer on the loose and the possibility of local poachers. The lodge sits on a loch far from the nearest town, with only three staff: Heather the manager, Doug the gamekeeper, and a third staff person who lives in the now-inaccessible town. For this weekend, the exclusive lodge has only two other visitors: an Icelandic couple who keep their distance from the rowdy group of friends.

In their thirties, the nine of them are starting to pull apart, mostly because of the changes that come with aging. The tensions between them become obvious on the train from London. Katie and Miranda have been friends since childhood, Miranda the queen bee who enlivens any gathering and Katie the plain friend. Seven others congregated around them at Oxford: Julian, now married to Miranda; two couples—Giles and Samira with their new baby, Nick and Bo—and Mark who always had a crush on Miranda. The ninth is Emma, Mark’s girlfriend of three years. She’s the one who organised this plush weekend.

The settings—the loch, the trails up the mountain, the glass lodge, individual cabins, the relentless snow—are beautifully and vividly described. Foley keeps up the suspense, not only about who the murderer is but who has been murdered. The suspense is also fed by the gradually emerging backgrounds of the characters. They have secrets, as do we all but some of theirs are pretty ugly. Old resentments, betrayal, and shifting alliances cloud the air.

The narrator changes with each chapter, giving us different insights into all the characters. There are flashbacks filling in the characters’ backgrounds and illuminating the difference between the accepted story about an incident and an actual memory from someone who was there.

I generally dislike multiple protagonists. I’m easily confused and they can blur together if the voices are not distinctive. Plus moving around keeps me from bonding with any one character, though that may not be a bad thing in a locked-room story like this, where anyone could be an unreliable narrator. I can also get confused when, as here, chapters bounce back and force between several time periods, in this case the several days around New Year’s.

I wasn’t confused here, though. Each chapter immediately clarifies who is speaking and what day it is. Also, I listened to the audio version which has a different actor for each point-of-view character, so it was more like listening to a play. Their voices did the necessary differentiation; I don’t know how well it would have worked if I’d read the book.

It’s been promoted as a classic locked-room mystery, which it is. I found the puzzle interesting; the characters less so. If you saw gamekeeper and thought D.H. Lawrence, you wouldn’t be far wrong. If you saw queen bee with plain friend and thought of stereotypes, you’d be on target, not just for those two but for everyone.

Beyond that, I simply could not work up sympathy for any of them, especially the nine friends trying to clutch at their youth, their golden days at Oxford. Drinking too much, taking pills, playing childish or teenage games, making risky impulsive decisions: maybe I’m just not the right audience for such characters. On top of that, some of the more extreme antics—no spoilers—seemed implausible to me. The person would surely have died or fallen into a coma.

Still, I enjoyed the twists and turns of the story. Some I saw coming; others took me by surprise. And I loved the descriptions of the loch and surrounding forests.

Do you like a good locked-room mystery? What’s one you can recommend?

Wild Chamber, by Christopher Fowler

wild chamber

What a comfort reading is during this dark time! There is much to be afraid of and loved ones to be afraid for, but it’s important to take a break sometimes, be somewhere else for a while.

I’ve been reading Fowler’s Bryant and May detective series in order. The two head up the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a division of the London police formed during WWII to handle cases that could cause public unrest. Persisting into the present, it operates like no police department you’ve ever encountered and is constantly under threat of closure by traditional-minded administrators.

Arthur Bryant has his own methods which involve consulting museum curators, white witches, and his own offbeat but strangely useful collection of reference books. He’s a bit of a trickster, with a sly sense of humor. Having more depth than the typical English eccentric, I’ve come to delight in the odd turns his thinking takes, even odder as he ages and others begin to suspect the beginnings of dementia.

John May’s reputation as a ladies’ man has taken a bit of a beating as he ages. With a more logical approach to solving crimes, he tries to protect his friend from his wilder flights and is the only one who stands up to him.

The other members of the PCU are, well, characters in the sense of being unique, believable, yet a little quirky. For instance, Janice Longbright is enamored of the style of 50’s screen actresses—makeup, heels, hair, clothes, the whole shebang—but not terribly practically for chasing suspects down dark alleys.

In this outing, Bryant and May are investigating the murder of a woman in one of London’s parks and gardens, originally called (at least once) its “wild chambers”. This garden is in an exclusive crescent, so it’s kept locked with only residents having access. How could a killer have gotten in? Where is her missing husband? And what does her murder have to do with one of Bryant and May’s cases a year earlier?

Since I’m unable to go to England this spring as planned, I especially relished the way the investigation led through many of London’s parks and gardens, calling up sweet memories for me.

In fact, London is the real protagonist of this series. The solution to the crimes almost always hinges on Bryant’s arcane knowledge of London’s past, whether it’s the history of Bedlam, the routes of lost underground rivers, or forgotten details about St. Pancras Old Church and King’s Cross.

Interestingly, Bryant and May is also the name of London-based company that ran match factories in the 19th century before being absorbed by other companies.

These two detectives would fit perfectly into a Golden Age mystery, though their stories are a bit darker than those standards. The stories don’t really fit into the various subcategories of mystery. Bryant and May aren’t amateurs, but the stories aren’t police procedurals—unless you’re willing to accept a perfectly wacky procedure. They aren’t cosies exactly, but neither are they grim crime novels. What they are is delicious. Funny, infectious, knowledgeable about human nature and London’s long history: the perfect vacation.

What are you reading? Does it give you rest, comfort or courage?

The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

kadish

Kadish’s fourth novel is a stunning story that braids the tale of a modern-day historian with that of a seventeenth-century woman who was brought to London by a rabbi when her parents died in Amsterdam after fleeing the Inquisition in Spain. It’s a brilliant fusion of genres: historical fiction, women’s fiction, thriller, mystery and romance.

Helen, a specialist in Hebrew history on the verge of mandatory retirement and in poor health, is contacted by a former student about a cache of documents found in the London house he and his wife are renovating. She enlists the aid of Aaron, a brash American graduate student who’s hit a roadblock with his PhD thesis.

This unlikely duo are startled to find that the books and papers do indeed date from the 1650s and 1660s, the library and letters of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. But it is the identity of his scribe, signed merely as “Aleph” that captivates them. Helen finds evidence that Aleph may be a woman and the literary hunt is on as, vexed by conservators and rival historians, not to mention their own thorny relationship, the two try to learn more about Aleph.

These chapters are interspersed with the story of Ester Velasquez as she discovers the terrible beauty of learning. When the blind rabbi asks her to read to him and write letters for him, she becomes hungry for more, reading widely in philosophy and beginning herself to write her thoughts—things that were not allowed for women at that time.

This extraordinarily well-researched book brings to life the world of London just before and during the plague years and great fire. One detail stood out for me: that several kinds of ink were used, one of which—iron gall ink—disintegrates the paper so that hundred of years later the letters show up as empty space on a page.

This image fuels the title: the weight that ink—reading and writing—places on Ester’s life, making her question her religion and the constructs of society, making her unwilling to marry since that would mean giving up the world of the mind for the daily round of chores.

It also speaks to the silence of women in that time. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her essay “Shakespeare’s Sister”, where she imagines a sister with his genius, “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”

There’s a story here for everyone. You’ve got a literary puzzle like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, a thriller as time runs out for Ester and for Helen and Aaron. There’s the social history of Jewish London at the time, fractured between upper-class Portuguese and working class Tudesco (German, meaning Ashkenazi) Jews. You’ve got insights into the different burdens placed on men and on women, both now and in the past. There’s fascinating information about conserving documents and philosophy and bountiful insight into the human heart.

For me, much as I enjoyed Ester’s chapters and the evocation of seventeenth-century London, curious as I was as to how she could possibly reconcile her warring nature with itself and society, it was Helen’s chapters that most captured my attention. We do not often enough read about a woman’s relationship with her work (or a man’s for that matter, outside of writing). Helen’s own history, her concern for not just the things but the lessons of the past, her education of this her last student: these combine to show what a woman’s life-work can be.

This is a long book, but it’s worth taking the time to sink into it. And as you get further in, you’ll find the story accelerating such that you will hardly bear to set it aside even for a moment.

Have you read a novel that effectively fuses literary genres?