DEATH IN A SUMMER COLONY by Aaron Stander

death in a summer colonyThis is the seventh in an interminable mysteries series starring the affable Sheriff Ray Elkins, up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.   I know I have read at least one other book in this series, but maybe it was before I started the blog, because it isn’t in the archives.  I looked over his titles, but they all look familiar.

The sheriff is a kayaker and in the other book I read, met a nice lady doctor living near the lake and who also kayaks.  You know, talk about your luck, right?

In this book, Ray is called to a private colony on the lake for a screwball holing up in one of the empty cottages in the colony and who eventually conveniently ends the standoff by blowing himself up.  That is when Ray becomes acquainted with the colony and its resident manager.  He also meets the colony’s most annoying personage, a wealthy man who is bossy beyond belief and annoying as aich ee double hockey sticks.  He no longer lives in the colony but has built a huge house on the adjacent cliff.  He stays involved in the colony affairs because he provides a not of money to keep things running.

The colony every year puts on a play in their rattletrap theater,  this time it is Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage, which entails Scene Two opening on a man slumped on his desk, dead.  The annoying guy wants to be involved in the play, but this year has no time to learn lines,  so asks for the part of the dead guy.  Everyone thinks that is funny…. until the night of the play and he is found actually and truly dead slumped onto the desk, ready for the curtain to open.

So the mystery is a classic, with lots of suspects because NOBODY liked the guy, and some had lost retirement money which was invested with his company, and there is an ex-wife living in the colony and who had a part in the play, his daughter-in-law who was also his lawyer,  an alcoholic current wife, a son, some employees, you know, the usual suspects.

It ended with the Christie trope of all the suspects gathered in a room, (but not called together by the Sheriff but there in order to plan the funeral), and rather than the conversation being centered on funeral arrangements became a party of who shot John accusations, with the guilty person suddenly pulling out a gun……   sigh.  I was really disappointed in this ending.

Frankly, I didn’t even bother trying to figure out who done it, because the whole thing was just a canned version of every other mystery you have ever read.  I guess by the time to get to the seventh in a series, you can just phone it in.

summer colony cottages

 

THE DAUGHTER OF TIME by Josephine Tey

Daughter of timeJosephine Tey was one of two pseudonyms used by Elizabeth Mackintosh, a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels which feature Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard, and her play, Richard of Bordeaux.

This is not a mystery novel exactly, even though it does feature Inspector Grant.   He is laid up in hospital in this 1951 novel, with nuttin’ to do.  A friend brings him a collection of portraits for his amusement, and he is quite taken with that of Richard III.    I thought this might be an interesting read for me, seeing as how His Majesty has gotten so much press lately, what with being buried under a parking lot, and all that followed from that.

Inspector Grant, while giving the king’s portrait a really good look, can’t decide whether he looks like a judge or a murderer, and remembers that the king was accused of murdering or having someone else do the deed, of his two young nephews, supposedly because they were in his way to succession to the throne.

Grant gets interested in this and wonders how the story came to be and was it in fact true.  It seems to be based entirely on Sir. Thomas More’s account, which upon some savvy detective work, turned out to be based on the account by John Morton, Henry VII’s Archibishop of Canterbury.  Yeah, THAT John Morton.  Morton hated Richard.  It is on this account that Shakespeare fashioned his  character in his play, Richard III.

A young man who is doing research on another time of history is sent to Grant to help him out and becomes his happily willing research assistant.

As the research goes on and gets deeper and deeper, it becomes clear that all this history that everyone believes is all hogwash and not what happened at all.   It is Tey’s way of examining how history is constructed, and how certain version of events come to be widely accepted as the truth, despite a lack of evidence.

Here’s a quote about Mary Stuart:

Her tragedy was that she was born a Queen with the outlook of a suburban housewife.

And at the very end of the book, the researcher finds out that unknown to him (and Grant), historians have known for yonks that the story about Richard was a bunch of hooey, but that the correct version had not yet made its way into the history books.

So we have this whole book used as a vehicle to talk about the history of Richard III.  Yawn.

The title of the book comes from a quote by Sir Francis Bacon:

Truth is the Daughter of Time, not of Authority

Richard III

Richard III

 

 

GOD AND GENERAL LONGSTREET -The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind by Thomas L. Connelly & Barbara L. Bellows

God and GeneralDid you know that over 600,000 people died in the American Civil War?  Demographic historian David Hacker now says there were 750,000 casualties.   This is probably more accurate.  The book was written in 1982 and Hacker’s analysis is much more recent.   There were  more or less over 300,000 lost on each side.  But the difference was that the Confederacy lost one out of every 19 men, whereas the Union lost one out of over 3,000.   The South was almost annihilated, its cities destroyed, its railroads, its farms and fields despoiled.

Thomas D. Clark of Indiana University writes of

the shortsightedness of a region going to war while hopelessly incapable of sustaining itself in a long and devastating struggle, or with the enormously human and spiritual loss of approximately 300,000 young men, or with the all but incalculable loss of property and momentum in advancing the region beyond its undeveloped frontier conditions. Historians themselves have been caught up in what the authors intriguingly call the “Lost Cause” mentality.

Connelly and Bellows compassionately yet clear-sightedly examine with interest the mind and the culture  that made the war possible, and in its aftermath, what is called The Lost Cause.

An antebellum South embroiled in a power struggle with the “churlish Saxons” of Yankeedom could identify with a heroic Ivanhoe.  Small wonder it was that the Rebel battleflag adopted the design of the Scottish St. Andrew’s cross, or that Dixie writers during the Reconstruction era attempted to link the ancestry of Robert E. Lee with that of Robert the Bruce.    The Lost Cause phrase developed soon after Appomattox as a byword for the perpetuation of the the Confederate ideal.

I found this extremely interesting, being a Yankee myself.  The book’s main author is a southern gentlemen, a professor at University of South Carolina, so it is not a condescending, superior look at the conquered by the victor.  Connelly is a historian specializing in Civil War issues  and personages of that time.

I believe that all regions of the country have their own mindsets, their own outlooks, so I was interested to see what these authors had to say about the ‘Southern mind’.   They say that the Southern mind is one of ambivalence and paradox,

those eternal southern opposites, such as a longing for order and a penchant for evasion of the law, deeply embedded religious fundamentalism and hedonistic behavior, Dixie braggadocio and insecurity.

The religion of the Lost Cause generation was man-centered.  The southern concept of the Trinity was not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but God, man, and Satan.

He quotes Robert Penn Warren’s observation that the southern mind does not grasp abstractions well, but demands a sense of the concrete. the authors say

the cultural isolation of the Old South allowed the populace to exist within a fantasy world of utter contempt for the Yankee and absolute confidence in southern might.

The antebellum South remained the most puritan of all American regions, and was an exaggeration of that general American faith that there is a correlation between Jehovah’s grace and success.  The belief that God was on the side of the Confederacy was universal south of the Potomac.

The title of the book comes from the deification of General Robert E. Lee at the expense of General James Longstreet, whom Lee called ‘his old War Horse’.   He was at odds with Lee about the strategies and tactics at the Battle of Gettysburg, and his detractors pilloried him claiming he was the reason for the Confederate loss at that battle.  Perhaps no Confederate officer is surrounded by more controversy than Longstreet. He was Lee’s trusted advisor and friend.  But, after the war, Longstreet became the target of many “Lost Cause” attacks.  His letters to the New Orleans Times, his support of the Republican Party, and his memoirs served to alienate many Southerners.

The book talks about how ‘Virginia Won The War’,  the state’s role in the conflict and its image-building of reluctant virgin, if you will, being against secession, but being a slave state, forced into the war.

Of course, there is so, so much more in the book, and if you have in interest in such things, I urge you to read it.

Beautifully researched,  it is a fascinating read, and I would be interested to know how southern readers feel about the conclusions in it.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

 General James Longstreet

General James Longstreet

 

SCHOOL FOR MYSTERIES by Carolyn Jourdan

school for mysteriesCarolyn Jourdan wrote two other books that I really enjoyed, Medicine Men – Extreme Appalacian Doctoring, which I discussed here,  and Out  On A Limb – A Smokey Mountain Mystery, which I talked about here.   So I was expecting more great stuff with this book.

Sadly, not to be.  Not much of a mystery, the characters too cutesy,  the book too preachy and sermonizing, the plot just not credible, and although the catch line is A Paranormal Mystery, not so paranormal.

Just a disappointment.

THE SALT EATERS by Toni Cade Bambara

Simmons-Salt-EatersThis was written in 1980, in a stylized combination of fantasy, stream of consciousness, reminiscences, and goodness only knows what else.

It has been called wonderful by some, impenetrable by other, political by yet others.  I’ll go with that.   But let me warn you right off, if you come for the story line,  there is a whole lot of thicket to wade through to keep it in sight. It goes from present, to past, to total fantasy.  And you know me, I am all about the story.  I hate having to keep chasing it down.

Basically, it is about a community of healers in some little unnamed town in the south, in Georgia, and a community of civil rights activists.  Velma Henry has tried to commit suicide, and it seems not for the first time.  She has been a civil rights activist and a worker for women’s rights, and it has all been overwhelming.  Minnie Ransom is a powerful healer with spiritual powers, and a spirit muse/mentor, Old Wife, with whom she has pages long philosophical conversations.

The book opens in the Southwest Community Infirmary with Velma seated on a stool wearing only a hospital gown, and Minnie across from her trying to determine whether Velma is in a place in her head that is ready to be healed.  From there we get Velma’s thoughts and reminiscences, back to the present with the healer, then into the healer’s mind, then back to present, then a circle of 12 people arrive to form a healing circle, but one of them leaves, a woman important in Velma’s life, and then we get all the back story to this woman through her thoughts, then back to present, then Velma again, with memories of her husband from whom she is now estranged, and from that we get into the husband’s head, and his perspective on Velma, then back to present, then pages of the healer chatting with Old Wife.

I so wanted to love this book, a recommendation from somewhere. The book received the American Book Award. It is considered experimental writing, and is poetic and meditative in tone and style.  No one character is truly the protagonist here, as the focus gradually builds to center on the community of activists and healers, all people spiritually struggling and looking for grounding.

So I didn’t love this book.  It is a difficult book to read, to follow.  There is not so much a plot as an arc.  I prefer my stories a smidge more linear because I am old and don’t want to work all that hard on a story that focuses on the political and civil rights struggles of the 60s, and 70s.  It is heavily political, and maybe it is the surreal political season we are living through right now, but I want to read something less political so I can forget just how horrible, paranoid, racist, bigoted, homophobic, and xenophobic a great deal of the American citizenry can be.   Yes, I accept it.  I am a pitiful excuse for a human being.

But the thing is, Gentle Readers,  that the book reflects Real Life so much more than the more traditional method of story telling.  It goes hither and thither, from present to the past, from fractured memory to actual events.  Our lives don’t really move along in a linear fashion. Our days are full of remembering the past,  trying to predict the future, trying to organize the day we are in.  Maybe that is why this book was a challenge.  Know what I mean?

 

MR. HANCOCK’S SIGNATURE by Brian S. Wheeler

Mr. Hancock's SignatureGhost alert!  Ghost alert!

I figured that would get your attention.  I know some of you really like a good ghost story, and this one is a doozy.

You know how so many ghost stories are about evil spirits, and malevolent creatures.  Not really my cup of tea.  I keep asking myself, why does everyone always envision evil in the afterlife?   But this story has just the best collection of ghostly stuff.  You will totally love it.  There is a golem,  and a dead body, and water spirits, and almost best of all, a ghost train!

Allow me to explain.  It begins with the Hancocks, a farming family in the rural environs of a small town in the plains, the flatland, of Illinois.  I’ve been out there.  Boy, is it flat.   Miles of that flatness.  Well, the Hancocks, the last of them, is selling out, lock, stock and barrel, at auction.  Mr. Dunning, a hard-nosed businessman of a farmer,  has spent his time and money gobbling up failed farms and their equipment.  At the Hancock auction, Mr. Dunning offers to buy Hancock’s land, which contains the family cemetery, containing several generations of Hancocks.   The last remaining Hancock agrees, as long as Mr. Dunning maintains the cemetery, and permits no further burials in it.  Dunning agrees to the deal,  all is sold, and Hancock disappears, went wandering, and is never heard from again.

Mr. Hancock had a brother, dearly loved, who was killed in the war.  I am fuzzy as to which war.  His vehicle is blown up, and there are no remains to return to the family, but they do receive a box which contains his medals.  They obtain a black obelisk, which they erect in the center of the cemetery and bury the box in front of it.

Years later, the cemetery forgotten and abandoned, young Ian and friend ride their bikes out to see it, a kind of teen boy rite of passage in the area.  Ian sees the obelisk glowing red, and hears a humming, or thrumming, and he touches the stone and is overcome with a …. I don’t know what.  He is overcome.  Being the son of a military man, the father is stationed elsewhere and Ian soon after has to leave the town.

Fast forward to Ian as an adult, come back to the one town he felt was a little like home, hired to help the town rise out of its doldrums and try to rejuvenate it by attracting businesses to the place.

I know, you are asking about when the ghosts and golem will appear.  I am getting to that.  Have a little patience.  First we have to talk about the abandoned train trestle, which the kids jump from in rites of courage, etc.  Occasionally, the hidden rocks in the river claim a jumper.  And now we come to our first ghosts.  (I know.  You’re saying, “It’s about time, woman.  Get on with it.)  These are wispy spirits of the dead in the river, the accidental deaths, the kids who hit a rock, the suicides, and a few murders.

And these spirits haunt and taunt Minister Jackstone,  a former town drunk, now on the wagon, with a congregation that loves firearms.  He wears a couple of antique guns on his hips because he has made a deal with the river.  He will try to keep their memories alive if they stop haunting him.  At times when they come back, he goes back to the bottle.

And now the ghost train.  I sooooooo loved this ghost train.  It has a conductor with a pocket watch that tracks the hours of the universe, and goes all wonky when earthly activities are awry.   It has imps piling in the coal to make it hotter than hot so that the train can make a specific curve that will bring it into this dimension, where it arrives at the old depot, no longer used as a depot, but is a warehouse.  The night watchman feels the ghost train, sees the oncoming headlight of the huge monster, sees it stop, then leave the station.  What is left behind is a box, coffin sized.  The sheriff is called, and the box is found to contain a body.  It turns out to be the body of the last Hancock.  The local mortician takes it to prepare it for burial, but where to bury him is the question.  Ian feels he should be buried out in the family plot, the sheriff thinks the public cemetery in town should be the place.

There is where the golem enters the picture.  He is a sewn together creature, with a bad leg, and secretly comes to town.  The next morning after the arrival of the body, the body is found on the front steps of the local B&B.  How it got there out of the mortician’s locked basement work area is a mystery.  The body is taken back to the mortuary, and the following day is found in the old movie house, no longer in use.  The following day it is found up top on an abandoned smoke stack.

There is so much more wonderfulness to this story, but really, I hate making a spoiler out of it, so I will stop here, because I have given you the ghosts, the golem and the ghost train as promised.  If you like ghost stories,  paranormal, that kind of thing, do read this.  You won’t be sorry.

OK, field notes.  The golem is not strictly a golem.  A true golem is made of clay, or earth, and a spell put on it by its maker which brings it alive and if must do the bidding of its maker.  It is old Jewish lore.  This figure in our story is more  a self-created Frankensteinish creature, having sewn himself together to accomplish this one mission.

The ghost train comes back two more times.  For a reason.

The book was first published in 2008, and the e-version I have is riddled with editing problems –typos, missing words, homophones,  stuff like that. Enough to be slightly annoying but not enough to make it unreadable.  I would assume that a current version will have been thoroughly cleaned up by now.

I believe there is now a sequel, but for me, this was so perfect in and of itself that stretching it out any further would totally ruin it for me, no sequel for me.

Loved it.  Go read it.

 

 

THE OVERCOAT by Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol

the overcoatDo you remember that in The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, which you will find here,  the young man who would become the father of the titular namesake, while on an overnight train ride was reading Gogol’s short story The Overcoat,  which saved his life because he stayed up to read it?  Of course, you do.   He then gives his son the name Gogol as a pet name.

Ok, so I went ahead and read the story.  Well, you have to, right?  You can’t just let that whole thing slide.  Because what if it connects to The Namesake on another level, and then we would have missed it.

Written in 1842, and set in Petersburg, Russia, it stars a mundane copiest, Akaky Akaklievich, which name the author tells us

The reader will perhaps find that somewhat strange and farfetched, but he can be assured that it was not fetched at all, but that circumstances occurred of themselves as made it quite impossible to give him any other name, and here is precisely how it came about.

Yahoo!  We’ve found it …. the connection to The Namesake, to the boy with the strange name.  I am so excited.  OK, it happened thus:

Akaky Akakievich was born, if memory serves me, during the night of the twenty-third of March.  His late mother, a clerk’s widow and a very good woman, decided, as was fitting, to have the baby baptized.  The mother was still lying in bed opposite the door, and to her right rood the godfather, a most excellent man, Ivan Ivanovich Yeroskhin, who serviced as a chief clerk in the Senate, and the godmother, the wife of a police officer, a woman of rare virtue, Arina Semyonovna Belobriushkova.

The new mother was offered a choice of any of three names, whichever she wished to choose; Mokky, Sossy, or to name the baby after the martyr Khozdazat.  “No,” thought the late woman, “what sort of names are those?”  To please her, they opened the calendar to another place;  again three names came out:  Trifily, Dula. amd Varaljasu-  “What a punishment,” the old woman said.  “Such names, really, I’ve never heard the like.  If only it were Varadat or Varukh, not Trifily and Varakhasy.”

They turned another page: out came Pavsikakhy and Vakhtisy.  “Well, I see now,” the old woman said, “it’s evidently his fate.  If so, better let him be named after his father.  His father was Akaky, so let the son also be Akay.”

We have told it so that the reader could see for himself that it happened entirely from necessity and that to give him any other name was quite impossible.

Akaky becomes a copiest, an excellent copiest and he loves his job.  He loves it so much that he even brings work home to his humble room.  Akaky is not very prosperous, but he doesn’t care.  He is happy in his life.  However, he begins to notice that the overcoat which he has always worn is now completely threadbare.  It does not keep out the cold nor the snow nor rain.  He takes it to a tailor to repair.  The tailor tells him there is nothing more to be done.  It is beyond fixing.  He must have a new one.

Akaky, after scrimping and saving for some time, finally has enough money for a new coat which the tailor makes for him.  And it is a beauty.  It is such a beauty that one of the bosses at his work decides to have a celebratory party in its honor, and for the first time in years, Akaky goes out at night — in his new splendid overcoat, of course — to the party where he drinks alcoholic beverages to which he is not at all accustomed.  Late at night, on his way home on foot, he is accosted and robbed of his beautiful coat.

The next day he tries to report the theft, but is put off by the bureaucracy, one of whom tells him he needs to approach some self-styled  important man.  This functionary, trying to impress a visitor, puts Akaky off, berating him for bothering such an important person such as himself.

Akaky catches a dreadful illness from being out in the freezing winter night, and dies a few days later.

Shortly thereafter, an unknown personage begins to grab at the coats of passersby near the place where he was robbed. The rumor spread around the city that a dead man had begun to appear at night in the form of a clerk searching for some stolen overcoat, and pulling the coats off the shoulders of the lucky wearers.

An order was issued for the police to catch the dead man at all costs, dead or alive, and punish him in the harshest manner.

Which of course they never did.

A delightful, if a little bit sad, story, and if we can rely on the translation, a gently humorous one, as well.

Do read it.  I only gave you the bones — and ghost — of the story.