Review 1316: Famous Trials

Cover for Famous TrialsFamous Trials is excerpted from the multiple-volume Penguin Famous Trials series, which in its turn originated with the Notable British Trial series. This series of first-hand accounts of trials began in 1905 and eventually comprised 83 volumes, each for one case. Famous Trials presents eight of those cases. The only one I was previously aware of was that of Crippen, the man who murdered his wife and buried part of her body in his cellar.

Three of these trials were of innocent people, two of whom were imprisoned for years before their cases were re-examined. Florence Maybrick was convicted of poisoning her husband with arsenic when there was no actual proof he died of arsenic poisoning or was even murdered. Although there was a small amount of arsenic in his system, he was known to take arsenic himself. She was more likely convicted because she admitted to having an affair.

Oscar Slater was convicted of murdering an old woman, Marion Gilchrist, because he hocked a brooch that was similar but not identical to one reportedly stolen during the murder. He was identified by two unreliable witnesses, and he probably never met Mrs. Gilchrist, who was almost certainly killed by someone she knew.

The case of Robert Wood, a man accused of murdering a prostitute, is notable for the lucid defense case. Robert Wood was almost certainly not guilty, and he was found so.

The writer of the Crippen case, Filson Young, was clearly rather sympathetic to Crippen, a weak man with a rapacious wife who planned to leave him penniless after he spoiled her for years. Although he fooled people for some time into believing she had left him, he made the mistake of letting his mistress wear his wife’s jewels. Crippen is also notable for being the first fugitive to be apprehended in flight because of the recent installment of wireless on the ship, as detailed in Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck.

The trial of George Joseph Smith was known as the Brides in the Bath case, as Smith bigamously married several women, cleaned them out, took insurance policies on them, and then drowned them in the bath tub. In the case of one of his victims, only 30 hours expired between the insurance policy and her death.

Herbert Rowe Armstrong was a hen-pecked husband who poisoned his wife with arsenic. Her death was only looked into after a business rival became ill after having tea with him and was found to have arsenic in his system.

Rattenbury and Stoner were lovers who were tried for murdering her husband. Although Mrs. Rattenbury almost certainly had nothing to do with the crime, she received so much approbrium during the trial that she committed suicide.

I am interested in true as well as fictional crime and found these accounts fascinating. They are extremely readable. In addition to presenting the evidence and arguments in an understandable form, they include assessments of the case and behaviors of the prosecution and defense by observers knowledgeable in law. Although some of the comments, especially about the women involved, are truly Victorian in outlook, this is a fascinating book that makes me interested in reading the entire Penguin series.

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Review 1315: Dead Water

Cover for Dead WaterI was trying to read Ann Cleeves’s Shetland series in order, but somehow I made a mistake and skipped the one before Dead Water. That unfortunately makes me privy to a key plot point for the previous book but did not spoil this one.

Jimmy Perez is on compassionate leave for reasons that readers of the previous novel will know, so he does not immediately become involved when the Fiscal, Rhona Laing, finds a body aboard the yoal that she shares with a group of rowers. The body is that of Jerry Markham, a reporter who left the island years ago to work in London. He has returned to Shetland to see his parents, the owners of a hotel, and for some other reason. He seemed to be working on a story, but if that is true, his editor knows nothing about it.

The mainland office sends Willow Reeves to be in charge of the investigation, and she immediately thinks the Fiscal isn’t telling everything she knows. The crux of the matter seems to be Markham’s reasons for returning to Shetland.

Jimmy slowly gets drawn into the investigation, which soon finds that years ago Markham made an innocent young girl, Evie Watt, pregnant and refused to accept responsibility for it. Evie lost the child, and now she is on the verge of marriage to John Henderson, a pilot. Evie acknowledges that Markham tried to contact her but says she refused to speak to him.

The team follows several leads, including a dispute over green energy, until another body surfaces and brings their attention back to Evie. This time the victim is her fiancé. Do the murders have something to do with Evie, or is it a coincidence that the victims were her ex and current lovers?

Again, Cleeves creates a twisty and suspenseful mystery for Jimmy Perez to figure out. Her characters are convincing, and we are truly interested in their fates.

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Review 1314: The Paris Architect

Cover for The Paris ArchitectLucien Bernard is an architect in 1942 Paris who is eager to prove his abilities as a modernist designer. He has an opportunity to design a factory for Auguste Manet, a wealthy businessman, and is undeterred by the knowledge that it will be used to manufacture arms for the Germans. All he wants is the opportunity to advance his career.

But first, Manet wants his help in designing an undetectable place to hide a person. He has been helping Jews hide from the Gestapo until they can leave the country. Lucien has no love for Jews and is terrified he’ll be caught. But he takes on the challenge.

This is an interesting premise for a novel, but Belfoure’s writing ability isn’t up to the task. The writing, especially the dialogue, is crude and obvious. Most of the Germans are cartoonish as villains, and other characters are flat as pancakes. Lucien’s secret is threatened from several directions, which is supposed to heighten the tension but almost makes it ridiculous. Lucien’s assistant hates him and is involved in helping his own uncle finds Jews, while Lucien’s mistress is two-timing him with a Gestapo officer.

Most problematically, Lucien is a jerk. He is supposed to evolve into a good guy during the novel, but there is a fairly late scene where his reaction to thinking his girlfriend is cheating on him is brutal. Of course, he is rewarded by falling in love with a beautiful model in Paris.

As you can probably tell, I disliked this novel.

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Review 1313: Obscure Destinies

Cover for Obscure DestiniesObscure Destinies is a collection of three longish stories by Willa Cather. They are all character studies of people living in small prairie towns. I distinctly felt that the stories were based on people Cather knew during her days in Nebraska, even though one story is set in Colorado.

“Neighbor Rosicky” is about a farmer, an old Czech man whose doctor tells him at the beginning of the story that he must stop all hard work. He has a heart condition.

Rosicky has not prospered as well as some of his neighbors, but he is a kind man who enjoys life. He has an affectionate relationship with his family, but he is afraid that his oldest son, Rudolph, and Rudolph’s wife, Polly, will become discontented with the difficult life of farming and move away to the city. Rosicky has lived in London and New York and felt that he was never free until he owned his own land.

“Old Mrs. Harris” is about a woman who lives with her daughter’s family. Mrs. Rosen, her neighbor, thinks she is mistreated. Her room is a passageway in the house, and any treats intended for Mrs. Harris are either resented or appropriated by her daughter, Mrs. Templeton.

Mrs. Harris is from the South, where it was apparently commonplace to spoil young women, and where some older woman usually ran the household behind the scenes. But here she has no help besides a hired girl, and Mr. Templeton’s career has not been successful.

Young Vicky has an opportunity for a scholarship, and she has been encouraged to study by the Rosens. But the Templetons see no reason why she should go to college. Only Mrs. Harris understands.

“Two Friends” is about the friendship between two prominent businessmen in town, Mr. Dillon and Mr. Trueman. The narrator as a child loves playing at their feet each evening as they discuss Mr. Dillon’s tenant farmers, the history of the area, and other interesting topics. However, the friendship eventually founders over politics.

These stories are interesting and insightful character sketches. “Neighbor Rosicky” even brought tears to my eyes. I believe I’ve enjoyed these stories more than I have some of Cather’s novels, which is unusual for me.

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Review 1312: Autumn

Cover for AutumnAutumn is the first of Ali Smith’s planned Seasonal Quartet. I believe Winter is already out. The first is about, among many other things, Brexit.

Daniel Gluck may be dying. He is an elderly man, over 100, and he dreams, among other things, that he has become his younger self and that he is turning into a tree. At his side reading to him is Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-two-year-old lecturer who has known him since she was eight. He taught her how to invent stories, approach the world creatively, and think critically. He always greets her with, “What are you reading?”

As Elisabeth walks around the village where her mother lives, she observes the various attitudes about Brexit. Some people are exultant while others are horrified. Her mind goes to A Tale of Two Cities, which she is reading to Daniel: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

It’s beyond my powers to provide much more than a suggestion of this novel, which touches on so many subjects, among them British pop artist Pauline Boty, Christine Keeler of the Profumo scandal, our experience of time, the relationship between mothers and daughters and brothers and sisters. I’ll just say that I found the novel both intellectually challenging and touching. I read it for my Man Booker project.

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Review 1311: Literary Wives! They Were Sisters

Cover for They Were Sisters

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I jumped the gun on this book back in October because of the 1944 Club. I had already read the book when the club was proposed, so I published my review in time for that club, since it was written in 1944. So, you can read my review there. Suffice it to say that this was one of my best books of the year.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I like how balanced this book is in presenting marriage, especially as most of the books we’ve read for Literary Wives are about unhappy marriages. They Were Sisters is a good book for this club, because it depicts three very different marriages, although it spends most of its time on the two unhappy ones. The details of Lucy’s marriage are more implied. They married late after she didn’t expect to. She and William lead a calm, well-ordered life. They discuss their concerns with each other. When Lucy wants to provide a more stable environment for Judith, he is happy to oblige.

Lucy approves of Vera’s husband, Brian, but Vera’s marriage slowly disintegrates under the pressure of her boredom with him and his resentment of her series of admirers (whether they are actually lovers is not clear). They become more withdrawn from each other, and eventually Brian gives her a final opportunity to save their marriage. In this situation, Vera is depicted as at fault. Beautiful and spoiled, she is happy to use his money, but she cannot do without the admiration and constant entertaining. Theirs is a true mismatch.

From the beginning, Lucy thinks Charlotte is making a mistake in marrying Geoffrey. Charlotte is in love with him and at first thinks he can do no wrong. Later, she protects him even after he makes her life a misery and teaches their daughters to disdain her. This is a classic abusive relationship where he does everything to separate her from those she loves and to destroy her self-esteem. Nothing she does is right, although she only tries to please him. Eventually, she gives up and reverts to alcoholism.

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Best of Ten!

Cover for Crow LakeStarting with my 1300th review, I decided to do my Best Book series differently. Because I have gone to three postings a week, the Best of Five post came roughly every other week. Now, I plan to do this post every ten books instead, permitting me to post a few more reviews in the same period of time. So, this post will appear roughly once a month but may mention more books.

The Best Book for this period is Crow Lake by Mary Lawson!

Also recommended: Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf!