Tag Archives: Hit picks for summer

A list of great summer reading.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

Note from Timothy – Since we are a book club, sometimes we discuss the endings. If you are planning to read this book, you might want to come back later, eh? 8)

A review by Ruth Keenan of Helensvale Book Club

Mr Whicher is acknowledged as one of the UK’s first detectives and looking at the detective side of the police force as we know it today and then reading about Mr Whicher’s employment makes you realise just how far the Force has come in only 150 years. In Mr W’s time circumstantial evidence or confession seemed to be the flavour of the day. How much we now take for granted in 2010 with forensic science, DNA, etc, and hasn’t NCIS taught us all a great deal! This aspect of the story is combined very subtly with life in 1850/60 in England where an ordinary middle class family (father in middle management) seem to live a very insular life and I thought possibly an incestuous one too.

Mr Kent’s two wives seemed to spend most of their lives pregnant; though several of the babies either miscarried or were stillborn. There is mention of Mr Kent’s syphilis. I surmised that he passed this on to his wives, thought it most probably contributed to the loss of the babies and wondered whether the first Mrs Kent who they said was “unstable” was also infected and suffering as a result of her husband’s philanderings.

Although Mr Whicher had his suspicions he wasn’t able to prove that Constance had committed the crime and I wonder whether her confession was, in fact, true. Was she covering for her brother; was it an act that they committed together or was Constance so jealous of Saville that she had to remove him from the family in the hope that she would regain the full attention of her new stepmother?

We didn’t find out how Mr Whicher felt about the confession – he was retired by this time – nor was there any comment about how the family themselves reacted to the murder and/or confession (if there was it went over my head!). Constance served her time; adopted a new persona and lived to the ripe old age of 100 and a deal of that time was spent here in Australia.

My thoughts now as I write this – what was the point of the book? It reported a quite gruesome murder; provided an insight into the setting up of the detective arm of the police force and very cleverly wrapped this in a cameo of what can only be described as a dysfunctional family back in the 1860s. I enjoyed this book even though I had to read the first chapter twice so that I could establish a rapport/understanding with the author. It was a different but worthwhile read. It was quite complex in places, but it was informative and educative.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

One of the best books I have read in the last couple of years is The forgotten garden by Kate Morton. The story spans over three generations, all the time building each characters profile .This is not a thriller or crime novel but more a family saga involving the mystery of a little girl arriving on the Maryborough docks all by herself. The story winds back and forth over the years gradually unravelling the mystery. I found this book hard to put down. It is set in England and Brisbane Which made it come to life even more for me as I was able to identify with so Many of the landmarks. I have recommended this book to many of our regular customers and have had some great feedback, so if you are looking for a great story that you can just sit down somewhere with a coffee and really enjoy this is the one for you. I am now onto Kate Morton’s other novels so stay tuned.

Written by Cathie (Helensvale Library staff)

In cold blood – Too flowery

I just finished this (actually I only skimmed because I wanted to get the gist without having to read it all) and I can’t say that I was all that impressed. It seemed like a standard crime non-fiction, and the reputation of ‘Capote’ seems to have overtaken his writings. I have to say that the only reason I read it was because of the author, and perhaps he was ground-breaking at the time, but I finished the book feeling wholy underwhelmed.

It was an interesting story, if you like that kind of thing, and I have to admit that I followed the post-trial part of the book most closely, but even there the language was embellished and flowery, and has added conversations that I find difficult to believe were ever actually recorded or recollected, to be added later to Capote’s ‘non-fiction’ account of the crime. For example, he documents a whole conversation between the mother of the house and a child who is visting briefly, and I have to say I find it incredible that a child could recall exact comments exchanged between the two. Because of course the mother couldn’t, having been killed that night.

Anyway, the upshot is that it was okay, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Victorian murders – The Mayne inheritance and Death at the priory

As part of our launch, several people have read and reviewed The suspicions of Mr Whicher, an excellent book about the foundation of the detective genre, that describes a seminal case, using the techniques of modern mystery writing.

So, I’d like to suggest a couple of other books in a similar vein. I listened to each of these in audiobook. We have paper copies of the second one, but the first one, if you want it in hardform, you’ll need to interlibrary loan.

Death at the priory is similar to Whicher, in that it’s about a famous historical murder, which influenced authors foundational to the genre of detective fiction, in this case Agatha Christie particularly. Charles Bravo, the victim, was simply a horrible man, the sort of victim popular for early mysteries, where the shock of murder (which modern readers hardly feel) was leavened a little by making the victim, if possible, deserve it thoroughly. Charles was poisoned with tartar emetic, a derivative of antimony. This is perhaps an ancestor of some of the exotic poisons in the works of later authors. Charles dismissed many of his wife’s servants in the days before the murder. This provides a range of suspects, of course, but it also, through the examination of the servant’s actions at the time of the murder, provides the sort of interesting period detail that is an attraction of historical true crime.

One difference from Whicher is that, and this isn’t a spoiler more a caution, there was never a conviction recorded in this case. The lack of a conviction explains, in part, why the crime became so notorious. The author does suggest who he believes committed the crime, and his conjecture seems superficially sound, but there’s no strange and sudden reveal which makes all of the evidence fall into place, or be discounted as red herring. I enjoyed it a little less than Whicher, but it has many of the factors that appealed to me in the first book.

The Mayne inheritance is a book about a prominent Brisbane family, founded by a self-confessed murderer, and their suffering for his crimes. There’s some sort of congenital mental illness in the Mayne family, so society shunned them all, even the ones who were, in hindsight, useful and productive members of the community. In addition to the inheritance of madness and murderousness which the family carries, the book is about the real estate fortune of the family, seeded with the money stolen from the patriarch’s murder victim, which paid for the Saint Lucia campus of the University of Queensland, and provides the University with funds to this day.

I want to like this book. It has local history, and a suitable crime, and its by a local author, and so I should like this book. And I do…kind of. I like it, but with some caveats.

It’s billed as a story of gothic murder and grisly doings, which to be fair, it is but it’s not a mystery in any real sense. That’s not the fault of the book, but I came to read the book due to web advertising which put it in the mystery genre, when its more a social history. My second caveat is that the author tries to give an accurate history of the Maynes and rehabilitate their reputations. She seems to assume that I already know the rumours she hints at, that they are part of a familiar folk history which she and I share. Now, I’m a blow-in from Central Queensland, so, no, much of the time I don’t know what she’s talking about when she refers, glancingly, to the terrible things said about the family.

So, it’s a solid book, with some interesting parts, but it’s emphatically not a mystery, despite being billed as such by some of its promoters. As a social history it shares many of the features of its genre, and in this case one the weaknesses. It has an ending which is kind trickles off as the members of the family die. Now, of course, that’s what really happened, but at the same time, it means that the book winds down toward the end, before brief polemic for the rehabilitation of the reputation of the family which would ring more true, for me, if I’d heard of them before the book in the sort of negative context which the author presume I have.

The book is interesting, but only for those who like their true crime without the props of modern mystery writing.

Carnivals – desperate, depressed and diabolic

The circus featured in Sara Gruen’s Water for elephants trundles its way across an American landscape devastated by the Depression. The appeal of carnivals has always been that they offer an escape from the everyday: a whirl of lights and sweet treats; exotic animals and sideshow freaks; the chance to win a prize or see something magical. Considering that this still has an appeal in an era of modern travel and communications should put into perspective how much excitement they would have caused back in the 1930s.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about fictional carnivals, and the era for this book reminded me of the TV series Carnivale, which is also set in 1930s America. I watched the first series when it was aired, but I missed the second series. Can anyone recommend it? I can borrow it from the library, but if I did want to watch series 2 I would probably watch the first series again (because it’s been a few years) – and I’m wondering, is it worth the time?

I can’t write about fictional carnivals and not mention the malevolent Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show of Ray Bradbury’s Something wicked this way comes. If you haven’t read it you’re missing out on something very wicked indeed. It’s a wonderfully dark coming-of-age story with characters that have haunted me for many years.

I recently read Johannes Cabal the necromancer by Jonathan L Howard. The author acknowledged that he has been hugely influenced by Bradbury’s Shadow Show, crediting the idea of his novel as stemming from speculation on where carnivals of the damned come from (you know, it’s a rainy Wednesday afternoon and you’re lounging around wondering…..hmmm, how do I get my hands on one of those?)

Another extraordinary collection of disturbing fictional freaks can be found between the pages of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. This seriously bizarre story is told by Olympia, the hunchbacked albino dwarf daughter of carnies Al Binewski and his wife, Crystal Lil, who breed their own freak show through the horrifically simple expedient of Lil taking drugs and exposing herself to other harmful substances while pregnant with Oly and her siblings.

Does anyone have any favourite tales of circuses or carnivals they can recommend?

The lure of true crime

In cold blood by Truman Capote is widely recognised as the genesis of the modern non-fiction novel style of true crime writing. It’s still in demand more than 40 years after it was first published. What I’m wondering is, what’s the attraction?

You can go to your local library and (if they use the Dewey Decimal system like we do) have a look at non-fiction 364 – it’s crammed to bursting with accounts of murders, serial killers, gangland slayings and criminal organisations. Or check out your local book shop – you’ll recognise the true crime section by it’s preponderance of splashy red titles over grim-looking black and white photos.

Now I can’t be a complete hypocrite and say I haven’t read any true crime – if you’ve seen the posts about The suspicions of Mr Whicher you’ll see that I have read that book, and other true crime books about the Victorian era. But I’ve not read In cold blood and I’ve no intention of reading it.

Mr Whicher‘s author, Kate Summerscale, described true crime as “a sleazy uneasy genre” that is “morally precarious” in an article she wrote for the Times newspaper about the appeal of true crime generally, and her own contribution to the genre in the specific. She outlines the role that true crime writing plays, including documenting the upbringing of the criminals and the psychological foundations of their aberrant anti-social behaviours.

But the sheer volume of books about killers still kind of amazes me.

Do people read them to try and understand why these horrible crimes have been committed?
Are they just hoping for gory details that they won’t get elsewhere – an accusation made against In cold blood by Tom Wolfe in his 1976 essay Pornoviolence.

Their popularity is as much a mystery to me as the appeal of ‘misery memoirs.’ I can understand the element of personal carthasis involved for an author who documents his or her abusive, traumatic childhood, and goes on to describe how he or she has triumphed over this damaging beginning. I can even imagine it might help others who have suffered through similar circumstances. But I don’t understand their mass appeal, unless it is, as Brendan O’Neill wrote for the BBC, pandering to the readers’ “sense of moral outrage” while giving them an opportunity for voyeuristic salaciousness. Even leaving aside the issue of some of the alleged memoirs being shown to be more fiction than fact, they seem to have been following a downward trajectory for some time as far as perpetuating a kind of one-upmanship (or should that be downmanship?) detailing distressing examples of abuse.

If anyone would care to tell me what I’m missing, in either the true crime or misery lit genres, I’m all ears.

Praise for elephants

Elephants are just one of those species of creatures that it’s hard not to love, and Rosie, the lemonade-swilling, disobedient star of Water for elephants, is no exception.

But a fair slice of the portion of my heart assigned to proboscideal affection will always be reserved for Indras.

Four years ago I was working at Leith Library and every day, when I went to work, I dabbled in the arcane secrets of the information professional under the benign gaze of Indras, a baby elephant who had visited the library back in 1976, as part of a campaign to encourage people to remember to return their books.

What a darling beastie she was….


Don’t you agree?

***(These images of Indras are copyright to The Scotsman Publications Ltd)

Family secrets and family history

In The suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale, the public obsessively linger over each lurid detail of the murder, the crime scene and the hidden lives of the middle class Kent family. From a social historian’s point of view the amount of information revealed is amazing, even if, as the author points out, everything is seen through the filter of crime – that is, we only know about the number of nightdresses that the Kent daughters own because one of them is missing, and suspected of being bloodstained; we know when and by whom the household’s knives are sharpened, because one of them may have been the murder weapon.

This reminded me of the excellent Old Bailey website that has transcripts of criminal cases heard in London between 1674 and 1913. Many of the victims, witnesses and perpetrators of the crimes tried in the Central Criminal Courts were poor and working class people, and the everyday detail of their lives would never have been recorded were it not for the court’s transcripts. They are a fantastic resource for people researching their ancestors, especially if you are lucky enough to have a convict or two tucked away in your antecedents.

It’s one thing to read someone like Dickens’ fictionalised accounts of poverty and deprivation, and another to read what a person before the court said about what he did when he left the tavern; or what she saw at the intersection of two streets. Being able to imagine the life behind the bare bones of names and dates is what I enjoy about family research, and in this regard, The suspicions of Mr Whicher was of particular interest to me. I recently discovered through English Census records (you can access Ancestry.com at your local branch library if you’re on the Gold Coast and, hopefully, elsewhere too) that one of my maternal great-great-grandfathers was a police constable in Wandsworth, London, from at least 1851 to 1861. I therefore found the details in the book about Mr Whicher’s career as a police constable and, later, detective (including what he would have worn, and eaten, and how the constable’s walked the beat) helped me imagine a little better what my ancestor’s life may have been like.

Are there any other family historians out there with a tale to tell?

Or has anyone else been lucky enough to find information they could use in their leisure reading?

Suspicions and studies in scarlet

The suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale focuses on a murder that shocked and obsessed the public during the Victorian era.

But the book makes clear that while ‘detective fever’ was a relatively new phenomenon, this was not the only murder to attract attention in the 1800s. Scattered liberally throughout the text are references to other crimes. Some years ago I read the excellent Victorian Studies in Scarlet: murders and manners in the Age of Victoria by Richard D. Altick, which was first published in 1970. It looks at the era’s obsession with murders, the “murder clubs” at which gentlemen would discuss the “art” of murder, and the spread of newspapers (complete with gory details), penny dreadfuls and gothic novels. It covers the Road Hill House murder along with other famous murders, many of which are mentioned in The suspicions of Mr Whicher.

The level of detail revealed to the public was amazing. And remember the bit in The suspicions of Mr Whicher, where the Kent family’s possessions are auctioned off, but not Saville’s crib, because they don’t want it to end up on display? It reminded me of a (well-researched) novel by Gyles Brandreth: Oscar Wilde and the dead man’s smile, where the characters are at Madame Tussaud’s, looking at the Chamber of Horrors. Tussaud’s grandson explains proudly that they have purchased the clothes and pram of a young murder victim – even the sweet that the child was sucking when it was killed. “It’s strawberry flavoured,” he tells them, and when one character is appalled that, to know this, he must have tasted it, he modestly assures them he did it for the public, because they like to know even the smallest detail.

Slap that child?

A review by Sophie.

The slap by Christos Tsiolkas was my book of the year. I have since discovered that it is a book that completely divides opinions. It seems people either love it or hate it. Apparently the use of course language and sex upset a number of readers. There is strong language, it didn’t offend me as I think it was used in context. There are a number of sex scenes but I would argue they are no more “pornographic” as a number of people have stated, than a Black Lace Mills and Boon!

The story begins at a bbq in the suburbs of Melbourne where an adult slaps four year old boy Hugo – not his own child. To be honest I wanted to slap Hugo too, as well most of the characters in the book. None of the characters are particularly likeable yet somehow you can relate to all of them. And this in itself is a little confronting. Would I really hit a 4 year old, still breastfeeding boy? Would I be embarrassed by my slightly overweight teenager? Would I lie about a sexual encounter? These are some of the issues that are raised and kept me thinking.

The Slap is told almost as collection of short stories through the perspective of eight characters, all with different background, age, ethnicity and value systems this book explores concepts of parenting, drinking, infidelity and homosexuality and the repercussions of hitting someone else’s child.