Tuesday Reads: A Reluctant Farewell to Two Talented, Accomplished Novelists

P.D. James and Ruth Rendell

P.D. James and Ruth Rendell

 Good Morning!!

Within the last six months, we’ve lost two of the finest and most innovative writers of British crime fiction: P.D. James died at 94 in November 2014, and Ruth Rendell died at 85 over the weekend following a stroke in January. The two grand dames were good friends even though they were competitors and hailed from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Both women served in the House of Lords.

After James’ death, Rendell wrote in the Guardian:

I’ve known Phyllis for about 40 years. We met at a book festival, probably one of the first I ever attended. It would have been a very commonplace thing for her to go to a festival, but nobody knew me then, and she was so nice to me. That is the thing I always will most remember about her: what a kind woman she was, how she did her very best to make you feel good.

She did not write sensation novels, she wrote books about real things, things that could have happened. She didn’t write at all like Agatha Christie. Christie had the most magnificent plots and great stories, but I don’t think anyone would say that she wrote believable stuff, people didn’t want that from her.

But any of the events in Phyllis’s books might have happened – and I think people liked that because they’d never had it in crime fiction before. Dorothy Sayers was a marvellous crime writer, whom both Phyllis and I admired very much, but she hadn’t got the same reality, and she also had that peculiar snobbishness that made her have her detective the son of a duke. Phyllis would have nothing of that.

Both of us thought more about the characters than the crime. Her plots were good, of course, but she took particular care in the creation of character. Place also mattered a lot to her: if you knew the Essex coast you’d want to read some of her books because of her wonderful descriptions.

She always took enormous pains to be accurate and research her work with the greatest attention. She made few mistakes, but on one memorable occasion she did have a male character get on a motorbike and reverse it (I think you can do that now, but this was 30 or 40 years ago), and of course she got a lot of letters about it. But she had a great sense of humour and thought it was very funny.

If one of her books had police work in it, the police work would be true, it would be very real. Her detective Dalgliesh – named him after a female teacher at her school, she just liked the name – is the most intelligent police officer in fiction that I’ve ever come across. He’s sensitive, intelligent, rather awe-inspiring and slightly frightening, but he is a real person, you can get really involved in him.

Lady Crime Novelists

On the way their friendship worked:

We never talked about crime – because it was what we both wrote about – and we never talked about politics. Phyllis joined the House of Lords several years before me. We were both utterly opposed to each other politically: she was a Tory and very much a committed Conservative, whereas I’m a socialist, I’m Labour and always have been. Once we were in for a vote and crossed paths going to the two division lobbies, she to the “content” lobby and I to the “not content” – and we kissed in the chamber, which caused some concern and amazement.

And now, both of these brilliant and talented women are gone.

From NPR yesterday: Ruth Rendell Dies, Pioneered The Psychological Thriller.

Famed British crime writer Ruth Rendell died this past weekend in London. She was 85 and had suffered a stroke in January.

Best known for her long-running Inspector Wexford series — which was adapted for television — she pioneered a psychological approach to thriller writing. She also wrote darker, more contemplative books as Barbara Vine. In her later years, she was made a baroness and took up Labour Party politics.

Rendell’s most memorable creation may have been Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford: Liberal, intelligent, sensitive but hot-tempered, prone to quoting Shakespeare — Rendell based him partly on herself, and partly on her father.

The mysteries Wexford solved weren’t simple whodunits — there were layers upon layers of psychological complication, packed with obsession, deception, social issues and power games.

When Ruth Rendell started writing, there really wasn’t anyone like her….

In a 2005 NPR interview, Rendell was asked whether she was fascinated by crime. “Well, I don’t know that I am fascinated with crime,” she said. “I’m fascinated with people and their characters and their obsessions and what they do. And these things lead to crime, but I’m much more fascinated in their minds.”

PD James, right, and Ruth Rendell at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2009

I guess her focus on the psychological is one of the reasons why I love Rendell’s books. The other is that she was a truly fine novelist.

From the Telegraph obituary:

Baroness Rendell of Babergh, the novelist Ruth Rendell, who has died aged 85, was one of Britain’s best-selling celebrity crime writers.

She revitalised the mystery genre to reflect post-war social changes and wove into more than 60 books such contemporary issues as domestic violence, transvestism, paedophilia and sexual frustration. Her Inspector Wexford mysteries became an extremely popular television fixture in the 1990s.

Her work, mapping the manic and malevolent extremes of human behaviour, was distinguished by terse yet elegant prose and sharp psychological insights, as well as a talent for creating deft and intricate plots and believable characters.

With her friend and fellow crime writer PD James — with whom she shared the accolade of “Britain’s Queen of Crime” (which she detested) — Ruth Rendell redefined the “whodunnit” genre, fashioning it into more of a “whydunnit”.

But unlike the conservative Lady James, Rendell was politically to the Left and professionally far more prolific; she completed more than 50 novels under her own name and 14 writing as Barbara Vine, as well as two novellas and more than a dozen collections of short stories.

 

PD James as an impoverished young mother. She didn't begin writing until she was 42.

PD James as an impoverished young mother. She didn’t begin writing until she was 42.

From the Guardian on the close connection between two brilliant and successful women: Ruth Rendell and PD James: giants of detective fiction.

On Wednesday evening this week, publishers and readers of crime fiction gathered at Temple church in London’s law quarter for the memorial service of PD James, one of the two finest English crime-writers of the 20th century. A poignant absentee was the other: Ruth Rendell was too frail to attend the farewell to her great friend and co-practitioner following a severe stroke in January, complications from which led to her death, announced on Saturday, at the age of 85.

There is a clearly a bleakness in the fact that the genre of detective fiction has lost two of its giants within six months, but there is also a neatness. Rendell and James were always closely allied, both professionally and personally. One of Rendell’s last public engagements before her final illness had been to attend, in December, the funeral of PD James in Oxford.

On Wednesday evening this week, publishers and readers of crime fiction gathered at Temple church in London’s law quarter for the memorial service of PD James, one of the two finest English crime-writers of the 20th century. A poignant absentee was the other: Ruth Rendell was too frail to attend the farewell to her great friend and co-practitioner following a severe stroke in January, complications from which led to her death, announced on Saturday, at the age of 85.

There is a clearly a bleakness in the fact that the genre of detective fiction has lost two of its giants within six months, but there is also a neatness. Rendell and James were always closely allied, both professionally and personally. One of Rendell’s last public engagements before her final illness had been to attend, in December, the funeral of PD James in Oxford.

For five decades, the two women were the George Eliot and Jane Austen of the homicidal novel: different minds and style but equal talent. They were responsible, in joint enterprise, for saving British detective fiction from the position, after the era of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, in which its popularity with readers was matched only by its unpopularity with most serious literary critics. Solving this paradox, the books of Rendell and James amassed both high stacks of till receipts and piles of admiring reviews. Each, in TV adaptations, gave a major detective to the schedules: Rendell’s DCI Wexford, played by George Baker on ITV, and James’ DCI Dalgliesh, portrayed by Roy Marsden on ITV and then Martin Shaw for the BBC.

Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell

As well as the coincidence – of a kind they would have avoided in novels – of Rendell’s death so closely following the service for James, there is also a striking conjunction in the closeness of both to a general election. Unusually among novelists, both women were members of the House of Lords, where they sat as Baroness Rendell of Babergh on the Labour benches and Baroness James of Holland Park in the Conservative ranks. It is a credit to their characters that ideological difference never affected their mutual respect and pleasure in each other’s company, and on a number of issues they agreed: sharing, for example, an opposition to Scottish independence, against which the younger baroness campaigned publicly.

As well as the more than 60 books she published, Rendell’s achievements included being one of the few authors to have changed the law. In her political life, she was a crucial mover behind a 2003 act of parliament enforcing and strengthening British law against the misogynistic pre-pubescent surgery known as female genital mutilation (FGM).

People who are snobbish and dismissive about the detective story genre are sadly mistaken, and have no idea what they are missing by not reading Rendell and James’ work. If you enjoy fine writing and psychological analysis of human personality as I do, you can’t go wrong by picking up a book by either of these women–although I prefer Rendell.

I’ve probably bored you by going on about PD James and Ruth Rendell, but I thought the loss of two great women writers in such a short time deserved to be remarked upon.

Now some news of the day, links only and in no particular order.

USA Today, Islamic State claims responsibility for Texas attack.

NYT, Gunman in Texas Shooting Was FBI Suspect in Jihad Inquiry.

The Texas event was organized by right-wing hatemonger Pamela Geller.

CNN, Texas shooting: Who is Pamela Geller?

The Daily Beast, Muslims Defend Pam Geller’s Right to Hate.

Sam Brownback is not only a horrible governor, but also a lousy tipper. From KSNT.com, Note on restaurant receipt to Kansas governor goes viral.

Mitt Romney is just as clueless as ever. From the Boston Globe, Mitt Romney Doesn’t Think Mass Incarceration is a Real Thing.

NYT, Mike Huckabee to Joint Republican Race.

Dana Millbank, Ben Carson’s over-the-top ego.

Wall Street Journal, Hillary Clinton to Challenge GOP on Immigration.

James Rosen at McClatchy, Pentagon: Texas has nothing to fear from upcoming military exercise

PC News, Some Apple Watch Users Complain of Skin Rashes.

Institutional Investor’s Alpha, The 2015 Rich List: The Highest Earning Hedge Fund Managers of the Past Year.

Charles Pierce, In which we learn about protest songs and that science can be heartbreaking, among other things.

The Guardian, Nepal quake survivors face threat from human traffickers supplying sex trade.

IBT, Mississippi megafloods wiped out biggest ancient Native American civilisation of Cahokia.

What stories are you following today? Please post your thoughts and links in the comment thread and have a great day!

 


Friday Reads: The Day After Thanksgiving

10c Henri Matisse (1869-1954)   Still Life with Sleeping Woman 1940

The day after Thanksgiving might very well be the slowest news day of the year unless you want to read about people fighting tooth and nail over “bargains” bargains at Walmart and other huge chain stores. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to dig up a few stories of possible interest.

Professor Jaeha Lee of at North Dakota State University and her colleagues actually published a study on the phenomenon of bad behavior by “Black Friday” shoppers. From The Conversation, Retail rage: why Black Friday leads shoppers to behave badly.

The manic nature of Black Friday has often led shoppers to engage in fistfights and other misbehavior in their desperation to snatch up the last ultra-discounted television, computer or pair of pants. What is it about the day after Thanksgiving, historically one of the busiest shopping days of the year and traditionally the start of the holiday season, that inspires consumers to misbehave?

The unique characteristics of Black Friday sales promotions and the frantic retail environment they create, coupled with the shoppers’ own physical and emotional states combine to loosen the emotional constraints. Retailers heavily promote their most desirable items at deeply discounted prices in order to encourage more foot traffic. Demand for those precious few items naturally exceeds supply, and that imbalance can lead to aggressive consumer behavior.

But another key ingredient results from the very timing of the sales, which may begin at midnight or early in the morning and require eager customers to camp outside a store all night: sleep deprivation. That means many Black Friday shoppers’ cognitive levels are not functioning at top form, resulting in impaired decision-making and heightened negative mood states, thus facilitating misbehavior.

Researchers found that most Black Friday customers are well behaved, and a “proactive” strategy would be to make store rules clear to shoppers and “monitor” their behavior even before get into the store; and remove rude and aggressive shoppers before they can start trouble. Read more at the link if you’re interested. My personal solution to “retail rage” is to stay out of stores as much as possible until after the new year, and do most of my shopping on line.

Matisse - Woman reading at a yellow table

Of course Ferguson is still very much in the headlines.

From Reuters, via Huffington Post, Ferguson Protesters Target Black Friday Sales.

(Reuters) – Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri began targeting Black Friday sales at major retailers overnight in a new tactic to vent their anger at a grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teen.

Kicking off their latest strategy inside a Walmart in another nearby suburb of St. Louis, about 75 demonstrators protested peacefully, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!”, bemusing bargain-hunters pushing their brimming shopping carts.

They dispersed peacefully when ordered by a small group of police, moving on to a Target store where they staged a similar demonstration. More protests were planned for Friday.

Before heading in convoy to Walmart late on Thursday, a group of some 100 demonstrators ate Thanksgiving dinner, sang, prayed and discussed their new strategy in the basement of a St. Louis church.

“We are bruised but not broken,” said Cathy Daniels, a woman known to the activists as “Momma Cat” who prepared the food. “We are regrouping. We are not going to take this lying down.”

It’s really impressive to me how organized the long-time Ferguson protesters have become.

reclining

PBS Newshour has compiled a useful chart that breaks down the differences and similarities among grand jury witnesses to the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. The results of the analysis:

– More than 50 percent of the witness statements said that Michael Brown held his hands up when Darren Wilson shot him. (16 out of 29 such statements)

– Only five witness statements said that Brown reached toward his waist during the confrontation leading up to Wilson shooting him to death.

– More than half of the witness statements said that Brown was running away from Wilson when the police officer opened fire on the 18-year-old, while fewer than one-fifth of such statements indicated that was not the case.

– There was an even split among witness statements that said whether or not Wilson fired upon Brown when the 18-year-old had already collapsed onto the ground.

– Only six witness statements said that Brown was kneeling when Wilson opened fire on him. More than half of the witness statements did not mention whether or not Brown was kneeling.

Check out the full chart at the link.

From the Guardian US, How Michael Brown’s family could still file a lawsuit against Darren Wilson.

If they do decide to go that route, the family’s first option would be to file suit against Wilson or the Ferguson police department or both for wrongful death in a state court. If they did that, the case would most likely be heard in nearby Clayton, Missouri, in the same courthouse where the grand jury that declined to indict Wilson sat.

The other option is to sue in federal court, for what is known as a “1983” violation (named for its place in federal law, Title 42 Section 1983 of the US code, not the year), which means a deprivation of civil rights. This would be filed in the US district court for the eastern district of Missouri, in St Louis.

While in federal court for the 1983 violation, they could at the same time assert the state law case of wrongful death. Importantly, a 1983 suit also contains a variety of provisions for shifting the burden of legal fees; if the plaintiff wins a 1983 case, the defendant has to pay all the lawyers’ fees and expenses, on top of any damages awarded.

“My guess is the family will go to federal court, both because of the fee-shifting rule and also because of a potentially better jury pool,” said Ben Trachtenberg, a professor of law at the University of Missouri. The state court jury pool would draw from St Louis County, which might be seen as more predisposed to support Wilson, while the federal jury would come from a wider geographical area.

matisse-henri-1869-1954 Reading woman in violet dress, 1898

At The New Republic, Brian Beutler tries to make the best of the outcome of the midterm elections, Six Reasons I’m Thankful for a Republican Congress. I can say that I agree with him, but I could be wrong. Here’s the introduction to the piece:+

I generally don’t go in for sentimental holiday rituals like announcing New Year’s resolutions or giving children candy on Halloween. But in the interest of promoting counterintuitive thinking about American politics and juicing this website’s holiday traffic, I’m making an exception this Thanksgiving. So here goes:

Today, I am thankful that Republicans won the midterm elections and will soon control the U.S. Senate.

I’m not arguing that a fully Republican Congress will produce better policy than a divided Congress, or that Democrats should feel relieved to have lost the midterms so badly. All I’m suggesting is that a Republican Senate is the best outcome for me, personally, and for the growth interests of my employer. And also, maybein the longer termfor the country’s fragile, wheezing political system.

Read his reasons at the link.

According to the AP (via the WaPo), some Southern Democrats want their party to get back to “basics.”

ATLANTA — Southern Democrats are joining others in the party who say that a return to advocating to lift people out of economic hardship and emphasizing spending on education and public works will re-energize black voters and attract whites as well.

“It’s time to draw a line in the sand and not surrender our brand,” Rickey Cole, the party chairman in Mississippi, said. He believes candidates have distanced themselves from the past half-century of Democratic principles.

“We don’t need a New Coke formula,” Cole said. “The problem is we’ve been out there trying to peddle Tab and RC Cola.”

Cole and other Southern Democrats acknowledge divisions with prominent populists such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to run for president in 2016, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Yet they see merit in pushing stronger voting rights laws, tighter bank regulation, labor-friendly policies such as a higher minimum wage and other familiar party themes.

reader-on-a-black-background-1939

Finally, a great British mystery novelist, PD James, died yesterday at age 93. I’ve read a number of her books. From BBC News:

Her agent said she died “peacefully at her home in Oxford” on Thursday morning.

The author’s books, many featuring sleuth Adam Dalgliesh, sold millions of books around the world, with various adaptations for television and film.

Her best known novels include The Children of Men, The Murder Room and Pride and Prejudice spin-off Death Comes to Pemberley.

The author told the BBC last year she was working on another detective story and it was “important to write one more”.

“With old age, it becomes very difficult. It takes longer for the inspiration to come, but the thing about being a writer is that you need to write,” she said.

There’s much more about James at the link. I absolutely loved her first novel, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.–so much so that I’ve read it at least three times. It’s about Cordelia Gray, a woman who successfully runs a detective agency.

Here’s tribute to PD James by her close friend and fellow mystery novelist Ruth Rendell from the Guardian, PD James: ‘Any of the events in Phyllis’s books might have happened’.

She did not write sensation novels, she wrote books about real things, things that could have happened. She didn’t write at all like Agatha Christie. Christie had the most magnificent plots and great stories, but I don’t think anyone would say that she wrote believable stuff, people didn’t want that from her.

But any of the events in Phyllis’s books might have happened – and I think people liked that because they’d never had it in crime fiction before. Dorothy Sayers was a marvellous crime writer, whom both Phyllis and I admired very much, but she hadn’t got the same reality, and she also had that peculiar snobbishness that made her have her detective the son of a duke. Phyllis would have nothing of that.

Both of us thought more about the characters than the crime. Her plots were good, of course, but she took particular care in the creation of character. Place also mattered a lot to her: if you knew the Essex coast you’d want to read some of her books because of her wonderful descriptions.

She always took enormous pains to be accurate and research her work with the greatest attention. She made few mistakes, but on one memorable occasion she did have a male character get on a motorbike and reverse it (I think you can do that now, but this was 30 or 40 years ago), and of course she got a lot of letters about it. But she had a great sense of humour and thought it was very funny.

If one of her books had police work in it, the police work would be true, it would be very real. Her detective Dalgliesh – named him after a female teacher at her school, she just liked the name – is the most intelligent police officer in fiction that I’ve ever come across. He’s sensitive, intelligent, rather awe-inspiring and slightly frightening, but he is a real person, you can get really involved in him.

Both of these women were involved in British politics.

We never talked about crime – because it was what we both wrote about – and we never talked about politics. Phyllis joined the House of Lords several years before me. We were both utterly opposed to each other politically: she was a Tory and very much a committed Conservative, whereas I’m a socialist, I’m Labour and always have been. Once we were in for a vote and crossed paths going to the two division lobbies, she to the “content” lobby and I to the “not content” – and we kissed in the chamber, which caused some concern and amazement.

James lived a long and productive life and her writing gave pleasure and intellectual stimulation to millions of readers around the world. RIP Phyllis.

That’s all the news I’ve got this morning. What stories are you following, if any? I hope everyone enjoyed the holiday. I hope to see some of you in the comment thread, although I know it’s a busy day for lots of people.

Take care, Sky Dancers! I’m thankful for all of you.