Her husband died a year ago in a random street accident while on a business trip. Since that time, Maggie McElroy has been dealing with grief. They ha...moreHer husband died a year ago in a random street accident while on a business trip. Since that time, Maggie McElroy has been dealing with grief. They had no children – her decision. They both had demanding jobs requiring frequent travel. He was a lawyer. She is a food writer. Then, Maggie receives a call from one of her husband's colleagues, based in Beijing. A Chinese woman has filed a paternity suit and she needs to travel to China to obtain a DNA sample from the child. The narrative up to this point follows a familiar template: Widow stunned by husband's secrets.
We are rescued by a second narrative. Sam Liang, a Chinese-American, had returned to Beijing to learn traditional Chinese cooking from his uncles, Jiang Wanli, Tan Jingfu, and Xie Er. Timed with the Peking Olympics, there is to be a culinary competition. Sam will be one of ten contestants vying for the two Northern Chinese chef spots on the team. The two stories converge when Maggie agrees to interview Sam for her magazine while she is in China. Sam has an interesting history. His grandfather, Liang Wei, was trained in the waning days of imperial rule and wrote a book about Chinese cuisine and aesthetics that might be comparable to Brillat-Savarin's analysis of western gastronomy. His father Liang Yeh was rigorously trained by Liang Wei, but was forced to flee for his life when the ideology of the cultural revolution sought to eradicate all vestiges of tradition, including food preparation. Restaurants were closed and chefs either imprisoned, executed, or like much of the population, starved. He made it to America where Sam was born.
There is a studied delicacy in the friendship that grows between Maggie and Sam. They begin as reluctant professional contacts. Maggie begins to act on her tentative instincts when an opportunity presents itself. “She and Sam seemed to be in the first stages of alliance people pass through while deciding whether or not to become friends. Already they seemed to be looking out for each other, at least a little.” (p.92)
However, the true momentum of this book derives from the descriptions of food. A taxonomy of flavors includes xian (shee-in)-sweet; xiang (shee-ahng)-fragrant; nong-complex and concentrated; and you er bu ni (yuu-er-buu-nee)-fat. In addition, there are considerations of texture: cui (tswai)-dry and crispy; nen (nuhn)-fibrous and tender; and ruan (rwahn)-softness. Sam teaches Maggie a little about Chinese cuisine and its goals. The point is not just taste, but a whole network of associations – personal, familial, cultural, and even historical. This network of relationships is summarized by the word guanxi (gwahn-she). In order to plan a banquet, the chef must first select a theme. Sam chooses a literary theme. Intended to allude to the Song poet, Su Dongpo, he selects a dish called dongpo rou (doong-pwaw roe) for one of his dishes. The discerning judges will immediately grasp the connection of the dish with the famous poet, the region of Hangzhou renowned for the dish, and Sam's own familial ties to the region. It will also offer a variety of desirable contrasts: The precisely shaped cut of pork, the cloud-like softness of the crown of fat, and the subtlety of the flavored sauce. For presentation, Sam will surround the square with rice studded with ginkgo nuts, dates, lotus buds, gelatinous silver ear mushroom and pine nuts suffused with the sauce. Cultural continuity is reflected in these traditional dishes. Sam's uncle, Xie Er muses: “People sometimes said the cuisine's long history was the very thing that made it special, but it was not the longevity of the art itself that counted – no. Rather, it was the cuisine's constant position as observer and interpreter. Throughout history chefs created dishes to evoke not only the natural world but also events, people, philosophical thought, and famous works of art such as operas, paintings, poems, and novels. A repertoire was developed that kept civilization alive, for diners to enjoy, to eat, to remember.” (p.98) This memory was what made food a dangerous topic and a political target during the cultural revolution.
This is a light-weight romance saved by its rich cultural references. The tension between tradition and innovation that has marked China's long history is left untouched. The permanent foreignness of the outsider is frequently mentioned, and then dropped. Some of the aesthetic descriptions indulge in a mystique lauding over-refinement. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable story about food, history and cooking. It ties together some very modern ideas about the connection between taste, sight, smell and childhood associations with the theme of traditional Chinese cuisine. Finally, there's a lively sense of pacing as the story shifts backward and forward in time. One of the most charming stories is of xiao wo tou (shee-ow waw toe), a simple corncake which the Dowager Empress favored because it reminded her of her youth and the Court's flight after the Boxer Rebellion. A few of the recipes and much of the author's restaurant journal are summarized on her website, http://www.nicolemones.com. (less)
There is little that is pleasant in the world of Harry Hole. His memories are haunted by ghosts. Two years ago, his sister, afflicted with Down's Synd...moreThere is little that is pleasant in the world of Harry Hole. His memories are haunted by ghosts. Two years ago, his sister, afflicted with Down's Syndrome, suffered a rape and subsequent abortion. He was unable to solve the case, which has now been closed. He has been drowning his impotent rage in alcohol. Suddenly, he is drafted into a sensitive and politically charged case. The Norwegian ambassador to Thailand has been found murdered in a seedy motel room. A prostitute discovered the body. The politicians hastily confer and determine that Harry Hole is the right man to dispatch to Bangkok to conduct a discreet investigation. Discreet? Harry's boss Bjarne Møller stifles a roar of laughter when the secretary of state apologizes to him for diverting Harry's indispensable skills.
Part I of the book tracks the story from various points of view. In Oslo we glean the thoughts of the politicians and Harry's beleaguered boss, Møller. In Bangkok the prostitute Din reflects on her improved working conditions compared to her induction at age 14 into the business. Nesbø permits us to see every thought and movement up to the moment she discovers the ambassador's body, stabbed in the back with an antique Burmese knife. At this point, the focus changes. The third person narrative turns exclusively to Harry. Every thought, observation and conversation is recorded in a way that is meant to put the reader inside of his head. The result is a series of lengthy portraits. The proprietor of the motel, Wang Lee, is described as a “bony man in the flowery shirt [and] had sleep in the corners of his eyes....” A laconic member of the Thai detective team, Rangsam, reminded me of an Asian Lester (the patient veteran cop from “The Wire” who carved doll house furniture while he worked the case). Here, Rangsam is the voice behind a newspaper. These were only two of the many minor characters. Liz Crumley, the lead investigator, describes how she came to be in Thailand while giving Harry a crash course in Thai crime elements and unpleasant ways to die – all of this over several meals. Harry's appetite is suppressed, while Liz eats heartily. Nesbø combines the business of the investigation with a sly sense of humor.
I first mistook this dense overlay of information as local color, similar to the sort found in Nesbø's first book, THE BAT. This was a mistake. COCKROACHES is not a generic “who-done-it.” A number of other crimes are possibly connected. Child pornography photos are found with the ambassador's body. The ambassador also owed a sizable amount of money to a local mafia loan shark. There may be some link to a pedophilia ring. Political corruption is pervasive, especially because of the speed of economic development – Liz likens the growth to the same logic of a cancer cell. At the same time there are political repercussions. Oslo is more interested in keeping the story from the press than solving any crimes. Anxious to upgrade its image to tourists, the Thai authorities are eager to expel foreigners involved in sex crimes. Both governments have hidden agendas. Time is a critical element in this book. While one crime has already been committed, an unseen substratum of other crimes are on-going or about to happen. It's as if crime, itself, were a living plant sprouting connecting underground roots. The relevant clues are cleverly embedded in the thicket of details Nesbø provides. At one point, Harry explains, “You never know what anything means. Ninety-nine percent of the information you gather during a case is worthless. You just have to hope you're alert enough for the one percent under your nose.” The explanation is relevant advice for the reader.
The theme of time is underscored in numerous ways. Each of the chapter headings is a date. Early on, Liz points out that the exact time of death cannot be pinpointed because of the Bangkok heat which slows the cooling of the corpse's body temperature. Harry suffers from insomnia – a reference to the time difference as well as the ghosts that claim his memories. Much of the investigation centers on the calls the decedent made from his cell phone on the day he was killed. Finally, Oslo is eager for Harry to “wrap up” the investigation, demanding he return on the “next available plane.”
I did not begin to fully appreciate this book until my second reading. Nesbø creates an assortment of memorable characters. Liz Crumley calls out Harry on his inebriation on their first meeting. She's shrewd, pragmatic and blunt. That she is bald (alopoecia disorder) merely heightens her individuality. Runa Molnes is the teen-aged daughter of the ambassador. Her youthful cynicism is combined with intensity. She's an adolescent freed from conventional restraints by living in a foreign country, intoxicated by the excitement of the city. “'Think of all they're missing....Those people who live in places where they can't be surrounded by crowds like here. Hold your arm up....Can you fell it? The vibration? It's the energy from everyone around us. It's in the air....' Her eyes were glowing, her whole face was glowing....” Her missing arm merely adds to the image of gracefulness when she dives into a sparkling pool.
Nesbø also provides multiple action scenes, rather than saving them for the finale, as in many thrillers. If you do not become entangled in all of the detail, this will prove to be a satisfying and memorable read. (less)
The Manoir Bellechasse was carved out of the Quebec forest in a past Canadian Gilded Age. Yet it retains its earthy roots. Nearby is tranquil Lac Mass...moreThe Manoir Bellechasse was carved out of the Quebec forest in a past Canadian Gilded Age. Yet it retains its earthy roots. Nearby is tranquil Lac Massawippi, ringed by ancient forests. Chef Véronique harvests honey and beeswax from hives surrounded by blooms of honeysuckle, lilies, and roses. Artisanal cheeses and spirits from a nearby Benedictine abbey stock the larder. At night the stone terrasse embraces a brilliant star-studded sky. This idyllic lodge was cut from logs by coureur de bois ('men of the forest' – so much more romantic than the American term, 'mountain men') – men who knew their land as well as their craft. The pristine setting is unmarred by television and cell phones. Wood burning fires ward off the chill; breezes bring relief from summer's heat. Without air conditioning, many summer nights are sweltering, but the guests don't mind – certainly not Armand Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie, who have vacationed here for the past 30 years to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
Although the book opens with ominous foreboding, the first third of the book is filled with descriptions of the Manoir and the other guests, the Finneys, assembled for a family reunion. This is part of the problem. We know there will be a murder, but Penny first languishes with a detailed introduction to all of the characters. She introduces us to matriarch Irene Finney, her husband Bert, her adult children, Thomas, Julia and Marianna, Marianna's ten-year old child Bean (that's right – as in lima bean!), and Thomas' wife, malcontent Sandra. The family discloses they are awaiting the arrival of still another member of the clan. They refer to him by the nickname of 'Spot' with a barely concealed sneer. Penny also introduces the staff at the Manoir. The pace feels extremely slow. The third person narration is from Gamache's point of view, and Gamache is here to relax – to banish the suspicions and probing interrogations habitual for a chief inspector of homicide. The reader, on the other hand, can't wait for someone to get murdered!
A second problem I had with the book was that I missed old friends. There is a village of Three Pines thread. For instance, the crusty poet Ruth appears briefly. Her welcoming greeting to Inspector Gamache: “Oh, for Chrissake....It's not Clouseau.” (p.274). Of course, its delivered with the faintest hint of a smile. When Gamache's colleagues finally arrive, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir, so scrupulous in attire, so emotionally reactive, steps out of his car in the middle of a downpour. “He looked down at his shoes. Leather. His slacks designer. His shirt. Casual linen. Perfect. F***ing middle of nowhere murder. In the rain. And mud. He slapped his cheek. And bugs. Flattened to his palm were the remains of a mosquito and some blood. F***ing perfect. Agent Isabelle Lacoste opened an umbrella and offered him one. He declined. Bad enough to be here, he didn't need to look like Mary Poppins.”(p.93). Scrupulously efficient Agent Lacoste is less clearly drawn but nevertheless entertaining. Beauvoir continues to rhapsodize about the mysteries of bees and their honey, as they eat breakfast. “'Did you know honey bees actually flap their wings over the honeycomb and that evaporates water?' said Beauvoir, chewing on a mouthful of honeycomb and trying to look as though it didn't taste like wax....Isabelle Lacoste dabbed fresh raspberry jam on a buttery croissant and looked at Beauvoir as though he was a bear of very little brain.” (p. 271).
As always, Penny enlivens her story with interesting historical details. We glimpse the on-going tensions between Francophone and Anglophone Canadians. The “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960's is alluded to as a time of disruption. English-speaking residents of Montreal felt alienated and friends and family left the province which had now become officially French-speaking. We also glimpse the class divisions that the two languages demarcated at the time. There are also allusions to World War II. Gamache mentions a Rodin sculpture, “The Burghers of Calais” (Les Bourgeois de Calais), which he cites as a more apt representative of wartime commemoration than more prolific mounted generals and heroic statuary.(p.144). She includes a charming legend about a bird, the martlet. She discloses some of Gamache's own family history through conversations with his son, Daniel.
This was an enjoyable story, but not one of Penny's best. I felt there were numerous plot holes, and an unnecessary overabundance of red herrings and melodramatic portents. I had hoped to pass this book on, but my friends are not as avid fans of the series as I am.
NOTE: Be sure to look on the author's website: http://www.louisepenny.com. She includes an audio section on pronunciation for each of her books. I love hearing how these French phrases are actually pronounced, and she adds explanation to some of the puzzling phrases the characters use.(less)
What can Stephen King teach me about writing? If that's what you're asking, it's the wrong question. King does offer relevant advice about grammar, ad...moreWhat can Stephen King teach me about writing? If that's what you're asking, it's the wrong question. King does offer relevant advice about grammar, adverbs (your enemy!), editing (less is more so don't be afraid to cut), voice (active over passive) and attitude (don't wait for the muse). His advice is accompanied by memorable examples, many drawn from contemporary authors. Even if you are not a writer, this book will make you a better reader.
His prime directive is: Read a lot of fiction. “It … offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn't, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page.” (p.150).
The feel of this book is of a memoir rather than a manual. I got an inkling of how King's imagination found a home in the horror genre after reading about his childhood. I found myself writhing in my chair as I read about his visits to the ear doctor. Seeking a practical vocation he pursued a teaching degree, “...emerging four years later with a teacher's certificate … sort of like a golden retriever emerging from a pond with a dead duck in its jaws. It was dead, all right. I couldn't find a teaching job and so went to work at New Franklin Laundry for wages not much higher than those I had been making at Worumbo Mills and Weaving four years before.” (p.67). He describes much of his life in tandem with the book he is writing at the moment. CARRIE occupied the time he taught English at Hampden Academy in Maine (how did he find the time?). THE SHINING was unintentionally semi-autobiographical. When he wrote it he already had an alcohol addiction. He talks about MISERY in the context of his drug addiction. His wife, Tabby, had already staged an intervention and he realized that like the writer in MISERY, he was an imprisoned author – coke was his Annie. I've only read THE SHINING but his references piqued my curiosity.
King was writing this book at the time of his horrific accident in 1999. A Dodge minivan hit him with such force that he flew over the vehicle into a ditch. Doctors later told him it was a miracle he wasn't killed. His multiple injuries and his slow and painful recovery are related with telling understatement. He concludes the book while struggling with pain, having reached a crucial turning point – the determination to once again start writing.
King's final gift to the reader is an editing exercise. Throughout, he has been not just telling us but showing us how to improve our writing. He even includes a draft of an early high school sports brief complete with the editor's proofreading marks. The edited piece is a startling improvement. King claims he learned more from those corrections than from all of his English and composition classes. He offers the same learning experience to the reader. The final section is a four page vignette called “The Hotel Story.” King invites the reader to edit the piece and then concludes with his own edited version. I had two changes identical to King's. I'm not a writer, so I was ecstatic! Having worked through the exercise, I could appreciate (and marvel) at his editorial changes.
It's a satisfying send-off from a man who lives to write and generously wants his audience to write better as well. (less)
The title suggests an exploration of food preparation and taste. Some might associate it with the so-called “molecular gastronomy” popularized by chef...moreThe title suggests an exploration of food preparation and taste. Some might associate it with the so-called “molecular gastronomy” popularized by chef Ferran Adrià. Might elements of connoisseurship be included? Obviously, such an exploration must include the workings of the brain. Hence, the neologism: Neurogastronomy.
However, such assumptions would be misleading. Shepherd is a neuroscientist committed to explaining science to the layperson. He distinguishes the sensation of taste (the familiar quintet of sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and the more recent tastant, umami), from smell. In order to preserve the distinction, he refers to the combination of taste and smell as flavor, rather than taste.
The real subject of the book is smell, a topic both complex and intriguing. To illustrate his first major point, the author suggests a simple experiment. Place a morsel of food on your tongue, while holding your breath or pinching your nose. The taste? Nothing. Then, EXHALE. That burst of so-called flavor is really the activation of the smell sense, which he calls retro-nasal smell to distinguish it from the more familiar sniffing sensation of ortho-nasal smell. Shepherd builds on this distinction by contrasting the shape, pathway and smell receptors of humans to animals such as the dog and mouse. The concept feels surprising until one thinks of wine tasting, with its glass swirling, aeration, concentrated aromatic sampling, and deliberate sipping that moistens the entire mouth cavity.
The question that immediately arises is: How do we get from smell to flavor? Shepherd uses two main tools, analogy and repetition, to elucidate the complicated cell physiology of this process. The recurring analogy he relies on is vision. Just as the eye registers various wave lengths of light and processes the information into color, so the retro-nasal receptors are stimulated by the molecules of innumerable compounds and relay related but variegated signals. Just as vision works by sampling input and apprehending a pattern, so the receptors respond by firing overlapping and selective signals which produce “smell images.” Just as visual processing heightens contrast and modulates weaker intensities (lateral inhibition), so the “smell image” is subjected to the same treatment – shaped and refined from a pixelated to a nuanced image. Finally, just as the visual sense enables us to identify entities like faces from only partial information, so the sense of smell is a type of pattern recognition system involving the complex synthesis of disparate inputs that are ultimately reformatted for memory placement.
For those familiar with the physiology of vision, the comparison of processes and functions on the cellular level will be instantly understandable. Those with extensive scientific training should also look at the following website: http://senselab.med.yale.edu. Shepherd cites it when describing some of the smell images revealed by magnetic imaging techniques. For the rest of us, the broader metaphor of an electronic circuit will be easier to grasp, with its references to signal to noise ratio, positive and negative feedback, amplification, filtering, and relays. Shepherd provides numerous diagrams to aid the reader in envisioning the processing of flavor. However, readers with less of a science background would be better served by drawing their own “smell circuit” beginning with the retro-nasal smell receptors contoured into Odor-Binding Pockets, feeding into the Olfactory Bulb with its layers of glomeruli cells, mitral cells, and granule cells, feeding into the Olfactory Cortex, which in turn feeds directly into the Orbitofrontal Cortex, located in the neocortex area of the brain. Here, at this final location, taste, memory and emotion are processed with the smell image to produce a unique sensation of taste, and corresponding behaviors. This destination is important. Shepherd writes: “A key premise of this book is that humans have a much more highly developed sense of flavor because of the complex processing that occurs in the large human brain. It is this high level of processing – including systems for memory, emotion, higher cognitive processing, and especially language – that give us what I call our unique human brain flavor system.”
This narrative is ringed by descriptions of the measurement techniques, of dendrite density, axon direction, stimulus specificity, activity of individual cell types, particularly in the glomeruli layer, and experiments that confirm and refine our knowledge about how these cells function. Other detours visit the works of literary figures , evolutionary biologists, and researchers in other neuro- fields: Neuropsychology, neuropharmacology, neuroeconomics (particularly the relationship between dopamine and decision-making), and computational neuroscience (constructing computer models of nerve cell activity). It also addresses our perceptions: The expatriot longing for the foods of his homeland; our preference for yellow rather than white margarine (Kellogg recently disclosed there is no flavor difference among the colors in Fruit Loops -- who knew?); individual aversions and food cravings; and taste conditioning.
Returning to the title, why does all of this matter? Shepherd cites contributions to our understanding of nutrition, addiction and obesity. A more basic answer, however, is that scientific discovery is expanding exponentially. We bemoan the faltering scientific literacy of our children, but feel little obligation to upgrade our own levels of scientific literacy. This is a tough book to read. I had to re-read parts of it multiple times. During those readings, I found myself highlighting as if reading a textbook. This review is written as a roadmap to help future readers navigate the book. I frequently found myself taking “wrong turns,” and backtracking. I've given the book 3 stars, for that reason, but the content is designed to educate the general public – a laudable goal. (less)
THE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI, a fictional biography of the artist Pan Yuliang, opens 20 years after she has left China to pursue her life as an artist in...moreTHE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI, a fictional biography of the artist Pan Yuliang, opens 20 years after she has left China to pursue her life as an artist in Paris. Despite her longing, the pull of her memories, she will never return to China. Even the currents of contemporary art, where she was once considered the cutting edge, seem to have passed her by, with it's restless, capricious trends. “People don't want girls and flowers right now. They want splashes and gashes. Inkblot tests. Fingerpaintings...What was it that dealer from the avenue Montaigne said? 'Our clients want work that goes beyond the figurative. They want' – and this with a straight face – 'metaphorical multivalence. Humor. Puns on form. You understand?'”
The remainder of the book explores the imagined memories of an extraordinary life that began in the final years of the Dowager Empress' reign, and ended in the last quarter of the 20th century. Those memories include an assortment of fascinating characters: Her failed scholar, drug addict uncle, Wu Ding, who sells her into prostitution when she is 14; her one friend, the beautiful, imaginative, charismatic Jinling; the naïve idealist and follower of Sun Yat-sen, Pan Zanhua; and Xing Xudun, a political activist who turns his artistic skill to help the new Chinese Communist Party.
Much of the writing in this book is beautiful and poignant. Our introduction to Pan Yuliang's uncle is through her childhood eyes: “Usually he leaves the little house at dusk and returns with the pale seep of sunrise. Xiuqing senses rather than hears these returns: the heavy vibration of his step; the cloying whiff of smoke-soaked clothes as he passes her door. The wall between them quavering slightly as he drops to his rickety bed.” Landscape is described with particular lyricism. “...things and reflections. Objects and images. She stares at the sinking sun, its rays chipping gemlike off the river. The moon – Li Bai's mirror – is a silver disk to the east. She'd like to string it on a silken cord around her neck.”
The details of social structure are fascinating. Technically, prostitution had been illegal since the Republic was established. In reality, prostitutes were “adopted” by the house Madam, who was called “Godmother.” Well into the 20th century, even women considered the “lotus feet” produced by footbinding a mark of beauty. It's a perspective that makes us regret the mere allusion to such events as “The Long March” and the 1927 Shanghai Massacre.
What this book fails to convey, however, is a real sense of Pan Yuliang as a person. She remains an opaque figure, surrounded by her lovers, her paintings, and China's tumultuous history. Fictional biography is a challenging genre. The author is forced to walk a fine line between fact and dramatic character development.
Sometimes, a story seems better told by a different medium. One can well imagine this one as a play with Pan Yuliang as the narrator of her life, a portal to a conflicted time filled with ultimately tragic but rich and colorful characters. Like the mirror-girl she paints in her self-portraits, or the moon that symbolizes so much of the Chinese aesthetic, her light shines brightest as a reflection rather than the thing.
As implied in the title, the central character of this book is Peking itself. Rather than the political and cultural center it is today, pre-war Pekin...moreAs implied in the title, the central character of this book is Peking itself. Rather than the political and cultural center it is today, pre-war Peking was a depressed second tier city, particularly for the beached ex-patriot community of some three thousand residents. Tientsin, approximately 70 miles to the south, and far off Shanghai, over 600 miles south, were both more prosperous with their long history as commercial hubs and treaty ports. Peking, on the other hand, had been overrun by competing warlords since the fall of the Qing dynasty. Chiang Kai-shek's government had fled south, establishing their new capital in Nanking. The Japanese were firmly entrenched in Manchuria, and it would only be a matter of time before they turned their full attention to the rest of northern China, including Peking.
The ex-patriot community was concentrated in the two square acres known as the Legation Quarter. However, it was comprised of a wide range of disparate elements: The clubby diplomat corp., academics, journalists, businessmen, White Russian refugees fleeing the communists, drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes. Despite their physical proximity, these elements did not intermingle, so that an invisible sub-class with its own secrets teemed just below the surface. Like so many other cities, Peking had it's own equivalent of a “red light district,” the Badlands. French describes it as a no-man's-land of vice, but also as a lure for curious foreigners. The authorities turned a blind eye to the district, their blinkers affixed firmly in place by bribery. “The 'better' class of foreigners thought the Badlands typified Chinese depravity; the Chinese thought it symbolic of barbarian foreign ways. Both mostly pretended it didn't exist. They were fooling themselves.”
On the morning of January 8, 1937 the mutilated body of Pamela Werner, 17 year old daughter of former British consul and Sinologist Edward Werner, was discovered beneath a site known as the “Fox Tower” just beyond the boundary of the Legation Quarter. The perpetrators were never uncovered by the official investigation. Author Paul French found himself intrigued by this high profile cold case, and meticulously sifts through not only the records of the investigation but the political interference that impeded the case. His dedication reads: “For the innocent. For Pamela.” Yet, it is just as much a book dedicated to a bereaved father who conducted a tireless private investigation in a futile effort to obtain justice for his daughter.
As French describes Pamela, the reader feels a genuine sense of loss. She was spirited. She had gotten expelled from several schools and had been attending a strict boarding school in Tientsin. She was fluent in Mandarin, independent minded, and familiar with both her city and it's everyday inhabitants. She was scheduled to return to England in a few weeks. She was just discovering her womanhood, and had her whole life ahead of her. It's difficult to believe the crime occurred only some 75 years ago. Our own parents or grandparents would have been of her generation. Yet, so much has happened in the world, she seems of a shadow-era represented by faded sepia photographs. That sense is heightened by French's summation of Werner's life. In 1951 Werner finally left China and returned to an England he had not seen since 1917. He died at age 89 in 1954. “He had lived eighty-nine years. He had seen China as a dynasty with an emperor, as a republic with a generalissimo, and finally as a people's republic with a dictator.”
French's reconstruction of the crime and it's co-conspirators is riveting. However, of equal interest are the many hindrances that stalled the case. Because the victim was British, the Chinese lead investigator, Col. Han, would be paired with a British Legation observer. Former Scotland Yard inspector Richard Dennis who was posted in Tientsin was loaned out for the role. However, Dennis had been instructed by British consul John Affleck to confine his own inquiries to the Legation Quarter. This was on orders of the British Foreign Office. When Dennis requested permission for a house-to-house search in the Legation Quarter, Consul Fitzmaurice refused. Col. Han had leaflets distributed requesting information and mentioning a hefty reward. However, the leaflets were printed only in English, not Chinese. The police were unable to locate two male friends of Pamela for questioning. Evidence collected from the crime scene was improperly handled. The Legation Quarter police failed to disclose it's own information to Dennis voluntarily. Consul Fitzmaurice refused Col. Han's request to arrest the suspicious Canadian Pinfold. Finally, Consul Fitzmaurice forbade Dennis from further contact with the grieving Werner. A similar request had already been issued to the Chinese police. Later, Dennis requested permission to arrest another person of interest, Wentworth Prentice, a friend of Pinfold's. Again, Fitzmaurice refused permission. The entire situation with its emphasis on discretion, preservation of appearances, and secrecy condoned a web of half-truths that were never penetrated by the official investigation.
Still worse, however, was the official response to Werner's own private inquiries. The investigators he hired finally penetrated the screen of half-truths. Repeatedly, Werner's letters and newly uncovered evidence were ignored by the Foreign Office. Then, the Japanese invaded, and Werner, along with the remaining British ex-patriots were placed in a Japanese prison camp.
French concludes his story in the chapter “Invitation to a Party.” Using the information Werner uncovered, he reconstructs the events that probably occurred on the day and evening of January 7 which led to Pamela Werner's death.
French has done more than solved a murder in this book. He resurrects a time and place in history when even a prominent British girl's murder took a back-seat to prejudice, bureaucratic obstruction, and the intent to keep secret a part of foreign ex-patriot life in China that no one wanted exposed.
NOTE: I discovered a handy website: http://www.distance.to/Shanghai/Peking It can be used to calculate distances between two cities, for example, between Shanghai and Peking, or Tientsin and Peking. The site is useful since the book does not include maps.(less)
Author David Malouf gives substance to the notion of the story, the art of storytelling, as part of the re-imagined, reinvented, revitalized narrative...moreAuthor David Malouf gives substance to the notion of the story, the art of storytelling, as part of the re-imagined, reinvented, revitalized narrative that both defines us as human and at the same time connects us to the past. Thus, it is not necessary to have pored over various translations of Homer's Iliad, to be steeped in the esoterica of the classics scholar, to enjoy this book. It's only necessary to have an understanding of the underlying story as a basis for appreciating Malouf's unique re-telling.
Whether you've garnered your knowledge from popular film or literary versions, readers will be familiar with the major themes of the Homeric epic. The Greek hero, Achilles, maddened by both grief and guilt over the slaying of his intimate, Patroclus, by the Trojan hero Hector, seeks vengeance in the 9th year of this long war. Achilles defeats Hector, but engulfed by his rage defies moral propriety by defiling Hector's body instead of returning it to King Priam so that it can be consecrated as sacred ritual demands. Priam dons the garb of an ordinary commoner and offers up the finest pieces of his treasury in order to ransom the body from Achilles. Throughout this transaction we are aware that it is Achilles' fate to soon die, and that in the end Troy will fall and Priam will be killed.
Malouf offers a narrative that links the values of the ancient world to our own values. The title, RANSOM, is a reference to the adopted name of Priam, which means “the price paid.” He became “Priam” instead of “Podarces” (his given name) when as a child he was saved by his sister from enslavement. Despite his current status, Priam has never forgotten the element of chance that saved him from one life and gave him this life instead. He acknowledges the role of chance, even as he questions whether such an admission might be blasphemous. Priam's life as King of Troy is one of ceremonial harmony, a cog in the machinery of social order based on tradition and expectation. Malouf instills a personality into this remote character. Priam comes to a decision -- we might call it a desire to reinvent himself, in this final act of his life – a rejection of all being pre-ordained. It is an acknowledgment of his own duality: both king and mortal. To that end, he permits himself the indulgence of instinct, a very human impulse independent of social strictures. Thus, he sets off in a plain wooden cart pulled by 2 mules and driven by a common driver with the treasure of Troy to ransom the body of Hector.
Malouf's second creation is the lively, rough, mule-driver, Somax. Somax is a common man; his story will not be sung throughout the ages, but lost in time. Yet, he is the one who has lived a full life: Married, had children, suffered their loss, grieved, cared for his grandchild, and savored the pleasures of life. His pragmatism is summed up in a small incident. As he and King Priam leave the city, a bird is seen floating in the sky. The courtiers proclaim it an eagle, an approving sign from Jove. Somax has identified it to himself as merely a chickenhawk of the sort commonly seen in the skies. Of course, we the readers know Somax's observation is the correct one.
Malouf captures much of the spirit of the Iliad. His opening paragraph which introduces Achilles is one of elegant poetic prose: “The sea has many voices. The voice this man is listening for is the voice of his mother. He lifts his head, turns his face to the chill air that moves in across the gulf, and tastes its sharp salt on his lip. The sea surface bellies and glistens, a lustrous silver-blue – a membrane stretched to a fine transparency where once, for nine changes of the moon, he had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence and was rocked and comforted.” There is also that contemplation of mortality, but with a very different channel of thought. Priam speaks to Achilles: “'...you know, as I do, what we men are. We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us – with all of us, every one – and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another's losses. For the sorrows that must come sooner or later to each one of us, in a world we enter only on mortal terms.'”
This view contrasts with the choice we know Achilles was given and the one he made: Glory -- to be memorialized through the ages in song and story over the simple joys of a long life. That thread is picked up again in Malouf's coda with Somax, who outlives the others in this story to tell and retell his story only to have it reworked by the assumptions of succeeding generations who never knew of the living Troy.
NOTE: Readers and prospective readers would do well to listen to the author's talk recorded by Australian Broadcasting Corp. on the following website: http://fora.tv/2009/04/17/David_Malou... It clarifies much of the author's intent in writing this book; and Malouf is a charming speaker.
Second, as I was writing this review, I was struck by the beauty and appropriateness of the jacket art in the hardback copy. (less)