The Becket Factor

So as I said I was reading too many books at once and not finishing them, but I have now finally put paid to The Becket Factor by Michael David Anthony.  I spotted this on a book exchange at work.  Retired intelligence officer now working for the Canterbury Cathedral’s Delapidations Committee Richard Harrison is forced back into his former career when a retired clergyman dies mysteriously.  Harrison’s estranged wife is not pleased with the reappearance of his old boss, but then for no real reason their estrangement ceases and they grow close again.   I don’t really mind this.   Winnie helps Richard out, though it would help him more if he listened to her when she points out he’s jumping to conclusions on little to no evidence.   

The other major events are the choosing of the new Archbishop and a coffin dug up that dates back to medieval times and could be the bones of St. Thomas Becket.  (The á I remember reading in the past is apparently not contemporary, a later addition to perhaps draw parallels with Thomas á Kempis.)  I found this book strangely readable although many things about it irked me a great deal.   Harrison was in intelligence throughout the Cold War and doesn’t know what a sleeper is.  The investigation quickly centers on Maurice Campion, an outspoken, anti-war bishop who’s a front runner for the archbishopric, for reasons I’ve already forgotten.   Probably because they weren’t good.   

It seems like Anthony is too busy trying to make an atmosphere between the mysterious coffin, the memories of causing the death of an Eastern Orthodox priest, the vandal disturbing the cathedral community, his relationship with his wife and his former boss, to focus on a good, coherent story.   Parts of it are good, and the intelligence stuff is a bit Le Carré, but there’s just too much other stuff which makes the whole work seem like there are too many ingredients for one dish.   What is the Becket Factor?  Hard to say, really.   The phrase means different things to different people and in the end isn’t a factor.   Harrison is a lousy investigator.  He hardly talks to anyone about Cratchley and therefore learns a number of things much later than he need have done.    And -spoiler- you might think a cathedral community could tell the difference between a woman and a man in a cassock, but you’d be wrong.   I certainly thought people who attend church almost every day would be experts on this topic.   And supposedly the Queen attends the enthronement of the new Archbishop, but there’s no security around for her.  Yeah, right.   And it turns out that the Queen doesn’t actually attend enthronements, so this was an unnecessary (and inaccurate) detail.   

I’m of two minds whether to read any more of his works.    On the one hand, I was interested to find out what happened, the marriage was well-written, I thought, and some of the intelligence plot was clever.  And since this was the first, he may have gotten better. On the other, see above.  From reading his obituary, I’ve just learned he didn’t intend The Becket Factor to be a crime novel, so that might explain some of the focus on atmosphere, relationships and philosophy and lack of investigation, evidence and clues.  

Looking for other reviews and info on the Google, I discovered a site which shows the leaves of a book about Becket possibly written by the 13th century monk Matthew Paristb1with the following quote I thought very interesting:

The archbishop answers to that:
“May it not please God who made the world,
And for us suffered death on the cross,
That there not be a third voice,
For the pope by false counsel
Could make a false judgment.”

 

Charters & Caldicott

I’m falling down on the job again.  No posts since the 12th.   This is not because I haven’t been reading, but because I’ve been reading too many things at once and not finishing any of them.   Soon there will be a series of posts as I’m finishing them all now.   

In the meantime, what I did this past month was view the series of things with the pair known as Charters & Caldicott.   They first appear in The Lady Vanishes in 1938, an early and amusing Alfred Hitchcock film.   Margaret Lockwood is a young rich girl heading home from eastern Europe to get married.  She meets Dame May Whitty, gets conked in the head by a flower pot and then is looked after by the old lady until the lady vanishes.  No one on the train will admit to having seen her, but Margaret Lockwood sticks to her guns and keeps searching.  Charters and Caldicott are two of the passengers who saw Miss Froy, but are unwilling to admit as much because they want to get back to England for the cricket.   The Lady Vanishes is a fun though not terribly suspenseful movie.

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Two years later, Carol Reed made Night Train to Munich by the same writers who did Lady Vanishes.  Margaret Lockwood is also in this one, but this time she plays the Czech daughter of famous scientist who is of great interest to the Nazis.   They arrest her, but her father escapes to England.  I don’t want to spoil the plot so I won’t explain how she’s later on a train with Charters and Caldicott, but there they are as war is declared with England and Charters (or is it Caldicott?) is mostly worried about getting his golf clubs back from a friend he loaned them to in Berlin.  They play a pivotal role after hemming and hawing and once again not wanting to get involved, but finally honor wins out.  Night Train to Munich is also well worth watching.  In addition to Lockwood and Charters reading Mein Kampf, there’s a relentlessly cheeky young Rex Harrison. 

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And last, also probably least, in the 80s they re-appeared in a six part BBC mystery series which aired in the US on PBS’ Mystery.   I’m fairly sure I saw it back then, but had completely forgotten it.   It seems to be available only on youtube in 24 14 minute segments.  The picture’s fairly bad and the audio is terrible, but what can you do?   It doesn’t seem to be available from my usual sources.  My gratitude to the person who posted it, probably from an old video of the series.   At any rate, I was enjoying it, C & C are now in their 60s and retired and they meet every month to have lunch and see a movie, but they get into an argument about cricket scores and need to go back to Caldicott’s flat to look up the result where they find the body of a young woman.   The characters are great – older versions of them as they appeared in the movies.   Unfortunately, the ending didn’t make any sense to me.   I’m not sure if this is because I missed something with the poor sound, or it really doesn’t make sense.   I could not figure out how the murderer stood to benefit from the crimes.   I might read the book to see if it makes more sense.  A pity, because up until then I was very much enjoying their characters.

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The Three Coffins

Also called The Hollow Man, by John Dickson Carr.   

I’m not saying I’ll never read another Carr mystery, but it’s possible.   Carr’s plots are ridiculously complicated.   I read this because it was a classic locked room mystery, but I tend to think locked room mysteries can be over-focused on the how of it all, and leave an unsatisfying story.    The solution was not unsatisfying, I didn’t guess it and I bought it, despite the fact that blood only seemed to flow when and where the author desired it and it was absurdly complicated.

Perhaps the problem comes from the characters, none of whom seems normal.   And there are very odd moments.   Supposedly the whole house is on alert for the killer who has announced his arrival some think at 10:00.   When someone arrives at 9:45, no one seems to think it could be the killer because he’s early.   Are murderers all perfectly punctual?   That means I’ll never become a murderer, thank goodness.   So two people who are supposedly watching out are playing cards in the front room with the radio on and the door shut.   Way to watch out, guys.

I kept reading this, despite the constant irritation that is Dr. Gideon Fell, because I did want to know what happens and also cover a Vintage Golden Bingo square.   If you like golden age mysteries, you might want to skip Dr. Fell’s lecture on locked room stories late in the book.   He has no compunction about revealing the solutions.   He’s really quite a jerk.   Fortunately, I’ve already read the Yellow Room and can’t remember the rest of them.  The lecture could easily have been done without associating particular solutions with particular books, but I think Carr just wanted to show off how many he’d read and ruin them for those who hadn’t, which makes him quite an…   but this is a family blog, so I won’t say what I’m thinking.  He also includes a spoiler or two for his own work, Death-Watch.   I hate that.  

 

A Wild Walk in the Woods

For reasons I can’t explain, because they’re aren’t any, I took it into my head to drop almost all else and read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I got Bryson because I was fairly sure he’d write well and I’ve never read him though I long meant to. I read all kinds of negative reviews of Strayed to try to convince myself not to read the book. I mean, she named herself Strayed because she had.   How dumb is that?   It didn’t work, I bought both and read them in parallel.

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They are similar in a number of ways because they’re both about newish hikers hiking one of the great American trails. Bryson hiked the Appalachian trail and Strayed the Pacific Crest. Neither hiked the whole thing, but both hiked a large section. Strayed had never done anything remotely like it before as evidenced by the very large number of elementary mistakes she made. To her credit, she’s honest about this, but on the other hand, it seemed as though she was incapable of understanding certain basic principles which I, though not a hiker at all, grasp easily.

First off, you want your pack to be as light as possible. You need a lot of equipment and there’s only so much you can do, but you do all you can to make your pack lighter. She couldn’t even lift it at first. She didn’t practice at all. To set out on a hundred day hike without having walked even a mile with your equipment is nuts. Bryson was more sensible of all this and yet he makes the decision not to bring some of the food. His hiking partner, called Katz, in a fit tosses more of it aside on the trail in exasperation.  How they managed to hike subsisting on raisins and noodles, I don’t know.   Katz, also, had no hiking experience. Strayed at least had grown up in Minnesota and waited tables so she was used to being on her feet. Bryson had walked around England, which is apparently quite different. Strayed’s worst error in my view was not getting shoes that fit. Walking in the wrong shoes is misery anywhere, setting out into the wilderness with the wrong shoes is beyond misery. Honestly, I don’t know how she did it. How do you get to the age of 26 and not know your shoes need to fit especially if you’re planning to walk a thousand miles in them?

Both did their hikes in the 90s.  Both books are around 300 pages and padded.  Strayed discusses her life before the hike in great detail – her parents’ flaws, her own, her sex life, her experience with heroin, and most of all her great grief at the loss of her mother.   All this is what got her most of the bad reviews, but also probably what attracted Oprah and made the book a best seller.   I feel like reading those reviews rather ruined any chance I had of offering an objective opinion on all this, so I don’t think I will.   I knew pretty much all the stories she told from spoilery reviews and have no idea how I would have reacted to them if I didn’t.   I found her highly readable in general though I tended to read the hiking parts more closely and got close to skimming her life stories.   

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Bryson pads because once they reach Gatlinburg and he realizes graphically how little of the truly enormous trail they’ve covered, they skip ahead.   And then, after Virginia both have to get back to work for a while and plan to meet again and finish Maine.   Bryson faffs about taking short day hikes in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.  He has a lot of interesting stories about how people have died in the wilderness, the history of the trail and depressing stories about how we’re destroying nature even as we make a half-assed effort to preserve it.   Honestly, once your past your twenties its much harder to find four to six months solely for hiking.  Bryson makes a living off writing books of this sort and Strayed was a recently divorced waitress who wanted to make a break with her old life.

But when it comes to the hiking, their stories are similar and they make it quite clear this is no walk in the park.  The Pacific Crest trail seems more arduous, further from civilization, just generally harder, but the Appalachian trail is plenty hard enough.   Heck, if it was a cement walkway lined with inns for 2100 miles that would still be hard.   That’s a long ass way.   Carrying all your stuff on your back is hard.   Trudging mile after mile is hard.   Realizing after you’ve trudged a hundred miles you’re only a small fraction of the way.   The weather on both trails goes from freezing snow to 100 degree broiling.   Planning your food and water to last long enough yet not carry more than you need is also hard.  The apparently constant ravenous hunger and bone-deep aching exhaustion.  It seems a perfectly insane thing to do, walk from Georgia to Maine or the Western equivalent.  And yet, I can also see the appeal:  the warmth and friendship of other trail hikers, trail angels, becoming a part of nature, seeing the country in a way that few people do.   On the other hand, sometimes it seems simply like an exercise in deprivation so you’ll appreciate the comforts of civilization more.   

I enjoyed both books although I still don’t know why I read them.  But I guess that doesn’t matter.   I do wonder why it took her fifteen years to write this book.   It apparently made the New York Times reviewer cry.   Huh.   I guess he identified a lot more than I did.   You’ve been warned.

 

Moby Dick Slowest Readalong Ever

Actually, this is more of a read-behind for me.   I was supposed to have finished through c. 38 something like three weeks ago.  But I got distracted by Wittgensteins and then coffins and I don’t know what all.   Crushing electronic candies may also have been a problem.  So not much reading has taken place.   I hope to reform.

Oddly enough I was in Vancouver reading Moby Dick when in the text was a mention of Vancouver the Explorer.   In another meaningless coincidence, I saw a white whale while there.   A Beluga, not a sperm whale.  

 

 

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So in this second part, we finally get to sea, we meet Ahab and we learn about his obsession with the white whale.   Which we knew already.   Because you pick that up just living in society.  It is definitely not as amusing as it was.  Wry observations from Ishmael are few and far between.    Personally I cannot fathom going around the world in a ship like they sailed in then, let alone tracking a single whale.   Does anyone know if they hang out in the same place year in, year out?   If they don’t, the odds of finding him are astronomically bad.   Of course, it is a novel, so he’s gotta find him, but it does seem a ridiculous premise.   Even as big a critter as a whale is a teeny, tiny speck in the broad and vasty deep.

Moby Dick Readalong Part the First

Okay, if you’re new to readalong posts, they’re full of spoilers.   As this is only the first section, chapters 1-20, the spoilers shouldn’t be too spoilery.   This readalong is hosted by Roof Beam Reader.  Many thanks to him, as I’m already further along in M-D then I’ve gotten before.   You’ve probably heard much the same things about Moby Dick that I have.   Classic, long, fascinating, but with long boring whaling chapters,  boring with long, boring whaling chapters, a story of obsession, whaling, and the opening line:  Call me Ishmael.  I have no idea why that’s a great opening line, but it is.   Something in the name.   Call me Fred just doesn’t have the same ring.

But one thing I don’t think I ever heard about Moby Dick is that it is funny.   Not laff riot or Tina Fey funny, but Ishmael is a great narrator and his wry observations are highly entertaining.   He’s also a more evolved person than millions around today.  I never had to read Moby Dick in school, and that’s in a way good as reading things in school frequently ruins them for people, but a whole lot of people could do with reading at least the first part of this book.   

Some of my favorite lines:

and especially whenever my hypos get
such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to
prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically
knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea
as soon as I can.

But BEING
PAID,--what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man
receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly
believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account
can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves
to perdition!
Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and
confounded about the stranger, I confess I was now as much afraid of him
as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at
the dead of night.

But
THAT was certainly very coolly done by him, and every one knows that in
most people's estimation, to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.
"Fiery pit! fiery pit! ye insult me, man; past all natural bearing, ye
insult me. It's an all-fired outrage to tell any human creature that
he's bound to hell.

Heaven have mercy on us all--Presbyterians and Pagans
alike--for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and
sadly need mending.

Betty, go to Snarles the Painter, and tell
him to paint me a sign, with--"no suicides permitted here, and no
smoking in the parlor;"--might as well kill both birds at once.



Ishmael and Queequeg's friendship, which develops rapidly after Ishmael gets over his initial fears,is charming. Queequeg's insistence upon Ishmael choosing the ship when they get to Nantucket seems unfortunate. Ishmael knows nothing of whaling, but even without that I think he really should have given more consideration to those other ships. I'd be happier knowing they had things wrong with
them more alarming than the behavior of Captain Ahab whom we haven't even met yet. He's not sick, but he's not well either. Really? You want to be at sea for three years with the man in charge
described in this fashion? Ishmael does have some misgivings, but he ignores them and I suppose he has to as otherwise, we wouldn't have this story, but still, I'd feel better if he went to the
other ships and either they wouldn't take him, or they were horribly disorganized or some reason the Pequod seems the best of the lot even with an iffy captain. But they are about to leave at last
and I suppose soon we'll get to the boring bits. So far it's not been dull at all. One last
quote:

for I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody's religious obligations,
never mind how comical

Spoilery, Late, Wind-up of Lady Audley’s Super Secret Readalong

I finished early and am still writing late.   I think I must defend poor old George from my fellow readaglongers’ wrath.   George gets no credit for the letters he writes.   For the good things he tries to do.   All he gets is flack.   It’s a good thing he’s a fictional character because he does not deserve so much flack.   All right, he’s a dope.   And not a good father.   But he tried to be a good husband, he really did.   He couldn’t find a job.   What were his options?   What was he supposed to do?   All he’s good at is looking good in uniform and climbing.   No one would hire him.   So, he went to Australia where all you have to do (at the time) to get rich is dig a lot and be lucky.  And dammit, he wrote Lucy a letter that he was doing this.    Remember who we’re talking about here:  Lucy.   Spoiled brat who married him only because she thought he was rich.   Lucy who didn’t give a rat’s ass about him, though he doted on her.   (He was an idiot.   It’s true.  But not a bad person.)   Lucy who’s one dream in life is to enchant the county with how pretty she is.   Of course, she didn’t wait for him.   Of course she abandoned her child to her drunken father and wrote them both off.   (Why the hell she couldn’t manage to hide the money she earned from him, I cannot guess.  She’s pretty clever and conniving otherwise.)

Then again at the end, George is accused of just abandoning his friend.   No.   He didn’t.   He wrote.   He made the mistake of giving the letter to Luke.   But this is not really stupid.   His entire experience of Luke was of someone helpful and friendly.   Possibly the only time in his life Luke has ever been helpful and friendly.   George trusted him to deliver the letters.   This is a shame, but not George’s fault.   It’s not like Robert who, fully knowing Hellucy’s character tells her everything over and over again.   Robert’s a dope, too.   Though not as big a dope as George.   

I was very glad and excited to read the end.   And astonished at how completely I had forgotten this book.   Did I really read it?   I thought I had, but you would think some of it would at least seem familiar.   And apparently all Victorian fiction is totally gay in disguise.    Robert and George are just the latest.   And they end up living together!   It’s so romantic.   I expect Clara and Alicia (or whatever her name is.  I’ve already forgotten it) can keep each other company.

Oh, and the doctor’s right.   Lady Audley is not mad.   Maybe she fears the taint in her blood, but really she just uses it as an excuse to do whatever she wants.    Can anyone name anything mad truly mad that Lucy has done?   Immoral, yes.   Unethical, yup.   But mad?  No.   She’s just looking out for number one, and has a few missteps along the way.   Her mother does truly seem to have been mentally ill.   She doesn’t know any of them when they visit her.   But Lucy?  Lucy is crazy like a fox.   She is a narcissist, almost entirely without empathy.   But Rochester’s wife, she ain’t.   

I kind of want a sequel.   She doesn’t really die of boredom in Belgium.   She fakes her own death and escapes.   Marrying a third time seems a bit risky, so she becomes a jewel thief.   Yeah, that’s it.   And somehow we’ll bring in that red herring about how much Phoebe looked like Lady A.   Ooh, maybe in the faking her own death.   At that point, who’d miss Phoebe?   No one.  That’s who.  

I would like to thank Alice for another fun readalong.   I hope we get to do it again!   From the lone member of Team George.