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.


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. 



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.


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.


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.   


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.