Deeply Buried Secrets

A truly excellent crime novel, a fascinating work of non-fiction, and much else.

Issue #33, Sunday 6 November 2022

A rather long one this time, as there’s lots to cover since my last issue.

Bookish News

Recent Awards

The Booker Prize

The winner was: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka.

Shehan Karunatilaka’s second novel is a searing, mordantly funny satire set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war.

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Ursula K. Le Guin — 2022 Prize for Fiction

Congratulations to Khadija Abdalla Bajaber, the winner of the inaugural Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction for The House of Rust! The jury also named two finalists: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu and The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente.

In Bajaber’s debut novel, published by Graywolf Press, young Aisha sets out in the company of a talking cat and a boat made of bones to rescue her fisherman father.

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New and Forthcoming Releases

Fire With Fire by Candice Fox

Candice Fox’s latest heart-pounding thriller, as a couple hold the LAPD to ransom in a desperate attempt to find their missing daughter.

I’m very excited to see this announcement. Candice Fox is one of my “must-buy” authors and one of Australia’s very best crime writers (and we have lots of very good ones).

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Wild Card, book by Simon Rowell

One foggy morning on the banks of the Murray River, a body is found in a burnt-out area of grassland. The heavily tattooed victim, who has suffered two bullet wounds to the head, is identified as Freddie Jones, a bikie from Moama.

I don’t know this author’s work, but this one looks like another interesting Australian crime novel. Due out from Text Publishing early next year.

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Alone With You in the Ether, Olivie Blake

Two people meet in the armory of the Art Institute by chance. Prior to their encounter, he is a doctoral student who manages his destructive thoughts with compulsive calculations about time travel; she is a bipolar counterfeit artist undergoing court-ordered psychotherapy. After their meeting, those things do not change. Everything else, however, is slightly different.

This one appeals to my sense of the wacky and intriguing.

Buy it at Readings.

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is a curious author. She has only published three novels, spaced close to evenly, every ten years for the last thirty years. Every one of those novels received overwhelming praise when it came out and two of them won several prestigous awards. Her most recent book was The Goldfinch, published in 2013, so we can at least hope that we we’re due for another one in the next few years.

The Secret History was her debut, published in 1992, and it is astonishingly good for a first novel. I started to read the book in a library copy, but I ran out of time and had to return it. But I had read enough by then to know that I wanted to own my own copy and so I bought a hardcover of the recently-released 30th Anniversary Edition pubished by Viking.

It’s not an easy book to describe. One way might be to say that it’s a highly literate crime novel, but there’s no mystery involved. The prologue tells you immediately that the first-person protagonist and a group of friends killed someone called Bunny by pushing him off a cliff into a ravine in the mountains. Who these people are, what the lead-up to this situation was, why they killed Bunny, and what the consequences of the murder are, fill the rest of this very long book—it’s 629 pages long in this edition. Yes, that’s very long indeed, but there was never a moment when it flagged or I became tired of reading it.

It’s certainly fits more into the category of literary fiction than genre crime fiction, not only because of the quality of the writing, which in my view is outstanding, but because of its high level of its concerns about society, about love, about education, about crime, shame and guilt; more than anything it’s about young people trying to make sense of themselves and the world. It’s just remarkably good all round.

The book is set in a small college in a town in Vermont in the United States, and the period must be around the early 1980s. Richard Papen, a 19-year old Californian, transfers to Hampden College after deciding that he isn’t suited to becoming a doctor. In his pre-med course, he studied Ancient Greek and had done well in it. At Hampden, however, he finds that the Greek course is run by an eccentric tutor, Julian Morrow, who accepts only a very few students. The semester is well advanced and so far there are only five students studying under Julian. These are the twins Charles and Camilla; Francis; Henry and Edmund (“Bunny”).

After some resistance from Julian, Richard is eventually accepted as a student and very slowly befriended by the other Greek students, who have formed a very tight group between themselves. The relationships between this group of six people and their tutor are the central focus of the book.

While Richard is still something of an outsider, the others, seized by fascination with Julian’s account of divine madness in Greek literature, try to invoke a Dionysian frenzy using drugs. During one such attempt, while Bunny is absent, they succeed in achieving that frenzied state, but in the process they accidentally kill the farmer on whose land they had strayed. From this one awful incident, the rest of the plot flows.

I’ve said that the quality of the writing is outstanding. There’s some arresting prose, which I can’t resist quoting. Here’s a description of Charles and his twin sister Camilla:

Side by side, they were very much alike, in similarity less in lineament than of manner and bearing, a correspondence in gesture which bounced and echoed between them so that a blink seemed to reverberate, moments later, in a twitch of the other eyelid.

Or this, as Richard is falling in love with Camilla:

The light from the window was streaming directly into her face; in such strong light most people look somewhat washed out, but her clear, fine features were only illuminated until it was a shock to look at her, at her pale and radiant eyes with their sooty lashes, at the gold glimmer at her temple that blended gradually into her glossy hair, warm as honey.

Or this, late in the book after Bunny’s body is discovered after the heavy snow-falls which had hidden it begin to melt:

White sky. Trees fading at the skyline, the mountains gone. My hands dangled from the cuffs of my jacket as if they weren’t my own. I never got used to the way the horizon there could just erase itself and leave you marooned, adrift, in an incomplete dreamscape that was like a sketch for the world you knew—the outline of a single tree standing in for a grove, lamp-posts and chimneys floating up out of context before the surrounding canvas was filled in—an amnesia-land, a kind of skewed Heaven where the old landmarks were recognizable but spaced too far apart, and disarranged, and made terrible by the emptiness around them.

Writing as good as this makes reading a joy.

I can’t praise this book highly enough. Heartily recommended.

The Pitmen’s Requiem by Peter Crookson

This is a non-fiction work, an account of the life of coal miners in County Durham, England, up to, during and after the brutal closures of mines under the Thatcher Government.

I have a deep personal interest here. My grandfather and all my uncles were Durham coal miners; my father went down the pit almost immediately after he left school at the age of 14.

When he first went to work, my father worked as a trapper boy, opening and closing ventilation doors, the only light from his miner’s helmet. And from time to time a miner whose own helmet light had failed would come in and take my father’s, leaving him to sit in utter darkness for a long while. Among other jobs he had to look after the poor pit ponies which dragged carts laden with coal through the tunnels. Sounds like something from the 19th Century? Dickensian? I was surprised to find out from The Pitmen’s Requiem that they were still using ponies down the mines into the 1960s.

My father eventually graduated to be a coal hewer, and had it not been for the start of the Second World War, he would have spent his whole working life as a miner. But he and some friends volunteered to fight, and he picked up enough skills during the war to be able to find another job when he returned.

So much for my personal interest in this book, but I think even those without such an connection would find this book very interesting. Crookson centers the focus of the book on Robert Saint, an enigmatic figure who started out as a miner but who always had an interest in music. It was Saint who wrote “Gresham”, a piece for brass band to act as a memorial to the 436 miners who died at Gresham Colliery in North Wales in 1934, because of a huge explosion of “firedamp”—methane gas generated by the coal seams. Saint’s musical ode to this terrible tragedy became known as “The Pitmen’s Requiem” and is still played today at the annual miner’s Gala Day, still held even though all the coal mines of Durham have been closed for decades.

Those closures, under the direction of Margaret Thatcher, were largely politically driven to break the power of the unions. Reading this book however shows you why the miners needed to be backed by a strong union, because of the rapacious behaviour of the mine owners in the early part of the 20th Century, and the subsequent behaviour of the National Coal Board once the mines were nationalised. The conditions under which miners were forced to work and live were truly terrible, as this book documents very well.

My only criticism of the book is that I felt it was rather poorly structured. This may be partly because the author was unable to find very much documentation about Robert Saint’s life, and so although Saint is a focus, much of the book comes from interviews with miners and their famiies. The switching between passages directly about Saint and those simply about the miner’s experience seems rather ad hoc. However, it’s in the course of these interviews that we learn a great deal about what working down the coal mines was like, and how strong the communities of miners were which formed in the colliery villages. It was the devastation of these communities which was the real tragedy of Thatcher’s cruel policies.

Well worth reading.

Day's End by Garry Disher

[Many thanks to Text Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book].

This is the fourth book in Disher’s series of crime novels featuring his protagonist Senior Constable Paul Hirschausen, stationed in a rural town in South Australia, a few hours drive north of Adelaide.

We follow Hirsch as he encounters a variety of different problems within the town of Tiverton and in the vast surrounding area for which he is responsible. Much of the strength of these books is the way Garrry Disher weaves together many disparate threads of story, each of which illuminates the life of a rural community, threads which in each book seem unrelated but eventually come together to reveal a bigger picture.

This one picks up on the topical issues of COVID pandemic, anti-vaxxers, Qanon believers and other conspiracy theorists.

It opens with Hirch accompanying a Dr. Jane Van Sant, a German academic who has come to Australia to try to find her son Willi, who has now been out of contact with her for an extended period. He had been on a working holiday to Australia and was last heard of working as a station hand at a sheep and cattle station called Dryden Downs. Hirch accompanies Dr. Van Sant to talk to the owners. It’s worth noting here that the wife of the owner, Mrs Dryden is a prominent anti-vaxxer, with signs up at the entrance to the property saying unvaccinated visitors are welcome.

According to the owners, Willi left with his girlfriend to go on to Noosa a couple of months previously. They show Hirsch and Dr. Van Sant a postcard they say they received from Willi in Noosa. Following that lead, Dr. Van Sant decides to travel to Noosa to investigate further.

Hirsch goes on with his work, travelling around the town and the surrounding areas, making welfare visits, spotting suspicious activity and so on. After talking to one local who’s been having problems, he leaves “realising yet again that he could never fully help people, never fully tackle or solve the headaches that came his way.” That’s Hirch’s life.

A report of smoke seen in a paddock near the town leads to the discovery of a body in a suitcase; Hirch’s girlfriend Wendy and her daughter Kate are targeted by a scam, a follow-up to Kate being bullied unmercifully on social media; Hirch has to deal with the gruesome attack on a baby by a savage dog; and so it goes on.

Then Dr. Van Sant returns from Noosa, having found out that her son was never there, and an ultralight plane taking photographs near Dryden downs is shot down and the pilot killed.

Hirch brings it all togther to reveal a plan by conspiracy theorists and ultra-rightwingers to build an armed forced to create mayhem.

Enjoyable and engaging, a book you don’t want to put down. And, thankfully, despite the title, there seems no intent on Disher’s behalf to end the series here.

The following two books are productions I’m doing for Standard Ebooks. Our editions won’t be released until 1 January 2023 when they will fall into the U.S. public domain.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

This book, published by Dorothy L. Sayers in 1926, is the second of her novels in the Lord Peter Wimsey series featuring a wealthy aristocrat who enjoys detective work as a hobby.

In this book, however, Wimsey’s skills have an immediate and personal interest when his brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, is arrested on a charge of murder. He is accused of shooting his sister’s fiancé, Denis Cartcart, in a fit of rage after discovering that Cathcart was a man who made a living by cheating at cards. The Duke has no credible alibi for the time of Cathcart’s death and refuses to clarify where he was. Despite this, Wimsey sets to work to solve the case and exonerate his brother.

One interesting feature of the story is that the Duke, as a peer of the realm, must be tried before his other peers in the House of Lords, a major undertaking to organise. Another is the flight across the Atlantic undertaken by Wimsey to obtain vital evidence—a year before Charles Lindbergh first made this voyage in reality.

An intriguing case, and one whose resolution takes quite a while to be revealed, I enjoyed it a lot.

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is the third novel written by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring her artistocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey.

The story begins with a conversation in a restaurant between Wimsey, his friend Detective Inspector Charles Parker, and a doctor who tells them about a situation he was involved in: an elderly lady, suffering from a slow-acting cancer, died suddenly and unexpectedly with no obvious immediate cause of death. She died intestate but her great-niece, with whom she was living, was set to inherit the considerable estate. Suspecting something wrong, the doctor demanded an autopsy, which showed nothing unusual, but stirred up such local animosity that the doctor was forced to abandon his practice. Wimsey, sensing a mystery, decides to investigate. His investigations however trigger a series of deadly actions in response and a series of murders ensue.

One of the delights of the book is the introduction of a new character in Miss Alexandra Climpson, a middle-aged spinster who Wimsey employs as an investigative agent, and whose effusive reports of the gossip she picks up in the town are very amusing.

The book is notable for including one clearly lesbian character, which was unusual for detective fiction at the time, and also for the very sympathetic treatment by Wimsey of a black character (though offensively racist terms of him are used by others in the book).

One enduring mystery in the book is not so much who did it, or why, but how the murders were carried out without leaving any obvious cause of death. The solution that is highly dubious scientifically, but it doesn't matter much, you just go along for the ride, which is very entertaining.

Currently Reading

Waiting on the Shelf

Too, too many books!!!

And that’s all for now. See you next time.

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