Friday, August 27, 2010

The Copper Peacock and Other Stories

My dear readers, you must be thinking, 'Hooray! Another Forgotten Book Friday selection from Miss Lemon.'

Yes. She knows just how much you love them.

This one, The Copper Peacock, by Ruth Rendell, is no more worthy of being forgotten then the other books Miss Lemon has singled out for remembrance. The work is a collection of short stories first published, collectively one assumes, in 1991.

The tales herein -- though none more than thirty pages in length -- carry all the macabre landscapes, psychological aberrations and calamitous fates that signal classic Ruth Rendell.

The book opens with "A Pair of Yellow Lilies,' remarkable both for its irony and surprise. Ms. Rendell's canny knack for realism is fully on display here, too. If the reader's stomach doesn't lurch when unlucky Bridget Thomas turns to discover her bag with all the money she has to her name gone from her library carrel, then that reader must be insensitive. 

"Mother's Help" is unforgettable for the sheer malevolence of its main character, Ivan. "Long Live the Queen," and "The Fish-Sitter" both capture that creepy and uncomfortable aura generated by people who connect too closely with their pets.

The title story, "The Copper Peacock," doesn't appear until two-thirds of the way through the book. Though Miss Lemon promises that it will make one rethink rejecting out of hand that next tasteless gift one receives from a coworker.

The last story of the lot, "An Unwanted Woman" features Ms. Rendell's now familiar Chief Inspector Wexford.

All of these stories, in varying degrees, show just how inventive, versatile and, yes, even wicked, is the mind of Ruth Rendell. Pick up a copy of The Copper Peacock if you can.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Forgotten Book Friday: The Blackheath Poisonings

Like a child who has mastered a new game, Miss Lemon has now officially gotten the hang of 'Forgotten Book Friday.' If she seems to be able to think of nothing else for her blog, please accept her sincerest apologies as she offers this week's selection: The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), by Julian Symons.

In a word, it's unputdownable.

All right. That may be more than one word squashed together, but you see Miss Lemon's point.

Subtitled 'A Victorian Murder Mystery,' Mr. Symons delivers what he promises. The prose is so polished, the dialogue so convincing, the plot so positively Victorian in its intricacies and double meanings, that Miss Lemon had to double-check Mr. Symons's vital statistics to be sure that he was not a product of the Victorian era.

Born in 1912 and deceased in 1994, he is not. A lifelong poet and novelist (Mr. Symons left school at age 14), he succeeded Agatha Christie as president of England's Detection Club in 1976, holding the post for almost a decade.

The Blackheath Poisonings is an excellent example of the Golden-Age influence on Mr. Symons. The story centers on the last twisted branches of the Mortimer family tree. The descendants have set up their strange houses in Blackheath, then a bucolic retreat some short distance from London.

When Roger Vandervent, husband of docile Beatrice, dies suddenly of 'gastric fever,' his son Paul suspects something foul.

It's not long before a cache of incriminating letters are discovered in the hands of a blackmailing servant.

Miss Lemon trusts she's not giving too much away when she says that more than one death and a sensational trial follow. (If Mr. Symons was not a Victorian, he most certainly must have been a barrister.) And through all of this winds the thread that Paul Vandervent grasps much too late: "Somerset Maugham [Paul writes] says somewhere that Victorians felt about women as though they had no back passages." They had no complexity; no strength or integrity.

But those Victorians got it very wrong. Mr. Symons, however, gets it -- and this engaging crime story -- very right.