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Books in June

And away we go!

In 1904 Vienna, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt enlists his friend, psychiatrist Max Liebermann, to help him solve the murder of an unidentified man who has been found in an abandoned warehouse, seated on a chair, with three empty chairs in front of him. The murder scene looks suspiciously like an execution, and the man’s face has been disfigured with acid to further conceal his identity. The search for the killer or killers will take Oskar and Max into the heart of Vienna’s political mayhem, with anarchists planning to bomb the nobility, the intelligence service determined to succeed by torture and a legendary anarchist known only as Mephistopheles rumoured to be hanging around the city somewhere…. The above description only covers the main plot of this, the seventh Max Liebermann novel; there are also discussions of gender parity, sexual policies, the strengths and weaknesses of empire, the first appearance of motor carriages and, as so often in these books, a brief appearance from Sigmund Freud himself (a man who, in this telling at least, appears to have been inordinately fond of puns and bad jokes). The era and the setting are beautifully drawn, giving the reader a real sense of what Vienna around the turn of the 20th century was probably like. Max and Oskar are, in addition to being interesting characters, very musically inclined (Max plays piano, Oskar sings) and it’s quite delightful to sit in on their musical sessions together. And I haven’t even mentioned Amelia! A really rewarding historic series, highly recommended.

Tom Ripley is now a very contented man, with a beautiful home in the French countryside, a gorgeous and very rich wife, and an excellent art collection complete with very useful contacts in the London art world. But one day an American arrives at the London art gallery, worried that a painting he has bought is a forgery and, since Tom has a couple of paintings by the same artist, the American proposes that they join forces to discover the truth. Tom, of course, already knows the truth and anyway, it’s never ever a good idea for anyone to suggest working together with him…. I think this story is set somewhere in the mid 1960s, or perhaps a bit earlier, and it is full of period details such as the ways in which one made international telephone calls (it involves waiting for the callee to call back) and the ease of travel between a number of European countries. As ever with this series, the main character is absolutely enthralling in his utter lack of compunction about anything and his thoroughly sociopathic nature. I still think the first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley, is the best, but this one carries on the tradition nicely. Recommended.

The thesis of Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism, by Thomas Boyle, is that the advent of both the steam engine train and the telegraph in the early 1800s in England led to a sharp increase (and lowered costs) of newspapers in that country, which in turn led to an increase in reporting of “sensational” crimes and newsworthy events. As the century progressed, the Victorian sense of smugness and “right thinking” was belied by what an increasingly literate public read in these newspapers, in terms of sexuality and criminal behaviours; of course, with more newspapers to choose from and with the more rapid dissemination of news and events, the papers began competing for readership and one way to successfully do that was to publish the most salacious and sensational stories the reporters could find. Within about a decade of these changes in the public sphere, that sensationalism started appearing in the form of novels by writers such as Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (whose “Lady Audley’s Secret” is often considered the first of these “sensational novels”) and Charles Dickens, all of which led to what Mr. Boyle describes as a new era of skepticism and experimentation, permanently putting the idealized version of Victorian life to heel. I found this book interesting, and loved that it has footnotes and a bibliography, always important in works of historical interpretation, I think. On the other hand, the author tends to insert his own study habits and travels in research rather too frequently into the narrative and, given that it was published in 1989 (some 30 years ago as I write this review), his constant allusions to contemporary American fiction (largely in the form of television shows), fall somewhat flat. Still, an interesting study into a fascinating time; recommended.

34-year-old Cedric O’Toole has had a hard-scrabble life: his mother was basically disowned by her family when she turned up pregnant at 16, and Cedric was often in the care of foster families because of his mother’s mental illness. Then she died in a car crash when he was only 17, and he’s been on his own ever since, still living on the old farmstead where his mother had raised him. One day, a stranger arrives at the farm who believes that he and Cedric are half-brothers and that the secret of the identity of their shared father lies in Cedric’s hometown…. I received an ARC of this novelette from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, having requested it because I’ve read Ms. Fradkin’s series featuring Ottawa police inspector Michael Green and enjoyed them. Blood Ties is the fourth in a new (to me, anyway) series featuring Cedric O’Toole, and I found it quite enjoyable, too. It is published through Rapid Reads, a program of short novels intended especially to get younger people reading; I breezed through it in less than an hour. Even though it is quite short, the characters are well-drawn and the mystery is quite compelling. I will be looking for the three previous books in the series, and I hope that Ms. Fradkin will have more to come, as I especially want to know how the relationships between Cedric, his brother and the extended family will develop! To be published, I believe, in August 2019; recommended.

The New Book of Snobs, as its title implies, is a 2016 update of William Thackeray’s Book of Snobs, which dates from Victorian times. As such, it’s quite an entertaining read, as it goes about skewering everybody from “school snobs” (those whose attachment to their upper-class school is paramount) to “sports snobs” (somewhat falling out of favour now because more sports are open to more people than in the past); Mr. Taylor also includes character sketches of various people whom he considers to be particularly effective snobs. The main trouble with this book is that it is very, very English in scope and so the author is constantly making reference to people and events about which nobody outside of England will have ever heard. Nevertheless, amusing to read.

And a happy Canada Day to all!

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