Thursday, July 29, 2010


I scarcely know how to begin, not something a reviewer should admit publically, I suppose. This wonderfully realized and written novel is a first class literary mystery. It deals with a three-week period in l941 that marks the end of a troubled life, the life of Virginia Woolf. It is serendipitous that this novel comes to my hand at a time that epitomizes a good deal of what she was all about. In a word, independence. Independence for women and independence for writers.

Virginia Woolf was an English writer, essayist and literary critic of the early Twentieth Century. Her parents did not send her to school. She was entirely self-taught and apparently randomly tutored by her literary critic father. She was a major influence on the kind of novels being written today, yet she was always, always, self-published. Hogarth Press, established by Woolf and her husband, Leonard, a political theorist of that era, in their kitchen, published Virginia’s writings along with those of E.M. Forester, and Sigmund Freud, among many others. Growing up she knew people like Henry James, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and George Eliot. Her father, Leslie Stephen's, first wife was the daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.

In addition to her literary credentials as an accomplished novelist, she was a prolific essayist who published over 500 essays. Virginia Wolf helped coalesce the famous (or infamous) Bloomsbury Group, a collection of social, political and economic theorists of varying stripes, including artists, critics, philosophers and writers who wrote, debated, loved, married and argued life throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Woolf was sexually abused by a relative as a child, and clearly had mental problems during her lifetime. Her companions through life, including relatives, were mostly liberated intellectuals who ignored social constraints. On March 28, 1941, she disappeared from her home. Three weeks later, her body was discovered in the nearby river Ouse which had already been extensively searched. Her body was promptly cremated and there was no funeral ceremony, public or private.
Which brings us to this novel. Sixty years after Woolf’s death, master garden and landscape designer, Jo Bellamy arrives in England. She is doing research for a wealthy client who wants her to recreate a famous garden of white flowers and plants at his Long Island Estate. Jo is trying to recover from her grandfather’s sudden suicide. The celebrated White Garden of the title is located at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. It was created by Woolf’s friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West.

What Bellamy discovers at Sissinghurst has the potential to set decades of literary analysis and speculation on its collective ear. Whilst grubbing about in some boxes in one of the garden sheds, Jo comes upon a diary which appears to have been written by Virginia Woolf. Well and good, the problem is the first entry is dated the day after Virginia Woolf is supposed to have drowned herself. Moreover, there appears to be a connection between the castle, the garden, Woolf and Jo’s dead grandfather. Shocked and amid a growing desire to learn more about her grandfather’s youth in Kent, Jo Bellamy sets out on a cross-country odyssey to try to authenticate the diary and uncover her grandfather’s connection to one of the most famous feminists and literary icons of the past century.

The novel is wonderfully written and mostly moves at an ever-increasing pace as Bellamy encounters an array of character who are far more interested in their own aggrandizement than in helping Jo. The diary is stolen, Jo has help from several people with questionable motives and engages in some pretty far-fetched antics in order to follow some tantalizingly obscure clues.

Ultimately of course, some of the questions surrounding the diary and the last three weeks of Virginia Woolf’s life are resolved, but not all. The author, skillfully evoking a past era of English letters and philosophical thought, has provided a rich and thought-provoking experience.

The novel is written with grace and is rich in atmosphere and history. It is presented as a carefully wrought piece that could be true, and that climaxes in a stunning and most satisfying conclusion.

Friday, July 23, 2010


The Deadly Percheron
By John Franklin Bardin
Millipede Press, 2006
Trade Paper, 207 pages

John Franklin Bardin was born in 1916 and during his lifetime he wrote ten dark or noir crime novels. He refused to recognize any difference between genres, once stating his belief there are only good and bad novels. According to Jonathan Lethem, who wrote a thoughtful and lengthy foreward to this edition, Bardin once said that Graham Green, Henry Green and Henry James were noticeable influences on his writing. This novel, Bardin’s first, was published in 1946 and it is a very interesting noir novel indeed.

Amnesia and paranoia are the subjects and the characters, all unusual and distinct, sustain a complicated and bizarre plot through an abrupt but eminently satisfying conclusion. This is by no means a perfect novel, and the sixty-year-old style is sometimes disturbingly devoid of emotion. Shocking action is abruptly presented and just as abruptly disposed of. There is a fairly lengthy center section in which the amnesiac who is the protagonist, is established in his new and very much lower class life on Coney Island. Dr. George Matthews, a prominent psychologist, with a practice in midtown, and a comfortable upper class living, is confronted by a new client who arrives with a fresh hibiscus in his hair. For today’s readers, especially those of us who lived through the seventies and eighties of the last century, that is nothing special about a man with a flower in his hair.

We sense something odd and a little off kilter about the good Dr. Matthews. He appears to have more than passing interest in burgeoning sexuality he observes around him and he seems to identify rather too strongly with his new patient, Jacob Blunt. Blunt reveals that while he is wealthy enough to afford the counseling service of Dr. Matthews, he is working for a couple of midtown leprechauns, not Irish, he assures the doctor, American leprechauns. What’s more, he is really anxious to be told that he must be hallucinating, is withdrawing from reality and the events he is witnessing and doing are not real. He is happily losing his mind, which is far better than being trapped in this strange alter world.

The reader is rather suddenly brought up short when the doctor almost eagerly agrees to enter Mr. Blunt’s world. From there we are drawn farther and farther with the doctor, into this weird world of murder, large horses, amnesia and paranoia.

Difficult to locate, perhaps, a novel that is well worth the effort. This edition, from Millipede Press of Colorado, carries a striking cover painting by Salvador Dali.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Connelly scores with tale of Defense Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer
By Michael Connelly
ISBN: 0-446-61645-1
Pub, Warner Books, PB,
516 pages; released, 2006

Mickey Haller is a Los Angeles defense attorney. He’s been at the job long enough to qualify as a pro. Along the way he’s acquired two ex-wives, a daughter, a free-lance investigator, a host of clients and ex-clients, a driver, and three Lincoln Town cars. Hence the title of the novel.

Connelly is an experienced crime novelist with some serious recognition in hand. He’s a fine writer and that’s a good thing. If he was any less talented, this over-long novel would really weigh you down. Compelling is an overused term, but in an odd way it applies. The novel is a long and twisting trail to a stunning conclusion in a way that almost forces the reader to deal with many of Haller’s shibboleths. His slide into near depression as he dissects and excoriates himself over the growing venality of those who try to enforce the law and those who try to manipulate the machine to preserve the lives and rights of the citizens caught up in our adversarial legal system, provides us with a disturbing inside look at the workings of our justice system. The legal system is a machine and the people in it are gears and levers and wheels. About the only people in the machine he treats lightly are the judges. Everyone else come in for some well-aimed cudgels.

Haller is the son of a famous defense lawyer who echoes his father’s concern. He is afraid he won’t recognize true innocence when he hears and sees it. Indeed, it is Connolly’s contention, as expressed in this novel, that is exactly what happens all too often. One might wonder if defense lawyers around the world have this same concern.

Connelly can be counted on to deliver a well-thought-out, strong and realistic novel, which in the fantasy world of Crime Fiction is a real accomplishment.