Well, ave atque vale, 2022; helloooo, 2023.
I fulfilled my New Year’s resolution: I worked my way through my towering “To be read” piles. And, like piles, it was often bloody and uncomfortable. But I whittled lists that ran for several pages down to half a dozen entries. Almost all the books I enjoyed were not detective fiction; almost all the detective fiction I read I didn’t enjoy. There’s a lesson in that, no doubt.
The first detective story I read this year was Masaya Yamaguchi’s Death of the Living Dead (1989); I wrote the time: “I will be surprised if I read a better one.” I still stand by that; the premise is novel (why don’t the dead stay dead?), the plotting is inventive, and it has something serious to say about life and death.
The only other first-class detective story was Gladys Mitchell’s Saltmarsh Murders (1932), in which Mrs. Bradley shares her views on sex while solving a village mystery in her inimitable way.
I have no “objection” to the Phoenix Wright games; “Turnabout Goodbyes” was the best detective fiction in any medium I encountered since Living Dead. See l. Stump’s excellent article.
I would also recommend:
- Cleveland Moffett’s Edwardian thriller Through the Wall (1909);
- Anthony Abbot’s About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932; reread);
- James Scott Byrnside’s The Opening Night Murders (2019), a tricky tribute to Christianna Brand;
- Anthony Gilbert’s Vanishing Corpse (1940), for its indomitable spinster;
- Gladys Mitchell’s high-spirited The Longer Bodies (1930; reread);
- Clayton Rawson’s pulpy but entertaining Death from Nowhere (1943);
- and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of Four (1890; reread).
Otherwise, a great many second- or third-rate detective stories: 25 goodish detective stories; 40-odd mediocre ones; and seven quite poor ones (Bush, Knox, Punshon, two by Street). Formulaic stuff, adequately written, without much cleverness, and no memorable scenes or atmosphere.
List follows at the end.
My favourite novels of the year were nearly all historical novels.
Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) was magnificent: Shakespearean in scope and style, this was the novel that defined the Middle Ages in the popular imagination for a century and a half. Scott popularized, if he did not create, Merrie England. Ivanhoe gives us wicked Prince John, good King Richard the Lionheart, and Robin Hood. The Jews, incidentally, are far more sympathetic than the Christians; Scott (a man of the Enlightenment) loathes bigotry.
Lion Feuchtwanger’s Josephus trilogy (1932–42) tells a modern story of the conflicted, introspective Jew, torn between tradition and being a citizen of the world, against an antique background: Rome under the Flavians. Set-pieces like the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem are splendid, full of fire and fury. But the focus is on Josephus’s attempts to find his place in the world: is he a Jew, a citizen of Rome, or a cosmopolitan? Humane and beautifully characterized. Interesting, too, to see Vespasian and Titus from another angle; the Roman historians venerate them, whereas Feuchtwanger’s Vespasian is a bully.
Mary Renault’s Bull from the Sea (1962), book two of her Theseus duology. Magnificent (no bull!) – a work of great beauty and power. The encounters with the divine inspire awe; the set pieces (the encounter with Œdipus at Colonus, the siege of Athens, the death of Hippolytus) are epic and tragic; and what follows – Theseus’s stroke, the undoing of his great work, his own death – quietly moving. The lyrical descriptions demand to be read aloud. The Mask of Apollo (1966), about a tragic actor involved in Sicilian politics, was excellent, but took me more than a week to read.
Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy (1984–89) – Witty, whimsical, elegant fantasy in the tradition of L. Frank Baum and James Branch Cabell. (Vance also loved Wodehouse.) Fantasy, I find, too often lacks fantasy – mammoth books derivative of Tolkien – but at its best, it can be wonder-ful. (In that vein, I also finished Catherynne M. Valente’s whimsical Fairyland series.)
I am reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), one of his “historical novels with a quarter turn to the fantastic”; it’s superb.
I would also recommend:
- Anthony Burgess’s Kingdom of the Wicked (1985), his witty account of the early days of Christianity, rich in style and incident;
- Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860), for obvious reasons;
- Anatole France’s Thaïs (1890), a depiction of religious fanaticism; best known today from Massenet’s opera (or the Méditation)
- John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga (1906–21), charting the decline of the British bourgeoisie; “Indian Summer of a Forsyte” is particularly moving
- W. Somerset Maugham: Ashenden (1927); The Narrow Corner (1932); Up at the Villa (1941) – an excellent storyteller and observer of people
Probably the poorest of the books I finished was Umberto Eco’s Island of the Day Before. It’s about a bloke on a boat who thinks a lot. And remembers battles. And looks at the sunset. And an island. Which is a metaphor for the unobtainable Lady he loves. And then he thinks some more.
It’s Eco at his most self-indulgent and abstruse. Parts of it are interesting (Mazarin’s plotting, the quest for longitude, the encounter with a Jesuit priest), but much of it went well over my head. Wikipedia notes that “the novel presupposes a ‘model reader’ who possesses a certain specialist encyclopaedic competence, in particular with regard to the aesthetics of Mannerism and the Baroque”. I am not that reader! There are long chapters of philosophical speculation about God and the Void, based not on empirical evidence, but on “reasoning” from the Bible. Towards the end, it becomes ever more incomprehensible: fever dreams caused by Stone Fish poisoning, apocalyptic visions of hell, and paradoxical exercises regarding the thinking of stones. (“That must be boring. Or am only I the one who feels bored?” comments the narrator.) There is no proper ending or resolution to the story. (“Roberto had never read a Romance that ended so badly.”) This is deliberate, since Eco is not so much telling a story, as commenting on the nature and writing of fiction.
Here’s a typical paragraph:
Father Caspar describes it as a Sphynx Mystagoga, an Oedipus Aegyptiacus, a Monad Ieroglyphica, a Clavis Convenientia Linguarum, a Theatrum Cosmographicum Historicum, a Sylva Sylvarum of every alphabet natural and artificial, an Architectura Curiosa Nova, a Combinatory Lamp, Mensa Isiaca, Metametricon, Synopsis Anthropoglottogonica, Basilica Cryptographica, an Amphitheatrum Sapientiae, Cryptomenesis Patefacta, Catoptron Polygraphicum, a Gazophylacium Verborum, a Mysterium Artis Steganographicae, Area Arithmologica, Archetypon Polyglotta, an Eisagoge Horapollinea, Congestorium Artificiosae Memoriae, Pantometron de Furtivis Literarum Notis, Mercurius Redivivus, and an Etymologicon Lustgartlein!
See list at end.
Incidentally: Why don’t we read Scott, or Dumas, or Hugo, or Verne in school?
There seems to be a conspiracy among English teachers that (except for Dickens) books taught in school and university should be:
1) women’s novels – gossipy romcoms about matchmaking (Jane Austen), overwrought (the Brontës), or domestic tragedies (Mme Bovary, Anna Karenina, Portrait of a Lady);
2) impenetrable (Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett);
3) naturalistic, preferably depressing, working-class / regional novels (Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Hardy, Lawrence);
4) damn depressing / dystopian fiction (Brave New World, 1984, Céline).
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness also has the “horror”, but it takes place up the Congo – rather than in an English or American drawing-room or miner’s hut. The closest English classes come to anything exciting is Lord of the Flies, which tells us we’re all brutes (and which has been disproven – see the Tongan castaways of 1966). Otherwise, nothing historical, nothing epic, nothing adventurous or Romantic, nothing with humour (“irony” is OK).
My blog has been afflicted by hiatuses while I worked on other projects. I reviewed 21 operas – including eight of Auber’s opéras-comiques and four Donizettis – but (surprisingly) nothing outstanding.
Of the three mystery films released this year, See How They Run was easily the best. The puzzle plot is slight, but the film is charming, clever, and very funny. There’s a beautiful red herring and a showdown at Agatha Christie’s manor. And lots of Easter eggs.
The Branagh Death on the Nile is certainly better than the reviews suggest – but if the 1978 Ustinov film was murder in first class, this is travelling steerage. It’s a sexier film and a darker one; don’t expect a happy ending. Death #3 took me by surprise. The whodunnit feels rushed, and the investigation perfunctory – three murders and explanation in less than an hour. I liked the red carmine, but some clues – the conditional and the “Tell us everything, from the beginning!” third murder – are bungled.
Glass Onion was pretty bad, too. The first act – the boxes, the Bond villain island – is promising, and the second act (the flashback) is clever, and skilfully constructed. But the murderer is obvious, and the glass smashing is “dumb”. Above all, it’s crass – blonde bimbos in bikinis, middle fingers, and “s—heads”. Still, this is the third whodunnit film of the year, which is encouraging.
See How They Run aside, the films I enjoyed most were:
The King’s Man: An excellent period thriller, set on the eve of World War I. The Rasputin fight is brilliantly choreographed (and the music cleverly gradually turns into 1812). Intense WWI battlefield scene. Emotional punch halfway through. And ends on a nail-biting plane / cliff scene.
Jurassic Dominion: Some would say this was a disaster on the scale of the KT Event, but if this is the last in the franchise, it goes out with a bang. It’s hugely enjoyable – a terrific edge of your seat film – probably the best since the first.
Amsterdam: A murder thriller (and more) set in 1930s New York.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever: A welcome recovery from the last couple of Marvel films.
I would also recommend Operation Mincemeat – here, in all its stark reality, is the true story of the man who never was.
I loathed Everything Everywhere All at Once, an apt name for a total mess of a film.
- Death of the Living Dead (Masaya Yamaguchi, 1989)
- The Saltmarsh Murders (Gladys Mitchell, 1932)
- Through the Wall (Cleveland Moffett, 1909)
4 (very good)
- About the Murder of the Circus Queen (Anthony Abbot, 1932)
- The Opening Night Murders (James Scott Byrnside, 2019)
- The Sign of Four (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1890)
- The Vanishing Corpse (Anthony Gilbert, 1940)
- The Longer Bodies (Gladys Mitchell, 1930)
- Death from Nowhere (Clayton Rawson, 1943)
- The Hymn Tune Mystery (George A. Birmingham, 1930)
- Knife in the Dark (G. D. H. & M. Cole, 1941)
- A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887)
- The Sussex Cuckoo (Brian Flynn, 1935)
- The Fortescue Candle (Brian Flynn, 1936)
- Fear and Trembling (Brian Flynn, 1936)
- Tread Softly (Brian Flynn, 1937)
- Helen Vardon’s Confession (R. Austin Freeman, 1922)
- Arsenic in Richmond (David Frome, 1934)
- The Tragedy at Freyne (Anthony Gilbert, 1927)
- The Man Who Was Too Clever (Anthony Gilbert, 1935)
- Courtier to Death (Anthony Gilbert, 1936)
- The Visitor (Anthony Gilbert, 1967)
- The Medbury Fort Murder (George Limnelius, 1929)
- Tell No Tales (George Limnelius, 1931)
- Shroud of Darkness (E. C. R. Lorac, 1954)
- Body Found Stabbed (A. G. Macdonell / John Cameron, 1932)
- The Warrielaw Jewel (Winifred Peck, 1933)
- The Tin Tree (James Quince, 1930)
- The Great Merlini (Clayton Rawson, 1979)
- The Face of Trespass (Ruth Rendell, 1974)
- The Bridesmaid (Ruth Rendell, 1989) (**+)
- The Corpse with the Sunburned Face (C. St. John Sprigg, 1935)
- The Six Queer Things (C. St. John Sprigg, 1937)
- Death in Wellington Road (Major Street / John Rhode, 1952)
- About the Murder of the Night Club Lady (Anthony Abbot, 1931)
- From Natural Causes (Josephine Bell, 1939)
- Death of a Con Man (Josephine Bell, 1968)
- The Invisible Host (Gwen Bristow & Bruce Manning, 1930)
- Q. E. D. (Lynn Brock, 1930)
- Murder at the Munition Works (G. D. H. & M. Cole, 1940)
- Tom Tiddler’s Island (J. J. Connington, 1933)
- Sudden Death (Freeman Wills Crofts, 1932)
- Antidote to Venom (Freeman Wills Crofts, 1938)
- James Tarrant, Adventurer (Freeman Wills Crofts, 1941)
- The Art School Murders (Moray Dalton, 1943)
- The Condamine Case (Moray Dalton, 1947)
- The Z Murders (J. Jefferson Farjeon, 1932)
- TCOT Purple Calf (Brian Flynn, 1934)
- The Murder of Mrs. Davenport (Anthony Gilbert, 1928)
- The Woman in Red (Anthony Gilbert, 1941)
- Something Nasty in the Woodshed (Anthony Gilbert, 1942)
- The Scarlet Button (Anthony Gilbert, 1944)
- Death in the Wheelbarrow (William Gore, 1935)
- Magpie Murders (Anthony Horowitz, 2016)
- A Remarkable Case of Burglary (H. R. F. Keating, 1975)
- A Crime in Sologne (Édouard Letailleur, 1933)
- The Manuscript Murder (George Limnelius, 1934)
- The General Goes Too Far (George Limnelius, 1935)
- The Mystery at Stowe (Vernon Loder, 1928)
- Choose Your Weapon (Vernon Loder, 1938)
- Skin o’ my Tooth (Baroness Orczy, 1928)
- Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms, and Epitaphs (Robert Player, 1975)
- Music Tells All (E. R. Punshon, 1948)
- Puzzle for Pilgrims (Patrick Quentin, 1947)
- Casual Slaughters (James Quince, 1935)
- To Fear a Painted Devil (Ruth Rendell, 1965)
- Shake Hands for Ever (Ruth Rendell, 1975)
- A Demon in My View (Ruth Rendell, 1976)
- Live Flesh (Ruth Rendell, 1986)
- Family Matters (Anthony Rolls, 1933)
- Dead of a Physician (Fiona Sinclair, 1961)
- Murder of a Chemist (Major Street / Miles Burton, 1936)
- Death at the Dance (Major Street / John Rhode, 1952)
- Through the Walls (Noël Vindry, 1937)
- Ask a Policeman (Detection Club, 1933)
- TCOT Benevolent Bookie (Christopher Bush, 1956)
- The Pin Men (Roger East, 1963)
- Double Cross Purposes (Ronald Knox, 1937)
- Strange Ending (E. R. Punshon, 1953)
- By Registered Post (Major Street / John Rhode, 1952)
- Death Takes a Detour (Major Street / Miles Burton, 1958)
- Trouble in College (F. J. Whaley, 1936)
- Josephus (Lion Feuchtwanger, 1932)
- The Jew of Rome (Lion Feuchtwanger, 1935)
- Indian Summer of a Forsyte (John Galsworthy, 1918)
- The Bull from the Sea (Mary Renault, 1962)
- Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott, 1820)
- Madouc (Jack Vance, 1989)
4 (very good)
- Kingdom of the Wicked (Anthony Burgess, 1985)
- Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1860)
- Tales of Unease (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1894) – especially “Lady Sannox”
- Thaïs (Anatole France, 1890)
- The Man of Property (John Galsworthy, 1906)
- In Chancery (John Galsworthy, 1920)
- To Let (John Galsworthy, 1921)
- Puck of Pook’s Hill (Rudyard Kipling, 1906)
- Königsmark (A. E. W. Mason, 1938)
- Ashenden (W. Somerset Maugham, 1927)
- The Narrow Corner (W. Somerset Maugham, 1932)
- Up at the Villa (W. Somerset Maugham, 1941)
- Dodosaurs (Rick Meyerowitz, 1983)
- Lud-in-the-Mist (Hope Mirrlees, 1926)
- The Mask of Apollo (Mary Renault, 1966)
- The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home (Catherynne M. Valente, 2016)
- Suldrun’s Garden (Jack Vance, 1984)
- The Day Will Come (Lion Feuchtwanger, 1942)
- Snow White and the Seven Samurai (Tom Holt, 2000)
- A for Andromeda (Fred Hoyle & John Elliot, 1962)
- The Andromeda Breakthrough (Fred Hoyle & John Elliot, 1962)
- Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome, 1889)
- Samarkand (Amin Maalouf, 1988)
- Liza of Lambeth (W. Somerset Maugham, 1897)
- Mrs. Craddock (W. Somerset Maugham, 1902)
- Marsh Hay (Gladys Mitchell / Stephen Hockaby, 1933)
- An Instance of the Fingerpost (Iain Pears, 1997)
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark, 1961)
- The Boy Who Lost Fairyland (Catherynne M. Valente, 2015)
- The Green Pearl (Jack Vance, 1985)
- Les indes noires (Jules Verne, 1877)
- To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis, 1997)
- The Refugees (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1893)
- Incompetence (Rob Grant, 2003)
- The Isles of Unwisdom (Robert Graves, 1950)
- Captains Courageous (Rudyard Kipling, 1897)
- Strata (Terry Pratchett, 1981)
- Welsh Fargo (Harry Secombe, 1981)
- St. Ives (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1897)
- Hector Servadac (Jules Verne, 1877)
- La maison à vapeur (Jules Verne, 1880)
- The Smithsonian Institution (Gore Vidal, 1998)
- Michael the Finn (Mika Waltari, 1948)
- The Island of the Day Before (Umberto Eco, 1994)
- Richard Carvel (Winston Churchill – no, not him, 1899)
- The Last of the Mohicans (James Fenimore Cooper, 1826)
- Le roi de fer (Maurice Druon, 1955)
- Lord Geoffrey’s Fancy (Alfred Duggan, 1962)
- The Ugly Duchess (Lion Feuchtwanger, 1923): A historical novel about Margaret of Tyrol, Henrich of Bohemia, John of Luxemburg and Bohemia, Ludwig of Wittelsbach, Albert of Habsburg, and various margraves and noblemen, and who has control of Carniola, Carinthia, Swabia (and Bruneck, Glurns, Klausen, Arco, Ala, Rattenberg, Kitzbuhel, and Lienz). One really needs to be German or Central European to follow the story. My knowledge of 14th century Austrian politics is non-existent; Feuchtwanger doesn’t really explain who the players are, why they’re important, or why we should care. Too much of it reads like a history book, rather than a novel.
- Those Barren Leaves (Aldous Huxley, 1925)
- In a Glass Darkly (Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872)
- The Quincunx (Charles Palliser, 1989): For those who want grimdark Dickens.
- Marius the Epicurean (Walter Pater, 1885)
- Salome the Wandering Jewess (George Sylvester Viereck & Paul Eldridge, 1930): Wilde and Strauss’s heroine is reinvented as a reincarnating immortal in this blend of decadence, Jewish history, and Oriental mysticism by two gay Nazi supporters. As bizarre as it sounds.
6 thoughts on “That Was The Year That Was: 2022”
Thanks for sharing your reads, Nick. Have a Happy 2023.
And you too, Neeru!
I feel I should point out that you’ve misnamed “Magpie Murders” with an additional “The” – and if you remember the plot, that is not just pedantry! Have you seen the TV version of this book?
Thanks for the shoutout, I hope you continue to enjoy Ace Attorney! If you think “Turnabout Goodbyes” is some of the best detective fiction you’ve read all year, I can’t wait until you play Trials & Tribulations!
Sorry you didn’t enjoy EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE. It’s my favorite film of all time; I grant that it’s chaotic, but I wouldn’t call it ‘messy’. All of the chaos in the film is directed and purposeful, building to the movie’s central thesis (“The universe is chaotic and nothing possesses innate, insular meaning; but this is a fact to be celebrated, not dreaded”) as well as thematically supplementing the film’s absurdist eschewing of typical standards of storytelling (such as being every genre of story ever, and being deliberately segmented so that the film’s inner-film of it pretending to be a superhero movie ends prematurely so that the movie can have three endings, all of which function as cutting-off points). None of the “messiness” is an unintended result of poor writing, but instead intentional, a directed and meaningful effort towards a thematic and cohesive rejection of the inherent meaning in all things (including the boundaries between tones, styles, and genres) in order to lovingly embrace the empty space it leaves behind. Nothing has so much meaning it has to be senselessly upheld, not even the difference between a superhero film, a romantic comedy, a family drama, and a Disney cartoon!
I also thought it was brilliant the way it used this shattering of the boundaries between genres and stories to combine concepts in very natural and organic ways. Evalyn’s conflict with Joy is both the down-to-Earth conflict between a mother and daughter as well as a high-faring analysis of the philosophical dichotomy of Absurdism and Nihilism… And by taking these high-faring concepts, and exploring them through more relatable, human scruples, it also makes the philosophical drama more interesting, digestible, and relatable (as it can be contextualized within topics of everyday life). I think being able to demonstrate such high-faring concepts through so basic a conflict as “a daughter resenting her overbearing mother” was a brilliant way to use it’s cross-wiring of genres to enhance and inform, rather than muddy and confuse…