An Infinity of Mirrors, by Richard Condon

This 1964 novel has been on my shelves for many decades. I think I originally bought it because of an interest in how the Nazis built their control of Germany in the 1930s. And I may have left it unread because I considered it more a commercial work than a literary work.

But it is an easy novel to get into. It is about a beautiful Parisienne, Paule Bernheim, who is Jewish. Her father, Paul-Alain Bernheim, is a famous actor also famous for his love affairs. And who also makes a point of instructing his daughter in Jewish history, in order to make her proud of her heritage. The daughter then meets a handsome German officer, Willi Von Rhode, whom she pronounces as Veelee, when he is stationed in Paris. Her father is distraught when she falls in love with this Prussian officer. But he does seem to be a good man, and she loves him so much that she follows him back to Germany when he is re-assigned in 1932, and marries him there.

Whereupon, the author spends a number of chapters recapitulating the growth of Nazi power in Germany, including the campaign against the Jews. This dip into history explains why this novel began with an Author’s Note that thanks the scores of people who enabled him to capture that era of German history. This recapitulation is very easy reading, however—colorful history as a novelist would tell it rather than the dry recitation an historian might make. Indeed, this recital of German history is so vivid that one never regrets leaving the adventures of Paule and Veelee, since one knows that this history is setting up the danger Paule faces in Nazi Germany, as well as a potential conflict in her marriage to a German officer.

Paule herself does not recognize this danger, believing her husband will protect her. But her friends do realize it, and recommend she move from Berlin into the countryside, where hatred of the Jews is less prominent. This, they say, will enable Veelee to take on a more important job and not remain in his dead-end assignment at a training school because it enables him to be close to his wife.

But Hitler then turns over in the army’s leadership, and Paule, becoming concerned about the future of her husband, returns to Berlin. Her rational is that her son Paul-Alain is now of school age, and she wants to find a good school for him. Back in Berlin, however, Paule is assaulted by a German officer, Colonel Drayst, and then is caught in an anti-Jewish riot, which she barely escapes. This makes her realize that she is no longer safe in Germany and that she must leave. Which means that she must also give up Veelee, whom she loves. This is in 1938. There is then a break in the novel, which jumps two years.

Before focusing on Paule back in Paris in 1940, the author again becomes the historian, and explains how the Germans are using local French institutions to administer Paris and much of France. Then we return to a restless Paule, who begins various affairs, much as her father also did in Paris years earlier. One of her affairs is with a Spaniard, Count Miral, with whom she shares a deep devotion. The title of the novel, in fact, comes from their relationship. “He and Paule,” the Count thinks,” were like figures facing and reflecting each other endlessly in an infinity of mirrors, which were the past and the future.”

Their companionship appears to settle her down, but it becomes significantly unsettled again when Colonel Drayst re-enters her life. He is intent on possessing this beautiful woman to revenge himself on all Jews. This threat also makes her more protective of her young son. Then, to complicate the story, Condon introduces a black market businessman named Piocher, who is in league with the British.

Plus, to complicate the story even further, Condon returns to Veelee, now the chief of staff of a large panzer army. We learn he has been horrified by Nazi atrocities in Poland, and yet his career advances until he is badly wounded in Africa, losing one eye and one arm. He also discovers others who believe Hitler has betrayed the German army and the German people and must be eliminated. He then manages a new assignment in Paris, where he has a cordial reunion with Paule and rediscovers his love of his son. And so, there is further intrigue, regarding both Paule’s future and Veelee’s involvement with the rebellious officers. Which raises the issue: is this a commercial work or a literary one? For the plotting is commercial; but the substance, such as the opposing cultures, approaches that of a literary work.

The tension grows as the novel races to its conclusion. Drayst begins his plot to possess Paule. There is an extended heart-rending scene in which Jews in Paris are rounded up and confined to an old arena with little food and water, no sanitation, and spreading illness. This is followed by with Paule intent on protecting her son and deciding where her true commitment lies, and with Veelee joining the army’s plot to end the war.

The climax of the novel is dramatic, but relies a little too much on history, first on the sabotage that helped to disrupt the German reaction to the Normandy invasion, then on Stauffenberg’s failed attempt of July 20, 1944 to kill Hitler, and finally on the plotters’ failure to use the army to take over their country. Paule and Veelee then emerge to play only a subsidiary role as, with the help of Piocher, they plan their own revenge on Colonel Drayst. But they do re-enforce Condon’s theme of the horrors of war, for he has Paule realize at the end that in their revenge, “We have become the monster.”

The result is a suspenseful novel that carries a message. It is a worthy message. As Condon writes, “evil must be opposed, [but] when it is fought with evil’s ways it must ultimately corrupt and strangle the opposer.” But an emphasis on such a message negates the novel’s literary pretensions. For after our long exposure to Paule and her loves, her final cry turns her fate into a symbol, whereas it should lead to a deeper understanding of her humanity. Of the tension in the life of this Jewish woman who falls for a German officer serving a Nazi regime he abhors, and her struggles with issues of love, patriotism, and survival. It focuses, instead, on this heroine’s failure to combat such evil—leaving us with a cynical reminder of what war and violence can bring to the human condition. (November, 2019)

Forgetfulness, by Ward Just

This 2006 work is another unexpected novel from Ward Just, a novel with little external drama but considerable internal tension. It is about an American in Europe, a successful portrait artist named Thomas Railles who in the past has made life more interesting by taking on odd jobs from two boyhood friends working for the CIA. But, now in his fifties, he has given up such dalliances with international intrigue, has moved to southwestern France, has married a local woman, Florette, and has settled down to sketch and draw portraits of the locals.

As the novel opens, his wife is injured while hiking alone in the nearby foothills of the Pyrenees, and we experience Florette’s fear and doubt as four mysterious men, speaking an unknown language, encounter her and at first seem to want to help. It is a beautiful introduction to this novel, for in her helpless condition she is prompted to review her past life and her contentment with her second marriage to this American artist. Here is a chapter that stands alone as we share this 54-year-old woman’s uncertain future, her inability to balance the intentions of her “rescuers” with their frustration, and yet her conviction that her absent but loyal husband will soon rescue her.

The remainder of the novel, however, is from her husband’s viewpoint, as Thomas, mourning the loss of his wife, now finds it difficult to survive in a distant corner of the world, with no close friends and unable to find the usual satisfaction in front of a sketch pad or an easel. What is he to do with his life?

But then another option confronts him, as his two CIA friends, Bernhard and Russ, return. They commiserate with him and offer to use their back-channel contacts to find the men responsible for his wife’s death. And thus “bring closure,” they say, to Thomas’ pain.

Except, Thomas is not interested in that type of closure, or in any type of revenge. He just wants to survive, to find meaning again in his life and in his art. And for much of this novel, the reader is inside Thomas’ mind, as the novel revolves around those concerns. Which means there is far less action and far less dialogue than in most novels. And yet there is no lack of drama. Even a walk home through driving rain offers Thomas a brief challenge. For, even then, his mind is reacting to nature’s unexpected onslaught; and we are learning more and more about this American abroad who is trying to survive, for he needs to adjust to both the lost of certainty that occurred after he lost his wife and to his county’s loss of innocence at the hands of the terrorists who razed the World Trade Center.

Thomas is forced to confront a further uncertainty when his CIA friends return to tell him that they have arrested four Moorish men whom they say killed his wife; and they invite him to witness the next interrogation. But as he witnesses a torture session at the hands of a policeman named Antoine, it does not offer Thomas the “closure’ his friends had promised him.

And so, he insists on confronting the men alone, showing them a portrait of the woman they killed, appealing to their humanity, and asking them why they did what they did. He takes this approach because to anticipate further violence, such as he has just witnessed being done to the prisoners, seems fruitless. Indeed, it has helped both Thomas and the reader understand better the failure behind the atmosphere of revenge that has recently permeated the American psyche. And it confirms both the author and his hero as being among those who believe that to be human requires that one forget any idea of revenge.

The word “forget” and its variations, appear frequently in the opening stages of this novel, but its implications are not emphasized, and it does not become an early theme. Instead, author Just seems more confortable in letting the idea slowly develop, until the final chapter, when Thomas retires to a sparse, foggy island off the coast of Maine. He is far from his Midwestern upbringing and his expatriate life in France. And his lonely life there, with little human contact, enables him to forget his espionage capers and the loss of his comfortable life abroad with his wife. He can at last concentrate on his art.

Whereupon, a visit from his former colleagues enforces, for him and for us, a final determination to forget the past. It is perhaps ironical, in fact, that this entire novel is built around Thomas being forced to remember his bachelor past, his espionage past, and his expatriate past, even as he seeks a world without that past.

This is a world, Harvey Freedenberg says in Bookpage, “where actions have consequences and moral debts must be repaid.” And this is what raises this novel for me to its true literary level. For it is about more than Thomas Railles. It also personalizes his and the author’s concerns about the change that terrorism, whether in the Pyrenees or in New York City, has introduced into all our lives.

But what is interesting is that the decision for revenge that Thomas faces is never itself addressed as a moral dilemma. Rather than the concept of there being a moral debt, which does exist, what he addresses is the practicality of revenge. To inflict pain on the four men will not relieve him of his own pain, he decides, nor of the loss of his wife. So why do it? Instead, relieving himself of his pain becomes a psychological decision—between forgetting and not forgetting. And he refuses to be swept up in the revenge atmosphere required by not forgetting. Because he is better than that. And we admire him for it. Indeed, we seem to admire almost any American hero who values his own independence above worldly concerns.

Every Ward Just novel seems to be far different from his companion novels. This novel has been no exception, which is why this reader looks forward to catching up with still more of his work. (November, 2019)

Home, by Marilynne Robinson

This 2008 work is a difficult novel for me to evaluate. It is about the Boughton family introduced in the writer’s previous work, Gilead, named for the town in which the family lives. But it is particularly about Glory Boughton and her estranged brother Jack. Glory has returned home to Gilead to care for her widowed father, Robert Boughton, a retired minister who is in ill health, when Jack unexpectedly arrives home as well, to be greeted warmly by Gloria but less so by his father, who resents his son’s twenty-year absence.

This novel has received favorable reviews, but it was difficult for me to identify with this family early in the work, when it is simply introducing its three main characters. But once it begins to develop their relationships, especially between Glory and Jack, my interest grew. For growing up in her father’s faith has instilled in Glory a sense of kindness and generosity, and one can easily identify with her. And, besides, she still loves her brother, who regrets abandoning his family and yet seems programmed to remain the black sheep among what were eight children. Glory’s relationship with her brother grows more and more complex for us, but it is through their conversations, their constant give and take, rather than through any physical actions. Indeed, their honest interactions represent the novel’s only plot, and one reads simply to learn where their relationship is headed.

Having been raised by their father, a minister, and having spent considerable time with John Ames, their father’s best friend and also a minister, we find that underpinning the complex family relationships is the idea of faith, a faith that obliges love and yet also carries its own obligations. Jack was the favorite of his father’s eight children, but the father both resents the boy’s abandonment of his family for twenty years and feels guilty with the realization that their alienation is partly his own fault. Whereas, Jack now has guilt feelings about his troubled youth before he left home. Glory, on the other hand, loves her brother despite his youthful indiscretions, and yet distrusts all males after having been abandoned by a fiancée whom she believed loved her. Having been raised by a minister, “faith for her,” she thinks, “was habit and family loyalty.”

The neighboring minister, John Ames, the main character in Gilead, is also a kind of father figure, and adds to the spiritual underpinning of these characters. As Robinson has Glory think, “Ames and her father had quarreled over [predestination] any number of times, her father asserting the perfect sufficiency of grace with something like ferocity, while Ames maintained, with a mildness his friend found irksome, that the gravity of sin could not be gainsaid.”

  1. O. Scott in The New York Times suggest one explanation of these family relationships when he writes that “nothing in the novel rules out the possibility that Jack might exist outside the grace of God, and that this…might explain his loneliness and estrangement in the bosom of such a warm and generous family. Indeed, he also writes that “Home and Gilead are marvelous novels about family, friendship and aging…they are great novels.”

I myself would not go that far. But Robinson has certainly taken an intriguing approach to this family. That is, their continuous conversations bring out their innermost thoughts, as they cook for each other, clean the house, and tidy up the yard, all the while helping us to understand them as they strive to understand each other.

Michiko Kakatani, on the other hand, writes in the Times that “Home gives us scene after scene of Jack and Glory—and sometimes their father—talking to each other about their doubts and regrets and failed dreams. The result is a static and even suffocating narrative in which very little is dramatized…and it makes the characters, especially Jack, seem terribly self-absorbed.” Which also describes my reaction to the early sections of the novel. But then I began to relate to these same characters, began to see the pain, the restraint, their reaching out to one another, all of which enriched their mutual portraits.

The title “Home” is well chosen, for it focuses the reader on the essence of this novel, just as the title of “Gilead” focused one on the relationships in their town. Here, Glory and Jack have both returned home, having fled a sense of failure, of unfulfillment, of empty relationships and a resulting loneliness. What they seek from their father and their home’s familiar rooms is a return to their comfortable past, to an acceptance that will bring forgiveness, love, and self-worth.

There is also a sense of irony at the end. Jack misses out on a connection that might have answered certain needs. The scene is too underwritten, however, to carry the emotion it appears to strive for. And while Jack has returned home for some kind of acceptance, his father’s resentment reaches out through the love that he has long preached; and it is his refusal to pain his father further that prompts the boy’s departure. And so, while Jack does not want to remind his father of their past, his leaving further stokes his father’s bitterness.

This novel moves too quietly to prompt me to seek out further novels by Robinson. I write this, even though such a decision may be my loss. For this author certainly probes the subtle family relationships that so often appeal to me. And she underscores this probing through characters who retain their spiritual faith as they contend with guilt, forgiveness, and the reality of human emotions. (November, 2019)

Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen

This 2018 novel reveals what a wonderful writer Quindlen is. Why do I say that? Because nothing happens. And yet this novel is constantly interesting. Instead of a plot to draw one on, one is drawn on, instead, by a series of portraits, a portrait of a neighborhood on New York’s Upper West Side, where alternate side parking prevails; a portrait of friendly, and unfriendly, neighbors; and a portrait of a marriage and that couple’s family. And as we read on, each portrait grows deeper, becomes more complex, and the novel grows still richer.

At the center of this novel are Nora and Charlie Nolan, both in their fifties, who met casually thirty years ago and quickly realized that each was the partner they needed. Like many youth, their dream was to prove themselves in New York, and as their careers advanced they found an ideal house on a dead end street, where they encountered a group of interesting neighbors. As the novel opens, the value of their homes has appreciated so much that it has impacted the group’s world outlook. And while each of these neighbors is different, as are their relationships with Nora and Charlie, each is also wealthy and white, and they grow united against the world around them, especially as they share a sense of privilege.

Or, as Quindlen writes of that slow social awareness: “There was a shadow government on the block, a shadow government that knew where all the bodies were buried, a system of mutual dependence, one group needing services, the other employment. Nora was never sure where the balance of power fell.”

The neighborhood is tied together by a parking lot, created when an old town house burns down and is never replaced. Charlie is exited when he finally gains one of the six spots in that parking lot, while Nora is unimpressed. Thus are introduced a beginning to their differences.

One resident, George, assumes obnoxious control over the parking lot and serves to tie together the early stages of the novel. But the novel’s one major incident occurs when another resident, Jack, who has anger management issues, slams the group’s revered handyman, Ricky, in the leg with a golf club during a dispute in the parking lot.

This act of violence is the one major incident in the novel, and does emphasize the social tension that exists in their community. It also betrays another small difference of opinion between Nora and Charlie, over who is to blame. Which leads them, eventually, to doubt their respective roles. For while Nora feels at home in New York, Charlie yearns for a quieter, less competitive life in a warmer climate. She, after all, has a prototypical New York type job as the director of a Museum of Jewelry, even if she yearns to find a more significant job, while he is a frustrated investment banker, termed too decent to thrive in that cut-throat environment.

Many of the novel’s pages, however, are given over to normal neighborhood events, such as the gossip at house parties, the hidden envy behind closed doors, and the luncheons among competitive wives, as well as the raising of both children and pets, the inconveniences of pests and faulty plumbing, and the disputes with poor people whose rooms from a neighboring street face their the back of their town houses. All of which focuses on the privileged life of these neighbors and leads the reader to wonder what events we should be concentrating on. There seems to be no real story. And with no story driving it, there is no story to reach an ending.

And yet there is an ending, of course. Not an entirely satisfactory one for this reader. But we see a major relationship come to an end, and the author tries to make it a typical failure between two people who see the world from a different perspective and have different goals.

But life is not art, and art is not life. What works as an ending in one case does not necessarily work as an ending in another. And Quindlen seems to recognize this, since she tries to broaden the conclusion of her novel. She introduces the idea of an alternate universe. What if certain things in the neighborhood, she asks, had not happened? Or, more realistically, perhaps residents like these do not always remember what they had once had. They have a kind of amnesia, and they ignore the city or the years of their youth. “They’d forgotten where they had come from, how they’d started out. They’d forgotten what the city really was, and how small a part of it they truly were.”

I have to define this as a tacked on ending, an attempt to make this beautiful close-up view of a marriage and a neighborhood a stand-in for the grand and changing history of New York City. But as interesting as the neighborhood scaffold is, it is not strong enough to support such a broad interpretation.

So what remains with me is the incisive portrait of that family, that marriage, and that neighborhood. And I forgive Quindlen for the inconclusiveness of her ending, even as I wish the long life of her main characters had lead to more than a metaphorical lesson. Instead, she simply offers an open ending and suggests it is typical of life, at least modern New York life, and that everyone should now move on.

Some reviewers have suggested that this novel is best appreciated by residents of New York City, with its emphasis on the neighborhood, the upper classes, and the parking issue. But I would dispute that—despite a Google search that reveals far fewer reviews of this novel than serious fiction usually earns. In fact, I do wonder why this work has not received more recognition. Because the presence of a rich social strata and an evocative local environment are usually regarded as strengths in a work of fiction. And most effective of all, we have here a roster of interesting characters whose concerns are real.

One does wonder where Quindlen’s novels will go from here. Is the social environment now of more interest to her than strictly family issues? Miller’s Valley and this novel suggest that this may well be the case. (October, 2019)

Benediction, by Kent Haruf

This 2013 work is another beautifully written novel by this mid-western writer who recently died. It offers another of his portraits of the small town of Holt, Colorado, where we witness various struggling families in this middle-class community. We meet first Dad Lewis, in his seventies, who has a fatal cancer that will allow him to survive only a few more months. He has had things to regret in his life, and some of his ill deeds still haunt him, but he has tried to make amends for many of them, especially any involving his son Frank.

But this novel is to be about more than Dad. He is introduced on the opening pages more to establish the facts of old age, the limited future it offers, the focus on life’s simple verities, and the sense of family, how both the elderly and their children respond to each other’s travails.

Thus, we also meet Mary, Dad’s wife, and their daughter Lorraine; his widowed neighbor Greta May and her eight-year-old granddaughter Alice; the new minister Rob Lyle and his troubled son Thomas; and the elderly Johnson women, Willa and visiting Alene, who live across the field and feel that an eight-year-old may be too much for Greta May to handle.

Lorraine returns home from Denver when she learns of her father’s illness. Greta May welcomes Willa and Alene’s attention to her granddaughter. In the past, Alene had fallen in love with a married man and after losing him fears that she will be alone for the rest of her life. And so her mother suggests they develop a relationship with the child Alice. Meanwhile, Minister Lyle proves to be too liberal for his parishioners, preaching Jesus’ message that love and forgiveness be offered to both sinners and the poor, which many of the townspeople reject. He must also deal with his troubled son Thomas, who can’t adjust to small-town life after living in Denver. And finally there is Dad and Mary’s estranged son Frank, who is homosexual and has fled the prejudices of a small town, leaving his parents to yearn for his return because of his father’s illness.

Thus, we have simultaneous stories of parents and children, of young and old, of love and despair, of families straining at bonds, of young and old searching for hope, and of death’s presence in each of their lives. As Ursula LeGuin writes in The Guardian, “I find that Haruf’s characters… inhabit my mind permanently: they are people I think about. Their conversation is dry and plain, with easy, western cadence, and the author’s narration is similar.” She also writes: “Looking at the Holt novels as a whole, his courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love—the enduring frustration, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection—are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction.”

One reads with interest of these troubled people (troubled lives are a condition of living, Haruf says) because the author lets us see them from their own perspective and because he also sympathizes with them. As we do as well. Even with the black sheep, Thomas, and Frank. And a major part of letting us see that perspective is through the dialogue, a dialogue that is simple, that is casual, and that includes throw-away lines that appear in any natural conversation, often adding a touch of humor but also revealing character.

One should also note that Haruf is one of those authors who does not use quotation marks. If his dialogue is easily understood as dialogue, it is primarily because each new speaker begins with a new paragraph—which also happens, of course, when using quotation marks. So it has to be visual, the reason certain authors do not use quotation marks. That is, they see those marks as a distraction. And, of course, not using quotation marks here also reflects the simplicity of this author’s approach to his people and their lives. But using no quotation marks will work only if the dialogue has the clear rhythms of speech, not of prose. As it does here.

In discussing his concentration on life’s verities, Haruf told Robert Birnbaum of the literary website, Identity Theory, “There is nothing in these books that I am trying to write that is cynical or satiric or ironic. I am not interested in that. There is a place for that. But in my view that is a kind of easy out.”

For most of this novel, we are simply listening in on the lives of these people. The novel introduces us to multiple relationships, and seems not to emphasize any of the characters, or to be headed in any direction. And yet, we do read on. Because these people, their interactions, their desires and their troubles, are all so human.

And then, as we finish this book, we realize what Haruf’s goal is. He is writing about life. That is why there is no plot, no story that comes to an end. What comes to an end is one life. It is an ending that stands in for all our lives. It is a final 20 pages or so of a character in bed and slowly leaving this world, and family and friends reacting to that slow and inevitable departure.

And so we also realize why the author, the son of a minister, has arrived at this novel’s conclusion. As well as why he has created Minister Lyle. It is to introduce a spiritual dimension. For how can one deal with the final resolution of life without that dimension?

Paul Elie in The New York Times does find an incompleteness in the Reverend Lyle’s presence. But this novel is not about the minister, like it is not about Dad. It is about life and its end. It is about our approach to death, and how, in life or death, we search for light as our destination. It also suggests that at the end of life, as other characters live on, so life goes on. And that as one creates fictional characters one hopes will live on, so do we, as readers, all hope that our own life shall go on.

Haruf died the following year, 2014, and one wonders how much his knowledge of his own fate influenced the writing of this book. He did write one more book in his final days, a novel that focused on love more than on death, and it offered a different story of old people that I also loved. But in sum, I believe this novel offers more of a capstone to his career, and to his life, than that actual final novel. For this one is about the full gamut of life and, eventually, about death itself. (September, 2019)

The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black

I usually avoid these novels commissioned by the estate of a dead author. Like those that feature such heroes as Spenser, James Bond, and Jason Bourne. Because these novels are never the real thing, or their hero the real hero incarnated.

But I may have to change my mind. At least for any pastiche written by Benjamin Black, whose Dublin mysteries I have long admired. Not to mention his true identity as John Banville, a true Irish literary phenomenon.

For here he offers in this 2014 work a terrific recreation of a Philip Marlowe crime story set in a Los Angeles type city of the 1950s. I succumbed particularly to the tongue in cheek style that one associates with the late Raymond Chandler. It may be slightly exaggerated here, but it is still fun to read.

It is particularly reflected in Marlowe’s self-awareness, that of his own lonely life among the low lifes, and then the arrival in his dusty office of this blonde beauty far above his station, and yet, as he dreams, perhaps available. This self-awareness also produces the snappy dialogue one associates with Chandler and private eyes, such as when Marlowe teases others, like the cops that he knows and that he realizes he must keep informed. It is a teasing, however, that can also irritate some cops, even as it entertains us. And Marlowe is aware of this.

But that, as I said, is the entertainment aspect. An equal driver of my interest was the story. After the black-eyed blonde, no stranger to such detective tales, enters Marlowe’s office, he follows tradition and succumbs to her beauty and her charms. Whereupon, off we go. But as Marlowe begins his investigation, it becomes more and more complex and more and more dangerous. As Olen Steinhauer writes in his review in The New York Times, author Black also draws extensively on the conventions of private eye mysteries. The critic cites, in addition to the femme fatale, “the drinking and the bursts of violence; the high society folks with secrets to sweep under the rug, the soulless thugs and surly cops, and the dead.”

This novel begins with the beautiful Claire Cavendish wanting Marlowe to find out what happened to Nico Peterson, her dead lover. He was unexpectedly killed by a hit and run driver and his body mutilated; and she wants to learn what really happened. But things are not that simple, Marlowe learns. He soon finds himself involved with gangsters, drug runners, and rich families, along with the victims of violent torture and murder. Not to mention the novel’s first surprise, what really happened to Nico, or how Marlowe’s fascination with Claire becomes deeper and deeper, and yet his opinion of her becomes more and more uncertain. Could she really love the kind of man he learns Nico is? And so is she as untrustworthy as he suspects? As if we readers of private eye stories were not asking the same question.

There are a number of fine set pieces, such as one in which a casual conversation is interrupted by violence and a kidnapping, while another ends in torture in a swimming pool, from which Marlowe makes an unconvincing escape. But the latter is the only misstep in the novel until the ending. Which does disappoint because it lacks any power, that is, any emotion, any surprise. Olen Steinhauer also reflects this in his review: “There’s an odd emptiness…a suggestion that literary style has triumphed over content, leaving a hollowed-out place where the emotion should have been.”

Which leads one to ask: are these recreations worth doing? Should Banville, and others, spend their valuable time duplicating the feats of our popular fictional heroes? When they could be spending their substantial skills on more original and more literary work. Do they do it because they like the challenge? Or because they like the money? The publishers would seem to want them to do it because of the money. And the public does seem to like to revisit its old heroes. So are we weighing our reading pleasure against the loss of time that some of these authors need to produce possibly great literature?

There is no easy answer in today’s commercial world. Perhaps one is to be found, however, in the fact that I have not been prompted to write to any extent on the content of this work. On its style, yes. On its story, yes. But not on any meaning inside its story. Or inside its characters (except that inherent cleverness).

Bottom line: I would read another Benjamin Black pastiche. On any author’s work. But I still have reservations about anyone else. (September, 2019)

Belgravia, by Julian Fellowes

This 2016 work is an old-fashioned novel, appropriate, perhaps, for a story set in the 19th century. And a not unexpected tale from the creator of Downton Abbey, the highly successful television series. It is about two families, the wealthy and aristocratic Bellasises who live in Belgravia and the wealthy Trenchards, who are nouveau riche, having made their money by developing properties, including in Belgravia. The two families are joined when, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1814, Edmund Bellasis and Sopha Trenchard meet, fall in love, and marry.

Whereupon, Edmund is killed at Waterloo, and Sophia dies nine months later in childbirth. But the baby, Charles, survives, and the remainder of the novel moves into the 1840s, where that child has become a highly successful cotton entrepreneur. And when this successful man catches the attention of the Bellasises, along with that of the Trenchards, it is more than coincidence. Indeed, it originates the complicated plot to follow, as many in the two families wonder at the interest in the other. Especially the Bellasis, who do not know that the Trenchards had sent the baby away to be raised by a Reverend Pope in order to protect the reputation of their deceased daughter.

The novel’s complications then increase as the Bellasises not only learn from the Trenchards of the connection, but also that Charles’ parents were not truly married before the Battle of Waterloo. Which means Charles is illegitimate. And so is not worthy of receiving the Bellasis inheritance. And also that Sophia Trenchard’s reputation, by giving birth to an illegitimate child, is tarnished according to norms of Victorian society.

It is the discovery of such developments and then the concealing of the disgrace that draws the reader initially into this novel. Indeed, I was continually reminded of the novels of John Galsworthy, as this novel becomes a dual family saga in which members of each family plot to make sure they will preserve or inherit the wealth and reputation of their respective families, and in which servants downstairs try to advance their own careers by discovering why each family is treating Charles so well.

But even more than the plot, my interest was initially driven by how well Fellowes has caught each of his characters, especially those upstairs but also their servants. With incisive comments, he brings us inside their thinking, revealing both their own goals and their reactions to the strategy of others. Some are good people and some are not, as they pursue the possibility of wealth and comfort, or revenge, for themselves.

Indeed, as is summarized in All About Romance: “The characters are scheming, conniving, and unscrupulous, kind, generous, and affectionate, and everything in between.”

And as an aside, the author has also used the services of an historical consultant to establish concrete details of the Victorian era that make this environment convincingly real. Moreover, as Daisy Goodwin writes in The New York Times, the novel reflects the influence of the Victorian era in another way. “The plot devices,” she writes, “will be familiar to anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Victorian fiction: There are missing papers, duplicitous ladies’ maids, gambling debts, dubious marriage lines and long-lost heirs.”

It is these various maneuverings that help the many characters jump off the page. There is ambitious James Trenchard who yearns to be accepted by the aristocracy, his wife Anne who finds social climbing distasteful, their son Oliver who disappoints because he wants to be a squire rather than a businessman and who is jealous of Charles’ success, and, finally, Oliver’s wife Susan who resents her husband’s advances and whose social ambition gives her a roving eye.

On the Bellasis side, there is the Countess of Brokenhurst who is initially disdainful of the Trenchards but who is drawn towards them when Anne tells the Countess that both have this grandson named Charles, and she knows where he is. While the husbands of the two women play minor roles in this novel, a nephew of the Countess does not. This John Bellasis is perennially in need of funds and is used to being supported by the Countess’ husband. Until now. Which makes him resentful, like Oliver, of what he considers the favoritism being given to Charles.

To further complicate matters, John is engaged officially to the beautiful Lady Maria Grey. But Maria, who has agreed to marry him only at the urging of her mother, despises John for what he is—and, when she encounters Charles, falls immediately in love. We thus have a love in the present that mirrors Sophia’s rapturous love in the past. And one that contrasts with Susan’s antagonistic relationship with Oliver.

This resentment by Oliver and John increases the suspense of the novel, as they both seek to learn why their own families are so enamored of Charles. They enlist, at times through deceit, the help of others, especially that of Susan but also some of the downstairs servants. These crafty maneuvers to learn the truth about Charles drive the suspense of the final pages, including a plan to murder Charles that highlights the novel’s climax.

I found this novel to be fascinating reading. Not least because of what Moira Macdonald cites in The Seattle Times. That is, the elaborate plot includes “contentious inheritances, forbidden love affairs, secret pregnancies, sibling rivalries, caddish high-society misbehavior, disloyal servants, and sumptuous frocks.” But interest is also driven, as I wrote, by the incisive characterizations. Which often results in cross-purpose plotting by many of these individuals, some of which succeeds and some of which fails.

Fellowes has written other novels, but they have not been what made his reputation. This novel will certainly advance his name in the literary world, but the fact that it will also be adapted to the visual media seems to suggest where his deeper commitment still lies. (September, 2019)