04. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton

This rather marvelous book is a mashup of biography, social history, and what for a lack of a better phrase I might call “research thriller”. Susannah Stapleton comes across the figure of Maud West by chance, while idly pondering whether lady detectives had existed during the Golden Age of crime fiction; she’s only thinking about this at all because of a historical missing-persons case that regular historical research had led her to. When she finds Maud West, her interest is piqued by the dearth of information. “The game”, as she winningly puts it, “was afoot.”

Maud West did exist, although she wasn’t born under that name. She opened a private investigation agency in London in 1905 and ran it until just before the Second World War, employing a small staff of hand-selected and rigorously trained men and women as well as undertaking large amounts of field work herself. She wrote “case study” pieces for a variety of tabloids, and filled them with tales of derring-do, often involving white slavers, cocaine smugglers, last-minute ocean liner voyages, and fisticuffs (or, just as often, the well-timed production of a small revolver). Stapleton concludes that West mostly made these stories up–but why? Her business flourished; she tracked cheating spouses, fraudulent salesmen, dishonest cardsharps and country-house jewel thieves. In other advertising venues, she made much of her work amongst the “best sort”; the aristocracy and upper middle classes, in other words. West’s psychology–what she felt she had to prove; the characters she enjoyed playing; her love of disguise (this is borne out by many, many contemporary news features including photographs of West disguised as an old woman, a businessman, a vicar, and so on)–fascinates Stapleton, and the more she digs, the clearer it becomes that the life of this particular private investigator was at least as interesting as any of the cases she worked over the course of her career. Amongst other revelations, and without wishing to spoil anything, West’s life story includes a name change, illegitimacy, and someone who spends forty years masquerading as his own uncle.

Stapleton structures her book brilliantly: excerpts from sensationalist articles written by West are reprinted between chapters. Each chapter is named for a classic crime novel and deals (roughly) with some relevant social issue of the time, like the introduction of women to the Metropolitan police force or the “nightclub panic” of the interwar years, spliced with details of Stapleton’s sleuthing. Quite apart from being an excellent introduction to the Golden Age of crime outside of the pages of fiction, The Adventures of Maud West also functions as a window into the life of a working researcher. Stapleton takes trains from her home in Shropshire to the British Library to read archival clippings; she tracks down out-of-print books to get a sense of how West might have trained herself in investigation techniques; she scans international print databases and calls up descendants. The thrill of the academic chase is a huge part of the book’s appeal–which is really saying something, given that its subject is a woman with such immense willpower, fortitude, and peculiarity of character. A more engaging and intellectually stimulating biography you won’t read this summer.

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective was published by Picador on 13 June.

If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?

Reading Diary: Mar. 19-Mar. 25

9780691181264The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, by François-Xavier Fauvelle: Each very short chapter of Fauvelle’s book takes an archaeological site, artifact, or ancient text as its focus. From these items, he creates what a Literary Review critic called “historical pointillism”, opening tiny windows onto medieval African international relations, piecing together tantalizing stories: the Jewish merchant who impregnated his Indian maid and abandoned her in Somaliland; the Sultan of Mali whose lavish tipping while on hajj crashed the Cairene gold market for thirty years. But Fauvelle is not a storyteller, and frequently stops writing just as these stories begin to pique interest. The Golden Rhinoceros is a great introduction to other work, but sometimes frustrates in and of itself.

9781408890950The Pisces, by Melissa Broder: Initially worried that this was going to be some sort of Moshfegh-esque body-grossout fic, I instead found myself captivated by Lucy, an aimless Sappho scholar, and her attempts to find love (or at least, following the advice of her group therapist Dr. Jude, to determine whether love is what she really wants). What you’ll already know about this book is that there’s merman sex in it, which is true, but the merman (Theo) doesn’t turn up until about halfway through the book, and the ending—which Broder handles brilliantly—is hardly a fairy tale. Lucy’s feelings of “nothingness”—the existential void—and her subtly woven backstory induce a kind of shamed empathy: it’s hard to imagine a 21st-century woman who can’t identify, at least a little bit, with this protagonist. I wrote a longer piece on The Pisces here.

9781405926935Sins As Scarlet, by Nicolás Obregón: The second in a series featuring Inspector Kosuke Itawa; the first, Blue Light Yokohama, gives him sufficient traumas to make him abandon life as an official detective, move to LA, where his mother lives, and become a private investigator instead. The plot of Sins As Scarlet revolves around the murder of a transgender woman, who happens to be Itawa’s sister-in-law. Obregón handles the material sensitively, and points to all-too-common lapses in official behaviour, such as the consistent misgendering of the victim by the LAPD. The novel takes an unexpected turn when the US-Mexico border, and the hazard involved in crossing it, becomes relevant to the case. Itawa is a great flawed detective, and Obregón is as deserving an heir to Chandler and his LA noir as I can think of.

91lsfruinzlSpring, by Ali Smith: The third in Smith’s seasonal quartet, and a lot of her overarching plan with this project starts to come clear. Focusing in part on grieving filmmaker Richard Lease, who has just lost his friend, collaborator and former lover Patricia Heal, and in part on Brittany Hall, a young security officer at a refugee detention center just outside of London, the novel is also dotted with short sections which we’re meant to think of as being authored by Florence Smith, a schoolgirl who seems bafflingly capable of both selective invisibility and holding authority figures to account. As with earlier seasonal quartet installments, the plot is somehow less important than the empathy these characters induce in us. It feels both more hopeful and more emotionally accessible than Autumn (I haven’t yet read Winter).

And two rereads: One, Lucy Mangan’s delightful memoir of childhood reading, Bookworm, I read last year—my review of it can be found here. I revisited it with the excuse that it constitutes professional development; I’ve now taken on responsibility for some of our Children’s Year In Books at work, and reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids is proving very enjoyable.

cleopatraroyaldiaries_1_The second is, appropriately, an old childhood favourite. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Scholastic produced a series of books entitled The Royal Diaries. Written in diary format, they were meant to be the adolescent journals of various princesses from world history. There were the obvious candidates, like the ones for Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Tudor, and Mary Queen of Scots; but there was a genuinely global focus, so that the series included diaries from the likes of Sondok of Korea, Kazunomiya of Japan, Weetamoo of the Native American Pohasset tribe, and even some princesses whose names have not come down to us (they were marketed under their dynastic titles instead; there’s one about medieval China entitled Lady of Chi’ao Kuo: Warrior of the South). They were by far the most significant source of my world history knowledge until I entered high school, and frankly, even then I relied fairly heavily on what I had learned from them.

I’ve recently discovered that you can buy pretty much every title for a penny plus shipping through secondhand sellers. My first, and favourite, of these books was Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, so Cleopatra was, of course, my first priority. It’s easy to see why my youthful self loved it: it combines historical detail (the sights and sounds of the markets of Alexandria! The Great Library and the Lighthouse! The pet monkeys and leopards!) with interpersonal conflict (will Cleopatra’s scheming older sister kill her before their father returns? Will her father’s habitual drunkenness jeopardize their ability to negotiate with Rome?) in an immensely appealing way. There’s also a section of historical notes, family trees, and contexualizing pictures at the back of the book; this is where I first learned, for instance, the story of Cleopatra rolling herself up in a carpet for Julius Caesar, and where I acquired my first inkling of the complicated political nature of her later-in-life love affairs. I can’t wait to choose which one to acquire next.

Currently reading: Abi Elphinstone’s new children’s novel, Rumblestar (see “reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids”, above). So far I’m not totally convinced, but maybe it’s just a matter of time.

A Monthly Book, #2: The Five


The first thing to know about The Five is that it is a book defined by its approach; the second thing is that the approach is long overdue. The facts are these: in the late summer and autumn of 1888, from the end of August to November, five women were murdered in London’s Whitechapel neighbourhood. They appeared to have been killed in the same way, and presumably by the same person. That person was never caught, but the persona that solidified around him (though, of course, we can’t know for sure that he was a him) goes by the name “Jack the Ripper”. Victorian society and 21st-century society both possess an unhealthy obsession with the sickening minutiae of Jack’s crimes–the way in which he physically mutilated the women he killed, and the almost supernatural ease with which he seemed to vanish into the gas-lit, fog-bound metropolis. Of the people he murdered, the most that any story about them seems to agree on is that they were sex workers. That “fact” (which is not true) has obscured both the actual lives they lived, and the reality of their murders: that they were not nubile doxies hanging about on street corners with artfully tousled Helena Bonham-Carter hair, but rather were overwhelmingly middle-aged, alcoholic, homeless women whose primary failing was to have been left bereft, in one way or another, of the male protection without which a nineteenth-century woman was considered functionally worthless.

Hallie Rubenhold is redressing the balance. The Five is a group biography; each of the women considered “canonical” victims of the Ripper murders is given a section of her own, which consists of three to four chapters that trace her life history from birth to the night she died. The most deliberate structural choice in the book is that Rubenhold never describes a murder. She’s writing with an agenda about which she is not remotely ashamed: women who are murdered are more than the story of their deaths. Starting with what can be determined about each woman’s early life–her parents, her place of birth, her place in the social hierarchy–she uses a sometimes scanty primary source record, bolstered with intelligently chosen secondary sources that provide contextual information about the experience of working-class life in late nineteenth-century England. Inevitably, she is forced to engage in a certain amount of speculation: in the absence of CCTV or diaries from the women themselves, it’s often difficult to know why they moved house, for instance, or whether the name that appears in parish records is the right one. But she has an excellent capacity for triangulation: she frequently uses that aforementioned historical context in conjunction with a primary source to arrive at a conclusion of what is overwhelmingly likely about a particular woman’s life, and it is convincing.

The most patently false “fact” about the canonical five is that they were all sex workers (or, as Rubenhold writes throughout the book, “prostitutes”; I assume this is for historical continuity and she is using the word as it was deployed in police reports). There is no evidence that four out of the five women were professional sellers of sex. (The fifth, Mary Jane Kelly, who did work both in a brothel and freelance, is the one about whom we know the least.) However, every single one of them is known to have struggled with alcohol addiction. Mostly, drinking problems and the resultant financial strain were responsible for the implosion of their marriages or common-law relationships. They were all–again, except for Mary Jane Kelly–murdered outside, in the middle of the night. The unbearably sad conclusion is that their killer was targeting, not youthful sex workers who were lying down to ply their trade, but middle-aged homeless women who were lying down because they were asleep. Rubenhold makes it terribly clear that being a woman “outside” conventional societal roles–a woman separated from her husband or widowed, an addict, a beggar–was conflated, often fatally, with being a woman of loose morals. No distinction was made between the broken and the fallen. Not only is The Five a lucid and frankly addictive group biography (the pages really do turn themselves); it also makes painfully clear that a country whose social welfare programs are limited to the application of shame, humiliation, and a rigid code of so-called morality is not a country anyone ought to wish to return to. (I, like Rubenhold, will leave you to infer the contemporary political resonance.)

It is, in short, an excellent book as well as a much-needed one: it mingles true crime and well-researched history with narrative energy and Rubenhold’s ever-present passion for her subject. It’s going to do well without my help, but you really should read it.

18. Empire of Things, by Frank Trentmann

cover2This is not my usual sort of book at all. 880 pages of global economic history, nearly 200 of which are taken up by endnotes and bibliography? Gosh. But I put it on my #20BooksofSummer pile for a few reasons: we had sold a lot of it in the shop last summer, there was a damaged copy going, the front cover is utterly beautiful, and I am kind of interested in material culture: how people’s stuff relates to the way they treat themselves and each other, how self-fashioning is so often bound up with what you own and how you use it.

Since this is so enormous, I posted updates to Goodreads while I was working my way through it. They’re fairly indicative:

page 136 (15.45%): “So far, I’m impressed by Trentmann’s scope: he deals with consumerism in Ming China and in East African kingdoms, as well as in Britain, France, the Netherlands, etc. (There were big differences. Ming elites wanted antiques with provenance, not the new and shiny.) The focus of any given section is often unclear, though I’m willing to believe that this is the fault of a reader unaccustomed to reading economic history.”

page 370 (42.05%): “I’ve a better handle on the focus and structure now: part one is basically a chronological overview of global consumption trends (fun!!) Almost finished that section now and especially impressed with the analysis of consumption in the GDR and Soviet Russia. (Socialism doesn’t stop people wanting stuff. It’s not news, but the details on things like car ownership and food shopping are interesting and engaging.)”

page 735 (83.52%): “Covered lots of ground last night. Part 2 deals with present-day consumption issues, using historical examples to contextualise: the current chapter is on fair-trade movements. Interestingly, Trentmann’s analysis of the effects of state spending merely glances at contemporary austerity policies. He implies they only really affect the already-poor and disadvantaged, which is demonstrably untrue, at least in the UK.”

The very last bit was a short chapter looking into the future of consumption, which – obviously – is a tenuous one, given that if human civilisations continue to consume resources at the current rate, or anything like it, we’ll be in deep trouble very shortly. Trentmann has some interesting things to say on short-term strategies, like various municipal waste-management policies, but he stops short of advocating a real crackdown on waste or consumption. He keeps his own politics out of the narrative, mostly, as a good historian should, but globally we’ve reached a point where to be politically neutral is to make a political statement, so it doesn’t wash in this section, though it does in the earlier chapters.

It’s also too long, but then, any book of 880 pages is too long.


09. Chopin’s Piano, by Paul Kildea

cover-jpg-rendition-242-374It’s not really about Chopin’s piano.

Oh, it starts off adhering to its title well enough: Kildea gives some background information about Chopin and his lover, George Sand, an infamous female author who liked to scandalise Parisian salon society by dressing as a man. The two moved to the island of Mallorca for the winter of 1838-39, where Chopin’s lovely Pleyel piano got held up in customs and he was forced to make do with a pianino built by a local craftsman, Juan Bauza. That is the instrument on which he wrote his Preludes, “scraps” of music that have baffled listeners, players and critics ever since their premiere. Kildea’s idea, at least to begin with, is that tracing the pianino will shine some light not only on the circumstances under which the Preludes were composed, but on their vexed history of interpretation and performance. Since he also sees the Preludes as a symbol of Romanticism itself, the way in which pianists have approached them – from the ethereal stylings of Cortot to a later Romantic fad for greater attack and intensity, as befitted the larger halls in which public concerts could now be performed, and which publicly performed music now had to fill – is representative, for Kildea, of the history of the artistic movement in general.

None of that is particularly evident from the way he structures his book, though; I have come to the conclusion that this is what Kildea wants to explore because I’ve mentally winnowed the many, many pages of digression, distraction, tangent and plain irrelevance with which Chopin’s Piano is riddled. It’s not totally unenjoyable. If you have any interest in historical detail at all, some of it is great fun: descriptions of nineteenth-century Palma, the Mallorcan port town, are vivid (if too long), and the section set in the twentieth century doubles as a primer on the Nazi art-theft industry. (The pianino came into the hands of Wanda Landowska, a Polish pianist who had an affinity for Chopin and his music. Her instrument collection was scattered by the Nazi looting of great Parisian houses; some of it has been put back together, but the pianino has not been conclusively traced.) But there is just so much of it. Barely a few chapters into the book, Kildea launches into an explanation of how a nineteenth-century artist would produce a linocut. It goes on for some paragraphs. This has been prompted by the existence of a linocut of Palma as Chopin and Sand would have seen it. It’s interesting information on its own, but in a book like this, it’s vexing, an obstacle to the reader’s pursuit of the actual story.

Kildea does write evocatively about performance, which is historically his strength, given that his previous book was a biography of Benjamin Britten and that he was the artistic director of the Wigmore Hall from 2003-2005. He compares the various styles of the musicians who have attempted the Preludes with great thoroughness and erudition; it’s quite clear which side he comes down on (Cortot’s, and the gentler tradition’s), but he enables us to understand his partiality, because he can tell us what he hears. Nor is it his fault that the trail of the pianino goes cold, though it is narratively unsatisfying. The real issue, though, as Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote in his Literary Review article on the book, is that one gets the impression Kildea is bored of being “a mere music biographer, and wants to be a Writer. Fatal.” I wouldn’t say fatal, but I would say it’s a waste of a good story.

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_It’s so nice when reading overlaps a little, and reading this back-to-back with Dragon Lords provided rather a good level of continuity. The first of the twelve manuscripts that De Hamel examines is known as the Gospel Book of St Augustine (of Canterbury), which dates from about the sixth century; saints and kings mentioned in Eleanor Parker’s book also get airtime here. De Hamel is the director of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, so he knows whereof he speaks. Twelve manuscripts spanning nearly a thousand years are given the full-on examination treatment: we get the histories of the material objects, the significance of the writing and illumination within, and, last but not least, a travelogue style of narrating, where De Hamel shares what it is actually like to look at the manuscripts. As he points out, most people with the will and the travel budget can go to see the Mona Lisa, if they want to; it is far harder to physically access a manuscript in person, though they are some of the greatest cultural treasures in the world. And so he gives us the experience, insofar as he can. We learn what it’s like to walk inside the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, or the Black Diamond building of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, or the Pierpont Library in New York. (Some of this stuff is worth the cover price for the sheer gossip value: De Hamel is always utterly professional, but his strong feelings about various buildings and their staff still come through. Copenhagen’s library seems like a lovely place to visit, full, as he describes it, of serenely long-haired students like time-frozen hippies and helpful, cheery staff; his experience with the Morgan library, by contrast, is one of polite bafflement at America’s love affair with bureaucracy, authority, and procedure.)

Not only is this book ridiculously beautiful (with lots of full-page colour illustrations, as you would hope), and outrageously informative (I know all about the difference between uncials, insular majuscule, and capitalis rustica now), it’s also far, far funnier than it has any right to be. De Hamel’s account of the day when both Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury bowed to him on live television (he was carrying an extremely old copy of the Gospels at the time) is characteristically excellent: self-deprecating, with a keen eye for the ridiculous, as when he describes various dolled-up prelates as “walking Christmas trees”. If all of this wasn’t enough, it’s full of trivia that makes you gasp: there’s a book called the Codex Amiatinus, for example, that is repeatedly referred to as being ridiculously huge, and when you finally see a photo of it, you immediately get it. (De Hamel says it weighs about 90 pounds; then, winningly, he adds that an eccentric antiquary of the Victorian era described it as “weighing about the same as a fully-grown female Great Dane”. De Hamel opts for the slightly more sensible comparison unit of a twelve-year-old boy. Either way, that is a very heavy book.) It’s not just for antiquarians, this; anyone who likes beautiful things, or old things, or books, in any way, would get a lot out of it. It’s certainly earned a spot on my best-of-2018 list.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

Dragon Lords, by Eleanor Parker

51cfbybnhcl-_sx307_bo1204203200_If you were to choose a book to be reading in public with the deliberate strategic purpose of getting the number of the guy who works in your local Indian takeaway, it is unlikely that you would choose this one, but truth is stranger than fiction and I must therefore tell you that that is exactly what happened when I wandered into the curry house on Crouch Hill holding a copy of Dragon Lords. “The history and legends of Viking England” is quite an enticing subtitle, so perhaps that had something to do with it; it was certainly a major factor in my requesting a reading copy of this from the publisher’s rep. It’s also a slightly misleading subtitle, since Dragon Lords is both more focused and less conclusive than an overview of late antique/early medieval British history might be. I think it might be a book version of Parker’s doctorate (she’s now a tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford), which is no bad thing, though it meant re-accustoming myself to writing that isn’t necessarily for a general audience.

Dragon Lords is primarily interested in early medieval narratives about Anglo-Danish interaction. (Sexy!) Since there were multiple waves of Danish/Viking conquests, the history is not nearly as straightforward as the phrase “Anglo-Danish” makes it sound; the conquerors of one generation became the naturalised inhabitants of England, and the people conquered, in the next round of organised invasion. Intermarriage and cultural diffusion happened, as they always do, and the resulting culture was a whole lot of things rolled into one: pagan-Christian, Anglo-Saxon-Danish-with-a-splash-of-Norman. Naturally, the stories that this motley culture told itself over several hundred years—about where it came from, and why—also changed: sometimes a Dane is a good Christian king, sometimes he is the leader of a band of ravening, monk-murdering sea-wolves.

Because Parker’s emphasis is on the continuity (or not) of narrative elements, the sheer accumulation of detail can sometimes be difficult to follow. In the second chapter, for instance, she follows the trail of a mysterious figure called Ragnar Lothbrok, who appears in Anglo-Danish narratives in all manner of guises. Sometimes he’s a thug with many sons, murdered at the hands of the King of Mercia and avenged by his children; sometimes he’s a more innocent figure, a stranger in a strange land betrayed by a jealous courtier. It’s impossible to make any concrete assertions about the historical figure (or figures) that might have been behind the Lothbrok stories—he’s like Robin Hood or King Arthur—but Parker’s greatest asset as a writer is her curiosity, and that carries the reader a long way, too. (My particular interest in Viking Britain is literary, and I especially enjoyed her long section on the early verse romance Havelok the Dane. There are also some interesting sections on stories, or story elements, that Shakespeare clearly drew upon when he was writing Macbeth and Hamlet.) Dragon Lords is unashamedly niche, but if you want to know more about pre-Conquest Britain—and trust me, there are hundreds and hundreds of years’ worth of eventful, exciting, violent history there—this is for you.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.