Monday, January 8, 2018

Orley Farm – Anthony Trollope
This novel was published in two volumes, so I’m going to read (and review) the two separately. And I surely will read the next volume, as I’m interested in how things turn out. A trial is to take place determining whether Mrs. Mason forged the signatures of her husband and two witnesses on a codicil to a will, one which left her infant son the heir to Orley Farm. At the time, twenty years ago, her husband’s well-to-do adult son had taken the matter to court, contesting the validity of the codicil; the decision went against him, yet he remained convinced that he had been cheated out of property that was rightfully his. When new papers are discovered, giving credence to his belief, he revives the case; if a wrong has been done to him, however long ago, he’ll exact his full pound of flesh. For me, Mrs. Mason’s guilt or innocence is not in question: she forged the codicil. Still, how will she survive the retrial? Trollope is adept at putting characters in moral/emotional vises, and then tightening the screws. The crosscurrents that play over relationships are deviously constructed but entirely sound, given the characters’ psychology and temperament. Another Trollope strength is his portrayal of people who are unpleasant, deviant or evil. I’ll note two of many compelling creations: the lawyer Mr. Dockwrath, a coarse, wily brute force, and the elder son’s wife, a miser of psychotic proportions. But a Trollope weakness is also on display: some characters come across as simplistic and cloying (this is most evident in his depictions of womanly virtue). It all has to do with his attitude: when Trollope was hard he was as good as it gets, but when he was soft he turns mushy. Orley Farm also suffers in that it’s cluttered with too many characters and lines of plot (such as the love triangles involving a handful of young people). But readers in 1862 were desirous of a blockbuster, so Trollope, the human word machine, added the necessary padding. His readiness to produce on demand was an aspect of his work that critics would attack. Where’s the divine inspiration, they asked.

The Final Deduction – Rex Stout
Again I turn to Stout for a diversion. Archie gets a lot of play, which is good (when he glances into a wealthy client’s bedroom he decides it “would suit my wife fine if I ever had a wife, which I probably wouldn’t because she would probably want that type of room”). But this is a sloppily written and plotted novel; Stout wasn’t half trying. In fact, I think he was deliberately seeing how much nonsense he could foist off on his readers. The overly intricate maneuvering of the kidnapping is topped for preposterousness by the method of committing a murder. The Teddler library has a dozen life-sized bronze statues of figures from American history. A drugged man is dragged under the statue of Ben Franklin, which is then pushed over so that it falls on him. But how could someone be sure that a statue of that size and weight would land on the unconscious victim in a way that would cause death (and not just, say, crush his legs)? A little off to the side and the whole plan would be a fiasco. Of course, if the Ben Franklin had missed completely, the murderer could drag the body to the George Washington statue for another try. I often complain about how writers of detective fiction deliberately try to mislead the reader. So this time out, when the five suspects were identified, I chose the most unlikely person to be the murderer. It turns out that I was right. So now I can solve mysteries just like Nero Wolfe.

The Hat of My Mother – Max Steele
I admired Steele’s only novel so much that I got this collection of his short stories. But only “When She Brushed Her Hair” approached the excellence of Debbie. And even that story is marred by an awkward introduction and a postscript in which Steele muses about the project. There’s one other piece that’s very good — “The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers” — but the rest range from interesting to mistakes. Since their publication dates begin when the author was thirty-one and end when he was sixty-six, which was his age when the collection came out, it’s a summing up of his work as a writer of short fiction. There’s simply not much of value in this slim volume (under two hundred pages), and I was left wondering how Steele could have written something as good – and ambitious – as Debbie. Maybe the novel was so heartfelt that it elicited the best in him, and his best was better than what he was normally capable of. And he wrote it when he was in his twenties; he would attend five universities, ending up as the longtime director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; possibly academic affairs took up his time and energy. In most of the stories he uses personal experiences for subject matter; this works as long as he stays in the background. In the two successes I noted, one is about his mother and the other is about his kindergarten teacher; in the first he isn’t born yet, and in the second he’s just one of the anonymous boys in Miss Effie’s class. But too often I felt I was in a psychiatric session in which Steele reveals his inability to sustain romantic relationships (in “Color the Daydream,” which is about a love affair that turns out badly, there’s a paragraph that consists of two words: “Torture time”). This collection left me with a feeling of sadness. The stories weren’t as good as I wanted them to be, and Max Steele seemed to have had a struggle with life.

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