September 24, 2020

Two British mystery novels: “Maisie Dobbs” and “The Turn of the Key”

Jacqueline Winspear started a detective series in 2003 starring “Maisie Dobbs,” a female English private investigator and psychologist. We hear of Dobbs’ life from 1910 to 1929: her mother’s death when she is 14, her college years, her work as a nurse during WWI, her apprenticeship with famous French sleuth Maurice Blanche and finally the opening of her own detective agency.

Her first case investigating where a client’s wife goes every week, brings up painful memories of her own war-time romance.

Winspear says her interest in history and World War I, in particular, was due to her grandfather who suffered from shell shock in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. There are now 15 books in the series which include Dobbs’ cases through World War II.

Winspear won several prizes for her debut novel, “Maisie Dobbs,” including the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery Novel, the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and made it to the New York Times Notable Book of the Year list.

Ruth Ware, another Brit who has made a name for herself in the mystery genre, is often billed as a psychological crime thriller author.

In “The Turn of the Key,” the reader is introduced to nanny Rowan Caine who is sitting in prison, awaiting trial for the murder of one of the children in her care.

Having received comparisons to Agatha Christie, Ware updates the spooky house setting by having it be a “smart home” with cameras everywhere, voice-controlled windows, door and lights and an out-of-town boss who indiscriminately starts talking to Rowan like a voice from out of the blue.

There is the requisite love interest, a poison garden and a plot twist. Ware wrote the book as a nod to “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, but the main characters are quite different.

Three of Ware’s books have been made into movies, “In a Dark, Dark Wood,” “The Woman in Cabin 10” and “The Lying Game.”

Winspear is the more literary writer, but Ware knows how to spin a suspenseful tale. Both are worthy of the English crime literary club.

“Les Miserables” drama series on PBS

I groaned when I saw yet another version of “Les Miserables” being promoted on Amazon Prime. (Season One of the 2018 PBS television series has been available for free in August for Prime members.)

Curiosity got the better of me and I found myself watching episode one of this mini-series adapted by Andrew Davies. I was instantly sucked into this fresh take on the Victor Hugo novel, in no small part due to actor Dominic West’s tour de force performance as criminal turned do-gooder, Jean Valjean. In color-blind casting, David Oyelowo is outstanding as Javert, the policeman who dogs Valjean for the duration of the story. Derek Jacobi, BBC thespian heavyweight, shines as Bishop Myriel, the cleric whose forgiveness and generosity changes Valjean’s path.

Without singing a blessed word, Lily Collins (daughter of English musician Phil Collins) is stunning and heartbreaking as the beleaguered Fantine. Olivia Colman and Adeel Akhtar are odiously entertaining as the greedy Thenardiers. David John Bradley, replete with wig, powdered face and fake beauty mark, villanously turns his grandson against his father who was an officer with Napoleon’s army.

Fine acting and superlative production standards make this worth viewing on the PBS Passport streaming service. Unless you can marathon watch it on Amazon Prime in the remaining hours before August closes. Ready, set, binge…

“Greyhound” on Apple+

Tom Hanks seems to play a lot of heroes, but “Greyhound” on Apple+ is special since he not only stars in this war movie, he wrote the screenplay, too. Based on the novel, “The Good Shepherd” by C. S. Forester, Hanks plays naval commander Ernest Krause on his first war-time command of a merchant ship convoy crossing the Atlantic.

A little backstory on my interest in this facet of WWII history. My father would reminisce about being an 18-year-old sailor who played the clarinet and saxophone for the Navy while on shore, but manned a gun when his ship was at sea. He told dramatic stories of being scared of Germans by air and water along with violent Atlantic storms. The movie does a good job of showing the menace of German submarines, in particular, referred to as U-boats. These underwater predators could be compared to the sharks in “Jaws.”

The movie does perhaps suffer from too much maritime dialogue, but Hanks and director Aaron Schneider do capture the fear and triumph felt by Commander Krause and his crew.

Due to the pandemic, “Greyhound” was never released theatrically, but was picked up by the Apple+ streaming service. One critic referred to this 91-minute feature as a “dad movie.” Why not see if you can get your history-minded pop or granddad to watch this with you?

“The Pioneers” by David McCullough

“The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” by David McCullough

I have read almost all of historian David McCullough’s books (“1776,” “The Greater Journey,” “The Wright Brothers,” to name a few) so I was excited about his new work, “The Pioneers.” Two chapters in, I decided I was not sufficiently engaged enough to continue. The writing seemed to be merely a recitation of people who moved to the post-Revolutionary Northwest Territory, namely Ohio and environs.

Months later, “The Pioneers” became available on my audiobooks app and I decided to take another crack at the saga of men and women who pushed American civilization west. The book was able to keep my attention as an audio experience.

While McCullough writes about Manasseh Cutler and Revolutionary War veteran Rufus Putman, Puritans from New England and principals in the development of Ohio, of much more interest are mentions of personalities who have a connection to the Ohio Territory: “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman, George Washington (an early investor), Charles Dickens, Aaron Burr, Lewis and Clark, John Quincy Adams and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Ohio Company was forward thinking in many respects incorporating freedom of religion and education in new settlements. The founders were also abolitionists who wanted Ohio to be a non-slave state and kept it such, even as Thomas Jefferson unsuccessfully tried to insert some slave ownership exceptions in the by-laws of the Northwest Ordinance.

Native Americans are the adversaries in this narrative; I was definitely reading history through the eyes of an older white man, however brilliant he may be.

If you are interested in early American history however, “The Pioneers” may suit you, but it does not have the strong narrative that many of McCullough’s previous books possess. Reach for “The Great Bridge,” “The Johnstown Flood” or “John Adams” instead.

Culture Beat Blog History

Way back in my high school days, I started writing a column about theatrical plays, music and books called “What’s Up” for my school newspaper. It helped that the editor was my best friend. I even had a logo of a student giving a “thumbs up.” Mind you, I had never heard of Siskel and Ebert.

During one of my longer piano bar tenures (at the Chicago Fairmont Hotel), I resurrected my column and mailed it to fans and friends under the rubric “Culture Beat.” When the internet allowed me to bypass postage, I converted my culture writings into an online blog featured on my elizabethdoylemusic web site. The Constant Contact app has made it easy to keep in touch with my favorite people on a regular basis.

The next time you are searching for a new book, a nature venue or new food, check out my “Past Blog Posts” for new ideas. My particular area of interest is foreign drama television. We are living in a time where you can find Scandi-noir, historical romances, documentaries and detective shows from every major European country, DownUnder, South America, the Middle East and Asia.

I have literally been writing a version of “Culture Beat” for decades. To keep things fresh, I welcome your recommendations for movies, books, videos, nature walks and all things that make life more creatively interesting. “Culture Beat” blog posts are definitely my favorite thing to share, after MUSIC, of course. (Neon image of me is by multi-media artist John Bannon.)

“The Library Book” by Susan Orlean

If you like books and libraries, “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean is highly recommended. Her journey starts with her son fulfilling a school assignment to interview a city worker. He chooses a librarian. Orleans starts to reminiscence about happy childhood times with her mother as they regularly visited their local library.

The 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Library starts as Orlean’s point of departure, but she quickly branches out to include how the LA library system began, thumbnail sketches of notable past library directors, and then segues farther afield to consider the history of books and libraries. Fascinating sections deal with Andrew Carnegie’s library building boom, book-mobiles and book burning.

Each chapter begins with a handful of seemingly random book titles that cleverly appear in the subsequent writing. Throughout the work, running questions include: Who or what started the fire? Will the Goodhue library building be salvaged or torn down? Will libraries stay relevant as we enter ever more deeply into internet culture?

Some of my favorite sections of the book illustrate what libraries, worldwide, are doing to keep libraries as not only repositories of information, but as community meeting places for people of all ages and needs. You can see a concert, take a yoga class, get tax help or sign up for free computer time at many libraries.

Orlean, a staff writer for “The New Yorker Magazine,” also counts 
“The Orchid Thief” and “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend” as some of her previous books.

One final note. My lovely hardcover library copy of “The Library Book” is a brilliant red with gold lettering; the trompe l’oeil check out card inside the back cover shows none other than Ray Bradbury and Susan Orlean as having both checked out the same book. Long live libraries!