Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “murder”

Valyruh’s #CBR Review #73: The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Pearl’s The Dante Club is a rousing success, both as an historical novel and as a murder mystery. But what elevates this novel above the rest, I felt, was Pearl’s decision to use The Divine Comedy of 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri not merely as a literary device to drive his murder plot, but as the underpinning for a broader investigation of a number of critical issues of the time. This novel takes place in Boston in 1865, where the aftershocks of the civil war are still very much in evidence.  Racism is still rampant, crime and violence is widespread and growing, religious and ethnic intolerance is pervasive, and the hidebound Harvard Corporation—a favorite target of Harvard graduate Pearl—has a stranglehold on the cultural, religious, and academic life of the city. Just the kind of issues Dante himself tackled in his famous poem.

Several of the top literary minds of the city have come together to help one of America’s most beloved poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, complete the first-ever American translation into English of Dante’s Commedia, a poetic trilogy detailing Dante’s metaphorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and ultimately Paradise. What makes Dante’s work unique is that it was the first serious literary work to be written in the Italian vernacular common to the people of that country—and thus accessible to them–as opposed to the Latin used among Italy’s elites. In racing to finish their translation, Boston’s Dante Club (as Longfellow and friends dub themselves) must fend off repeated sabotage efforts on the part of the Harvard Corporation, which sees the release of Dante’s masterpiece to the general American public as diluting the academic waters and threatening especially the so-called classical education which Harvard sees as its special preserve, and would keep for America’s elites alone.

It turns out that someone is murdering Boston’s top citizens in precisely the horrific ways described by Dante as he visits the tortured souls in Hell, and the Dante Club feels obliged to use its familiarity with the poem to anticipate and trap the killer, whom they call “Lucifer.” They eventually team up with Boston’s first non-white policeman, a former soldier of mixed race who has a fine investigator’s instinct but is hobbled at every turn by the prejudice surrounding him. It becomes a race to find Lucifer’s Dante source before the Club members themselves are targeted for the punishments of the “Inferno.”

Adding extra depth to the plot, I thought, were the pages Pearl devoted to harrowing first-hand accounts of civil war battle and the post-traumatic stress that afflicted so many of the survivors of that war upon their return to civilian life. My only complaint is that Pearl’s inexperience as a novelist at the time he wrote The Dante Club made for a certain anti-climactic weakness in the final pages of the novel following the denouement, but that didn’t significantly detract from the overall success of the novel.

I must confess that I was shocked at the number of readers of this book who complained of too much detail, too many literary references, and just plain boredom with Pearl’s writing. This is not your average “page-turner,” to be sure, nor is it intended as a light read. Indeed, to the author’s credit, he has taken his time and done meticulous research to be able to craft his novel for authenticity of detail on every front—from the sights and smells of 19th century Boston, to the literary circles of Longfellow and company, to the speaking style of his many different characters, down to the creative if gruesome specifics of the murders themselves. That authenticity of detail only enhanced the story, while providing much food for thought.

Finally, I would just say that you don’t have to be a lover of Dante to enjoy this book, but you will be by the time you finish it.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR4 Review #9 – The Killing of Emma Gross by Damien Seaman

I love a good murder mystery. The funny thing about this one is that you find out who did it right at the beginning of the book. Or, at least, you think you know who did it. And it works, because the rest of the book explains how we got to the point where a detective in the Dusseldorf police force is stabbing a prostitute in the chest (no spoilers there, it’s on page 1).

The book is inspired by, and based on, the true story of Peter Kurten, the “Dusseldorf Vampire,” who went on a killing (and raping) spree in Weimar Germany in 1929 and 1930. The story monkeys with the timeline a bit, but it serves the greater good. Seaman integrates the real people who were involved in the investigation with his fictional characters, and uses them all to serve his idea of who killed Emma Gross, and why.

Emma Gross was a real person. She was murdered, and her death was investigated as one of Kurten’s. Kurten even confessed to the murder. But in real life, and in the book, Kurten got the details wrong. He didn’t kill her. In real life, her murder went unsolved. In the book, Seaman gives Emma Gross a story. It might be made up, but Seaman humanizes Emma Gross; he gives a reason for her death, so that she is not just another victim. She is a real person. I admire that.

The story flows well, and the writing is conversational, from the point of view of the detective investigating the murders. It’s a quick, engaging read, that kept me guessing throughout (I honestly did not figure out who the murderer was until very close to the end). I highly recommend The Killing of Emma Gross, especially if you like mysteries or procedurals.  Or if you just like good stories.


ElCicco#CBR4 Review#36: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a novel based on a real double murder that occurred in Toronto in the 1850s. Grace Marks was a 15 year-old servant in household of Mr. Kinnear. He and his mistress Nancy, also a servant, were found dead in the cellar. Grace and the stablehand James McDermott had gone missing and shortly afterward were found just over the border in the U.S. with Kinnear’s and Nancy’s belongings. They were apprehended and returned to Toronto for trial, which resulted in both being found guilty. McDermott was hanged, and Grace was sentenced to death but had her sentence reduced to life in prison. Atwood imagines Grace’s history and what might have really happened. The narrative is relayed through characters’ reflections and letters as Dr. Simon Jordan tries to uncover Grace’s lost  memories. Is she innocent or a manipulative seductress? Benevolent church groups working on her behalf retain Dr. Jordan, who uses the latest methods, to try to uncover her memory of the murders, and with any luck, secure her pardon.

Atwood did a lot of research on the period and her characters, particularly the attitudes toward women and the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill. She includes excerpts from the trial as covered by newspapers and commentaries by philanthropists and specialists who observed and interviewed Grace. Atwood uses Dr. Jordan, a fictional character, to introduce discussions of mesmerism, hypnotism, and current (for that time period) interventions for dealing with inmates in penitentiaries and asylums. Grace blacked out during key moments of the murders, and Dr. Simon hopes to spark her memory by using association. In some rather humorous moments, he brings in a series of root vegetables, which would be stored in a cellar, to make her think of the murders. “According to his theories, the right object ought to evoke a chain of disturbing associations in her..,” but “… all he’s got out of her has been a series of cookery methods.”

Dr. Jordan also presents uncomfortable ideas and attitudes about women. His thoughts regarding Grace, his landlady and a servant named Dora are sometimes disturbing and misogynistic, which he himself recognizes. He reflects that, “The difference between a civilized man and a barbarous fiend — a madman, say — lies, perhaps, merely in a thin veneer of willed self-restraint.” Nonetheless, he, Kinnear and other men in authority frequently abuse their position vis-a-vis women without sensing their own barbarousness. Grace sees things more realistically: “Men such as [Dr. Jordan] do not have to clean up messes they make, but we have to clean up our own messes, and theirs into the bargain. In that way they are like children, they do not have to think ahead or worry about the consequences of what they do. But it is not their fault, it is only how they are brought up.”

Atwood’s take on what might have really happened in the murders has sort of a gothic twist to it, but given the novel’s focus on psychological matters, it seemed fitting. The novel provides much to discuss in a reading group. I’ve only touched on a few things here, but certainly religion and philanthropy, crime and punishment, relationships between rich and poor, men and women and amongst women are all themes that recur throughout the novel. And Atwood is an outstanding writer, creating complex characters and using poetry, popular songs and the names of quilting patterns to frame each chapter. A really wonderful book!

ElCicco#CBR4Review#32: Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

The title of this book comes from a line in the Wallace Stevens poem “A Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and the characters in this novel face much disillusionment and disappointment while chasing after tigers of their own. What starts off as a story of relationships and the strains that separation, wealth and time can place on them, turns into a dark, psychological thriller.

The story centers on five characters who each get a chapter to give their view of events that occurred during and shortly after World War II, the late fifties and the 1960s. Within each chapter, events do not always follow chronological order, but this actually makes the story more interesting as the reader slowly puts the pieces together. The action begins with the story of Nick (female) and Helena, cousins who are like sisters, having grown up together on Cape Cod at Nick’s family’s summer home, Tiger House. Nick’s family is wealthy, Helena’s is poor and has had to rely for support on Nick’s family. Nick is clearly the dominant female in the relationship and Helena is accommodating and submissive. Each has  married, suffered loss and separation. Each is starting a new chapter in life at the end of the war, with Helena newly married and moving to California while Nick and her husband, just back from the war, move to Florida.

Nick is a domineering woman with striking looks and a difficulty with compromise. Those  who know her, seem to both love and hate her. Her marriage with Hughes hits a rough patch when he returns from the war before a revelation or two cause Nick to make some important decisions about how she needs to “be” in order to keep her husband and have the sort of life she wants. Helena, on the other hand, seems to be swept along by the events in her life, not exerting any force or control over them, and resenting Nick’s interference and judgments but also needing her help at several critical junctures. Nick, Hughes and Helena each have a chapter in Tigers in Red Weather.

The other two chapters belong to Nick’s daughter Daisy and Helena’s son Ed. The cousins have a close relationship based on summers spent together at Tiger House. When they are both 12, they discover a dead body on the island. Their chapters look at this event along with several other important events of the summer of 1959, and then follow the characters into the ’60s. Daisy has an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother and is clearly the apple of her father’s eye. Ed is a strange boy — a loner who seems often to be in places he should not be, see things he should not see and know things he should not know. The relationship between Ed and Daisy’s father Hughes is particularly interesting, as Hughes thinks there is something really “off” about the boy, but tries to help in order to please Nick and avert further problems for Helena and Ed. The big revelations come in Ed’s chapter, but each character along the way reveals shameful truths about their own actions, or inaction, as the case may be.

Tigers in Red Weather has well drawn characters who can elicit sympathy and disgust from the reader, and a clever plot with a gripping (kinda creepy) resolution.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#31: Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

Sometimes one needs a little mystery, and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell rarely disappoints. Asta’s Book was just what I was looking for — a murder, a missing person, mistaken identity, and modern-day characters trying to sift out the truth from the family history.

The primary narrator is Ann Eastbrook, granddaughter of Asta Westerby. The title Asta’s Book refers to a collection of diaries that Asta wrote starting in 1905 when she was a new immigrant to London from Denmark. In 1905, she was still learning English and so she kept her diaries in Danish. She has two sons and is pregnant, hoping for a girl. Asta kept her diaries until her death in 1968. Curiously, none of her children or husband knew of her diaries until after she died, when her daughter Swanny found them, recognized their literary value and had them published. Asta’s Book became a runaway best seller, with several volumes in print and more to come. When Swanny dies in 1988 at the age of 83, her niece Ann inherits the rights to Asta’s diaries.

The narration switches back and forth between Asta’s diary entries, events in Swanny’s life in the 1960s and Ann’s situation in 1988. Ann, as custodian of the diaries, is approached by news outlets, relatives and a former friend regarding the diaries and their contents. As a result, she is drawn into an investigation of an unsolved murder and missing persons case from 1905. She is also drawn into a family mystery regarding Swanny’s origins.

It’s a fine mystery with unexpected twists and admirable attention to historical details. The character Asta is as fascinating to the reader of this mystery as she is to the fictional readers of the diaries. She is a smart woman, dissatisfied with her marriage and often brutal and heartless to those around her, particularly her husband Rasmus and maid Hansine. Outwardly, Asta played by society’s rules. But inwardly, through the diaries in Danish that she expected no one to read, she expressed derision and pessimism about the individuals and events that were part of her life. This is a good choice for the murder mystery crowd.

sunnywithahigh’s #CBR4 Review #7: Sophie’s Legacy, Lesley Elliot

In January 2008, 22-year-old Sophie Elliott was packing up her life. She was preparing to move from her family home in Dunedin, NZ, to the country’s capital of Wellington to take up a post at the Treasury. Sophie’s mother Lesley was helping her get ready for the big move when Sophie’s ex-boyfriend, Clayton Weatherston, showed up. Weatherston was a tutor of Sophie’s at her university, and they had an intense on-off relationship; Sophie had recently disclosed to family and friends that he had assaulted her and it was over.

Weatherston disappeared with Sophie into her room. She returned to her mother within five minutes, saying Clayton was just sitting there, not speaking. It was the last time Lesley Elliott would talk with her daughter. Sophie went back to her room, and was stabbed 216 times by Weatherston.

Written by Lesley Elliott, Sophie’s Legacy recounts the story of Sophie’s brutal murder, and the trial of her killer, Clayton Weatherston, as experienced by Sophie’s family. The book also serves as Elliott’s way of restoring her daughter’s character, which was viciously attacked over the course of the trial in the defence’s efforts to discredit Sophie and minimise – even justify – Weatherston’s actions. Finally, it is a warning to young women like Sophie, who might find themselves caught up in similar situations, to get out before it is too late.

I would say the opening chapters are the hardest to read, but really, the entire book is a struggle. It’s one of those books that is hard to review, a gut-punch of a story that you cannot criticise but merely try to digest. I finished it just under an hour ago, and I’m still struggling. Elliott does not hold back, laying her grief, anger and loss bare, and as a result, any reader would probably be left reeling. Elliott’s honesty in describing what happened to her daughter is admirable – she states that she “wrestled” with how much detail to give but acknowledges that “we have to face reality”. Through her diary entries, photos, and efforts to get contributions from others about her beloved daughter, Elliott has established a clear picture of Sophie and the tragedy of her death.

It is testament to the Elliott family’s strength that they have salvaged something from the horror they have been through. Lesley Elliott writes about creating the Sophie Elliott Foundation, which aims to “raise awareness about the signs of abuse in dating-relationships”. She and her husband also advocate for changes to New Zealand’s justice system, so that other families do not have to go through seeing their murdered loved ones seemingly ‘put on trial’.

This is a harrowing read, but one worth going through.

For more information about the foundation and issues raised in Sophie’s Legacy, go to

Jen K’s #CBR4 Review #11: A Curtain Falls

The second part of a murder mystery series set in early 20th century New York.  Not exactly groundbreaking mysteries, but the historical context adds some nice novelty, and the plots and characters are engaging enough for an afternoon read.

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