Comment • reviews • Nordic Noir • whimsy
Today we welcome the Dying to Live blog tour with a rather different Secret Library. Michael Stanley is providing six titles for our shelves. That’s because Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both were born in South Africa and have worked in academia and business. On a flying trip to Botswana, they watched a pack of hyenas hunt, kill, and devour a wildebeest, eating both flesh and bones. That gave them the premise for their first mystery, A Carrion Death, which got all the nominations. Here are their choices:
Steam Pig and the whole Kramer and Zondi series by James McClure
Set in South Africa, McClure’s series is important because each book is not only a good read in its own right, but each captures the essence of everyday apartheid rather than with the atrocities we read about. Kramer is a white policeman and Zondi is his Zulu partner, itself a strange pairing in those years. Zondi is the smarter of the two, but because he is black has to hide his intelligence and allow Kramer to get the credit. Kramer is not a bad man, just steeped in the belief that blacks are inferior, and that the laws of separation are quite understandable. Both men have a basic understanding that their partners are good men, but the system forces them to behave unnaturally.
Not surprisingly, the series was banned in South Africa, and McClure left the country and settled in the UK, where he became a well-known newspaper man.
They are worth reading.
The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin
Virtually unknown in his native USA, Bardin only wrote three books (The Deadly Percheron, The Last of Philip Banter, and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly), all of which were out of step with his contemporaries. And for that reason alone, they are worth reading. He spends a lot of each story inside his characters’ heads detailing how their view of their own identities constantly fluctuates. Sometimes deceptively light, sometimes broodingly dark, the stories and the people who inhabit them are definitely worth knowing.
I found them remarkable. It was almost as though they induced in me a psychological high, not unlike the effect of too much grass. Weird, but fascinating, they are worth a few hours of your time.
Murder at Government House by Elspeth Huxley
Elspeth Huxley is best known for her stories of growing up in Kenya, in particular The Flame Trees of Thika. Few people I have met know that she also wrote three murder mysteries, set in East Africa, Murder at Government House, Murder on Safari, and The African Poison Murders. They may be the first mysteries written in Africa. As with McClure’s books, one of the benefits of reading these stories is that you will have a good sense of place, both physically and socially, of a British colony a hundred years ago. It is fascinating to observe the interactions between the pompous colonists who regard themselves as important and the outsiders, such as the displaced Canadian policeman Vachell.
Michael – Three tales retold
I’ve chosen three quite different books, but they share the theme of a tale retold. Each makes a special contribution—at least for me.
Till We Have Faces by C S Lewis
Lewis said that he thought this was among his most mature works. Much less well known than his Narnia series and his Christian writing, the novel is a retelling of the legend of Psyche. In the myth, Psyche is chosen by a god as his bride and lives in a beautiful palace, but she is forbidden to look on the god himself. Her two sisters, jealous of her new life, persuade her to light a lamp to see the god while he’s asleep with her. She does so and is rejected, and forced to undertake various seemingly impossible tasks for the god’s mother, who hates her because of her great beauty. In his novel, Lewis makes two small/huge changes. The sister, who is the narrator, persuades Psyche to use the lamp because she loves her and she is unable to see the palace. She fears that Psyche is bewitched or in the power of a monster. In this context, the characters become alive and believable. Lewis movingly compares the profane and the divine within rather than without. Not your sort of book? Try it anyway.
Power Play by Mike Nicol
Nicol is a respected South African novelist, and in recent years he’s been writing dark crime fiction mainly set in Cape Town. This is his finest book to date in my opinion. Set on the Cape flats, the book tells the story of abalone smuggling and the gangsters behind it, to say nothing of the Chinese big money driving them. It’s entirely believable and contemporary, but about three quarters of the way through you realize it’s a retelling of Titus Andronicus. And this modern setting sucks you in right through the inevitable revenge feast.
Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
Renault won a big prize in the fifties and moved to South Africa and lived at the sea, enjoying the sun and the less judgmental approach here to her life-long relationship with another woman. Here she could write freely, and her love of classical life led to The King Must Die—the retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Fascinated by Alexander the Great, she wrote a biography and a trilogy of historical novels about him, which not only bring him and Hephaestion to life, but also bring to life the culture and beliefs of the time. Fire from Heaven is remarkable not only for her portrait of the young Alexander (the book ends at his ascension to the throne of Macedon), but also for her understanding of the culture and sexual mores of the time. Like Lewis, she tells us not so much of the gods without, but of the gods (and demons) within.
So: six more for the TBR pile! Thank you both for some intriguing picks. <Swivels to address reader>> Don’t forget to take a look at Dying to Live, the other blogs taking part in the tour, and the previous additions to the Secret Library. See you soon.