Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for March, 2021

Force and Fraud : A Tale of the Bush‘ by Ellen Davitt is regarded as the first Australian crime novel. It was first published in 1865. I discovered it recently and read it for ‘Southern Cross Crime Month‘ hosted by Kim from ‘Reading Matters’.

A rich man is found murdered in the bush. It looks like he was stabbed with a bowie knife. The knife belongs to a younger man who is engaged to this rich man’s daughter. This younger man pleads his innocence. But unfortunately for him, the evidence is against him. In addition to his knife being the murder weapon, this younger man’s garments are blood-stained. Also, the rich man hated this younger man and had told his daughter that he disapproved of her fiance and if she insisted on marrying him, he’d disown her and cut her off in his will. So the younger man has motive too. What actually happened and who is the actual murderer is revealed in the rest of the story.

Reading ‘Force and Fraud‘ was like watching an old movie. There is, of course, the central mystery, but the story is not just about the mystery. There is a huge cast of characters, there is humour and a comedy track, there is witty and sharp dialogue, there is wholesome entertainment for the whole family. There are many adorable characters in the story who have their own unique personality traits. The depiction of Australia of the middle of the 19th century is very fascinating and feels realistic, as it is probably based on the author’s own experiences. The revelation when it comes is not at all surprising – we can guess it a mile away – but that doesn’t take away our enjoyment of the novel.

The edition I read has a fascinating introduction about Ellen Davitt and her life – how she came to Australia as a teacher and how she ended up becoming a novelist. There is even a treat for quiz lovers – that Ellen Davitt was Anthony Trollope’s sister-in-law. I loved that introduction.

I’ll repeat here what I said in my previous post on Ellen Davitt –

“Ellen Davitt is regarded as the mother of Australian crime fiction. Her crime mystery ‘Force and Fraud : A Tale of the Bush’ was first published in 1865. It pre-dated Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (published in 1887) by more than two decades. More interestingly, it pre-dated Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’ (published in 1868) by a few years. ‘The Moonstone’ is regarded by many as the first detective crime mystery published. I don’t know why, because Ellen Davitt’s book came  before that. Out of the famous detective crime mysteries, only Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin mysteries pre-date Ellen Davitt’s book. Ellen Davitt was a pioneer and she broke new ground. She needs to be celebrated not just in Australia but across the world.”

It was wonderful to travel through the river (aka Australian crime fiction) and discover its source. It was like sailing in the middle of the gorge with tall mountains on both sides, and then the mountains end suddenly and the river widens and we see the beautiful town on the river bank unfurled in all its glory. The scene is splendid. It is spectacular. I’m honoured to be here.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Nowhere is human nature exhibited with more truth than amongst the mixed community of a crowded ship; amongst people who embarked for the most part in amity towards each other, but who are now aroused from their better feelings by petty animosities, by the inconvenience attendant upon limited space or by want of occupation, and who jostle one another, and strive for pre-eminence – just as in the wider world, where every trade and calling illustrates the jealousy between man and man. But when they part at length, probably to meet no more, a kind of forgiveness of the past – a desire to obliterate all remembrance of the injury – generally takes the place of ill-will. It is as if they were making their peace with the dying, and (to continue the simile) after our fellow passengers of a voyage have been gone from the vessel a few weeks, they become as entirely forgotten as fellow-passengers through life who have gone to their graves.”

Have you read ‘Force and Fraud‘? What do you think about it? Did you participate in ‘Southern Cross Crime Month‘?

Read Full Post »

The Story of Chunhyang‘ is one of the five classic pansoris of Korean literature. Pansoris are classical stories which are performed by a storyteller accompanied by music. The origins of Chunhyang’s story are shrouded in mystery and its author is unknown.

Poster of the 1961 film adaptation of Chunhyang’s Story

Chunhyang is a beautiful teenage girl who lives with her mother in a small town. She was born when her mother was in her forties – after her mother went to different temples and prayed to different deities. So her mother regards her as a magical child. Chunhyang lives her carefree, happy life in her small town when one day a new governor is appointed to that place. The governor’s son sees Chunhyang playing in her swing, and he falls in love with her. He visits Chunhyang’s home and asks her mother for permission to marry Chunhyang. But the governor’s son is nobility while Chunhyang is from a regular family. The social gap is too wide to be bridged. This marriage will probably never work. What Chunhyang’s mother does and what happens after that forms the rest of the story.

As the story is a pansori, there are lots of songs and poems in the book. Even the prose is sometimes musical, set to a rhythm. We feel that our experience will be more rich if we watch it or listen to it being performed. It has many references to Chinese poetry and mythology, and it even talks about one of my favourites, ‘The Nine Cloud Dream’. Even the famous butterfly dream is mentioned. Many of the descriptions in the book evoke the imagery of Tang dynasty poetry. For example, this one –

“The dangling sprays of the willows were silhouetted against the candlelight like the strands of a beaded curtain; to the right a phoenix tree was dripping with clear dew, like a crane startled in a dream; to the left an umbrella pine was rustled by the clear breeze, like an old and dreaming dragon; on the big plantain by the window, the first tender leaves of the season were springing like phoenix’s tail-feathers. The new lotus-flowers, like jewels from the heart of the water, were barely above the surface of the pond, catching the drops of dew;”

One of my favourite descriptions is that of Chunhyang playing in the swing –

“‘I looked at what was before me, and suddenly it was behind me,’ say the Analects. She flew forward like a little swallow darting to seize a branch of peach-blossom; and then swung backward like a butterfly that has lost its mate, buffeted against a stone by a gust of wind. Like the fairy of Wu-shan riding on the cloud to arrive at Yang-t’ai, she had a spray of leaves in her lips and a flower stuck enchantingly in her hair.”

Another of my favourite descriptions is that of the governor’s son’s calligraphy –

“When he writes a dot, it’s like a stone dropped from a high peak; when he draws a straight line, it’s like a thousand-li cloud; he writes the top of a character as neatly as can be. His style is like waves and lightning. When he makes a slanting stroke, it is like an old pine bending from a cliff. He writes the character for ‘spear’ like a spreading wisteria vine, and he draws a hook like a taut bow. Even if some of the strokes lack strength, they all have perfect form.’”

The poetry and songs in the book are beautiful, but because of the wordplay, they probably bring more pleasure when read in Korean.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Story of Chunhyang‘. It is one of the great, classic love stories. I think it will work better as a pansori performance or as a play or as a movie. I hope to watch one of the movie adaptations sometime.

Have you read ‘The Story of Chunhyang‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I discovered ‘The Godmother‘ by Hannelore Cayre recently and I just finished reading it.

The narrator of the story, Patience, is a 50-year old woman. She starts the story by telling us about her parents and her childhood, about the good things and the bad things that happened in her life, and how she reached the present stage she is in. She is working as an translator for the police department now, especially translating wiretaps of drug smugglers from Arabic to English. One day she uses what she hears in the wiretap to do something. Whether what she does is good or bad, I won’t tell you. Things snowball beyond that, the action explodes and what happens after that is told in the rest of the story.

The thing I loved the most about the story was the narrator’s voice. It is cool, charming, irreverent, doesn’t beat around the bush, calls a spade a spade. From the first passage –

“My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money. For them it wasn’t an inert substance stashed away in a suitcase or held in some account. No. They loved it as a living, intelligent being that could create and destroy, possessing the gift of reproduction. Something mighty that forged destinies, that separated beauty from ugliness, winners from losers. Money was Everything; the distillation of all that could be bought in a world where everything was for sale. It was the answer to every question. It was the pre-Babel language that united mankind.”

– Patience’s voice grabs our attention and never lets go. Patience is such an awesome narrator.

The story is very gripping too. I read most of the book on one day. We can call this noir fiction and it is up there with the best. French crime fiction is soaring high these days and this is a shining example of that.

Another thing I loved about the book is that there are really no bad characters. Or rather the story depicts people as imperfect with flaws and so we see people as they really are – there are no simplistic black-and-white depictions here. I loved that aspect of the book. I loved most of the characters in the book, especially the nurse Khadija who takes care of Patience’s mom, Khadija’s son Afid, Philippe the police officer who is in love with Patience, Bouchta Patience’s nanny when she was a kid, Madame Lò Patience’s neighbour, and DNA, Patience’s dog. They are all fascinating characters.

I don’t know whether the story is pure imagination or is inspired by real events. The author is a practising criminal lawyer and she has thanked translators who work in the court. If the story is inspired by real events, then the book is a scathing commentary on some aspects of life in today’s France.

I loved ‘The Godmother‘. I discovered that it has been made into a movie with Isabelle Huppert in the lead role. I can’t wait to watch that. I want to read more books by Hannelore Cayre now.

You can find Emma’s (from ‘Book Around the Corner‘) review of the book here.

Have you read ‘The Godmother‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I discovered ‘The Dry‘ by Jane Harper through Kim’s post. I decided to read it for ‘Southern Cross Crime Month‘ hosted by Kim from ‘Reading Matters‘, which is an event which celebrates crime fiction and nonfiction from Australia and New Zealand.

It is a small town in Australia, in the middle of nowhere. It is hot and dry, there has been a drought for nearly two years, the river has dried, and things are going bad for the people there. As if this was not enough, one day, suddenly, three people are killed – a dad, a mom and their young son. All the three people have been shot dead. Initial appearances suggest that the dad shot dead his wife and son. Probably because their financial situation was bad. But initial appearances can be deceptive. Because they have a baby daughter too, who is miraculously alive. Why didn’t the dad shoot her? Or is there more to it than meets the eye? You have to read the story to find out.

The main mystery in ‘The Dry‘ is gripping and it makes us turn the page to find out what happens next. There is also an old mystery which resurfaces which is interesting too. The way Jane Harper brings alive the small town life in Australia, where everyone knows everyone and everything, where there are no secrets (or it is hard to keep a secret), where people live in the same house for generations, working in the farm or in the same professions, where one has to get along with people that one doesn’t like because you’re in there for the long haul – all these are realistically, beautifully depicted in the book. I felt that I was living in this town and meeting these characters, loving some of them, hating others. I loved this aspect of the book even more than the mystery.

The revelation is surprising and I didn’t see that coming. The second revelation is not that surprising, but I’m also not sure what exactly happened after that, because it felt unresolved. I can’t tell you more. Strictly no spoilers 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘The Dry‘. I’ll look forward to reading more books by Jane Harper. Australian crime fiction looks like a goldmine – the more we dig, the more treasures come out.

Have you read ‘The Dry‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I thought for a long time that Wales was a county in England (and that is why Charles is called the Prince of Wales) and everyone in Wales spoke in English. There was even a county cricket team from Wales called Glamorgan and I admired many cricketers who played for that team. (Even the great Viv Richards played for Glamorgan towards the end of his career.) So I was surprised when I discovered that everything I knew about Wales was wrong, and Wales had its own language, literature, history and culture. March is a special time of celebrations in Wales. It is also the time of the annual Wales Readathon or Dewithon hosted by Paula from Book Jotter. I decided to participate this year and read Caradog Prichard’s classic novel ‘One Moonlit Night‘.

The narrator of ‘One Moonlit Night‘ is a boy who is around ten years old. He lives in a small village with his mother, who raises him on her own. Most people in the village are poor. The story happens at around the time of the First World War. Our unnamed narrator describes his life in the village, the adventures he has with his best friends Huw and Moi, the poverty that people experience everyday, how people are still happy and show kindness to each other inspite of being poor, the role of the church in village life, how the war impacts the life of the people and the tragedy and occasional glory it brings, how a child’s life can suddenly change and be turned upside down because of things that grownups do – these and other things are explored in the book. Our ten year old narrator’s voice is beautiful and charming and his friendship with his besties Huw and Moi is beautifully depicted. The narrator even falls in love with a girl who is older than him and it is beautiful and sad at the same time. I love the way the narrator’s voice takes us into the mind of a ten year old boy and makes us see the world through his eyes. It is brilliant. Caradog Prichard manages to capture that time so beautifully and there are many scenes which made me smile with pleasure and there are also some scenes that made me cry.

This passage made me smile.

“Thanks very much, I said, taking the big piece of buttered bread and the big glass of milk and going to sit on the slate seat under the window. I’ll be fit to walk miles after this. Then while I was busy drinking, who should come zooming round the end of the house but the dog who I’d heard barking in the back. Leave the little boy alone, Toss, said someone from the kitchen and Toss stopped dead when he saw me sitting on the slate seat. He was a big sheepdog with eyes the same colour as glass eyes. He growled a little bit to start with and I was frightened that he was going to bite me. So I made a sort of kissing sound with my mouth. Come on then, Toss, I said, and when he heard me say his name he wagged his tail and opened his mouth and let his tongue dangle out the way dogs do when they’re laughing. Come on then, Toss, I said again, and broke off a piece of my bread and put it beside me on the slate seat. Then he came up very slowly, wagging his tail and took the piece of bread from the seat. When I broke off another bit for him, he took that from my hand and then put his front feet on my knees and began licking my face. We were great friends in no time and after we’d finished eating the bread and butter, we played throw the stone in the field for a while. Then I took the empty glass back to the house and knocked at the door, and Toss ran inside to the kitchen. There you are, said the rosy-cheeked lady as she took the glass. You look a bit better now, my boy. Go straight home now or your Mam will start to worry about you. I’m going. Thanks a lot. How old is Toss? Fourteen. Lor, he’s older than me. Good afternoon.”

This passage made me cry. It has spoilers and so if you are planning to read the book, please don’t read this passage.

“Jesus, the people in the South talk funny, don’t they? said Moi when we went to see him the following day. Pass me that pot again. And there was poor Moi, still in bed and still spitting blood. And that was the last time we saw old Moi. The following Sunday night, Huw called round and his face was like chalk. Have you heard? he said at the door without coming in. Heard what? said Mam. Come in from the door, Huw, I said. What’s up? Moi’s dead, he said quietly. Moi? No, you’re telling lies, Huw. But I knew by his face that Huw was telling the truth. I just needed to say something, just like ages ago when I used to whistle as I went along Post Lane after dark, pretending that I wasn’t frightened of bogeymen. And we were talking to him on Monday night, I said, as though I still didn’t believe it. He was spitting a lot of blood that night, said Huw. That bloomin’ TB, said Mam. It takes young and old alike. Then I started to cry like a baby. I couldn’t stop for the life of me, though I tried my very best to stop cos I was embarrassed with Huw and Mam watching me. Moi and him were close friends, Huw said to Mam. But, of course, Huw was making excuses for me crying cos he was as close to Moi as I was. You never saw Huw crying like I did. But Huw cried, too, at the funeral though nobody saw him that time except me. It was only one little tear that rolled down his cheek and even I wouldn’t have seen that if he hadn’t wiped his eye with the sleeve of his surplice, as we both stood with the Choir at the graveside singing: My friends are homeward going Before me one by one And I am left an orphan A pilgrim all alone That’s what we sang at Griffith Evans Braich’s funeral, and Canon’s and all the others, too, but we were just singing cos we got tuppence for singing at those. It was different at Moi’s funeral cos he was our friend and the words were true. I couldn’t see anything when Hughes the Parson threw a handful of soil onto Moi’s coffin after they’d lowered it into the grave with a rope cos my eyes were just like two windows after it’s been raining.”

This passage made me cry even more. I can’t tell you why he is crying. You have to read the book to find out.

“And then I started crying. Not crying like I used to years ago whenever I fell down and hurt myself; and not crying like I used to at some funerals either; and not crying like when Mam went home and left me in Guto’s bed at Bwlch Farm ages ago. But crying just like being sick. Crying without caring who was looking at me. Crying as though it was the end of the world. Crying and screaming the place down, not caring who was listening. And glad to be crying, the same way some people are glad when they’re singing, and others are glad when they’re laughing. Dew, I’d never cried like that before, and I’ve never cried like that since, either. I’d love to be able to cry like that again, just once more.”

I loved ‘One Moonlit Night‘. It is the first novel written in Welsh that I’ve ever read (this book was translated into English by Philip Mitchell) and I feel that I am breaking new ground today as a reader, reading my first novel in a new language. It is an exceptional book and it is one of the great stories about childhood, one of the great coming-of-age novels. It made me think of my favourite coming-of-age stories – Marlen Haushofer’sNowhere Ending Sky‘, the film ‘Stand By Me‘ which was based on Stephen King’s story, and the Tamil film ‘Azhiyadha Kolangal‘. I am glad I read it. It is the only novel that Caradog Prichard wrote and I feel sad when I think about that.

Have you read ‘One Moonlit Night‘? What do you think about it? Have you read any novel which was originally written in Welsh? Are you participating in the Wales Readathon / Dewithon?

Read Full Post »

Chinatown‘ by Oh Jung-hee was the first ever Korean story that I read. I got it many years back as a present from one of my favourite friends who worked in South Korea as a teacher at that time. I can’t remember much of the story now, but I remember it didn’t create much of an impact then. This time around, the reading experience was very different. I loved it. I found it very fascinating.

The story told in ‘Chinatown‘ happens just after the Korean war in the ’50s. The place where the story happens is just hinted at, but it is revealed in the short essays at the end of the book as Incheon. The story is narrated by a nine year old girl whose family moves to this coastal town from the north. The experiences she has, the good times she has with her best friend, the poverty that her family and others experience, the happiness they manage to find inspite of life being hard, the bleakness of the post war years, how children growup very fast and get thrust into the adult world suddenly, the presence of American GIs and the adverse impact of that on Korean life – these and other things are explored in the book. The narrator’s voice is fascinating and real.

The illustrations of Nam Joo-hyun are charming and bring alive the Korea of that time. I have shared some of the illustrations below so that you can get a feel of their charm.

The essay at the back of the book says this about the illustrations –

“The streets and rooms are often drawn out of proportion, but somehow the perspective reflects the way childhood scenes are remembered. Actual places are invariably much smaller than we remember them. Without explaining whether the reason is a slip of the memory or a false rendering of time, Nam Joo-hyun renders the curious wonders of our childhood memories in her own, personal style.”

This book is classified as a short story, but it is more a long story – it is 65 pages long with 17 pages of illustrations (it is in bilingual format – so it is 65 pages of English and 65 pages of Korean) – longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella, the kind of stuff Stefan Zweig was famous for.

This book is published by an indie publisher called Hollym which has published other Korean stories in this series in book format with beautiful illustrations and has tried bringing out Korean literature to an international audience at a time when Korean literature was not famous as it is today. I want to read more books from this series, but unfortunately they seem to be hard to find.

I loved ‘Chinatown‘. I want to read more stories by Oh Jung-hee and more stories in the Hollym series.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“Dad was constantly fixing up the house. It was as if he was trying to make up for the days when we had to live in a rented room as refugees or stay up all night huddled together under a bridge or in a tent. The yard was small enough as it was, but Dad was adding rooms and putting in floors like little girls learning to sew sometimes add hidden pockets to purses and clothes. The house became riddled with narrow, tangled passageways that seemed to appear out of nowhere. There was always at least one place where you could hide and not be found.”

“An almost endless toiling of a bell came from the chapel at the back of the park…It continued steadily in measured waves and intervals. A radically restrained sound, it reduced all kinds of desires and feelings into a single ring of sound. It was like waking up from a dream and hearing a distant birdcall made on a summer night or the sound of a train passing wearily in the middle of the night. There was something fearful and secretive about the sound. “A nun must have died,” someone concluded. We knew that when a church bell rang continuously in that way, it meant that a nun was quietly dying.”

Have you read ‘Chinatown‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I have this big giant book called ‘Deadlier : 100 of the Best Crime Stories Written by Women‘. I decided to look through this book and identify ANZ writers and read their stories for ‘Southern Cross Crime Month‘ hosted by Kim from ‘Reading Matters’.

It was fun browsing through the book, discovering new writers and reading about them. I spent a whole pleasurable afternoon doing this. The book is edited by Sophie Hannah and so I was expecting to find a lot of British writers there, but I also hoped that she had squeezed in a few ANZ writers. I was hoping that there would be somewhere between five and ten ANZ writers / stories. There were six ANZ writers featured and seven stories by them. I was happy.

Out of the six ANZ writers featured, one was from New Zealand. As expected, it was the legendary Ngaio Marsh. Her story ‘I Can Find My Way Out‘ featured her famous detective Roderick Alleyn and is a classic mystery story marrying her twin passions of mystery writing and theatre with an interesting surprise in the end.

Out of the five Australian authors featured, two were 19th century authors. Ellen Davitt, whose story ‘The Highlander’s Revenge‘ was featured here, is regarded as the mother of Australian crime fiction. Her crime mystery ‘Force and Fraud : A Tale of the Bush‘ was first published in 1865. It pre-dated Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (published in 1887) by more than two decades. More interestingly, it pre-dated Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’ (published in 1868) by a few years. ‘The Moonstone’ is regarded by many as the first detective crime mystery published. I don’t know why, because Ellen Davitt’s book came  before that. Out of the famous detective crime mysteries, only Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin mysteries pre-date Ellen Davitt’s book. Ellen Davitt was a pioneer and she broke new ground. She needs to be celebrated not just in Australia but across the world.

Davitt’s story ‘The Highlander’s Revenge’ featured in this book wasn’t much to read. It was about settlers and aborigines killing each other and I didn’t like it much. But I’m happy to have read a story by Australia’s first ever crime fiction writer. Her novel looks more promising and I hope to read it soon.

The second 19th century writer featured in the book was Mary Helena Fortune. Two of her stories were featured in the book – ‘The White Maniac : A Doctor’s Tale‘ and ‘Traces of Crime‘. The first story was one of my favourite stories out of the seven, but it was not exactly a crime story, it was more a mystery and a scary story. Mary Helena Fortune was one of the earliest writers to feature a female detective in her stories, and she wrote more than 500 stories between the 1860s and the early 1900s.

The three contemporary writers featured were Kerry Greenwood, Angela Savage and Emma Viskic. Kerry Greenwood has said some nice things about Ellen Davitt’s novel and so I have a soft corner for her. Her story ‘The Voice is Jacob’s Voice‘ is about a themed party in which everyone is dressed as a historical character, but then soon bad things happen. Angela Savage’s ‘The Odds‘ was my most favourite story out of the seven. In the beginning the narrator describes a doctor that she is following or rather stalking and slowly all is revealed. The story had a beautiful, satisfying ending. Emma Viskic’s ‘Web Design‘ was the shortest story in the book at four pages. I liked it very much. It had a lot of potential of being spun into a novel because we are curious about what happened before and what happened after.

I enjoyed reading these seven crime stories by women ANZ writers. More than the stories themselves it was lots of fun discovering new writers. I want to read Ellen Davitt’s novel now and explore more of Angela Savage’s work.

Have you read stories by any of these writers? Which ones are your favourites? Have you read this collection?

Read Full Post »

March is the time to celebrate Southern Cross Crime Month hosted by Kim from Reading Matters. It is the time to read and celebrate crime fiction from Australia and New Zealand. I decided to read ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Fergus Hume as part of the celebrations. I discovered this book through Kim’s post.

In the picture – the poster of the 2012 Australian film adaptation of the book

A man comes out of a bar in the middle of the night. He is drunk. Another man accompanying him hails a hansom cab and asks the can driver to drop him home and leaves. While the cab driver is trying to get the drunk man into the cab, the companion turns up again and says he will also accompany his friend. But halfway to the destination, he gets out and leaves. When the cab reaches the rough destination, the cab driver tries to wake up the drunk man, but discovers that he is dead. He doesn’t have any identity papers, his address is not known, the identity of his erstwhile companion is not known and everything is a mystery. Who is this man? Why was he killed? Who was his companion who probably killed him? You have to read the story to find out.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab‘ was published in 1886 and it was one of the first crime mysteries to be published by an Australian writer.  (Wikipedia says that he is an English writer. I think we can just ignore that. The author himself says in the preface to the book – “I may state in conclusion, that I belong to New Zealand, and not to Australia…”) When it first came out, it outsold Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel ‘A Study in Scarlet‘. There is a reason for that. It is because it is good, it is really good. After the initial shocking murder, the action moves at a rapid pace (rapid by 19th century standards), and the detective uses logical reasoning and clues to find the answers. When we are one-third into the book, we are convinced about the identity of the murderer, but that is too easy, and things are not what they seem. There are many false clues, some true ones, and the mystery is unfurled slowly and we discover the real truth only in the end. I loved the way the detective uses logical reasoning to find out who the suspect is. It is not some out-of-the-world thing which requires esoteric knowledge, but simple everyday logic, which most of us won’t use, but which looks simple in retrospect.

One of the things I loved in the book was Fergus Hume’s rich descriptions – he sometimes delves into mythology, into literature, into poetry, into philosophy, into history. It is such a pleasure to read. This was one of my favourite descriptions from the book.

“Mr. Gorby was shaving, and, as was his usual custom, conversed with his reflection. Being a detective, and of an extremely reticent disposition, he never talked outside about his business, or made a confidant of anyone. When he did want to unbosom himself, he retired to his bedroom and talked to his reflection in the mirror. This method of procedure he found to work capitally, for it relieved his sometimes overburdened mind with absolute security to himself. Did not the barber of Midas when he found out what was under the royal crown of his master, fret and chafe over his secret, until one morning he stole to the reeds by the river, and whispered, “Midas, has ass’s ears?” In the like manner Mr. Gorby felt a longing at times to give speech to his innermost secrets; and having no fancy for chattering to the air, he made his mirror his confidant. So far it had never betrayed him…”

This one is another favourite.

“The last thing before dropping off to sleep is the thought of trouble, and with the first faint light of dawn, it returns and hammers all day at the weary brain. But while a man can sleep, life is rendered at least endurable; and of all the blessings which Providence has bestowed, there is none so precious as that same sleep, which, as wise Sancho Panza says, “Wraps every man like a cloak.””

Hume’s style is definitely not spare, like in today’s crime novels. It is the opposite of spare. I miss this kind of writing in crime fiction. I think one of the last writers to write like this was Alistair MacLean.

Another thing that I loved about the book is the way Hume evokes the atmosphere of Melbourne of his time. We feel that we are there, we can breathe the Melbourne air, we can experience the hot weather of December. For example, this passage –

“If there is one thing which the Melbourne folk love more than another, it is music. Their fondness for it is only equalled by their admiration for horse-racing. Any street band which plays at all decently, may be sure of a good audience, and a substantial remuneration for their performance. Some writer has described Melbourne, as Glasgow with the sky of Alexandria; and certainly the beautiful climate of Australia, so Italian in its brightness, must have a great effect on the nature of such an adaptable people…”

We can observe the contrast between the elegant and sophisticated Melbournians and the poor Melbournians who live in the less flashy parts of the city. (One of them is Mother Guttersnipe (aka Mrs.Rawlings). Mother Guttersnipe is fearless, doesn’t care a damn about anyone, swears in every sentence she speaks. She is cool, almost Dickensian, and is one of my favourite characters from the story.) The city of Melbourne is almost a character in the book.

Fergus Hume says this interesting thing in his preface –

“Having completed the book, I tried to get it published, but every one to whom I offered it refused even to look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading. They gave no reason for this extraordinary opinion, but it was sufficient for them, and they laughed to scorn the idea that any good could come out of Nazareth—i.e., the Colonies. The story thus being boycotted on all hands, I determined to publish it myself, and accordingly an edition of, I think, some five thousand copies was brought out at my own cost. Contrary to the expectations of the publishers, and I must add to my own, the whole edition went off in three weeks, and the public demanded a second. This also sold rapidly, and after some months, proposals were made to me that the book should be brought out in London. Later on I parted with the book to several speculators, who formed themselves into what they called “The Hansom Cab Publishing Company.” Taking the book to London, they published it there with great success, and it had a phenomenal sale, which brought in a large sum of money…I may here state that I had nothing to do with the Company, nor did I receive any money for the English sale of the book beyond what I sold it for…”

It made me smile. It made me sad. Nothing much has changed. Publishers sucked then, in the 19th century. They suck now.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab‘. The mystery was interesting, but what I liked more was the story, the characters, the evocation of Melbourne, the descriptions, the prose. This is my first ever Australian crime fiction book, I think, and I am glad I read it.

Have you read ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab‘? What do you think about it? Are you participating in ‘Southern Cross Crime Month‘?

Read Full Post »

I discovered ‘The Nine Cloud Dream‘ by Kim Man-Jung recently and just finished reading it.

Hsing-chen is the favourite disciple of the Buddhist monk Liu-kuan. One day his master is angry with him because he feels that Hsing-chen has strayed from a monk’s path (because of an episode involving fairies) and sends him to be reincarnated as a baby in a poor family so that he can experience the pleasures and pain of life. The master sends the fairies too, to be reincarnated as humans. Hsing-chen is born as the child to a hermit and his wife. They name the baby Shao-yu. What happens to Shao-yu when he grows up and whether he meets the fairies in their reincarnated human forms and the experiences he has and the adventures he goes through form the rest of the story.

The Nine Cloud Dream‘ is an odd book. The story it tells is set in Tang dynasty China (around 900 AD), the characters in the book are all Chinese, and the book is written in Chinese. But the author is Korean and this book is regarded as one of the great Korean classics. This makes it fascinating. We won’t bat an eyelid if something like this happens today, but in the 17th century when this book was written, it must have been odd. I did a little bit of research on this and discovered that during that time, Chinese was like the official language in many places in East Asia and Koreans mostly wrote in Chinese. This book must be one of the few surviving Korean works written in Chinese.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Nine Cloud Dream‘. ‘Enjoyed’ is an understatement. I loved it. I am a big fan of Chinese historical fantasies and this book was exactly that. The book has many wonderful strong women characters. The eight fairies who get reincarnated – each of them is amazing and unique. There are so many notes in the book which explain the finer points of Chinese history, culture, literature and philosophy. I normally refer to the notes sparingly because they disturb the flow of the book, but here I read every entry. It was fascinating. The story also had a lot of positive energy – there were no bad characters in the book. It was like reading a book version of a Hallmark movie. The characters in the story do mostly good things. Even in one situation when Shao-yu defies the Emperor and his mother, the Dowager Empress, and he is put in prison for that, we empathize with all the characters involved.

The ending of the story was interesting. I was expecting that the reincarnated characters will get back to their earlier form and maybe discuss their experiences as humans, but Kim Man-Jung delivers a totally unexpected ending. I didn’t see that coming. That ending touches on some deep parts of Buddhist philosophy and it was fascinating.

The book has an introduction by the translator Heinz Insu Fenkl, in which he discusses the history of the book, its link to Korean history and the author’s life, and the philosophical interpretation of the story. I liked most of the introduction but the philosophical analysis was a bit too much. The introduction is filled with spoilers and so it is better to read it, after you finish reading the book.

Have you read ‘The Nine Cloud Dream‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I discovered ‘The Story of Hong Gildong‘ recently. It is a 77-page novella. I just finished reading it.

One day, Hong Mo, a high-ranking minister in the government has a vivid dream. He sees a fantastic vision in a beautiful landscape in his dream. After having this dream, the minister gets intimate with his concubine and she gets pregnant. When their baby is born, he looks very beautiful. He is given the name Gildong. As the years pass, this baby grows up to be a wonderful young man. He is great at studying and acquiring knowledge, he is also great at acquiring martial and magical skills. The only problem is that because he is a concubine’s son, he can’t become a government official like his father or join the military as a soldier. All official avenues are closed for him. Gildong is frustrated because of this. He can’t even call his father as father, and his brother as brother. His father loves Gildong but laments his son’s fate. There is a senior concubine at their home who is jealous of Gildong and his mother, and tries to plot against him and kill him. But the assassin she hires is not aware of Gildong’s strength and knowledge and skills and how he can summon magic. After this incident Gildong decides to leave home and bids goodbye to his parents. While roaming in the forest, he meets a community of robbers and joins them. What happens after that and the fantastic events that ensue are told in the rest of the story.

The Story of Hong Gildong‘ is the story of a son who yearns for respect and legitimacy, a ‘Robin Hood and outlaws’ type story, and also an Arabian Nights style magical fantasy, all woven into one. It is a pageturning, fast-paced, wonderful read. I loved the character of Gildong’s mother, Chunseom. She comes only in a few scenes, but she is gentle and kind and beautiful. When the story starts, she is a maid and then she becomes a concubine and a mother, and then a robber’s mother. By the end of the story, she is the Dowager Queen with three daughters-in-law who love her and respect her. I cried when I read the scene in which she meets her daughters-in-law for the first time.

The edition I read had an interesting introduction by the translator Minsoo Kang, in which he discusses  who was the actual author of the story and how old the story is and whether it is the first ever story written in Korean script (hangeul). All very fascinating to think about.

I think ‘The Story of Hong Gildong‘ would be even better experienced as a movie or a TV series or as a mahwa comic. I want to watch the movie / series and read the comic sometime.

Have you read ‘The Story of Hong Gildong‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »