Saturday, November 22, 2014

Forgotten Book: Mademoiselle de Scudéri by E.T.A Hoffmann

My first review for the German Literature Month 2014 is a book generally considered to be the first European work in the Detective genre: E.T.A. Hoffmann's Mille de Scuderi. The book had long been on my wishlist and reading it brought about another pleasant surprise: The book contains what might be considered the background to J.D. Carr's classic The Burning Court viz. the story of Godin de Sainte-Croix, Marquise de Brinvilliers, and the police officer Desgrais.

The year is 1680 and terror stalks the kingdom of Louis XIV. First there was a series of murders by poisoning initiated by a special poison designed for this very purpose by the evil genius Godin de Sainte-Croix and his mistress Marquise de Brinvilliers. When Sainte-Croix died accidentally by inhaling the poisonous fumes and Marquise de Brinvilliers was tricked by Desgrais - an officer of the Marechaussée - and subsequently condemned to death, the Parisians breathed freely. But it seemed that Sainte-Croix had a few disciples and soon nobody was safe: fathers with fortunes, unloved but wealthy husbands, shrewish wives... all could be killed easily without any fuss:

Murder came gliding like an invisible, capricious spectre into the narrowest and most intimate circles of relationship, love and friendship, pouncing securely and swiftly upon its unhappy victims. Men who today, were seen in robust health, were tottering about on the morrow feeble and sick; and no skill of physicians could restore them. Wealth, a good appointment or office, a nice-looking wife, perhaps a little too young for her husband, were ample reasons for a man's being dogged to death. The most frightful mistrust snapped the most sacred ties. The husband trembled before his wife; the father dreaded the son; the sister the brother. When your friend asked you to dinner, you carefully avoided tasting the dishes and wines which he set before you; and where joy and merriment used to reign, there were now nothing but wild looks, watching to detect the secret murderer.

Finally, the king appointed a tribunal, the Chambre Ardente, presided over by La Regine to investigate these secret crimes. Through the efforts of the officer Desgrais the king-pins were arrested but La Regine's measures to control these crimes led to a reign of terror in which the innocents were as brutally (mis)treated as the guilty. As if all this was not enough, a fresh wave of trouble came to overwhelm the people. A gang of robbers decided to steal jewels from all those who carried gems or wore them on person. Dead bodies were found stabbed in a similar manner, sometime even on the threshold of the house they were about to enter. As the police searched in vain for the gang, Desgrais set up a trap to nab the criminal(s). One day it did seem that he was about to catch one of the robbers when the man he was chasing vanished through a wall!

Was it some supernatural being that was robbing the people? Rumours spread thick and fast. And it was in such a mood of apprehension and dread that a young man barged into the house of Mille de Scuderi (modelled on the real-life author Madeleine de Scudéry) and left a casket for her. When the casket was opened, it was seen that it contained jewels of exquisite craftsman-ship. And from then on de Scuderi finds herself involved in a tale of theft and murder...

There is a lot of swooning and trembling in the text but it is an interesting look at the life and customs of the 17th century. Worth a read.


First Line: Magdaleine de Scudéri, so famous for her charming poetical and other writings, lived in a small mansion in the Rue St. Honoré, by favour of Louis the XIVth and Madame de Maintenon.

Title: Mademoiselle de Scudéri: A Tale from the Times of Louis XIV
Original Title: Das Fräulein von Scuderi: Erzählung aus dem Zeitalter Ludwig des Vierzehnten

Author: E.T.A Hoffmann
Original Language: German
Translator: Not mentioned
Publication Details: Not available
First Published: 1819
Pages: n.pag
Source: Project Gutenberg Australia
Other books read of the same author: None

Read and reviewed as part of the GLM:

Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books @ Pattinase

Friday, November 7, 2014

Forgotten Book: Somerset Maugham's Ashenden (1928)

Virendranath Chattopadhaya, the younger brother of the Nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu, came from an influential Bengali family settled in the state of Hyderabad. A man with a flair for languages (According to Wikipedia, he knew more than 12 languages), Chatto (as he was fondly called) was also a man devoted to the cause of Indian freedom. It was a quest that took him to England, France, Germany, Russia, and Switzerland among others. Committed to communism and in favour of an armed struggled against the British in India, Chatto published many virulent articles in newspapers leading to his being wanted by the law in many European countries. At one time married to author and activist Agnes Smedley, Viren was acquainted with some of the top ideologues and revolutionaries of the early 20th century, including M.N. Roy, Lenin, Har Dayal,  Madame Bhikhaji Cama, and Bhupendranath Datta.

Member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), Chatto was opposed to the activities of Hitler. According to Wikipedia, between 1931 and 1933, while living in Moscow, Viren continued to advocate anti-Hitler activities, Asian emancipation from Western powers, the independence of India, and Japanese intervention into the Chinese revolution. Feeling himself sidelined by the Communist Party in Russia and desirous of returning home to India, Chatto was arrested in 1937 in those infamous purges of Josef Stalin and executed the same year. India's independence was still a decade away.

But why you may ask am I talking about a forgotten Indian nationalist in what is supposed to be a post about Somerset Maugham's Ashenden. It is because Chatto appears as the revolutionary Chandra Lal in one of the stories, 'Giulia Lazzari', the story itself being based on an attempt by the British Secret Service to assassinate Chatto while he was in Europe.

 Based on Maugham's own experience as a British agent during the first world war, the book is a collection of loosely linked stories. It is said that Winston Churchill asked Maugham to burn 14 other stories. If this is true, it is indeed sad because the stories show Maugham's creative genius in which there is no flag-waving super spy who grinds any opposition to dust but rather an observer of people and events who can even make the reader sympathise with his opponent rather than himself. "One can't help being impressed by a man who had the courage to take on almost single-handed the whole British power in India,"  Ashenden says about Chandra Lal.

Incidentally, I got to know of Chatto's role in the Indian National movement and his appearence in Ashenden through this post @ prasantadas. As the writer so eloquently puts it: It is a bit strange to think that the only place where one finds a celebration of Chatto's exploits is a story by an English writer-spy whose own reputation is in decline.


First Line: It was not till the beginning of September that Ashenden, a writer by profession, who had been abroad at the outbreak of the war, managed to get back to England.

Title: Ashenden or The British Agent
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publication Details: London: Pan, 1955
First Published: 1928
Pages: 221
Source: H.M. Library [F.M.A 86 E]
Trivia: No. 84 in the Tozai Top 100 Mysteries
Other books read of the same author: (Amongst others) Up at the Villa


Entry for FFB @ Pattinase.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Royalty in India: Maharani, and Almond Eyes Lotus Feet

There was a time when India was a mass of Princely kingdoms who spent their time warring with each other, patronising the arts, looking (or not-looking) after their subjects, and doing other things that Royals are supposed to do.

In Maharani, Ruskin Bond narrates the story of an aging former queen Neena or H.H as the narrator - who has known her since childhood - affectionately calls her. Spoilt, selfish, and beautiful, Neena lives in a grand palace with just her dogs as her companions. The others - lovers and sons - come and go.

There is an elegiac tone to the novel as it recounts the bygone era of the Raj with its power and parties, plays and performance to post - 1947 India with its democracy and politics, abolition of the privy purses and redundancy. Or as the narrator puts it so poetically in the end:

And if, at the end, the times weren't so good, it was probably because the party had gone on for too long.

I first heard about Almond Eyes Lotus Feet at the (now defunct) site: 4Indianwomen. Intrigued by the description of the book, I started searching for it and was lucky enough to find it in a book sale @ the world book fair in Delhi last year. Co-authored by Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar , this is a fictional memoir of a princess who now stays in Mumbai and recounts the life in the zenana (along with the traditional home recipes for health & beauty) to her (modern urban) grand-daughter.

The sepia-toned reminiscences accompanied by breath-taking b&w photographs eloquently captures the grandeur of yore.

There are also pictures of vintage ads of products of the by-gone era, one of which (Afghan Rose) I remember being used by my grandmother.


First Line: "I think I'm dying Ruskin." said H.H. as I took her hand and kissed it in the manner of the knight of old.

Title: Maharani
Author: Ruskin Bond
Publication Details: ND: Penguin Viking, 2012
First Published: 2012
Pages: vi + 180
Source: Borrowed from a cousin

Other books read of the same author: (Among Others) The Room on the Roof, Lavender Days.


Opening Lines: "Granny, I love you dearly, but this book is a mess!" That's what my granddaughter said. I know what she meant: part first-aid, part folklore, and part cook book. I suppose in some places it is a bit naughty too - ...

Title: Almond Eyes Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health
Authors: Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar
Publication Details: London: Collins, 2007
First Published: 2005
Pages: 248
Source: Bought @ World Book Fair, 2013

Other books read of the same authors: None

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Top Ten (+ 3) Tuesdays: Books to get in the Halloween Spirit

This week's Top Ten Tuesday asks us to list 10 of our favourite Halloween books. I do like to read about the supernatural but I prefer my horror to be understated: an eerie feeling that gives an unsettling quality to the narrative works fine but an 'in-your-face' horror with its gruesome and repulsive description is a major turn-off.

Here, in no particular order, are my favourite 13 (an appropriate figure for such a list, I guess) reads for this time of the year.


A young man, taking in the air, sees two figures - that of a young girl and a man- collide against one another. Too his shock, the man instead of helping the girl starts beating her up brutally. As the kid's screams rent the air, Victorian morality is torn to pieces. This ageless tale that set the template of so many books that followed still has the power to chill me long after I read an abridged version of it as a child.


An evening in a club where a man recounts the story of a governess who went to take charge of two children only to find the ghost of her predecessor and her lover haunting the house and her charges. I read this book as a straight-forward story of possession and then intrigued by some of the critical views on it went back and read it again... and it was like I was reading a different book altogether.


Undertakers who might very well be murderers, women who disappear through walls, bodies that disappear from crypts, unseen observers, fake letters, past secrets, and photographs of murderesses that resemble one's own wife. All these and more in Carr's masterpiece.


A young woman, Rosemary Woodhouse moves into a new apartment along with her husband, Guy Woodhouse who is a struggling actor. They strike up an acquaintance with their neighbours, a middle-aged couple by the name of Castevet. Soon strange things begin to happen, a death occurs in the apartment, Guy begins to get the roles that he had coveted, and then begins insisting that they now start a family though till now he had resisted Rosemary's wishes for the same. Why is a baby suddenly so important? This was the first book of Levin that I read and thinking about it still gives me the shivers.


We are in an India of snakes, snake-charmers, rope-tricks, and fakirs. One of them puts a spell on a monkey's paw:  "'It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,' said the sergeant-major, 'a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.'"

Is there anybody who hasn't read Jacob's classic story of the tragedy of our wishes coming true? I read this story in school and then painstakingly copied it word by word in a notebook. A couple of years back, I requested John to write a post about it and he kindly complied. Here's his fine review of the text.


Harley Quin appears and disappears magically at the most opportune moments in this short-story collection by Agatha Christie. Over the years, I have forgotten the rest but still remember 'The Face of Helen' and the police-man's matter-of-fact remark at the end.


There was a time when The Three Investigators - ??? - were my heroes. While others fought over Nancy Drew and Hardy boys, I read the adventures of Jupe, Pete, and Bob . In this, their first adventure, they investigate Terril Castle, the haunted home of movie actor Stephen Terrill, who is supposed to have committed suicide as his career was on the verge of collapse with the coming of the 'talkies'.


My sister had this Shakespearean play of over-reaching ambition, murder, and guilt prescribed in her college. And since there were three of us, we decided to enact the scenes featuring the three witches. So in a darkened room lit only by a candle, and with black dupattas worn like niqabs we mouthed the dialogues. You might well laugh but in the flickering light of the candle with our faces hardly visible, there was magic in the air as we held our hands wand  and went round and round chanting:

Fair is foul, and Foul is Fair
Hover through the forest and fill the air...


A residential- school teacher returning to his school in the evening hears the sound of a child crying. He follows the sound to where he sees a boy in the uniform of his school crying bitterly with his face buried in his arms. Playing truant and now afraid to go back to school, the teacher suspects. He addresses the boy who raises his face and...


What would Halloween be without Edgar Allan Poe? This story of Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline showcases Poe's genius as the master of the macabre.


"You!" says a character just before being pushed to death. That 'you' for me encompasses what is the most terrifying thing of all: a familiar face suddenly morphing into the face of the devil. More than anything else in this tale of a doctor who is called in by one of the dying grand houses of post-war England, I remember this shocked 'You'.


Coleridge, I think, is the ideal poet for this season. Kubla Khan with its description of Xanadu: Caverns measureless to man, sunless sea, shadow of the dome of pleasure - shows a man at the height of his poetic genius. When he says:

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!

You can virtually see the crags, and the rocks, and the woman with her arms uplifted towards the sky.

 Douglas Adam's book about the adventures of Dirk Gently, combining elements of Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner, is the best tribute to the poet. And I could just marvel at the ingenuity of the Adams when I read the novel. It makes no sense in the beginning and then suddenly you realise what the author is doing and... you are on a thrilling ride.


How do you feel about these books? What would your selection be? Do share.


Also submitted for Friday's Forgotten Books, today @ Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.


Part of my A Baker's Dozen series. Earlier selections can be seen over here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

German Literature Month 2014

My favourite reading event of the year: The German Literature Month is just round the corner. Since 2011, Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy Siddal @ Lizzy's Literary Life have diligently co-hosted the event.

Though, I am not very good at planning in advance, here are some of the texts that I might be reading  in the month of November:

Have you read any of these? How did you find them?


Last year, I fell in love with the German novella: The Sunday I became World Champion. I hope I find another such gem in my reading this year too.


If you want to participate in the event too, you can find the details here.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ellery Queen: A Journey of Discovery

The first time I remember hearing (okay reading) about Ellery Queen was when I read a fine review of Cat of Many Tails at Yvette's blog, in so many words... Subsequently, I read my first Queen The Murderer is a Fox, and realised that there were not one but two Ellery Queen, the writer as well as the investigator and the writer himself was again two people: Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. There was also another Queen, the character's father Inspector Queen but thank god his first name was not Ellery. A fortnight back, I borrowed two books by Queen from the library and discovered that these books were not written by the two cousins but by other authors who wrote under the (house) name of Ellery Queen. Phew!

Dead Man's Tale (1961) was (ghost) written by Stephen Marlowe . Barney Street, a fixer, was part of the Allied airforce  during world war II whose life was saved by a Czech double agent Milo Hacha. Now Barney has willed all his property to Hacha much to the consternation of his wife, Estelle Street. Estelle forces a former friend, Steve Longacre, to go to Europe and finish off Hacha if he is still alive. Much against his wishes, Steve proceeds to Europe along with his college-educated brother, Andy. They are shown official documents certifying Hacha's death but there are also certain clues which point to the fact that Hacha might very well be alive. The 'dead' man's trail takes them to Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, and finally behind the iron-curtain to Czechoslovakia. In the cold war scenario where does a man who helped the Allied forces, stand?

I liked this book because of the relationship between the two brothers as well as the depiction of people who have their lives irrevocably changed because of the war. On the flip side, too many convenient deaths take away the edge from the narrative.

Okay for a one-time read.

Wife or Death (1963) was actually written by Richard Deming. Jim Denton, the editor and proprietor of a newspaper, in a small town in the US knows that his wife Angel is being unfaithful to him. His love for her having died long time ago, he doesn't even feel like divorcing her and is actually shocked when she decides to walk out of the marriage. But what he hadn't realised was that she would end up dead and the DA of the town, who was one of her lovers, would take it upon himself to prove him the murderer. This turned out to be an okay mystery with more or less unpleasant characters.


First Line: Steve Longacre wheeled his convertible out of Neck Road and into the long driveway delicately.

Title: Dead Man's Tale
Author: Ellery Queen
Publication Details: NY: Pocket Books, 1961
First Published: 1961
Pages: 150
Source: H.M. Library [F.Q. 18]


First Line: At midnight, when the masks came off, Jim Denton had not been yet on the dance floor.

Title: Wife or Death
Author: Ellery Queen
Publication Details: NY: Pocket Books, 1963
First Published: 1963
Pages: 153
Source: H.M. Library [F.Q. 19]


Other books read of the same author: Cat of Many Tails, The Murderer is a Fox.

Submitted for FFB @ Pattinase


Hope you all had a Happy Diwali. Here's wishing you joy and prosperity in the new year.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Forgotten Books: The Burning Court and The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr

You know how it is: You read about a book somewhere, it might be just a passing reference and  not a full-fledged review but it intrigues you so much that you want to read the book. So it was that I read a line from The Burning Court @ Classic Mystery Hunt ...and I simply had to read the novel.

And what a read it turned out to be.

Edward Stevens is a well-settled young man in his thirties. He has a loving wife and a secure job in a publishing house. When the novel begins, he is returning home from work, glancing cursorily at the manuscript of a book which deals with murder trials. Stevens remembers the odd conversation with his editor when the latter asked him to go through the manuscript but doesn't dwell on it much, his mind being preoccupied with the death of his neighbour Miles Despaard whose housekeeper later claimed that she had seen a woman in 'old-fashioned clothes' in Miles' room the night of his death. A woman who had later disappeared through a wall...

Just a woman's weird imaginings, Stevens thinks to himself and starts concentrating on the manuscript in his hands. His eyes fall on the photograph of a woman : a certain Marie D'Aubray who had been guillotined for murder in 1861 - and everything changes for him in that split second because he was looking at a photograph of his own wife.

Oh! The Thrill of reading this book! My Little One went to sleep early and since I had some time at hand I thought of reading this... and I just could not stop, reading it through the dark of the night with all the lights switched off and there being only the glow from my laptop. It complemented well the eerie atmosphere that Carr creates magnificently. Unquestionably, my best mystery read of the year. If you haven't read it, read it NOW.

You know how it is: You read a book and fall so much in love with it that you want to read other books by the same author. And you start another one..... and it simply falls flat. So it was with Carr's Black Spectacles that I started reading after finishing The Burning Court.

The premise of the book is very interesting. An eccentric millionaire Marcus Chesney wants to prove that people wear 'black spectacles' while watching anything, i.e. they don't really observe what is happening in front of them. To prove it, he goes in for an elaborate set-up enlisting the help of his assistant, Wilbur Emmet. In front of an audience of three - Chesney's friend Prof. Ingram, Chesney's niece Marjory, and her fiance George Harding - a figure (ostensibly Emmet) enters wearing outlandish clothes. He then proceeds to put a capsule in the mouth of Chesney and disappears in the gloom inside. Chesney pretends to die, then gets up, and all venture out. It's time for question and answer session but they discover Emmet lying unconscious outside and before they can understand what is happening, Chesney too kicks the bucket. Who was then the masked figure? The three witnesses cannot agree on what they saw. Not one but three police officials: Inspector Andrew Elliot, Chief Constable Major Crow, and Superintendent Bostwick arrive on the spot. To balance things, they too cannot agree on who the culprit might be and so like the victim's brother Dr. Joe Chesney who was supposed to be present but arrived late for the show, Dr. Gideon Fell enters the scene and well you know what Dr.Fell can do.

The book begins extremely well in the ruins of Pompeii but I have never really enjoyed the investigative officer falling in love with a prime accused in the case. This trope - which is all too frequent - ruined the Adam Dalgliesh series for me - and here it was painful to read Inspector Elliot behaving like a love-sick teenager. He even goes to the extent of hiding incriminating evidence against Marjorie from his superior officer because he is head-over-heels in love with her.

I don't know why I dislike this trope so much (perhaps I want the investigating officers to behave in a non-partisan manner) but it is worse when the damsel in distress has a fiance/ lover because you can bet that he will be shown in a very poor light if not as being utterly despicable. And Carr really pours it on thick over Harding.

Both the books have been posted about frequently and you can read about The Burning Court @ Classic Mystery Hunt, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?Valli's Book Den

Black Spectacles (aka Green Capsule) @ Classic Mystery Hunt,  Mystery File, Pretty Sinister Books

First Line: "There was a man lived by a churchyard - " is an intriguing beginning for a story left unfinished.

Title: The Burning Court
Author: John Dickson Carr
Publication Details: NY: International Polygonics,1985
First Published: 1937
Pages: 228
Source: Open Library
Trivia: No.10  in the Tozai Top 100 Mysteries
Other Books read of the same author: The Hollow Man, He Who Whispers, Eight of Swords

First Line: It began, as a certain man remembered it, at a house in Pompeii.

Title: The Black Spectacles
Alternate Title: The Problem of the Green Capsule

Publication Details: NY: Award Books, 1976
First Published: 1939
Pages: 228
Source: H.M. Library
Other Books read of the same author: The Hollow Man, He Who Whispers, Eight of Swords


Entry for FFB @ Pattinase