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Watching the Detectives

The Bedlam Detective: A Novel by Stephen Gallagher (Crown, $25.00, 305 pages)

“When a man who demands his own way in all things is faced with the disastrous consequences of his actions, he has to know what brought them on.   But can a man’s mind bear up under such knowledge?”

Prolific author Stephen Gallagher has carefully crafted a period piece set in 1912-era London.   The refined language and specificity of details draw the reader into the tale.   At first it seems a bit forced; however, as the drama/mystery unfolds, the reader becomes familiar with the main character, Mr. Simon Becker, a Brit who is a former Pinkerton Detective in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.   Becker is now in England with his wife Elizabeth, son Robert and sister-in-law Frances living under reduced circumstances.   Their relocation was precipitated by a need of proper guidance and schooling for son Robert, who has been variously described as mentally deficient and/or brilliant.

Although poor, the family is comfortably settled in a set of rooms in the Southwest borough of London.   Nearby are dreadful slums, yet Becker and the rest of the family count themselves fortunate to have created a home that suits their needs.   Elizabeth works as a nurse’s aide at a local hospital, Becker is employed by the Master of Lunacy in a poorly paying position, Robert attends classes at a special school, and Frances manages the household.

In his capacity as the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy, Becker travels to interview wealthy persons who may have become too addled or just plain insane to manage their own finances.   Becker is on such a visit to wealthy and titled industrialist, Sir Owain Lancaster, when all hell breaks loose in the small town near the industrialist’s large estate.   Two little girls are found dead with evidence of mauling and “interference.”   In the terminology of the era, this means they were sexually assaulted.   This is but one of a series of gory happenings in the town going back many years.   Becker gives in to his urge to investigate, a holdover from his Pinkerton days.

Sir Owain is a brilliant inventor whose life took a horrible turn for the worse during an expedition into the Amazon region of South America.   Gallagher does a brilliant job of unfolding his character’s quirks and motivations.   Becker and Sir Owain enter into a battle of wits as Becker tries to determine whether Sir Owain is a candidate for placement in protective custody by the Master of Lunacy – Becker’s employer.

What sets the book apart from other similar English period pieces is the wildly creative imagination of author Stephen Gallagher.   After setting the stage for the mystery, Gallagher forges ahead with his tale and as Bette Davis famously stated in All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”   Yes, it was a page-turner that kept my attention to the very end.

It makes perfect sense that Gallagher is able to bring a story to life so vividly as he is a screenwriter, director and novelist!

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Bedlam Detective was released on February 7, 2012.

“If thriller reading were a sin, Stephen Gallagher would by responsible for my eternal damnation.”   Dean R. Koontz

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A Well Respected Man

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hastings (Random House; $35.00; 640 pages)

William Somerset Maugham, author of the wonderful novels Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage, wildly successful playwright and debonaire world traveler, was a decidedly private person.   He suffered from a crippling stutter, felt uneasy around most people, and throughout his long life he jealously and vehemently concealed the fact that he was bisexual.   Well, mostly gay.   He endured a long and miserable marriage to a brash and manipulative woman, Syrie Maugham.   And before he died he insisted that all of his personal letters and correspondence be burned.   If not for the fact that many of his friends and lovers retained the letters he wrote to them in spite of this fact, there wouldn’t have been nearly as much fascinating material on which to draw.   While reading Selina Hastings’ biography, which is culled to a large extent from these letters, I felt a bit of remorse knowing that it was his wish that his “secrets” accompany him to the grave.   But I read it with zeal and enjoyment nonetheless and comforted myself with the knowledge that a brilliant and wickedly observant writer born in this century – as opposed to the late 1800s – would not have felt the sad need to cloister his activities and thoughts in this way.

A good deal of Maugham’s writing, especially Of Human Bondage, is autobiographical: it depicts the wanton and forlorn abandon with which a man, often hindered by a physical defect that alienates him from his peers, can crave and seek the attention of a reprehensible mate.   The female object of this slaving and desperate attention, never his equal in intellect or virtue, cycles though phrases of appreciation and disdain, ultimately taking advantage of him and rejecting his honest but pathetic advances.   Selina Hastings succeeds in shedding light on the host of painful personal experiences, such as the loss of his mother and father at a young age that resulted in an exile to his stern uncle’s vicarage, his years as a resident physician in London’s poorest neighborhoods and the uncomfortable lifelong relationship he had with his younger male lover, that drove him to write about such dismal subject matter so tellingly.   What she does not do, however, is to offer much on how he often managed to take these bleak tales and turn them into mild or even hopeful visions on life and the world or whether he shared the curiously calm view of many of his characters that the world is a benign place with all of its millions of threads woven life a tapestry, a place that tosses us about with no ill- or good-will.

The remainder of his prolific literary output, such as the shorter novels and collections of short stories and vignettes, was largely gathered from overheard or shared conversations within his circle of famous and worldly friends or on his extensive travels throughout the Pacific and China.   He carried a notebook with him wherever he went, recording bits of dialogue or expressed thoughts, and turned them – sometimes with the nearly verbatim remnants of his notebook entries still intact – into stories and plays.   Reading the accounts of where and when he came by some of the actual material was a real delight.   By far my favorite bits of the biography were the accounts of his actual writing habits.   Each morning he retreated at an early hour to his study and sat and wrote for hours before continuing to the rest of his social and familial duties; he often studied classics and languages for hours in the morning if he had nothing to write.

This biography is thorough, well-written and despite its length and level of detail, leaves you even more curious about Mr. Maugham.   It lends a great deal of understanding to his actions, choices and the topics about which he wrote without extending too much bias, which is something from which many biographies suffer.   Maugham was without a doubt one of the most fascinating, dedicated and talented writers in recent history.   What a joy it is to be able to learn about his life, understand the processes he used to craft stories, get a glimpse of so many of his personal letters and get a taste of the many interesting (and famous in their own right) people and places he knew and loved.

Christine Van Winkle

Used by permission.   To see  more of Christine’s reviews (literary and otherwise) go to http://www.thewritechristine.com/ .

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A Day in the Life

Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne (Algonquin; $23.95; 296 pages)

“He had lost his mother when he was a little boy.   He’d hardly known her…  I wished I could give his mother back to him.”

Missing Lucile is a loving, lovely and lively account of the life of Lucile Kroger Berne, the grandmother that author Suzanne Berne was never to meet.   Lucile graduated from the prestigious and challenging Wellesley College in 1911, was married in 1923, gave birth to two children and died in 1932.   Hers was a short life and the author’s father was just 6 when his mother died.

Lucile was a member of THE Kroger family of Cincinnati, her own father being the founder of a grocery empire that today is worth billions of dollars.   Despite being part of such a prominent family, little was known of her life.   As Suzanne Berne writes early in her account, “Lucile has slipped out of memory…”   That is, until the author stumbled across a history of the Kroger family which provided her with the outlines of the story that is told here.   She also found developed and never-before-developed photographs that helped her to fill in some gaps in Lucile’s story.

Suzanne Berne’s father was in his eighties when she began trying to put the pieces together to create a living, breathing, woman named Lucile.   She has largely succeeded in this effort, even putting to rest some family myths.   For example, it was said of Lucile that she never smiled, but the reader sees photographs of Lucile smiling – even while her college graduation photo is being taken – and reads accounts of her being almost hysterically happy.   This is what happens in real life.

Suzanne Berne spent a great deal of time conducting research at the Wellesley College library, and a large part of this biography involves the time that Lucile spent there – a period she often referred to as the very best period in her life.   And, yet, despite the author’s best efforts some riddles remain as such…  “Every life has its blank squares.”   (Lucile was captain of the Wellesley Running Team until she dropped out for a reason that is still unknown.)

Senator Robert Taft’s wife once said of Lucile that she was, “The only one in the Kroger family with brains.”   She was also an adventurous person, a young woman who went to France just two weeks after the end of World War I; her intent being to fulfill the mission of Wellesley’s graduates – to minister to others rather than being ministered to.   There it seems she may have engaged in a romance with a military man.   Perhaps.

Perhaps is a word often used by Suzanne Berne in this work, because filling in the blanks on a life requires some guesswork:  “In my opinion, writing about other people requires a certain stupid bravado – a willingness to chat up the unknowable.   Especially since what you don’t know about someone is always going to be more interesting than what you do…”   But this account is plenty interesting enough in telling the reader what’s known about the life of Lucile Berne.

The manner in which Suzanne Berne fills in “the unknowable” is charming (this is a novelist applying her creative skills to tying the events of a life together).   The author writes about a woman she never knew in a tone that is filled with love and respect.   The reader will suspect that Suzanne Berne sees a large part of herself in her late grandmother, a feeling that haunts many grandchildren.

“…everyone’s life is a promising novel when reduced to a few lines in a reunion record…  every yearbook is full of promising-looking people who have no idea what will happen to them.”

Suzanne Berne’s father died in 2009, but not before he was able to read the majority of the manuscript that makes up this unique portrait.   His daughter Suzanne provided him with an invaluable, lyrical, account of his mother’s life – one that turned a ghost back into a living person, a woman with strengths and weaknesses; a woman who won and lost in life; a woman who lived a life in full before her early passing.   What a tremendous gift!

Lucile Berne’s life is now well accounted for, and it is well, well worth reading.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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