Kinsey and Me – Sue Grafton

I’ve been taking a nostalgic walk down memory lane with Kinsey Millhone through reading this collection of short stories by Sue Grafton. I accidentally left my current book at home the other day & realised I had nothing to read at lunchtime. Thank goodness I work in a library! I saw this among the new arrivals & thought a short story or two would be perfect lunchtime reading.

I can remember when I first met Kinsey. It must have been the early 1990s & the first book in the series I read was G is for Gumshoe. I’d read a few other series featuring female private investigators, I particularly remember Sara Paretsky & Marcia Muller (who I’m still reading). I was working at my first library & I must have picked up G is for Gumshoe from the shelves as it was published a couple of years earlier. I loved it & went back to A is for Alibi & read all the earlier books. Since then I’ve read all the books as they’ve been published & I see that the next book, W is for Wasted, is due out later this year.

The attraction of these books for me is that Kinsey is still living in the 1980s. When the series began in 1981, Grafton decided that Kinsey would age one year for every 2 1/2 books. So Kinsey has aged from 32 in 1981 to her early 40s in the latest books but it’s still the 1980s in Santa Teresa, the fictional Californian town where Kinsey lives. She conducts her investigations without mobile phones, computers, the internet or many of the forensic tools available to modern day investigators. She relies on a phone with an answering machine, writing notes on index cards & physically going to government offices or the reference library to look things up. The books have become historical novels which for me is a large part of their charm.

The first half of Kinsey & Me consists of a selection of short stories Grafton has written featuring Kinsey that were published in the late 1980s. For me, the books published in the 1980s & early 90s represent Kinsey’s Golden Age. Reading the first story, Between the Sheets, was so nostalgic. A woman is sitting in Kinsey’s office telling her that she’s found her lover dead in her apartment. They’d argued the night before which several neighbours overheard. She threatened to kill him & had just bought a handgun which she describes in great detail. She didn’t call the police but, after finding him shot dead & lying in her daughter’s room, she picks up the gun lying beside him, puts it down again & runs out of the apartment,. When Kinsey arrives at the apartment to investigate, the body is gone & there’s no evidence that the story is true at all. Kinsey has the case worked out before the police arrive.

The charm of this series is Kinsey’s voice. The narrative is first person & Kinsey has the wry, amused voice of all the best private investigators. She’s not quite the loner that Marlowe & Spade were, though, even though she was orphaned young & grew up living with her Aunt Gin. Twice divorced & wary of new relationships, Kinsey nevertheless has a circle of friends that have become her family. Her landlord, Henry Pitts, is the most important of these but his siblings (all in their 80s & 90s) & restaurant owner, Rosie, all make regular appearances.

Here’s the opening of another story in the collection, The Parker Shotgun. All the novels & stories begin in a similar way, introducing Kinsey for new readers & making fans settle down with a smile.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed, bonded, insured; white, female, age thirty-two, unmarried and physically fit. That Monday morning, I was sitting in my office with my feet up, wondering what life would bring, when a woman walked in and tossed a photograph on my desk. My introduction to the Parker shotgun began with a graphic view of its apparent effect when fired at a formerly nice-looking man at close range. His face was still largely intact, but he had no use now for a pocket comb. With effort, I kept my expression neutral as I glanced up at her.
“Somebody killed my husband.”
“I can see that,” I said.

The book opens with an essay about the beginnings of the series & the second half consists of more personal stories Grafton wrote after the death of her mother. I have to admit that the Kinsey stories were the reason I picked up the book & I’ve had a lovely time reading them over the last week.

The Exiles Return – Elisabeth de Waal

The Exiles Return is a first for Persephone Books. It’s the first previously unpublished manuscript that they’ve published. The author, Elisabeth de Waal, wrote it when she herself was living in exile, in England, where she had lived with her family since leaving Austria in 1939.

The exiles of the title have all returned to Vienna in the early 1950s, having escaped before the war. Kuno Adler, a chemistry professor, has been living in America with his wife & daughters. He feels a longing for home that brings him back to a Vienna that he struggles to recognize. Theophil Kanakis has also lived in America & is now extremely rich. He returns to Vienna determined to recreate something of the glorious past by restoring an 18th century house & filling it with antiques. On his return he meets beautiful but shallow Prince Lorenzo Grein, known as Bimbo, & begins a relationship with him. Bimbo & his older sister, Nina, lost their parents to the Nazis & spent the war in hiding in the country. Nina is about 30, a serious young woman who has spent the war years looking out for Bimbo. Now, she’s working as an assistant in the laboratory where Kuno Adler also works. Marie-Theres Larsen was born in Vienna but left as a child in the mid 1930s when her parents emigrated to America. Marie-Theres, known as Resi, is now 18 & she has always felt out of place in America. Her younger siblings were born there & have grown up as Americans. Resi’s parents are concerned about her lack of interest in anything America has to offer so they send her to Vienna to stay with her aunts, her mother’s sisters.

The Exiles Return is a fascinating exploration of what home means to different people. I was particularly drawn to Kuno Adler’s story. The opening chapters of the book describe his journey homeward. His uncertainties about his decision are beautifully articulated by his thoughts as he sits in the train taking him closer to Vienna. He has become estranged from his wife, Melanie, who has embraced America & its opportunities. Melanie is sure he will be disillusioned & his return is certainly not easy. Although Adler is entitled to return to his previous job as a research scientist at the same level, he finds that his welcome isn’t assured. He is resented by the new head of the laboratory who stayed in Austria during the war & worked for the Nazis.

The working conditions & equipment can’t compare with what he had in America. The younger staff see him as a dinosaur & everyone is apprehensive as to what attitude he will take. Will he expect to take over? Only the old caretaker, Grasboeck, greets him with pleasure. Nina Grein quietly begins helping him with his private research although he barely notices her. Professor Adler’s loneliness is increased as he realises that he doesn’t know his old friends any more. Those who stayed in Austria during the war, were they collaborators or cowards?  Did they take advantage of those who had fled or been imprisoned? He begins taking long walks in the suburbs & countryside to try & reacquaint himself with his home.

Resi first goes to stay with her aunt, Countess Lensveldt, at her schloss in the country. Aunt Franzi is welcoming & Resi enjoys the slow life, talking to her cousin, Hanni. She also meets Lucas, a student lawyer whose family have been servants of the Lensveldts for generations. he has an ambivalent relationship with the family. He grew up playing with Hanni & her brother, Franz, but he’s not on the same social level. Lucas is immediately attracted to Resi & pursues her without much success. When summer ends, Hanni goes to Vienna to work as a secretary & Resi goes with her to attend classes at the university. The girls stay with their aunt Fini, a widowed Baroness who lives in a tiny flat with a single servant.

Kanakis creates a salon in his 18th century palais. He likes being surrounded by young people & Resi, Hanni & her fiance, Georg are invited to parties there through Hanni’s friendship with Bimbo. Resi becomes infatuated with Bimbo although he shows no interest in her & Lucas continues to pursue her. The tragedy described in the Prologue is inevitably drawing closer as the naïve Resi becomes more involved with Kanakis & his circle.

I enjoyed The Exiles Return very much. I found some characters more sympathetic than others & Professor Adler’s story in particular seemed to me to be closest to the author’s heart. Maybe because we experience so much of his life in Vienna through his thoughts & reactions. He was such a complex character, self-absorbed, lonely, trying to recreate something of his pre-war life while trying to adjust to the changes war has brought to his home. I also enjoyed the scenes at Schloss Wald as the Lensveldts continue to live the country life they’ve always known, secure in their social position & privilege. Lucas is a symbol of the changes to come with his assumption of equality with Hanni & Franz & his socialist politics. The time in which the novel is set is also crucial. This is the moment, ten years after the war has ended, when the Occupying Powers are about to leave & Austria will have a chance to rebuild. The first post-war generation are about to take up the reins & move the country into the future.

The Preface by Elisabeth’s grandson, Edmund de Waal, gives a portrait of Elisabeth & the determination she had to write whether her novels were published or not (she wrote five novels, none of them published in her lifetime). There is something of Elisabeth in all the characters of The Exiles Return, particularly Resi & Professor Adler. So many of her experiences of exile & return are explored in this fascinating novel. I’m so pleased to have had the chance to read it.

Sunday Poetry – Jane Taylor

This is what I love about reading – I learn something interesting practically every time I open a book or click on a website. I didn’t know the origins of the lullaby, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star but I’ve just come across it in my anthology of Romantic poetry. I suppose if I thought about it at all, I thought it was a traditional rhyme. I only knew the first verse & a mangled version of the last so here’s the complete poem, called The Star (picture from here)& written by Jane Taylor in 1806. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Jane & her sister, Ann, published Rhymes for the Nursery in 1806, a very successful volume although this is probably the only rhyme which has survived. I especially like the Mad Hatter’s parody in Alice – Twinkle, twinkle little bat!/ How I wonder what you’re at!/ Up above the world you fly,/Like a tea tray in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
How could he see where to go,
If you did not twinkle so?

In the dark blue sky you keep,
Often through my curtains peep
For you never shut your eye,
Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark
Lights the traveler in the dark,
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Books I’m looking forward to

As if I didn’t have enough sources of new books & more than enough to read on the tbr shelves, I’ve recently discovered NetGalley. This is a website that supplies free pre-publication e-books for reviewers, bloggers & anyone who promotes books & reading. I’ve already enjoyed reading several books from NetGalley including Martin Edwards’ The Frozen Shroud & The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo.

I’ve recently downloaded several books to be published over the next few months that I’m very excited about. John Guy is a well-known historian who has written biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots & Thomas Becket. His new book, published in July, is The Children of Henry VIII. As I’m always interested in another book about the Tudors & I’ve read & enjoyed Guy’s other books, I’m looking forward to this very much.

A first novel to be published in July, Letters from Skye, by Jessica Brockmole, immediately caught my attention. It ticks so many boxes – Skye, set during WWI & WWII, a poet, letters & a mysterious disappearance. Already, without having read a word, it has echoes for me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, The Glass Guardian by Linda Gillard & Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson. Here’s the blurb from Amazon,

March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet and a fisherman’s wife, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s bucolic Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when a fan letter arrives from an American college student, David Graham.As the two strike up a correspondence – sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets – their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I moves across Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he comes back alive.
June 1940: More than twenty years later, at the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for her best friend, a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against finding love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. And after a nearby bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter, sent decades before by a stranger named David Graham, remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover who David is and where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago . . .

I’ve always been fascinated by nuns & movies featuring nuns are among my absolute favourites. So, I was so pleased to be offered a copy of Veiled Desires by Maureen A Sabine which is published in August. This is an exploration of the way nuns have been portrayed in the movies from the 1940s to the present day. Among the movies discussed are Black Narcissus (that’s Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh on the cover), The Nun’s Story (Audrey Hepburn & the most distinguished cast of Sisters & Reverend Mothers ever seen in a movie, I think – Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Dame Edith Evans, Rosalie Crutchley & Mildred Dunnock), In This House of Brede (Diana Rigg, Pamela Brown & Gwen Watford) & Change of Habit (Mary Tyler Moore with Elvis Presley as a doctor!). And those are just my favourites. Other movies include Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, Sea Wife & The Bells of St Mary’s.

My only problem is stopping myself from reading all three books straight away! I like to read & review books as close as I can to the publication date so I’m trying to forget that these gems are on my e-reader until it’s closer to publication day. Wish me luck!