Detective Fiction, Fiction, Reviews, Romantic Fiction

The [Real] Soundtrack for The Phantom of the Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber has a lot to answer for: cashing in on the Bible (Jesus Christ, Superstar), writing an entire musical about Thomas the Tank Engine (Starlight Express), forcing us all to think about T.S. Eliot’s senescent ditties (Cats)…the list goes on. But possibly the worst thing he has done is to superimpose a bunch of pop tunes over Le Fantôme de l’Opera. The novel was already a musical, a much better one.

Le Fantôme de l’Opera (first published as a serial 1909-1910) is not only a gothic horror story but also a paean to and a parody of grand opéra, the spectacle that was an important part of Parisian society for much of the nineteenth century. Before Gaston Leroux turned to writing fiction full time, he was a lawyer, an international correspondent and…a theater critic. He loved music and his brother Joseph (to whom Le Fantôme de l’Opera is dedicated), who was a singer. Leroux’s novel is full of references to the operas, singers, rumors, lore, technical details and customs associated with the Paris Opera of the nineteenth century. The novel is crammed with allusions to particular dances, operas and arias that echo or foreshadow the novel’s own events, and the melodramatic plot is itself worthy of Eugène Scribe, the librettist behind some of the best known operas of the age. Jann Matlock, in (2011) introduction to the Penguin Classics English translation by Mireille Ribière, observes his recreation of the grand opera scene:

“Leroux’s novel reproduces in astonishing ways exactly that ‘heure historique’ of the opera house of the Third Republic (1870-1940)…It is an extraordinary evocation of the fantasies that surrounded that space and that population of thousands of spectators, performers and workers who came together every day in central Paris to fabricate jointly a dream world of spectacle.”

Grand Opera was extremely popular in Europe and America in the Victorian era. It was an extravagant experience, each production divided into four or five acts and requiring huge casts, elaborate stage sets, beautiful costumes and at least one ballet interlude and a vast supporting staff. Many of the most famous works of grand opera are no longer staged today because of their staggering scale, length and expense.  By the 1880s, when Le Fantôme de l’Opera is set, the form was yielding to verismo, a genre whose plots deal with ordinary people rather than gods and kings. Even so, a new generation of French composers continued to produce works on the old grand scale: works like Jules Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore (1877) and Gounod’s Polyeucte (1878) and Ernest Reyer’s Sigurd (1884), all of which are mentioned in Le Fantôme.

Degas’ Ballet of the Nuns (1876), which depicts a performance of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, one of the earliest sensations of Grand Opera.

The novel’s primary setting is the fabulously ornate Palais Garnier—seat of the Paris Opera from 1875. As in a cut-away drawing, the book provides a glimpse of the theater at every level, particularly the people and machinery working behind the scenes: the directors, the men who carried props, the female concierges, the little dancers, costumiers, rat-catchers, even the man who kept horses reserved for tricks on stage.  Although Gaston Leroux invented some sections of the building, most of the descriptions are recognizable today. In the novel, for example, there is a lake under the opera house, in reality this is an enormous concrete cistern. When the Phantom drops a chandelier on the crowd during a performance, it would have reminded the novel’s original readers of the time in 1896 when a heavy counterweight fell during a performance of the opera Hellé, killing a concierge.  When the heroine Christine and her lover Raoul have a rooftop assignation, the scene would be recognizable to every Parisian:

The shadow that had followed them still clung to their heels, lying low on the roof, reaching with its black wings over the metal crossroads, stealing by the tanks, skirting silently round the domes; but the trusting young lovers suspected nothing when at last they sat down under the mighty protection of Apollo thrusting his monumental lyre against the crimson sky with bronze grandeur.”

A big part of grand opera was ballet. The very first chapter “The Ghost!” begins with a scene that could be a Degas painting:

Suddenly, the dressing-room of Sorelli, one of the ballerinas, was invaded by half-a-dozen young ladies of the corps de ballet, just back from dancing Polyeucte. They burst into the room in a state of great agitation, some of them laughing excessively and unnaturally, others uttering cries of terror.”

Dance Class (1874) by Edgar Degas

Leroux gives a description of the lavish and erotic paintings on the wall of the Foyer de la Dance, the hall where wealthy subscribers gathered to meet the young dancers and arrange sexual favors in return for money and protection. The dancers, nicknamed in the novel and in life ‘les petits rats’, were generally girls from impoverished backgrounds who danced as a way to earn a small living and to attract the attention of rich patrons, probably with an eye to rising in the social scale either through marriage or as courtesans. Degas, another artist obsessed with capturing all aspects of the opera, captured les petits rats and their predators in hundreds of paintings—you can watch an introduction to the exhibition Degas at the Opera here.

…the Count was, as usual, in the Ballet Room with Sorelli. She often asked him to stay with her until she went on stage, sometimes even handing him the little gaiters that she wore while descending the stairs to protect her shiny satin dancing shoes and her immaculate flesh-colored tights. We must indulge Sorelli for she had lost her mother.

Le foyer de la Danse

Likewise, Leroux mentions several singers of the day. One of these was the popular soprano Madame Marie Miolan-Carvalho (1827-1895), whom Phil Riley, in his book about the 1929 silent film adaptation, , suggests Miolan-Carvalho was probably the model for La Carlotta—Christine Daaé’s arch-rival. Our heroine Christine Daaé actually shares the stage with beloved baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure (1830-1914), the great singer-actor Marie-Gabrielle Krauss (1842-1906) and Denise Bloch, probably referring to Rosine Bloch (1844-1891) who was a beautiful woman with a warm contralto but without much stage presence. Leroux’s own heroine Christine Daaé is modelled on one of the most famous sopranos of the era, Christine Nilsson (1843-1921). Like Nilsson, his heroine is Swedish and comes from a humble background, getting her musical start by playing the fiddle and singing at country fairs. Nilsson was especially famous for playing Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.    

Christine Nilsson

Faust is a thematically significant reference throughout the novel. The premise of Gounod’s opera (based on Michel Carré’s dramatization of Goethe’s poem) is that Mephistopheles grants old Dr. Faustus a second youth on the condition that Faust will later join him in Hell. The rejuvenated Faust then falls in love with a girl named Marguerite who is already being courted by young Siébel. Marguerite is seduced by Faust but his love brings her nothing but pain, leading her to kill their illegitimate child and so to be condemned to death for infanticide. Faust then tries to rescue her from prison but she rejects his tainted help, preferring to be ‘saved’ in the larger sense by dying and going to Heaven.  In Le Fantôme de L’Opera, Christine longs to play the star role of Marguerite but the lead soprano Carlotta is too jealous to let her try. It is only when the Phantom arranges for the lead soprano to suffer a spooky mishap that Christine is able to perform—to great acclaim: Christine’s audience is particularly impressed by her rendition of the dramatic finale , when Marguerite refuses to be rescued by Faust and Mephistopheles. Christine’s own life seems to mirror Marguerite’s: she has become the love object of a deathly, magical figure and his obsessive love threatens to doom her. And she has the equivalent of Siébel in Raoul, a sincere young lover in whose efforts to extricate are ineffectual against his rival’s diabolical power.

Poster for the first performance in Italy of ‘Faust’, opera in five acts with music by Charles Gounod on French-language libretto (booklet) by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on the play ‘Faust and Marguerite’ by Michel Carré, in turn adapted from ‘Faust’ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Italy, Milan, November 11, 1862. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).

The Phantom Playlist

Given that so many pieces are referred to in Le Fantôme de l’Opera, I thought I would put together a list of some of them and why they are relevant to the plot. Happy listening!

  1. Danse macabre (‘Dance of Death’)  by Camille Saint-Saëns  This is a tone poem that began as setting for a poem by Henri Cazalis that alluded to the artistic allegory of the Late Middle Ages in which the figure of Death summons people from all walks of life to the ‘dance’ of death. Death is central to Leroux’s Gothic plot. The Phantom himself, though living, has a deformity that makes him seem dead. Christine and Raoul meet in a graveyard and seem to hear Christine’s dead father pay the fiddle there.

“The air of this wintry corner of Brittany was filled with the fragrance of the flowers, glorious red roses that seemed to have blossomed that very morning in the snow, bringing a breath of life to the dead. For death was all around and had even spilled out above ground. Skeletons and skulls by the hundred were piled up against the wall of the church and held there by flimsy wire netting, which left the macabre edifice entirely exposed.”

2) “Rien! En vain j’interroge” In the opening lines of Faust by Charles Gounod, Dr. Faust laments that he has  spent his life uselessly. Faust is an analogue to Erik the Phantom.

3) The final trio from Faust by Charles Gounod. Marguerite, condemned to death for the murder of her illegitimate child, ignores Faust’s entreaties and rejects Mephistopheles offers of escape from prison and execution.

Yet nothing compared to the unearthly power of her singing in the prison scene and final trio of Faust that she performed in place of Carlotta, who was indisposed that night. Nothing quite like this had ever been heard or seen before! Daaé revealed a new Marguerite, a Marguerite of a splendour and radiance hitherto unimagined. Moved beyond words, the whole house cheered and clapped ecstatically, while Christine sobbed, fainting in the arms of her fellow performers.

4) Carnaval from the Suite for Orchestra No. 1 by Ernest Guiraud [The Carnaval is at 23.32 in the video below] prefigures the masked ball where the Phantom appears as Christine and Raoul meet. Carnival or Shrovetide is often celebrated by masked balls and a period of dancing and feasting. Giraud himself was a native of New Orleans, where Carnival is still celebrated in style.

Illustration by Andre Castaigne of the Phantom dressed up as the Red Death for Carnivale

5) Valse lente: L’Escarpolette (Slow Waltz: The Swing) from Sylvia by Léo Delibes. In this ballet that was first performed at the Palais Garnier in 1876, the chaste huntress nymph Sylvia falls in love with a shepherd boy named Aminta but is abducted by the evil Orion who carries her off to his cave (she’s eventually saved and reunited with her lover). Notice Orion lurking in the forest at 3:57 in the video below. In Le Fantôme de L’opéra  the chaste Christine is abducted by the Phantom and eventually saved by and reunited with her young lover Raoul.

6) Coppélia by Léo Delibes. In this ballet, Franz casts aside his love for Swanhilde for a beautiful doll until Swanhilde shows him his mistake. As Ribière says in her notes to the translation, “Erik’s feats as a maker of automata in Istanbul and the whole make-believe world of opera are evoked by Delibes’s Coppélia .”

7) “Je vieux vivre” from Romeo et Juliette (1867) by Charles Gounod is an aria in which Juliette glories in her first love. This reflects Christine’s happiness in the pure love she feels for Raoul, as opposed to the dread she feels at the Phantom.

8) “Amour, ranime mon courage”  from Act IV of Romeo et Juliette, in which Juliette decides, to avoid marrying Paris, to drink the potion that will make her seem dead. Like Juliette, Christine must choose between rival lovers with potentially fatal consequences; just as Juliette is must steel herself to take the potion, Christine determines to marry the Phantom in order to prevent mass murder.

“Ah! How we must pity those who did not have the good fortune to hear Christine Daaé as Juliette, admire her graceful candour, be touched to the quick by her seraphic voice and feel their spirits soar with her own above the tombs of the Verona lovers in the final ‘O Lord! Lord! Lord! Forgive us!’  

8) Scene de la Crau from Mireille by Gounod — Mireille wanders through the desert determined to reach Saintes-Marie where her lover Vincent has been wounded. In the last part of the novel, Raoul must wander through an artificial desert to get to Christine, who is in danger.

9) “De moi je veux bannir” from La Roi de Lahore. In Act IV., Sîta Princess of Indra mourns the death of her husband Alim, King of Lahore. This opera premiered at the Palais Garnier in 1877. It features in the novel when the chief machinist is found hanging “between a flat and scene from Le Roi de Lahore”–in a storeroom where old scenery is kept.

10) Lazarus, oder Die Feier der Auferstehung (Lazarus, or The Feast of the Resurrection) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), an incomplete piece (lacking the third act) published posthumously 1865. In Leroux’s novel it is a piece associated with Christine’s dead father, who was a fiddler. In the quote below they are in a graveyard and seem to hear him playing it once more.


  “I scarcely knew what to think of the unforgettable sound we heard and which—were it not coming down from the heavens—revealed nothing of its earthly origins. No instrument nor hand holding the bow was anywhere to be seen. Oh! I will never forget that sublime melody. It was Lazarus, which the old fiddler used to play for us at times of sadness and pious contemplation. Had Christine’s Angel existed, he could not have played better on her father’s fiddle, that night. We were so entranced by Jesus’ Invocation that I almost expected to see his grave open. The idea also came to me that the old man had been buried with his violin and, in all truth, I cannot say how far, during those doleful, yet glorious moments in this small, remote provincial graveyard, standing beside those skulls grinning with their motionless jaws…no, I cannot say how far my imagination wandered and where it stopped.”

11) “Tamino mein, o welch ein Glück” from The Magic Flute by Mozart. In this scene, a magic flute helps Tamino and Pamina pass unscathed through chambers of fire and water. Leroux’s chapter “The Magic Fiddle” is a reference to this, though in this case the magic is rather black.

12) ‘Ballade d’Adamastor’ is from L’Africaine by Giacomo Meyerbeer, first performed by the Paris Opera company on 28 April 1865. Adamastor was a mythical giant in the Portuguese epic The Lusiads representing the dangers that Vasco da Gama had to overcome when he rounded the Cape of Good Hope (1497). In the novel the two opera directors Moncharmin and Richard find themselves harassed by the Phantom’s monstrous machinations.  

“The dust-covers thrown over the surrounding seats suggested an angry sea whose dull, grey-green waves had been suddenly stilled by secret order of the Phantom of the Sea—or Adamastor, as we all know. Moncharmin and Richard were as if shipwrecked amid the motionless turbulence of a cloth sea. Like sailors who have abandoned ship desperately trying to swim ashore, they made for the boxes on the left.”

13) “Il Reverie du soir, a Blidah” from Suite algérienne by Camille Saint-Saëns. This piece foreshadows the exotic oriental backstory in which Erik gets up to no good in Persia.  

14) The overture to Sigurd by Ernest Reyer. At the gala performance where Christine makes her debut, the audience hears “the beautiful overture to Sigurd”.  This popular French opera, like Wagner’s Ring Trilogy, is based on the Nibelungenlied and Eddas. It also reflects the novel’s Scandinavian influence. Christine Daaé, for example, is Swedish and Erik is a name derived from Old Norse meaning ‘Eternal Ruler of All’.

15) Marche funèbre d’une marionette by Charles Gounod.  The cute storyline behind the music is that a marionette dies in a duel, a funeral march commences, mourners get refreshments and then everyone goes home.  It was used as the theme music for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also for a horror radio program called The Witch’s Tale. Here it possibly indicates the whole artifice of opera and the Phantom’s formidable abilities as puppet master.

16) “Selva opaca” from William Tell (1829) by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). In Act II scene II Matilda sings, “Dark forest, sad and wild wilderness,/ I prefer you to the splendours of the palace” as she hangs around waiting for her lover Arnold, who is Swiss and therefore should hate her as she is of the occupying Austrian race. This aria reflects the secret, dangerous love of Christine and Raoul, as their relationship rouse the Phantom’s envious fury.

In short, the said instrument was wide-ranging, powerful and perfectly tuned. But no one could have said to Carlotta what Rossini told Krauss after she had sung ‘Selva opaca’ in German for him: ‘You sing with your soul, my child, and your soul is beautiful!’”

17) “Il va venir!” from La Juive by Jacques Halévy. The Jewess was one of the most popular grand operas of all and tells the story of forbidden love between a Jewish woman and a Christian man. In this aria, from the beginning of Act II, Rachel is at a Passover celebration awaiting the arrival of ‘Samuel’, with whom she is in love, little knowing his real name is Léopold and that he is a Christian.

Daaé was invited to temporarily fill the vacancy and she sang La Juive to rapturous applause.”

18) The bolero from Les Vêpres siciliennes (1855)  by Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901) a bolero sung by a soon-to-be-married heroine, unconscious that her wedding bells will signal the bloody massacre of French occupiers and her own father-in-law. Gabrielle Krauss sings this on gala night, foreshadowing the end of Le Fantôme, where Christine’s decision to marry could potentially end in murder and mayhem.

19) “Il segreto per essere felici” (a brindisi or drinking song) from Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti. This aria, sung by a woman playing a ‘breeches role’ (man’s part), ironically ends with the whole party being poisoned by Lucrezia. In the novel, Denise Bloch sings this ‘seize the day’ aria at the gala where Christine shines, thus foreshadowing tragedy at Christine’s own wedding.

Anne Howells

20) “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti, e son venuto” from Don Giovanni by Mozart. This aria is the thrilling finale of one of the greatest operas ever, ending as the conscienceless rake Don Giovanni cries out in pain and terror as he is dragged down to Hell. The Phantom of Leroux’s novel is clearly associated with this hero/villain. He is composing a masterpiece called Don Juan triumphant. But when Christine disobeys the Phantom’s injunction never to look at his disfigured face, his identification becomes much more explicit. He reacts with fury:

Well, are you satisfied? Quite a handsome fellow, eh? When a woman has seen me, as you have, she is mine. She loves me forever. Rather like Don Juan, you see!” He drew himself up to his full height with his hand on his hip, shaking the hideous thing that was his head, and roared, ‘Look at me! I am Don Juan triumphant!'”

The original cover of the book published in 1910

Heroes, Obituary

In Appreciation of Felipe Gutterriez

Last week, our friend Felipe Guttierez died. Ever since, I have been thinking about his life and what he meant to me. And I realized that, even though I only met him in person twice, he meant an awful lot. There are a few human beings who I look up to as heroes, and he was one of them.

It is not hard to recognize a beautiful soul, even if you rarely meet them. The composer Arvo Pärt knew Benjamin Britten by his music, which was marked by a distinctive purity, something Pärt himself strove to achieve. When Britten died, Pärt was moved to dedicate an elegiac piece to the only composer of that age with whom he felt affinity. “Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten” conveys the sense of a massive bereavement, as if Earth herself were mourning the loss of some rare and necessary soul. When Felipe Gutteriez died last week, I thought of this piece because Felipe had exactly that kind of soul.

These days, the word ‘virtue’ is a slight, but it didn’t used to be that way. Ancient Roman ‘virtus’ literally means ‘manliness’ but it referred specifically to how a perfect man behaved in the public sphere. To possess virtus, a soldier had to demonstrate military prowess, prudence, justice, self-control and courage, all for the public good rather than personal glory. Charlemagne’s Code of Chivalry listed the sort of things a virtuous knight should be: humble, kind, loyal, honest, self-controlled and a defender of the weak. Similarly, the Bushidō code enjoined Samurai to demonstrate seven great virtues: integrity, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor and loyalty.

According to these ancient codes, Felipe was a virtuous man. And when you consider that he existed in a culture that rewards self-serving bluster, that fetishizes violence and that puts private profit before public good, you begin to understand how rare that is. He led a virtuous life, not so that people would praise him but because he considered it right.

Felipe had the fortitude of a general and the tenderness of a mother. He worked hard but made it look easy. He suffered but never complained; even when he was in terrible pain, he wouldn’t mention it to friends because he abhorred pity. His discipline was unearthly. He rarely swore or raised his voice or said any insensitive thing (though anyone who made him angry would not soon forget it). He praised others generously but assiduously avoided attracting attention to his own achievements. He loved his wife and dogs with a whole-hearted, protective devotion. As a professor he considered his professional duties a sacred trust: students and colleagues had a willing ear, an erudite resource, and a sympathetic guide. And he was a perfect friend.  

This all sounds like an exaggeration because this kind of virtue is difficult to maintain day after day. But it’s not an exaggeration, it’s the truth. Felipe’s sense of duty was such a defining feature that it’s hard to imagine him without it.

In person, he was graceful and dignified. Even in casual conversations, he listened carefully, as if he were a composer listening to music attentive to all the elements of a complex score. He considered what you were saying carefully and gave a response that was infused with empathy, humor and insight. And he was invariably smiling, either with real enjoyment or rueful wonder or regret.

One lovable thing about Felipe was his enjoyment of simple things. He was a professor at one of America’s most prestigious universities and so widely read so that he could speak knowledgably about law, philosophy, rhetorical theory and Science Fiction. He was fascinated by ideas involving possibility and hope—scientific developments with far-reaching implications for the future of humankind. And even though he could talk about all that, what he really liked were capybaras.

Native to South America, capybaras are the world’s large living rodents. They are very sociable and tend to live in large family groups in forested areas near large bodies of water. They have barrel-shaped bodies and webbed feet and intelligent eyes. They’re excellent swimmers and wallowers and sleepers. They are also mysteriously attractive to other species, including us. We are all– cattle tyrant, crocodile, butterfly, monkey—drawn to the serenity that radiates from the capybara core. The main attraction at Izu Shaboten Zoo in Japan, for example, is a large group of capybaras, who occasionally enjoy hotsprings infused with citrus or petals.

In the words of the jurist and sage Rumi, “Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.” In his appreciation of capybaras, of verbal gracenotes and of kindness, Felipe was one who saw. He insisted on the value of caring and kindness and he wordlessly insisted, gently and firmly, with his whole being, on the possibility of a higher life.

What is even more remarkable than the fact he existed is that he should have met a soul of equal breadth and beauty in Eileen Jones. And as distressing as Felipe’s loss is, I only have to imagine a universe where he did not find Eileen to feel wonder and gratitude for this universe, where miracles sometimes do happen.


Gorgeous Lorca

How do you distract yourself from the appalling vistas of Life as we know it right now? One way is to ameliorate reality with large doses of art. One of the pleasures of the last few months’ sequestering is getting around to reading the poetry of Federíco García Lorca, one of the giants of Twentieth-century Spanish literature. Just this week a new biography has been released titled Deep Song: The Life and Work of Federíco García Lorca by Stephen Roberts. Although I haven’t read the biography yet, it’s a good occasion to share a pequeña mordida of this amazing poet and playwright.

Lorca with his little sister Isabel, who later became a professor and writer.

Between 1921 and 1927 Lorca wrote a series of 18 poems that he described as a “tragic poem of Andalusia”. Publishing them in 1928 as Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads) , he shot to fame. Only eight years later he would be assassinated in murky circumstances, but his body of plays and poetry live on and have influenced generations of writers, artists and musicians, including Leonard Cohen.

Here is the first poem of Romancero Gitano, dedicated to his sister Conchita.

Ballad of the Moon, Moon

For Conchita García Lorca

The moon came to the forge
in her spikenard bustle.
The boy gazes at her, gazes.
The boy is gazing.

In the agitated air
the moon sways her arms,
showing, sensual and pure,
her hard tin breasts.

“Run away, moon, moon, moon.
If the gypsies came,
they would turn your heart
into necklaces and silver rings.”

“Child, let me dance.
When the gypsies come,
they will find you on the anvil
with your little eyes shut tight.”

“Run away, moon, moon, moon.
I can hear their horses.”
“Child, let me be, don’t trample
my starched whiteness.”

The rider was galloping closer
beating upon the drum of the plain.
Inside the forge the boy
had his eyes shut tight.

Across the olive grove,

Bronze and dream, the gypsies came.
Their heads held high,
their eyes half shut.

How the nightjar sings!
Ay, how she sings in the tree!
The moon goes through the sky
leading a boy by the hand.

In the forge they weep,

wailing, the gypsies.
The air set sail, set sail.
The air is setting sail.

You can listen to the poem here, set to music. 

Detective Fiction, Fiction, Translated fiction

Fictional Detectives in International Flavors

Why are detective stories so appealing? I asked myself. John, from his position on the couch, suggested that it is the promise of a payoff. On reflection, this seems feasible. First of all there is intellectual satisfaction: the book begins with a question and—after several suspenseful pages of mulled-over possibilities—it ends with an answer. Simultaneous symmetry and solution! Then there is the emotional payoff: the initial outrage is assuaged or satisfied by the pursuit, if not always the punishment, of justice.

Whatever the secret of their appeal, mystery stories have been popular for centuries in many different cultures. Here is a sample of detectives, historic and contemporary, from around the world.

  1. The Arabian Nights
“It was the butler in the library with a scimitar, wasn’t it.”

The 1001 Nights contains a very old crime story now known as “The Three Apples.”  The original source of the tales in The 1001 Nights is a mystery in itself. The Galland Manuscript, the earliest known source of many of the stories, dates from about the fifteenth century and is of Syrian provenance. That said, many of the stories seem to come from much older folk tales, with echoes of Arabic, Persian, Greek, Indian, Turkish and Jewish folklore. The story of the three apples, for example, portrays real historical figures of the 8th century CE: the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid (al-Rashid means “The Just”) and his vizier Ja’far Ibn Yahya. “The Three Apples” relates how a fisherman hauls a locked chest out of the River Tigris. He then sells it to the Harun Al-Rashid, who opens it up only to find the dismembered body of a young woman.  Al-Rashid tasks Ja’far Ibn Yahya with finding the culprit, and so begins an investigation full of twists, turns and unlikely coincidences. You can read Richard Burton’s translation here.

2. China’s Gong’an Fiction: 公案小说

As usual, China was there early. Gong’an ‘crime-case’ fiction was a popular entertainment of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties. Often performed orally or as puppet shows, they described government magistrates solving crimes in the course of their official duties. The stories often include supernatural elements and martial arts. In 1940, an 18th-century collection of gong’an stories Di Gong’An was discovered in a second-hand bookstore in Tokyo. It followed the adventures of Di Renjie (630-700), who was a county magistrate and statesman of the Tang Court.  This was translated into English by the Dutch sinologist Robert Van Gulik as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (1949). Subsequently, Van Gulik wrote and published many fictional stories with Judge Dee as the protagonist.  

3. Denmark and The Rector of Veilbye

A century and a half before scandi-noir was really a thing, Steen Steenson Blicher published The Rector of Veilbye (1829), a novella based on a true murder case from 1626, gleaned partly from a book about Church history and partly from oral histories. The story is told through a series of diary entries by Erik Sørensen, the judge and sheriff of the community of Vejlby, who investigates the short-tempered village rector Søren Qvist accused of murdering his servant. The story is complicated by the fact that Erik Sørensen wants to marry Qvist’s daughter Mette.

4. Parisian Turpitude with Jules Maigret

Between 1931 and 1972, Georges Simenon  wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories starring Jules Amedée François Maigret, commissaire of the Paris Brigade Criminelle, a bear-like man distinguished by a thick overcoat, pipe and bowler hat. He solves cases less through ratiocination than through intuition, he often says, “I never think.” As he lurches inevitably and reluctantly to collaring his criminal, we get a view of Paris or (if he’s on holiday) the French countryside.

Jean Gabin was probably best known for his cinematic portrayal of Maigret

5. Death in a White Tie with Roderick Alleyn

There are, obviously, lots of British crime writers. One of the Queens of Crime in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Golden Age of English crime fiction, was New Zealander Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982). The protagonist of all 32 of her detective novels is Roderick Alleyn, Detective Chief-Inspector in the CID at Scotland Yard and younger brother to a baron. Like Dorothy Sayers’ Sir Peter Whimsey, Alleyn is a ‘gentleman detective’ both in the sense that he is a member of the British gentry and also in that he is characterized by good and courteous conduct.

6. Hard-boiled Spade

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) only wrote five novels in a short space of time but they remain some of the classics of the genre and continue to have a huge influence on books and movies. Employed as a Pinkerton operative, he drew on his own experience and claimed that all his characters were based on people he knew. Probably his most famous detective is Sam Spade, the hero of The Maltese Falcon, who was later played on screen by Humphrey Bogart. Hammett wrote of Spade in his introduction to the 1934 edition of The Maltese Falcon:

Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

7. Carvalho, the Spanish Gourmet

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939-2003) wrote 13 novels featuring Pepe Carvalho, a 50-year-old ex-Communist detective who is also a passionate and expert gourmet cook (several of the novels even include succulent recipes). Carvalho was born in Galicia but subsequently moved to Barcelona. He has a lot of love affairs but can never to commit to one relationship. For some reason it is difficult to find e-books of translations in English.

8. Montalbano and Malfeasance in Sicily

In The Shape of Water (La forma dell’acqua 1994), Andrea Camillieri (1925-2019) introduced the world to Inspector Salvo Montalbano, named in honor of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Montalbano bridges cultures; he negotiates a complex web of relationships characteristic of Sicilian society, and deals efficiently with outsiders from the mainland, who have their own way of doing things. Montalbano is the protagonist of 28 novels and nine collections of short stories. The TV series adapted from the books is very popular in Italy and in 2003 Camillieri’s home town Porto Empedocle even changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata in honor of the fictional town featured in the Montalbano novels. The decision was revoked in 2009, though, which somehow seems perfectly Sicilian.

9. Nefarious Africa

Former lawyer, High Court Judge and women’s rights activist Unity Dow has also managed to write four brilliant novels dealing with contemporary social issues in Botswana. Which makes me wonder if she sleeps at all. In The Screaming of the Innocent, a young girl appears to have been eaten by a lion but a police investigation uncovers some alarming goings on that unfortunately seem to be based on actual practices.

10. Officer Lituma and his Peruvian Puzzles

Mario Vargas Llosa (b.1936) is one of Latin America’s most significant novelists and among the many genres he has aced is whodunnits. In 1986 he published ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Who Killed Palomino Molero?), which begins with the discovery of the brutally murdered body of a young recruit in northern Peru. Officer Lituma and his partner Lieutenant Silva defy their higher-ups to solve the case. Lituma appears again in Death in the Andes (1993), in the tiny Andean community of Naccos where he has been sent as punishment for disobedience. During his stint there he must investigate the sudden disappearance of three men. It may be that Shining Path is behind it, or it may be something even more sinister.

Fiction, Interviews, Romantic Fiction, Writing Technique

Craggan Dhu: Time Will Tell, an Interview with Kay McKenzie Cooke

A while ago I interviewed New Zealand writer Kay McKenzie Cooke about the process of writing her first novel. Well, I’m happy to report that it has been published and is ripe for the reading. To celebrate the occasion, I invited her back to talk about Craggan Dhu:Time Will Tell, a sweeping intergenerational tale of love, murder and sleeping secrets set in the far south of New Zealand.

1.      Congratulations on the huge achievement of publishing your novel! In your own words, how would you describe the book?

Thanks, Katherine.

I’ll avoid going down the synopsis track. Instead I’ll surrender to the enticement of the invite to describe ‘in your own words’ and attempt to tackle this question by boiling it down to what I personally think the book ended up being about. I believe one aspect is the impact of truth and time on people and their relationships. It touches on held secrets and the potential damage that can result from holding on to them too tightly. It also describes how, instead of the devastation one might expect when potentially damaging secrets are given up, there can simply be relief from which positive benefits are reaped.

In the novel, family / whanau lines are traced, tracked and developed. The book follows a fairly loose historical thread to reveal how in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, events from the past can intersect and make an impact. It’d be fair to say that this is a story about people and the way that events they have no control over can make or break.

The characters in the book are given both first-person and third-person viewpoints and allowed the freedom to speak from either the past or the present in order to explain, or reveal, truths and reactions.

Place is also a feature, with the seaside town of Craggan Dhu featuring as background.


2.   In some ways the central character is Craggan Dhu itself, the (fictional) small South Island town that links all of the main characters. This foregrounding of a small town and entering into the psychological life of its residents is unusual, though I can think of two famous precendents in George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life and Garrison Keilor’s Lake Woebegone Days. Was there a reason you chose to place so much emphasis, at least in the title, on the town?

I’ve read Middlemarch and loved it. Not as familiar with Lake Woebegone Days, apart from the radio episodes I’ve heard once or twice. The 1960’s TV soap, Peyton Place also comes to mind!

The fictional Southland — or to be even more precise, Western Southland — town of Craggan Dhu (oft-times fondly referred by the book’s characters as Craggie) was always going to be the canvas upon which my book would be drawn, painted, sketched … It helped that it was a place I didn’t have to put much effort at all into imagining, being already housed in my memory and mind. The reason for that is because the fictional town of Craggan Dhu is loosely based on the town, Orepuki, where I lived as a small child.

Wild coastline near Orepuki, the model for Craggan Dhu

I know from my own life how prominently a town can figure in people’s lives. I know this not just in a personal way, but by hearing again and again over many years other ex-residents of my old home town speaking of the town as a character. And I have experienced the almost magical instant bond that can form between strangers; as if you’ve discovered a secret code to unstated commonalities; simply because you learn that they too hailed from your childhood town.

Calling the novel Craggan Dhu (Gaelic for Black Rock) became unavoidable. I did try out different titles, but they never sat right with me. I always came back to the name of the place where the story and characters are largely based. I acknowledge that this is entering the fanciful, but it was like whenever I tried to come up with alternative titles, Craggan Dhu would shoulder them away; shove them off.

Also, I figured that having a central locality for a host of characters in a wide-ranging story, would keep gathered what could potentially be something otherwise scattered. It also helped me in the writing of the book to have a still point. As a writer with so many threads to tie together, having a solid place that I could retreat back to, or launch forward from, was a definite aid.

3.      As a New Zealander, and a South Islander at that, much of the pleasure of reading your book comes from a kind of nostalgic recognition of the speech, mannerisms and habits particular to the rural South Island. At the same time, local references always seem as if they’d be accessible to a reader who is interested in New Zealand life but doesn’t ‘speak kiwi’. I was wondering whether you were writing for either side of this dual readership, one looking in a mirror and the other peering in the window? And if so, were you writing more for one than the other?

You are right in that I was sometimes looking in the mirror and at other times, peering in the window — so true! And I wouldn’t have come up with that myself, so I’m grateful for the gift of this description. It is exactly how I felt writing this book — that at times I was reflecting my own experiences and memories as a Southlander, then at other times, writing from the viewpoint of being outside of this perspective. Was I writing more for one than the other? I am unsure about that. But I’ll acknowledge that I was driven by a perceived need for the voices of people from the bottom of the South Island to be heard. New Zealand is a north-centric country and I’ll accept that wanting (whether consciously or sub-consciously) to address that fact was at the back of my mind when writing this book. I’m glad that you, Katherine, as a reader with a South Island background, enjoyed the familiar flavour. Perhaps in the end, that is all I want to achieve — to give air to a particular place and its people and for readers to engage with what has been created through doing that.

The Southland region is known in Māori as Murihiku, ‘the last joint of the tail’

5.       Most of the book’s many narrators are women. They are concerned with things like motherhood, family, navigating romantic relationships, growing up and growing old. Was it your intention to foreground women or was it something that just ‘happened’ organically as you wrote?

I knew that voicing the return to their small, southern hometown by two ageing, female cousins, was always going to be the novel’s foundation. And I knew there would be a granddaughter coming to stay and that her voice would be important. A historical ‘mystery’ was also something I set out to write into the novel. A historical back story that involved a married couple who had immigrated to New Zealand from Scotland, was also a known. And I knew that there would be a male character who would symbolise something good, or something bad; who would bring romance and/or betrayal to the cousins. That there would be a diary-keeping young girl from the past, was also part of the plot I started out with. These were the knowns. The rest I believe did develop organically.

Writing from a female’s point of view came naturally. Writing intermittently about and from a male’s point of view, happened as I launched myself into the writing. Although this never felt difficult, it was more important for me to write from the familiarity of a female’s p.o.v. I also knew that the characters would be ordinary people whose lives bordered on being a struggle rather than a triumph. I wanted to write about the unspectacular day-to-day being forced to come to face to face with the sudden, the extraordinary, the magical, the mysterious or the unexplained. However, I didn’t want this to happen with bells and whistles — or even smoke and mirrors. I wanted these occurrences to be subtle. To be the kind of episodes or events that arrive when the past quietly intersects the present day to day lives and realities of ordinary people.

William Allsworth, The Emigrants, 1844, London. Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (1992-0022-1)

6.      Without giving too much away, one of the strands of the novel involves Scottish early settlers, immigrants to come to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. It’s an intriguing story and I was wondering whether it has a germ of truth in it?

Purely imaginative. Fully fanciful. However, a useful base for me was the fact that I have Scottish immigrants in my family tree. Some of these people were brought to life for me by stories my late Aunty Lorna would regale. She had a passionate interest in family ancestry and the many conversations I had with her over the years, formed for me a familiarity with my Scottish-border ancestors. This proved useful and authentic solid ground that I could stand on as I flew off (mentally speaking) into the imaginative and fictional.

7.      You’re launching the book when much of the world is still affected by restrictions caused by the spread of COVID-19. I understand New Zealand has effectively eliminated the spread (for now) and that restrictions are lifting. Does that mean there will be a physical book launch some time in the near future?

As I write this today on the 4th of June, there is talk of us moving down to Level One [back to normal apart from border controls] very soon. I did hear mention of the 8th June as a possible date for this change. If that does indeed happen, a launch would be possible! However, I have a poetry book Upturned coming out any day now and I think that will take precedence as far as launches go. Besides, I’d hate to get ‘launch fatigue’ (or cause anyone else to suffer such a thing.) However, never fear, when the paperbacks arrive from Amazon, I shall organise something in the way of celebration.

Soon to be released!

8.      How can people buy your books?

Craggan Dhu: Time Will Tell is available from Amazon as a paperback back for US$9.93 or e-reader for US$2.99).

Note: Postage to New Zealand is very high at the moment, so until this changes, it would be best to order a paperback from me. A paperback from me can be ordered for $20.00 (NZ) plus postage. Email kmckcooke @ gmail. com for details and arrangements.

Upturned is available for pre-order from The Cuba Press for NZ$25.00 (about US$16.00).