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Fair Maids Of February

Monday March 2nd, weather same as it was an hour ago

Saturday, 28th March, a cool, still, calm day; grey cushiony clouds netted in a web of gilt, light the colour of candlelight. We drove out to Duncton to visit the famous native daffodils. This is all heathland, sandy underfoot, deadened, soundless walking through the tall pinewoods of Duncton Common, fenced transition to Lavington, the National Trust's purist swathes of last year's heather. Not quite the season for adders, but plenty of birds. At Burton House we admired the old Norman church, with some remarkable C16 brasses, including Lady Elizabeth Goring, kneeling at prayer in a heraldic tabard and riding dress. Why the male attire? Lost in the mists of time, but she's the only woman dressed like this on any C16 memorial in England (It says here, in the guide provided). Shallow indents in the stone show where her husband and her children used to be pinned. Further on, by a clear murmuring, winding stream, sheaves of perfect snowdrops warned us we'd come too early for the show on the headland above. Darn it, the host, the throng beneath the trees all present but all but a handful still firmly sheathed. Never mind, even one small native daffodil, candlelight trumpet, gold rays, freshly unfurled, is easily worth a walk in the woods.

Shock, horror, the pub at Graffam, The Foresters' Arms (more heraldry) is SHUT. As in foreclosed, as of 12 Feb, with the sticker for the Good Pub Guide 2009 still in the window. We suspect the proud insistence on "Traditional Hours" may have been the leasees' undoing. You just can't not be open all afternoon, especially at weekends, when every other pub in the countryside has capitulated. So, anyway, we had sandwiches and coffee at the village shop instead, and probably were no worse off. See that tally up at the top? That's my lenten alcohol fast. Can't say I feel hugely renewed or purified yet, but I'm sure it's going to do me good.

The Art Of Murder

Monday 2nd March, frost on the grass at seven, bright crisp morning of early spring.

The Art Of Murder, Jose Carlos Somoza. Deserves a post all of its own. Compelling, penetrating, extraordinary. To my mind a considerable advance on The Athenian Murders: far less self-consciously clever, far more immersive. Somoza takes on the phenomenon of Modern Art (ie, roughly, non-figurative to conceptual, latter part of C20 to present day), as an index of moral nullity, in a futuristic setting where human beings who have elected to become "canvases" for fashionable artists, have become staggeringly valuable objects. Need I tell you that a curiously substantial proportion of these canvases are adolescent or pre-pubertal girls and boys? That they are generally displayed nude, in brutally stressful, titillating poses? Already there's a big undercover market for the horrific, low-rent version of this trade in exquisitely altered and contorted living bodies, now someone has started butchering really valuable works. . .

For me, don't know if Somoza would agree, there's a powerful subtext about the massively profitable edifice of modern art, as the replacement, or the current form, of religion, and specifically the Catholic Church: the world of The Art Of Murder is dominated by corrupt cardinals, fraudulent miracles, deranged saints, a bizarre, suffering God. A fanatical Inquisitor, and a troubled unbeliever form the traditional pair of investigators; the two main characters on the other side of the action are Bruno van Tysch, at once a monstrous God, priest and sacrifice; and Clara Reyes, the iron-willed, utterly dedicated young "canvas" who finds a route to true transcendence in the fake revelations and impossible (profit-driven) demands of her Church. It's not a criticism to say the mystery is no mystery: this is not a puzzle, it's a fantastic spectacle, painted on the "canvas" of C21 Europe's beloved police-procedural serial-killer story. The dismount, however is a slight disappointment, as the void closes and "normal services" are resumed. The monstrous God/priest Bruno turns out to be rather un-interesting, and his relationship with Clara never really goes anywhere. So, four stars not five on one reading. If I was reviewing, I'd read it twice of course, and might well see things differently

The Art Of Murder is presented as a thriller, but I read it slowly because I didn't want to leave Somoza's repellent, fascinating world. Highly reccommended. I don't know if it was noticed in genre circles, but if I'd known about this when it came out in translation (2004), I'd have been lobbying hard for both the Tiptree jury and the Clarke jury to take it on board.