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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 7, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Inspector Ian Rutledge, Restaurants, West Side Story

So it's summer. You have the hammock set up in the back yard, or maybe you just have a few minutes to curl up on the sofa with a good book. Have I got books for you.

There's a mystery writer named Charles Todd who is eleven books into an amazingly deep and satisfying series about Inspector Ian Rutledge, a Scotland Yard detective in 1919.

No, let me be more precise: There is a mother-son writing team that uses the name "Charles Todd," which also happens to be the name of the son, who lives in North Carolina. The mother, named Caroline Todd, lives in Delaware.

The setting -- right after World War I, or "the Great War" as they called it then -- is familiar enough to those who have been reading Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mysteries, and both series evoke an era in which the scars of war are keenly felt throughout England.

Only in our Civil War did America ever experience anything like the devastation that World War I brought to Britain, France, and Germany. The hideous losses on the battlefield left behind a generation of widows -- and of broken men who survived the war maimed either physically or mentally.

Ian Rutledge is one of those men. A Scotland Yard detective prior to the war, he served as a captain in the trench warfare, responsible for leading his men in the endless stupid attacks against machine guns that cut them down like wheat.

When his friend, Corporal Hamish McLeod, refused to obey an order for one more meaningless attack, Rutledge had no choice -- under the military law of the time -- but to have him immediately shot for cowardice by a firing squad. He begged Hamish not to force this action, but the man would not budge.

Now, back in England, Inspector Rutledge conceals from everyone but his doctor the fact that he is just the tiniest bit insane: He continuously hears the voice of Hamish inside his head, almost as if Hamish were still alive -- and more than a little annoyed at Rutledge for killing him.

This may seem far-fetched, and it might quickly have become tedious, but the Todds bring it off with sharp dialogue between Rutledge and the man inside his head, balanced with long stretches where Hamish's attitudes and observations are merely summarized. It never becomes tedious, and as the series matures, the "rules" of this mad relationship are clarified and refined until it becomes one of the most remarkable and enjoyable pairings in all of mystery fiction.

Each novel is a fully self-contained mystery, taking only a few weeks in Rutledge's life. Borrowing a page from Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series, the Todds carefully move through time at a steady pace. There are no sudden jumps -- we watch Rutledge's adaptation to his own madness and his gradual return to civilian life as they progress a bit at a time.

The series begins with A Test of Wills, which is an excellent mystery; but that's not where I started reading. In fact, you can start this series with any of the volumes, because the authors are quite careful to make sure that each is completely self-contained.

Yet the series does reward you for reading it in order, as you watch Ian Rutledge's life and career progress, bit by bit, toward something approaching happiness. Meanwhile, the individual books are superb explorations of the lives of people who live in the shadow of death.

Because the publisher perversely does not number the series or even give a complete list in the front of any of the books, I will provide you with a handy listing right here:

A Test of Wills (1996)

Wings of Fire (1998)

Search the Dark (1999)

Legacy of the Dead (2000)

Watchers of Time (2001)

A Fearsome Doubt (2002)

A Cold Treachery (2005)

A Long Shadow (2006)

A False Mirror (2007)

A Pale Horse (2008)

A Matter of Justice (2009)

If you can't commit to the time it would take to read all the books, let me point out some of the most powerful. In Legacy of the Dead, Rutledge is assigned to a case that happens to involve the fiancée of Hamish MacLeod. Her life, already devastated by Hamish's death, is now in danger from the law, for she is charged with killing a woman and stealing her child. While this novel is perhaps the most dependent on coincidence, it is a particularly gripping one all the same.

A False Mirror has the most bizarre hostage situation -- since it is the hostage who instigates it, providing the weapon to her "kidnapper." Rutledge has to deal with a former soldier whom he despised on the battlefield -- but the man idolized Rutledge, making him his symbol of honor and manhood.

A Pale Horse starts with some children discovering a dead body, but under circumstances that throw suspicion onto their schoolmaster. In this pre-CSI investigative world, the local constables have enormous power to satisfy their own biases, and Rutledge spends much of his time trying to keep an innocent man out of jail by solving smaller mysteries along the way. It seems that most of the crimes in this story are actually triggered by the actions of law enforcement.

In Search the Dark, a shell-shocked veteran sees his wife and children on a railway platform -- despite the fact that they are well known to have died in a zeppelin raid three years before. When a dead woman is discovered during the man's desperate search, he is charged with killing her; it's Rutledge's job to find the children that are now missing.

All the books are good; my favorite, though, has to be Wings of Fire, if only because Rutledge investigates the murder of a (fictional) poet whose work captured the experience of war most perfectly -- though she was a woman who never even visited the battlefield.

Not only do the Todds create a fascinating set of family relationships for the poet O.A. Manning -- they also manage to write creditable poems. This is the hardest thing about having a fictional character who is a "great writer" -- how does a less-than-great fiction writer create poems that can be believed to have the required effect on the characters in the story?

Whichever of the Todds write O.A. Manning's poems, they are believable in their context (though, anachronistically, they are written in free verse just a bit ahead of the move away from poetic forms). So as we discover the true cause of Manning's death, it is all the more moving because we feel the loss of such a fine poet.

"Charles Todd" also wrote a standalone novel, The Murder Stone (2003), and when you finish the Ian Rutledge novels you'll find that this is also quite a rewarding story.

Collaborations are usually weak, but this is one of the rare ones that works superbly.

*

Before I get back to books for summer reading, let me tell you about a couple of restaurants. The folks who create the excellent Brazilian churrascaria, Leblon, have added a less-expensive but just as remarkable all-you-can-eat place on Route 68, not far south of I-40.

At Monesi Brazilian Buffet and Grill, you start with a brilliant salad bar (though I wish there were more selections without raisins, which to me are not actually food) that offers some selections that can also be found at Leblon -- but many that cannot.

Then there's the hot buffet, where fish and meat dishes (including an excellent meat loaf) can be combined with vegetables, rice, beans, and potatoes. They are far above the normal quality that one expects from an all-you-can-eat place.

Then ... there's a dessert bar that is well worth saving a bit of room for!

The address might not say much to you (500 Americhase Dr.); it's a bit more helpful to know it's in the little Sedgemore strip center. If you head south on 68 from I-40, it comes up fairly soon on the left. There's a left-turn lane, but not a traffic signal; if you reach the light at Gallimore Dairy Rd., you went too far; make a U-turn and come back. (Or you can simply take Gallimore Dairy Road in the first place.)

Monesi is open for lunch on weekdays, and for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. If you order take-out, then you pay by the pound. The phone number is (336) 841-6334. It's worth the drive!

The second restaurant I wanted to talk about may not be worth the drive -- since it's nearly three hours from Greensboro! But some mealtime you might find yourself on I-81 in Virginia, passing near the Lexington/Buena Vista exit (188-A). You owe it to yourself to take the exit, go right into Buena Vista, pass through the tiny downtown, and get yourself to Nick's Italian Kitchen (1314 Magnolia Ave., Buena Vista VA; (540) 261-7992).

The place looks like a little roadside dive. You just have to trust me that this is one of the best neighborhood Italian restaurants I've found.

The pizzas are extraordinary -- a layer of finely minced tomato, for instance, instead of the standard sauce on some of the pizzas. The sub sandwiches, cold or hot, are wonderful -- great bread, fresh ingredients, terrific seasoning. And I have a writing class full of students who can vouch for the quality of a wide variety of the entrees.

But if you are really lucky, you'll show up there on a Thursday -- because that's the one day you can get the best homemade Italian sausage I've ever had. And that's taking into account the superb veal sausage at Café Pasta in Greensboro and the delicious thin-sliced sausage that Mediterraneo serves.

I've eaten Nick's sausage on subs, on spaghetti, on linguini, and by itself, and I never get tired of it. During the semester I taught at Southern Virginia University, I ate there every Thursday. I just wish it weren't such a long drive now that I'm not up there every week!

To get there from exit 188-A, head east on US 60 for a couple of miles, go under the railroad bridge, and immediately turn right on US 501. This will take you through Buena Vista. Don't stop at the Italian place right in town -- it is not one that I recommend. Instead, as you come out of town on the south end, you'll come to a big tire store on the left -- Nick's Italian Kitchen is just past it. (If you reach 12th St. you went too far.)

*

When West Side Story was released in 1961, it was the Titanic of its time. It swept the Oscars. Teenage girls went to see it ten, fifteen, twenty times. At our house, the soundtrack played over and over again.

But times changed. Within ten years or so, musicals were virtually gone from the cinematic world. And when they came back, it was with movies like Moulin Rouge, where instead of actual dancing they had tricky (and tedious) camera work, or Chicago, where the musical was so smart you weren't actually invited to care about any of the characters.

What is the music in musicals for, if not to express the passionate feelings of the characters? If they have no feelings -- or if the audience is not invited to share them -- why bother?

So the other night, my family and I voted on what movie to watch out of our DVD collection. It came down to Oliver! and West Side Story, and I was leaning toward Oliver!, if only because I had just listened to the soundtrack of the original London cast.

But because we had been watching the brilliant performances in So You Think You Can Dance, the other votes went for West Side Story.

Now, both West Side Story and Oliver! do wonderful things with dance. Both of them worked the dance into the natural movements of people in a city, so that the audience was able to accept a smoother transition from the reality of film to the unreality of the singing, dancing musical.

For both stories absolutely required that the audience care about the characters -- that the story be taken seriously. Oliver! leads to a tragic death and then a rather thrilling climax; West Side Story has a higher body count, but at the end asks the audience to weep for a tragic love.

Thus the transition into dance was vital to both films in a way that is not required on stage. Film traffics in reality -- these are photographs. Stage, on the other hand, has live actors in the same room with us, dressed up and made up to look like somebody else, but we rarely lose sight of the fundamental unreality -- the staginess of it.

Good plays use this to their advantage, and with musicals it makes things very simple. Singers burst into song, dancers leap out into dance, and it is not jarring at all.

But on film, it violates realism. In early film musicals, this was counteracted by fighting realism all along -- the colors are brighter, the costumes more obviously color-coordinated, the performances less real than in "serious" films. This works fine in the Andy Hardy films, or in Holiday Inn, or other show-within-a-show musicals.

When the musical is a serious book musical, though, you want to keep the realism of film and have the added power of music and dance to intensify the experience.

Now, most films have music -- we accept it. No, we require it. But it's background music. In musicals, it's foreground music much of the time, and not because the characters are listening to the radio or attending a show, but because the music expresses their thoughts and feelings and attitudes.

Oliver!'s fundamental approach was to introduce dance comically and obviously -- with a chuckle. People are walking along and suddenly there's a bounce to their step. The characters are not trying to be amusing -- it's the filmmakers who are inviting the audience to notice that now they're dancing and play along. It's delicately done, and, in my view, completely successful.

But part of the reason it works is because there's a fantasy element to it -- we're being transported into a remote, semi-magical land, the underworld of London, where you can find companionship and even love among the selfish, exploitative criminal element. We remain outside that world, watching.

West Side Story wants us inside the world of the rival gangs of New York. It's a more innocent time than today -- guns are uncommon, and killing is threatened but rarely done. However, the threats need to seem real. We need to know that violence is always one step away.

So Jerome Robbins's choreography doesn't bounce in, it glides. The music arises out of the characters -- their snapping fingers as they walk along set the beat -- but the dance, when it comes, is balletic and masculine and intensely emotional.

To my surprise, the dancing in West Side Story absolutely holds up after nearly fifty years. (It's worth remembering that West Side Story came only three decades after the first talkies; we've had nearly five decades since.) If that dance in the garage were staged for the first time today on So You Think You Can Dance, it would be hailed as brilliant and powerful.

In fact, everything holds up well except ... the love dialogue between Tony and Maria. The actors do the best they can -- indeed, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood deserved the Oscars they didn't get, just for making it through that dialogue with intensity and realism.

I don't know if the dialogue was from Arthur Laurents's original book for the stage musical or if it was added for the screenplay, but it is truly awful. And that's amazing, because they were working from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as their original.

Shakespeare knew how to make the love scenes work: He made them funny! The characters were flirting, witty, fully of smart wordplay and tease, with the urgency of passion kept as a powerful substream. In West Side Story the lovers' speeches are earnest and sappy, and they made me cringe. Bad, bad writing.

But those moments are relatively brief, and the actors carry them off markedly better than Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio did with the sappy dialogue in Titanic.

And when it comes to the obvious, clunky "dream" camera work, you just have to remember it was the sixties. Remember how ugly the buildings and art were from that era, and you can understand and forgive hokey, obvious camera work.

All in all, West Side Story is still a powerful film, and the best things about it are the music, the dancing, and the extraordinary performances. And, just as Clueless is a better adaptation of Emma than the Gwyneth Paltrow film, West Side Story has a better understanding of Romeo & Juliet than the heavy-handed Zefferelli movie.

*

If your summer reading takes a more substantive bent, here are some recommendations from a friend of mine, David VanLangeveld. In his email, he wrote:

A couple of interesting books I've read recently are The Great Warming by Brian Fagan and The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins.

Fagan, an anthropologist, looks at how climate affected civilizations from about a.d. 800 to 1200. This was the time of the Medieval Warming period.

During this time Greenland was ice-free nine months out of the year, Genghis Khan led the Mongols, the Mayan Empire began its decline, and the British grew grapes in Great Britain.

(Hard to believe about Greenland being green most of the year and grapes growing in Great Britain, isn't it?) Fagan believes that if we can learn how these cultures adapted, we can adapt to the current global warming trend.

(Fagan, by the way, does believe that the current trend is caused by humans. However, his accounts of how cultures adapted to the Medieval Warming period are interesting, for the most part.)

I do need to warn you that some parts of The Great Warming are dull. The dull parts are few and far between, however.

In the second book, Philip Jenkins chronicles a part of Christian history unknown to most of the world, specifically how Christianity flourished for one thousand years in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and was eventually lost from most of those places.

Remnants of non-European Christianity remain, of course, in Egypt and Ethiopia. But, aside from those places, only "Europeanized" and "Americanized" Christianity can be found, and these are a result of missionary work.

OSC again: I've ordered both these books. They sound like exactly the kind of history I'm always looking for: serious scholarship that looks under stones in forgotten corners of the scholarly and scientific worlds.

And next week I'm going to tell you about a great fantasy trilogy by one of the hottest young writers around. Best of all: The trilogy is already complete, so there's no waiting for later volumes.


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