Surviving the season

Dec. 15, 2012 @ 03:07 PM

Last year was our first Christmas without children. I felt caught between two worlds — missing the magic that young children bring and trying to invent a new form of celebration. This first attempt was a bit of a nightmare. It began with a coincidence. Both my husband and I needed December operations; required rest and unexpected expenses gave us both an excuse to stay out of the shopping fray. That was the best part of the holiday.
Then came the day of — and nothing was stirring in our house. We fell back on our usual traditions. We lit a fire, burned the last of the woodpile we’d stashed 20 years before — the ancient logs went up in minutes. The one string of Christmas lights my husband had thrown on our coffee table did little to lend an air of festivity. Searching for the season, I suggested, “Let’s put on our Christmas carols.” But the tape of songs we’d played every year since our children had been born got eaten by the player seconds after the first song started. The day only got worse and I worried about how I’d spend the rest of the celebratory week.
My own traditions downed, I decided I’d borrow other traditions, specifically relying and retreating into two English mysteries, both drawn from classic literary traditions. They got me through the week brilliantly. I savored their complexity instead of turkey and stuffing, was lulled by British accents instead of the typical tryptophan.
First I listened to Anthony Horowitz’s “House of Silk,” read by Sir Derek Jacobi (Hatchett, Audio Go, unabridged, 8CDs, 10.5 hours). Jacobi’s reading quickly convinces listeners that they are listening to a lonely, aging John Watson who is writing a year after his best friend’s death. Melancholy mixes with pride as he writes to recapture brighter times. He relates an intriguing tale, the one he considers “the most sensational” of Holmes’ career. This story that could not be told at the time, so he takes up his pen to “complete Holmes’ canon.”
Mood and narrator firmly established, there enter a flurry of characters, each of whom is well-defined because of Jacobi’s talents. These also lead listeners through the marvelously twisted plot. The story lives up to the charge given to Horowitz, for this was the first novel ever written with the endorsement of the Conan Doyle estate. There are familiar elements — cocaine, sarcasm, stunning wit as well as cameos by Mrs. Hudson, the Irregulars, and Moriatry, but the tale stands on its own, too. Writing and narration capture listeners who learn of an art dealer stalked by a scared gang member. Then one of Holmes’ Irregulars goes missing and there are whispers of “the house of silk.” Before long, it appears that the two mysteries are connected. A sense of foreboding, forbidden taboo hangs over the entire chase, and it is not disclosed until the very dark ending.
My second listen was P.D. James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley,” read by Rosalyn Landor (Random House, unabridged, 8CDs, 10 hours) which also draws on a classic. At 91, P.D. James, the mistress of mystery, has plotted so skillfully and developed characters so intriguing that her fans who will follow her anywhere. In this, James requires that they travel back to 1803 and quickly meet the huge cast of characters of the Derbyshire estate owned by Fitzwilliam Darcy, better known as the husband of Elizabeth Bennet of “Pride and Prejudice” fame. James creates a fairly straight-forward mystery. On the Eve of a Pemberley ball, Captain Denny’s body is discovered in the woods with a bloody Lt. George Wickham who cries that he has “murdered his best friend.”
The untangling has love, secrets, and misunderstandings à la Jane Austen. That is the primary thrill of the mystery. Rosalyn Landor has a rhythmic reading and this adds to the calm I found in listening. She captures most of the male characters with a lowered gruff voice and sadly, her female characters sound much alike. Her better characterizations are drawn from the personages’ emotional qualities.
This year, my Christmas has the potential of being brighter. My daughter’s home, we’re buying a real tree instead of cutting down a scraggly volunteer pine from our septic field. I invited my sister to visit and plan to revisit our childhood memories by stringing popcorn and cranberries and singing along to Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
But just in case, I’ve loaded the winner of the 2009 Man Booker, Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” read by Simon Slater (Macmillan, 18CDs, 23 hours), on my iPod. My friends have given it rave reviews and I’m thinking it might provide the perfect holiday escape, if I need it.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website,