When the world was too much with me, here’s what I read for some R&R

Michael Dirda

THE WASHINGTON POST – For the last two weeks of April, I took a break from my Thursday book reviews and essays.

The world was too much with me. I felt old and depleted and tired from worrying about my eldest son who works in a major hospital’s emergency room, tired of mendacious White House trumpetings and trumpery. All I wanted to do – paradoxically enough, given my job – was to lose myself in a lot of reading and temporarily escape the pandemic nightmare.

First I dug into a stack of Golden Age detective novels, all from the early to mid-1920s. I began with Freeman Wills Crofts’s early police procedural, The Cask, in which a beautiful young woman’s body is discovered inside a barrel used for packing statuary.

Crofts’ style is plain and factual, but surprisingly effective, as we see alibis established and then, gradually, inexorably, dismantled. Except for a thrilling chapter toward the end, the novel is restfully cerebral rather than visceral or dramatic. I recommend it.

The Cask proved so tonic that I immediately followed it up with Philip MacDonald’s breezy, locked-study whodunit The Rasp, AEW Mason’s The House of the Arrow (whose Inspector Hanaud may have influenced the creation of Hercule Poirot) and Edgar Wallace’s updated version of a Victorian sensation novel, The Green Archer. For further criminous diversion, I spent one evening enjoying the hit film, Knives Out, while noting the flaws in its intricate plot.

Edging away from straight mysteries, I next turned to Andrew Lycett’s Conan Doyle’s Wide World: Sherlock Holmes and Beyond, a just-published selection from Sir Arthur’s diaries, memoirs and other writings in which he describes his travels and adventures.

These range from a youthful stint on an Arctic whaler to doctoring in a field hospital during the Boer War to spiritualist lectures in North America, India and Australia. Any admirer of Conan Doyle will want to add this pleasing book to their library.

During its second week, my staycation switched focus. When the shuttered AFI Silver began streaming films online, I rented The Booksellers, an engrossing documentary about New York-area antiquarian book dealers and bookstores. In it, lynx-eyed Washington viewers can even catch a glimpse of DC’s most debonair collector, Mark Samuels Lasner, and a quick shot of the young Allan Stypeck, owner of Second Story Books. Stealing the show, however, brassy essayist Fran Lebowitz contributes hilarious memories of Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue Book Row. Besides being one of the stars of The Booksellers, Henry Wessells is also the proprietor of the micro-publisher, Temporary Culture.

His latest booklet, She Saved Us From World War Three, brings together an interview, essay and two letters highlighting the friendship between Gardner Dozois, the longtime editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Alice Sheldon, the former Washington intelligence agent whose intense, sometimes feminist sci-fi – no one ever forgets The Women Men Don’t See – was written using the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr.

In one letter Sheldon explains that she has pretty much stopped writing because “the stories were getting to hurt too much”.

After a friend sent me two dozen back issues of Ghosts & Scholars, I passed several evenings browsing through this British journal devoted to articles, reviews and fiction inspired by the work of MR James, the Conan Doyle of the ghost story. Late one night I binge-watched Collecting Arthur Machen, a six-part YouTube video by RB Russell devoted to this mystical Welsh author, now best known for his early horror tales, such as The Great Pan.

Because education never ends, to further my own I put in many happy hours on Douglas A Anderson’s information-rich blogs devoted to Tolkien and Fantasy and Lesser-Known Writers, read Brad Bigelow’s most recent posts on his Neglected Books Page, and downloaded some classic “old-school adventures”, such as the Sandokan pirate novels of Emilio Salgari, from Nico Lorenzutti’s invaluable ROH Press.

Wild Court – a poetry site associated with King’s College, London – offered yet another treat: Mark Valentine’s characteristically beguiling essay, Devilled Almonds and Doomed Boys: Some Avant-Garde Poetry of 1920, wherein this bookman shares his pleasure in slender volumes of half-forgotten verse.

Toward the end of the week, I devoured David Pryce-Jones’ Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime, in which the London journalist and historian uses various books inscribed to him to recall his encounters with an alphabet of famous authors.

Being the son of a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a scion of a well-connected European family, Pryce-Jones has known everyone in the postwar literary firmament, including WH Auden and Rebecca West. His portraits of philosopher Isaiah Berlin, literary journalist John Gross and novelist VS Naipaul are little masterpieces of anecdote and analysis. The entry on his friend, the poet and scholar Peter Levi is, as they say, alone worth the price of the book.