Live Event Review: Diana Gabaldon Skype Session

Barring some spotty transmission of sound, tonight’s Skype session with Outlander author Diana Gabaldon was a treat–and free! Connecting from her Santa Fe, NM, getaway house (lives in Scottsdale, AZ) to our own Lake High School Performing Arts Hall in Uniontown, Ohio, the Goddess of Jamie and Claire Fraser chatted to upwards of 200 people.

To start the presentation, Diana skipped the most common questions avid fans know the answers to, such as how she started writing the first book. Instead, she shared highlights about book 9’s progress (Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone–finish date still unknown), her writing, research, and editing processes, her three main types of characters (“mushrooms, onions, and hard nuts”–see Part 2 of her reference book The Outlandish Companion for full details), and impressions from consulting on the STARZ TV show adaptation.

In her explanation of character types, she used the case of Mr. Willoughby in Voyager to illustrate how a character springs up like a mushroom. Jamie and Claire are onion characters, with layers that keep revealing more depth. Then, some characters she is “stuck with,” hard nuts such as history’s George Washington, as she writes her current book during the American Revolutionary War, and Brianna Randall, Claire and Jamie’s daughter who had to be born for the long-haul story to work.

Diana has to get to know such characters gradually as they reveal themselves to her. She also noted that she doesn’t “kill” characters; they just die and she, too, finds those events “distressing.” She depicts her role as more of a conduit or vessel through which her stories create themselves. While it is not a passive, or by any means easy, process, she works intuitively and must remain receptive. She uses the senses to pose questions that her imagination then helps her answer.

True to her science background, (former) Professor Gabaldon described her writing in terms of natural processes. She revealed how her scenes start from “kernels” (a vivid image, a line of dialogue, a certain ambiance, a physical object) and proceed by an organic process that she compared to both “growing crystals in the basement” and “a slow game of Tetris.” She “fiddles” until the pieces fit together just right.

Perhaps unusual for a novelist, Diana doesn’t write in a straight line or plan her books in advance; she works wherever the images come from and cobbles or, as some have said, “quilts” scenes together. From the beginning of her book making, she has combined the research and writing processes, toggling back and forth to learn more and make corrections as needed. Her research prowess has become legendary among fans. She also shared how each book ultimately forms a geometric shape. Dragonfly in Amber is like a barbell, anchored by a framing story on both ends, and Outlander has a series of three pyramids or triangles where tensions rise and fall.

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Diana Gabaldon, San Diego Comicon 2015

During the Q&A, I was blessed enough to be able to ask Diana a direct question about how the show is adapting the Jamie-Claire relationship. I talked to HERSELF face to face sort of! Whoa. Happy Birthday (week) to me indeed. She agreed with my view that the core bond of these central characters needs some attention and further development on screen, and she indicated the producers think so, too. Diana assured us that the first six episodes she has seen of season 3 are “great,” which brought cheers from several attendees including me.

Just turned 65 last week, Diana Gabaldon is an endearing blend of erudite, friendly, and oddball. This was my second experience of a live Diana Gabaldon video session. She’s very generous and engaged with her fans, a wonderful writer and natural speaker.

Our hosts ran a solid event, the lights and audience mics worked well, and, though we were dram-dry, there was ample, delicious homemade Scottish shortbread laid out near the exit. Mmm . . . buttery, flaky goodness.

In sum, read these awesome Outlander books, people, and if you can, catch a video chat session with Herself. (Preaching to the choir?) The STARZ show really is pretty great, and season 3’s coming up. Even more impressive, though, the books are an endless fount of riches with an essence that even the very talented team of show producers and writers is hard pressed to capture in a visual medium. Books and TV are distinctly different species of animal, but in the case of this timeless, time-driven story, each is fierce and beautiful in its own way, with something for just about everyone.

Sláinte mhath from this balmy winter’s night in northeast Ohio’s Outlander fan land.

The event was hosted by the Stark County District Library, sponsored by Lake Community Friends of the Library, and buoyed by Diana’s two signed book copies for two lucky trivia game winners (not me which was a-okay).

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas, père

Warning: This review and analysis include several spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Style and Substance

The writing in Alexandre Dumas’ historical French novel, relating a 19th-century tale of injustice and revenge, can be long winded. Readers might expect this when noting that an “unabridged” version ranges between 1100 and 1400 pages. With so much space consumed, we might suppose this writer who loved his craft was tempted into ostentation. Perhaps he was.

However, I wouldn’t call his style flowery; a tempted Dumas exhibits self-control. Understated and enticing, the author’s abundant wit, along with great storytelling and readable prose, justify the length of the text. Truly.

I finished this book club selection more than a month before our February meeting, quite the feat considering how often I don’t finish on time. Yes, I started before our last meeting about a single Agatha Christie short story, but never mind.

A suspenseful page-turner for most of its fecund pages, The Count of Monte Cristo kept me reading steadily to learn the fates of characters set aside for long, overlapping periods. My circumstances helped, but Dumas helped more.

Rooted in European history, the settings span a 25-year period of the early 1800s and explore diverse locations from sea and prison to Rome, Paris, and the French countryside. At the story’s fulcrum is the question of political loyalties and their implications. Early shifts in power between Royalists and Bonapartists animate the lever that decides the ground on which central characters begin their journeys.

The plot is intricate and well organized, and the story proves emotionally dynamic, replete with dramatic irony. Rhythmic flow springs from engaging dialogue, which, beside measured descriptive text, renders Monte Cristo a delightful, theatrical melodrama. Its film adaptations attest to this strength with their number.

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“Dantes Cast into the Sea” by French artist Dumont. George Routledge and Sons edition, 1888

Genre, or Who This Book Is For

My first, unspoiled reading never brought tears, drew audible gasps (maybe some silent ones), shocked me, or provoked any wild laughter. In that way, I see it as a steady, well-written, well-told yarn composed of entertaining threads. It is more dark, sweeping Romance in the Gothic tradition than affecting, relatable human drama. This fact tempered my enthusiasm somewhat, as I tend to prefer the latter.

Intrigue, mystery, crime, adventure–all in the particular context of early 1800s Continental politics and cultures–overshadow character complexity and intimacy despite dozens of highly emotional moments. Sadly, there are no kisses lip to lip, let alone sex scenes; sexual suggestiveness is rare and subtle.

Perhaps Victorian in those respects, the book offers some extreme violence, ample cold-blooded murder, and one instance where an unconscious maiden signifies rape. Several incidents are told as stories within the story, but such elements serve to emphasize the grisly tragedies and grotesque fascinations comprising the tale.

Specific Critiques and Praise

Among its flaws, The Count of Monte Cristo tends to telegraph plot points. Thus, prolonged suspense meets the anticlimax of predictable, but satisfying, outcomes. We could attribute this forecasting effect in part to the amount of space and time provided for the reader to guess results correctly, but it is noticeable.

[Second warning: If you’ve never read this book but think you might want to, leave this post now and go read it!]

Still, I felt great moral and literary satisfaction in anticipating the villains’ comeuppance. Then, the collateral damage is realistic and heart rending, dispelling any notion of a surgically precise wrath of God. Lingering questions about the fates of key characters also felt appropriate, particularly concerning Benedetto. As we leave him, we suspect he just might get away with his crimes.

The reader gains significant insight into more than half a dozen characters, sympathizing with their situations. By this method, Dumas succeeds in conveying the imperfect nature of vigilante justice (or any justice) as each major villain meets a punishment that may not match the severity or nature if his crime. The costs of vengeance are dear. Given the paths before these ends, the final choices and turns the antagonists make seem to befit their personalities, also well developed.

By contrast, I found the main character surprisingly underdeveloped for so long a work and despite, or perhaps because of, the different characters he embodies. Edmond Dantès’ journey is remarkable early on and leading into his manifold vengeance. The changes starting to take shape in the climax also work well, but the ending felt rushed. Dantès’ reflections seem insufficient, his remorse and renewed questing half hearted, and his love for his ward lukewarm and a bit convenient.

[Third and final warning: I really mean it this time – Turn back now or skip to the summary below, or suffer the consequences!]

One can imagine Dantès’ moral education continuing beyond the fifth volume of the story, along with the revival of his will to live and start again. I don’t personally need a neatly wrapped ending. Yet, if that emphasis on waiting and hoping was the author’s intent for Dantès as much as for other characters, I would have preferred hints of a more precarious future happiness for our primary hero, more of a sense that the next climb may be just as long and steep as the last.

For Love of Money

Other trouble comes in the author’s apparent emphasis on needing a seemingly limitless fortune to possess true, full freedom and happiness. This notion meets no significant challenge anywhere in the story, which I found strange, if not quite disappointing. Reinforcing this sentiment is the unmitigated misery associated with every example of poverty or even humble means. Dumas might look upon the poor as inherently noble creatures, morally superior, a Romantic vision, but he leaves no doubt that everyone from prince to pauper prefers, and even needs, substantial wealth. Such assumptions irritate.

The exceptions are the slaves the Count owns; Dumas portrays the happiness of Ali and Haydée to be as incandescent as their devotion is supreme. They hardly count, for they are completely dependent, without their own money, and thus without authentic agency. The author seems to doubt that even a single, independent Frenchman could be happy in this time and place without one of the following conditions: possessing great fortune or knowing the security of directly and loyally serving (or being a beneficiary of) a person of great fortune and benevolence, such as the Count of Monte Cristo.

Evidence accrues of the author’s money love. The vast majority of focus characters are members of high society and the wealthy elite, many of superior education, notable beauty, close royal connections, or distinguishing experience. Yet nowhere do riches serve as an obvious corrupting force, except in the most obvious, a priori cases of the antagonists.

The young people cradled in luxury from birth–Albert, Eugénie–adapt swiftly to financial uncertainty, if not to real or projected financial loss. Each is strong of mind, and each charges ahead with definitive plans. Their apparent lack of greed seems plausible, but how long will they last? On the contrary, how will the two most worthy, noble, and innocent characters (hint: not Albert or Eugénie) avoid their lives’ ruination upon acquiring an incalculable fortune?

Currency for the Count

During the rising action, as he operates like some other-worldly creature, at least the Count’s near immunity to the ill effects of being filthy rich seems reasonable. The immensity of the treasure he acquires coupled with the depth of the misery he has suffered accounts for it. There is no room for covetousness, for there is no need. His vision is fixed not on indulging his chosen life of opulence–for his jaded soul can hardly enjoy it–but on using it for convoluted, comprehensive payback.

It is in the name of this sophisticated vengeance for genuine wrongs against him that the Count wields his fortune, education, disguises, and cunning like a four-flanged mace of justice. It is only after his perceived atonement for such absolute revenge that the Count is finally ready to relinquish his wealth and the power and esteem it awarded him. As a result, he believes he needed the money only for the scores he had to settle, but without money going forward, his status and influence will fade.

The question is, Can he indeed adjust to this new reality? For an author whose characters so unilaterally and fervently depend upon prolific capitalism for their happiness, it would seem doubtful. It makes me curious to learn about the life of Alexandre Dumas (of which I currently know nothing), to seek a reason for this.

Revenge? What’s That?

Since the reader never has the chance to observe the changes in either the man who gives away his “first-rate” fortune or those who receive it–changes either in those who lose all they had or in those who squirrel away a buffer against such loss–the consequences of these shifts remain open ended. Despite the age difference between the Count and the younger people, all seem to be of a more flexible generation than their parents are regarding money, status, and survival.

What may be most telling is that none of the villains (1 of the 3 perhaps) truly suffers for very long the consequences of their greed and evil. Each escapes a traditional punishment the reader might think they deserve, whether doing so by their own free will or decidedly not. We never get to see them struggle for any notable duration without money, without status, without family.

They suffer in other ways, many established without the Count’s interference long before he catches up with them; most of it they have done to themselves. The prospect of loss terrifies them and they sustain heavy blows. However, no one reaches, before story’s end, the degree or longevity of deprivation and sorrow that Edmond Dantès has known at their hands.

An epilogue assuring the reader that the evildoers will all receive and experience what they deserve–whether in life or in death–might have been soothing. Without it, we can only guess, “wait and hope” that at least one of them does.

Mercédès

As to patriarchal double standards, I found the Count, if not Dumas, to be harsh in accusing and punishing Mercédès, Edmond’s betrothed before his imprisonment. She is also harsh in judging herself. The woman who becomes Countess de Morcerf, though marrying Edmond’s rival and persecutor, was technically as innocent as Valentine and Maximilien. Disgraced and poor in the end, she is convent bound as her son leaves for military service. The weight of having lost and again losing Edmond is her greatest regret, and rightly so, but it is through no fault of her own in either instance.

Her ignorance and naive perspective of wrongdoing matches Edmond’s as he begins his time in jail, and Mercédès does what she can to atone in the end. Yet the reader is left with the sense that her punishment is deserved, she has not done enough, and she was even a sort of prostitute under the circumstances–all of which is hyperbole. First, how could she have known? Second, what should she have done differently while kept in ignorance?

Mercédès nursed Edmond’s ailing father to his dying day, continued to appeal to the government for news of Edmond, and then made the best of loss and a loveless marriage, sought continuously to better herself, raised a worthy child, and finally relinquished all her ill-gotten gains.

Among all central characters, as Countess de Morcerf, Mercédès alone never seeks to harm anyone, only to save them. More than Haydée, who avenges her father, if not more than Valentine, who avenges no one directly, Mercédès is in fact among the most saintly of the story’s women. Also, because she is so very far superior to both Baroness Danglars and Madame de Villefort, the Countess de Morcerf receives more than unjust treatment.

The unwarranted nature and degree of Mercédès’ eventual suffering approach those of Edmond’s initial suffering. What is that one saying about those we love most? With nothing but vengeful hatred in Edmond’s heart as he enacts his plans, he has doomed his first love, Mercédès, from the start. Perhaps instead of “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Hamlet), the Shakespeare quotation Edmond should have studied and remembered is “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” (Merchant of Venice).

Summary Review

The Count of Monte Cristo is a robust, culturally observant work that explores the mysteries and ironies of destiny. Absorbing characters take shape at a good pace for the story’s length. There is clear, abundant evidence of the skill, the care–in short, the investment–applied by author Alexandre Dumas, père (senior). Although I would have preferred a more detailed look into the title character’s mind and the lessons he learns, the novel, like the Count himself, has earned its place among the classics. I doubt I’ll ever re-read the book entirely, but I imagine returning on occasion to dip into its turbulent, colorful, and ambitious pages.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.


Translation and Abridgement (No Spoilers)

À propos of length and language, I found no fully reliable, consistently clear, and high-quality English translation among the five versions I sampled while first reading and listening to the story. The Robin Buss translation published by Penguin Classics, though widely preferred and lauded, may be more complete than other unabridged editions, but I found the diction too contemporary, the phrasing overwrought, and the writing generally less elegant than in other editions.

Furthermore, while at times wrinkling my forehead in puzzlement at the Buss translation, I found the text of the Oxford World’s Classics 2008 edition–and even more so of the David Clarke Librivox recording and very similar Gutenberg Project epub ebook–to be more accurate, more logical and appropriate to story context, and more understandable in several instances.

I doubt this divergent assessment has anything to do with my having studied French for 8 years. It probably has more to do with my preferences for archaic diction, unusual syntax, and general clarity. A treasured French study background increased my enjoyment in part due to my understanding of the untranslated French expressions, such as “Pardieu!” (literally “By God” but meaning “Of course!” or “Indeed!”), but any astute reader can gather meaning from context.

Incidentally, David Clarke does a fabulous job with theatricality, French and Italian accents, male and female registers of voice, distinguishing main character voices, clear and consistent projection, and excellent articulation. Aside from occasional mispronunciations, Clarke may have stumbled once or twice in 117 chapters in the Librivox recording. Highly recommended. My having blended listening to recordings with reading ebooks and print copies is largely what allowed me to keep my momentum and finish this massive book quickly.

The Gutenberg file uses the 1888 illustrated (and non-illustrated) George Routledge and Sons edition. I thoroughly enjoyed the illustrations by various French artists of the period provided in the .html version of that file. The claim of Robin Buss’s work in the Penguin Classics translation is the supposed recovery of and return to nuances of the original text that had been lost in earlier editions, and I can see some of that happening as well.

The comparable heft of the Modern Library Classics edition suggests little to no abridgement, but I found it makes noticeable, unnecessary cuts, at least to descriptive text in the few parts I bothered to read.

At any rate, we must allow that some flaws resulting from translation could be due to the original author’s style and diction in French as well. I recommend reading an unabridged edition if you read the book at all. Furthermore, if you are fluent, I feel confident, without having read it myself, in advising you to read the original French instead of a translation into English or other languages. Bien sur! (Pardieu!)

This Hunted Story

Am I late, am I late, for a very important date?

If not, as long as I tell myself I run that risk, motivation survives, at least for something I already feel compelled in a deeper way to do—writing. So before it IS too late, it’s time to journal about my Jabberwock novel, a story of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There from the Jabberwock perspective. Time to muse upon the fickle nature of the Muse. Time to log, on the Web, my thoughts about this story-making process, the state of this art. Time to blog about novel writing.

My hope in doing so is that it will help me get a handle, by November 1st at midnight, on my story outline so I can hit the ground running as NaNoWriMo 2016 kicks off. The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to “write with reckless abandon,” and as a planner (as opposed to a pantser), I’ll feel readier to do that if I have a sound story structure to populate with all that compelling characterization, magical description, and sparkling dialogue. * sigh *

Prompted by S of JS Mawdsley to write fanfic “so [S] wouldn’t be the only one” doing that for Camp NaNoWriMo this past July, I showed up at a write-in early in the month and started listing the fiction I’m a fan of. Not long into the exercise, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass popped up and led to my premise.

In a reversal, or extension (depending on your viewpoint), of the situation in Looking-Glass Land, I set up the Jabberwock as the story’s hero and the Red and White Nobles as the antagonists in their world of giant chessboard squares. Alice retains a position resembling her protagonist role in the original stories, entering the grand game of chess in book two in order to become queen by reaching the Eighth Square.

Simple, right?

So . . . I’ve been working on this intermittently since July and figured there’s plenty to write in November, too. Although I don’t exhibit the discipline JS Mawdsley do/es, which leads to such awe-inspiring story-writing productivity, it’s been a victory for me to remain interested in my story even after each, sometimes long, hiatus.

I’m intrigued enough by the concept, along with the outlining, mind mapping and analyzing I’ve done of it so far, and the handful of scenes I’ve written in full, that I feel confident I won’t lose interest any time soon, let alone halfway through NaNoWriMo.

The magic has come from seeing themes, symbols, and character relationships periodically connect in unexpected ways, from discovering that the ideas that bubble up work with the overall concept instead of against it. It gives me hope that the unity of the story can be preserved, assuming I can build it into a cohesive whole in the first place. This is the year, baby!

Still, it is by no means simple. The plot has been quite the code to crack. For me, that’s typical, but this one poses the extra challenges to work within the original story structure, use pre-existing characters, and figure out how the heck to weave in the new story.

If I have bitten off more than I can chew, by gum, at least I’m still chewing on it and my jaw hasn’t yet broken or frozen.

I confess to adding the pressure of creating something brilliant and eminently publishable out of a timeless classic that’s been thoroughly studied, adapted, spoofed, and spun off in every direction for over a hundred years. Otherwise, why spend all this time on it? But I’m fighting that tendency, too. I’m making a point of not reading the spin-off books and of not watching any more versions of the movie than I have already seen. I’m trying to let love lead. Love of Lewis Carroll’s work.

In addition, S made the point that because Looking-Glass is the less well-known of the pair of Alice stories, it will be wise to borrow characters from Adventures for this re-telling, to add reader interest. I’ll try not to make that issue a major priority; it, too, presumes publication.

The saving grace may be that, if a tangible end result ever does come, and whether or not it’s any good, at least it will have been one hell of a writing experiment that prepared me for success on simpler projects. Oh, if only I knew how to go simple. To do the work, day after day, without imploding under the weight of expectation.

Although I may not blog liberally about the intricacies of the Jabberwock story puzzle, I’ll try to use both blogging and private journaling to keep up my momentum through the exciting upcoming month of story stress, construction, and socializing.

A couple of days ago, I chose a title that took entirely too much time to think of: Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land. Song is my main character, the teenage Jabberwock heroine who, in partnership with the younger human Alice, fights the good fight against the establishment. This much I know.

Hunted Song is my first fantasy story, first fan fiction (sort of, if we don’t count the one about Shakespeare’s mistress), and possibly first happy ending compared to my two most recent stories, which I actually finished drafting. There’s so much to look forward to, and the fact that I started this story well before November reassures me of my stamina to see it through to whatever moment declares itself the end.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this is my topic in the year of the 150th anniversary of the first book’s publication. These splashes of newness and flashes of specialness are keeping my eye on the prize, to follow through to create a good story that I can call mine.

What’s your story?

Join me and half a million other people worldwide this year in the storytelling adventure called NaNoWriMo. No experience necessary. No Plot? No Problem. No judgment. Just start writing. Ready. Set. Novel!. Also, check out the NaNoWriMo Blog.


For more about how my current story’s journey started, check out this summer’s post Packing for Camp.

jabberwocky

Featured image: Illustration of the Jabberwocky by John Tenniel, original artist for both Alice books.

 

Review: Sandringham in Outlander STARZ – Beyond Adaptation

Previewed in my post Five-Phrase Friday (37): No “Callow” Craft, this review takes an in-depth look at the final scene of Episode 202, “Not in Scotland Anymore,” in the second series of Outlander STARZ, based on Diana Gabaldon’s second Outlander book Dragonfly in Amber. It is an episode that manages to capture practically everything our heroes grapple with for the rest of the first half of the season. Spoilers imminent.

Paris, 1744. Escape, recovery, new purpose, new digs. Specters of a horrid past in Scotland and its bloody future. Mysticism and superstition in France as in the Scottish Highlands. Duels and fighting practiced, threatened, and restrained. War and religion married in royal ambition. Wine and money mixing with political lies and secret agendas.

Sex, sex, and more sex in anticipation, pursuit, dark corners, and gossip. The irony of an extremely sexy early marriage in Scotland for Claire and Jamie Fraser juxtaposed against their sex-deprived Paris in the aftermath of Jamie’s severe psycho-sexual trauma–at the hands of a real psycho. Old flames re-surfacing. A lowest-cut, billowing blood-red dress. A constipated King Louis XV and his nipple-pierced mistress. A new aristocratic friend forged through sexual misunderstanding.

And finally, an utter change of tone–in the forms of a truly nauseating reunion and a devastating revelation–occurs amidst inner and outer fires and explosions.

Overview

This final scene featuring the Duke of Sandringham’s reappearance begins about seven minutes from episode’s end. For that duration, British actor Simon Callow commands both light and darkness with the aplomb his fans have come to expect and relish.

In this single performance, Callow encapsulates the intriguing essence of the character he and the show’s writers have adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series. Sandringham delivers the final blow to Claire that brings her full circle back to Jamie’s nightmare at the episode’s opening:

Sexual sadist and pervert (Gabaldon’s description) “Black Jack Randall is dead” but “alive in [Jamie’s] head” at the start, and by the end, between them, only Claire learns that Randall is in fact very much alive.

And who should deliver the news? Not even Sandringham, but his secretary Alexander Randall, diminutive, sickly younger brother to the infamously brutish captain. Sandringham’s superior skill in verbal dueling with Claire takes center stage until Alex’s arrival, which, unaided by Sandringham’s intent, perpetrates the final stab for him.

The journey from Murtagh’s spotting of the Duke in the room at Versailles to that painful revelatory moment is intricately layered, extremely tense, and fascinating to watch.

Every single thing the Duke of Sandringham says to Claire and Jamie in this scene represents a provoking, passive-aggressive lunge at them even as he attempts to weasel himself into the position of pitiable victim. His Grace is a walking, talking contradiction, playing his opposing motives, impulses, and meanings off each other to perfection.

Gentlemanly pleasantries interlace with dark, survivalist intentions, and pretenses of buffoonery with calculated and carefully selected barbs. Although not neatly archetypal, Sandringham proves to be the ultimate gentleman jester who only lightly masks his malevolent master mind. The Duke by turns hints at and blatantly flashes his many sides, remaining unnervingly difficult to parse.

Both the more direct, baritoned Sandringham, in conversation with Claire alone, and the falsely polite tenor one, in the presence of Jamie, communicate things that are observable as well as implied or waiting to be revealed.

Beat by Beat: The Lines–and Spaces in Between

A breakdown of character interactions and of the Duke of Sandringham’s comments to Claire and Jamie in this one scene alone makes plain the existence of these layers. Only in the context of known back story, established in the latter half of season one, can the nature of the immediate Fraser-Sandringham conflict and its significance be fully appreciated.

I break the scene down roughly into beats. A beat in story performance can be thought of as “a bubble of action, of dialogue, of thought, or of mood” (source) that represents a shift within a scene.

This final scene makes excellent use of sound and silence (another kind of beat) to convey emotion and drama. Note that the screenwriters may think of these divisions differently; this is my interpretation, with beats labeled by purpose or nature of shift.

Beat 1: Disaster Averted. To open the scene, Jamie thwarts Murtagh’s attempt to exact revenge for the Duke’s treachery, which Black Jack Randall had revealed to Jamie at Wentworth Prison when he burned the intercepted petition of complaint against himself.

The Frasers had entrusted the document to Sandringham for conveyance to London’s Court of Sessions, hoping the accusations of gross sexual impropriety and violence committed by Randall against Claire would countermand Randall’s false accusation of murder against Jamie.

Beat 2: Overture of Good Will. Turning around, a visibly uncomfortable Jamie, shoulders elevated, receives the Duke’s greeting:

“Jamie, dear boy, upon my word. I’m delighted to see you looking so healthy.” The last two words stretch in special emphasis.

While not necessarily insincere, this sentiment, finishing with a broad smile and a glint in the Duke’s eye, could imply he must have some degree of knowledge about what Jamie suffered in the prison dungeon with Randall. Jamie may wonder about this while recalling that time when he was definitely not so healthy. Coming from a known associate of Randall’s and a proven betrayer to Jamie and Claire, reference to Jamie’s health undoubtedly makes him feel ill, but Claire soon catches up, which gives him a moment to recover.

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So touched by your concern . . .

Whatever secrets Sandringham may be privy to, the opening comment need be about nothing more than the fact that Jamie recently had been on the verge of death at the hangman’s noose, a matter of public knowledge. He was caught by redcoats in Scotland, tried for murder (Randall had, according to one witness, shot his own sergeant dead before pinning it on Jamie), convicted, and sentenced within a few days while Murtagh and Claire searched the Highlands countryside for him.

The pardon for which Sandringham’s assistance was supposed to pave the way not only did not come in time but was prevented altogether when Randall wrested from Sandringham’s hands their petition document.

More than our shared knowledge of Jamie’s traumatic past, it is the uncertainty in the audience about what exactly Sandringham knows of this not-so-distant history that heightens the suspense and makes his remark to Jamie about his health so unsettling.

Beat 3: Full Reunion. Before Jamie has a chance to respond, the Duke has spotted Claire and begins addressing her with a higher pitch, volume, and degree of intensity. Again in a stretched cadence, he emphasizes her name. “Mrs. Fraser, what a joyful reunion!” he says while reaching slowly for her hands in greeting. Frowning, she withdraws them and notes coldly that she wishes she could share his appraisal of the situation.

Beat 4: Deeply Cut. “You cut me to the quick!” the Duke reacts, straightening in mock offense.

Beat 5: The Wriggling Begins. Then, relaxing, he concedes, “Well, I suppose I deserve it. Let me assure you, I had every intention of delivering that petition of complaint to the Court of Sessions, as I had pledged to do. It was that damned Randall! The brute insisted I give it to him, instead. I had no choice, whatsoever. Will you ever forgive me?”

0_Claire_face_reacts_to_Sandringham_excuses_ep202_final_scene

Sure, and I’m Queen of France.

As the Duke professes coercion by Randall, Jamie has joined Claire’s side and gives him a sidelong look of severe doubt. Unflappable as always, ironically, it is Sandringham whose daggers most penetrate, though he says he’s been “cut.”

 

Beat 6: “Forgiveness.” Considering the Duke’s apology, Jamie then looks at Claire and Murtagh, who is pacing like a caged animal behind them, before he exhales and declares bygones: “What’s done is done.” Jamie knows the importance of smoothing things over with the influential aristocrat (an invented character rather than a historical one).

Sandringham replies, “How true. What’s passed is passed.” The opening and closing of the line drag out here.

Beat 7: Catching Up. He immediately asks, “What are you both doing here in France?”

Such a casual question under most circumstances, again, this one is loaded. As if he didn’t know Britain is no longer safe for them. As if they could have gone anywhere else after fleeing Britain. As if he didn’t know that simply by asking such a question, he is again putting them in an uncomfortable position. Whatever else he may know, the Duke must know that their going to France was no idle decision, as his impertinent question implies.

When Claire responds by explaining Jamie’s been employed by his cousin Jared, she has interjected for Jamie, whose face becomes clouded with consternation, alarmed at the Duke’s question and likely wondering what answer to make.

Beat 8: Capitalizing. Sandringham wastes no time in snapping up the opportunity to buy them off. “The wine merchant? What a serendipitous surprise. Tomorrow I go back to England, but I shall return shortly, and when I do, I should be very interested to sample some of that rare Belle Rouge port I understand he’s stocking. I must have a case.”

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surprised serendipity

How surprising he truly finds their new status is anyone’s guess, but we’re fairly certain serendipity is not involved. He has fabricated it to meet the demands of the moment.

“How much?” Jamie asks, drawing Claire’s incredulous face to him.

“I’d be willing to pay twenty percent over the asking price,” Sandringham offers.

“Sold,” Jamie says with a brief smile while Claire looks indignant on his behalf.

Beat 9: Apology Not Accepted. After Murtagh surmises the Duke’s purchase method (credit) as a way of implying payment may never come, Claire suggests that Jamie and Murtagh go and have a drink with “our new friend, the Minister of Finance,” and on this last phrase she speaks directly to the Duke, as if to pre-empt Sandringham’s next anticipated attack by emphasizing their powerful friends.

Beat 10: A Woman Scorned. The two Highlanders take their leave after a few moments of tense silence during which the smile has faded from the Duke’s face. Perhaps he dreads being alone with Mrs. Fraser? Jamie forces a smile and bows slightly as he departs with a glance at Claire.

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Oh, crap. The pleasant spouse is leaving.

Head lowered, eyes following Claire, Sandringham’s stare never leaves her as she turns her back, ostensibly to watch her husband leave, and then slowly moves to face the fireplace, not speaking.

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You won’t catch me napping.

Almost 20 seconds of silence pass after Claire sends Jamie and Murtagh away.

Beat 11: The First Mask Falls. The first to speak, Sandringham’s next line arrives in a lower, more ominous tone:

“I see you’re already cultivating important people in high places. How very in keeping with your character.” His remarks and the fact that he speaks first assure us the Duke does not fear her. She says nothing, brooding in the firelight. His accusation betrays his hypocrisy.

Beat 12: A Thinner Mask Applies. Has personal insult not sufficed? Approaching her side, Sandringham pokes Claire again: “Poor Jamie. He must be missing Scotland terribly, but I suppose it’s no longer a safe haven for either of you.” Another broad grin accompanies the last line’s inflection and matching look up at her.

Beat 13: She Speaks. She does not look at him but has fully felt the jab. “Hmph,” and she smiles, entering the game. “Yes, and so here we all are.” She raises her gaze to the mantel and above.

Beat 14: She Aims. A new thought then seems to occur to her as she finally looks at the Duke: “On the same side, no less. All supporters of the Jacobite cause.” The tone in the second line is questioning, but Claire remains fairly certain of Sandringham’s allegiance.

The camera shifts to the Duke’s face, which betrays nothing either way.

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Ah, the question of sides . . .

Beat 15: She Lunges. Claire then turns fully to face him and deliver her best possible thrust: “Of course, you being an English aristocrat, that position makes you a traitor to the crown.” Again, a questioning inflection, but more out of provocation as she stares down into his face from her superior height.

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J’accuse!

Beat 16: The Veil Drops, Another Remains. “I see time has done nothing to dull the sharpness of your tongue, Madame.” Unprovoked, the Duke has chosen to down-shift into a personal response to the trivia of Claire’s impoliteness. He has not answered her accusation, just as she did not answer his earlier one. His secrets remain safely his.

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At least her tongue isn’t forked, Sandy!

Claire slowly smiles in feigned politeness, a smirk the Duke returns. Five seconds tick away as they hold each other’s gaze, neither daring to flinch.

Beat 17: Distraction. Alex then enters, gaining the Duke’s attention, announces the impending fireworks, and proceeds to cough, breaking the spell.

“If you must cough on someone, find a servant.”

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Don’t cough on me, dammit!

Reconsidering his scornful snap, the Duke glances at Claire and asks, “Was that a bit harsh?” Pettiness and irritation at a servant echo His Grace’s behavior during his first meeting with Claire in episode 109, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs.” It almost seems like a coping mechanism, his way of deflecting Claire’s unfamiliar female aggression, taking his discomfort out on a bystander.

She replies, “Oh, just a little,” and turns her attention to her healing function.

Beat 18: Reprieve: A Pleasant Exchange. Alex and Claire discuss the cough and Mary Hawkins, to whom he had been speaking earlier, while Sandringham listens in silence.

Beat 19: Return to the Game. Then, no doubt sensing a chance to continue the verbal duel, he perks up: “Where are my manners? Mrs. Claire Fraser, may I introduce my new secretary, Alexander Randall.”

Beat 20: Messenger of Menace.Yes, the name is not a coincidence. Alex is the younger brother of Captain Jonathan Randall, Esquire.”

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Another Randall? Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! Is anyone not related to Frank?

To Alex he adds in a more subdued volume and pitch what seems like a casual afterthought, but to Claire, it’s another jab: “Mrs. Fraser and your brother are very well acquainted.” Well acquainted but not acquainted well, which Sandringham knows very well. His satisfaction in this otherwise trivial note is palpable.

Beat 21: Unwitting Accomplice. Alex, oblivious to all that has been happening, innocently says he’ll tell “Jonathan” that he has met Mrs. Fraser. My first reaction, as a book fan, was, “Oh, no, no! Don’t tell him!” forgetting that the show prior to this moment had yet to reveal Randall’s still being alive. The idea of addressing a dead man puzzles Claire.

Beat 22: Utter Confusion, in Micro-Beats. “Tell him? I don’t understand.” With pauses between her sentences, she looks from man to man, searching for the clarity they can only guess at. “Your brother, he isn’t . . . dead?”

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What, is this kid crazy?

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The Duke waits patiently for light to dawn

Beat 23: Final Blow: A Virtual Stomach Punch. Alex scoffs and explains he’s heard from his brother by post quite recently. In shock, Claire visibly weakens at the knees, as if Alex were again delivering to her mid-section the fist she received there from Black Jack in episode 106, “The Garrison Commander.”

The Duke and Alex both step forward instinctively in response to a damsel’s distress. Sandringham asks, “Can I be of assistance?” but Claire, clearly shaken, professes to be fine. The Duke slowly and slightly smiles as he backs off. The wrinkle? What must Alex be thinking? How confusing must it be to see someone react so negatively to hearing his brother is alive!

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The Deepest Cut

Beat 24: Reeling in Recovery. Claire recovers her self-possession, declines assistance, and says she must have been mistaken.

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I don’t believe this. I don’t believe it. I don’t.

Beat 25: Revelation and Mockery. Alex concedes Randall was wounded. Then, the camera shifts to Sandringham as Alex mentions the wounds being “not insignificant.” The man is nodding sloppily in glee, a moment of relish for him–now a delighted spectator of Claire’s suffering–and a moment of audience appreciation for Callow’s devilish though humorous head jiggle. It was the first moment when I really started loving to hate the Duke. Alex concludes by remarking on Jonathan’s “stronger constitution than my own” and proceeds to cough again.

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I’ll just let trusty little Al finish you off, maybe join the lads for a wee nip.

Beat 26: Height of Festivity Meets Pit of Anguish. The fireworks quickly take over with a first boom, at which Claire startles. In the ultimate irony of the scene, the men turn to the show while Claire is left to cope with a vastly changed reality. The implications are profound and stand to jeopardize everything, as Claire’s voiceover explains at the end.

“Oh! How lovely!” Sandringham says with a chuckle.

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Why can’t the bastard just die already?

Beat 27: Victorious Withdrawal, Gloating. After a pause, the Duke asks Alex between gritting teeth, “But must they be so thunderous?” Clearly bored already, he says to Alex, “Go and fetch my carriage.”

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Aw, yeah. Boom! Touche, Lady Biotch Tuarach.

After Alex leaves, a swagger, a gradual turn back to see Claire’s face, and the Duke of Sandringham backs toward the doorway with a smug smile, knowing he’s won this round, and a groaning, mouth-wide half laugh as he turns away to exit. Viewer hatred of the Duke resurges. This is that “what an asshole” moment.

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Hee, hee. Yeah, that’s gotta hurt. . .

Sandringham’s dueling opponent is wounded and down, inert and weapon-less. In a stroke of good fortune, his superior knowledge and, thus, readiness have given him the upper hand and assured satisfaction. The Duke exits.

Beat 28: Oh, God. What Now? The scene and episode end with Claire processing the horrible news via voiced-over thoughts and questions, with ominous strings rising. Telling Jamie that Black Jack is alive means risking their efforts to stop the Jacobite rebellion if Jamie insists on revenge. The blue lights of the fireworks flash against the indoor walls and crowd of the French Court, mimicking a thunderstorm.

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Good, he’s gone. I can panic in peace. . .

The camera follows Claire’s worried search to where Jamie and Murtagh chat with Duverney, the Minister of Finance. The fear and uncertainty of what will happen next envelop her.

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. . . cuz here comes my husband, the Viking berserker.

Then, the camera shifts to the outdoor explosions through the windows as the music surges, contrasting luxurious entertainment and Baroque splendor with Claire’s high anxiety and despair, that the Frasers’ Captain Randall nightmare is in fact as alive as he is.


Summary

The expansion of the Duke of Sandringham character’s role in the story from the book version allows Simon Callow this spotlight. Although events transpire differently in the book, the show’s Sandringham experiences the thrill of being the one to help deliver this nasty surprise to Claire.

All of this happens in seven on-screen minutes, and the scene does not feel rushed at all. Nor does it drag, for all the extended silences, stretched syllables, and wordless daggers.

The layers are what make this possible–the indirect allusions, veiled and overt threats, hidden agendas, ironic intentions, secret knowledge, emotional baggage, Sandringham’s two-faced persona, and a complicated lead-up story.

Exposing the layers and what lies beneath them enables the viewer to experience the scene anew, watch it again with added richness, and continue to follow the story with greater edification, entertainment, and intrigue.

Central to this wonderful impact is Simon Callow’s keen invigoration of the material.

Great Elements of Callow’s Craft: Constructing Sandringham

Delivery:

  • Deep voice, gaspy bellowing, snide snapping
  • Slow, drawn-out phrases that make him sound out of breath but mainly old and demanding of patience, especially as he wheedles and whines for absolution
  • Rise and fall of pitch and timbre, a meandering vocalization the highs and lows of which he is able to travel with ease and nonchalance, like a snake slithering
  • Body movement, gesture, posture, tilt, bounce, smile, hand flap, eyebrow action–all inform the flighty persona belying darker motives.

Writing Made Flesh:

  • Long on compliments and flattery, short on sincerity but unapologetic for pettiness born of privilege and its indulgence, he assuages, persuades, puts out fires, stokes them too, and grins and bears it all with grace.
  • Fickle and flippant on the surface but methodical and discerning beneath, he is a flamboyant, self-assured puppeteer who enjoys the game of manipulation.
  • He’s such a presence and a multi-faceted character, he makes you forget he’s gay, a skill which is part and parcel of the character’s wiles.
  • By turns playful and grave, the Duke of Callow’s creation communicates that both states are only ever a mask hiding a more complex inner truth.

As the malevolent jester mastermind, Sandringham mimics Twelfth Night‘s Feste without the truthfulness, or true benevolence. A grand chess master masquerading as a colorful fool, the Duke’s power lies in the convergence of his noble status, self-possession, shrewd calculus, and mercurial behavior. Callow has added distinctive dimensions to the character that are sheer joy to watch.

A Final Note: Shooting of the Scene

Along with Simon Callow’s presence and performance as the Duke of Sandringham, the success of the Outlander series comes down to consistent leadership and dedication that ensure all the right elements fall into place in scenes like this last one of “Not in Scotland Anymore.” The world building alone has been impressive in season one and season two.

The microcosm of ep202’s final scene echoes and augments the larger-scale excellence. Storytelling and screen techniques combine to create a space and context befitting such forces of nature as we find in actors Simon Callow and Caitriona Balfe. The sparks of verbal dueling fly, and the actors utterly fill that space. Here are some (literal and figurative) highlights of those key motifs of scene.

Lighting plays a massive role in this scene’s juxtapositions and ironic effects. Flickering light in two basic forms provides the bulk of the scene’s visual symbolism as both allusion and foreshadowing. The yellow fireplace light dapples up and across the characters’ grim faces, recalling the dungeon lantern at Wentworth that burned the petition of complaint.

Later, the blue flashes of fireworks suggest a lightning storm, an adapted trope of the horror and mystery genres, portending the personal and political conflicts to come. Overall, the wavering light and partnering shadows convey the instability and changing visibility of characters’ circumstances and footing. Danger and fear dominate the emotional landscape.

Fire, both literal and figurative, shares lighting’s importance in the scene’s multiple meanings. The hearth and fireworks displays mirror the heat in these characters’ lives—past, present, and future. Burning anger (Claire, Murtagh), documents (Petition of Complaint), tongues (Claire, Murtagh), lungs (Alex), and a past of burned-out body and soul (Jamie) all clash with the Duke’s arrogant coolness.

Sandringham’s appearance lights the fuse that burns for nearly seven minutes until the literal, external explosions of the festivities and the figurative, internal explosion of Claire’s sense of security. All the bottled anger and restraint leading up to that moment find release not in revenge against the Duke for his treachery but in Claire’s loss of composure and vanquished silence.

The uses of light and fire all culminate in the threat of destruction to our protagonists, and the last shot focusing on the fireworks drives the point home as the music rises in ironic Baroque playfulness.

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One could go so far as to say that the light, the fireworks, and the music all belong to the triumphant villains of the scene—the wily chameleon in the Duke of Sandringham and the specter of a living devil, Captain Jonathan Wolverton “Black Jack” Randall. They emerge untouchable, the Duke with the psychological victory over Claire Fraser and the captain with his affirmed existence yet absence from the scene.

The resulting cliffhanger suspense at the terminus of such a complex, neatly packed, visually delicious, and dramatic episode brings the viewer back for more without hesitation.

Photo credits: All images by STARZ and Sony Pictures Television, accessed at Outlander-Online.


For my full review of episodes 201 and 202, including commentary on other individual performances, visit “Outlander STARZ, Season 2 Review: Episodes 201 and 202.”

Only one of countless examples of TV storytelling the show aces, the final scene of ep202 foreshadows several events in the series. I hope the show continues to follow Sandringham’s pivotal role in the book’s plot, giving Simon Callow yet more air time.

Tune in to Starz at 9pm ET on Saturdays to find out. This week the Highlanders reunite and prepare for battle. You can also watch Outlander on demand online via Starz Play. As a stand-out episode, I highly recommend ep207, “Faith,” which first aired two weeks ago and presents a dramatic turning point in the season, featuring mind-blowing work by Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser.

And there’s so much more to come. This week, World Outlander Day (June 1), the 25th anniversary of the first book’s publication, brought us the gift of the official announcement that not one but two more seasons–3 and 4–will go forward. Hooray!

Long live Outlander. “Je suis pret.”

Five-Phrase Friday (37): No “Callow” Craft

After a two-week hiatus from Friday phrases, I’ve decided to round off the series at 40. It’s time to move on to new ventures with my blog.

I’m using this post to set up my next in-depth review of Outlander STARZ season two, which will zoom in on British actor Simon Callow’s masterful development and portrayal of the Duke of Sandringham, especially in episode 202. (See Simon Callow’s performance credits here.) I first forecast this closer look–it’s coming, I swear!–in my review of episodes 201 and 202.

The quality of Simon Callow’s work greatly dwarfs (nod to his joke in ep204) his place in the credits list and the amount of time his performances air. Along with his writers, he deserves more attention.

Observing the nuances re-shaping the character from the book Dragonfly in Amber to its TV show adaptation via season two (and from the novel Outlander to season one, for that matter), I’ve chosen five phrases among the many I feel define the Duke of Sandringham as played by Callow. I’ll discuss their meaning and that engrossing ep202 final scene in the full review.

1. Untouchable serpentine “gentleman” (wily with impunity)

2. Hypocritical, dissembling opportunist (he accuses Claire of this motive)

3. Stab-and-twist provocateur (Voo-doo practitioner?)

4. Charming, witty, self-serving chameleon (i.e., the Devil incarnate)

5. Malevolent jester mastermind (like the “fool” Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, sans truthfulness . . . and benevolence)

Outlander_S2_Sandringham_a_bit_harsh_ep202

Simon Callow with Caitriona Balfe (Claire Fraser). Ep202, “Not in Scotland Anymore,” Gif clip credit: Outlander STARZ, Sony Pictures Television.

Far from being pure insults, these descriptors praise Callow’s crafting of a juicy, layered (onion) villain to rival Tobias Menzies’ Black Jack Randall. And if the show stays true to the book for the Sandringham character arc–and I do hope it does–there is more pungent peeling to come.

“If that’s an apology, and I do hope it is, I accept with all good grace.”

Yes. Yes, Your Grace, it will be quite the apology. You’ll see I have become an unapologetic Callow-Sandringham apologist.

Stay tuned.

Happy Memorial Day Weekend, America. Episode 208 airs tomorrow at 9pm on STARZ.

Book Review: In Cold Blood

I gotta give a shout-out to my book club–I probably never would have picked up this book otherwise. Thanks very much, S.


In Cold Blood

by Truman Capote

Gush, gush, gush! No blood but my praise for this amazing book spills freely forth.

Murder mysteries, thrillers, and dark novels I have read in sufficient number to have a base of experience for this book’s fair assessment. Fitting into, indeed creating, a genre that has come to be known as true crime, this story of the 1959 mass murder of the Clutter family in a small, quiet Kansas town is a definite, though perhaps surprising, page-turner. It may aid reader enjoyment (is that the word?) not to be a seasoned reader of true crime or crime fiction, as I am not. I am confident the book will satisfy the hungers of realists and the detail oriented, which I am.

The content isn’t nearly as gory as I anticipated, which I suppose is understandable for the dulling effect of the countless atrocities and violent entertainments our culture and I have consumed since 1959. (Vainly, I must add, no, I’m not quite that old.) Still, I expected greater emphasis on and more pages devoted to the details of the killings themselves. Perhaps the resistance to reading it that a close relative who lived through that time expressed—recalling her upset from seeing it in the news—fuelled that impression before my reading. I’m more than glad my expectations were not met. The writer understood that other details matter more.

Author Truman Capote presents in engaging style the fruits of what must have been dozens of incisive interviews and extensive research: an unflinching, comprehensive portrayal, seemingly bias free, of the paths and minds of two murderers and all the people they made relevant to the nation. Situated at the fulcrum of a truly horrible crime—angering, saddening, dumbfounding—the book is more about the killers than the killed. The backgrounds, personalities, and peculiar psychologies of the perpetrators and the victims are all made flesh, as Capote is meticulous and masterful with character detail. Reinforcing the injustice of it all, however, the only available hindsight on this apparently motiveless extinguishing of four human beings inevitably comes from the two death bringers. They claim the real fame, and it is profound infamy.

Capote’s impartial journalism lies at the root of some of the story’s most disturbing effects; he spends pages and pages portraying events through the eyes of the murderers themselves. Such intimacy with his subjects actually made mInColdBlood_covere wonder uncomfortably about Capote’s own moral compass. Maybe I’ll watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the author in the 2005 film Capote to gain more insight on that. Be reassured: Many sections and closing sentences do frame the story from the moral high ground, and at least a dozen community voices help the non-homicidal reader relate, including those of the case’s lead detective Alvin Dewey and of the family’s closest friends.

Another remarkable literary aspect is the discernible, suspenseful plot that emerges for a story you may be predisposed to know in distillation from start to finish before picking up the text. A chronological time line of events begins with character backgrounds and the discovery of the victims. Then, the story continues with a period of investigation and the adventures of the perpetrators after the murders, which lasts for most of the book. At last, we flash back to the crime’s detail from the two murderers’ viewpoints and learn what becomes of them. I experienced the added suspense of not knowing the killers’ fates in advance. The reader partners with Detective Dewey, discovering the facts as he does.

I admit the prolonged suspense in the last twenty pages or so became irritating where Capote digresses in telling the stories of other famous murderers of the surrounding years. This section read as extraneous humanizing of the Clutters’ killers after so much of that appeared earlier in the book. I can see the interest, if not the modern-day necessity, of imparting that perspective, though: These were not the era’s only sociopaths who didn’t need motive to kill or remorse to move on. This type of person belongs to a breed. Having become partially desensitized from repeatedly viewing multiple seasons of Law & Order: SVU, my personal response to this education was dismissive.

The shock value hardly lessens, even so. Divided into four parts titled “The Last to See Them Alive,” “Persons Unknown,” “Answer,” and “The Corner,” the book has impressive fluidity and depth. With the jarring content, its vastness and detail, superb storytelling, and the narrator’s subtle wit, I barely noticed the underlying structure. Third-person omniscient narration dominates the text, and the author’s distant, objective position contributes to its smoothness. The reader remains immersed within the story from start to finish. As a writer, my jealousy and admiration of great storytellers arises when I read books like this one.

Equal parts psychosocial (and sociological) study and compelling artwork, the rendering of In Cold Blood seats it squarely in the category of “classic.” The intricacies of several members of the immediate and surrounding areas of Holcomb County and Garden City, Kansas, emerge in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, another literary work I deeply love. Engrossing, fascinating, frightening, and vivid are just a few of the adjectives suitable to describe both stories’ effects on this reader, though in different ways. The common denominator is the way the lesson of life’s preciousness echoes achingly from the pages.

So, I’m on the bandwagon. From concept to print, a model for novel, memoir, and biographical writing, In Cold Blood proves Truman Capote to have been a praiseworthy observer, investigator, journalist, and “non-fiction novelist.” As emotionally draining and psychologically disturbing as it is, I would read the book again. To try again to understand the incomprehensible, to hold onto the endearing Clutter family, and to behold the artistry their deaths made possible. Here come the tears . . . .

I told you: Gush, gush, gush. Five out of five stars.

Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

First posted on Goodreads.com, 6/25/15, this review contains possible but minimal spoilers.

Rating: Outlander_coverFive stars. My original reading of this multi-genre novel in 2011 resulted from recommendations by two close friends. It has been one of my life’s great joys. Between childhood and the present, I have re-read a handful of books for professional purposes in teaching and writing, but Outlander is the only novel I ever read more than twice because I had the personal desire to do so.

Diana Gabaldon also seems to be the only author capable of transforming my fickle attention into steady page turning through what voracious pop fiction readers may consider an extremely long book’s slower parts. Likewise, the Outlander series is the only set of books since pre-teen serials that I have read and wanted to read beyond the second number.

I love descriptive prose as much as a gripping story line, if not more. As a keen observer and detail-oriented worker, I relish work that brings precision and skillful use of literary devices to scene setting and world building. These evident skills, along with Gabaldon’s comprehensive research of historical, mythical, cultural, and practical minutiae, as an outgrowth of her rigorous academic background, deliver a smorgasbord of narrative and literary delicacies. Among the most enjoyable include choice instances of verbal, dramatic, and situational irony.

But it is the thorough investment in the main characters Gabaldon creates in book one that allows reader and writer alike to sustain commitment to the saga across a series of sizeable tomes. The peculiar individualities and extraordinary love of Claire and Jamie drive the entire story. Not just complexity but thorough likeability, despite eyebrow-raising faults (especially on eighteenth-century Jamie’s part), seals that devotion.

The sex is good, abundant, fiery, and sometimes questionably aggressive, but it is also true. By turns, it is true to both characters’ personalities, true to cultural and historical context, true to the high stakes of a dramatic story, and true to an unparalleled intimacy of souls. The most passionate love can be as dangerous and desperate as it is pleasurable and all encompassing. And good fiction is as realistically amoral as it is stimulating.

Readers who object to the bigamy, adultery, and the plot points that enable these should look within for the source of that objection. Told in first person by Claire, the narrative proceeds without apology, another authentic representation of her character, but also without a hint of censorship and certainly without hiding morally compromising facts. Claire is a brave, strong-willed woman; her storytelling would have to be so as well. Deal with it.

Claire and Jamie begin their acquaintance in a moment of extreme physical pain for Jamie, and they become friends under the strain of Claire’s relentless time-traveler puzzlement and Jamie’s sustained restraint before the woman he knows, almost from the first meeting, is the undoubted love of his life. The gentleman protector and the alien healer cannot remain static in their development, and Jamie’s imperfections begin to emerge as circumstances reveal Claire’s impossible choices mixed with a healthy sense of guilt, both earned and unearned.

Her confusion is profound, as it would have to be, but her responses to that confusion ring true in their expression of a determined forward movement, a will to survive coupled with an adventurous spirit even she underestimates. Full of contradictions and imperfections–intelligent, sensual, with a keen sense of fairness and justice, impulsive, emotional, imaginative, humorous, caring, dutiful, independent–Claire is a fully human tour de force. It is only through the mind-bending displacement into a dangerous and distant past that her identity can blossom completely, in all its colors.

Claire’s narrative voice consistently reflects her perspective, and her fertile mind entertains with a dynamic flow of quirk, insight, and vulnerability. The effect is a journey through thought as intriguing as the story of her experience.

Only an equally complex man could possibly be her soul mate. That these two should meet at all is simply one of the miracles of fiction, or mysteries of life (or both), but the impediments to their survival as people and lovers, equal parts fitting and fantastical, succeed in preventing their love from seeming perfect or over-indulgent.

For readers viewing turns in the story as too convenient, consider this: As often as rescue becomes necessary and occurs just in time, the marks of pain, misery, and regret cut deeply into our protagonists, raising further questions without convenient answers and inflicting irreparable damage they can move not past but only through. Wondering how these internal conflicts may be resolved compels the reader forward, as does the anticipation of new, inevitable dangers, tragedies, and bewildering revelations.

Of course, Diana Gabaldon’s mastery of characterization applies to a rich, lengthy dramatis personae. Dougal Mackenzie, Geillis Duncan, and especially Captain Jonathan Randall rank among the most compelling in the first book.

By now, it should be clear that Outlander provokes enough thought and delight to be considered a contemporary classic of popular fiction with distinct literary tendencies. The book, while certainly not flawless (what book is?), both challenges the mind and delivers to the heart, establishing as formidable a foundation to a series as there can be.

Even if you think you can’t stomach the gore and grit or endure the emotional torture and long-held suspense, results may surprise you, another mark of great literature. You won’t know until you read it. Please do.


For my quick reviews of the first three books in the series, go here.