July 29, 2023

Murder, they wrote

Despite the small size of its overall catalog, dLibrary Japan has a fine selection of police procedurals. The traditional crime drama is one genre where J-drama stands apart. Hollywood could do a lot worse than license a series like Partners just for the premise and the plots.

Much of the credit goes to Ranpo Edogawa (1894–1965), a tireless promoter of the mystery novel in Japan. His pen name puns on the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe. He is best remembered for the Kogoro Akechi and Boy Detectives Club mystery novels, published between 1936 and 1962.

His efforts are widely acknowledged today. The mystery genre is prominent not only on prime-time television and the best-seller lists, but has long been a staple of young adult manga and anime.

Kindaichi Case Files, based on characters created by mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo, has been published by Kodansha since 1992. Case Closed ("Detective Conan") was launched by Shogakukan in 1994 and is likewise still ongoing, with the accompanying anime totaling more than 1000 episodes.

The main character in Case Closed sports the nom de plume of "Conan Edogawa," a double tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle as well. There is no shortage of detectives named "Akechi" in contemporary Japanese crime fiction.

Speaking of Conan Doyle, Great Britain and Japan share similar cultural elements that make them ideal settings for the cozy mystery. Namely, generally accepted rules of propriety and a veneer of "polite society" easily disrupted (but not deeply damaged) by an otherwise "ordinary" crime. The world need not end in every episode.

Like a returning tide, we expect the greater cultural forces at work to wash away the disruptive elements and reset the stage for next week. So we shrug off the comical murder rates in Midsomer and Cabot Cove, and body counts in Kindaichi Case Files and Case Closed that can exceed that of the entire country on a weekly basis.

To be sure, a gun is rarely the murder weapon. But watch out for knives, rope, and all manner of blunt objects! Reality forces Japanese crime writers to get creative, and they embrace every plausible variation available. It follows that the geeky appeal of the CSI subgenre has made it a favorite with audiences.

The CSI guy on Partners has played a supporting role for twenty-one seasons. Kasoken no Onna ("Woman of the Science Research Institute") is in its twenty-third season. Like Crime Scene Talks (seven seasons), the plotting is pretty much by the numbers. But the reason we follow a recipe is because it works.

Viki has a handful of localized live-action police procedurals. For now, though, your best bet for subs or dubs is anime.

dLibrary Japan has a (badly closed-captioned) season of Kindaichi Case Files and Crunchyroll has a boatload of Case Closed episodes. Sticking strictly to the puzzle-solving cozy mystery formula, five of my anime favorites are Holmes of Kyoto, Hyouka, In/Spectre, Beautiful Bones, and Onihei.

Hyouka and Holmes of Kyoto are classic whodunits that closely follow the classic formula, even though the cases often don't involve any actual crimes.

I love the clever English language title for In/Spectre, a supernatural detective series. It can get overly talky, especially in the first season, but Kotoko takes us through her reasoning process step by step. Though she is an often unreliable narrator, manipulating events to produce the outcome she prefers.

In Beautiful Bones, Sakurako Kujo is an even more eccentric osteologist than Temperance "Bones" Brennan, the series that inspired the English language title. The Japanese title translates as "A Corpse is Buried Beneath Sakurako's Feet."

Onihei is an action-heavy Edo period police procedural that doesn't flinch from depicting the complete lack of due process rights for suspects at the time.

And although she only appears in a couple of episodes in a series that can't be classified in the genre, the hard-boiled vampire-hunting private eye in Call of the Night is such a great noir character that I'd like to see her get a show of her own.

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July 22, 2023

"Shogun" revisited (1/4)

The Shogun miniseries debuted on NBC on September 15, 1980. It ran for five consecutive nights and a total of 12 hours, garnering the highest weekly Nielsen ratings in the history of the NBC network.

Two months later Ronald Reagan would be elected in a landslide. A year later, IBM launched the IBM PC. Japan had the second largest economy on the planet. Japanese automakers were leaving Detroit in the dust and Sony was the Apple of its day. Serious people were seriously predicting "Japan as #1."

(And I was studying Japanese at BYU.)

By the end of the decade, Sony Corporation owned Columbia Pictures and Mitsubishi bought Rockefeller Center. Only seven years after that, Mitsubishi lost a billion dollars on the deal and sold off its controlling interest. The real estate bubble burst and Japanese fell into a decade-long recession.

(And I was teaching English in Japan.)

But at the time, Japan was the China of today, with a critical difference being that Japan was and remains a stalwart ally of the United States.

So credit NBC with great timing. But also credit the network for broadcasting a pretty good product. Based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell and starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune, Shogun gave its American audiences a westernized version of a classic NHK Taiga historical drama.

Meaning "big river," the Taiga is a big-budget (by Japanese standards) hour-long drama that runs from January to December. Each year it tackles the life of a notable historical figure. This year, the 16th century female clan leader Ii Naotora; next year, the 19th century general Saigo Takamori.

Unlike Shogun, the Taiga drama strives for sufficient accuracy to use everybody's real names, and does its best to faithfully recreate well-documented events. Though with forty or so hours to fill, a healthy amount of fiction will inevitably backfill the scarcer stuff that historians are confident happened.

Taking place after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598 and before the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Shogun is mostly fictional filler. But the miniseries does nail down the time frame and the principal characters, and does a reasonable amount of justice to the historical context.

Richard Chamberlain's John Blackthorne is based on a real person. Will Adams was the English captain of the Dutch-flagged expedition. Confined to a single year, at the end of which Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated Ishida Mitsunari at Sekigahara, Shogun can't help but downplay what a fascinating figure he was.

It also downplays the cruelly ironic turn of history that would take place in his lifetime. Every indignity suffered by the Protestant sailors at the beginning of Shogun would be visited upon the Jesuits a hundred fold. One explanation for this reversal of fortunes is made clear in Shogun, and another is alluded to.

Made clear is the geopolitical insult of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which "divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between the Portuguese Empire and the Crown of Castile." The reason alluded to was Portuguese involvement in the mid-16th century trade of Chinese and Japanese slaves.

Restrictions on Catholicism in Japan began in earnest under Ieyasu's predecessor, Hideyoshi. Shogun mostly ignores this to keep the Jesuits around as the bad guys. It became a draconian ban under Ieyasu's son, culminating in the systematic annihilation of the Christian community after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1638.

Martin Scorsese's Silence (based on the novel by Shusaku Endo) explores this at length (if you can stomach two hours of man's inhumanity to man vividly illustrated).

Along with the suppression of Christianity, the Edo period of Tokugawa rule was characterized by a strictly-enforced sakoku (isolationist) policy. But Ieyasu did employ Adams to negotiate limited trading rights with the East India Company and the Dutch, though they were confined to a small port off the coast of Nagasaki.

Until the mid-19th century, information about the outside world trickling in from Europe became known in Japan as rangaku (蘭学) or "Dutch learning." Though it was an Englishman that made it happen.

Shogun is not without its anachronisms, stereotypes, and soapy subplots. But as a Hollywood version of Japanese history, it does an all-around better job than The Last Samurai or 47 Ronin. Not merely a noted moment in television time, some forty years later, Shogun stands up well to a second viewing.

Related posts

Shogun revisited (2)
Dances with Samurai
Japan made in Hollywood

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July 15, 2023

Alien encounters

In Shogun, James Clavell's Blackthorne, standing in for the real Will Adams, is shipwrecked in Japan in the year 1600. He encounters an entirely different culture from his own, but one at a similar level of social and economic development. He would have recognized the feudal structures of the society from the start.

The warlords of the Sengoku period made the most of the firearms imported by Portuguese traders. Briefly toward the end of the 16th century, Japan had the biggest arms industry in the world. Militarily on a par with any European power, Japan was never colonized.

Over the following two and a half centuries, the shogunate's strictly-enforced sakoku (isolationist) policies did keep Japan from getting involved in any land wars in Asia. But while the culture developed in meaningful ways, Japan as an industrial power remained stuck in the 16th century.

The arrival of Commodore Perry's Black Ships, sporting technology three centuries ahead of Japan, triggered a huge social upheaval and kicked off the Meiji Restoration. Ryomaden well illustrates what an encounter with starfaring aliens might be like, including how quickly the Japanese adopted that technology.

Along with everybody else, Ryoma Sakamoto was completely overwhelmed upon seeing the steam-powered Black Ships for the first time. His second reaction was, "I want one of those." And he would get himself one.

Both a businessman and a revolutionary, Ryoma Sakamoto deserves comparison to Alexander Hamilton. Alas, like Hamilton, he died young. The identity of his assassin remains a mystery to this day. At the time, the crime was pinned on Kondo Isami and the Shinsengumi, though others also later confessed.

Negotiating by day and killing each other by night was common practice in Kyoto politics at the time.

Singer and actor Masaharu Fukuyama does well in the lead role, starting off the series as an affable Prince Hal, leading an aimless existence until Perry's Black Ships arrive and throw the country into turmoil. Not long thereafter, Ryoma crosses paths with Shoin Yoshida, the fiery Patrick Henry of the Meiji Restoration.

The sonno joi ("Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians!") movement took root soon thereafter. In a rare break with precedence, according to which the emperor took no part in politics, Emperor Komei (father of Emperor Meiji) supported the movement, placing the shogunate in an increasingly untenable political position.

Ryoma negotiated the Satcho Alliance between two once bitter enemies, the Choshu domain, the ideological center of the Restoration, and the powerful Satsuma domain. Now facing a unified opposition armed with modern British weaponry (thanks to the help of Thomas Blake Glover), the shogunate's days were numbered.

For an alternate perspective on the same events, Atsuhime follows the life of Tenshoin, the adopted daughter of the governor (daimyo) of Satsuma. Hoping to become the power behind the throne, he arranged a marriage between her and Iesada Tokugawa, the third-to-last shogun.

Unfortunately, Iesada proved to be utterly incompetent, and all that effort failed to change the policies that ultimately doomed the regime. But Tenshoin was later instrumental in negotating the peaceful surrender of Edo Castle during the Boshin War. The only major conflict in the city was a daylong skirmish at Ueno.

Ryomaden is currently streaming on dLibrary Japan with subtitles, Atsuhime without subtitles.

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July 12, 2023

Fox and Wolf (excerpt)

Chapter 1

Gang of One

Yuki Yamakawa jumped.

The world record for a standing high jump (she looked it up) was six feet and change. She could match that without breaking a sweat.

Jirô’s roundhouse right parted the air beneath her feet. This time she’d really ticked him off. As intended. She just thought he’d be better at picking his fights.

Well, if he didn’t know it before, she’d be sure to teach him that lesson now.

Yuki turned her torso through the sky with the grace of a gymnast doing a dismount at the end of her floor exercises. A full three-sixty accompanied by a half-rotation twist. The top of her head brushed his. She wasn’t trying to show off. Okay, maybe a bit. Once the pushing and shoving got past the pushing and shoving stage, calling up a bit of the wolf in her was the best way to keep from bloodying him too much. Or breaking bones.

Uncle Hiroki wouldn’t like that. “Don’t leave any marks,” was his version of fatherly advice, when “Try not to get us sued, okay?” didn’t have the desired effect. Uncle Hiroki was a lawyer whose clients had a bad habit of leaving marks. “Because they’re too stupid to think of better ways to settle a dispute or deliver a message.”

Yuki had run out of better ways to deliver this particular message.

She tucked her legs beneath her, planted her feet high on Jirô’s back, shoved off, flipped backwards, and stuck the landing.

Jirô sprawled on the dusty loam of the Omiya High School baseball infield.

He should have stayed down for the count. Instead he sprang to his feet, whirled around and charged. Yuki felt the rhythm of his feet pounding against the ground, measured his gait and distance—

The kid had a considerable advantage in height yet not the slightest idea how to use it, and not enough heft to bowl her over like a sumo wrestler. He was a prematurely big dog who let big do all the thinking for him. Except she could make an actual big dog her best friend in an afternoon. Precisely because a big dog didn’t know its own pedigree. Once a dog learned its place in her world, that dog didn’t forget.

Jirô Onodera knew his own pedigree only too well. His family had connections. Lots of connections. That meant the rest of them—from the first years right up to the teachers—were supposed to shake off his crap like a dirty dog shaking off a mud bath, making sure none of it landed back on him.

Yuki was going to make sure all of it landed back on him.

Instead of going high, she ducked low, shifted her weight back and swung her right leg at a rising angle. She did take some of her uncle’s advice to heart. Instead of driving the toe of her sneaker into his solar plexus, she connected instead with the smooth arc of her instep.

The air went out of him like a punctured beach ball. He collapsed to the ground on his hands and knees.

No, Jirô wasn’t a big dog. Yuki thought too highly of dogs to stick with that comparison. He was one of those volcanic mud pools in Beppu (the rare class trip that had been worth the bother), all that erupting energy splattering everybody around him.

She walked over and squatted down next him, bôsôzoku biker style, forearms resting on her knees, feet flat on the ground.

“Hey! Jirô! You need to sign up at a dojo and learn how to fight. Because you damn sure don’t know how. But you never fight anybody who fights back, huh? Until now.”

He glared at her out of the corners of his eyes. “That’s Jirô Senpai to you,” he wheezed.

How dare she address an upperclassman without attaching the required honorific? Yeah, he was all about the respect, didn’t they all know.

There was nothing wrong with a name like Jirô, but maybe being labeled Number Two Son from birth was a chip too heavy for his shoulders to bear. For all she knew, Number One Son was an even bigger asshole and his little brother was only living up to the example.

“Look,” she said, “I kinda get where you’re coming from. I don’t care for doormats either. Kids who never stand up for themselves, who never take their lumps, who run away from every fight. I don’t like them, but I really hate the jerks who walk all over them. Think beating up cowards makes you a tough guy? Well, Senpai, how tough are you feeling right now?”

She stood and walked away.

Yuki almost reached the first base line when Jirô dragged himself to his feet and bum-rushed her from behind.

She didn’t turn around. She didn’t have to look—still leading with his right. He really was Mr. One-Punch Man. Because in real life, when some slack-jawed idiot threw the first punch, few knew how to throw the second. One hit and they went down like a sack of rice, curled into a ball, and waited for the storm to blow over.

This far in his life, he’d never had to count past one.

The knuckles of his fist touched her right shoulder blade. She dropped her shoulder and took a small step to the side. He tumbled over her thigh, momentum carrying him forward. She grabbed his forearm and elbow and swung down in a counterclockwise arc.

He cartwheeled head over heels, fell on his butt, and slid into first. Too bad Jirô didn’t play baseball. In that game, he would have been safe.

Chapter 2

Gang of Two

Yuki brushed herself off, changed out of her gym clothes, and got ready for the rest of her afternoon classes.

She honestly didn’t think anything more would come of the incident. She figured Jirô would slink away with his tail between his legs (boring). Or challenge her to a rematch (less boring but still predicable). Or recruit his equally witless friends to ambush her on the way home (tons of fun).

The answer was: none of the above.

She made it all the way to last period before the intercom crackled to life and ordered Yuki Yamakawa to march herself down to the first floor.

Once she did end up in the principal’s office, Uncle Hiroki being there wasn’t a big surprise. But she certainly didn’t expect to end up sitting next to Jirô’s mom. What was the deal with this kid? A few bumps and scrapes and he runs bawling straight to mama. Though to give him a little credit, he didn’t look all that happy about her presence either.

Yuki leaned toward Uncle Hiroki and said under her breath, “I didn’t even hurt him. Much.”

He answered in a courtroom whisper, not looking at her, knowing she could hear him no matter how softly he spoke. “Sure, you didn’t hurt him. You only assassinated his pride. In public.”

“He chose the venue.”

“Every fight is negotiable. Look around. Where did all this crap come from? Not out of the tuition.”

Yuki stopped stewing long enough to take in her surroundings. They were sitting on one of two black patent leather couches that gleamed beneath the almost-chandelier hanging from the ceiling. She guessed the tea set sitting on the glass-inlay coffee table cost as much as Uncle Hiroki’s Mercedes.

Not that she had an appraiser’s eye for such things. She remembered the first (and last) time she visited her grandfather’s summer villa in Kamakura. She knew what rich stuff smelled like. That visit was also when she learned that money bought a whole lot more than a high-priced interior decorator.

Principal Teruya bustled into the room. He was a stout, balding man perpetually in a hurry. Yuki never could figure out what it was he did besides get on her case over every piddling misdemeanor. More worrisome, this was the first time she’d seen him in a good mood. The man was beaming, actually rubbing his hands together with glee.

“A happy prosecutor is never a good sign,” Uncle Hiroki sighed as they got to their feet. “How deep in the hole are you with this guy?”

Yuki shrugged. “So I don’t kowtow to the powers that be.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to try.”

Until this moment, Jirô’s mom hadn’t acknowledged their existence. As if on cue, she jabbed her finger at Yuki and shrieked, “This is what happens when gangsters are allowed into our schools! It’s against the rules to dye your hair!”

“I don’t—”

Now Uncle Hiroki bristled. “Gangsters? I’ll walk down the hall and get you a hundred eyewitnesses who will tell you it was a fair fight and one of the fighters was a girl. Isn’t that right, Jirô-chan?”

The diminutive must have stung but Jirô didn’t stop studying his shoes the whole time.

“You leave my boy alone.”

“Your boy should try acting like a man. Maybe you should try treating him like one.”

Principal Teruya feigned shock. “There are no fights in this school, fair or not!”

“Yeah, right,” said Yuki. “Kids right and left tripping over their own two feet, getting beat up by ghosts.”

“You admit it? Ha!” He clapped his hands and pointed toward the door. “Miss Yamakawa, you are expelled!”

“What?” Yuki gaped at him. She’d expected him to at least pretend to hear both sides.

Uncle Hiroki had already started walking. “Let’s go,” he said, not looking back.

Yuki had no choice but to follow. This principal knew what to do in order to get what he wanted. He wanted her gone. So she left.

Yuki sat in the passenger’s seat of the Mercedes, crossed her arms, and pouted. “You’re supposed to have my back. Isn’t that what defense lawyers do? Defend?”

“I’m not one for pyrrhic victories.”

She didn’t know the adjective but got what it meant. Uncle Hiroki explained, “However well-mannered they appear, you know from personal experience that old money plays professional wrestling when it comes to me and mine. They write the script in advance. The Yamakawa name you carry is enough. Trust guilt by association to take care of the rest.”

That was one fact of life she couldn’t argue with him about. “So what about my dad’s name?”

Yuki had never dived too deep into the nitty-gritty details, except that she’d been born before her parents got married and her father’s family refused to allow her birth record to be registered under the renowned Matsudaira name. So a Yamakawa she was.

Uncle Hiroki smirked. “Good luck with that strategy. At any rate, the whole point of this arrangement is to keep his side of the family out of stuff like this. Hold up our end and we don’t have to worry about putting a roof over your head. Unless you want to move back to your grandma’s place in Hokkaido.”

She never dismissed the possibility outright. She liked the relatives on her mother’s side. But she was a city wolf, not eager to move back to the sticks.

Uncle Hiroki drove her home so she could drop off her backpack and change out of her uniform. And then to her part-time job in Tennoji.

Kosugi Sensei, who ran the Osaka Dog Doctor veterinarian clinic, was surprised to see her. Yuki put on a nonchalant face. “I got out of school early. Thought I’d put in an extra hour.”

“Oh, that’s fine,” Kosugi Sensei said. “Go ahead and get the dogs out on the run.”

Yuki jogged back to the kennels, her mood lifting. It was nice being around creatures who always appreciated her presence, who understood her better than she did herself.

She leashed up Sergeant first. A retired Search and Rescue (SAR) German Shepherd, Sergeant was her right-hand man in the kennels. He did a good job keeping the yippy youngsters in line. Today he gazed up at her with doleful eyes.

“Oh, things aren’t that bad,” she reassured him. “Uncle Hiroki will figure something out. He always does.”

Though today she couldn’t be certain. Sergeant knew it too.

Read the rest

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July 08, 2023

dLibrary Japan (update)

So I resubscribed to dLibrary Japan. dLibrary Japan primarily targets Japanese speakers (and learners) with something-for-everybody prime-time material.

dLibrary Japan is owned and operated by NHK Cosmomedia, which also runs NHK World (available OTA and streaming) and TV Japan (cable and DirecTV).

Because NHK Cosmomedia doesn't want dLibrary Japan competing directly with the pricier TV Japan, its premium Japanese-language cable channel, dLibrary Japan doesn't maintain a permanent backlist or carry live programming.

As a result, the catalog is a mile wide and an inch deep, with licensing periods limited to one year on average (longer for a few extended series). This no doubt saves a lot of money, but it also means you have to watch it or lose it.

On the plus side, dLibrary Japan rotates new content through the service at a brisk clip, so it's not hard to find something good on. You really have to pay attention to the "Coming Soon" category! One benefit of the low demand for live-action J-drama in North America is that dLibrary Japan's only (legal) competition is TV Japan (itself) and Viki.

Not all of the content on dLibrary Japan is exclusive to the site, such as Don't Call it Mystery also on Viki, MIU404 also on Netflix, and Summer Days with Coo also on Tubi. Just most of it.

Even there, Viki skews toward BL and shoujo manga adaptations. Tubi and Netflix (in North America) acquire Japanese language content at a decidedly plodding pace. Both have much larger K-drama catalogs. Netflix and Tubi don't even have a designated J-drama channel. Anime, yes, but they don't have enough J-drama material to bother.

I'd like to see dLibrary Japan become the VOD service for TV Japan. But as mentioned above, what with all the cable cutting going on, NHK Cosmomedia has to worry about cannibalizing its TV Japan subscriber base. Despite its lock on the overseas hospitality industry, subscriber numbers have got to be hurting.

Right now, only Partners (season 21), Crime Scene Talks (season 7), and episodes from the business and economics interview series Ryu's Talking Live and Dawn of GAIA are on both (after the initial run on TV Japan).

The latest Taiga drama is Ryomaden from 2010. There are no Asadora in the catalog. Again, internal competition from TV Japan and NHK World are likely the deciding factors.

On the other hand, dLibrary Japan is streaming a growing number of shows like Logically Impossible in close to real time. Perhaps the service will ultimately end up with all the programming that isn't licensed to TV Japan. That'd work for me!

Right now, live domestic news programs (such as Good Morning Japan) and NHK's flagship Taiga and Asadora dramas are the only bottom-line advantages that TV Japan provides.

Already, several of NHK's travel and infotainment shows run for free on NHK World (often dubbed). dLibrary Japan simply links directly to NHK World. I can imagine all three getting fused into a tiered streaming service in the near future.

Aside from a handful of movies and series, dLibrary Japan has little localized content, which cubbyholes it and TV Japan as niche services and puts a hard cap on the size of their overseas audiences.

Unlike NHK World, which perhaps tries too hard to make its content as accessible as possible. Accessibility sounds like a good thing, but at some point, all of this smoothing out starts to erase what makes a product of Japanese culture uniquely Japanese. Right now, perhaps the anime streaming services do the best job splitting the difference.

You should still subscribe to dLibrary Japan for a month (or two or three) to watch the subtitled Ryomaden, NHK's year-long (48 episodes) biopic about Ryoma Sakamoto, one of the Founding Fathers of modern Japan.

The other draws for me this time around are the latest seasons of Solitary Gourmet and Partners and an eclectic collection of police procedurals (a genre that Japanese scripted dramas excel at), including a return to crime fighting in Kyoto in CSI: Crime Scene Talks.

The 2011 live-action Bunny Drop movie does a good job adapting the first half of the anime and leaves things at that (alas, this movie is not subtitled).

The Roku app is functional. The video plays when you hit play. Otherwise, it's like a half-broken VCR, where the buttons don't reliably do what they're supposed to. Closed captions don't work. They do in the browser app, which doesn't appear to suffer from these issues.

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July 05, 2023

Persuadable (excerpt)

Chapter 1

Penelope Clay

Penelope Clay decided to marry Sir Walter a month after she returned to Kellynch.

Sir Walter hadn’t changed in the years since Penelope escaped her home town. At a local ball sponsored by Sir Walter and his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, Penelope watched him strut stiffly about the town’s assembly hall, nodding ponderously to the attendees.

“Ah, Miss Merriweather, how fine you are looking—you’ve taken my advice about avoiding too much sun.”

He’d made similar circuits when Penelope was a fresh nineteen-year-old. His wife was alive at the time; she paced alongside him, hand on his arm, smiling gently on Sir Walter’s victims. People in town claimed that the lady of Kellynch Hall had been an ameliorating influence on the good baronet; since her death, he had become . . . “complacent” was the term people used. As far as Penelope was concerned, he was still a fulsome peacock with an avuncular manner.

His deficiencies were all to her benefit.

Ten years before, Penelope Clay, née Shepherd, fled Kellynch Town to marry Mr. Clay, the least objectionable of several possible beaus.

The first was a philosophical youth who boarded with a nearby family and wanted to preach his seemingly profound view of the world to Penelope: “As you know, dear Miss Shepherd, most people in trade don’t value artistic accomplishments.”

“They usually indicate their value with money,” Penelope pointed out, after which the philosophical youth promptly lost interest in continuing their “friendship.”

The second, a friend of the grocer, considered himself a Lothario. With winks and nudges, he invited Penelope to ask him about “other pretty ladies” he’d courted. He promptly lost interest when Penelope failed to take the gambit.

And then there was her father’s clerk who slept in her family’s parlor and looked surprised when Penelope refused his half-hearted proposal.

“Are you pursing a duke?” her mother queried waspishly. “Your father’s sister pursued unattainable men and look what’s happened to her.”

Penelope’s aunt boarded above the town’s millinery and supplemented an allowance from Penelope’s father with occasional earnings from decorating hats. Penelope acknowledged the unsatisfactory nature of such a life and set herself to endure Mr. Clay.

Mr. Clay was from Cambridge where he worked for a solicitor. He and Penelope met when he delivered some leases to Penelope’s father, who managed Sir Walter’s land. Invited to dinner, Mr. Clay regaled Penelope with tedious stories about the exact nature of his work, stories which always seemed to end with people off-handedly complimenting his efforts but not actually promoting him.

Mr. Clay was dull but at least he was employed and reasonably attentive. So Penelope married him and moved to Cambridge.

She grasped in only a few months that she must either learn flattery and tact or become one of the nagging, sharp-tongued neighborhood women who mocked their husbands publicly. Penelope didn’t see the point—open abuse didn’t make a husband any easier to live with or the hearthrug any less dreary or the husband’s pocket any more open.

Not that Mr. Clay made much money. He left little to his widow and sons when he died. Penelope, eight-year-old Robert, and five-year-old Charlie had to relocate to her parents’ home after the funeral; Penelope did not, however, plan to settle into widowed obscurity, smiling gently on her active boys from a chimney corner.

Luckily, she’d had sons, not daughters. Her mother preferred males in the household and was perfectly willing to endure a boy’s cleverness (that in a girl, she would label “insolence”) and animal spirits (rather than “fuss”) for the pleasure of bragging about her grandsons to the neighbors.

Penelope knew: No one will brag about me. I’ll have to claim my future without assistance.

This time she would marry for money, ensuring a university education for her sons. Penelope didn’t have much maternal feeling—except to be pleasantly surprised that her sons weren’t dunces. But she owed them a future.

For herself, she wanted long-term security and independence from her parents. She had seen too many women, widows of tutors and surveyors, forced to move into tiny rooms from which they wrote desperate, begging letters to friends and family. Penelope woke sometimes from nightmares filled with tatty furniture and dirty window panes, overcome by a sensation of drowning. She would never suffer such a life. She had been a passable wife. She would be one again.

She already knew she could tolerate a boring man.

Sir Walter was boring. He was also husband material: he did not drink to excess, did not invite (any kind of) scandal through sexual misconduct, had not beaten his late wife and did not beat his daughters. And he was marvelously prone to flattery.

Unfortunately, Kellynch was not the relaxed neighborhood of Cambridge, nor was it the loud but friendly dining room of the Clays’ lodgings, which they’d shared with five other families. Penelope could not approach Sir Walter directly.

He had three daughters. The youngest Elliot daughter was married and living away from home; Penelope remembered her vaguely as a scattered-brained, whiny child. But the two older daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, were still unmarried and living with their father. Penelope eyed them now from her position in the assembly hall.

Skirting the partners for the next dance, Penelope paused near Anne, standing beside Lady Russell, and waited to catch the middle Elliot daughter’s eyes whereupon Anne gave Penelope the gentle, almost seraphic smile of her late mother.

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Mrs. Clay,” Anne said; Penelope made a suitable response though the loss was a year away, and by now she barely remembered her husband’s vague personality.

Lady Russell greeted Penelope perfunctorily, her eyes traveling over her to another attendee: “Mrs. Burland, what did you think of Seasons? Isn’t Thomson a remarkable poet?”

Lady Russell presumed to be an intellectual, Penelope remembered. She supposed she could impress Lady Russell with allusions to Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and Walter Scott. Toadying to Lady Russell might bring her closer to Anne; Lady Russell was a great friend of the baronet’s family. But after watching Anne mingle amongst the attendees and noting Anne’s friendly detachment, Penelope concluded that declaiming bits of literary minutiae into Lady Russell’s ears would be an ineffective use of her time.

I could know Anne Elliot for years and still never make a mark.

Anne was gracious. Penelope knew from town gossip that Anne was liked. But she seemed to exist in a bubble of utter remoteness. How many people did get close to her?

Penelope would have better luck with Anne’s sister Elizabeth.

The eldest Elliot sister swanned about the assembly hall, following her father’s ponderous circuit. She bestowed regal smiles on attendees and seemingly friendly commentary: “Oh, Mabel, what a darling gown. You are so nimble a seamstress!” Her tone was so gracious, simpering Mabel never noticed the implicit criticism: the gown was obviously altered.

Unlike Anne, Elizabeth ended her parade amid a coterie of girls who appeared abashed and gratified by her attention. Penelope noted that they were not the brightest girls in town, but then those girls would not give Elizabeth so much deference, baronet’s daughter or not.

Penelope wafted closer to Elizabeth’s coterie and waited to be acknowledged (she had been reintroduced to Elizabeth shortly after returning to Kellynch).

“Mrs. Clay,” Elizabeth said. “You appear most presentable.”

Penelope seized the opening. “Oh, Miss Elliot,” she replied, “you are so elegant. I would love your opinion on how I might improve my wardrobe.”

No, that was not too effusive, for Elizabeth preened at the compliment.

Little less than a decade in boarding houses had taught Penelope to sell her wit and passable looks (though not her body—not yet) for special considerations: extra servings for her family at meals, extra coal for the fire, extra time on bills from vendors. Selling her self-respect was hardly any effort at all.

Chapter 2

William Elliot, Esq.

William Elliot despised his Kellynch relations. Thankfully, they didn’t feel compelled to contact him with blathering platitudes when his wife died.

Will’s wife, Sally, died from fever. She’d gone out on the Thames for New Year’s and caught a chill. Will told her to rest, to ease off the party circuit, and for a few months, she drooped about the house. Then in late spring, she spent a week parading from Vauxhall to the worst gambling hells near St. James (she didn’t play; she liked to cheer on others). By the time Will fetched her home, she was coughing and listless.

He did try to save her. They were wealthy. He’d married Sally for her money and invested it shrewdly despite their importuning friends: they owned a London townhouse, a carriage, five servants plus baubles and fine dresses for Sally. They could afford a physician, and Will called in several.

He did not have much hope—the headaches gave way to nausea which gave way to a rash—but he didn’t wish to send his wife into oblivion without some fanfare.

She was such a pathetic creature, having the brains and disposition of a kitten. Even as she faded, she would giggle pleasurably when Will brought her presents or trite messages from her many acquaintances. Those acquaintances had gathered in the lower drawing room of Sally and Will’s townhouse the moment they heard of Sally’s illness.

“How is she?” they clamored whenever Will passed the drawing room door.

They were honestly sorry she was dying; they missed her frenetic energy and chirpy chatter. Their sorrow didn’t curtail their revelries. Between Will’s reports, they drank all the claret—which usually lasted several months—then broke a lamp and a window playing pall-mall indoors. When they started planning a cock-fight, Will threw them out.

“Wish Sally well,” they shouted from the pavement. Two of her closest friends loitered to tell Will to tell Sally that they still wanted to borrow money but would wait till she was better.

“How noble of you,” Will said, sighing when they solemnly agreed that sorrow compelled one to forgo worldly concerns.

He didn’t slam the door after they left though he did lock it. Sally adored her friends; she’d spent most of her life—before they’d married and after—in their company. She’d married Will when he briefly joined her crowd through the friend of a friend. He’d found the menagerie’s carefree manners a relief from his irritating relations.

Two of those relations, Sir Walter and his daughter Elizabeth, had contacted Will nearly twelve years earlier when Will was in residence at the Inns of Court. The reasons had less to do with familial affection than genealogy: Will was the only male relative left in the Elliot family tree. Since Kellynch Hall and its accompanying property was entailed, he would inherit if Sir Walter had no legitimate male issue.

At the time, Will hadn’t taken such a theoretical future seriously; he couldn’t imagine himself as a fatherly lord of the manor. In any case, his supposedly exalted relatives had shown no interest in his affairs throughout his youth. His parents died in his eleventh year, leaving him, an only child, to the guardianship of his mother’s great-uncle, a gunpowder manufacturer who didn’t believe in hand-outs.

So when Will grew older, he went into the law and started searching for a wealthy wife.

Then Sir Walter’s wife died and Kellynch’s baronet decided to get acquainted with Kellynch’s heir. Sir Walter and Miss Elizabeth descended on Will during the London Season.

“My heir presumptive,” Sir Walter boomed the first time he and Will came face to face. “What a fine-looking man you are, Mr. William Elliot.”

Miss Elizabeth tittered and stretched out her hand to Will. “The family seat needs a proper occupant,” she said, leaving Will with the distinct impression that she was referencing herself—as Will’s wife presumably.

The idea of marrying this smug, haughty woman, relation or no, appalled Will. She was admittedly handsome with classic proportions. But only correct manners kept her eyes from straying to a mirror and she spoke to Will like he was a deficient youngster.

That initial meeting was thankfully short, and yet Will continued to encounter his tiresome relatives while they were in London; Sir Walter popped up here, there, and everywhere like a non-terrifying Jack in the Box: at Tattersall’s, in the House of Commons, and once in Hyde Park. Each time, Sir Walter proclaimed, “My heir—isn’t he a pleasing fellow?” to his companions.

Will only gritted his teeth. There was no point directly insulting the man. Though he did ignore his cousins’ repeated invitations to visit the supposedly incomparable Kellynch Hall, breathing relief when they took their preening, tedious selves back there.

He married Sally a year later.

Sally was not tedious. If anything, she was excessively in need of watching. She had a tendency to stray from party to party until someone—servant, friend, Will himself—went to fetch her home.

He considered her a tiresome burden by the time she died. And yet he missed her: her friendly chatter that no amount of sarcasm could squash; her helplessness in the face of bills, demanding servants, and simple directions.

He would marry again—he supposed he was the marrying kind, the sort of man who needed a woman somewhere, anywhere.

This time, though, Will would marry up. After all, he was going to be a baron.

When Sir Walter and Elizabeth had visited Will in London twelve years before, Will assumed Sir Walter wouldn’t remain a widower for long—the man believed so thoroughly in his own attributes, how could he fail but inflict them on another poor woman?

But now Sir Walter was closing on sixty without a second marriage and no son to inherit the baronetcy—and with it, the Kellynch property. Will’s position as heir was becoming more and more a believable possibility. Will found he liked that possibility; he could carve out a new life for himself with a respectable estate, instant community deference, and undemanding neighbors.

Will was tired of his and his wife’s crowd. Most of them were profligates without the resources to be profligates. They were loud, careless, and bad with money. And they all expected Will to pay their bills.

Will wanted better neighbors, neighbors who were quiet, astute, and solvent. His second wife would need to fit this new life.

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July 01, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (downloads)

I've posted the omnibus epub and mobi ebook files for Hills of Silver Ruins.

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