The Critic: A Tasty Past Vintage


The Critic (2007)

By Peter May

Riverrun Books, 388 pages





Here’s another gem from the League of Women Voters Book Sale. Scottish mystery writer Peter May is probably best known for The Lewis Trilogy, but his best known investigator is the half-Italian/half-Scottish (Lor)Enzo Alexander Macleod. The Critic was just May’s second what would eventually be a seven-book Enzo series. Each can stand alone, so sequential reading is not necessary.


In it I saw both May’s early promise and how he quickly evolved. The Critic is set in southern France where Enzo seeks to reopen a cold case involving the disappearance of Gil Perry after a recent book poses the possibility of foul play. Perry was a wine critic so influential that his ratings could make or break a vineyard. He was last seen in the Occitan/Languedoc region of southern France.


Local gendarme Daniel Roussel thinks that’s rubbish and holds a typical distrust of outsiders. Small wonder in Macleod’s case. He’s in his 50s, divorced, semi-estranged from his children, sports a ponytail, and hasn’t exactly been hitting the gym. What could a man such as he know about wine or reviving a cold case. Quite a bit actually; Macleod speaks fluent French and knows his wines. More to the point, he knows even more about forensics, which he teaches at the University of Toulouse, though locals distrust that sort of thing even more than foreigners.


The nearby towns of Albi and Cahors were once the center of the Albigensian heresy of the 13th century, but you’d not guess that given how tradition-bound it became, especially in its chauvinistic attitudes about wine. Laurent de Bonneval, for instance, is a key leader in l’Ordre de la Dive Bouteille. He’s so devoted to natural wines that he can hardly mention American vintages without spitting because he believes they contain synthetic yeast. You can imagine what he and other farmers think of Enzo, who rents a farm gîte (furnished unit) under the easily blown cover that he’s there for wine and rest. When the owners find out his real agenda, they want him gone though they need the extra income more than they dislike Enzo and the way he rearranged a farm wall.


Enzo certainly isn’t getting in a lot of relaxation, but he does his best to consume numerous local bottles. Enzo cast smore suspicion when Nicole Lefeuille, one of his students, shows up to assist, locals jump to conclusions when they notice her large breasts and youth. Yes, this really is a conservative part of France! Actually, Nicole is more interested in Fabien Marre, one of Enzo’s top suspects, and has no problem telling Enzo her extracurriculars fall into the MYOB category. He fears she’s in grave danger, but one of the intriguing things about Macleod is how often he gets things wrong.


Besides, his own complicated affairs of the heart don’t provide much moral high ground. When his daughters appear, he takes an instant dislike to Kirsty’s boyfriend Roger. Okay, Roger did once sleep with Enzo’s on again/off again girlfriend Charlotte, so that’s creepy. Still,  Kirsty isn’t about to submit to lectures from a papa who’s not above putting the moves on a married female judge. Macleod has reservations about daughter Sophie’s boyfriend as well; Bertrand looks like a Mohawked punk rocker, but it turns out he is a wine supertaster. Many are the egoists who think they can tell vintages, types of grapes, the soils in which they were grown, distinct smells, and the “notes” of wines (pear, vanilla, stone, old leather, etc.), but only a very small number of supertasters can actually do so. The missing Gil Perry was another. 


What’s a mystery without a few pickled bodies? Ancient hatreds, jealousy, fear, tragedy, coded ratings, and forensics all come into play before Enzo muddles his way to the bottom (in more ways than one) of the situation. The Critic has a few misfires, such as what’s-under-the-kilt jokes that were shopworn even in 2007, clichéd beat-the-clock escapes, and a maudlin backstory involving a dog, but it’s a book you’ll find yourself plowing through in a few sittings because of May’s facility in building suspense. It would be apt if you felt compelled to have a glass of wine or two while reading. No California plonk, though.


Rob Weir


Note: The book contained a phrase from Rabelais that I love: “I have nothing. I owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor.”  


World's End: A T.C. Boyle Classic

World’s End (1987)

By T. C. Boyle

Penguin, 456 pages.





I enjoy going to League of Women Voters book sales: 50 cents-$1 for paperbacks and two bucks for a hardcover. At a recent sale in Amherst I scored a few titles from favorite authors and works of others I’ve been meaning to read.


One of the latter is T.C. Boyle whose World's End was a PEN/Faulkner winner. The back blurb promises, “Walter Van Brunt is about to have a collision with history.” And how!  World's End is a sprawling novel that starts in the 17th century and wends its way through the 1960s, all with an eye toward helping Walter uncover his father's role during the “Peterskill” riots of 1949 (Peekskill thinly disguised) Local thugs, American Legion toughs, the KKK, and coopted cops broke up a licensed concert sponsored by then-legal American communists. Had not luck prevailed, more than bloody noses and broken bones would have occurred. One of the mob’s objectives was to lynch African American singer Paul Robeson.


It seems a stretch to locate the roots of 20th century history in 1663, but Boyle is a weaver of connections who wants us to consider what things are bred in the bone. Most of the book is set in New York's Hudson River Valley, but it also detours to the Netherlands and Alaska, involves Native-American tribes, social class conflict, racism, feuding families, and missing limbs. (Yep, missing limbs!)


Boyle included a cast of characters for each of the time periods, which you’ll need as 61 play important roles. Unless you grew up in New York State, you might not know it was a Dutch colony for 30 years before the English took control. Dutch influence is why some of New York’s most powerful families bear surnames such Van Buren, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Roosevelt.


Most of the novel’s Dutch protagonists are of lesser fame –though Peter Stuyvesant of Manhattan island notoriety gets some play–but they were part of a drama pitting highborn against lowborn. Walter's kin were among the latter, tenant farmers and pioneers who intermarried with Kitchawank (Algonquin) natives, and paid the price if they crossed Van Wart patroons, Dutch office holders, or their allies.


You can get bogged down in the names and unfamiliar political dynamics, but Boyle delivers a history lesson that is left out of most textbooks. This is especially case of the Kitchawank, many of whom were mixed bloods of shifting loyalties but increasingly Europeanized lifestyles. Not that that's saying much, as lowborn Dutch lived both close to nature and close to the vest. To simplify, clashes between the Van Warts and the Van Brunts shaped Walter’s life two centuries before he was born. Not that Walter is a prince in the 1960s or even a decent person. It's also the case that the Van Warts are not as mighty as they once were, yet still considered themselves to be. Bred in the bone?


Doyle's book is an American tragedy, so not too many characters wear untarnished armor. His countercultural males are largely unwashed, unrealistic, and sexist to the core. The exception is that Boyle has sympathy for the crew of the Arcadia trying to clean up the polluted Hudson. (He is so obviously alluding to the sloop Clearwater and Pete Seeger that one wonders why he bothered with such disguises.) The crew might be the only folks in the book with altruistic motives, no matter what detractors thought of their politics.


Walter and others will indeed collide with history.  Such crashes take a toll even if the parties survive (and not all will.) Walter's dilemma, like that of his ancestor Wouter, is an old one that resonates today: Do we repeat history or change it? Do we take a stand or bend the knee? It was happenstance that the Peekskill riots factored into World's End, but I certainly drew comparisons to the January 6th rioters who chose base motives over democratic ones.


Boyle’s book was written 36 years ago when the general public's reading habits were more sophisticated and patient than they are today. As such, Boyle saw no need to compromise between literary style and storytelling. It takes time to sort characters, untangle the historical threads, and immerse yourself in the narrative, but it's worth it.


Rob Weir


Note: The cover is adorned with a wooden shoe, a nod to the Dutch, but also a sly reference to sabots from whence we get the word sabotage. In the early 1800s artisans threatened with job loss hurled sabots into machines.



All Quiet on the Western Front Deromanticizes War



All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

Directed by Edward Berger

Netflix, 147 minutes, R (violence, gore, disturbing images)

In German (Subtitles but some versions dubbed)



I read All Quiet on the Western Front when I was in high school. It, the Vietnam War, and the Quakers turned me into a pacifist. Later I saw both the 1930 and 1979 film versions of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic  novel, but the 2022 remake tops them all. The novel and the various films are the most powerful antiwar statements ever produced. The latest film, directed by Edward Berger, won all manner of prizes, including four Oscars.


Some ducked it because it is so gruesome. To such people I say that it drives home the absolute obscenity of war and moves us beyond the hero dreams of military recruiters, braggadocio generals, and pandering politicians. If you don’t like what you see on the screen, watch how you vote and don’t let your children become soldiers. Every element you see on the screen is a logical outcome of war and each justification for combat is hollow.


Seventeen-year-old Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is the protagonist of All Quiet on the Western Front, one of millions of lambs sent to the slaughter who fell for the patriotic claptrap of the German high command during the waning days of World War I. He is a fresh-faced postal delivery boy lured into uniform along with three of his best friends.  The lie is on from the outset, old uniforms boiled to remove the blood, sewn to close the bullet holes, and (most of) the tags removed that identified the deceased former wearers. It’s 1917 and trench warfare has stalemated to the point where waves of young men charge across bomb-pocked landscapes filled with barbed wire, dead horses, corpses, and water-and-blood filled craters. The insanity of youths being machine-gunned, blown apart, bayoneted, set afire, and gassed to secure a few hundred meters of land is on full display. So too is life inside the trenches: sucking mud, excrement, sniper fire, flares, bunker-blasting bombs, and the grim task of collecting dog tags from the dead when there’s a lull in the fighting.


There are hundreds of ways to die. Albert Kropp is roasted by a flamethrower and Tjaden Stackfleet stabs himself in the throat with a fork rather than endure amputation (and, in all likelihood, sepsis). Paul will loses his comrades but befriends “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), an older soldier who becomes a big brother of sorts. As you might predict, graveyard humor, dreams of women, and talk of a postwar future that few will live to see dominate trench conversation. That is, when they are not too emotionally drained to speak. One of the ways that one tries to deal with the horror is to become a stoic killing machine that can shoot another human being at pointblank range, smash a skull with a rock, or repeatedly stab someone, move on to the next victim, and avoid becoming one yourself. When you find a room of 60 dead new recruits who died because they prematurely removed their gas mask, you but shrug.


The ultimate craziness, as Paul and Kat survive into 1918, is that German politicians know the war has been lost­–U.S. entry into the conflict tipped the scales–but try convincing the Kaiser of that or fanatics such as General Friedrichs (Daniel Striesow). The German state secretary Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) is trying his best to end the war, but he’s getting no cooperation from French General Fuchs (Thibault de Montalembert) on ending the carnage. Fuchs has the winning hand and knows it; he gives the Germans 72 hours to accept unconditional surrender involving major land concessions and won’t listen to pleas that a victor’s peace could lead to a future war. (Think fascism and World War II.)


The accord is signed and, as you might know, the war ended at 11 am on November 11: 11/11/11. Ahh, but what about that 72-hour period before the armistice took hold? Do you think a sanguinary monster such as Friedrichs will tell his troops to chill? He’s perfectly willing to send hundreds of young men to their graves if he can claim a “glorious” victory. Remember the line from Apocalypse Now: “The horror! The horror!”


All Quiet on the Western Front is brilliant filmmaking in the service of warning us against such horror: the cinematography of James Friend, the creepy soundtrack of Volker Bertelmann, the make-up artistry of Heike Merker, and Berger’s uncompromising don’t-look-away direction. Too much horror? Did you think war is pretty?


Rob Weir