Book Box | Goodbye Paul Auster and CJ Sansom, masters of mystery and historical intrigue - Hindustan Times
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Book Box | Goodbye Paul Auster and CJ Sansom, masters of mystery and historical intrigue

May 05, 2024 12:26 AM IST

A tribute to mystery writers Paul Auster and C J Sansom, both of whom passed away in April, leaving behind their worlds of New York noir and Tudor England

Dear Reader,

The books of Paul Auster and C J Sansom
The books of Paul Auster and C J Sansom

Two writers I loved passed away recently. Both died of cancer, both were in their seventies, one on each side of the Atlantic.

Paul Auster, novelist, translator and filmmaker, died a few days ago at his Brooklyn home, of complications caused by lung cancer. I feel as if I met him only a few days ago. And in a sense, I did. I visited Paul Auster at his home, along with the novelist Salman Rushdie and his wife Eliza, in the pages of Knife, Rushdie’s recently released memoir.

Thinking of Paul Auster takes me back a year, to the streets of Brooklyn.

“Do you think Paul Auster lives on this road,” I ask my daughter as we walk down an oak tree-lined road in Park Slope, with brownstones on both sides. “Or maybe it’s the road we just walked by ?”

My daughter rolls her eyes. But I am obsessed with Auster.

I am reading Auster's The Brooklyn Follies, a book about a middle-aged man who lives in Park Slope and struggles to find meaning in ordinary life. It’s so beautifully written, that I feel like pausing every paragraph or two to highlight lines or copy them down for the sheer beauty of the prose. How much of this novel is drawn from the writer's own life, I speculate. Auster lives on these very streets he is describing.

The Brooklyn Follies
The Brooklyn Follies

I’ve always been a detective story addict, everything from Sherlock Holmes to Patricia Highsmith to the French detective Maigret to Keigo Higashino. So when I read about The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster’s famous series of interconnected detective novels, I couldn’t wait to pick it up.

The New York Trilogy turned out to be starkly and provocatively different from any mystery stories I’d ever read before. I was very quickly pulled into the detective protagonist’s head, as I sought to make sense of an existential fog of reality, of the detective’s own identity, looking out for clues and with twists and turns that arrived with every new chapter. I loved how skillfully Auster constructed a narrative of menace, how he built uneasiness, creating playful puzzles for the reader, teasing them with the tropes of storytelling. With every twist, you are asking yourself – could this possibly be true, yes maybe it could. Or is it all a hallucination?

“It’s like a trip, only there is no alcohol or drugs”, I told a friend who confessed she didn’t like Paul Auster. We agreed you have to be in a special kind of mood to read him – it’s a mood I’ve been in for all the years I’ve known this writer.

An ocean away, in Brighton, Sussex, lived CJ Sansom, the second much-loved writer who also passed earlier this week. Sansom’s historical mysteries wowed me so strongly, that like a squirrel with a store of nuts, I piled his Mathew Shardlake series up on my bookshelf, and in my Kindle, without reading them.

After I read Dissolution, the very first book in the series, I proceeded to buy copies of it for all my friends. The book is set in Tudor England at the time when Henry VIII has broken away from the Catholic Church and is dissolving the monasteries (hence, the name dissolution). Besides being part of the Catholic church, the monasteries are also centres of enormous wealth and places of great intrigue. So, when a monk is murdered, our hero, the lawyer Mathew Shardlake is called in and we get treated to gritty socio-economic history. I loved how effortlessly Sansom brings in the sights and sounds of London – the royal court, and Bedlam, London's notorious madhouse. I loved that Mathew Shardlake was a brilliant lawyer, damaged by disability, a hunch-back who wins us over with his dogged perseverance, practicality and living by a sense of ethics in a polarised political landscape.

When beloved writers pass away, I feel sad because their passing means there will be no more new works from these writers. But if I have to be truly honest, my sadness is mixed with something celebratory- something sweet – in an ode To a Skylark kind of way – our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts. The sadness of writing a writer's obituary also holds the sweetness of going back to their work, re-reading it, and talking about it with other readers.

Today Paul Auster and C J Sansom are dead, but they lived richly imaginative lives and wrote beautiful books. As a reader, I will celebrate their life by re-reading The New York Trilogy. And by treating myself from my jealously guarded store of unread Mathew Shardlake mysteries; perhaps Lamentation where Queen Catherine Parr enlists the help of Mathew Shardlake. Or Winter in Madrid, a standalone spy novel by Sansom. Or maybe both.

What about you dear Reader? Are you in the mood for mystery thrillers? If so, consider starting with Dissolution. And then watch the movie version, which just released on Disney, a few days after the death of Sansom. The timing is ironic, but it’s also a comforting testimony to how good writers are immortal.

Or do you prefer some non-fiction? As the election season swirls around us, here are books on engaging with democracy. And more on the secret lives of democracies.

And until next week, Happy Reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

The views expressed are personal

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