Modernist Moods & Cozy Mysteries: Lawrence Durrell’s “Balthazar” and Catherine Aird’s “Henrietta Who?”

Life in the summer is different nowadays. There is less sitting on porch swings as Climate Change steals our creaky traditions.

The summers were always hot – I tossed and turned and sweated and was cranky for the duration of many past droughts and heat waves- but now the heat waves are longer, and air conditioning is a requisite of everyday life.

My reading has been lighter (and cooler?) this summer. I recommend turning on the AC and flinging yourself on the couch with a cozy mystery or something moody and poetic. We all need a portal to an exotic landscape or a different culture. Mine is usually through books.

So here are two novels I’ve recently enjoyed: Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar, set in Alexandria, Egypt; and Catherine Aird’s cozy mystery, Henrietta Who?, set in Calleshire, an imaginary county in England.

LAWRENCE DURRELL’S BALTHAZAR. When I talk about Lawerence Durrell, I talk about The Alexandria Quartet, a masterly tetralogy which comprises Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. After I finish one of these books, I cannot tell you “what it is about.” I absorb the mood, the heat and exoticism, the rich language, the absurd and grotesque characters, from the anemic exotic dancer to the transvestite cop, and the nearly psychedelic dissociation rendered by the steamy nature of Alexandria.

Our perceptions keep changing as we read these books: Durrell’s portrait of Alexandria is always in flux. In the first book, Justine, we meet the narrator, Darley, an English writer in Alexandria. He is madly in love with Justine, a beautiful, troubled, intelligent, promiscuous, canny, deceitful, exasperating woman who attracts men and women alike – and has sex with everybody, while deceiving her husband and lovers – and is not particularly concerned about the consequences. And at the same time we have compassion for her: she is a lost soul, searching for her missing daughter.

All men are in love with Justine, except the gay men, and she especially is attracted to writers . Justine’s first husband wrote a novel about her, which mostly centered on the Freudian analysis that did not work on her. Now Darley, living on an island, has written about her in the context of a portrait of the city of Alexandria.

I recently reread the second novel, Balthazar, which Durrell refers to as a “sibling novel” rather than a sequel to Justine. Darley learns that he has been mistaken about almost everything he thought he knew. Justine did not love him – she loved another writer (of course), and this writer adamantly did not love her, and told her so! Balthazar, a doctor with a mystic bent, has scribbled corrections and notes on Darley’s manuscript, which he refers to as “the Interlinear.” Darley has a sense of humor: the affair is over, and the new interlinear fascinates him. And the interlinear clarifies the story of Justine’s husband, Nessim, who is as haunted as Justine, and Nessim’s brother, Narouz, a very shy man with a harelip, who visits the city once a year during Carnival, always searching for Clea, a woman he has seen once. She has no idea who he is.

Steamy, surreal, tragicomic – it’s all there!

CATHERINE AIRD’S HENRIETTA WHO? is the second in Aird’s Inspector Sloan mystery series. It has all the elements of Golden Age Detective Series, except that it was published in 1968, which is perhaps too late for the Golden Age. Yet the crimes are committed off-stage, so we are spared the violence; Inspector Sloan stays calm and methodical, however ghastly the crime; and it turns out that the people of Calleshire have many secrets.

This thoroughly enjoyable mystery begins with the postman’s discovery of the corpse of Mrs. Jenkins, who was apparently killed in a hit-and-run accident on a country road. Nothing is as it seems: from the tire marks, the police realize that somebody deliberately killed Mrs. Jenkins, running over her twice. And when the post-mortem shows that Mrs. Jenkins never gave birth, the problem of her identity and that of her daughter Henrietta, about to turn 21, become the center of this quietly effective who-dun-it.

4 thoughts on “Modernist Moods & Cozy Mysteries: Lawrence Durrell’s “Balthazar” and Catherine Aird’s “Henrietta Who?””

  1. I absolutely love Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, so I particularly enjoyed your review. I think you described precisely the requisitte attitude for enjoying it, i.e., forget plot and settle back to enjoy the mood, language and characters.
    I’m unfamiliar with Catherine Aird, but she her work sounds very entertaining. Those “sort of” cozy, Golden Age type mysteries were my introduction to crime fiction and I’m still very fond of them at times.

    1. Thank God someone loves The Alexandria Quartet! Some find it pompous and overwritten, but the poetic style washes over me and makes me long to go to Egypt. Catherine Aird is great, perhaps underestimated, and some of her books are still in print.

  2. Thank you, Kat, for Catherine Aird! I’d never heard of her. I didn’t start with the book you suggested, but with A Most Contagious Game. (I think it was her only stand-alone.)

    I listened to it on Audible, beautifully narrated by Derek Perkins. A delightful mystery with engaging characters, family secrets, religious history, an ancient corpse and hidden rooms.

    Let me return the favor by urging you again to pick up Dorothy Dunnet’s Lymond Chronicles. You won’t be sorry. I had to request an extension of my MA thesis deadline after a friend gave me the series in secondhand paperbacks for Christmas.
    When I finished (the first time) I went into withdrawal.

    Anyway I’m off to find Aird’s Sloan series. We have a week of thunderstorms ahead.

    1. I will have to check out the audible versions. I am so glad to share my love of Aird with others.

      And thank you for the recommendation of the Lymond Chronicles. I have the first one. Let’s hope I can find it.

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