Revisiting Jane Langton

No, not revisiting her in person: she died four years ago, and I had never met her. The title of this post means that I have just finished rereading two of her Homer Kelly novels.

If you know the first book, you may remember it as The Minuteman Murder. Or you may know it under its original title, The Transcendental Murder, which didn’t sell well outside of New England since most readers couldn’t pronounce the second word. I first read it back in 1964, when I was in high school.

It seems like a long time ago.

It was a long time ago.

One of the ways you can tell that it was a long time ago is to read the price list at the end of the novel, where the publisher lists a bunch of other books that might appeal to readers of this one:

Anyway, transcendental…and minuteman…aha! It must have something to do with Concord, Mass. And indeed it does. In fact, Concord itself is the major character in the novel. Langton lived one town over—in Lincoln—and obviously knew Concord well. My first observation about The Minuteman Murder is that the setting is all-important. The reader is immersed in both the history and the geography of the town, all with the spirits of Thoreau and Emerson, The Shot Heard ’Round the World, farmers and minutemen and Patriots Day and of course a bit of Longfellow (yes, Longfellow lived in Cambridge, but you know why he’s mentioned here, and we’ll get to Cambridge later anyway). If you’re honest with yourself you’ll admit that you didn’t identify the murderer until at least 80% of the way through the book. (It’s the only way to avoid self-deception, since we all like to convince ourselves that we knew all along. Write down who you think the murderer would turn out to be several times as you read the book, before you actually find out.)

I read the paperback edition of The Minuteman Murder, which unfortunately does not include Langton’s evocative line drawings.

Above—in my opening paragraph—I wrote that I just read two of her Homer Kelly novels. Since The Minuteman Murders was the first, you will probably assume that I read Dark Nantucket Noon next, as it’s the second in the series. I discovered that I don’t own that one, alas; I must have read a library copy. But I do recall that I didn’t particularly like it anyway, partly because it all takes place on Nantucket. In all my many visits to Nantucket—well, my few visits—well, OK, my one visit to Nantucket—I found it boring and not worth returning to. I guess I’m just a city boy at heart. So I skipped that installment and moved on to The Memorial Hall Murder, of which I do have a copy. In hard cover, no less! Therefore complete with illustrations. Although I usually like to read a series sequentially and consecutively, skipping doesn’t seem to be a problem in the case of Jane Langton’s books: there’s never much of a character development arc from one novel to later ones. Character development pretty much takes place within a single book.

So now we’ve moved from Concord to Nantucket to Cambridge. The satire of Harvard administrators is pretty wicked, so be prepared if you’re a fan of the Harvard administration. This is fiction, remember, so you will be told that Derek Bok was appointed to the Supreme Court by Jimmy Carter—in real life Bok and Carter have something in common, both thriving in their 90s even today—after which Harvard appointed a Cheever as their new president. (Fiction, remember!) Not the famed novelist John Cheever, nor Dan Cheever, former president of Simmons, but one James Cheever, probably intended to be interpreted as John Cheever’s son (just a guess).

So: The Memorial Hall Murder. Unlike Nantucket, I really have been in Memorial Hall many, many times, ranging from classes in Sanders Theatre to concerts there, from many meals in Annenberg Hall to many meetings in the basement. These experiences clearly added to my enjoyment of the novel, but they are by no means prerequisite to appreciating the story.

Once again, if you’re going to guess the murderer, write it down to keep yourself honest. Self-deception is otherwise inevitable.

Now I’ve moved on to The Escher Twist, which is again not consecutive: The Minuteman Murder was written in 1964, Dark Nantucket Noon 1975, The Memorial Hall Murder 1978, The Escher Twist 2002. But Homer and Mary Kelly live on. I’ve actually read all 18 novels in the series, and I have no idea how many I will want to read a second time.

Categories: Books