Literature leads the way, as it always does, for some of us

September 23, 2007 at 3:42 pm (To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

One of the uniquely pleasurable aspects of these Smithsonian “Mystery Lovers” tours has been the way in which they simultaneously gratify the intellect and the senses. We travel, study, read, and learn. We take in cities, countryside, coastlines. We eat delicious – yes, delicious – British food! The driving is left to super-competent professionals, who navigate our large comfortable coaches through narrow, twisting lanes, while we stare out the window, mesmerized by the beauty of the hills and fields, all clothed in the most intense shades of green; “a green thought in a green shade,” comes over us again and again. At times you could believe yourself to be in an earlier century – or almost will yourself to be…

Then you are jerked back to reality: Ring, school bell! Our study leader Carol Kent is the professor we all wish we’d had in college; deeply knowledgeable, she is a speaker of great conviction with, at times, a downright uproarious sense of humor. We are not so much lectured as regaled, as she are carries us along on the tide of her enthusiasm. She made a comment about herself that I absolutely loved: “I live in hyperbole!”

The literary theme of this journey was the relationship between Gothic literature and mystery fiction. Carol made an extremely compelling case that the former is the direct ancestor of the latter. She listed some of the ways in which this literary morphing process occurred. For example:

“Sinister castles and gloomy ancestral mansions” become “Family homes, a police detective’s messy apartments, an amateur detective’s art-filled home.”

“Uncanny animals,” e.g. wolves, bats, and ravens, become – what else – cats!

“Supernatural motives” give way to motives rooted in reason.

“Terror” is pushed into the background and replaced by suspense as “the puzzle” comes to the fore.

The novel that bridges the gap between Gothic and mystery fiction, is The Moonstone. Carol put it beautifully: “The Gothic is subverted by the rational” in the pages of this famously entertaining work. What begins with the quintessentially Gothic device of a family curse ends with a genteel amateur – Franklin Blake – and Sergeant Cuff, a retired policeman, ultimately running the perpetrator to ground (although he has been murdered by the time they catch up with him). Nothing supernatural or exotic motivated this crime, only the dire need to replace misappropriated funds. An almost prosaic conclusion!

On this trip, with its tightly packed schedule of events, the body might tire, but the brain – never!


  1. BooksPlease said,

    This post and the previous 3 are really interesting. I love reading about your visit to England. What a wonderful range of books and places to take in. What a coincidence – I’ve just read on Eve’s Alexandria of Victoria and Esther’s visit to Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage – I must go myself one day.

  2. Let’s have a drum roll and a chorus of Rule Britannia! Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] the above, I was reminded of some of the landscapes we saw and the villages we passed through on our recent trips to England: The village of Hawes, in […]

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