I sang the praises of this book in a post I wrote last year. I’ve recently reread it – the book I mean, not the post – and the effect was the same as it was the first time: riveting and deeply unsettling.
But because of the upcoming discussion, I was having a slightly different reading experience. (This is rather inevitable.) In addition to my admiration for the author’s terrific writing and prodigious research, I was feeling perplexed. Just how was I to organize this brilliant but somewhat oddly shaped narrative?
I struggled. I wrangled. Eventually I reached the point where, as my husband is fond of saying. you stick a fork in it and pronounce it done. I reached that point about an hour before show time.
So: Here, in part, is how it went:
I began with a passage from the Stratford Express, a local newspaper widely read at the time that the crime took place (1895). The reporter, as you will see, does not mince words, referring to the murder as “…the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.” It goes on:
In the wildest dreams of fiction, nothing has ever been depicted which equals in loathsomeness this story of sons playing at cards in a room which the dead body of their murdered mother filled with the stench of corruption.
Upon my second reading of The Wicked Boy, this passage put me in mind of a work which, although written more than four hundred years ago, remains probably the most harrowing depiction of the effect of murder upon the perpetrators that was ever recorded.
Is this a dagger which I see before me,The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.Art thou not, fatal vision, sensibleTo feeling as to sight? or art thou butA dagger of the mind, a false creation,Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
And afterwards, oh, afterwards…He tells Lady Macbeth that the deed is done. He is nearly incoherent from the horror of it. For some moments, the known world is held in some kind of awful suspension, until a knocking at the gate is heard, a knocking that perversely prefigures a scene of comic relief featuring a porter too drunk to do his job.Thomas De Quincey describes this unholy sequence of events brilliantly in his essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth:”
Here … the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires…. In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers, and the murder, must be insulated—cut off by an immeasurable gulph from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs—locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested—laid asleep—tranced—racked into a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the reestablishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.
This critique is followed by an apostrophe to the greatness of Shakespeare that begins, “O, mighty poet!” Indeed, but be assured, Mr. De Quincey, thou art no slouch thyself in the eloquence department!
After giving a brief backgrounder on Kate Summerscale – necessarily brief, as there’s not much material about her personal life out there, at least not that I could find – I focused on the three books she authored before The Wicked Boy:
I’ve not read The Queen of Whale Cay, but it sounds interesting. “Joe” Carstairs was apparently a rather unique character, in more than one way. I read and very much enjoyed Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Neither of these two works was in the true crime genre, but The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher certainly was. I led a discussion on that title back in 2009. What a rich concoction of a tale that is! It was Summerscale’s breakthrough book, winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. (This has since been renamed The Baillie Gifford Prize. Presumably the British penchant for renaming literary awards is meant to keep us book lovers awake and alert.) In 2010, she was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (which appears to retain that name as of this writing.)
All Summerscale’s books save the first one take place – or, as in the case of The Wicked Boy, have their beginnings – in the Victorian era. In an interview in the Independent, quoted in the September/October 2016 issue of Bookmarks Magazine, she enlarges on her attraction to that particular time in history:
…it feels far enough away to be gripping, like a mystery or an adventure, but near enough to also recognise…..It’s strange on the surface, but you can get it. My sense of what we’re like as English people–the idea of the Englishness I inhabit–I have a sense of it being forged [then].
The subject matter of The Wicked Boy is grim enough. The murdered mother alluded to in the quote at the beginning of this post was done to death by her own son. His name was Robert Coombes. At the time of the murder he was thirteen years old. What made the crime appear even more appalling – then as now – was the fact that once it had been done, Robert, his twelve-year-old brother Nattie, and a somewhat simple minded adult companion named John Fox, whom Robert recruited for various purposes, not only played cards, but also attended cricket matches and amused themselves in various other ways as if they hadn’t a care in the world. (Their father, a merchant seaman, was away from home.)
What was their ultimate plan? There didn’t seem to be one, except to make the most of this hard won freedom for as long as they could. In ten days, the gig was up. When asked, Robert came clean and took the rap.
An even more pressing question involved Robert’s motive. Although he readily admitted to stabbing his mother, he didn’t supply a motive that seemed commensurate with the crime. Their mother thrashed Nattie for stealing food, presumably from their own larder. Adolescent boys develop powerful appetites, and Emily Coombes might not have been making allowances for this. At least one reviewer I encountered felt that this denial of needed nourishment might have been enough to trigger the killing. Neither of the boys was undernourished, though it’s worth noting that neither attained much height in adulthood. Nattie in particular was not much more than five feet tall.
One theory frequently offered was that Robert had fallen prey to the malign influence exerted by the so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’ that he read compulsively. As defined by Wikipedia, these were “cheap popular serial literature produced during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom.” (America had its own similarly flourishing industry; they were called “dime novels” here.) Summerscale provides an interesting context for this phenomenon:
Between 1870 and 1885, the number of children at elementary schools trebled, and by 1892 four and a half million children were being educated in the board schools. The new wave of literate boys sought out penny fiction as a diversion from the rote-learning and drill of the school curriculum….Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.
Sound familiar? A reviewer in The Guardian called penny dreadfuls “the Victorian equivalent of video games.”
I went off on a lengthy quest to find one of these, or at least a facsimile thereof. This American equivalent, published in 1903, is what I finally came up with, courtesy of eBay:
Inside front cover
Proclaiming the entries in this series to be “excellent books of generous length,” the editor goes on to offer this assurance: “One of the best features about these books is that they are all of the highest moral tone, containing nothing that could be objectionable to the most particular parents.”
Our group went on to discuss the types of emotional and mental disturbances that might have affected Robert. (Thank you, Frank, for your enlightening and professionally informed comments on this subject.) Ultimately Robert was adjudged guilty but insane. John Fox was not made to stand trial. Nattie testified against his brother – he was “flipped,” as they in contemporary police dramas – and was granted immunity.
And Robert was sent off to a rather extraordinary institution called Broadmoor, originally opened in 1863. Under the enlightened regime in place there, he reached a more or less normal and potentially productive adulthood. He learned a marketable skill – tailoring, played in the band, something he loved to do and was good at, and participated in various sports.
In 1912, at age 30, he was released from Broadmoor and went to live at another interesting residential facility, The Salvation Army Farm Colony at Hadleigh, in Essex. Both Broadmoor and the Salvation Army facility are still in existence. The latter, in fact, has been repurposed in a way that truly give one hope for the future.
Robert only stayed a year at the Hadleigh colony before emigrating to Australia. At that point in Kate Summerscale’s research, she nearly lost the plot. She was afraid that Robert Coombes might have changed his name. He hadn’t. She picked up the thread once again when a Google search led her to a database of headstones in Australian cemeteries. Click here for the listing. And here is the inscribed memorial:
So: there was a record of Robert’s military service; in addition, an unknown name of one for whom he had apparently done a good turn. She could pick up her research from that point. And she did. Robert’s life in Australia – including Army service in foreign parts on behalf of his adopted country – occupies the second half of The Wicked Boy. It is a virtually unbroken chronicle of courage, sacrifice, and generosity, freely offered with no expectation of any kind of return.
And so, at the end of this sad and tragic narrative, one question looms over all. At first, I phrased the query in terms of atonement or redemption. Frank however felt that the real question was whether, over the course of his life, Robert Coombes had changed in a fundamental way. But that begs the question as to what exactly was the make-up of his nature on that fateful day in 1895? And anyway, a 13-year-old is a half formed thing. Anyone would change from that point in time up until he or she reached adulthood. Of course, most 13-year-olds, whatever the conflicts with their parents, do not up and kill one of them out of spite, frustration – or whatever it was. Was there a deadness in Robert’s heart where at least some degree of regard for his mother should have reposed? Frank thought there was.
One of the things that those attempting to adjudicate Robert’s case had to grapple with was the fact that at the time he committed the crime, he was no longer really a child but not yet an adult. The identification of adolescence as a distinct stage of development was only just then gaining acceptance in the literature of psychology and child rearing. (Wikipedia has an interesting post on the subject.)
In talking this over with my husband, he pointed out that a person who atones or genuinely repents a past act has by definition changed from what he or she was when the act was first committed.
At any rate, in this case of Robert Coombes, these questions must remain at least to some extent speculative. Summerscale not only did not unearth a journal or diary of any kind, she did not even find any letters. We can only judge him by his outward actions. And in his adult life, those belonged to a human being who was almost desperately striving toward goodness.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly. Kate Summerscale was asked whether she was concerned about being pigeonholed as a true crime writer. This was her response:
No. I think it’s a fascinating genre. True crime is ethically kind of precarious, often uncomfortably close to voyeurism, prurience, a fascination with violence, transgression, and pain—but it can examine the dark traits that it panders to, and for just this reason it has an unusual capacity to engage with questions about psychology, cruelty, culpability, emotional disturbance, damage, injustice, restitution, fear, pity, grief.
The Wicked Boy has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book of 2017 by the Mystery Writers of America. Winners will be announced later this month.
Okay, here goes:
I had a great reading year in nonfiction; in fact, it’s probably accurate to say that this is where most of my 2016 reading joy resided.
The true crime subgenre came through for me as it almost always does. In The Midnight Assassin, Skip Hollandsworth tells the harrowing story of a serial killer, all the while bringing late nineteenth Texas history vividly to life. Hollandsworth writes for Texas Monthly Magazine, which has for some time featured exceptional true crime reportage.
True Crime Addict differs from most books in this genre that I’ve heretofore read in that journalist James Renner’s obsession with the case of young woman’s baffling disappearance results in his personal life becoming hopelessly entangled in the investigation.
In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale once again proves herself a master of the true crime narrative. As with the award-winning Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), meticulous research combined with a compelling story results in yet another outstanding book. There are more questions than answers in The Wicked Boy, and there is one questions that, when all is said and done, hangs over this whole affair of a misbegotten son and his fatally impulsive act: one of the profoundest questions we humans can ask of ourselves, or of one another.
In 2009, I chose The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to present to the Usual Suspects. In April of next year, I’ll be doing the same with The Wicked Boy. (I recommend Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, also by Kate Summerscale. Not exactly true crime, but the book provides a fascinating window onto the mores of Victorian Britain.)
And yet…. In July of 1895, in a house in Plaistow, “a poor but respectable working-class district in the borough of West Ham” in East London, Robert Coombes, age 13, stabbed his mother Emily to death as she lay in her bed.
He then closed and locked her bedroom door.
Robert had a brother a year younger than himself. He was called Nattie. Their father, a seaman bound for New York, had no idea of the horror awaiting him back home.
Acquiring funds any way they could, Robert and Nattie proceeded to live large. When friends and family asked after their mother, they invented various excuses for her absence. Aside from running around town and generally enjoying themselves, especially when watching cricket test matches at Lord’s, Robert and Nattie spent time at home playing cards with their friend John Fox, a man in his mid-forties of apparently limited intellect.
Meanwhile, a noxious odor had begun to emanate from the upper floor. It was beginning to pervade the entire house and could even be detected from the outside. Robert and Nattie’s excuses began to wear thin. They were even barring the door to their mother’s friends and her sister-in-law, also named Emily. Soon the latter would brook no further obstruction. She and her friend Mary Jane Burrage forced their way into the house as Nattie fled out the back. Once again, Aunt Emily demanded to know the whereabouts of Robert and Nattie’s mother. Robert claimed that she was in Liverpool. Mrs Burrage was having none of it. She stated bluntly: “‘Your mother is lying dead in that room upstairs.” With Robert still denying, she and Aunt Emily went up and gained entry to the bedroom.
Although they could not see only mounded up sheets and pillows, the stench was overwhelming. They backed out of the room and sent for the police. When PC Twort finally arrived and removed the coverings, he was greeted by a gruesome sight: a woman’s dead body, already undergoing putrefaction and crawling with maggots.
Nattie and Robert Coombes were arrested, as was their friend John Fox. Fox was soon discharged; charges against Nattie were withdrawn on condition that he testify against his brother. This he did.
Both the public and the press the followed the legal proceedings avidly, while all the time condemning the appalling nature of the crime. From a local paper called the Stratford Express:
“The ‘Plaistow Horror’ is a story which must depress all who are longing for the improvement of mankind. It will pain public feeling to an extent which has rarely been equalled . It seems to plunge us back at once into the Dark Ages.”
The only way that Robert Coombes could escape the death penalty – his youth was no bar to it – was if he were found to be insane. In due course, this judgment was handed down. Robert was sent to Broadmoor Hospital.
Upon its founding in 1863, the facility’s official name was The Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. In the late 1890s, as per Summerscale’s fascinating description, it was operated in a remarkably humane manor. In addition, the grounds were bucolic and offered appealing views to all who dwelt therein.
It was as idyllic a prospect as a city boy like Robert had ever seen. In this pastoral setting the inmates of Broadmoor were returned to a kind of innocence: they were stripped of their freedoms and responsibilities, rendered as powerless and unencumbered as children. In Broadmoor they were unlikely to be reproached for their crimes. They entered a suspended existence, with little reference to the past or the future, a strange corollary to the dissociated, dreamlike state that often attended psychosis. The asylum was both gaol and sanctuary, fortress and enchanted castle. The spell by which the patients were bound within its walls could be lifted only at the behest of the queen.
(I am deeply grateful that there are still among us people who have such a marvelous command of the language.)
Having lived at Broadmoor for seventeen years, Robert was discharged in 1912.. He was thirty years old. In January of 1914 he set sail for Australia. (Nattie, who had become a seaman like their father. had also emigrated.) Once there, Robert set about creating a new life for himself as a farmer. But the outbreak of war intervened.
In August of 1914, Robert joined the 13th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. He had already had experience playing in brass bands in England, specifically at Broadmoor; he took on that role with his mates in the battalion. He was also trained as a stretcher bearer; his task, along with his fellow bearers, was to rescue the wounded from the battlefield and bring them to a place behind the lines where they could be treated in relative safety. His ability to perform this task effectively would be tested to the limit when, in April of 1915, his battalion set off for Gallipoli, “a peninsula squeezed between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles in what is now western Turkey.” (Smithsonian Magazine)
I’d heard of this battle and seen the 1981 film Gallipoli. I didn’t remember much about it. Possibly I repressed the memory. I knew that words such as carnage and slaughter were frequently used to describe the battle. All I can say is that Kate Summerscale’s description of what actually happened there was so harrowing that I had to fight my way through it. If there was ever a Hell on Earth, Gallipoli was it.As for Robert, his performance as stretcher bearer under these extreme conditions was exemplary. He managed to survive the experience, an achievement in itself. He was directly or indirectly responsible for saving numerous lives, and was awarded several medals, richly deserved by all reports.
The above summary of Kate Summerscale’s narrative is cursory in the extreme. She not only covers the trial of Robert Coombes in fascinating detail, but she also pulls back from his story to provide a wider context for the reader. She’s especially good at conveying the mindset of the people who lived at the turn of the century, both in England and Australia.
As this book approached its conclusion, I began to appreciate its true heft. For me, The Wicked Boy addresses a most profound issue; namely, can a person live his or her in such a way as to expiate a “primal eldest” sin? It is a matter that only the individual reader and thinker can decide. But Kate Summerscale has given us the perfect case study with which to ponder the question.
A mesmerizing read; a terrific book.
A special issue of the July 31 edition of The New York Times Book Review – “Summer Thrills” – was fairly bursting with great suggestions for us crime fiction fans. And there was even a two page spread allotted to true crime! The writer was none other than the paper’s long time mystery reviewer (and taste maker for many of us), Marilyn Stasio.
Before plunging into specifics, Stasio admits that “…true crime unnerves me. It’s so…real.” Well of course it is! (I found this confession rather endearing.) But plunge ahead she does, to the tune of six different titles. There’s a nice variety here: contemporary, historical, a visit to the morgue, obsession with a rare tropical fish (the Asian arowana), etc.
I’ve read two of the six: True Crime Addict and The Wicked Boy. In a way, they represent the extremes of true crime writing. In the first, journalist James Renner recounts his obsessive search for Maura Murray. On February 9 2004, while standing beside her disabled vehicle in Haverhill, New Hampshire, Murray went missing. Between the time she was spotted by a passerby who offered to help, and seven minutes later when the police arrived, she had disappeared. Just like that. One minute she was there; the next, she was gone.
She has not been seen or heard from since.
Renner’s determination to solve this mystery is impressive. He conducted many interviews, reviewed a great deal of evidence, and in general worked tirelessly. This is an unusual true crime narrative, though, in the sense that the writer/investigator keeps getting in his own way. There’s a definite manic aspect to this quest that seems to take root in an already volatile personality. It probably didn’t help that after taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, he was informed by the psychologist that “‘Your results were very similar to those of Ted Bundy, the serial killer.'”
After this bomb is dropped, Renner comments: “That’s one of those statements you just can’t unhear.” (It turns out that hard charging individuals such as law enforcement officers and CEO’s tend to score in a similar range.)
Sometimes the prose gets a bit ragged around the edges, but the book is never dull. In fact, there are times when Renner’s observations are striking. At one point, he hikes an area near where Maura disappeared. It’s treacherous going, and icy to boot. When he finally gets back to his vehicle, he’s tearful, exhausted, and drenched in sweat.
We forget how dangerous nature can be. We want to forget, I think. We don’t want to be reminded that nature is more deadly than man. Man can be cruel, but nature is indifferent. It is the unrivaled psychopath.
Throughout this book, the author veers from intense concentration on the task at hand to a self-absorption that’s almost as intense. He’s married with children; they must perforce go along with him on this wild ride. (The term I’d use to describe his wife Julie is ‘long suffering.’) Renner’s taking – or not taking – the drug Cymbalta is a thread that runs through this story. He’s grateful for the calming affect it has on him. On the other hand: “…there’s a freedom in blind rage once you give yourself over to it that is as welcoming as any drug.” At one point, he gives himself over to it in court and as a result, lands in jail.
I actually had trouble putting this book down. I might even read it again.
Kate Summerscale is the author of the terrific Victorian true crime narrative, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). In my view, The Wicked Boy is just as good, perhaps even better. It deserves a review of its own, and will get it in this space, soon.
The Midnight Assassin was one. The Austin Axe Murderer was another. The Servant Girl Annihilator, a coinage from the pen of William Sydney Porter, was yet another. (Porter, who was living in Austin at the time of the murders, later moved to New York City and eventually gained fame for his “twist at the end” short stories, written under the pseudonym O. Henry.)
The basic facts are these: Between December of 1884 and December of 1885 eight people were brutally murdered with an axe, or axes, in the dead of night, in Austin Texas. Five of the victims were African-American woman who worked as servants in the homes of Austin’s well off denizens. In the course of one of the attacks, a male servant was also slain, most likely because he was in the perpetrator’s way. The final two killings were of white women; these both took place on Christmas Eve of 1885.
There are several striking aspects to these murders. To begin with, they were excessively cruel and brutal. The first thing that happens as you read about each one is that your sympathies are engaged in the extreme for these hapless and totally innocent victims. Then there are additional factors to ponder. After committing each depredation, the killer vanished so quickly that no one ever got a good look at him. No motive was ever clearly discerned, except for possibly a kind of generalized misogyny. He struck erratically and unpredictably and proved virtually impossible to guard against. Police and city officials were helpless in the face of this rampage. The eerie elusiveness, not to mention viciousness, of the killer gave rise to speculation that he was not merely human:
A reporter for the Fort Worth Gazette actually suggested that Austin was being terrorized by a real-life version Frankenstein’s monster, the hideous yellow-eyed creature created by Mary Shelley in her 1823 novel.
Yet in the midst of all this awfulness, life went on, as it must and does. In the 1880s, Austin was a striving city. A new state Capitol building was nearing completion; the newly established University of Texas had opened its doors earlier in the decade. Especially interesting is the picture Hollandsworth paints of the lives of the city’s inhabitants. In the late nineteenth century, Austin was indeed a busy and prosperous place. From the saloons and so-called “houses of assignation” to Millett’s Opera House, there was plenty of entertainment (of various kinds) on offer. And although the races occupied separate social spheres, with the majority of African Americans relegated to the servant class, there was little overt enmity between them. The first six murders were in no way considered to be of lesser import because of the race of the victims. (That said, in Hollandsworth’s telling, certain among Austin’s white citizens held benighted and repugnant beliefs regarding the African American populace of their city – of any city, for that matter.)
According to the New York Times, there were over four hundred arrests of both African American and white men during the course of the investigation into these crimes. Only one conviction resulted – that of Jimmy Phillips, husband of one of the white victims – and that was later vacated. As suddenly as the killings had begun, they stopped. The perpetrator was never found.
Three years later, in London in 1888, the serial murder of prostitutes began. At least five are thought to have been done by the same man. The murders were savage, the killer elusive. Although he too was never found, the sobriquet by which he is known has echoed down though history to the present day: Jack the Ripper.
The case of the Texas Servant Girl Murders was featured on a segment of the PBS series The History Detectives. Among those interviewed by the investigators are Harold Schechter, whose anthology I used as the basis for the true crime class I taught last year, and Steven Saylor. Saylor writes a wonderful series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome. From time to time, though, he takes on a different subject. This he did in his year 2000 novel A Twist at the End, which is partly set in Austin Texas and includes a retrospective examination of the Midnight Assassin and his dark doings by the above mentioned William Sydney Porter. I’ve not yet read it, but the Hollandsworth book (plus my high regard for this author) has made me eager to do so.
We are as fascinated by what we do not know as by what we do know. Indeed, in many ways, the rampage of the Midnight Assassin is the perfect crime story–a rip-roaring whodunit of murder, madness, and scandal, replete with the sorts of twists and shocks that give a page-turner its good name.
Except there is one catch. There is no dramatic last-act revelation, no drum-roll finale. Everything ends up precisely where it started, in a gray limbo of unknowing. The trail of clues just stops, like bewildered bloodhounds baying in the night.
I’ve written a great deal on true crime in the past year, and it was my intention to stay away from the subject for a while – really! – but I wanted to write about the presentation I made for my AAUW branch this past Saturday. It was entitled “Time for Crime: True and Imagined.” This was a rather outrageous attempt on my part to condense twelve hours of instructional material – assembled for the course I taught last year – into a fifty-minute program of book talks interspersed with other items of interest.
I then spoke of some of the more intriguing aspects of true crime:
1. The influence of actual crimes on crime fiction (see the post Further Adventures in True Crime for more on this.)
2. Crimes that resonate down through the years
3. Writers whose lives have been personally impacted by crime:
4. Murders that have never been solved:
5. The emergence of the subgenre of historical true crime:
Guiteau is a cold, demonic, livid figure. He resembles nothing so much as a wild pig: he has the gleaming eyes, full of hatred, the thick, bristling hair, the same way of charging to the attack, taking fright, running away. It would be impossible to imagine him any uglier than he is–he is a fantastical creature out of the tales of Hoffmann.
included in the Schechter anthology (course text cited above)
American Experience on PBS recently featured Murder of a President, based on Candice Millard’s book.
Finally, there is the question of why we are fascinated by true crime. Or, as Professor Jean Murley of Queensborough Community College rather plaintively asks: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”
Professor Murley, author of The Rise of True Crime: Twentieth Century Murder and American Popular Culture, offers some interesting insight on this question. I like her simple and forthright summation:
A desire to make sense of the (seemingly) senseless
A desire to illuminate the sordid with beams of truth
After reading briefly from William Bradford’s “The Hanging of John Billington” (1651), I proceeded to Celia Thaxter and “A Memorable Murder.” I was amazed never to have heard of this terrible crime, the murder of two innocent young women, part of a group of five Norwegian immigrants living on Smuttynose Island, one of The Isles of Shoals, a group of islands located off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. In 1873, when the Smuttynose murders occurred, Celia Thaxter was living on nearby Appledore Island. She knew the victims, as well as the alleged perpetrator, Louis Wagner. Here she depicts him making his way to Smuttynose from the mainland:
A terrible piece of rowing must that have been, in one night! Twelve miles from the city to the Shoals,– three to the light-houses, where the river meets the open sea, nine more to the islands; nine back again to Newcastle next morning! He took that boat, and with the favoring tide dropped down the rapid river where the swift current is so strong that oars are scarcely needed, except to keep the boat steady. Truly all nature seemed to play into his hands; this first relenting night of earliest spring favored him with its stillness, the tide was fair, the wind was fair, the little moon gave him just enough light, without betraying him to any curious eyes, as he glided down the three miles between the river banks, in haste to reach the sea. Doubtless the light west wind played about him as delicately as if he had been the most human of God’s creatures; nothing breathed remonstrance in his ear, nothing whispered in the whispering water that rippled about his inexorable keel, steering straight for the Shoals through the quiet darkness.
I also wanted to cover the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette – again alleged, but almost certainly he was the cause of her death, as they were out rowing on a lonely lake in upstate New York in 1906. (More rowing, strangely – at this point, I am thinking of the poetry collection by Anne Sexton entitled The Awful Rowing Toward God. Alas – as Celia Thaxter would say – these rowings were going in a quite different direction.)
Twenty years later, Theodore Dreiser made the murder of Grace Brown the centerpiece of his monumental novel An American Tragedy. As a result of my involvement with this subject, I finally read this book. Although it dragged in some places, and Dreiser’s writing can be exasperating, it was also powerful enough to keep me up at night and in a deep state of dread. I ended up loving it.
This crime is also depicted in a 1951 movie of excruciating tension and uncommon beauty: A Place in the Sun starred an impossibly good looking Montgomery Clift, an equally impossibly beautiful nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters as the hapless victim in this classic love triangle.
An operatic version of An American Tragedy by American composer Tobias Picker was premiered in New York City in 2005:
I wanted to be sure to touch on story of the murder of white physician Clifford LeRoy Adams Jr. by Ruby McCollum, a comfortably off African American housewife. The killing, which took place in Florida in 1952, was covered by Zora Neale Hurston for the Pittsburgh Courier. As fascinating and strange as this case was, I found the life and work of Hurston even more fascinating. Raised in poverty in Florida, she left her family home at the age of fourteen and worked her way north. After a fruitful stop in the Washington area – she attended Morgan Academy, later Morgan State, and Howard University – she made it to New York City.
Encouraged by novelist Fanny Hurst, who had employed her as an assistant, Hurston attended Barnard College on a scholarship. She completed a BA degree in anthropology in 1928. She was 37 years old and had been the only African-American student on campus.
Hurston went on to do some graduate work at Columbia with the distinguished anthropologist Franz Boas. He it was who urged her to return to Florida and collect the folk tales that she’d heard growing up there. Reflecting later on this directive, she wrote:
I was glad when somebody told me, “You may go and collect Negro folklore.” In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.
Obscure and impoverished, Zora Neale Hurston died in Florida in 1960. Inspired by her example, author Alice Walker made it her mission to resurrect Hurston’s life and work. With some difficulty, she located Zora’s final resting place and caused this headstone to be placed there:
At this point, I was running out of time – and breath! – so I did several rapid fire book talks on titles drawn from this handout which I’d prepared:
POSTWAR CLASSICS OF THE TRUE CRIME GENRE
POSSIBLE FUTURE CLASSICS OF THE GENRE
- DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC: a tale of medicine, madness and the murder of a president, by Candice Millard
- BLOOD ROYAL: a true tale of crime and detection in medieval Paris, by Eric Jager
- THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF: the story of a murder trial, by Helen Garner (Australian)
- GHETTOSIDE: a true story of murder in America, by Jill Leovy
- WITCHES: SALEM, 1692, by Tracy Schiff
- MURDER BY CANDLELIGHT: The Gruesome Crimes Behind Our Romance with the Macabre, by Michael Knox Beran
- MY DARK PLACES: An L.A. Crime Memoir, by James Ellroy
- JUSTICE: Trials, Crimes, and Punishments, by Dominick Dunne
- THE GOOD NURSE: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, by Charles Graeber
- THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK: Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age New York, by Deborah Blum
- THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF WALWORTH: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America, by Geoffrey O’Brien
- SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER: A shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective, by Kate Summerscale (British)
Nomination for pre-war classic:
GANGS OF NEW YORK: an informal history of the underworld, by Herbert Asbury
As much as Thoreau, [Thomas] De Quincey believed that there is “a chasm between knowledge and ignorance which the arches of science can never span.” The same conclusion was reached by the physicist Max Planck. Having devoted, he said, “his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter,” he concluded that science “cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” The solution to the ultimate mystery of evil is perhaps no less elusive.
Murder by Candlelight, Thomas Knox Beran
‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.’
Thomas De Quincey, On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts
[End of handout]
I’m glad I had the chance to talk about James Ellroy’s quest for his mother’s killer. I find Ellroy’s fiction nearly impossible to read – short, staccato sentences and lots of profanity – but My Dark Places was extremely poignant and moving.
An apostrophe to his mother prefaces this memoir:
A cheap Saturday night took you down. You dies stupidly and harshly and without the means to hold your own life dear.
Your run to safety was a brief reprieve. You brought me into hiding as your good-luck charm. I failed you as a talisman–so I stand now as your witness.
Your death defines my life. I want to find the love we never had and explicate it in your name.
I want to take your secrets public. I want to burn down the distance between us.
I want to give you breath.
This combined power of anguish and rage is also present – very much so – in the first piece in Dominick Dunne’s collection. The title says it all: Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of His Daughter’s Killer.
When you have read this, you will know that the word “Justice” fairly drips with a kind of savage irony.
I had every intention of extolling the virtues of Thomas Thompson’s terrific Blood and Money. I didn’t get to it then, but you can read about it, and much else besides, in a post entitled A great deal of work with abundant rewards: the True Crime class concludes.
Finally, I said a few words on the vast subject of crime fiction. I wanted to make everyone aware of the delightful new series British Library Crime Classics. I’ve already read several of these reissues. While they’re not all uniformly engaging, there are some that are veritable treasures. My favorites so far:
Then I said a few words in praise of the late and very much lamented Ruth Rendell. My favorites: they are too great in number to enumerate here. But I will say this: A Fatal Inversion, published in 1987 under Rendell’s nom de plume Barbara Vine, is as powerful a work of psychological suspense as any I’ve ever read.
And on a completely different note, there’s the ever dependable Sue Grafton and her equally dependable creation Kinsey Millhone. I thoroughly enjoyed X!
And I thoroughly enjoyed this get-together with my AAUW colleagues. These intriguing titles proved the springboard for a lively give and take among group members. In a spirited discussion, we covered both books and recent media related to true crime.
In particular, we wanted to know more about the root causes of murder, the most evil of acts. What about guilt and remorse – what role do they play in the grimmest of scenarios? Someone mentioned the role of forgiveness, and I think everyone agreed that if this could be achieved by those most affected, perhaps a sort of grace could be attained.
I recommend the interview with Harold Schechter that appears on the Library of America’s website.
It was great to have Jennifer back with us, working hard for the branch, as always. And we wish Diane a full and speedy recovery.
Finally, I’d like to mention Kathy, who revealed that she’s read everything she could find on the subject of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. The riddle of this man and his horrible acts is one she has long been trying to understand. At the end of my talk – during what I call the “post-presentation shmooze” – she came up to me and confided that when she was ten, she read two books that changed her life: In Cold Blood and The Diary of Anne Frank. Her eyes were shining as she was telling me this. I was delighted: look what books have been able to do for people! Hopefully they still can, and always will, no matter the time, place, or the format.
A beautiful sight greeted me Wednesday morning: two rolled-up packages of newspaper lay in the (barely navigable) driveway. When I brought them in, I discovered that I had received not only that day’s paper, but all those that I’d missed due to the snow storm. Five issues awaited my joyful perusal!
Thank you so much, Washington Post.
Meanwhile, I’ve made progress on my upcoming presentations. This has consisted mainly of coming up with a script for Book Bash and gathering books for the presentation (entitled “Time for Crime: True and Imagined”), and selecting the stories I want to emphasize for my July discussion of Capital Crimes: London Stories.
I’ve already mentioned the crowd that surged through the Central Branch right before the blizzard. I was gratified that so many people were searching for books as well as DVDs. How nice, thought I, they’ll be taking home some gentle and soothing tomes, like Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective series or Jan Karon’s Mitford novels – and cookbooks, too, judging by the stripped shelves of local supermarkets – to help them get through the coming storm. This assumption is probably accurate, generally speaking. But on Wednesday, when I began searching in earnest for books I need for Book Bash, there were no available copies at any of the six library branches of the following:
All needed to be reserved and are only now coming in. Clearly, escapism means different things to different people.
And finally, something from the Department of Transitory Phenomena:
I am sitting at my computer desk yesterday morning at about a quarter to nine, when I become aware of the sunlight entering through the window on my left and falling across the desk’s cluttered surface and the adjoining bookcase.
Problem: the room is on the west side of the house. Remember: it is 8:45 AM.
I get up and go to the window, where I observe the sun glinting madly of the window of the house opposite. It is acting as a powerful reflector – but only for a short time.
The strange thing is, this room – formerly my son’s bedroom, as you might have guessed from the wall art – has been my de facto “office” for some ten years now, and I don’t recall ever noting this phenomenon.
Initially, I was going to have this post consist of a single picture:
This was the sight that greeted us this morning, just outside our kitchen window, at the back of the house.
But this is what it still looked like out front:
Here in Maryland, they’ve been begging us to stay off the roads. At the moment, I can’t see any roads, no problem with that.
I couldn’t help recalling with a sort of bitter nostalgia the days of newspaper delivery, mail delivery, trips to the library to get yet another of my gazillion reserves…
I won’t deny it: I was getting cranky.
But in the afternoon, a crew making the rounds gained access to our front door and asked if we wanted to be dug out. Well, I guess so! And so they did the job.
Now, it looks like this:
It’s better, but until they plow out the cul-de-sac, we’re still stuck.
I have been trying to employ my time in useful pursuits. I have two presentations to prepare for, one a week from this Saturday and the other, in July.
The first is a presentation for the many book lovers in my AAUW chapter. It is called Book Bash. I’ve been involved in this event for several years now. Sometimes others collaborate with me, but this year I’m going solo. I’m basing my presentation on last year’s True Crime class and calling it “Time for Crime: True and Imagined.” Here’s the handout I prepared and sent out in advance:
Time for Crime: True and Imagined
Last year, I was offered the opportunity to teach a class on the literature of true crime at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins. I chose as my principal source/textbook True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and published by Library of America in 2008. Several copies are available at the library, call no. 364.1523T
Here are some especially interesting excerpts from this anthology. Where these excerpts are available online, I’ve provided the URL; additional URL’s contain related material of interest:
- “The Recent Tragedy” by James Gordon Bennett p. 63
- “Crime News from California: The Criminal Market Is Active” by Ambrose Bierce pp. 80-81
- “A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter p. 131
- Murder Ballads: “The Murder at Fall River” p. 205; “The Murder of Grace Brown” p. 203
- The Eternal Blonde” by Damon Runyon pp. 236-246
- Excerpt from The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury p.303
(Lots of additional material concerning true crime is included in the above blog post.)
7. “The Trial of Ruby McCollum” by Zora Neale Hurston p. 512
8. “The Black Dahlia” by Jack Webb p. 524
9. My Mother’s Killer” by James Ellroy p. 707
10. “Nightmare on Elm Drive” by Dominick Dunne p. 737
The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower
“The Murder of Marie Roget” by Edgar Allan Poe
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
A Place in the Sun: film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift
An American Tragedy: opera composed by Tobias Picker
Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Double Indemnity: film starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson
My Dark Places by James Ellroy
Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments by Dominick Dunne
British Library Crime Classics
Resorting To Murder: Holiday Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards
Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
The Sussex Downs Murders by John Bude
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon
The irreplaceable excellence of Ruth Rendell
A Judgement in Stone
A Fatal Inversion (as Barbara Vine)
The Wexford novels: http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/R_Authors/Rendell_Ruth.html
The absolute wonderfulness of Sue Grafton, as embodied in
I’ve included many mysteries and quite a few works of true crime in my yearly round-up of favorites:
The second presentation is actually a book discussion I’m planning to hold with the Usual Suspects. I’ve chosen to discuss Capital Crimes: London Stories, edited by Martin Edwards. (It’s one of the British Library Crime Classics mentioned above.) I’m trying to decide which stories to single out, but they’re all so good, it’s proving to be a real challenge. (My friend and fellow Suspect Pauline is assisting me with this task. Thanks, Pauline.)
Oh – and one other useful pursuit for today: I made a batch of famously mysterious Lacy Parmesan Wafers.
I often bring these little guys to meetings and get-togethers, and whenever I do, folks tend to wax rhapsodic. What’s in them? they demand to know. Well, let’s see, there’s shredded Parmesan cheese… That’s it – just that one ingredient. Make little mounds of it – about a tablespoon in volume – and space them out regularly on a cookie sheet. (I put nonstick aluminum foil on the sheet.) They go into a 400 degree oven for about eight minutes. Take them out, give them several seconds to cool, then transfer them to a paper towel to await the arrival more Lacy Wafers. Keep doing batches until you run out of Parmesan cheese.
That’s all there is to it. And it makes a great snack for diabetics like Yours Truly. Cheese is blessedly low in carbohydrates, often containing only trace amounts or none at all.
So, this single-ingredient thing is my idea of hassle free cooking. It’s the only kind of cooking that I have the patience for, at present.
Several people have recently asked me what I’m currently reading. This is embarrassing. The fact is, I’m at various points in a number of books – a rather large number…
I not only read books but I read about books, compulsively. That second category consists primarily of reviews, although there are other pitfalls for me. The New York Times Book Review has a weekly feature called “By the Book,” in which they ask an author about their preferences in reading material. A recent segment featured Tessa Hadley. She dove into the subject with zest, announcing right off the bat that she was at the moment reading The Wings of the Dove for her Henry James reading group. Imagine: a book club dedicated solely to the works of The Master! Oh, one wants to join up at once – at least, This One does. Classics being readily available for download at rock bottom prices – $1.99, $0.99, even $0.00! – I added a copy of The Wings of the Dove to my Kindle library. When, if ever, will it actually be read? I haven’t the slightest. But I love Henry James – truly I do. And this is a novel I’ve wanted to read for ages.
Tessa Hadley’s latest novel, simply entitled The Past, has been getting rave reviews. It dwells tantalizingly close to my bedside reading station, on my night table. Or rather, on one of my three night tables. These consist of an actual night table, an adjacent small square table, and an indispensable item of furniture called a clutter column. All are piled high with books, some from the library, others that I own.
Here’s what the clutter column looks like when first assembled: . Here’s mine, in its present incarnation: . To the right is the small square table, which is currently somewhat overburdened, as you can see. (Click twice on this picture and you can clearly make out individual titles.)
In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in the life and works of Thomas De Quincey. De Quincey is one of those mercurial non-mainstream geniuses that Britain produces from time to time. The first piece I read by him was the essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in MacBeth.” I’d recently seen the play at the Folger and so wanted to know what De Quincey had to say about it. In this essay, he takes a very specific scene from the play and analyzes it in such a way as to illuminate and bring to the forefront its full horror. By implication, the horror of all acts of murder are therein embodied. It is an immensely insightful, disturbing, and brilliant discourse.
Next, I read the famous/notorious “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts,” as bravura a work of satire and black humor as you’ll ever encounter. It amazes me that it was published in 1827 (in Blackwood’s Magazine). An oft-quoted sentence therefrom:
Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.
No sentimentalist he, by Jove!
And now we have Thomas De Quincey, accompanied by his devoted and dauntless daughter Emily, appearing as the lead character in a series of mysteries written by David Morrell. I very much enjoyed the first entry, Murder As a Fine Art, and am currently reading the second, Inspector of the Dead. (I’ll have more to say about the latter title in a subsequent post.)
Finally, along comes Murder by Candlelight by Michael Knox Beran. This book tells the story of a number of homicides committed in England in the early 1800s. Interwoven with these admittedly grim tales is commentary by some of the great literary lights of the period; namely, Thomas Carlyle and Thomas De Quincey:
The small, delicate man, with his courteous manners and soft, enchanting voice, was a curious bearer of the dark insights which were his specialty in trade; he seemed, at first sight, to be angelically innocent. He was “hardly above five feet,” Carlyle said, and “you would have taken him, by candlelight, for the beautifullest little child,” had there not “been a something, too, which said, ‘Eccovi— this child has been in hell.’”
It was true: the sensitive, retiring creature had been in hell. In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he described the horror of his drug-laden dreams. He was transported into lands of “vertical sunlight,” and suffered “mythological tortures” at the hands of unscrupulous priests. He ran into pagodas and was imprisoned in their secret chambers, or fixed upon their summits. He was the idol: he was the priest: he was worshipped: he was sacrificed. Yet If De Quincey was fascinated by experiences which, like opium nightmares and metropolitan murders, had the mark of the beast upon them, he was no less drawn to the aftermaths of these experiences, when life resumed its customary aspect. He recounted how, during an opium dream in which he was being pursued by a malignant crocodile, he suddenly awoke to the pure sunshine of the English day. It “was broad noon, and my children were standing, hand in hand, at my bedside, come to show me their coloured shoes, or new frocks, or to let me see them dressed for going out.” So awful, he said, was “the transition from the damned crocodile, and the other unutterable monsters and abortions of my dreams, to the sight of innocent human natures and of infancy, that, in the mighty and sudden revulsion of mind, I wept, and could not forbear it, as I kissed their faces.” Such experiences played a part in shaping a hell-scholarship unsurpassed of its kind…
(I can’t quite explain why Beran’s book has such a hold over me. I’m now reading it for the second time. I don’t pretend to an objective judgment, but I think it’s brilliant.)
I’ve kept in mind Robert Morrison’s biography since it came out in 2010. Luckily, the library still owns it – two copies, to be exact. It’s now in the house, somewhere…the clutter column, perhaps? Anyway, I made the mistake of reading the first few pages, and now of course, I want to keep going. did I mention I’m also reading De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater? This is from the blog at the Oxford University Press’s site:
In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in the London Magazine for September and October 1821, he transformed our perception of drugs. De Quincey invented recreational drug-taking, not because he was the first to swallow opiates for non-medical reasons (he was hardly that), but because he was the first to commemorate his drug experience in a compelling narrative that was consciously aimed at — and consumed by — a broad commercial audience. Further, in knitting together intellectualism, unconventionality, drugs, and the city, De Quincey mapped in the counter-cultural figure of the bohemian. He was also the first flâneur, high and anonymous, graceful and detached, strolling through crowded urban sprawls trying to decipher the spectacles, faces, and memories that reside there. Most strikingly, as the self-proclaimed “Pope” of “the true church on the subject of opium,” he initiated the tradition of the literature of intoxication with his portrait of the addict as a young man. De Quincey is the first modern artist, at once prophet and exile, riven by a drug that both inspired and eviscerated him.
So, how many of these titles are at present being actively consumed by me? I count four. And that, Dear Reader and Fellow Book Lover, is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg!
To be continued – sigh…
My reading in nonfiction this year was heavily influenced – indeed, largely determined, at least initially – by the course in the literature of true crime which I taught back in February and March. This proved to be an exhilarating experience on all levels: the interaction with genuine, enthusiastic, and unapologetic intellectuals, the chance to master new classroom technology with the indispensable help of my (ever-patient) husband Ron, and above all, the research, which took me into new and previously unknown (to me) areas of American history that proved utterly fascinating.
I chose for the course’s primary text Harold Schechter’s impressive anthology. I figured if it was good enough to receive the imprimatur of the Library of America, then it would serve the course well. I took the historical/chronological approach to the material, as Schechter does.
Thanks are due once again to my friend Pauline for making this happen (and giving me plenty of help along the way).
In a post I wrote in August entitled “Six nonfiction titles I’ve read and esteemed so far this year,” four were true crime:
The Stranger Beside Me (1980) and Blood and Money (1976) are classics of the genre. I had long wanted to read the Ann Rule title and was glad to finally do so. Her story of the terrifying rampage of serial killer Ted Bundy, a man she actually knew, retains its power to shock and bewilder. For me, these effects were even more immediate in Tommy Thompson’s strange and gripping tale of Texas high rollers and their fateful (and fatal) entanglement.. Blood and Money is one of the greatest exemplars of true crime reportage. I read it when it first came out, and I wondered if it would pack the same punch on rereading. It did – and then some.
This House of Grief by Australian writer Helen Garner is the story of an appalling family tragedy and the accusations that eventually followed, culminating in a trial that was completely riveting. I couldn’t put this book down. In the Wall Street Journal’s Books of the Year feature (Review section, Saturday/Sunday December 12-13, 2015), Kate Atkinson describes This House of Grief as “both scrupulously objective and profoundly personal.” She cites it as one of the best books read by her this year (as does Gillian Anderson, in the same article).
As for Ghettoside, I lack sufficient superlatives in my vocabulary with which to praise journalist Jill Leovy’s achievement in this book. Crime and punishment as played out in South Los Angeles are vividly and disturbingly rendered. What really makes Ghettoside work is the intense focus on individuals caught up in the maelstrom. I was glad to see that this title made onto several lists of best nonfiction of 2015.
The two other titles in the “Six nonfiction” post linked to above are biographies:
Re the Strauss title: I really enjoyed getting the back story to the Shakespeare play, one of my long time favorites. And as for Joan of Arc, what can one say? As a girl, I was fascinated by her story. These days, I find it even more compelling. And Harrison relates the particulars with clarity and grace.
I very much enjoyed David Gessner’s dual biography of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, two towering greats of twentieth century environmentalism. I hope that description doesn’t make them sound stodgy. They were anything but – especially the cheerfully irreverent Abbey, who lived more or less wild and free, marrying multiple times and hurling rhetorical thunderbolts whenever the mood moved him. He’s best remembered for Desert Solitaire (1968), a memoir of his stint as a park ranger in Arches National Monument, now Arches National Park. In addition, he coined the expression “monkey wrench gang” in his 1975 novel of the same name.
All the Wild That Remains also functions as a travelogue, as Gessner retraces the steps of his subjects and when possible, talks to folks who knew them.
Writing about this book is serving to remind me how much I enjoyed it. I might read it again. I was also delighted to be able to give it as a gift to my dear friend Bonnie, who now resides in nature-friendly Oregon. Bonnie’s the librarian who first introduced me to the literary stars of the environmental movement. Together we presented a program on this subject at the library.(Bonnie, don’t you love this shot of Abbey? The man’s unquenchable vitality shines right through.)
This is a delightful romp through the world of used and antique books, with a past master of the art. Michael Dirda is a passionate, compulsive collector and an amazingly knowledgeable person. The only problem with Browsings is that you learn of numerous titles that you’d like to read. And so that list – that fateful (I almost write “fatal”) list – grows by leaps and bounds, while you, poor you, are stuck with your one pair of eyes (which you desperately hope will hold out a bit longer) and one brain (same hope, even more fervent). You can’t read any faster! And nor, really, do you wish to.
Here’s just a small sampling of the titles Dirda mentions in Browsings:
Classics, crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, memoir, swashbuckling adventure – he’s open to all of them. Dirda possesses the most receptive and exuberant mind I’ve ever encountered.
Speaking of recommendations, I’ve gotten plenty of them from Martin Edwards’s delightful history of the Detection Club, which I’ve been absorbing in measured and delicious dollops. Among its other virtues, The Golden Age of Murder is an excellent companion volume to the classic reissues now coming in gratifying numbers from the British Library.
I recently found Witches: Salem, 1692 to be a sobering reminder of where institutionalized rigidity and narrow mindedness can lead. Read it and weep – but also be fascinated by this recounting of one of the darkest chapters in our history.
This book was a revelation! Here is history with a truly local perspective – we’re talking about landmarks a mere ten minutes from my front door. Ron and I went scouting locations in Howard County alone and had excellent luck. Then I found another landmark that’s been relocated to the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Alas, still no access to Doughreagan Manor, not even to gaze upon from a distance.)
Wake also describes in scintillating detail life among Britain’s aristocrats and their newly arrived American counterparts in the early eighteen hundreds. (This was well before the invasion of the so-called “dollar princesses.” later in the same century.)
This is not a book for reading straight through, but one to contemplate with delight. I am in awe of the inventiveness of children’s book illustrators. They are among our greatest artists, and 100 Great Children’s Picture Books is full to bursting with their wondrous works.
I’ve written several posts on this book; or rather, I’ve quoted large chunks from it. Sir John Lister-Kaye’s beautiful descriptions speak for themselves; I could not hope to emulate his eloquence. Here he describes a phenomenon that is nothing short of astonishing:
Sitting at my desk one morning I looked up to see a thin veil of smoke passing the window. Puzzled, I rose and walked across the room to the bay window that looks out over the river fields. Normally I can see right across the glacial valley to the forested hills on the other side, the river glinting in between. That morning I could barely see the far side at all. It couldn’t be smoke, I reasoned, there was too much of it. It must be drifts of low cloud. Then it cleared and handed back the view.
I returned to my desk. A few moments later I noticed it again; another pale shroud passing on a gentle south-westerly breeze, funnelling along the valley. But something wasn’t right. Late summer mists don’t do that, they hang, and anyway, the cloud base was high. Perhaps it was smoke, after all. I got up again and stood in the window just as another cloud closed off my view. I always keep my precious Swarovski binoculars on my windowsill so I took a closer look.
What I saw was a breath-taking spectacle of such overwhelming natural abundance that I was lost for words. I picked up the phone to Ian Sargent, our field officer, who was off duty with his girlfriend Morag Smart, who ran our schools programmes. ‘Come quickly. You must see this.’ As always, when I stumble across some extraordinary natural phenomenon, my first instinct is to share it. But I also wanted witnesses. The world is full of cynics. I knew people wouldn’t believe me if I kept it to myself.
It was neither mist nor smoke. It was silk. Spiders’ web silk. The massed gossamer threads of millions of tiny spiders dispersing by a process known as ‘ballooning’. Every long grass stem, every dried dock head, every tall thistle, every fence post held, at its apex, a tiny spiderling – what we commonly know as a money spider – poised, bottom upturned to the wind in what has been described as the ‘tiptoe position’ and from which single or multiple threads of silk were being spun. Other spiders were queuing beneath, awaiting their turn. As each slowly lengthening thread caught the wind we could watch the spider hanging on, tightening its grip on the stem or the seed head, while the gently rugging threads extended ever longer into the breeze.
For the tiniest spiders lift-off happened when the threads were ten or fifteen feet long, but slightly larger spiders spun for much more – perhaps twice that length. Then they let go. The spiders were airborne, sailing gently up, up and away across the fields, gaining height all the time, quite literally ballooning down the valley with the wind.
Many are the books about nature and natural phenomena that I’ve started with the best of intentions only to leave unfinished. Not only did I finish Gods of the Morning, but I was genuinely sorry to see it end.
And so I come to Murder by Candlelight. Subtitled The Gruesome Slayings Behind Our Romance with the Macabre, this would at first glance seem to be a catalog of the grotesque, best read in broad daylight if at all. It is true that author Michael Knox Beran recounts some terrible crimes; they date from the early nineteenth century and took place in Britain. But this book is about so much more.
Let me quote myself, from an earlier post:
Murder by Candlelight is not only a true crime narrative – or rather, a narrative of multiple true crimes – it is a work of philosophy, psychology, and history. True, some of it is hard to read – repugnant, even gruesome – but other parts are rich with a profound insight into the human condition. The erudition displayed by Michael Knox Beran is nothing short of amazing. For instance, it is not every day that a book sends me scurrying to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer:
Yes, I know, he doesn’t look as though he’d be very scintillating at a dinner party, but he’s actually a deeply fascinating thinker. I have in mind specifically a work entitled The World as Will and Representation. Sound dry as dust? Not the portions quoted in Murder by Candlelight – they’re anything but.
I had not previously heard of Michael Knox Beran, but he will most definitely be getting a fan letter from Yours Truly.
Forthwith, an excerpt:
The killings described in this book took place in the high noon of Romanticism, when the most vital spirits were in revolt against the eighteenth-century lucidity of their fathers and grandfathers, those powdered, periwigged gentlemen who had been bred up in the sunshine of the Enlightenment, and who were as loath to descend to the Gothic crypt as they were to contemplate the Gothic skull beneath the skin. The Romantic Age, by contrast, was more than a little in love with blood and deviltry. It was an age that delighted in the clotted gore of the seventeenth-century dramatists, the bloody poetry of Webster and Tourneur and Middleton. “To move a horror skillfully,” Charles Lamb wrote in his 1808 book Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare, “to touch a soul to the quick, to lay upon fear as much as it can bear, to wean and weary a life till it is ready to drop, and then step in with mortal instruments to take its last forfeit: this only a Webster can do.” Inferior geniuses, Lamb said, may “terrify babes with painted devils,” but they “know not how a soul is to be moved.”
And one more:
The keenest spirits of this epoch in murder history— Sir Walter Scott, Thomas De Quincey, and Thomas Carlyle among them— knew a good deal about the horror that moves the soul. In their contemplations of the most notorious murders of their time, they saw “strange images of death” and discovered dreadfulnesses in the act of homicide that we, in an age in which murder has been antiseptically reduced to a problem of social science on the one hand and skillful detective work on the other, are only too likely to have overlooked.
For the student of history, the murders of a vanished time have this other value. An eminent historian has said that were he limited, in the study of a particular historical period, to one sort of document only, he would choose the records of its murder trials as being the most comprehensively illuminating. A history of the murders of an age will in its own way reveal as much of human nature, caught in the Minotaur-maze of evil circumstance, as your French Revolutions, Vienna Congresses, and German Unifications. What a vision of the past rises up before us in these dark scenes, illumined by wax-lights and tallow-dips: and what an uncanny light do they throw upon our own no less mysterious, no less sinful present.
In the course of my reading of Murder By Candlelight, it began to exercise a greater and greater hold on my imagination. I, who have lately been reading multiple books simultaneously (as well as magazines and newspapers), could only read this one book. And yet I slowed down purposely as the end neared, not wanting to finish. I finally did so in October. I am now rereading it, to try and better understand and recapture the effect it had on me the first time. I’m about one third of the way in, and yes, it’s happening again.