True crime, from a librarian’s perspective: books and essays on the Borden case

March 7, 2019 at 2:50 pm (True crime)

The above mentioned librarian would be me; the subject, one to which I somehow feel compelled to return, year after year. Because of new, more recent transgressions in the news? No, although there are plenty of  those from which to choose. Instead, I find myself returning to the same older ones.

I am currently preparing a program entitled ‘Who Done It: True Crime Stories From A Librarian’s Perspective.’ This presentation, to which an hour and a half has been allotted, is to be given to a local group ten days from now. (That excellent title BTW was conceived by my friend Jean S.) Once again, I’ve become deeply immersed in this material. Three cases in particular have hijacked my mental apparatus:

The murder of Andrew and Abby Borden, alleged to have been committed by Lizzie Borden (1892);
The murder of Grace Brown, alleged to have been committed by Chester Gillette (1906);
The murder of Bobby Franks, committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb (1924).

Let’s start with the Borden case.

Andrew and Abby Borden

My search for an early and accessible retelling of the Borden story led me to The Borden Case by Edmund Pearson. This lengthy essay was included with four other true crime narratives in a volume by Edmund Pearson entitled Studies in Murder. First published in 1924, it was reissued in a Modern Library edition in 1938.

The edition which I now possess was put out by the Ohio State University Press in 1999 and remains in print. It  features an introduction by Roger Lane, Emeritus Professor of History at Haverford College. Professor Lane observes in regard to Edmund Pearson’s writing that he possesses a

 lively, urbane, and ironic style …, one that anticipated Truman Capote and Norman Mailer in bringing a touch of class to a form that needed it.

Edmund Pearson 1880-1937

Mr. Pearson hailed from Newburyport, a small city on the Massachusetts coast northeast of Boston. Although he later moved to New York City to take up the post of publications editor for the New York Public Library, his attachment to his New England roots remained strong throughout his life. He wrote about a variety of crimes, but the Lizzie Borden case was his chief preoccupation. Studies in Murder was published in 1924. In the course of The Borden Case, he mentions that he had the good fortune of being able to speak to some people who had  been living in Fall River at the time the murders took place.

This passage appears near the beginning of The Borden Case:

On the intensely hot morning of August 4, 1892, something more than an hour before noon, an elderly gentleman named Andrew Jackson Borden was walking through South Main Street, Fall River. He was returning to his home which was only a few steps from the principal business street, and little more than around the corner from the City Hall, and the center of the town. It is probable that his mind was chiefly concerned with business, or with his family affairs…. So securely is the future hidden from us, that there is no way to imagine the astonishment which would have been his, could he have had any intimation not alone of the sufficiently startling fact that the remainder of his lifetime was then numbered by minutes, but that his name was to engage his countrymen’s attention, for weeks and months to come, as if he were somebody of national importance.

How  about years, decades to come?  In True Crime: An American Anthology, Harold Schechter states  that “Among connoisseurs of American true crime writing, Edmund Pearson (1880-1937) is esteemed as the dean of the genre….”

In The Borden Case, Pearson includes a lengthy quote from The Fall River Tragedy by Edwin H. Porter. Written and published in 1893, this hot-off-the press title followed closely on the heels of the actual crimes. Porter was the police reporter for The Fall River Globe and a correspondent for The Boston Herald.

This  book has a curious history. For years following its publication, it was very difficult to obtain. In the Appendix to Studies in Murder, Edmund Pearson hints rather breathlessly that the Porter book may have been deliberately “suppressed.” He goes on to state: “In Fall River it seems to be on the index librorum prohibitorum; it is mentioned in hushed tones, and is not included in the catalogue of the public library.” To my surprise, I was able to obtain – rather easily – a copy of The Fall River Tragedy through interlibrary loan. The book that was sent to me is actually a facsimile edition of the 1893 issue.

Facsimile of the title page of the original 1893 edition

It is frequently alleged that before copies of this book could reach their intended audience, Lizzie Borden bought up the entire edition and destroyed it. In her 1967 book A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight, author Victoria Lincoln, herself a native of Fall River, gives credence to that legend. Supposedly there was something very damning in Porter’s book – something that Lizzie did not wish to become known.

But that legend has since been debunked by, among others, Sarah Miller, author of The Borden Murders (2016). Miller is dismissive of Porter’s efforts:

In reality, Lizzie had little to fear from Edwin Porter….If  the people of Fall River were hoping for shocking new revelations, or perhaps even a solution to the mystery, Porter was a complete disappointment.

Maybe so, but I found his minute by minute analysis of the crimes – to be cogently reasoned and quite persuasive. In other words, circumstances must have ordered themselves in precisely  the way Porter describes in order for someone from the outside to have gained entry to the house, murdered both elderly Bordens, and then escaped undetected. The following was quoted by Edmund Pearson in Studies In Murder:

 To those who stopped to contemplate the circumstances surrounding the double murder, it was marvelous to reflect how fortune had favored the assassin. Not once in a million times would fate have paved such a way for him. He had to deal with a family of six persons in an unpretentious two-and-a-half story house, the rooms of which were all connected and in which it would have been a difficult matter to stifle sound. He must catch Mr. Borden alone and either asleep, or off his guard, and kill him with one fell blow. The faintest outcry would have sounded an alarm. He must also encounter Mrs. Borden alone and fell her, a heavy woman, noiselessly.

To do this he must either make his way from the sitting room on the ground floor to the spare bed room above the parlor and avoid five persons in the passage, or he must conceal himself in one of the rooms up stairs and make the descent under the same conditions. The murdered woman must not lisp a syllable at the first attack, and her fall must not attract attention. He must then conceal the dripping implement of death and depart in broad daylight by a much frequented street….Bridget Sullivan, the servant, must be in the attic asleep on her own bed. Her presence in the pantry or kitchen or any room on the first or second floors would have frustrated the fiend’s designs, unless he also killed her so that she would die without a murmur.

In making his escape there must be no blood stains upon his clothing; for such tell-tale marks might have betrayed him. And so, if the assailant of the aged couple was not familiar with the premises, his luck favored him exactly as described. He made no false move. He could not have proceeded more swiftly nor surely had he lived in the modest edifice for years. At the most he had just twenty minutes in which to complete his work. He must go into the house after Miss Lizzie entered the barn and he must disappear before she returned.

There’s more in this vein – quite a bit more. It is very persuasively argued. Porter concludes by exclaiming:

It was a wonderful chain of circumstances which conspired to clear the way for the murderer; so wonderful that its links baffled men’s understanding.

But Porter is not quite right about the  twenty minutes required to perform the killings, as Pearson points out. Examination of the blood evidence and later, the stomach contents of each of the victims, led investigators to conclude that Abby Borden had died an hour to an hour and a half before her husband.

So: Andrew Borden had only just arrived home; he’d decided to lie down on the couch in the sitting room for a brief nap. Bridget the maid was napping upstairs in her bedroom.  Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister, was visiting friends out of town. A relative, John Vinicum Morse, was staying with the family, but had gone out and did not return until later. Abby Borden’s whereabouts were not immediately known. Lizzie said that she had gone out to visit a sick person. Lizzie herself claimed to have been in the barn out back while her father was being slaughtered. Yet circumstances pointed to her more than to anyone else, so she was duly arrested. And tried. (Sarah Miller’s book describes the trial in vivid detail.) And ultimately acquitted.

There is of course much more to this story than what I have related here. I recommend Sarah Miller’s The Borden Murders, a book which is rather disconcertingly – to me, at least – reviewed as a YA (Young Adult) title, and even as one for older children! (Sarah Miller has penned several works for this demographic.) My dear friend Barb L, children’s librarian extraordinaire, offered the following insight to me via email:

There is a type of older middle school reader or teen who would just eat this up.  They thrive on the dark and the macabre.  They’re wired for it.  On my website I call them the “Jokester.”  Many Jokesters are looking for intense action and plots.  They like the extremes.   Early on they want the books on volcanoes and tornadoes and emergency situations.  The Titanic fascinates them and they ask their librarians again and again for the “scary stories.”

Barb’s site, A Book and a Hug, is outstanding, a must-see for anyone who cares about children and the literature that describes and enriches their world.

One of the first things I did when I obtained The Borden Murders was to flip through the sections containing photographs. Pictures were taken at the crime scene of both Andrew and Abby Borden. The picture of Abby, which does not reveal much, is included in Miller’s book. The one of Andrew is graphic and terrible and was, thankfully, omitted.

I also recommend Edmund Pearson’s The Borden Case, in his collection Studies in Murder. Almost a hundred years after it was written, it remains eminently readable. Of course, there are numerous other books available on this seemingly inexhaustible topic. (The Fall River Tragedy by Edwin H. Porter and A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight by Victoria Lincoln are both available as inexpensive downloads.)Two online sources that are worth a look are the  Lizzie Andrew Borden Virtual Museum and Library  and Tattered Fabric: Fall River’s Lizzie Borden.

One of the central questions concerning the literature of true crime – indeed, concerning the crimes themselves – is why certain criminal acts establish a hold on the human imagination that retains its grip as the years go by. (Yes I know, there’s that infuriating bit of doggerel, “Lizzie Borden took an axe…”) My own theory is that certain crime stories contain within themselves a central mystery that has never  been resolved in a satisfactory way. That mystery bears on the even greater conundrum of human nature itself – why individuals perform seemingly inexplicable acts in the cold light of day, or in the middle of the night.No matter what anyone thinks now, or thought then, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murder of her father and stepmother. Was she in fact guilty? And if she didn’t do it, then who did?

Lizzie (later Lizbeth) Andrew Borden 1860-1927

The ballet Fall River Legend was made by Agnes DeMille in 1948 for the American Ballet Theater. Music composed by Morton Gould.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘What seems beyond comprehension to the police is mere amusement to the professor.’ – Jacques Futrelle’s Thinking Machine stories

February 23, 2019 at 12:18 am (Mystery fiction, Short stories)

The American author Jacques Futrelle wrote mystery short stories in the early years of the 20th century. His name often appears in the ranks of those authors referred to as creators of the rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Others  often considered to be among this cohort are Arthur Morrison (Martin Hewitt), R. Austin Freeman (Dr. John Thorndyke), and G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown).

Futrelle’s protagonist is Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, more widely known as The Thinking Machine. He’s described thus on the Mysterious Press website:

Slender, stooped, his appearance dominated by his large forehead and perpetual squint, Van Dusen spends his days in the laboratory and his nights puzzling over the details of extraordinary crimes. What seems beyond comprehension to the police is mere amusement to the professor. All things that start must go somewhere, he firmly believes, and with the application of logic, all problems can be solved.

I’ve read several of the stories  featuring The Thinking Machine, and have enjoyed each of them. Most recently I read one entitled “The Problem of the Stolen Rubens.” It has an opening line that I love:

Matthew Kale made fifty million dollars out of axle grease, after which he began to patronize the high arts.

Here’s the rest of the paragraph:

It was simple enough: he had the money, and Europe had the old masters. His method of buying was simplicity itself. There were five thousand square yards, more or less, in the huge gallery of his marble mansion which were to be covered, so he bought five thousand square yards, more or less, of art. Some of it was good, some of it fair, and much of it bad. The chief picture of the collection was a Rubens, which he had picked up in Rome for fifty thousand dollars.

I also recommend “The Phantom Motor” and “The Problem of Cell 13.” The official Jacques Futrelle site has links to the full text of both of these (as  well as to “The Stolen Rubens).”

Then there’s “The Tragedy of the Life Raft.”

It is difficult to say exactly when this was written. It’s one of four stories Futrelle left at  home among his papers, unpublished, as he and his wife sailed to Europe.

In much of the writing of that era, there is a sense of an inexorable destiny lying in wait for the characters. This is true of the nonfiction as well as the fiction of that period. (That sensibility is, for instance, very much at work in”“A Memorable Murder,” Celia Thaxter’s account of the murders on Smutty Nose Island in 1873.) Futrelle’s story, though, points the finger of fate directly at the author himself. For he and his wife had booked their passage back to  the U.S. aboard the HMS Titanic.

This line appears near the story’s beginning:

Slowly, as he looked, the sky became a lashing, mist-covered sea, a titanic chaos of water; and upon its troubled bosom rode a life raft to which three persons  were clinging.

Futrelle’s wife survived. He did not. His body was never recovered. He was 37 years old.

To read the complete article, click here.here.

Jacques Futrelle 1875-1912

 

 

 

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Book Bash: AAUW Howard County Branch members celebrate the written word

February 12, 2019 at 8:49 pm (books)

Each year, our branch of AAUW presents a program entitled Book Bash. It’s just what it sounds like: a celebration of books. Naturally I love this kind of event and am always glad to participate. Ever since going to work at the library in 1982, I’ve taken great pleasure in telling people what to read! (And before that too, actually.)

This year Susan, our program director, selected as our  theme “Exceptional Women.” Volunteer speakers could choose any book they wanted that would elucidate that concept. Here’s what we ended up with:

The subtitle of The Hidden Giants is 4,000 Years of Women in Science and Technology. And the presenter was author herself!

Sethanne chose to highlight two of the entries in her book. The first was: The First! Her name is En’Hedu’anna; she lived, approximately, in the year 2300 BCE:

She was the chief astronomer-priestess and as such managed the great temple complex of her city of Ur. She controlled the extensive agricultural enterprise surrounding the temple as well as those activities scheduled around the liturgical year. Although we do not have technical works from her we know that she was a learned, diversely talented woman of power.

She was also an accomplished poet. An example of her work can be found here.

Sethanne passed around a replica clay tablet on which was incised En’Hedu’anna’s name in cuneiform script:

This was certainly the niftiest visual aid I’ve encountered in quite some time.

Votive disc of En’Hedu’anna, found at the Ur excavation, ca.2300-2275

 

Possible likeness of En’Hedu’anna

Leaping forward several millennia, Sethanne then shared with us the story of Ellen Eglin. An African American woman well acquainted with the rigors of doing laundry in the 19th century, she invented wringers as a feature of the washing machine.

She obtained a patent for her invention, but later sold it for $18, explaining

“You know I am black and if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer. I was afraid to be known because of my color in having it introduced into the market, that is the only reason.”

While I had no trouble finding a picture of Ms Eglin’s invention, I had no luck locating a picture of the inventor herself. Kudos, anyway, to Sethanne Howard for bringing these and numerous other “Hidden Giants” out of the shadows and shining a bright light on them and on their achievements,.
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Diane gave a fascinating presentation on the life and accomplishments of aviator Beryl Markham as described in her memoir West with the Night.

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Most of us are fairly well acquainted with the life story of Jackie Kennedy. Fewer know very much about  Lee Radziwill. So it was interesting to learn about this younger sister who was always – well, the younger sister, perforce dwelling in the shadow of her more famous and glamorous sibling. Jean related the highlights of this dual biography in a way that made us eager to know more:

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Deb shared her admiration for actress/singer Jenifer Lewis. Currently featured in the TV show Blackish, Lewis had to fight to overcome bipolar disorder, and she describes her struggle to achieve this and other milestones in her memoir The Mother of Black Hollywood.
Via her smartphone, Deb shared with us the sound of Jenifer Lewis’s exceptionally rich and plummy contralto voice.

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  Barbara gave us some of the highlights from Michelle Obama’s blockbuster memoir. Just about everyone in my circle of book loving women has read and enjoyed this book; I’m still waiting for my reserve to come in.
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  My choice for this program was In Byron’s Wake by Miranda Seymour, a book which tells the story of Ada Byron Lovelace and her mother Annabella Milbanke Byron. Click here for my blog post on this eminently readable tome.

In the course of reviewing for this brief presentation, I discovered several delightful children’s books about Ada Lovelace:

The topic of “Exceptional Women” has made me think of how many women I’ve encountered in my recent reading that definitely fit that description. To wit:

In After Emily:

The dazzling, mercurial, and mysterious poet, Emily Dickinson

Mabel Loomis Todd, beautiful and determined

Millicent Todd Bingham, Mabel’s equally stalwart daughter

In Beneath a Ruthless Sun:

Mabel Norris Reese – a woman who made me want to stand up and cheer!

In Mrs. Sherlock Holmes:

Grace Quackenbos Humiston, and her resourceful associates

In The Riddle of the Labyrinth:

Alice Kober, a stellar academic who labored in obscurity to solve a fiendishly difficult puzzle

In Schumann: The Faces and the Masks:

Clara Wieck Schumann, luminous concert pianist and loyal mainstay in the life of her equally brilliant , yet troubled and afflicted husband, Robert

 

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Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik

February 4, 2019 at 10:00 pm (Book review, books, Music)

  As I write this, I am listening to Robert Schumann’s Romance for Oboe and Piano.

For about two weeks, I have been reading Judith Chernaik’s new biography of this great composer. Ron and I have been immersed in this wonderful music. In addition, I’ve been absorbed in the story of Schumann’s life. That life was a turbulent mixture of frustration, disappointment, elation, and deep love. And through all of it, glorious music, one piece following another, first almost exclusively for solo piano, then piano accompaniment for singers, then chamber groups and full orchestra.

Robert Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau, in the kingdom of Saxony, in Germany.

Robert Schumann’s birthplace, now the Robert Schumann House Museum. The author’s researches were greatly aided by the papers relating to Schumann collected and kept here.

Schumann’s exceptional musical talent having become evident early on, a teacher was found in Leipzig to take him in hand. This was the German pianist Friederich Wieck. Wieck believed that Schumann had ahead of him a great career as a concert pianist. Unfortunately, while experimenting with a device to strengthen his fingers, he injured himself irrevocably. He could still play, but his opportunity to ascend to the concert stage was gone.

(Although Chernaik includes this story in her book, there are those who believe that the problem with Schumann’s hand may have had another cause. Click here for more on this article from the WQXR blog.)

Despite this setback, Schumann continued his studies with Wieck, concentrating more now on composing. Wieck had a daughter Clara who was an extremely talented musician. She began giving concerts while she was still a child. As she entered adolescence, her gifts became even more pronounced. She and Schumann were inevitably thrown together on frequent occasions. He was nine years her senior.

Clara  was not only prodigiously gifted but remarkably independent. She was her own person, free from the usual restraints suffered by young girls. She was already acclaimed as an artist; she moved in sophisticated circles in Paris and Vienna. As a child, she was passionate and willful, with a wild temper and strong opinions.

Clara and Schumann fell in love. When Clara turned sixteen, they informed her father of their wish to be married. To their shock and dismay, he opposed the idea. In fact, he flat out forbade the union. Clara was a minor; despite her vaunted independence, she could not marry without her father’s consent. For four years he did everything he could to place obstacles in the way of their plans. (Meanwhile, at her father’s behest, Clara was giving concerts all over Europe, all the while earning good money.) Ultimately, Robert and Clara had to go to court and sue for the right to marry. This they did, finally becoming husband and wife on September 12, 1840.

It should be noted that while all this was  going on, both Robert and Clara were making strides creatively. She was constantly concertizing as well as  composing; he was composing as well as writing for and editing the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (The New Journal for Music) which he had founded in 1834.

The first half of the biography is taken up with this crisis and its felicitous albeit hard won resolution. Incurable romantic  that I am, I was so outraged by Friedrich Wieck’s obstinacy and cruelty that I could barely contain myself. When the couple were finally wed, I cheered out loud!

Robert and Clara Schumann, 1847

As a married couple, Robert and Clara continued their relentless work of giving concerts, composing music, writing and reviewing the works of other composers, and having musical evenings in their home. Add to that the children: they just kept coming;

Six of the Schumann offspring; a seventh, older daughter Julie, was living with Clara’s mother at the time this photograph was taken. An eighth, Emil, died at sixteen months in 1847.

Clara was the more famous of the two during their lifetimes, but Robert had many advocates in the musical community. Among them were his close friend Felix Mendelssohn and the fiery pianist and composer Franz Liszt. But his greatest champion was Clara.

Plagued by ill health all his life, Schumann was at length placed in Endenich Asylum near the city of Bonn. One of his chief consolations at that time was to go into Bonn (accompanied by an attendant) and stare up at the statue of the city’s most famous son, Ludwig van Beethoven. After two excruciating years at Endenich, Robert Schumann died. The year was 1956; he was 46 years old.

Clara received constant support from other musicians during this extremely stressful time. One was the gifted young violinist Joseph Joachim. The other was a youth of whom great things were expected. His name was Johannes Brahms.

Johannes Brahms, age 20

The exact nature of the relationship between Clara and Brahms has been an  endless subject of speculation down through the years. One thing is certain: they both worked tirelessly to keep Schumann’s music before the public and to win for him the recognition he deserved. In 1877, Clara signed a contract with  publisher for a thirty-one part edition of Robert Schumann’s Collected Works. Brahms was a great help to her in this endeavor. The resulting volumes have been reprinted on numerous occasions. And Judith Chernaik divulges this welcome news:

A new scholarly multi-volume Urtext edition of the collected works, collating all the early publications, Schumann’s autograph scores, and manuscript drafts is close to completion.

Chernaik concludes with this statement:

The works contained in these volumes are Schumann’s enduring gift to the world.

Here is a large helping of that gift:

 

 

The lovely Traumerei was one of Vladimir Horowitz’s favorite encore pieces. I love the shots of the audience in this video; they are so deeply moved.

 

Schumann’s mighty Second Symphony. The sadness of the third movement is heartrending, yet the finale blazes forth in triumph! (Ron and I both have a special love for this work.)

 

Paradise and the Peri is a little known work of Schumann’s, technically termed a secular oratorio. I love  these few minutes of it:

 

Finally, the Piano Concerto in A minor.  As with all of his piano music, Schumann composed this with Clara in mind. Judith Chernaik says of this piece:

It remains to this day a joyful expression of love between a supremely gifted composer and an artist of the first rank, delighting listeners at the time and ever since.

This was among a handful of works that, many years ago. first taught me to love classical music:

 

 

 

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‘Like so many canonical narratives of achievement, this story has a quiet backstage figure behind the towering public one.’ The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

January 27, 2019 at 11:28 pm (archaeology, Book review, books)

Ah, the mystery of an ancient tongue….

Is it a secret plan of attack? A poem? A testament of undying love? Well, not quite…

This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers.

Aminoapps.com

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Linear B is the oldest preserved form of written Greek that we know of. By the time we first meet this writing system, Greece and different areas of the western coast of Asia Minor were already Greek-speaking. Linear B was used to write an archaic form of Greek known as Mycenaean Greek, which was the official dialect of the Mycenaean civilization. The inscriptions found in Crete appear to be older than those discovered in mainland Greece. The oldest confirmed Linear B tablets are the so-called Room of the Chariot Tablets from Knossos and have been dated to c.1450-1350 BCE, while the tablets found at Pylos have been dated to c. 1200 BCE.

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Numerous tablets with Linear B inscribed upon them were unearthed during the excavation of the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. The principal work was begun in 1900; the archeologist who headed up ‘the dig’ was Sir Arthur Evans.

Sir Arthur Evans

The Riddle of the Labyrinth (a title I love) is not so much about the excavation per se as it is about the decades long effort to render this ancient script comprehensible to modern readers.  Many linguists and classicists worked on this incredibly complex puzzle.

First: here is the main syllabary, so called because these signs indicate syllables rather than sounds, as our alphabet does:

 

In addition, Linear B also makes use of ideograms, somewhat in the manner of Egyptian heiroglyphics:

From Ancientscripts.com
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If you’re thinking that this is a fiendishly difficult subject, you’re right. But the stories of the people involved, brilliant scholars with egos to match in many cases, is fascinating.

One of Margalit Fox’s chief purposes in writing this book was to highlight the work done on this project by one particular woman:

The woman was Alice Kober, an overworked, underpaid classics professor at Brooklyn College. In the mid-20th century, though hardly anyone knew it, Dr. Kober, working quietly and methodically at her dining table in Flatbush, helped solve one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the modern age.

In addition, Fox observes:

The scholarly field on which Kober did battle in the 1930s and 40s was very much a msn’a world, and it is understandable, if now unpalatable, that her male contemporaries so often characterized her in terms of maidenish qualities. That at least some twenty-first century writers continue to accept this appraisal is far less understandable, and far less palatable.

Despite her unrelenting efforts, which did result some major breakthroughs, Alice Kober didn’t quite manage to crack the code. That goal was achieved in 1952 by Michael Ventris, a British architect who, like Kober, had long been obsessed by Linear B.

Fox states firmly that Ventris’s blazing success would not have been possible without Kober’s foundational work. Had she lived long enough, in good health, she probably would have gotten there herself:

That she very nearly solved the riddle is a testament to the snap and rigor of her mind, the ferocity of her determination, and the unimpeachable rationality of her method.

As it was, she died before she could complete the task, in 1950, at the age of 43.

Alice Kober

Michael Ventris’s story is actually quite tragic. In 1956, while driving late at night, he slammed into the back of a truck parked by the side of the road. He was 34 years old. The death was ruled accidental; not everyone considers it so.

Michael Ventris

There’s an interesting article on the subject by Theodore Dalrymple in the New English Review.

 

 

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Despite glimpses of green….

January 21, 2019 at 3:05 pm (Art, Music)

Despite glimpses of green, despite the promise of sun ( though harsh and greatly weakened) soon to come, we are in the deep midwinter:

Music by Gustav Holst, to a poem by Christina G Rosetti.

The bleak midwinter calls forth a need for visions of beauty filled with color. Here are two:

Paradise Garden, Upper Rhenish Master, ca 1410-1420

 

Virgin Among Virgins, in a Rose Garden, Master of the Legend of St. Lucy, , ca 1475-1480

 

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Aphorisms gleaned from Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (followed by some general comments on the novel)

January 16, 2019 at 4:52 pm (Book review, books)

 

 

 

Every education brings a point of reckoning, and this was his: seeing the world divided in two camps, the investigators and the sweeteners. (p.41)

These beautiful children seemed capable of generating contentment out of thin air.(p.55)

I’ve seen my own grandchildren do this:

A mother can only be as happy as her unhappiest child.(56)

“When the nuisance of old mythologies  falls away from us, we may see with new eyes.”(p.89)

Willa marveled a his capacity to live a life undisturbed by actual evidence.(p.103)

Haven’t some of us known persons with that same gift?

It must have been  a bird ritual, the drumming up of collective will to take the blind leap of faith, forsaking all safety to fly across an ocean to the southern hemisphere.(p.177)

Beautiful people liked to claim looks didn’t matter, while throwing that currency around like novice bank robbers.(p.294)

“When you pick up  glass it’s like you’re raising a toast to all the people that drank from it before. All those happy anniversaries in a beautiful place, and all the future ones.”(p.318) (from a section of the novel describing life in contemporary Cuba)

A mother’s unfulfilled ambitions lie heaviest on her daughters.(p.325)

I can attest to the truth of this.

As an only child, Willa could hear people’s complaints about their siblings only as a primal form of bragging. They had a tribe. They belonged.(p.388)

Of course she knew every word was archived electronically somewhere, and that she could find it online if she really wanted to….But giving up the physical record of all that work felt like a kind of death. Online wasn’t enough. She wanted it to weigh something.(p.440)

She’d watched her kids master these  first small tasks with an application of effort  that seemed superhuman, but of course it only amounted to being human, a story written in genes. First they would stagger, then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and  that was  survival.(p.454)

And so: what of this book as a whole? My verdict is decidedly mixed. I liked the basic plot premise: it is a tale of two families, one living in the here and now, the other in the 1870s. They inhabit the same town, Vineland, in southern New Jersey. In fact, they live in the same house. Then, as now, it’s a domicile enlivened by plenty of turmoil.

Now ordinarily I love novels that feature lots of family infighting. Done right, they can seem very true to life, at times, even funny, in a savage sort of way. But the characters in the contemporary part of the story tend to speak at rather than to each other, as if they were delivering campaign orations on everything from the inequities of capitalism to the crisis of the environment.

I was okay with this at first, but it happened often enough that it got on my nerves. Dinnertime conversation consisted mainly of polemics. It got so that I longed to hear just one small voice venture, even tentatively, to ask if somebody would please pass the potatoes.

Because of this, I initially preferred the nineteenth century family. It seemed as though there would be less speechifying there. And some of the writing was lovely, especially when Kingsolver  describes Thatcher Greenwood and his wife Rose:

Unbustled and unbonneted like this, Rose was a gravitational body that drew his front against her back, his bearded jaw against her tiny zenith. Their perfect fit sent a whiskey thrill through his veins. After six months of marriage he was still in thrall of his wife’s physical properties, and wondered whether this made him a lucky man or  a doomed one.

Alas, for my money, there was not nearly enough of this gently undulant prose.

When I read fiction, I don’t want to be harangued about competing ideologies. At least, not to the exclusion of real flesh and blood characters. I do like the way Kingsolver sneaks in brief, pithy truisms like the ones I’ve  quoted above. But I found the characterizations thin, almost to the point of caricature. The story of the modern family is told mainly through the viewpoint of Willa, whom I found somewhat obtuse and not particularly sympathetic.

So for me, this was a frustrating reading experience. Unsheltered contained much that was bracing and thought provoking. But it wasn’t quite enough to counteract my frustration with the characters and the dialog. Merve Emre, in The Atlantic, sums things up in this description of dinnertime with the Knox-Tavoularis family, consisting of Willa, her affectionate but ineffectual husband Iano, Iano’s elderly father Nick, Willa and Iano’s adult children Zeke and Tig, and Zeke’s baby son

If Vineland is supposed to be a microcosm of the United States in 2016, then the house is an excuse for Kingsolver to cram five people with disparate political allegiances under one leaky roof. Family dinners are exhausting opportunities to rehearse the major fault lines in mainstream American politics. Willa wonders why it seems like “there’s less money in the world than there used to be.” Iano bemoans his lack of job security, blaming his failed tenure bids on jealous colleagues and rumors of affairs with students. “Boundaries, everybody keeps saying this word and I never get it,” he complains. Zeke and Tig bicker about finance capital and ecocide, volleying clichés at each other while Willa watches, bemused, and Iano submits clarifying comments. “Grow or die, that’s just the law of our economy, Tiggo,” Zeke says. “There’s no more room to grow,” Tig snaps back. “Supply and demand,” offers Iano, who we are supposed to believe has a doctorate in global politics. Nick mutters racist epithets and rails against Obamacare. The baby puts things in his mouth and cries. This is the American-family novel as Sunday-morning talk show—a character drama with no real characters, only sound bites masquerading as human beings.

 

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Best of 2018, Ten: Crime fiction, part three – the best of the rest

January 11, 2019 at 2:47 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This is it – I promise!

What can I say, except that I pretty much read my way through last year, not doing much else, especially the latter half. And before I get started, I want to thank members of the Usual Suspects Mystery Discussion group for some of the best reading I had in this genre in 2018. If it’s marked with an asterisk, that means it was a Suspects selection.

Anyway, here goes:

Contemporary (with one or two exceptions)

*Farewell My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler, and Only To Sleep (2018) by Lawrence Osborne. These two naturally go together, having as they do the same protagonist; namely, Philip Marlowe. Farewell My Lovely was a welcome reminder of the brilliance of Chandler; Only To Sleep was a cunning resurrection, as it were, of Philip Marlowe, affording him one last opportunity to engage in the world of crime solving. Osborne’s novel made quite a few ‘Best of 2018’ lists, which I was glad to see.

(My extreme enjoyment of Farewell My Lovely prompted me to read The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman.   Subtitled ‘Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,’ this is the author’s effort to bring Chandler’s wife, Cissy Pascal, out of the shadows. A fascinating read, though it must  be said that with regard to her specific goal, Freeman is only partially successful. Cissy Pascal Chandler remains, for the most part, a mystery – perhaps, rightly so. Open and Shut and First Degree by David Rosenfelt. Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter mysteries benefit greatly from the presence of his excellent golden retriever, Tara. Also from the self-deprecating humor of Andy himself. A delight to read, especially when you need something that’s not too heavy. And First Degree is an excellent choice for those enamored of legal thrillers.

Tara gets up on the couch and assumes her favorite position, lying on her side with her head resting just above my knee. It virtually forces me to pet her every time I reach for my beer, which works for me as well as her. If there’s a better dog on this planet, if there’s a better living creature on this planet, then this is a great planet, and that must be one amazing living creature.

(I owe thanks to ‘Angie’s group’ for recommending this series.)

*Off the Grid by P.J. Tracy

*The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Bone on Bone by Julia Keller. Follow-up to the brilliant and deeply moving Fast Falls the Night.

*The Night Stalker by Robert Bryndza

*Land of Burning Heat by Judith Van Gieson. This novel got me yearning for New Mexico all over again….

The front of her house faced east toward the Sandia Mountains which provided a backdrop for the reflection of the setting sun and the rising of the moon, but her backyard faced the long view across the city over the Rio Grande Bosque into the vastness of the West Mesa.

The weather usually came from the west and tonight thunderheads were building over Cabezon Peak. Claire couldn’t remember exactly when it had rained last, but it had been months. The ground, the people, the vegetation, even the air itself held its breath longing for rain. The prickly pear and ocotillo in the foothills were parched and layered with dust. She had the sensation she had every summer that she was waiting for something she believed would come but feared might not. The sky seemed promising tonight. The clouds were darkening and the wind was picking up.

Harbor Street and The Glass Room and by Ann Cleeves. Do I like this author? Gosh yes. And the tv series featuring Brenda Blethyn is terrific.

*Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker, in which I finally get around to reading the first entry in one of my favorite series. Walker hit the ground running as far as I”m concerned; this book was a delight.

November Road by Lou Berney. Brilliant!

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan. An impressive debut, highly recommended by the most recent Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine.

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

Bury the Lead by Archer Mayor. Always a pleasure to revisit Joe Gunther, Sammy Martens, the ever irascible Willy Kunkel, Lester Spinney, Beverly Hillstrom, et. al. in Vermont, a venue vividly brought to life by this dependably excellent writer. Bury the Lead is the twenty-ninth book in the Joe Gunther series. I hope Archer Mayor throws himself a big party number thirty arrives!

South Atlantic Requiem by Edward Wilson

Broken Ground by Val McDermid. Absolutely loved this novel – perfection in a police procedural!

*An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Sleep No More by P.D. James. This is one of those times when I am grateful to be in a book group. I would never have thought to reread An Unsuitable Job for a Woman had it not turned up on the Usual Suspects schedule.

  I  read Unsuitable Job about ten years after its initial publication in 1977. At the time, I had been working at the library for a few short years and was first becoming acquainted with the works of Baroness James. I remember liking the novel a great deal, and especially liking its protagonist Cordelia Gray. Reading it again, as I did just a few months ago, I found it equal parts dated and relevant. But the writing – ah, the writing! James’s fluency, her wide ranging vocabulary, her shrewd insight into the human heart – these things can never be dated.

Sunday afternoon evensong was over and the congregation, who had listened in respectful silence to the singing of responses, psalms and anthem by one of the finest choirs in the world, rose and joined with joyous abandon in the final hymn. Cordelia rose and sang with them. She had seated herself at the end of the row close to the richly carved screen. From here she could see into the chancel. The robes of the choristers gleamed scarlet and white; the candles flickered in patterned rows and high circles of golden light; two tall and slender candles stood each side of the softly illuminated Rubens above t he high altar, seen dimly as a distant smudge of crimson, blue and gold. The blessing was pronounced, the final amen impeccably sung and the choir began to file decorously out of the chancel.

This was the first Cordelia Gray novel. It was followed by The Skull Beneath the Skin, which I’ve not read. Then, no more. There was a reason for the abrupt cessation of this series. James explains it in her own words in a Guardian article from 2011 (See paragraph 16).

As for the six stories that comprise Sleep No More, they were a welcome chance to revisit once again the work of P.D. James.

Snap by Belinda Bauer

Stay Hidden by Paul Doiron

Sunburn by Laura Lippman. This made numerous Best of 2018 lists; for me, though, it was not her best, though enjoyable nonetheless. It really is impossible for Laura Lippman to be boring!

Human Face by Aline Templeton. My first by this author, little known in this  country. I look forward to reading more.

The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. The creator of Foyle’s War among his other achievements, Horowitz seem to excel at anything and everything he attempts in the fields of fiction and television.  The Sentence Is Death, a sequel to The Word Is Murder, is due out this June. Once again, Horowitz himself combines forces with the cunning Daniel Hawthorne – Yes!

Shadow Play by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. I faithfully read each new book in this series and am always sorry when I reach the end.

The Knowledge by Martha Grimes

The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry. Books like this give thrillers a good name. Flawless structure, edge-of-the-seat suspense, intriguing characters, a careening plot that makes the reader hold on for dear life – what’s not to love?

The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor. What a pleasure it is to see a writer you’ve followed from his first book (Roman Blood, ) proceed from strength to strength in the way  that Steven Saylor has done with this series.

Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson. Marge and I have both been with this writer from the start of the Alan Banks series.

*Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen. A gripping and powerful novel, with one of the best endings I’ve encountered in recent years (and that’s saying something – that’s where a lot of crime fiction falls down, in my view).

   The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly. This writer of police procedurals just gets better and better with each new book. Connelly is a superb storyteller. His plots have a propulsive drive, occasionally lightened by comic relief. Harry Bosch is kept grounded and humane by his fierce caring for daghter Maddie, now in college. I highly recommend the audio versions narrated by Titus Welliver, who portrays Bosch in the tv version, available via Amazon Streaming.

Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet. An oddly downbeat, extremely powerful procedural set in the east of France.

Money in the Morgue, a novel begun by Ngaio Marsh and finished by Stella Duffy. Truth to tell, I was not exactly blown away by this novel, though I’ve always held the work of Dame Ngaio in high esteem. My favorites by her are A Clutch of Constables, The Nursing Home Murder, and most especially Death in a White Tie, which features that rare commodity, a sympathetic victim, in addition to a sparkling depiction of the London ‘season’ and topped off by a compelling love story.

Classics – or, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s great

In the course of 2018, I started quite a few classic crime novels only to abandon them part of the way through – a very small part, in some cases. The following, however, proved most enjoyable (and of course I loved Farewell My Lovely, see above.)

Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. Lorac


The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons. Symons was still very much alive and writing when I went to work at the library in 1982. (He died in 1994 at the age of 82.) I remember reading and enjoying The Detling Murders, The Tigers of Subtopia, and The Blackheath Poisonings. These works were especially welcome, since at the time, I was just starting to learn about crime fiction.

The prolific Mr. Symons wrote not only mysteries but also criticism, other nonfiction, and poetry.


The Robthorne Mystery by John Rhode


Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley. I’d read this once before and not like it all that much. But this book makes so many all time best lists that I decided to give it another try. I liked it much better this time.


The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle A most pleasant surprise. Much of the second half this short work takes place in the American West. The narrative was lively and engaging. I liked it a lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Best of 2018, Nine: Crime fiction, part two

January 7, 2019 at 2:19 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland, The British police procedural)

“After the demise of the UK’s queens of crime, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, only one author could take their place: the Scottish writer Val McDermid….”

The Guardian

I’m aware there are those who would dispute this assertion. But after reading Broken Ground, I’m on board with it. I absolutely loved this book.

I’d previously only read two novels by Val McDermid: A Place of Execution (2000) and The Grave Tattoo (2006). Those are both standalones. Broken Ground, on the other hand, is the fifth novel in the Karen Pirie series.

How I wish I’d begun at the beginning! Karen Pirie, beleaguered but undaunted, is a hero for our times – my times, anyway. She’s having to come to terms with the loss of her lover, also an officer in the Force. (In this sense, as in some others, she reminded me of Erika Foster in Robert Bryndza‘s excellent series.) She’s human but not superhuman. Not always likeable, but almost always admirable.

I love McDermid’s writing. It is always assured, sometimes even poetic, but it can veer abruptly toward hard hitting. For a novel in which action predominates, there is some striking description. Most likely McDermid can’t help including such passages when writing about her native Scotland, whether city or countryside. (If you’ve been there, you’ll understand why.)

In the course of an investigation, Karen finds herself on rural, alien ground, housed in an odd accommodation:

For a woman accustomed to  attacking insomnia by quartering the labyrinthine streets of Edinburgh with its wynds and closes, its pends and yards, its vennels and courts, where buildings crowded close in unexpected configurations, the empty acres of the Highlands offered limited possibilities.
…..
The sky was clear and the light from the half-moon had no competition from the street lights so the pale glow it shed was more than enough to see by. She turned right out of the yurt and followed the track for ten minutes till it ended in a churned-up turning circle by what looked like like the remnants of a small stone bothy. Probably a shepherd’s hut, Karen told herself, based on what she knew was the most rudimentary guess work. The wind had stilled and the sea shimmered in the moonlight, tiny rufflets of waves making the surface shiver. She stood for awhile, absorbing the calm of the night, letting it soothe her restlessness.

I feel deeply grateful that there are still people who can write like this. I’m equally grateful that police procedurals of this caliber are still being written.

While researching Val McDermid, I came upon a gracious memorial she composed on the occasion of the passing of  Colin Dexter, creator of the inimitable Inspector Morse.

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Best of 2018, Eight: Crime fiction, part one – and one other important item

January 5, 2019 at 9:48 pm (Best of 2018, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

Before I do a deep dive into this one, I want to mention with praise and gratitude Tom Nolan’s list of best crime fiction of 2018. Why do I like this list so much? Because I’ve already read and enjoyed four out of ten of the titles he selected. They are:  

Here’s a link to the article. Tom Nolan writes for the Wall Street Journal, which tends to keep its content behind a pay wall. That content can, however, be accessed via the local library’s database HCLS Now! Research. Other library systems probably have a similar service.

Speaking of which, I’d like to commend the Howard County Library System for its generous gesture of suspending fees and fines during the current government shutdown. This has been done in recognition of the large number of federal workers living in this area. Several other measures have been taken to ease the impact of the shutdown. This action has been initiated by our new County Executive Calvin Ball (whom I encountered this morning at the League of Women Voters annual Legislative Luncheon).

Well done, Sir.

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