Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Blog on a break

Due to personal reasons I will not be posting anything for the rest of the week. However, I'll be visiting other blogs as and when I can. Before I sign off, for this brief period, here's something to chew over.

I'm currently reading American writer William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) which is considered something of a literary masterwork. I have read thirty-odd pages and so far I have understood very little. Those pages are filled with dialogue, actually seemingly disconnected verbal exchanges that fly back and forth between a group of children including siblings of different ages, their father and ailing mother, and a black housekeeper. I have resisted the temptation to read what the book is about on the internet. I did, however, find out from Wikipedia that the novel "employs a number of narrative styles, including the technique known as stream of consciousness, pioneered by 20th-century European novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf." 

Since I never give up on a book, I'll continue reading it until the end. Have you read it? If you have then what did you think of it?

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths, 1907

I offer this review for Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase as well as my self-imposed challenge to read 1850-1950 vintage books in five categories this year. This is the first of five books in mystery-detective which supersedes spy-espionage for now.

The Rome Express, the direttissimo, or most direct, was approaching Paris one morning in March, when it became known to the occupants of the sleeping-car that there was something amiss, very much amiss, in the car.

The Rome Express by English author Arthur Griffiths has some of the ingredients of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. A man is brutally murdered on an express train, half-a-dozen people of different nationalities are suspects, and the detective investigating the crime seems like Hercule Poirot’s twin. Except for one thing: Griffiths wrote his novel 27 years before Christie wrote hers. Did Christie borrow the idea from Griffiths? We'll never know.

Unlike Poirot who investigates Ratchett’s murder on the Orient Express, M. Floçon, the Chef de la Surêté, or Chief of the Detective Service of the French police, investigates the mysterious death of Francis A. Quadling, a disreputable banker on the run from Rome, after the express train reaches Lyons station in Paris.

Floçon wastes no time in questioning the seven suspects—the beautiful Contessa Sabine di Castagneto, an Englishwoman by birth, and her attractive maid Hortense Petitpré, a Frenchwoman; the upright and indignant General Sir Charles Collingham, an officer in the British army, and his brother Reverend Silas Collingham, a rector in Norfolk county; Natale Ripaldi, a police detective from Rome; and two unknown Frenchmen.

The other passengers in the adjoining cars are allowed to go on the ground that they’d no access to the one in which the murder took place.

© www.christies.com
In his interrogations Floçon gets a lot of help from M. Beaumont le Hardi, the instructing judge who does as much of the questioning, and a commissary of police, who is at best a mute spectator. Two first inspectors, Galipaud and Block, bungle their way through the field work.

Floçon somewhat resembles Poirot in attire and appearance but not in attitude. I liked Arthur Griffiths’ description of M. Floçon. It says:

“He lived just round the corner in the Rue des Arcs, and had not far to go to the Prefecture. But even now, soon after daylight, he was correctly dressed, as became a responsible ministerial officer. He wore a tight frock coat and an immaculate white tie; under his arm he carried the regulation portfolio, or lawyer's bag, stuffed full of reports, dispositions, and documents dealing with cases in hand. He was altogether a very precise and natty little personage, quiet and unpretending in demeanour, with a mild, thoughtful face in which two small ferrety eyes blinked and twinkled behind gold-rimmed glasses. But when things went wrong, when he had to deal with fools, or when scent was keen, or the enemy near, he would become as fierce and eager as any terrier.”

A lithograph in colours, 1900,
by R. De Ochoa
The French detective is overzealous in his frantic effort to nail the murderer, to the extent that he accuses nearly all the seven people of committing the crime. A mere word or two from someone is enough for the Chief of the Detective Service to zoom in on a suspect, as he does in the case of the countess, her maid, the general, and the Roman officer, often with hilarious results. His accusations swing from one suspect to another like a pendulum.

In the end General Collingham, who is smitten by Contessa Castagneto, saves the day, and much embarrassment, for Floçon, as he perceives a trail of blackmail involving the Italian detective Ripaldi and correctly reasons that the murdered man is not Quadling, the banker.

Final word
The British like poking fun at the French and Arthur Griffith does in ample measure in his delightful novel which is laced with French and Italian exclamations. He has portrayed the French police as a bunch of nitwits who can’t do their job right. For instance, when the general learns that the countess has been arrested, he blurts out, “I don't believe it! Not from these chaps, a pack of idiots, always on the wrong tack! I don't believe a word, not if they swear.”

The Rome Express lacks the suspense and seriousness of Murder on the Orient Express but makes up with a dose of unintended humour through the antics of Floçon and his investigation. Except for the French detective, the other characters are quite ordinary. In short, a nice and light read.

The book is not to be confused with the 1932 film Rome Express by Walter Forde and starring Esther Ralston and Conrad Veidt. The story, by Clifford Grey, an English songwriter, actor, and Olympic medalist, takes place on the train and revolves around a valuable painting that is stolen.

About the author
Arthur Griffiths (1838-1908) was an inspector of prisons and author who has published over 50 books. He is believed to have descended from a long line of military men and served as a Second Lieutenant during the Crimean War in mid-19th century. His books include both fiction and non-fiction, notably The Passenger from Calais, Mysteries of Police and Crime: A General Survey of Wrongdoing and Its Pursuit, The Mediterranean: It’s Storied Cities and Venerable Ruins, The Thin Red Line, Life of Napoleon, Victorian Murders: Mysteries of Police and Crime, In Old French Prisons, and In Spanish Prisons: The Inquisition at Home and Abroad, Prisons Past and Present, among many others.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

THE BLAKES: The Greek Mission by Venkitesh Vijay

It's good to see Indian publishers sending out emails about new releases in Indian fiction. This afternoon I received one from Partridge India, a Penguin Random House company, New Delhi, which drew my attention to THE BLAKES: The Greek Mission, the first part of a trilogy. 

The 164-page ebook is written by Venkitesh Vijay, a 14-year old boy from South India and a student of Kendriya Vidyalaya Ernakulam, Kerala. This is his debut novel which "traverses through a new imagination of Greek mythological characters, their real life, and the modern period."

The story is about Alex and John, two archaeologist brothers from London who are summoned by the gods for an important mission—to save one of the gods from the enemies in God’s world. The brothers were identified, tested and entrusted with the mission by the Greek God Zeus due to a power struggle in gods' world. The brothers, however, have to pass many challenges before they are given the task.

Sounds good. Of course, I have not read the ebook which promises action and excitement for the reader. The spate of fantasy and mythological fiction has generated interest in this genre among young readers in India. 

If interested, you can buy the ebook at Amazon for $1.80 (Rs.118.30).

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

James Coburn

A brief profile of an ageless and versatile actor for Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

The last time I profiled Maggie Smith, Keishon, who blogs at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog (check it out), thought that something had happened to the grand dame of cinema. I guess I conveyed that impression by writing about Maggie Smith out of the blue. 

James Coburn in Eraser
Last evening, I watched action film Eraser (1996) and saw a familiar face—James Coburn—who at 6' 2" and 74 is still going strong. (Addendum: Sergio in comments has brought it to my notice that Coburn died in 2002, a fact I clearly overlooked.) As head of the US Federal Witness Protection Programme, he orders US Marshal John Kruger (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to protect Lee Cullen (Vanessa Williams), a key witness to a scam in a company that manufactures secret weapons for the military. The mastermind, US Marshal Robert DeGuerin (James Caan, who I mistook for Armand Assante), is a friend of Kruger and he wants both Kruger and Lee out of the way. The conspiracy, if exposed, can rattle skeletons on Capitol Hill.

Coburn with his peers from The Great Escape.
This is not about Eraser, it is about Coburn, and I realise just how little I know about this fine actor with the rugged look and a winning smile. He has been hovering around the periphery of my cinematic vision for some years now, cast in secondary roles as both good and bad guy, in films like Eraser, Snow Dogs, The Nutty Professor, and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. The only earliest film I remember Coburn in is The Great Escape made over fifty years ago. He didn’t have a beard then.

That’s how long James Coburn has been around. I’ve probably seen him in some of his other films between then and now but don't remember any. I went through his filmography and found only one familiar exception, A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die, a western he starred alongside Bud Spencer and Telly Savalas. He also had a sound television career.

How well do you know James Coburn? Which of his early films do you remember most?

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Renos by Wolf Lundgren, 1999

This fine western is my first book review of the year, posted for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

They planned to do what no man had done before, the hold-up and robbery of a railroad locomotive, the Ohio and Mississippi Flyer. They were going to make history.

My copy of the book
If you want to read a gripping fictional account of the real-life story of the Reno Brothers, who robbed the first train shortly after the Civil War, then The Renos by Wolf Lundgren (1999) is the book for you. In this historical novel, the little-known author weaves a rich story of a group of daring outlaws whose lives and destinies are shaped and sealed by the war they fought for the Union army; a war that taught them to ride, steal, shoot, and kill even in peacetime.

In reality, the Reno Brothers, also known as The Jackson Thieves, were five brothers—John, Frank, Simeon, William, and Clinton—born to god-fearing parents on a ranch in Rockford, Jackson County, Indiana. They also had a sister called Laura. They were made to read the Bible and attend church on Sunday. They had some schooling. While their mother taught them manners, their father gave them a hard time. When they grew up, circumstances led them astray and four of the brothers took to crime.

“They are basically a wild bunch, ruined by their war experiences.”

Often, too much fact can spoil fiction. In this book, however, you cannot separate fact from fiction or fiction from fact. They are intermingled in a seamless plot.

Big John Reno
In The Renos, the Bible-quoting Big John leads his four brothers and their trusted cousins and cohorts on a crime spree in the Midwest, striking terror wherever they go. They are a dandy lot, dressed in slickers and greatcoats and wide-brimmed hats, and carrying twin revolvers. The brothers share a close bond. They have a pecking order, first John, then Frank, and so on. Their sister Laura does not figure in the story. In real life, the youngest Clinton was said to be an honest lad who stayed behind. In the story, he is the loudest and most lecherous of all.

"Nobody, as far as (John) knew, had tried stopping an express train on its track before."

At the heart of the story is the daring robbery of the first railroad train in the history of America, the Ohio and Mississippi Flyer, in Jackson County, Indiana, on October 6, 1866. It’s a robbery that wasn’t attempted even by Jesse James or any of the other infamous outlaws of that era. The Renos and the “trash” who ride with them gallop fast alongside the steaming locomotive, yell like Comanches, and fire in the air before boarding the train and looting $10,000 ($13,000 in real life) from the armoured Adams car.

The run on the Flyer does not cost a single life. For the Renos have sworn never to kill, partly because of their religious belief and partly because they don’t want to be hanged. As John tells his brothers, “We don’t want to kill nobody if it can be helped. We give ‘em a chance to surrender first.”

The first train robbery is soon followed by the daylight break-in at the Davies County Treasury in Gallatin, Missouri, from where the Renos make off with over $22,000. The spoils of both the raids are shared equally between the brothers.

After the robberies, John and Frank want to go straight and settle down, but greed for more ill-gotten wealth keeps them on the wrong path. The brothers settle down in Seymour, Jackson County, and virtually take over the little railroad town and its establishments, inviting anger and hatred of its peaceful inhabitants.

The Reno boys are unaware that their unlawful reign is soon going to end. Well, almost. For, hot on their trail is the famous private detective Allan Pinkerton and his three agents, notably the tall and white-haired Charlie Durango who as a Union spy had infiltrated Confederate lines during the war. Pinkerton became legendary during his relentless pursuit of Jesse James, the Dalton gangs, and Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch among others.

Frank Reno
The wily Pinkerton convinces the trusting John to meet him alone to discuss amnesty but, instead of keeping his word, he “hijacks” the big outlaw from under the noses of his brothers and their comrades and whisks him off to Chicago, to serve forty years in prison. In reality, John Reno was sentenced to twenty-five years. 

Frank Reno, the second brother, takes charge of the gang and continues to ambush railroad trains before finally fleeing to Canada where the final showdown takes place.

The characters
There are no heroes or villains in The Renos. Big John and his brothers may be marauding outlaws but they mean well and are generous with their booty. The eldest brother is a man of principles and he holds the flock together, at least until his early exit, after which Frank takes over and shows his ugly side. Frank is the only one with a girlfriend called Hetty Hancock, a seamstress in Seymour. She hates Frank for his nefarious ways but, like an old-fashioned woman, she accepts the fact that she belongs to him. And then she meets Pinkerton agent Charlie Durango. His boss Allan Pinkerton is a hard taskmaster. Throughout the story, his obsession with tracking down the Renos runs parallel with the misdoings of the brothers.

The novel is filled with lots of other characters from brave and cowardly sheriffs and an ex-army major to railroad clerks and guards, to saloon owners and prostitutes, to “shabby hangdog men” and hooligans.

Final word
The Renos, a Black Horse Western, has all the elements of a traditional western minus gunfight and murder, though the unintentional shooting of a train guard goes against the Renos’ credo of no killings. Author Wolf Lundgren doesn't just tell you the life story of the Renos; he also frequently refers to the Civil War, such as guns like the Henry rifles and Remington army revolvers that were, and are still, used; the fiery Morgan stallions bred on the Reno ranch and used by the brothers; the ruined village of Shiloh, the second great battle of the war where thousands of men slaughtered each other in two days; and the Grotto Saloon, Independence, Missouri, a bustling city and the gathering point for settlers.

Two events stand out in this novel: the formation of a vigilante committee made up of the “honest citizens of Seymour,” who track down the last four Reno boys and their trusted lieutenants and hang them in cold blood; and Big John’s recurrent diatribe against politicians when he growls, “The whole country’s in a mess. The ordinary man don’t have a chance. We might be robbers but we’re no worse than that gang of thieves in Washington led by President Grant.”

The Reno brothers were the subject of at least two movies one of which had Elvis Presley as the youngest brother Clinton.

The Author
I have no idea who Wolf Lundgren is. There is next to nothing about him on the internet. The name could be a pseudonym for a noted writer of westerns. After enjoying the brisk and unhindered pace of The Renos, I’m looking forward to reading his other three novels, Battle at Gun Barrel Canyon, Scorched Lightning, and Gold Frenzy.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Weeding out books challenge

Next week I have lined up reviews of two books, a western and a horror—my first book reviews this year—as well as reviews of short stories that I'm reading with great vigour than I did last year. My goal is to read at least six books per month, two every ten days. Anything more is a bonus. So far I'm nearly through with three books, the third being a vintage mystery. I also plan to read a lot of short stories in nearly every genre though I won't be reviewing every one of them.

Saturday morning, I cleaned my primary bookshelf with the chief purpose of weeding out books I'd, and hadn't, read, and ensuring that no termites or silverfish were feeding on the pages and bindings. Fortunately, there weren't any. The twenty books I got rid of included a few that belonged to me, such as three very old, tattered, and yellowed Carter Brown paperbacks (unread), Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row, and The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck (read), India: A Mission Mutinies Now by V.S. Naipaul (read), Vultures in the Sun by Brian Garfield (read and reviewed), Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (read), and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (read).

I wanted to dispose of more books in my collection but every time I picked up one, to toss it into the giveaway bag, I heard myself saying, “Next time,” and back it went on the shelf. Weeding out books is as ambitious as a reading challenge. In fact, reading books is less of a headache than getting rid of them. It’s like orphaning the books. A certain level of detachment is required to do that.

This year, however, I do want to get rid of more books than I did last year, which means I'll be reading that much more.

Nowadays I seldom give away books as I rarely come across people who read. This leaves me with two choices: sell them to used bookstores or to old paper marts or scrap dealers, known as raddiwallahs. Selling your books to either is the literary equivalent of a criminal offence: in the first, they’ll be strewn around, collect dust, and whatnot; in the second, they’ll be shredded and recycled into paper cups or toilet paper. 

A final word: a book is a man’s second best friend. Last evening, I attended a conference where some half-a-dozen central (federal) ministers spoke one after another. Their speeches were long and tedious. Rather than fall asleep, I opened my book (the western I mentioned above), and read a few more pages. It was time well spent.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Passengers, 2008

There is a plane crash. All but five people survive. Claire (Anne Hathaway), a therapist, is asked to counsel the survivors. Predictably, she falls in love with one of them, a young man named Eric (Patrick Wilson), even as the other four mysteriously vanish, and reappear. Are they really missing or are they missing her sessions? her mentor Perry (Andre Braugher) asks pointedly. Claire is unnerved by what's going on around her and that includes Eric's odd behaviour, like standing on a railway track and screaming at an oncoming high-speed train. She digs deeper and is balled over when she finds out the truth behind Eric's secretive nature and her own name among the list of passengers on the ill-fated plane. 

Passengers, directed by Rodrigo García, is a schizophrenic film; one of those neither here nor there kind of movies. It doesn't help that the survivors including Claire have someone looking out for them. In her case it's her Aunt Toni (Dianne Wiest); in Eric's case it's a dog, a Siberian Husky; someone or something from their past. Half way through the film you think you're getting a whiff of what's going on, or do you really? I didn’t. Questions pop up: who are all these people? Is this in the present or in the past? Are they alive or are they dead? Is this heaven or is this hell? What the hell is going on here?

I have a poor understanding of films about distorted reality. I just don’t get them. People said Shutter Island and Inception were brilliant films made by brilliant directors. I’m sure they were. I saw both the films. Only I understood them better after I came home and read spoiler-rich reviews.

Passengers was the second choice on cable, a switchover from Payback (1999) just when Kris Kristofferson's henchman was smashing Mel Gibson's exposed feet with a hammer. This is what happens when you're spoilt for choice.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Some interesting book covers

The Street by Ann Petry,
The Bitter Tea of General Yen
by Grace Zaring Stone, 1932

A Room in Moscow by Sally Belfrage, 1959
The Inner Room
Vera Randal, 1964

Murder One by Dorothy Kilgallen, 1968.
Anthropology of an American Girl
Hilary Thayer Hamann, 2003

Note: For previous posts on Book Covers, see under Labels.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Michael Crawford, aka Frank Spencer and the Phantom

A profile of a gifted actor and singer for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

In the 70s and 80s and long before cable, India’s state-run television Doordarshan (Far Sight) telecast several British sitcoms like Fawlty Towers, Sorry, Are You Being Served?, To the Manor Born, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, and 'Allo 'Allo! Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister came later followed by American series like Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan, Dynasty, and Remington Steele. Der Alte, or The Old Fox, was a popular German crime serial at the time.

During this period Doordarshan also broadcast mini movies lasting no more than an hour. They were watched avidly. I remember one such film, Baxter, about a young boy unwanted by his parents (or so I think) and adopted by a young married couple who are fond of him. It was a poignant film. I haven’t been able to trace it since.

All that was in the past though some British sitcoms like Blackadder and 'Allo 'Allo! have made it back to Indian television screens, thanks to cable.

Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in The Phantom of the Opera, 1986.
© Donald Cooper/Rex Features

A couple of years ago, we watched Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004) starring Gerald Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, and Minnie Driver, and instantly fell for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s awe inspiring music vocalised by the lead actors other than Driver. At the time the film reminded me of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous stage production that had English actor and singer Michael Crawford in the title role of the Phantom. I have not seen it, only read about it.

Michael Crawford—now where had I heard that name before? To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that he was none other than the accident-prone, bumbling idiot, and affectionate husband Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em which was first broadcast in 1973 and then again until 1978. For a while I actually thought they were two men with the same name. I mean how could the blundering Frank Spencer be the debonair Phantom? A BBC poll rated it one of Britain’s best sitcoms.

In case you haven’t seen the sitcom or heard about it, here’s what it was all about, courtesy Wikipedia: “The wimpish, smiling Frank, sporting his trademark beret and trench coat, is married to (his long suffering wife) Betty (Michele Dotrice) and in later series they have a baby daughter, Jessica, which offered scope for even more slapstick humour. Frank was a gift for impersonators, and for a time it became a cliché that every half-decent impersonator was doing an impression of him, particularly his main catchphrase, “Ooh Betty,” (and) a quavering “Oooh…,” usually uttered with his forefinger to his mouth as he stands amidst the chaos of some disaster he has just caused (and which he himself has invariably escaped unscathed).”

Frank and Betty Spencer (Michael Crawford and Michele Dotrice)
© Wikipedia

While Michael Crawford, CBE, will always be remembered as Frank Spencer in this silly but delightful comedy about a made-for-each-other husband and wife, it would be unfair not to mention his other achievements, particularly as an award-winning singer who has cut albums and a stage actor on both London's West End and New York’s Broadway.

He was only 19 when he got a role in the American film The War Lover (1962) alongside Steve McQueen. At 25, he made his Broadway debut in Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy with Lynn Redgrave and was noticed by Gene Kelly who gave him a part in the film adaptation of the musical Hello, Dolly! Crawford then went on to act in various plays (No Sex Please, We're British), films (Disney adventure Condorman), and sitcoms (Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, which made him a household name).

Michael Crawford, CBE
© www.wmeentertainment.com
Crawford got his second big break in 1986 when Andrew Lloyd Webber cast him in the musical stage adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera in the title role opposite English soprano Sarah Brightman. 

Over the next two-and-a-half years, he gave more than 1,300 performances on both West End and Broadway winning several music and theatre awards on the way. The Phantom of the Opera has since been produced in nearly 150 cities across 25 countries and recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. In 2011, Crawford and Webber teamed up again for the musical version of L. Frank Baum's novel The Wizard of Oz.

Years later, when Joel Schumacher made The Phantom of the Opera for the big screen, people wondered why the smiling and affable Frank Spencer wasn’t cast in the role of the Phantom. Michael Crawford has never been able to shake off the sitcom tag. In 2004, however, he’d have been 62 and perhaps a tad old to play the Angel of Music but he was the original Phantom, the man who has inspired many Phantoms over more than two decades.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Mystery of the Semi-Detached by Edith Nesbit, 1893

He went upstairs, and at the door of the first bedroom he came to he struck a wax match, as he had done in the sitting rooms. Even as he did so he felt that he was not alone.

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), the renowned English author and poet, wrote for children and adults with equal ease. She wrote dozens of books and short stories for the young and old. She had a particular fascination for horror stories many of which were published in literary magazines like Strand.

‘The Mystery of the Semi-Detached,’ which is part of Nesbit’s second collection of horror stories titled Grim Tales, is about an ordinary young man who is waiting in a suburban lane to meet the girl he is engaged to be married. When she fails to turn up long after the appointed hour, he goes to her semi-detached house and finds the front door wide open and no sign of life around. The atmosphere is eerie and the man is scared. Still, he enters the large and empty house shrouded in darkness. He walks into the first bedroom upstairs, lights a match, and is absolutely unprepared for the sight that meets his eyes—on the bed, in a white loose gown, is the girl he loves, her throat slit from ear to ear. He runs away from the scene and approaches the police who take him for a drunk and imprison him for the night.

The next day the cops accompany him to the house where they find that the girl is all right. She had been to a hotel with her mother and a rich uncle and, in what is a bizarre twist to the tale, insists that she had locked her room and carried the key with her.

Did the young man see an apparition in the house or was it a premonition of a grisly  death, if not that of the girl he loved then perhaps someone else?

While the 1,250-word story falls in the horror category, it is by no means scary or suspenseful. Both the man and woman have no names. In this story they don't matter. The author's style is simple and lucid. I may read some of the other tales in Grim Tales. After all, Edith Nesbit is a big name in fiction.

Friday, January 03, 2014

'On the Ownership of Books'

As a rule I don't reproduce entire articles or passages written by others; maybe, a few quotes in context of a review or a general post. This time, however, I’m making an exception because I felt readers would enjoy it as much as I did (in context of my commandments in an earlier post). The article is titled ‘On the Ownership of Books’ and it was published 85 years ago, in 1928, in The Literary Review [Vol.1, No.1, June 1928] of State Teachers College, Farmville, Virginia. Today, the college is known as Longwood College affiliated to Longwood University. 

The author of the article is one Frances Volk who, I think, was a student at State Teachers College. She was also the vice president of Argus Literary Society, VA, in 1926. Frances has written on a topic that is very close to our hearts—books—and her views even nearly a century ago were just the same as ours today. Some things never change. Read on…

On the Ownership of Books

By Frances Volk

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any courses like a page
Of prancing poetically.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How fragile is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
— Emily Dickinson

There is a special appeal about the books which you own. No other books are quite like them. No matter how much you like the books which belong to the library, or to your friends, or even to your family, none of them quite fits into that place which is reserved for your very own books. How proud you felt when you were a child and were given a book, and looked inside to find a book-plate on which was inscribed the words: "Mary Ellen — Her Book."

By owning books, I do not mean merely possessing them. Anybody can have books—whole rooms full of them, and never own a one. You have to love them and become a part of them before you own them. Next to reading books yourself, nothing is more pleasant than lending your books to someone else who will cherish them. You get a vicarious enjoyment out of it almost equal to your own first reading of the book which is borrowed.

And new books! The feel of them! To hold in your hands a new volume in its unsoiled cover, its pages freshly cut and waiting to be turned, with the pugnant odor of printer's ink still clinging to it, and to know that it is your own, "to have and to hold,"—that gives a thrill which any book-lover knows.

Owning new books is really detrimental to the moral character, however, in a mild sort of way. You steal time from yourself in order to read them. It takes a very Puritan-like person to resist the call of a new book. What if you will have the book all the rest of your life? You want it now, and you usually take it now, too.

Old books are just as delightful as new ones. I do not mean to slight them, but old books are like grown-ups. You take your time and talk to them sedately, but new books make you feel impulsive like children, and you just have to stop and play with them.

Just as you can never fully appreciate flowers until you have raised them, tended, watered, and picked them, so you can never truly know the value of a book until you have owned it, marked it, and loaned it. Then it is a "joy forever" provided, of course, it is duly returned.

© The Literary Review, State Teachers College, Farmville, Virginia, Vol.1, No.1, June 1928

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Two short stories about corpses

I open the score in the new year with forgotten books at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom, this Friday, with two fairly readable short stories revolving around dead bodies.

Smothered in Corpses by Ernest Bramah, 1912

“But as I glanced back at the corner of the disreputable street, I saw a face charged with diabolical hatred watching me from the grimy window of the room I had just quitted. It was the visage of the aged Chinaman…”

‘The End of the Beginning’ is the first of three short stories in Smothered in Corpses by English author Ernest Bramah (E.B. Smith). It is a murder mystery where the murder remains a mystery.

One morning John Beveledge Humdrum, a physician from Kensington, London, prepares for a breakfast of bacon and eggs and instead is served up with a doubled-up corpse of a well-dressed young man inside his bookcase. The doctor recalls the events of the previous evening when a heavily-veiled woman in a luxury car had taken him to a poor tenement to treat a young boy who had swallowed a bone button. There Humdrum met a villainous-looking Chinaman with a pigtail. As the physician left the slum, a loud explosion destroyed the house and a singed pigtail fell at his feet.

Is there a connection between the corpse inside his bookcase and the Chinaman and the explosion?

Before Humdrum can gather his thoughts, he is brought into the present with the sudden appearance of Erratica, a beautiful young girl who appeals to the doctor to save her from her enemies. She opens the door of the bookcase, flings the corpse on the dissecting table, takes its place, and closes the door after her.

The “enemies” on her tail is, in fact, Inspector Badger of the Detective Service, an old acquaintance of Humdrum, come to inform him of the murder of the prima donna he’d met the previous evening—Senora Rosamunda de Barcelona, a famous Spanish singer—who was found dead with eleven stab wounds, a bone button wrapped in the doctor’s prescription, and a yard of pigtail tied round her neck.

After the inspector leaves, he opens the bookcase only to find it empty and on his dissecting table the corpse of an elderly Italian anarchist he’d met a month ago, instead of the body of the young man.

‘The End of the Beginning’ is an absurd story but a well-written one. As I said, it is one of three stories—the other two being ‘In the Thick of it’ and ‘The Beginning of the End’ also concerning John Humdrum—that Ernest Bramah carved out of a 120,000-word manuscript so as to participate in a short story competition of not more than 4,000 words each. This explains the absurdity of the tale. The three stories are part of The Specimen Case, a collection of many stories.

I thought the experiment was as ingenious as the story. This was the second story I read where a murder mystery revolved around a bookcase. On December 13, 2013, I reviewed The Book Case, a riveting tale by Nelson DeMille.

Nice Corpses Like Flowers by Dorothy Les Tina, 1943

The head and shoulders were part way under the work table, and the thin little coroner was complaining bitterly as he crawled out, stood up and brushed off his knees.

“Why,” he asked no one, “do corpses always get themselves in such awkward positions?”

The coroner’s wry comment doesn't help Detective Clint Fleming in his investigation of the murder of Fred Jensen, a young man, who is found with a florist's knife in his chest and the gilt letter ‘U’ clutched between his fingers.

Fleming is a sharp, cynical, no-nonsense cop who relies more on his gut feelings than on his powers of deduction to solve murder cases. It’s his instincts that enable him to find out who killed Jensen and why.

He questions three suspects, all of them employed in the floral shop—Pat Murray, a pretty young girl, Jack Unger, a young man possessive of the girl, and Herb Martin, a short and stocky man with a temper—as well as its owner Thomas Davies.

What does the ‘U’ stand for? Fleming wonders. Does it stand for the second letter of Pat's last name, the first letter of Jack’s last name, or the ‘u’ in murder?

Fleming, who is romantically inclined towards Pat, finds the truth hidden in the dead man’s secret formula for preserving fresh flowers and smuggling of drugs in out-of-season flowers.

I enjoyed this short story and particularly the character of Clint Fleming who resembles, in speech, attire, and conduct, the many police and private detectives of mid-20th century crime fiction. This story appeared in Crack Detective Magazine, March 1943.

The Chicago-born Dorothy Les Tina is (was?) a teacher and a writer, and served in World War II, in the Women’s Army Corps as a public relations officer in several posts, including Fort Rucker, Alabama. I haven't been able to find out much about Les Tina or her other works.