Thursday, September 28, 2023

Emily Dickinson


The Sky is low -- the Clouds are mean.
A Travelling Flake of Snow
Across a Barn or through a Rut
Debates if it will go --

A Narrow Wind complains all Day
How some one treated him
Nature, like Us is sometimes caught
Without her Diadem.

-Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is probably my favorite writer of ballad-meter poems, and when I was thinking about ballads, I pulled the book off the shelf & started browsing. I must have read this one before, but I didn't remember it, and it struck me on this reading. Though not yet seasonally appropriate: we've had glorious Indian Summer weather lately (at least until tonight when we're getting a light rain) and they're predicting more lovely weather next week. But maybe the poem is newish to you, too.

But in case that's not enough... ­čśë One of my favorites, and a more commonly anthologized poem:

We grow accustomed to the Dark --
When Light is put away --
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye --

A Moment -- We uncertain step
For newness of the night --
Then -- fit our vision to the Dark --
And meet the Road -- erect --

And so of larger -- Darknesses --
Those Evenings of the Brain --
When not a Moon disclose a sign --
Or Star -- come out -- within --

The Bravest -- grope a little --
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead --
But as they learn to see --

Either the Darkness alters --
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight --
And Life steps almost straight.

-Emily Dickinson

I did once walk into a tree, hitting it with my forehead, in the woods on a pitch-black night. I'm not sure I'm one of the Bravest, though... ­čśë

Josef Škvorecky's Sins for Father Knox

     "...the blonde turned to the detective. 'It's clear now, isn't it?'
     'What is?'
     'Everything. Don't you see?'
     Neils C. K├Âlln didn't see, but rather than making him humble, this annoyed him.
     'No,' he snapped. 'I'm not clairvoyant!'
     'Neither am I," said the blonde modestly. 'But when I'm bored, I read mysteries.'"

The 'blonde' is Eve Adam, a Czech lounge singer on a world-wide tour for Pragokonzert, who has to fight off (at least some of the time; at other times she doesn't fight) various men's groping hands. And all the while she's solving mysteries.

But not before she gets out of jail in Prague. Where she herself had been convicted for murder. Lieutenant Boruvka, the Czechoslovakian detective who was the protagonist of the first book in this series by ┼ákvorecky, was responsible assembling the evidence and arresting Eve Adam, but in the first case in this book, he begins to have doubts, and with Eve's help, gets her cleared from that murder charge. Still Eve decides it's best to leave the country for a while and takes an offer of a tour to get out of Czechoslovakia.

There are ten stories in the book, and as the title might suggest, they follow a conceit: Fr. Ronald Knox, first Anglican, then Catholic priest, uncle to Penelope Fitzgerald, writer of mysteries, member in good standing of the Detection Club, composed in 1928 a list of ten commandments for the writing of Golden Age, fair-play mysteries. Each of the stories in Škvorecky's book violates one of Fr. Knox's rules. Those rules (fairly tongue-in-cheek) include things like, no more than one secret passage in a house or no previously unknown twin can suddenly show up.

At one point each story presents a challenge to the reader, like an old Ellery Queen mystery:
It's a pretty amusing collection of stories. 

But I will say I didn't think it as good as that first collection of mystery stories by Škvorecky. Mostly that's because there wasn't enough Lt. Boruvka. Now probably it's to Škvorecky's credit that he writes less well about a loose-living lounge singer than he does about a mournful but happily married man who still looks at girls but then doesn't act on those longing looks. Lt. Boruvka is just both more amusing and more convincing than Eve Adam, and I wanted more of the Lieutenant in this book. Still this was fun.

Škvorecky is an interesting figure in his own right. Born in 1924 in Czechoslovakia, he was a jazz musician as a young man, and wrote several novels in the Communist years, either unpublished or squelched after publication. He was a supporter of the liberalization in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and after the country was invaded by the Russians, he and his wife got out, to Canada, where he established a press, 68 Publishers, in Toronto, that specialized in banned Czech and Slovak literature--the press brings out the first Czech language edition of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He died in 2012.

This book comes out in 1973, when Škvorecky is in Canada, and the stories are set in a variety of places--New York, Stockholm, Paris--where Eve Adam tours, but the stories set in Prague are still clearly a communist Czechoslovakia. The book was translated into English by Kaca Polackova Henley.

And though the stories are set in several locations, it will be my visit to the Czech Republc for this year's European Reading Challenge.

And while that's the shadowiest of shadowy figures on the cover of that book, I've already used an Eric Ambler novel for the Shadowy Figure category in this year's Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt... we'll have to go with the hat.

Vintage Mystery, Silver, Hat: the fifth story is 'Why So Many Shamuses?' and that guy with the hat on the cover looks pretty shamus-like to me...

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery

'[an] editor...asked me to provide him with a more original piece of fiction. I might have refused, but there was murder in my soul, and here was an opportunity."

Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery of 1892 is one of the earliest locked-room mysteries. In his introduction, quoted above, he claims it's the earliest, but then his detective discusses the solution to 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', a clear predecessor. Let's just say it's early... ­čśë

Arthur Constant, an up and coming lefty politician, moves to the East End of London to get to know his potential constituents, is found murdered in his bedroom, locked from the inside, windows unbroken and locked from the inside, chimney too narrow for anyone to go down--you know the drill. How was it done?

And who'd want to do it anyway? (Because of course it wasn't suicide.) Arthur Constant was such a nice man, helpful to his neighbours, loved by his friends, etc. The only possible motive is that of a fellow labour leader Mortlake who may have thought Constant was after his girl, and the police soon fix on him as the murderer. 

There are two detectives on the case: Grodman, a former police detective, now retired, and writing his memoirs. He lives in the neighbourhood and is called to break the door when Constant's landlady gets worried. And Wimp, the detective who replaced him on the force, whom Grodman disdains as incompetent. (And Grodman may be right.)

I find it a bit astonishing how influential this is. Various possible solutions to unlocking the room are discussed, only to be dismissed; I swear I've seen all of those answers used in subsequent locked-room mysteries. And the type of the actual surprise murderer shows up in a few subsequent mysteries, too, but it would be spoilerish to say which. The book is on the Howard Haycraft/Ellery Queen list of the Cornerstones of Mystery, and deservedly so.

It's a pretty good read, too, though I did find it a little slow in the middle. It's also often funny. One of the suspects is a poet, Denzil Cantercot, forever talking about the Beautiful: "Life was very serious to him. He never wrote comic verse intentionally."

I got it from Project Gutenberg, but for a cover I used what seems to be the eBook Amazon sells. 

Vintage Mystery, Gold. A Town Scene: Stalking a murderer on the streets of East London.

That's eight! Completing the challenge, though it's likely I won't stop there.