Monday, October 30, 2023

My Year in Non-Fiction

One of the great November challenges is November Nonfiction:

This week's prompt, My Year in Nonfiction, is hosted by Heather.


Readers, let me tell you, the state of our Non-Fiction reading is sound. 😉 I seem to have hit a fairly high (for me) 20% of my reading this year as non-fiction. Some highlights (in the chronological order I read them):

Brigitta Olubas/Shirley Hazzard

This new biography (2022) of Shirley Hazzard was the first book of the year for me. It was a superb literary biography, but I didn't manage to blog about it. I'm a big fan of Shirley Hazzard's novels (The Transit of Venus especially, of course) and when I saw this came out and was getting glowing reviews I had to read it. If you care at all about Shirley Hazzard you will want to read it. (If you haven't already.)

Michael Hingston/Try to be Strange

A history of the notional Kingdom of Redonda, which is a literary in-joke. It didn't get a full review, but it did get a somewhat substantial mention in a Sunday Salon post here. This led to a bit of a reading project, which also included:

Javier Marias/Dark Back of Time

Pretty great, though I am rather a Marias fan. Another book I didn't manage to blog about. It's Marias writing about the reception of his novel All Souls, his history with John Gawsworth, the king of Redonda somewhat before Marias was, and a bunch of other things... I trust some of it was fictional, but I couldn't quite tell you what. The novel A Heart So White remains Marias' masterpiece, but this is one of his better ones.

Victor Gruen/Shopping Town

An autobiography by the Jewish Austrian emigré architect who designed the first shopping mall (outside Detroit). Pretty fascinating. It got a full review here.

James Baldwin/Notes of a Native Son

His first volume of non-fiction. It came out in 1955, and reprints essays he'd written over the previous ten years or so. Fascinating. Literary criticism, what it meant to be Black in the U.S., life in Paris in the 50s. From my Classics Club list, it deserved (and got) a full review.

Anna Comnena/The Alexiad

Anna Comnena's history of her father's reign in Byzantium from 1081 to 1118. A primary source for the place and period, but also, I was a bit surprised to discover, a pretty great read.

Harvey Sachs/Schoenberg: Why He Matters

Another new release. This one's about the 20th Century composer Arnold Schoenberg. There was a review in the New York Times that made me want to read it. The review suggests it's pretty readable and so it was, no technical knowledge of music required. I'm not especially knowledgeable about serious music--my interest in this was because of Schoenberg's importance to Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus. But I did go off afterwards and listen to a bunch of Schoenberg's pieces on YouTube and actually enjoyed them.

There were others, some quite fascinating, that also got blogged about, listed here.


So what's to come for the rest of the year? I couldn't provide a picture of a stack of all those books (because who doesn't want that?) since almost all of those came from the library. But I can provide a picture of the non-fiction books likeliest to get read in the near future (and one ringer...)

Once again it's Chuck and a stack of books!

The library has provided Rebecca Solnit's Orwell's Roses, and I'm a fan of hers. One great essayist engaging with another.

Tilar Mazzeo's The Widow Clicquot. She took over the champagne house after her husband died and now it's named for her. I've been interested since I saw the movie

Will Hermes' new biography Lou Reed: The King of New York. This is the one that will have to be returned the soonest.

Robin Lane Fox' Homer and His Iliad. Lane Fox is a serious classical scholar and an emeritus professor. (At least I think he's emeritus. He's getting up there.) This volume came out earlier this year and is supposed to be for a fairly general audience. I was a classics major, I'm rusty now, but I do try to keep up a bit.

And then the ringer in the pile: Emily Wilson's new translation of The Iliad.  I loved her translation of The Odyssey that came out a few years ago, and I've been looking forward to this one. We'll call it the ringer, because I assume it's basically fiction--though Heinrich Schliemann managed to find the original location of Troy by assuming it was true. But I hope to read both the Fox and the Wilson by the week where the prompt is to pair up a non-fiction book with a fiction book.

There are a few other things from the library around here as well...Plus, well maybe, I could read a book I already own...


I'm currently in the middle of a translation of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's commentary on Hogarth's series of prints Marriage A-la-Mode. Will I blog about it? Maybe! Lichtenberg was a professor of physics at Göttingen in Germany, roughly contemporaneous with (and friends with) Goethe. Lichtenberg is better-known as an author of epigrams, like La Rouchefoucauld, and that was what I more interested in, but this was what my library could produce on short notice.

Which look good to you? Are you taking part in November Nonfiction?

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Sunday Salon



Two posts last week: a review of a Dutch mystery from 1975 by Janwillem van de Wetering--pretty good, but not amazing--and a poem by Charlotte Mew. (Approved by Thomas Hardy!)

There were some books for the #1962Club.

Upcoming: November is a blogger's busy season. I hope to participate in Nonfiction November, Novellas in November, and Margaret Atwood Reading Month. But what will I read? I dunno... I've got several non-fiction books from the library in a pile by my reading chair, and one of them is short. I should read them!

In any case, I've made a list of my year's reading in non-fiction and novellas and should post that soon.

The Classics Club spin result means I will also be reading Boccaccio's Decameron in the near future.


"When one's time is as brief as mine is, it is far better to gawk than write."
-Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, on his first visit to London

As good an excuse as I've ever heard for not writing a letter. 😉

Where I Am

'Tis the colorful season!

The city planted this Freeman Maple in our front yard maybe ten years ago. It always puts on a spectacular show. But I'm afraid most of those leaves fell in a rainstorm on Thursday morning, and were then raked up on Saturday...

I saw this on the way to the grocery store the other day:

An inflatable skeleton unicorn! With a happy pumpkin, and a rainbow mane. Not very scary, but you just know there's some happy six-year-old girl in that house. But it occurred to me the unicorn could be multi-use: Gay Pride Day, Día de los Muertos, and if the Grateful Dead ever came to town again, it would be simply perfect. But, in any case, it's just the thing to wish you a Happy Halloween!

Janwillem van de Wetering's Outsider in Amsterdam (#mystery)

"Killers are very scarce in Amsterdam so why should we suddenly run into a whole bunch of them?"

Piet Verbloom is found hanged in the Hindist Society building. Suicide? Could be, but then why was he banged on the head before he died?

This is the first Grijpstra and de Gier case; they're detectives on the Amsterdam force; the fat Henk Grijpstra is married with kids, and is the senior of the pair; Rinus de Gier is a sergeant, single and living with his cat Oliver. They're called in. They argue back and forth: is it suicide? But they both know that bump on the head means they will have to investigate. 

The Hindist Society is interested in a mishmash of Eastern religions--the book comes out in 1975--and their building houses a bar, a meditation center, a shop, and a commune. Verbloom sees himself as the chief priest. He's married, but should any other females appear on the premises, he feels authorized to pester them.

An early seventies society interested in Eastern religions? There's drugs, of course, hash at the very least. Are there more serious drugs? Maybe.

If it is a murder, the suspects are Piet's estranged wife, his pregnant lover, his accountant, a couple of drug dealers who frequented the bar, and the various people living in the commune, the bartender, a Papuan immigrant looking for cheap rooms. 

I've read one van de Wetering before, The Mind-Murders of 1981, the eighth in the series. I think I preferred this one. I started the series because I read somewhere it compared well with Edmund Crispin, one of my favorite mystery writers, and I continue to fail to see the comparison. It is a bit funny, but it has none of Crispin's inspired zaniness. I felt this one started well, and ended well, but I was less certain about the middle. It can't quite make up its mind whether it's a police procedural--other cases our detectives are involved with intrude--or a fair-play-cluing mystery. But if it was meant to be the latter, the red herrings weren't very red and I knew who the murderer was almost from the beginning, though the motive remained a bit mysterious until the end.

Read for the Vintage Mystery Challenge:

Vintage Mystery, Silver, Noose. That's our opening scene portrayed on the cover. With a very 70s shirt.

And for the European Reading Challenge:

It is pretty fascinating as a Netherlands book. Amsterdam was famous for its drug culture not so long afterwards. But as of 1975 (or presumably the novel represents the events of a little earlier) the city wasn't quite so ready for all that implied.

Van de Wetering was Dutch, though he lived in the U.S. later on for quite a while. It seems he wrote his novels first in Dutch, but then did his own translating.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Charlotte Mew (#poem)


Fin de Fête

Sweetheart, for such a day
  One mustn't grudge the score;
Here, then, it's all to pay,
  It's Good-night at the door.

Good-night and good dreams to you,--
  Do you remember the picture-book thieves
Who left two children sleeping in a wood the long night through,
  And how the birds came down covered them with leaves?

So you and I should have slept,--But now,
  Oh, what a lovely head!
With just the shadow of a waving bough
  In the moonlight over your bed.

-Charlotte Mew

Thomas Hardy was a booster of Charlotte Mew's (1869-1928) poetry, and he liked this one so well, he wrote it out in his own handwriting. It was found among his papers after his death, and later given to Charlotte Mew herself. 

A copy of it is reproduced in the anthology Recent Poetry 1923-1933, ed. Alida Monro, and published by The Poetry Bookshop.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

J. F. Powers' Morte d'Urban (#ThrowbackThursday,#1962Club)

"It had been a lucky day for the Order of St. Clement the day Mr. Billy Cosgrove entered the sacristy of a suburban church after Mass and shook the hand of Father Urban."

That's the opening line. Billy Connolly will prove to be a rich donor.

What makes a good man and a good priest? That may be the question Powers is asking here--though I'm not certain. But it's the question I was left with when I finished the novel.

If that's what the novel is asking, it's not so strongly put as something like Graham Greene's The Power And The Glory (good priest) or Dostoevsky's The Idiot (good man). Instead J. F. Powers has written a funny novel, sometimes very funny, that leaves you, the reader, to decide if you're interested in the deeper question. But you don't have to care and you can still enjoy the book. The blurbs on my edition talk a lot about the satire--crisp, bitter, and sharp, it tells me--but I think that takes a limited, though not entirely wrong, view of the book.

The novel came out in 1962 and won the National Book Award (U.S.) in the following year.

The story is this: Fr. Urban Roche is a popular preacher of the (imaginary) Clementine order. He's based in Chicago and is in demand to do revivals at various Catholic churches around the midwest. It's 1960 or thereabouts; John XXIII is pope and Senator Joe McCarthy is dead. Near the beginning of the story Father Urban is transferred from Chicago to a Clementine retreat in central Minnesota. Urban sees it as a demotion and a place where his real skills will not be used. He aspires to be the Father Provincial, the head of the local Clementine district, based in Chicago. But most of the novel takes place in small-town Minnesota.

One of the other characters calls Father Urban an 'operator' and it's true. It's the vita activa and not the vita contemplativa for Father Urban. Not that such high-falutin' terms ever appear. He pursues wealthy donors, tries to get a new church built for a crowded local parish, wangles a nine-hole golf course for the retreat so they can attract more (and a higher class of) retreatants.

He also tries--and mostly fails--to do good in smaller ways: to get Father Jack to write brochures that are more up-to-date, more relevant to parishioners, to help Katie, an Irish maid, who's lost her wages in gambling with her employer and is homesick, to moderate the vindictiveness of Billy Cosgrove, that rich man who's their major donor.

The satire comes from the hapless ineffectiveness of the church in most things, stumbling over small motives and petty politics. But isn't that always the way of the world? Maybe Father Urban is still a good man. From trying to do good and avoid evil, Father Urban has to twice (!) swim home across a cold Minnesota lake. But those two times are both successes for him, of a sort.

Father Urban had preached a great many thrilling sermons on saints who had really asked for the martyr's crown, but he believed that there were others from whose lives we might learn more that would serve us better in the daily round. What of those who remained on the scene and got on with the job? The work of the Church, after all, had to be done for the most part by the living. There was too much emphasis on dying for the faith. How about living for the faith?

Despite the title Father Urban is alive at the end of the novel, and has been elected the Father Provincial, though by then his health is so poor he's unable to be much of a force for change. Things muddle on. Father Jack is doing a Catholic children's edition of King Arthur and his knights, and the title is more an allusion to Malory's Morte D'Arthur than a plot summary. Like Malory, there's a distinct sadness at the end of the book, and you wonder just when was that moment of high glory? First there was scrabbling to get established, and then the brotherhood broke up to go questing, and then it was over. Yet the glory must have been in there somewhere.

Funny, sad, and thought-provoking.

I've posted this for Throwback Thursday and the #1962 Club. The post originally appeared on my blog on April 26th, 2018 and has been lightly edited. It's far too great a book not to be better known. 

It has been reissued by New York Review Books, so you don't have to hunt up some poor-quality paperback edition for a dollar. 😉

Three other 1962 books that made it on to my blog, all highly recommended:

Edmund Wilson/Patriotic Gore

Wilson's history about the effect of the Civil War on American literary prose.

Barbara Tuchman/The Guns of August

Tuchman's history of the opening of World War I.

Eric Ambler/The Light of Day

One of Ambler's best spy novels. The post also covers a second, considerably lesser Ambler, plus his autobiography.

Several people have mentioned how rich a year 1962 was, and have listed books and it's true. I could repeat all of those, but I won't. But I will pimp for three I've read and haven't seen mentioned and would highly recommend:

W. H. Auden/The Dyer's Hand

A collection of literary studies, quirky and brilliant. I've read it at least twice.

Edward Albee/Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

And then there's Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor version.

Thomas Kuhn/The Structure of Scientific Revolution

It was my favorite Latin teacher in college who told me I had to read this and she was right. A sociology of the way science changes. Hugely influential and you *can* actually read it!

Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting!

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Ngaio Marsh's Hand in Glove (#1962Club)

"Here, Nicola, encountered the group of persons with whom, on one hand disastrously and on the other to her greatest joy, she was about to become inextricably involved."

Nicola Maitland-Mayne has just taken a job for P. Pyke Period as a typist. The elderly (and fussy) Mr. Period has been invited to write a book of etiquette, but all his notes are handwritten, and he needs somebody to type and organize them. While she's there working, Period invites her to an impromptu luncheon. 

It's Harold Cattrell who's at that luncheon and is murdered. Who did it? On hand are Cattrell's sister, his sister's ward, called Moppet, and Moppet's dodgy boyfriend, Cattrell's ex-wife with her new husband, the ex-wife's son Andrew by her first (of three) marriages, Nicola, and Period himself. Whew. Got that? The book does provide a chart. Period's servants get a passing consideration because they don't like Cattrell, but we all know it can't be the servants, right?

On the night of an outdoor summer party, Cattrell is lured into a dig for sewer repair, and then a sewer pipe is tipped over on him, crushing him into the mud. Threads from a pair of work gloves are found on the sewer pipe, but now the gloves can't be found.

Somebody hurls a bookend at Period in a second attempt at murder.

Pretty much everybody on that list has some motive to have killed Cattrell--he was an irritable man, it seems--but of course Alleyn, with his crew, discovers the murderer.

Though not her best, still a pretty strong entry in the series, I thought. I find her later ones a bit weaker as a rule, but this was amusing, and the obfuscation worked on me--I'd picked the wrong person for the murderer. I'm not sure it felt like 1962, with servants still around and country houses and books of etiquette and heirs not having access to their money until they turn twenty-five, but there was a nod to the new popular music at least, awful as we're told it is. 😉But it was its 1962-ness that got me to read it now.


Vintage Mystery, Silver, Glove. Who had the gloves? Is it the dodgy boyfriend? They belonged to him. Is it the third husband? He carried the jacket with them in the pocket for a while. Who, who, who!

And as for that 'greatest joy'? Well, I don't think you'll need much help to guess who among that list of suspects Nicola will be marrying soon...Much easier to figure out than the murderer!

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Slave (#1962Club)

'a slavery that would last as long as he lived'

We first meet Jacob as a literal slave in the Polish hill country near Krakow. His wife and children had been killed in the Cossack Khmelnytsky massacres (1648-1657) in southeastern Poland; Jacob himself had been sold into slavery, technically illegal in Poland at the time, but who was going to say no? He couldn't run away, and didn't know where to run to anyway. He's a learned man, in his late 20s, but now he's a cowherd.

And he falls in love with Wanda, his owner's daughter. She herself is a widow at twenty-five, and she's equally in love with him. But what can they do? He won't convert, and she can't, legally. Jacob's a pious man as well, in his way, and he doesn't know that his wife is dead, though he suspects. After some resistance on his part, they do sleep together, and well, the sex is good. But he feels bad about it.

Then well-to-do Jews recovering in his hometown of Josefov learn of his plight and ransom him. He becomes a teacher, learns his wife actually is dead, and eventually, dreaming that Wanda is about to bear his child, goes to find her and carries her away. Still, where can they live? No Jewish community would accept Wanda; a Christian married to a Jew could bring down new pogroms. 

But Wanda does convert, becomes Sarah, and they are married under Jewish law. They move to a city where they're both unknown. Though Wanda's learned Yiddish, she's speaks with an accent, and she decides to pretend to be a mute so that they don't hear her Yiddish. Their new town assumes she's deaf as well. This, as you can imagine, is a formula for disaster.

The gentiles are terrible, but the Jews little better:
'They wanted to be kind to God and not to man; but what did God need of man and his favors?'

Why do these things happen? 1962 isn't so long after the fall of Nazi Germany. 

'The question that recurred more often than any other was why did the good suffer and the evil prosper?'

And what does a Jew, a good man but not necessarily a saint, do in terrible times? Various possibilities that were in the air occur in the novel: Jacob considers taking up arms, but doesn't; how much should he resist:

'Nowhere is it written that a man must consent to his own destruction.'

He's drawn to Sabbatai Zevi, the purported Jewish Messiah, of the time; he even goes to the Holy Land. Does Sabbataeanism have the answer? The novel covers some of the same ground as Olga Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob. Another book of Jacob.

The novel follows Jacob and Wanda to their deaths. The novel ends by quoting their epitaph:

'Lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.'

Anyway, a pretty interesting read, a romance with big themes, though I don't think anybody now would consider this one of Singer's major works. Still, it did get its own Wikipedia article, though the article has several errors in the plot summary. But via that, I did read this article in Forward, in which Dylan says he prefers Singer to Kerouac (well, I would, too) and of this novel, "Now Isaac Singer, he wrote a story called 'The Slave.' It must have stayed in my head months afterward." One Nobel Laureate on another. 😉

I've always liked Singer, and went through a serious Singer phase in the 80s, and I've had this in mind since reading Scholem's Sabbatai Sevi, Olga Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob, and Singer's own Satan in Goray relatively recently. But I read it now since it came out in 1962, and this is the week of Simon and Kaggsy's 1962 Club.

But how about that cover? Isn't it delightfully lurid? Wouldn't you just want to read it for that?

Translated from the Yiddish by the author and Cecil Hemley.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Sunday Salon


Two golden age mysteries on the blog: C. King Daly's Obelists at Sea, which began a series, and the second collection of stories in H. C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune series, Mr. Fortune's Practice.

I signed up for the most recent Classics Club spin. What will it be?

Xenophon's Memorabilia of Socrates in a new translation by Martin Hammond:

"The trouble is, Socrates, that your habit is to ask questions to which more often than not you already know the answer."

Also another translation of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, this one by Brian Hooker, the text used for the José Ferrer movie version.
"There's things in this world/A man does well to carry to extremes."
Currently reading Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Slave.

One More Quote

"Man is a pauper when it comes to reason, but is a millionaire of the emotions."
-Isaac Bashevis Singer

That's not actually from The Slave but from something else I was reading about Singer.


This guy couldn't quite decide what to do about the pigeon at his feet; I think he's likely a juvenile, and was maybe thinking, heck, I'll just go for the suet feeder. (Just above him to the right.)

I think the pigeon was ill, though it did manage to get away later.

Sigh. There's an eclipse back there somewhere, though it was only ever going to be about 20% for us.

Hope you had a great week!

Friday, October 13, 2023

Classics Club Spin #35

It's time for the new Classics Club Spin. The full rules are here, but you know all that, so let's go straight to the list of books!

1.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves
2.) Boccaccio/The Decameron
3.) John Ruskin/Unto This Last
4.) Dee Brown/Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
5.) Machado de Assis/The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas
6.) Ivan Goncharov/Oblomov
7.) Harry Mark Petrakis/A Dream of Kings
8.) R. L. Stevenson/An Inland Voyage
9.) Emile Gaboriau/The Lerouge Case
10.) E. Philips Oppenheim/The Great Impersonation
11.) R. Austin Freeman/The Red Thumb Mark
12.) W. E. B. Du Bois/Autobiography
13.) Knut Hamsun/Hunger
14.) Camoens/The Lusiads
15.) Benito Pérez Galdós/That Bringas Woman
16.) Isaac Bashevis Singer/The Slave
17.) Apollonius Rhodius/Argonautica
18.) Mikhail Bulgakov/The Heart of a Dog
19.) Halldor Laxness/The Fish Can Sing
20.) Eudora Welty/Delta Wedding

Which look good to you? Sunday reveals all!

What will chance bring? meditates Erechtheum the Owl...

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Mr. Fortune's Practice (#Mystery)

"How do you do these things, Fortune? You look only human, not to say childlike. Yet you have us all beat."

That's the Hon. Sidney Lomas, chief of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard. And friend to our hero, Reggie Fortune.

This is the second volume in the Reggie Fortune, detective consultant, series, and in this one he's a practically a regular at Scotland Yard. In the second (of seven) stories in this, he and Lomas are on a salmon-fishing vacation in Norway. 

In the first, 'The Ascot Tragedy', someone is murdered at the races, and it's clear the poison was administered in the royal pavilion. Fortunately the king wasn't there yet, but what a scandal!

In the second, 'The President of San Jacinto', while our hero is on that fishing vacation, Lord Carwell is murdered, and Carwell's cousin convicted. But when he gets back the beautiful actress Joan Amber asks him to take a look. Fortune had already had doubts about the case from what he read in the paper.

In 'The Young Doctor', we've got a second conviction and once again Fortune doesn't quite believe the evidence says what the prosecutor says it does. Did Dr. Horace Wilton actually steal those diamonds? 

'The Magic Stone' sees a talisman from Borneo stolen out of the British Museum. Then Lord Tetherdown, a famous collector of East Asian artifacts disappears. Connected? Of course.

Reggie Fortune goes to a country house party. Uh, oh! But not to worry: there's no sudden snowfall, the phone lines aren't cut, and nobody's even murdered. But it does seem some jewelry is stolen.

In 'The Leading Lady', Lomas and Fortune are again taking it easy, punting along a river in the countryside. They spot a lady's bag floating in the water; it belongs to well-known actress who they discover has disappeared. Do they need to drag the river?

Sir Humphrey Bigod falls to his death. The coroner's journey declares for 'death by misadventure,' but nobody's sure what happened. Then Dr. Emily Hall, medical officer at an orphanage, is murdered during a Christmas party fundraiser. 'Not a nice murder,' says Fortune. Then Fortune is summoned, in his role as an M.D., to look at a child with a bad stomach upset. It's not the flu, but arsenic. The story is 'The Unknown Murderer', but the murderer doesn't remain unknown...

Fortune is given to non sequiturs that prove to mean something after all: he reminds of Lord Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion; if you like that sort of detective, you'll like Fortune. I find him more tolerable than Wimsey, and not quite as off-the-wall as the early Campion. It works for me.

They're funny, but they can be a bit dark about the function of the law. There's those two mistaken convictions in this, and twice Fortune takes the provision of justice into his own hands because he fears the law won't provide it.

And that beautiful Joan Amber from the second case? In the last story:

"Mr. Fortune was much occupied in being happy, for after long endeavour he had engaged Joan Amber to marry him. The lady has said the endeavour was hers,..."

Pretty entertaining. I got this, together with the previous one, from Project Gutenberg. This came out in 1923, and I guess I've got a couple of years before Project Gutenberg can legally do the next one in the series. From here on to read more of them gets tricky...but I'm sure I'll try.

For the Vintage Mystery challenge:

Vintage Mystery, Gold, Man in Trench Coat: That picture on the cover will be from the last case, 'The Unknown Murderer' and that's Reggie Fortune himself in the trench coat.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Obelists at Sea (#Mystery)

 "An obelist is one who harbours suspicions."

Or so says C. Daly King. It's a word of his own invention.

In 1932 the S. S. Meganaut is on the run between New York and France. In the evening in the ship's smoking room, the lights fail for a moment, there's the sound of a shot, and when the lights come back up Mr. Smith, American millionaire, is dead, shot, and Mr. de Brasto, shady lawyer, is holding a smoking gun. Open and shut case, right?


And that's despite the fact that Smith had just been persecuting de Brasto over an innocent shipboard game. The Meganaut (think the Queen Mary, which carried 2100 passengers and 1100 crew) has two detectives aboard, but they were prepared for the occasional brawl or sneak thief, not for an actually mysterious murder. 

But there's also four psychologists aboard on their way to a European conference, and the captain quickly turns to them for assistance. They each produce a suspect in accordance with their psychological theories: a behaviourist, a Freudian of sorts, an early proponent of a lie detector device, etc. All their suspects prove to be red herrings. 

So who does solve it? (Because it does get solved.) Well, that's part of the mystery, too...

It's a pretty good Golden Age mystery, it moves along well, and prides itself on its fair-play cluing; the last section is 'The Clue Finder'--"Do not open until you have finished the story." I have to admit to not seeing enough of those clues to know who the killer was.

C. Daly King was an American psychologist, who wrote a text book with the Marstons (they of Wonder Woman fame). His attitude towards the four psychologists is curious: he allows them space to be serious, but still is a bit mocking of their various theories. And he gives them silly names: the behaviourist is Frank B. Hayvier, for example. The last psychologist is perhaps the most respected; he considers all the theories useful, but none of them complete. His name is Professor Knott Coe Mittle. (Ha, ha.) But even he fails to produce the killer. I will admit to finding the names a bit of a distraction.

This is the first of the Obelist series, and King went on to write several more, plus he started another series later. They've been out of print for years, until Otto Penzler Classics brought this one out again earlier this year, with an introduction by Martin Edwards. Michael Dirda's review in The Washington Post (where I first saw it mentioned) suggests one of the later Obelist ones is even better, so hopefully they don't stop with just the first.

For the Vintage Mystery challenge.

Vintage Mystery, Gold, Boat: I'd call that a ship myself, but shhh. I was once told you can put a boat on a ship, but you can't put a ship on a boat, and that was the difference, but we'll just ignore that for now...

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Sunday Salon



Bit of a lazy week on the blog. Posted a Sir John Suckling poem I've always thought amusing.

Reread Cyrano de Bergerac, the play by Edmond Rostand, plus some other things relating to Cyrano. Post on Cyrano soon? Maybe!

A couple of mysteries that will remain mysterious until they get their own post.


Kaggsy and Simon host a reading week devoted to a particular year; this year is 1962, and it starts in a week:

As usual, I've piled up a stack of books, not all of which I'll read...

The volume of Baldwin is for Another Country.

The two mysteries at the back--The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side and The Zebra-Striped Hearse--are ones I've read before, multiple times, and for the Christie in particular, I remember the solution quite well. Still for each of them, that book is one of my favorites by the author, and they could very well get reread one more time.

Are you planning on taking part? 


Happy Thanksgiving! (to those for whom it's appropriate... 😉) There's turkey sausage pasta on the menu for tomorrow night, which isn't quite roasting a bird, but will have to do...

Thursday, October 5, 2023

The Constant Lover


The Constant Lover

Out upon it, I have lov'd
  Three whole days together!
And am like to love three more,
  If it prove fair weather.

Time shall moult away his wings
  Ere he shall discover
In the whole wide world again
  Such a constant lover.

But the spite on 't is, no praise
  Is due at all to me;
Love with me had made no stays
  Had it any been but she.

Had it any been but she,
  And that very face,
There had been at least ere this
  A dozen dozen in her place.

-Sir John Suckling

Sir John Suckling was a Cavalier poet who's also supposed to have invented the game of cribbage, which I played constantly with my dad when I was about eight. 

Sir John was born in 1609 and died young in 1641. 

Poking through old commonplace books & still thinking about ballads was how I hit upon this. My earlier scratchings:

Monday, October 2, 2023

Sunday Salon



The second book, Sins for Father Knox, in Josef Škvorecky's Lt. Boruvka mystery series got a post on the blog. Good, a fun premise, but not as good as the first in the series.

post with a couple of Emily Dickinson poems. 

While I was waiting for Rebecca Solnit's Orwell's Roses to arrive from the library, I read her earlier The Faraway Nearby of 2013. It's the third of her books I've read and I thought it was awfully good; it may have become my favorite. (Though River of Shadows is very good, too.) I started writing a long post before deciding I wasn't competent to do so... But it involves her mother's Alzheimers, Wile E. Coyote, Frankenstein, Iceland, and apricots. In what's not a very long book.

Orwell's Roses did finally arrive, so I should finish that soon, too. But I can see a binge coming on. Which others should I read?

Then I read the third Persis Wadia mystery, The Lost Man of Bombay, which came out last year. They're set in the early 1950s, and Persis, a Parsee, is the first female detective on the Bombay police force. Pretty entertaining, but the first one in the series remains the best, I think. The next is supposed to come out later this year or early next (Sources seems to differ) and I'm sure I'll read it when it's available. But in the meantime I was wondering about his other series, Baby Ganesh Detective Agency. Descriptions make it seem a little cutesy, but has anybody read it?

On an altogether more serious's the week of the Nobel Prize announcement. (Well, probably. We'll learn tomorrow if they're delaying for a week.) I don't actually have a favorite for this year, but I'm always excited to hear what they pick.


Seeing The Widow Clicquot a couple of weeks ago reminded me of the Cyrano that came out in 2021. (Haley Bennett was the widow Clicquot in that movie; she plays Roxanne in Cyrano.)

It's Peter Dinklage who plays Cyrano, and that's what made me want to see the movie, but 2021 was still a tough time to see movies and we didn't.

Dinklage as the person who feels he can never win the beautiful girl is a natural, and I find Dinklage a pretty great actor. It might be surprising that he was good in duelling scenes, but not entirely: he pulled off the battle scenes in Game of Thrones very successfully. The duels in this are more balletic than the Battle of Blackwater Bay, but still. In fact the choreography in Cyrano was in general a delight. 

The movie originated in a musical and that was the problem, I thought. (In the introduction to his translation Anthony Burgess says, "I had always had my doubts about the musicalization of Cyrano de Bergerac.") The songs felt pretty unmemorable, and the two best songs were the poignant 'Wherever I Fall' by the soldiers in the battle, and the swaggering 'What I Deserve' by the villain-ish Duc de Guiche; in other words none of the songs of the principals, Cyrano, Roxanne, and Christian, were particularly interesting. They also took out some of the best lines. I'm sure Cyrano's great 'No thank you'/'Non merci' speech was shortened; the film also dropped Roxanne's great line near the end, "I never loved but one man in my life/Now I must lose him twice." [Anthony Burgess' translation.]

So while it was OK, José Ferrer and Gerard Depardieu have nothing to worry about. I think I would have preferred the same three actors (Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) doing Rostand's actual text. 

Greek Salad

The farmer's market still has tomatoes; the oregano in the herb garden still has punch...

Hope you've had a great week!