Book Review: The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History by Oliver Tearle

by Renee Kimball

Sometimes you stumble unawares into a book and then, in total surprise, you are rewarded.  That was my experience when I happened to find The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History by Dr. Oliver Tearle.  This is a book a bookish reader can gobble up, each chapter one more rich tidbit that goes on and on – an entertaining, multi-layered literary feast.

Tearle begins with an old question: “What book would you like to take with you if you are left on a desert island?”  (We all know that question, and we also know the answer varies widely in response both to what you have read, as well as, your age).  And having asked this question, Tearle provides G.K. Chesterton’s still witty reply: “Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.”  A response Tearle says is guaranteed to produce a smile. 

But you ask, who is Oliver Tearle?  

Dr. Oliver Tearle is a professor of English at Loughborough University, United Kingdom, and the author of The Secret Library: A Book Lovers’ Journey through Curiosities of History.  Tearle is also the creator of the highly popular literature blog, Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness, touting 25,000 followers, along with an enviable presence on Twitter and Facebook. 
If numbers are proof of success, those that follow Tearle appear much more than just a little bit interested in literature’s long and quirky history. 

In the “About,” section of Tearle’s website, he offers the intent behind his blog:“. . . The aim is simple: to uncover the little-known interesting facts about the world of books, and to shine a light on some of the more curious aspects of literature.” 

Backtracking to Chesteron as to what might prompt a choice of books on that desert island, Tearle argues that for a book to be important enough, “the . . . book needn’t mean ‘great work of literature’ or ‘novel you’ve always wanted to read but have never had the time or courage to take on. . .”

An important book can be relatively unknown except to a few, but its impact upon ‘Western society’, is immense, citing to Euclid’s Elements, or Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.

Writing The Secret Library, Tearle’s goal was to simply answer some questions he had had about literature; even though these may have been previously addressed, he wanted to go further and include “non-literary texts” as well.

Tearle stated he had . . . “two related aims: to bring to light the lesser-known aspects of well-known books, and to show how obscure and little-known books have surprising links with the familiar world around us. . . In short, it attempts to bring to light some hidden facts about both the best-known and the least-known books ever written, typed, inscribed, dictated, or indeed fabricated.”.

Beginning with what we have inherited from the Classical era that created the basis for all the arts, we are linked back to Ancient Greece (in gratitude).  With Tearle, we are led even further forward into a bibliophile’s wonderland . . .” its a medley of curiosities, a whistle-stop tour around an imaginary library stuffed full of titles both familiar and forgotten. . .”  If you are a curious book lover seeking unknown facts and authors, this is the reading adventure for you. 

Throughout nine chapters, Tearle explores literature (gone but not forgotten) chronologically, from the Classical time forward.  Each chapter ends with a clue tying it to the next chapter – it is up to the reader to puzzle it out and connect the clues.  Without spoiling the book for would-be-readers, below are just a few of the interesting answers found within The Secret Library. . .

What is the oldest book known to man?  . . .The Etruscan Gold Book, which was produced around 2,500 years ago. It comprises six large sheets of 24-carat gold which have been bound together with rings, thus forming a unified object that might be labelled a ‘book.”  It was discovered in the mid-twentieth century; unfortunately, as it was written in Etruscan language, which we know very little about, deciphering it proved tricky, to say the least. (Note, Wikimedia Commons does not have a photo of this book; however, there are images of it on the web at various sites).

Is the Iliad the first great work of Western literature?  “The Iliad is the first great work of Western literature probably composed in around the eighth century B.C. . . who Homer was remains a mystery. . .and after nearly three millennia unknowable.  The story of the Greeks . . disguised in a big wooden horse inspired the Trojan horse (in computing, a piece of malware that infiltrates your computer by disguising itself as something benign).”

Who was Euclid? “. . .The greatest mathematician of ancient Greece was Euclid.  But which Euclid? There were, it would appear, several. . .The attribution of the work to Euclid is the result of one passing reference made by a later writer, Proclus, naming Euclid as the author of, the book . . .most historians accept the attribution as fact.

Who was the first science fiction writer? “Pinpointing the starting-point of science fiction is a tricky undertaking. Did it begin with Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1864? Or Mary Shellye’s Frankenstein in 1818?  . . .Asimov and Carl Sagan give the mantle to . . . astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose Somnium written in Latin in 1608, speculated on what the Earth might look like from the Moon. . .but the origins of science fiction can be traced back far earlier even than Kepler. . .to the second century. . . to a Syrian writer named Lucian, whose short work A True History has claim to being the first-ever work of science fiction. . .

Who owned the largest library in medieval England?  “. . . Richard de Bury would have to be a contender. . .a fourteenth-century bishop of Durham, de Bury appears to have been something of an incurable bibliophile whose library dwarfed those of his fellow bishops. . .he has been described by his biographer Samuel Lane Boardman as the patron saint of book lovers. . .De Bury even wrote a book about his book obsession, Philobiblon (literally, ‘love of books’), which has been described as the first-ever book about library management. . .he completed it shorty before his death in 1345.”

Flatulent Demons? “Dante Alighieri. . .is best remembered for the epic poem about heaven, hell, damnation, purgatory and salvation called The Divine Comedy. . .It is not a comedy, because it is not funny. . .it might be viewed as the original fantasy trilogy, charting the poet’s journey from hell to purgatory before arriving in heaven.  T. S. Eliot, to whom Dante meant a great deal, said of Dante’s work that genuine poetry is able to communicate before it is understood.  Rumour has it that Dante taught his cat to hold a candle up for him in its paw while he was eating or reading.”

And . . .there is so much more: The First Autobiography (a manuscript found by “William Erdeswick, a lieutenant-colonel, found in a cupboard in his house in Chesterfield. . .a book first transcribed in the 1430s written by Margery Kempe;” “The discovery by an Italian librarian during the fifteenth century of Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura” was the spark that began the Italian Renaissance (according to literary historian Stephen Greenblatt); “Rabeliais, who wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel gave us two popular adjectives. . .gargantuan. . .and panurgic. . .”

There are more tales, more improbable but true connections, that Tearle deftly reveals and magically weaves into a cohesive whole.  This is the book you keep in your carryall, in the car, by your beside table; pick it up at any point and you will be amazed at just what you can learn.

References

The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History by Oliver Tearle. Photo Courtesy of Amazon.

The Iliad. Wikimedia Commons, attribution:  Pete unseth, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Kepler, Somnium. Courtesy Amazon.com.

The first page of Richard De Bury’s Philobiblon. Wikimedia Commons, attribution. Richard de Bury (Life time: 1287-1345), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Portable Dante. Photo courtesy of Amazon.

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

How to Paint a Horse?

by Helen Currie Foster

Like many of you I’m fascinated by prehistory, always hoping for a chance to clamber up (or down) to visit incredible cave paintings. My first mystery, Ghost Cave, was inspired by climbing to cave shelters where the Devil’s River meets the Rio Grande. Ghost Cave’s cover? The famous White Shaman images. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Helen+Currie+Foster+ghost+cave&crid=24J6S4P7832FF&sprefix=helen+currie+foster+ghost+cave%2Caps%2C129&ref=nb_sb_noss

In the Dordogne, in southern France, I heard the echo of the iron cover banging into place to close the entrance to the Pech Merle cave to prevent damage from outside air. Down the clanging iron stairs we went, along chilly stone tunnels, and then—the horses! Oh, the spotted horses, so real you could almost hear them breathe. They’ve been carbon-dated to 25,000 BCE. I’ve waited in line to see the famous Font de Gaume at Les Eyzies, also in the Dordogne, and hiked, shivering, to see the pictures deep in the Pyrenees cave at Niaux. I long to visit them all. Sometimes my companions balk.

Confronted by such artistry, such deft depictions, simultaneously spare and rich, like Chinese scroll landscapes or Picasso’s early drawings, haven’t you wondered about the artists? Why were they so deep in these dark, perilous caves? What was their life—or death—outside?

Today, with climatic violence the new normal, and new discoveries daily about human prehistory (including 23 and Me’s calculation of our personal percentages of Neanderthal ancestry), I’m more and more curious every day about our long-ago ancestors. The real question, of course: what is it to be human?

Welcome to  “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” a tome by two Brits—David Graeber, the late professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, and David Wengrow, professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. “The Dawn of Everything”? Sounds ferociously ambitious—overarching, maybe overreaching. But my best friend from high school—Dr. Megan Biesele, distinguished anthropologist—said “let’s read and discuss.” Easy for her to say: the tome is 526 pages long, with 83 pages of notes and a 62-page bibliography. https://www.amazon.com/Dawn-Everything-New-History-Humanity/dp/0374157359

Graeber and Wengrow boldly challenge our “received understanding” of an original state of innocence and equality, followed by the invention of agriculture and higher population levels and creation of cities leading inevitably to the rise of hierarchy and inequality. They employ often hilarious section headings. Example: “How the conventional narrative of human history is not only wrong, but quite needlessly dull.” (At 21.) (For a shorter version, see their Fall 202 article: https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/democracy/hiding-plain-sight.)

“The Dawn” asserts that the ideas of individual liberty and political equality we cherish today weren’t an outgrowth of the European enlightenment, but inspired by Native American critiques of their European invaders. The relevant heading: “In which we consider what the inhabitants of New France made of their European invaders, especially in matters of generosity, sociability, material wealth, crime, punishment and liberty.” (At 37.) One French evangelist sent to the Algonkian Mi’kmaq wrote, “They consider themselves better than the French: ‘For,’ they say, ‘you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.” This missionary was irritated that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert they were richer than the French, who had more possessions, because they themselves had “ease, comfort and time.” Such records by missionary priests were compiled in 71 volumes of Jesuit Relations (1633-1673). 

I’d never heard of the Wendat tribe’s philosopher statesman Kandiaronk, reportedly a highly skillful debater, who during the 1690’s was invited to participate in a sort of salon, where he shared his devastating moral and intellectual critique of European society. Kandiaronk sounds amazing: one priest described him as “always animated, full of wit, and generally unanswerable.” His arguments were included in Dialogues (1703), published by an impoverished French aristocrat named Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce. Kandiaronk held that European-style punitive law, like the religious doctrine of eternal damnation, wasn’t required by innate human corruption but by a society that encouraged selfish and acquisitive behavior. Nor had I heard that Kandiaronk’s critiques were adopted by French Enlightenment figures during the 1700’s. I hadn’t realized that substantial origins of the French “enlightenment” were…North American. 

 “The Dawn” discusses the Huron concept called Ondinnonk, a secret desire of the soul manifested by a dream: “Hurons believe that our souls have other desires, which are, as it were, inborn and concealed…They believe that our soul makes these natural desires known by means of dreams…Accordingly when these desires are accomplished, it is satisfied; but, on the contrary, if it be not granted what it desires, it becomes angry, and not only does not give its body the good and the happiness that it wished to procure for it, but often it also revolts against the body, causing various diseases, and even death…” Apparently tribe members spent time communally trying to decipher the meaning of others’ dreams and, sometimes, trying to help each other realize their dreams. (At 23-4, 454-5, 486, 608 n74.) 

After this startling introduction to an unknown genius (I mean, I’d have loved to learn about Kandiaronk back in 10th grade…or any grade, really—and apparently his ideas can be found: https://books.google.com/books/about/Native_American_Speakers_of_the_Eastern.html?id=Fu1yAAAAMAAJ), Graeber and Wengrow provide extensive examples of our incorrect assumptions. They argue that the notion that humans inevitably moved from hunting and foraging to static agricultural lives (with inevitable hierarchy and inequality) isn’t borne out by current archeology. They point to many cultures which rejected “big ag,” opting instead to keep hunting and foraging, making occasional gardens, and spending winters in river lowlands, moving to highlands in the summer with their flocks. (This made me think of the French Pyrenees, where the “transhumance” –taking livestock to the hills—still happens.) They argue that cities weren’t inevitably hierarchical, and that many arose with populations that—even if they had kings—made their decisions collectively, not hierarchically.

“The Dawn” is unsettling. Are we “stuck” today in ideas that are not in fact “inevitable” aspects of human social organizations? Are we less creative, socially speaking, than our forebears? Well, I’ve only made it to page 486. I’ll let you know how this turns out. If I’m intellectually “stuck,” I hope not to stay that way.

But back to the caves and the art on those seeping limestone walls. My strong impression is that we frequently underestimate those who traveled before us. We assume that the ways of today’s world manifests “progress” over our past. Surely that’s true: we did manage at least temporarily to get rid of smallpox…one small victory. But apparently there’s a great deal we’ve lost, forgotten, or never known…I mean, what is the meaning of the White Shaman picture? Did the artists ride the spotted horses painted in Pech Merle? Or just admire the herds from a distance?

“The Dawn of Everything” offers fodder for that most delightful and enduring attribute of our species: curiosity. I’m still chewing on these ideas. One topic is the surprising variety of ways that societies treat—or eschew—wealth. Another that nags at me is the Wendat condemnation of our punitive habits. Dialogues reported that rather than punish culprits, “the Wendat insisted the culprit’s entire lineage or clan pay compensation. This made it everyone’s responsibility to keep their kindred under control.” Wow. Just one of the things I’ll be thinking about…

Meanwhile, a delightful book, beautifully written, which offers windows onto the 21st century culture of Kandiaronk’s relatives is the best-selling Braiding Sweetgrass by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=kimmerer+braiding+sweetgrass&crid=J2LA9POFHIJK&sprefix=kimmerer%2Caps%2C244&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-doa-p_1_8

I found Braiding Sweetgrass so touching, especially the chapter called Allegiance to Gratitude, describing the children in the Onondaga Nation school reciting the traditional Haudenosaunee “Thanksgiving Address,” the Words That Come Before All Else. Most sections of this Address end, “Now our minds are one.” Maybe this is a living example of a communal tradition that molds a society. I recommend this book.

Helen Currie Foster lives and writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series north of Dripping Springs, supervised by three burros. She remains fascinated by human prehistory and how, uninvited, our pasts keep crashing the party. Her latest is Book 7, Ghost Daughter. “An appealing sleuth headlines a solid thriller with panache” —Kirkus Reviews

Book Review: Benjamin Capps’ The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock

by Kathy Waller

George Woodstock received the peculiar phone call on his sixty-sixth birthday. . . He let the phone ring twice, then answered, “Woodstock Machine Shop.”

It was Helen’s voice. “Clara called, George.”

“Where is she?” 

“Your sister. She’s out at Woodstock where she always is. Your papa has escaped from the nursing home.” . . . 

“What in the hell does escaped mean? Did you ask any questions? . . .  Have they put up a fence for patients to climb over? Or did he tunnel out? Did he wound any guards? I thought Papa was in a nursing facility.”

“Please don’t be snotty, George. I’m only telling you what Clara said. I said you’d call back.”

According to Best Mystery Novels, mysteries must meet certain criteria: there must be a puzzle; a detective or protagonist who sets out to solve the puzzle; suspects; clues; red herrings; hidden evidence; gaps in information; and suspense.

The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock  isn’t classed as a mystery.  It’s “general fiction.” Literary fiction. It isn’t shelved  in  bookstores and libraries amongst the Christies and the Hammetts and the Chandlers.

Author Benjamin Capps is famous for his award-winning historical fiction, realistic novels set in an Old West lacking the romance of pulp fiction. He didn’t write mysteries.

But based on the criteria laid out above, The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock is a mystery. On page one, the puzzle is laid out: ninety-one-year-old rancher Franklin Woodstock has “escaped” from the nursing home and is missing. And protagonist George Woodstock sets out on the three-hour drive from Fort Worth, northwest to the town of Woodstock, near his father’s seven-thousand-acre ranch, to find out what’s going on. (Clara, the sister who called, is known in the family as “a dingbat.”)

George’s investigation begins in chaos. The sheriff says they don’t usually find missing persons, just bodies they then identify by going through the files. He has two deputies out looking and will call in more searchers–George offers to help with expenses if necessary–but that’s about all his office can do.

At the Goodhaven Nursing Home, George asks the nurse at the front desk if she has a clue as to what his father might have been thinking in the days before he disappeared. She has a ready, and vehement, non-answer:

“I’m trying to bring the charts up for the next shift,” she said. ” . . . Now, sir, I would like to tell you what is charted again and again about Mr. Franklin Woodstock: Stubborn! Will not eat boiled and mashed carrots. Stubborn! Will not accept bath. Stubborn! Will not let aides assist in toilet. Stubborn! Tries to pinch aide or nurse. Stubborn! Will not lay as asked in bed. Stubborn! Pulls out feeding tube. Stubborn! Broke injection needle. Stubborn! Will not swallow boiled and mashed vegetables. Stubborn! Spits out pills.”

Asked the same question, the ward nurse sticks out a hand: “See that thumb? That knuckle! That’s  where a patient bit me. Just bit me on purpose.  . . .  She’s only got about seven teeth and she sunk every of them into my thumb.”

The Director of Nursing speaks more formally, but her only specific reference to George’s father is that a nurse was fired because she was discovered  bringing him food from home–ground broiled steak mixed with mushroom soup and thermoses of cold beer.

At the Woodstock ranch, George finds a haven in the person of Izzy, housekeeper, cook, compulsive gardener, canner, egg gatherer and churner of butter, and mother to everyone, although she’s probably no older than George. Izzy’s son Juan, who’s always gone by the name of Johnny Woodstock, is, as always, doing the practical–heading out on horseback with tenant-cowhands Buck and Slim to search for their employer. Johnny knows the ranch nearly as well as Franklin does.

Then the phone calls begin, and the six-hour round-trips to the airport in Fort Worth to pick up siblings and to try to keep his small machine shop afloat.

So the suspects gather. With plans. And motives.

Walter, a New York businessman with a degree from Harvard Business School, sees an opportunity to subdivide five thousand acres for an exclusive community, “no low-class people.” With his experience, of course, he’ll head up the project. That Chicano Johnny is good enough for punching cows but using a computer and managing a huge enterprise? Maybe he graduated from high school. Walter has also hired a private detective to find Papa, no matter how far he has to go or how much it costs.

Irma and her evangelist son Wilbur propose a different idea: The ranch will become Noah’s Ark, a combination religious retreat that will attract famous preachers, and a place of safety where every resident will be armed, a thousand rounds of ammo for each rifle, seeds, chainsaws, experts who can fix windmills and water pumps, animals two by two . . . because Russia, or somebody, is preparing to drop the Bomb. They’ve thought it out to the nth degree. Papa was a Born Again Christian and would have approved. Wilbur will probably be the first president, receiving a modest salary of $60,000. Irma had suggested $100,000.

Clara seems to want only to spoil her grandchildren, and Clarence, with a Ph.D. in literature and teaching in California, seems only to want to sit up all night with George, sharing several six-packs and talking old times. But Frank, his geologist son, believes the ranch sits on deep oil wells that could be profitable.

During George’s long drives between Fort Worth and the ranch, we learn a lot about Franklin Woodstock. He hasn’t always been “stubborn” or “Born Again.” He’s been a hard worker and a shrewd manager, starting with nothing and acquiring land and cattle, building “the Old Place” and later a large house, adding stock tanks and windmills, working alongside his hands in every endeavor. He has raised a family and sent his children to any school they wanted. When Clara’s grandson, Homer, who is “different,” is expelled from third grade for arguing unintelligibly with the teacher because he doesn’t want to sit down, and then (it is assumed) keeps breaking into the school library and stealing books (which are always returned), Franklin somehow smooths things over and starts building a library in his own home; the break-ins cease. Homer can’t read but seems to think if he could , he would understand what everyone else does.

Franklin Woodstock is the best man George has ever known.

We learn a lot about George, too: a surveyor with the CCC, a navigator who flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II, an assistant engineer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, a machinist and tool-and-die maker. He’s a man  with a high school education who wants to work with his hands, and he’s good at it. His father respects that and has promised him $100,000 to expand his business–a loan, not a gift. But with nothing on paper, and no witnesses to the promise, George doesn’t know whether he’ll get the money. And he feels guilty for even thinking about it.

He’s also worried that his siblings are behaving as if Papa is already dead. Walter says they can have him declared so. Walter is determined. Who knows what the others will agree to?

Although the active characters are the heirs of Franklin Woodstock, the old man holds the novel together. He’s missing. Is he dead or alive? Will they ever know?

What happened to Franklin Woodstock? There’s the mystery.

There are, of course, clues, red herrings, hidden evidence, gaps in information, suspense–all of the other basic criteria. But it would be a shame to share too much here.

As they say in fourth-grade book reports, if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book.

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A word about the author:

Benjamin Capps was born in 1922 in Dundee, Archer County, Texas.

At fifteen, he entered Texas Technological College in Lubbock but left after a year to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then as a surveyor in the U. S. Department of Engineering. As a navigator, he flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II. He received two degrees in English and journalism from the University of Texas and taught at Northeastern State College in Oklahoma. But teaching didn’t allow him time to write and drained his creativity. He became a machinist and tool-and-die maker before becoming a full-time writer. He lived in Grand Prairie, Texas.

In “Benjamin Capps Papers: A Guide,” (University of Texas Arlington Special Collections), it notes that,

According to Capps, his writing’s aim is to be authentic and “to probe the human nature and human motives” involved in his stories. His works are painstakingly researched for historical accuracy and generally explore lesser known facets of the American frontier. 

Three of his books won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. One novel and one work of nonfiction received a Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. He was the recipient of numerous other awards.

Dundee, Capps’ birthplace, is nineteen miles from Archer City, where Larry McMurtry was born eleven years later. Capps never achieved McMurtry’s fame (or notoriety).

But he’s been counted among writers such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Conrad Richter for writing about the Old West with “compelling authenticity.”

James W. Lee, Director, Center for Texas Studies, University of North Texas, calls his Woman of the People “the finest novel ever to come out of Texas.” (Note: Lee is right.)

He also says “Ben Capps is the Texas author whose work will still be read a hundred years from now.”

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Kathy Waller has published short stories and one novella, Stabbed, written with Manning Wolfe. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

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Sources:

Benjamin Capps. The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock. Lubbock: TCU Press, 1989.

Spur Award for the Best Western Novel

Texas Archival Resources Online

Encyclopedia.com

Texas Escapes

Within Hours

Book flap and blurbs

Master’s class, “Literature and Lore of the Southwest,” Southwest Texas State University, taught by Dr. Dickie Heaberlin, 1984. Memory and informed opinions of Kathy Waller, student.

Cover image: Amazon.com

Sisters in Crime, Thank You!!!

By K.P. Gresham

First off, the best job I ever had (short of writing mysteries) was teaching. And yes, I taught Middle Schoolers, which most people think is the worst possible teaching job you can have. Not me. I loved the students, and I loved my fellow teachers and staff. The kids were sponges. As long as you weren’t a jerk to them, they weren’t a jerk to you. And when they succeeded, both teacher and student won. The same could be said for all of us school employees who came to work every day to help those students become educated, excellent citizens.

What does that have to do with Sisters in Crime? Well, this time I’M the student, and my fellow chapter members and I are the sponges, learning as much as we possibly can to be better writers, readers and business people.

Sisters in Crime (SinC), both on the national level and the chapter levels, provides the teaching. The organization is based solely on helping readers and writers, women and men to learn their craft and sell their books.

SinC is the premier crime writing association focused on equity and inclusion in our community and in publishing. The association, founded in 1986, has 4500+ members who enjoy access to tools to help them learn, grow, improve, thrive, reinvent if necessary, and to share the lessons they’ve learned during their mystery writing experience.

4500+ members? That’s a whole lot of folks to learn from!

SinC National offers many resources to mystery readers and writers. They support a large international network of local chapter with grants, webinars, a central bank of crime-writing research, etc. They support local libraries and independent bookstores. National also provides a monthly newsletter called inSinC which is sent to every member. 

Local chapters are where the meatiest teaching takes place. In the last year, our Heart of Texas Chapter centered in Austin, Texas, hosted a plethora of programs spanning the mystery writing need-to-know list. NY Times Bestselling author L.R. Ryan shared her secrets to plotting the blockbuster novel. Cathy DeYoung, a former LAPD CSI fingerprint analyst (and the inspiration for the character of Abby on the TV show, NCIS) walked us through the steps of exploring a crime scene. Mike Kowis, a mild-mannered tax attorney for a Fortune 500 company AND a fellow author, taught us the ins and out of the tax code for authors and other legal matters.  Oh, and we were graced with a frank Q & A with the U.S. District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Honestly. Why would a writer not want to learn from these experts??  And these incredible lessons all were brought together through the Sisters in Crime organizations.

Once you get past the realization that we kill people for a living (on the page, of course), crime writers and readers are a very supportive, very giving group of people. And Sisters in Crime is the best way to get to know them.

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FLIGHTS OF FANCY AND IMAGINATION

BY FRANCINE PAINO

PBS television presented a new musical production by Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner John Mauceri: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written in 1816.  Mauceri conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Tony Award-winning Alan Cumming narrating this original tale in three parts.

The story written by E.T.A. Hoffman, is about a young girl who saves a prince, contrary to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, where the prince rescues the girl. Perhaps Hoffman’s inspiration for this particular flight of fancy was the popularity of embellished nutcrackers, which appeared in Germany in the early 1800s.  

The Nutcracker’s story began with a young boy who had to stay at home alone every day while his parents went to work. The little boy was lonely and afraid, so his father carved him a special toy, a  nutcracker in the form of a soldier with big sharp teeth and fierce-looking eyes and told him that this unique nutcracker would protect him while his parents were gone. It did the trick. The boy loved and enjoyed that nutcracker and felt secure by its presence, so his father continued to carve new ones for him.  When the boy grew up, he married and had a son to whom he gave all the nutcrackers made by his father.  

Over time in early 19th century Germany, the lure of decorative nutcrackers grew and so did a legend. They came to represent power, strength, and the protection of families from danger and evil spirits. Nutcrackers were given as gifts and keepsakes to bring good luck.  

E.T.A. Hoffman was a prolific writer of gothic tales, fantasy, and the supernatural – most of them dark including segments of his Nutcracker and the Mouse King. It was Alexander Dumas, the 19th-century French author who translated Hoffman’s work in 1845, propelling it beyond the written word.  Mauceri explains that Dumas, the grandson of the French aristocrat and African Haitian slave, was drawn to the story because Hoffman concluded the tale with the girl growing up to become the queen of a land of tolerance and imagination. It was the Dumas version that Peter Illich Tchaikovsky adopted in 1892, when he composed the score. 

          While this production does not target children, it is appropriate for those youngsters who can sit still for a narrative without pictures or characters to hold their interest. Cumming reads the narrative with emotion and even injects moments of humor without straying from the story.

The orchestra gives a stirring performance. Bold and rousing where appropriate, mysterious, sensual, and nerve-wracking also when appropriate. In addition to the lush Tchaikovsky score, compositions from Tchaikovsky’s tone poems and orchestral suites, are included in this score.  

           Mauceri’s reimagined Nutcracker and the Mouse King fills the mind’s eye with characters, places, and emotions generated by the performances of artists of the highest caliber. If you didn’t experience this fantastic flight of fancy and imagination, you could see it by accessing  https://www.pbs.org/video/the-nutcracker-and-the-mouse-king-meabwt/ 

         And now, in the true spirit of the season, love, kindness, respect, and caring, I wish all a Merry Christmas.

Historical Fiction–Literary Time Travel

In 1986, Random House New York published Through A Glass Darkly, netting its first-time author, Karleen Koen, a hardcover rights record for a new author, $350,000.  Random House picked a winner when the paperback rights later netted an additional $755,000.  Not long after that, it was chosen by the Book of the Month Club (Los Angeles Times).  When asked about her book set in the 18th century, Koen remarked, “It was the age of Defoe, Pope, Swift and Addison,” she said, “and I lost myself in their time.”

Koen, a former magazine editor for Houston Home and Garden Magazine and housewife, created a novel that the Los Angeles Times felt was “. . . something like a bodice-ripper crossed with a text of the French Annales school, which finds history secreted in everyday life. . .”

Whatever may be said about Through A Glass Darkly, it was and remains a hugely popular historical fiction novel.  I recently re-read Koen’s book, then re-read her follow up, Now Face to Face, which was published in 1995, nine years after her debut.  Now Face to Face is as chockfull of historical information as its predecessor and enjoyed as much success.

Revisiting Koen’s writing came after a yearlong binge of reading historical fiction.  And reading back-to-back century-sweeping historical fiction created lots of questions.  Most could be answered by GOOGLE, then GOOLING more, and yet again.  But I still found, even after all that reading and GOOLING, there were unanswered basic questions about the writing guidelines and necessary steps to create successful historical fiction.

To me, historical fiction was a somewhat odd genre between unalterable truth and fictional twists.  Thoughts of just how much research was needed for a well-grounded novel was equal to going back to school for a specialist degree—I could easily see 4, 6, 10 years stretching out before writing the first line. All writing is a commitment, but writing about the ancient world, sl

slogging through translations of lost languages (if you can even find them), lost cultures, horrific wars, the peeling back layers of history and people– that takes commitment.

 Back to Basics–What is Historical Fiction.  

Jessica Dukes’ article “What is Historical Fiction?” offers an answer:

“The idea is to take readers out of the events of their lifetime. Most book lovers agree that Historical Fiction is the closest we’ll get to actual time travel.

 Historical Fiction is set in a real place, during a culturally recognizable time.

 The details . . . can be a mix of actual events and ones from the author’s imagination as they fill in the gaps. Characters can be pure fiction or based on real people . . . But everything about them —their attitudes and look, the way they speak, and problems they face — should match the era. . .” (Emphasis added)

 “How far back in time does an author have to go for their work to be considered Historical Fiction? A good rule of thumb is a minimum of 50 years.”

But . . . Just because a timeline is set back “50 years,” does not make it historical fiction.  Many other critical facets must be met and several hard and fast criteria.  To get there, we need to consider the history of the genre, what makes historical fiction what it is, and the elements that make it part of this popular genre.

Historical Fiction has been around a long, long time…

The father of the historical fiction novel is Sir Walter Scott, and Scottish history is the bedrock of his novels. Waverly, Scott’s first novel, was published in 1814; “over two dozen novels” followed, “noted for the characterizations of ordinary people and their regional Scottish dialect” (Britannica).

Scott’s writing was unique and went on to influence, Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace), George Eliot (Middlemarch), as well as Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac and many others (The Victorian Web).  Scott died in 1832, at 61 years of age .

R. Haggis provides the extent of Scott’s influence:

“. . .The reading of Scott’s novels led historians to envisage their task in a new way; it encouraged dramatists and novelists to turn to national history for new sources of material; it gave a vast reading public an interest in, and a curiosity about, the past . . .

“. . .The greatness of Scott is now seen to lie in the insight and understanding he shows in the interpretation of historical conflicts, in his ability to penetrate to the human reality underlying those conflicts and the opposition of historical forces, and in the way he contrives to fuse, in the creation of his fictional characters, their personal characteristics with features and qualities that make them figures representative of their times.  All this is displayed more finely—through certainly not exclusively—in his novels dealing with Scotland . . .”

So . . .What Makes Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction?

The most important element is the setting.  The setting must be factual—a time and event certain in history.  It must include supportable facts related to any real-life participants mentioned, or who are part of the storyline. An author may add a “fictional” story, what they cannot do is to “invent history.” (Rutherfurd).

What Are the Necessary Elements of Historical Fiction?

According to Ohio State University, there are “Seven Elements of Historical Fiction.”

“. . .in general writers of fiction must address seven crucial elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. The characters could be based on real or imaginary individuals (Ohio State).

How To Create Believable and Successful Historical Fiction?

Research. Research. Research.

“. . .the key to an author getting all of this right is research.  Authors are always allowed artistic license, but the most satisfying works of Historical Fiction have been researched down to every scent, button, turn of phrase, and cloud in the sky.” (Dukes)

How Popular is Historical Fiction Today?

 If Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall, and C.J. Sanson’s highly successful Matthew Shardlake Series, are any indication, historical fiction is both popular and lucrative. Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, have evolved into popular television series.  Gabaldon’s ninth book of the series was released November 2021—it would seem there is no end in sight to the popularity of Scottish history.

Another successful current historical fiction novelist, Edward Rutherfurd, is known for his long and complex novels of diverse places that span thousands of years. Rutherfurd’s Sarum, his first novel, a family saga tracing five families across 1000 years, starting during the Ice Age and ending with the present. Set in Stonehenge and Salisbury, England, Sarum was eagerly received by the public and quickly became a best seller.

Rutherfurd followed Sarum with other successful sagas: Russka, 800 years of Russian history, London, 2000-year long history of London; The Forest—a sequel to Sarum, a history of the forest lying “south-east of Sarum on England’s southern coast” ranging “from the Norman Conquest to the present day.” The Princes of Ireland, 1100 years of Irish history, and The Rebels of Ireland, starting before Cromwell to the Easter Rising and into the Irish Free State. Followed by New York, Paris, and the 2021, China, (the shortest timeframe covered so far—a mere seventy-five years).

Rutherfurd has frequently been compared to the historical fiction author James A. Michener.  Michener’s popularity began in the late ’40s and his long sagas continue to draw readers even today—most are still available.

In 1948, Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, with his Tales of the South Pacific; in 1949, it was adapted into the Broadway musical, South Pacific.  Two movie versions were produced in, 1958 and in 2001.

During his long career, Michener authored more than 40 books, including Hawaii, Centennial, Poland, The Source (story of Israel), Caravans, and Texas, to name only a few.

Michener passed away in 1997 at 90 years of age.  His manuscripts and galleys for his book Texas were bequeathed to the University of Texas at Austin.

An Afterthought or Two. . .

When I began researching the nuts and bolts—the actual mechanics—behind writing historical fiction, I was quickly convinced that, even before writing the first sentence, writing historical fiction is a long-term commitment.  You need staying power to find historical truth, and that isn’t always an easy task.

The reality is . . . history changes every day.  Technology and advanced archeological techniques find new information hourly across the globe.  Yet, in the final analysis, and in spite of rapidly advancing changes within all fields, historical fiction is here to stay (Sparkpress).

Readers are drawn to history, particularly their own.  People are curious about their roots, their beginnings, their past, their culture; they want to get lost, be transported to another place and time, and what better way to do that than literary time travel?

Afterward EXTRA, or just another thing insightful and interesting . . .

Edward Rutherfurd provided an opinion piece on his website detailing his “seven guidelines” for writing historical fiction. If you are the curious type, you can access the opinion there under the website menu bar, “Opinion,” then,  Ethics: Rules for Writing Historical Novels .

***

Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon.

Koen, Karleen. Through A Glass Darkly. Random House. (1986).

Koen, Karleen. Now Face to Face. Random House. (1995).

Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon.

Image of Sir Walter Scott by Charles Herbert Sylvester, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Other images courtesy of Pixabay.

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice, and is currently dedicated to retirement.  Among her interests are reading, writing, research, and animal advocacy.  She fosters both dogs and cats and works with various rescue groups to find them homes.

….And Then What Happens?

By Helen Currie Foster

If you haven’t read Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, or his latest, The Man Who Died Twice, fear not—no spoilers here. Oh, maybe a couple of teases, but that’s my theme today: curiosity as a driver of mystery novels.

https://www.amazon.com/Man-Who-Died-Twice-Thursday/dp/1984880993/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3LIAI6XFOMLFR&keywords=the+man+who+died+twice&qid=1638133704&s=books&sprefix=the+man+who+%2Cstripbooks%2C233&sr=1-1

George Saunders, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, his boldly subtitled “master class on writing, reading and life,” recounts his experience submitting a short story to Bill Buford, fiction editor of The New Yorker. After receiving some “painful edits,” Saunders asked Buford what he liked about the story: “Well, I read a line. And I like it…enough to read the next.”

Saunders gives a short answer to why we keep reading: “Because we want to.” And why do we want to? “That’s the million-dollar question. What makes a reader keep reading.”

Back to The Thursday Murder Club. We meet the varied characters of an upscale home for the elderly in scenic Kent who meet weekly to solve murders—old and new. Some characters seem ordinary, like the new club member, Joyce, whose journal depicts her as sprightly and slightly ditzy. Some, like Elizabeth, are veiled in mystery. Is Bogdan just a dumb Polack? We begin to wonder what’s he hiding. Then we begin to wonder what each character’s hiding. We also desperately want to know who’s buried—no, who else is buried––in the nuns’ graveyard on the hill. We read in the bathtub. We sneak our Kindle into the examining room and finish another chapter before the nurse arrives. Same with The Man Who Died Twice: we keep reading the next line! Before beginning, I asked myself, how can Orman’s second book be as compelling as Thursday? Just hide and watch. For each character—whether detective or potential villain—a slow (but never too slow) reveal will move you, the reader, to keep reading the next sentence.

In my blog Curiouser and Curiouser I mentioned astrophysicist Mario Livio’s book, WHY: What Makes Us Curious. https://www.amazon.com/Why-What-Makes-Us-Curious-ebook/dp/B01M7WV0LV/ref=sr_1_4?qid=1638133468&refinements=p_27%3AMario+Livio&s=books&sr=1-4 Livio begins by discussing Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” a very short 19th century tale of a woman who has just received news of her husband’s death. Livio cites Chopin’s “singular ability to generate curiosity with almost every single line of prose.” He says she inspires “empathic curiosity,” driving the reader incessantly to ask “why?” and to try to understand the desires and thoughts of the protagonist. Chopin also uses the element of surprise—“a sure stratagem to kindle curiosity through heightened arousal and attention.”

The physiological basis for such heightened curiosity? When we encounter the unexpected, our brains assume we may need to take action. “This results in a rapid activation of the sympathetic nervous system” as we focus on the key issue, says Livio. He notes that when we’re surprised and have a fear response, both fast and slow brain pathways are activated. On the fast track, our thalamus sends sensory signals to the amygdala which directs our emotional response. But on the slow track, our thalamus sends signals to our cerebral cortex before going to the amygdala—allowing a “more thoughtful” response. 

And don’t mystery readers have highly developed cerebral cortexes? Of course they do. For starters, though, we request a protagonist who engages us, so our empathic curiosity can push us to the next sentence. Perhaps we need to care at least a little for the protagonist in order to want to know what happens next. All the great tales combine empathic curiosity and surprise. Will Kim and his lama find the River of the Arrow? Will Mr. Darcy ever propose a second time to Elizabeth Bennet? Will Gus and Call survive the cattle drive to Montana? Will Frodo make it to the Cracks of Doom? Will George Smiley figure out the mole’s identity? We want to know what happens next. Mystery readers beg their authors: make us want to know!

Livio highlights some remarkably curious humans. One is Leonardo da Vinci (described by art historian Kenneth Clark as “the most relentlessly curious man in history”). A look at Leonardo’s Notebooks shows as just one example of his curiosity his study of human physiology [186] and anatomy—skeleton, musculature, circulation.

Leonardo provides detailed drawings and descriptions of human limbs, and then moves on to how they work: “The walking of man is always after the universal manner of walking in animals with 4 legs, inasmuch as just as they move their feet crosswise after the manner of a horse in trotting, so man moves his 4 limbs crosswise; that is, if he puts forward his right foot in walking he puts forward, with it, his left arm and vice versa, invariably.” We come to believe Leonardo was not just trying for painterly accuracy: he wanted to know how bodies work (as well as why candle flame moves as it does, how screws and tempered springs work, how to depict perspective…).

It goes almost without saying that mystery readers are notoriously curious. We love to plunge into new or unique settings—Alaska (Dana Stabenow), Southside Chicago (Sara Paretzky), Scotland (Ian Rankin), the south of France (Martin Walker), the Four Corners (Tony and now Anne Hillerman)…and don’t forget Texas, big cities and small towns, the coast, the border, the Hill Country. We’re delighted with new worlds—paranormal mysteries. We’re curious about alibis—any holes? What exactly did the medical examiner say? Which facts point to a motive—or lack thereof? 

Another example of a “relentlessly curious” human is astrophysicist Richard Feynman: “Feynman’s genius and achievements in…physics are legendary…He became known to the general public as a member of the panel that investigated the space shuttle Challenger disaster…When asked to identify what he thought was the key motivator for scientific discovery, Feynman replied, ‘It has to do with curiosity. It has to do with wondering what makes something do something.’” [10]

“What makes something do something.” And what makes someone do something. The stuff of mystery.

Livio considers the drive for knowledge a deeply human characteristic, with curiosity a powerful force not just for childhood cognitive development, but for intellectual and creative expression later in life. [9] He says “perceptual curiosity” motivates visual inspection—for instance, when we see something novel, puzzling, or an extreme outlier. Opposite “perceptual curiosity” is “epistemic curiosity”—sheer desire for knowledge, which Thomas Hobbes called “lust of the mind” because it only leaves you wanting more. 

Well, isn’t that your basic mystery reader? The best mysteries leave us momentarily satisfied—we want to read each next line until we get to the very last line—but still wanting more. Where’s the next book?

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Mystery Series, and lives north of Dripping Springs, supervised by three burros. Find the series at BookPeople, Amazon or IngramSpark and at various libraries. The books (Ghost Cave, Ghost Dog, Ghost Letter, Ghost Dagger, Ghost Next Door, Ghost Cat, and Ghost Daughter) include “Ghost” in their titles because an old sin, old love, or old death still hangs around…resulting in a new murder. Ghost Cat won “Semifinalist” for Mystery in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Kirkus says of Ghost Daughter, “An appealing character headlines a solid thriller with panache.” 

Follow her at http://www.helencurriefoster.com,

https://www.amazon.com/Helen-Currie-Foster/e/

https://www.facebook.com/helencurriefoster/

End of Year Assessments and Thanksgiving

by N. M. Cedeño

For writers, setting and meeting goals can be done in a variety of ways. Some people count words produced in a given year. Others count finished manuscripts. This year I have been focused on my short stories, specifically on getting stories published, so I set goals for submitting my work to markets.

At the beginning of the year, I set a goal of submitting a minimum of two stories per month to publishing markets. This meant I had to write, edit, and proofread the stories, locate the markets, format each manuscript to each market’s specifications, and submit the stories via whatever process the publisher indicated. I met this goal, submitting 27 manuscripts to 19 publishing markets by mid-November.

As a result of this focus on sending my stories to markets and not just leaving them sitting on the computer, I have licensed four stories for publication this year. Another six are still under review.

Of the four accepted for publication, one was published in the October 2021 issue of After Dinner Conversation: Philosophy and Ethics Short Story Magazine. One will appear in a Crimeucopia anthology from Mysterious Ink Press called Say What Now? in March 2022. The other two are also slated to appear in 2022: one in Black Cat Mystery Magazine and one in an anthology called Groovy Gumshoes, although I don’t have publication dates for either yet.

Of these four stories, two are private detective stories. One is an amateur detective cozy mystery. One is a science fiction crime story. One story was accepted on its fifth submission. One story was accepted on its ninth submission. One story was accepted after ten submissions. And one was written for a specific call for submissions and accepted on the first try.

The shortest time it took for an editor to reject a story was six hours. The shortest wait for a story to be accepted was 40 days. The longest response time from a market on a submitted story for either an acceptance or rejection is currently at 404 days and counting. (Yep– that story was submitted in October 2020, and I still don’t have a response on it.)

Another writing goal I’d set for myself was to be invited to submit stories to closed submission calls. To meet this goal an editor would have to know and like my work well enough to reach out to me and ask me to submit a story directly to them. I expected it might take years to meet this goal which could only happen at some point after I started having stories accepted from open calls for submissions. To my surprise, I met this goal this year. I am thankful for that editor who liked my work enough to invite me to submit work directly to him.

And on the topic of thankfulness: I accomplished editing and proofreading for my stories with the help of critique partners, beta readers, and at least one sibling with an eye for plot and an unflinching willingness to point out flaws. Without people willing to read early drafts, I’d have to rely entirely on my own eye. And once I’ve read a story a hundred times, I can’t see the forest for the trees. Thanks to all the people willing to critique my work to help me improve my writing!

To all the wonderful people who support the work of writers everywhere, I want to say ‘THANK YOU!’ To the board members and volunteers who organize and plan meetings for the Heart of Texas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, to the people at national Sisters in Crime who create webinars and newsletters, to those who organize write-ins and meet-ups, to those who monitor listserv groups and organize monthly Zoom ‘watercooler’ discussions for the Short Mystery Fiction Society, thank you very much. Your work is much appreciated.

To the family members who cheer me on, to my husband and kids, to my parents and siblings, thanks for your support!

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

A Little Hitchcock, Two Stories, Plus Spoilers

by Kathy Waller

The summer  I was six, my cousin of the same age was visiting our spinster great-aunt and bachelor uncle who lived up the street. Uncle called one evening. Cousin was being a major pain. It was a weeknight, and the only amusement our miniscule town afforded, a roller skating rink, was open only on weekends. Great-aunt and uncle weren’t accustomed to dealing with children of the painful variety, so he did what he often did when desperate. He appealed to my mother: You’ve got to do something.

A veteran of dealing with a juvenile pain, she proposed the perfect solution. They loaded both of us into the car and took us fifteen miles to the drive-in movie.

An excellent plan: Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, trailers of coming attractions, and the feature film: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

A synopsis of the novel from which the movie was adapted appears on Wikipedia:

A prosperous shipbuilder hires a former detective who suffers from vertigo to tail his wife Madeleine who is acting strangely. The detective falls in love with the shipbuilder’s wife but is unable to stop her committing suicide by jumping from a tower. Haunted by her death, he sees a woman who bears a strong resemblance to the dead woman, however, his attempts to get closer to this doppelgänger ultimately result in tragedy.

In these enlightened times, many, if not most, parents would be horrified at anyone’s allowing a first-grader to see such a nightmare-inducing movie. I, however, spent every afternoon glued to the Afternoon Movie. I guess my mother assumed that if I could handle Don Ameche trying to get rid of his wife, Claudette Colbert, by drugging her hot chocolate and then piping in repeated suggestions that she jump off her bedroom balcony, Hitchcock wouldn’t upset me.

And I’ve always been grateful to her, because that night at the drive-in, I fell in love. I watched Hitchcock’s television programs and all the movies I could manage. They were wonderful, and if they starred Cary Grant–Francine Paino wrote about one of those, North by Northwest, last week–that was icing on the cake.

Now Netflix, Prime, Roku, and other streaming services have allowed me to watch many of them again.

But this post isn’t a celebration of Hitchcock. It’s about two stories adapted for his television show. Watching them as an adult, I saw something I hadn’t seen years (and years) ago. I enjoyed both, but one had something extra.

The first is “The Second Wife,” in which a mail-order bride comes to believe that her husband plans to kill her. At the outset, he seems insensitive, unconcerned about her needs; when she says the laundry room in the basement is uncomfortably cold, he complains about the cost of installing a heater. She also hears stories: he took his first wife to visit her people at Christmas and she died and was buried there–or that’s what he claims.

Gossip fuels the second wife’s fears, and when the husband announces plans to take her home for Christmas, she acquires a gun. Before they leave, however, he insists she go down to the basement. She takes the gun and descends the stairs. He’ll follow in a moment.

The viewer feels her fear: The husband will kill the second wife, as he killed the first.

But there’s a literary catch. In a letter, Anton Chekhov stated one of his principles for writing fiction: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

The wife has a gun. And this is Hitchcock; he keeps his promises.

The wife shoots and kills her husband, then realizes he’d only wanted to show her her Christmas present–the heating system he’d had installed in the laundry room.

A tragic ending, but satisfying in its irony.

The second story, “Night of the Owl,” however, has something extra, something unexpected.

A couple have reared an adopted daughter, now a teenager, a bright student, a well-adjusted, happy girl. But the parents have carefully guarded a secret: the girl’s father murdered her mother, then killed himself in prison. When a prison chaplain and his accomplice appear and blackmail the couple, then come back for more, the father considers his options: murder the blackmailer, or tell his daughter about her past. Both are unthinkable. Then one of the blackmailers is murdered. Evidence points to the father.

How can the plot be resolved? Did the father commit murder? He escapes being charged but can’t escape telling his daughter about her birth parents.

In “The Second Wife,” the resolution is either/or, and the viewer can almost certainly predict which it will be.

But the ending of “The Night of the Owl” isn’t predictable. Will the girl become hysterical? Fall into depression? Reject her adoptive parents? Run away? Harm herself?

Told the truth about the murder/suicide in her background, she expresses empathy. How unhappy her parents must have been, she says–what sad lives they must have lived.

I didn’t see that coming. A Hitchcock program with a happy ending. And an exceptional character.

Critics (professional and amateur) point to problems with both  programs. Fair enough. I didn’t watch for flaws. In fact, I didn’t watch for anything but the pleasure of seeing programs I’d first watched as a child. I just happened to see something more.

And to quote Osgood Fielding III, “Nobody’s perfect.”

***

“Night of the Owl” is available on Youtube.

*

Robert Bloch wrote the teleplay of “The Second Wife” based on a story by Richard Deming. It aired on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on October 4, 1962.

Richard Fielder wrote the teleplay of “The Night of the Owl” based on a novel by Paul Winterton. It aired on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on April 26, 1965.

*

Joe E. Brown appears as Osgood Fielding III in Some Like It Hot. He has the best line in one of the best, and funniest, movies ever made.

Research turned up this biographical item: “An ardent opponent of the Nazi regime, in 1939 Brown testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of a bill that would allow 20,000 German-Jewish refugee children into the United States. He would later adopt two German-Jewish refugee girls himself, naming them Mary Katherine Ann (born 1930) and Kathryn Francis (born 1934).”

*

Images are taken from Wikipedia. Both are in the public domain.

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Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

Book Review: FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King

“From the start . . . I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive.  It gets in your face.  Sometimes it shouts in your face.  I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers.  Making them think as they read is not my deal.” (Full Dark, No Stars. p.365).

There are some who avoid works by Stephen King.  Literary elitists have shown distain towards King for years, dismissing his writing as story-telling for the masses.  This review isn’t about the literary merits of King’s works, or his overwhelming success, or even about the monumental effect King’s life-long dedication to writing has had on the horror genre.  This is a brief review and discussion of two of four novellas found in Full Dark, No Stars, released in 2010.

Short stories and novellas are not a new format for King.  King has published very successful short stories and multiple novellas over his 35-year-long career.  He has clearly succeeded yet again, with Full Dark, No Stars.

Full Dark contains a common theme within each novella, a theme exploring the darker side of the human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice.  Redemption is not a theme, but revengeful retribution is revealed in each.  Even evil has the opportunity towards a twisted kind of justice—a black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.

The first novella, 1922, is set in Depression era Nebraska.  The story involves a barely working family farm, constant work, brutally harsh, and unrelenting.  The wife and mother, Arlette, is a bitter and manipulative character who harps without end her wish to sell the 100-acre farm that she inherited from her father.  Arlette’s dream is to leave the country life and move to the progressive city of Omaha.

The husband, Wilfred “Wilf,” dominated and hen-pecked, is a browbeaten, beleaguered husband whose only desire is to stay on the land.  Wilf tells Henry, their only child, of his mother’s, Arlette’s, plan.  Wilf then convinces Henry to help him murder his mother.  Wilf intones that if Henry does not help with this, they will be forced to leave the farm, and Henry will never see his girlfriend, who lives  close by, ever again.  Henry, a meek and obedient boy, resists but finally agrees to help murder his mother.

When Arlette’s demands to sell increase, Wilf and Henry determine they must go through with the murder.  It is a clumsy and brutal murder; both father and son are deeply shaken afterwards.   Arlette’s murder acts as a horrific prelude to a story which evolves into a twisted tale of backwoods justice and supernatural interference.

The vicious murder results in the destruction of both father and son.  The darker psyche of Wilf bobs and weaves throughout the tale, and in the end, destruction follows.

(Spoiler:  If you have a phobia against rats, you may not want to read this dark tale).

A GOOD MARRIAGE:  A Good Marriage is both thought provoking and highly believable.  The main character is a stay-at-home wife, Darcy, whose children have gone to college and left home to start their lives.  Darcy has been married to the same man, Bob Anderson, for over 25 years.  She believes she is living the American dream, or a semblance of it – not perfect, but predictable, comfortable.  It is by sheer accident that she trips over a misaligned carton residing in the garage.  Darcy opens the carton and realizes that the man that she believes she knows as well as herself, not only has a double life, but is a serial killer.

Once Darcy confirms her suspicions, she realizes that there has not been a killing for 16 years.  She attempts to come to grips with what she knows for certain.  Her husband, Bob, intuits that she knows about his secret life when he realizes that the garage carton has been moved.  Bob confronts Darcy, and manages to convince her that it is all up to her what happens next; his life and their life together, as well as their children’s, hang on her decision.  Bob assures her that as long as she keeps quiet, he will suppress his killing urges; he promises her won’t kill again, but she must make her decision to stay and keep their secret.

Bob explains to Darcy the reason he took a break from killing was because of her, that being with her has allowed him to suppress and ignore his urge to kill.  But if she breaks her word, the killing will start up again, and Darcy will suffer the consequences, will be ostracized by the very people she believes to be her friends.

Bob and Darcy’s lives resume; he goes back to work, Darcy takes up her house-wifely duties, and they ignore their shared secret and there are no killings.  But Darcy, never feels at ease; she is ashamed and feels responsible.

After years of silence, Darcy stages an accident and succeeds in killing Bob.  After an evening celebration with family and friends, Darcy manages to push Bob down a flight of stairs, and he falls to his death.  Although Darcy is cleared of any foul play, she knows someone will come knocking on the door sooner or later.  And the day does come, and that someone comes knocking, but it isn’t who she expects.

Retribution comes in the end, along with a good dose of twisted justice, but you have to read the book to find out.

You will enjoy this collection.  Both 1922 and A Good Marriage have been made into movies.  The book will make you think, and may even surprise you.

After all, no one knows what they might do if pushed to the absolute edge.

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From the Afterword:
“I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing…and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.” (Stephen King).

“Stephen King has proven himself to be one of the finest chroniclers of the dark side of the human psyche over the 35 years of his successful career. While literary snobs sometimes cock a snoot at his mainstream appeal, there is no doubt that on his day he can spin as compelling a yarn as anyone” . . . These tense tales delve into the dark heart of a knitting society and a serial killer’s last stand.” Doug Johnstone. Independent. November 14, 2010.

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References

King, Stephen.  FULL DARK, NO STARS. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Kirkus Review.  “Deals with the darkest recesses of the human soul. . .”   Nov. 10, 2010.

Johnstone, Doug. Independent. November 14, 2010. 

Photos: Courtesy of Pixabay

Book Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading, writing, and animal advocacy. She fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.