The spring of 2020 has provided me with the opportunity to return to one of my favorite pastimes…and escapes.
And why not get back to my favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes?
I’ve spent the last few months catching up present-day iterations of the iconic and prolific Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective first saw publication in 1887. Since then, authors (and screenwriters) around the world have given a go at their take on the famous detective.
My first selection was The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas. As its title suggests, Sherlock Holmes is actually a woman names Charlotte Holmes. This turned out to be a delightful read. Thomas creates a storyline that sounds far-fetched but pulls it off with insightful references to the original Doyle short stories. The mysteries she’s created don’t allow you to put the books down.
Next, I turned to Laurie King’s bestselling novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In this book and those following in the series, an aging Sherlock is befriended by (or is it she who befriends him?) a highly observant, seventeen year-old woman who rivals his abilities in observation and deduction. She soon becomes his apprentice in the detective game, and then…well…the game’s afoot!
Anna Castle writes a delightful series, The Professor and Mrs. Moriarity Mysteries. In her incredibly believable way, Castle creates a world where Professor Moriarty is the good guy, and Sherlock Holmes is not. Not exactly, anyway.
Other authors have had their own way with Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes – Anthony Horowitz Series comes to mind as well as the Anna Elliott and Charles Veley series, The Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James Mysteries. Even Kareem Adbul-Jabar co-wrote a series based on Mycroft Holmes.
Now the warning. Reading all these Sherlock Holmes iterations (and binge-watching movies/series featuring Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch) puts one in a mood to eat. Apparently I’m highly suggestible when reading a good book. When the characters have tea, I want tea. And I’m not just talking about the beverage. I’ve been chowing down on tea sandwiches, scones, pastries, desserts–and I’m not even a sweets lover. And when a character in the book has had a shock or a close call, whiskey is handed out in short order. Now I don’t drink whiskey, but I manage to find my own libation. I hate to see a character drink alone.
So thanks to that lean, tall Sherlock Holmes, I have put on the extra pounds that he willfully sheds when he’s on the hunt for a villain.
If you’re looking for a comfort binge in these difficult times, I suggest you give Sherlock Holmes a try. But remember! You’ve been warned that you might come away with more (weight) than you bargained for!
So, did you dress up for Halloween? Did you buy a mask in New Orleans, or Venice, perhaps one with feathers? What would you wear to a costume ball?
“Man is a make-believe animal—he is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” William Hazlitt
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Oscar Wilde
Both statements have some truth. Maybe Oscar Wilde meant that when we can hide our faces, or adopt a disguise, we feel free to do what we want––without hesitation or regret. Yell “trick or treat!” Dance at the masked ball as a glamorous mystery person! Rob the stagecoach! Maybe writers understand Hazlitt: we’re at our best, writing, as we invent characters, invent parts for the characters, invent disguises. Yes, we’re at our best “acting a part…” and we act many parts as we write.
At my college there was a costume room where students could buy clothes from decades earlier. One year a group of us rummaged around and found remarkable outfits which we’d don sometimes for fun. For $1.50 I acquired a stunning long black silk evening sheath from maybe 1919, with black sequin trim under the bodice, slits in the sides of the skirt, and two long black “wings” attached to the shoulders that I could use like a shawl, or like… wings. When I put that dress on––SHAZAM! I wasn’t a young thing from Texas, I was the embodiment of glamour. (Where is that dress?) So, what’s the outfit you wear, or dream about, when you’re ready to put on that black cat-eyed mask from (New Orleans) (Venice) and enter the party? The disguise you’d choose? The disguise that would let you do what you want, learn what you want, go where you want?
Two genres especially abound in disguise: children’s literature, and mysteries.
Disguise lets us learn what may otherwise be unavailable. Think of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, where Merlyn (White’s spelling) enchants Wart (the future King Arthur) by turning him into a perch in the moat. Wart learns to swim from a fish called a tench, who reminds him, “Put your back into it.” He’s taken to learn about power from the King of the Moat, a murderously hungry four-foot long fish: “The power of strength decides everything in the end, and only Might is right.” He learns from his night as a merlin, in the terrifying catechism imposed by the peregrine, that the first law of the foot is “Never to let go.”
Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron need information to foil the Dark Lord, and to raid Gringotts Bank and the Ministry of Magic. They resort to the invisibility cloak, or use Polyjuice Potion to look like Bellatrix, or Crabbe and Goyle.
But knowledge won by disguise carries peril. Wart barely survives the unscrupulous King of the Moat, having to dive “the heartiest jack-knife he had ever given.” The moment when Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak slips, when the Polyjuice potion wears off, threatens exposure and punishment.
Kim, in Kipling’s beloved novel, disguises himself to learn secrets as a child spy for the Company’s intelligence service in India. But Kim doesn’t see disguise as work. He revels in the sheer joy of successful impersonation. He rejoices in the walnut dye that lets him escape on a railroad journey to meet his lama, where he tries out various personae, explaining to the passengers “that he was assistant to a juggler who had left him behind sick with fever.” As the occupants of the train car change, “he varied this tale, or adorned it with all the shoots of a budding fancy…” This joyous talent becomes dangerous as he adopts Mohammedan garb, spying for Mahbub Ali, and priestly garb as he chases Russian spies across the Himalayan foothills.
Maybe Kim’s an exemplar of Hazlitt’s statement, that “man is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” When fate requires a disguise—or just for fun on the Indian railway––Kim uses all of himself to create that disguise, summoning memory, imagination, accent, intonation, clothing, gesture, posture. As actors do! Perhaps all these disguises are part of him…though not all of him.
Like Kim, Sherlock Holmes (or Arthur Conan Doyle) loves disguise. Remember “A Scandal in Bohemia?” Disguises everywhere! First, a client sporting a “black vizard mask” seeks help from Sherlock Holmes. The client’s disguised as the Count von Kramm, a Bohemian nobleman, but confesses he’s actually King of Bohemia. He wants Holmes to “repossess” (snitch) a compromising photograph of the King and the famous beauty Irene Adler. Holmes himself then adopts disguises. First, to spy on Adler, he appears as “a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes,” so convincing that Watson “had to look three times before I was certain that it was indeed he.” Next he plots a disguise to gain entry to Adler’s house, where the photograph is hidden:
“He disappeared into his bedroom and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman. His broad black hat, his baggy trousers, his white tie, his sympathetic smile, and general look of peering and benevolent curiosity were such as Mr. John Hare alone could have equaled.”
Watson notes that it was not merely that Holmes changed his costume: “His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.”
But Conan Doyle fools us yet again. Holmes orchestrates a street melée whereby a crowd (of accomplices) carry the clergyman into Adler’s house. When Watson throws a fire rocket through the window, Holmes, as predicted, sees Adler rush toward the photograph’s hiding place. On their way back to Baker Street Holmes happily tells Watson about his ploy, but as he searches for his door key, he hears “Good-night, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” from “a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.”
Foiled again––Holmes, that is. Irene Adler, disguised as a boy, has followed him home and confirmed the “clergyman” was Holmes. The next morning Holmes and Watson discover her house is empty, the photograph’s gone, and his disguises were in vain. That’s “how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit,” says Watson.
Holmes does love a good disguise, and maybe that’s why he can recognize one. For another example of his Hazlitt-esque behavior, see “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” where Watson almost doesn’t recognize Holmes as an aged opium smoker, and Holmes susses out the (disguised) truth about the disappearance of a client’s highly respectable husband by (literally) washing clean the face of a notorious street beggar.
Josephine Tey teases us with disguise in Brat Farrar where the mystery turns on whether Brat Farrar, a young man who introduces himself as the long-lost heir to the Ashby family estate, is or is not Patrick Ashby, thought to have killed himself, leaving his minutes younger twin Simon as putative heir. Simon will be dispossessed if Brat Farrar is for real. The point of view is frequently in in Brat’s head, and we must decide if we like this disguised pretender as a protagonist, or not. He himself is ambivalent, arguing with himself about the whole scheme: On the one hand, he thinks, “But I’m not a crook! I can’t do something that is criminal.” But then: “All he could do was sit in the saddle and hope for the best. But at least it would be a breath-taking ride; a unique, heart-stopping ride. Danger to life and limb he was used to; but far more exciting was this new mental danger, this pitting of wits.” As he feels his way along, still in disguise, Brat slowly learns who did kill Patrick. That knowledge nearly kills Brat Farrar.
New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh has the murderer disguise his or her true identity in both Photo Finishand A Clutch of Constables. In the first case, the murderer creates a new identity from whole cloth. He accidentally gives himself away to Detective Rory Alleyn in part when Alleyn overhears his soft-voiced use of a Mafia expression. In A Clutch of Constables, the murderer––a master of disguise––entirely steals another’s identity, including his butterfly-hunting expertise, for the duration of a cruise. He relishes his persona and manipulates the unwitting characters like chess pieces on the board of the plot––more in the Hazlitt manner, being most truly himself as he throws himself into the role.
Mystery writers disguise their murderers, their sleuths, sometimes their victims, sometimes their protagonists. I use disguise in my new murder mystery Ghost Cat. I’ll be interested in what you think. Happy reading and writing, everyone!
May 8 was VE Day. 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of Germany’s surrender in Europe. Three-quarters of a century ago, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP, also known as the Nazis hid in their bunkers, committed suicide or melted into the general population and escaped justice.
Thanks to Hitler’s diabolical determination to have Germany rule the world, over 100 countries were dragged into the conflagration, defined by two major groups. Germany, Japan, and Italy, the major powers of the Axis Alliance, and the major powers of the Allied forces, led by Great Britain, the United States, the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), and to a lesser extent, China. The remainder of the world lined up with one side or the other, with some exceptions, most notably Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, and Portugal, and they too had to arm and defend their borders. Some of these impartial countries ended up occupied regardless of the “neutrality,” but no matter which side any nation fought on from 1939-1945, now, 75 years later, the world remembers once again and all are glad for its end.
This year’s tributes are, however, quiet, lonely affairs, as the world battles another monster: COVID-19, which is preventing large public ceremonies from marking the end of a war that cost 40 – 50 million lives worldwide, both military and civilian. Lest we forget when we speak and write of the human cost so long ago as numbers and statistics, these were people. They were sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and children, which gives us one inescapable truth. War is hell!
Great Britain lost 450,700 souls. They scaled back their big, planned celebrations: no mass gatherings, no hugging, and kissing. Tragically, many of the remaining veterans who fought in that war are living and dying sad and lonely deaths in nursing homes in Great Britain and throughout the world.
The United States gave up 418,500+ lives. Of these, 2,000 were civilians. The rest died in uniform.
France – Despite their initial collapse and surrender to Hitler, both in their home nation and Indochina, gave up 567,600 souls to the war.
After 75 years, Germany must live with the fact that it all began with them. Hidden behind an effort to reestablish the German peoples’ right to live and thrive, was an evil intent that would poison the nation and take upwards of 8,000,000 German lives.
The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic, then in the hands of Josef Stalin, another up and coming devil in history, lost 24,000,000
In Italy, official tributes began on April 25, Liberation Day, marking the date when Allied forces and Italian partisans drove the German occupation army out of the country. Italian losses stacked up at 457,000, including deaths from the civil war that took place simultaneously with the world conflict. For Italy, the war did not end on April 25 or May 8. Italians suffered through three distinctive battles between 1943-1945: Liberation against the Germans, the fight against fascism, the class war that underpinned both, and the struggle to reorganize a nation. On April 25, Italians came out on their balconies and sang Bella Ciao, the Italian protest song. It rang out across the nation.
Often in wars, fight songs are inspired, such as the Star-Spangled Banner, written in 1814, during the War of 1812, and The Marseilles, in 1792, when France declared war against Austria. Bella Caio, the Italian protest song against oppression, originated with the protests of the Mondina women who worked the northern rice paddy fields in the late 19th century. It reemerged during WW II, and has since been translated into 30 languages and has become an international anthem of resistance.
Tributes to the final battles of WW II are not over on May 8. Although the war with Japan ended on August 14, the official surrender date was September 2, 1945. At the war’s end, Japan lost upwards of 3,100,000. September 2, will officially mark the end of WW II, 75 years ago and this commemoration will also be muted by COVID-19, but not ignored.
The list of history’s monsters is endless. WW II ended the reign of one of its worst. There were many before Hitler, and many have followed, so why remember?
We need to remember to teach it to our children and grandchildren. Understanding history, the good and the bad, helps us to recognize evil, and all evil needs to thrive is for the good to pretend it does not exist.
Feeling confined? Suffering from a bit of cabin fever? Getting Stir Crazy? While we shelter in place, we have an excellent opportunity to find new OR reconnect with outstanding, thought-provoking, uplifting, and entertaining old books and movies.
Yesterday, I was channel surfing, searching for something that would keep my on the treadmill, and I ran across that marvelous old movie, Dragonwyck. Many years ago, I’d read the book written by Anya Seton in 1941, and made into a film in 1946. The movie starred Vincent Price and Gene Tierney (gosh, she was so-o-o beautiful).
This is a deliciously gothic tale of life in 1844, on the upstate New York estate of Nicholas VanRyn, a fictitious member of the very real “Upper Ten” New Yorkers, as described by a leading journalist of the time, Thomas N. Baker, professor of history at SUNY Potsdam.[i]
The story begins at the home of independent farmers, Ephraim and Abigail Wells, and their children in Greenwich, Connecticut. A letter arrives from Abigail’s rich and powerful cousin, Nicholas VanRyn, who admits that he has looked into her background and decided that she and her husband are worthy and of good character, even if only farmers. He invites Abigail to send one of her daughters to him to be a companion and governess to his eight-year-old daughter, assuring her that the girl will receive every advantage that his wealth and position can provide.
The Wells must decide whether or not to send either Tabitha, who has no desire to leave the farm, or Miranda, who spends her time daydreaming of a different life. Miranda, of course, very much wants to go. Ephraim relents despite his misgivings, and Miranda is allowed to go the VanRyn home, where she becomes enchanted by Nicholas and his wealth.
Miranda realizes that something is amiss in Nicholas’s relationship with his wife Joanna, and both are both distant from their daughter, Katrine. From the servants, Miranda hears that the VanRyn bloodline is cursed. It’s rumored that the VanRyns hear the harpsichord played by the ghost of Nicholas’s great-grandmother Azilde whenever misfortune befalls the family. These stories, however, do not dampen Miranda’s obsession with Nicholas and his wealth.
Soon after her arrival, Joanna dies and Nicholas quickly marries Miranda. It is only after marriage that she begins to see the strange, dark side of his character. Now begins the big reveal of murder, madness, and the road to the final tragedy.
In the movie, the pretty pictures in Miranda’s head begin to fracture when Nicholas objects to the woman she’d hired as a personal maid because she limped, but when Miranda tells Nicholas that she is pregnant, he gives in. After the birth of their baby boy, Miranda demands that her son be baptized immediately because of his defective heart. Nicholas objects but in the end allow it, and just in time. The baby is christened and dies in his mother’s arms, and Nicholas’s personality becomes more sullen. Life at Dragonwyck becomes stranger, and more threatening.
Anya Seton’s inspiration for the story was the historical framework of the “manor system,” the anti-rent wars, the Astor Place massacre, and the steamboat races on the river, that often resulted in crashes and deaths. It was all part of life on the Hudson, with its brand of Yankee gothic and ghosts, and where there existed houses and mansions “not unlike” Seton’s Drangonwyck.
The atmosphere in the book is set immediately with Edgar Alan Poe’s poem Alone. From childhood hair, I have not been as others were—I have not seen as others see—I could not bring my passions from a common spring. The opening lines describe both Nicholas and Miranda. He for his hedonist/atheist dark madness, and she for her discontent with the life to which she was born.
Seton uses some of the major conflicts of the mid-nineteenth century in her story. In both the movie and the book, Nicholas’s tenant farmers are ready to rebel against his feudal control; their discontent is woven throughout the book. Nicholas, however, insists that he would never relinquish the lands that had been in his family since they arrived in America.
In the Hudson Valley Magazine, David Levine explains. “Feudalism was declared illegal in New York State in 1782, but the practice continued. After the War for Independence, many farmers found themselves still beholden to these old aristocracies. The farmer paid all taxes, while the landowners paid nothing. The farmer had no right to buy the land, even though, in many cases, the landlords did not have legal title to the land they were renting out. They could be evicted for failure to pay the rent even if they had enough personal property to cover the debt.” Farmers began to question why, after their ancestors had fought for freedom 50 years earlier, were they still held under the yoke of another European master.” [ii]
Seton also uses The Astor Place Massacre of 1849 as a major turning point in Miranda’s and Nicholas’s story. By May, 1849, Miranda is in a constant state of anxiety trying to please Nicholas. While in New York City, they go to the theater with friends on May 10. The great actor William Charles Macready is starring in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When they arrive a mob has already formed in front of the theater. At the end of the play, the theater manager tells the audience to exit through the back doors and they would be led to safety. Nicholas refuses and seems frighteningly elated by the prospect of bloodshed. He insists on exiting through the front doors, “the same way they came in.”
Nicholas involves himself in the fight and is wounded. After the incident, he and Miranda return to Dragonwyck, where he becomes more morose and distant, spending most of his time in his tower room. Nicholas’s and Miranda’s marriage and their lives together disintegrate, and the story climaxes, as it must, in an attempted murder and death.
Although the movie takes certain liberties with the story because it cannot delve deeply into all of the author’s characterizations and historical events, it hits the major points well, and Vincent Price as Nicholas is the outstanding performer. Both the movie and the book are well worth becoming (re)acquainted with while confined to home.
In addition to Dragonwyck, if anyone is interested in the Astor Place Massacre, I highly recommend Nigel Cliff’s The Shakespeare Riots, which I intend to re-read while sheltered in place.
Stay well, and stay safe!
Neil Richard Gaiman will turn 60 this year. Gaiman’s stories and characters are now in our hearts and embedded in our lexicon. These stories are part of the story of us.
Who does not know the tale of Coraline, little girl lost, or American Gods, a tale of forgotten cultures and religions? And Anansi Boys (American Gods Book 2), a captivating yarn springing from African lore? And the popular collaborative work with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, now a Netflix production.
Gaiman is more than a fantasy writer, he reveals encyclopedic knowledge of world mythologies, world religion, world history, and a smorgasbord of other oddly relatable facts.
Mostly, people are drawn to him because he was and is a bookish person, and was once a very lonely boy who lived in libraries nurtured by librarians.
That lonely boy grew up and became one of the most famous graphic artists in the world, pushing graphic arts to new heights with his Sandman series. He has become a well-respected author for his research, and his multiple adult and children’s fiction. And he is the champion of Libraries and Librarians.
In 2018, Gaiman published a small book illustrated by Chris Riddell titled Art Matters-Because Your Imagination Can Change The World.
“The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.’ Neil Gaiman
This book is a story about reading, libraries, librarians, writing, life choices, disappointments, and the belief that Art Matters.
“I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast.”
Gaiman stands as the champion of the freedom of ideas and against suppression of any ideas. He is a believer in the right of expression; whether these notions are correct or not, they are yours. Your idea of God, the state of the world, or anything else is individual—if you don’t agree, you can ignore or object—it’s your choice.
And Gaiman believes that our future, your future, “Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.”
“I suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m making a plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.”
Simply, librarians are unique in their position in the world. More than ever, they provide a universe in which “the love of reading” is encouraged, they show that reading is a “pleasurable activity.”
“. . .Everything changes when we read. . .Fiction builds empathy. . .”
“I was lucky I had an excellent local library growing up, and met the kind of librarians who did not mind a small unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives of witches or wonders. . .”
“A Library is a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it.”
For writers there is a personal desire that people should want to read, buy your books, your stories, become engaged in what you write. But more importantly there needs to be a concerted effort by everyone to teach all children “to read and enjoy reading.” To do that, libraries and librarians are the key, without them, we have nothing.
And where did all this reading lead this small bookish boy? Gaiman admits that starting a “career in fine arts, you have no idea what you are doing,” and that is a good thing, because you will not be held back by others’ limitations. Regardless of what befalls you, he admonishes, “Make Good Art.”
If you do decide to pursue a career in fine arts, know that not everything is going to work. It will make you uncomfortable, it will make you want to stop, it will make you want to hide. The point is, try again, write or draw and explore again. If we listen to Gaiman’s message, the message to create in your own way, even if it is uncomfortable or not understood, even if you feel like a fraud, or even if you are criticized, you will survive it.
“Be bold, be rebellious, choose Art. It Matters.” Neil Gaiman
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 from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.
Maybe you recall an interview like this, a chance for a fellowship.
Three dour English academics at eight a.m., staring skeptically at me, siting tense in my penitentially hard wooden chair.
First question: “Do you like poetry?”
“No!” I blurt.
“Not even Keats?” – the horrified response.
I try, fruitlessly, bootlessly, to explain, a la Marianne Moore. Poetry requires the reader to take a deep dive, to concentrate, commit time, hoping the poet isn’t just producing a clever crossword puzzle with arcane clues, but offering a key to the universe. To the meaning of life. So I don’t “like it” like one likes, say, certain music.
End of interview.
A murder mystery, in contrast (I’m still arguing this decades later), invites the reader to notice the clues and…participate. Even have some fun.
Here are three poets who offer not only fun, but some good advice for mystery writers.
Do you know “Passengers” by Billy Collins, about the airport waiting room? The first couplet grabs all of us:
At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
With the possible company of my death,…
We’re there. We’ve been in those blue seats, we remember the people near us, the girl eating pizza, the kids on the floor, the guy on his interminable work call.
Collins does this so craftily. “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.” Yup. And as we board, doesn’t the thought cross our minds that this plane may be the death of us? He’s got us in the first couplet.
Here’s another, “The Lanyard.” First couplet:
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
Off the pale blue walls of this room…
We’ve all felt like that, bored… then:
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
Where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard…
That word lanyard! We all know one use for a lanyard. We’re straight back to camp, trying to braid gimp into a present for, yes, probably our mom. Billy Collins got us with “lanyard” in the title, and with his “ricocheting slowly” off the walls, which is just how we feel sometimes. In two lines he has our full attention. We’re already there with him, remembering the gimp, the braids, the other campers, and letting our eyes go down the page to see where he’s taking us.
Or how about Elisabeth McKetta’s collection, “The Fairy Tales Mammals Tell”? Take, for example, “An Occasional Elegy for Milk,” with its first couplet:
Weaning my daughter felt
Like breaking up with her.
Well! Here’s a poem worthy of time and attention. This insight, this simile, zooms straight to the heart and the brain. It’s real. Memory stirs, and we are there inside the poem. Not locked outside waiting to grasp the oh-so-secret clue, but right in the room.
In short poems in the last sections (2009, 2014) of his vast collection, Oblivion Banjo, Charles Wright takes us outdoors to face big themes (time passing, mortality). Here’s the beginning of “The Evening Is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away”:
The mares go down for their evening feed
Into the meadow grass.
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind—
Some sway, some don’t sway.
We’re there. Present tense, two mares, evening feed, pine trees. I won’t tell you how it ends: you’ll want to get there yourself. Similarly, his “Tutti Frutti”:
Little Richard in full gear—
What could be better than that?
Obviously you want to know the answer. In eleven lines you’ll have it and be riffling through the pages for more.
We mystery writers seek vivid images, strong verbs, intriguing details. Like poets. We too want readers picking up each clue, following our character to the end. These poets, these poems, show how a first line can convince the reader to go on to the next line, and the line after that, not feeling that the writer’s just showing off erudition, or hiding a great meaning we’ll be lucky to find, but as if we’re invited into the enterprise, we’re in the waiting room, we’re watching the mares, we’re all in it together.
P.S. If only I’d read Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry” before that interview! I could have said something about how we don’t want to “torture a confession out of” a poem….Oh well.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. Read more about Helen and her books here.
My hubby and I make it our mission to see all of the films nominated for the Academy Awards’ most coveted prize—the Oscar for Best Picture. This year was no exception. We saw Ford V Ferrari,The Irishman, JoJo Rabbit, well, let’s just we say all of them. So on February 9 of 2020, we sat down with friends, champagne glasses in hand, and watched the Academy Awards show. I agreed with most of the winners. Renee Zellweger knocked it out of the park as Judy Garland. Brad Pitt was awesome in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. For damn sure, 1917 deserved the award for Best Cinematography. But when Parasite was announced as 2019’s best film, I didn’t get it. Then again, I didn’t get the movie either. The poor living off the rich. The rich living off the poor. Who was the bad guy? Which was the parasite?
So, I got out my cell phone, went to Dictionary.Com, and looked up the word. The first definition that came up was the one that stuck with me. It read, “an organism that lives on or in an organism of another species, known as the host, from the body of which it obtains nutriment.” I thought of the mosquito who bites humans and sucks their blood. They feel no remorse, no guilt. It’s what they do to survive. How exactly did this definition apply to the movie Parasite?
Then my book club (Remember them? I bragged on them several blogs ago.) had as its monthly selection Hyeonseo Lee’s book titled The Girl With Seven Names. It was the author’s true story of escaping from North Korea, via China, and finally arriving in South Korea. As she made this dangerous journey, she used seven different names to remain off the authorities’ radar.
Lee’s descriptions of growing up in North Korea were very unsettling. There are over fifty layers of societal classes in the country, each with their own set of privileges and restrictions. The only constant among all of these “castes” is that the supreme ruler (first Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un) is to be worshipped and glorified. (It is believed that Kim Jong-un was born in a lowly stable and that a bright, huge star announced his birth. Seriously?) As for the other laws, not so much. The main rule is Kim Jong-un first, and, as long as you’re not stupid, you are allowed to do pretty much whatever you have to do to survive. Bribery of officials to look the other way is the norm. (Hey, they have to make a living too.) This is how people learn to deal with famine, pestilence, and unemployment. There is no guilt in doing what one must do to survive.
Further, the society has no guilt in doing what it must do to survive. Bingo. I finally figured out what the movie Parasite was all about. A different culture. A different value system. A guilt-less survival instinct.
Books teach us things. Oh, yes, books entertain, but they also take us into worlds beyond our own experiences, histories we never learned, and points of view we never considered. Had I not read Hyeonseo Lee’s book, I would not have understood the movie, or the culture. More to the point, I understand that America’s culture has different norms, different thought processes, and a different hierarchy of what’s acceptable. We may think that the characters in Parasite and Lee’s book should feel remorse for how they live. But for them, it’s what they must do. And if their culture is all in on this “no guilt” survival, doesn’t that reveal something of their leadership?
For me, The Girl with Seven Names was a real eye opener. Books teach us about folks who are not of our national or personal culture. We can learn why they live how they live. Maybe, even, we can learn how to live with them.
It might make the world a safer place.
K.P. Gresham is the author of the PASTOR MATT HAYDEN MYSTERY SERIES and THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD. Read more about her here.