Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 

The Green Archer

The Green Archer - Edgar Wallace

It was a message evidently written by one to whom the rules of English were hidden mysteries:

"DEAR SIR, The Green Archer has appeared in Garre Castel. Mr. Wilks the butler saw him. Dear sir, the Green Archer went into Mr. Belamy's room and left the door open. Also he was seen in the park. All the servants is leaving. Mr. Belamy says he'll fire anybody who talks about it, but all the servants is leaving."

"And who in thunder is the Green Archer?" asked Spike wonderingly.

Mr. Syme adjusted his glasses and smiled. Spike was shocked to see him do anything so human.

Well, this was fun! 


The Green Archer has a somewhat convoluted plot but it was so refreshing to read a story with fairly simple writing, simple characters, simple plotting, and still get a sense of being drawn right into the story and guessing alongside the police, the reporters, and the other characters who seem to have a stake in investigating the goings on at Garre Castle. 


Garre Castle, set in deepest Berkshire, is home to Abel Bellamy, a misanthropic American millionaire, who has recently drawn attention to himself when it was reported that the castle has been visited by the Green Archer - the ghost of a poacher who was hanged at Garre Castle.  

A minute passed, and there was no sound or sign of the intruder, and, throwing back the bedclothes, he leapt to the floor and ran out through the door, pistol in hand. The moon was streaming through the windows of the corridor, flooding the hall with light. At first he saw nothing, and then it seemed that the Thing moved from the shadow into the full light. A tall, thin, green figure, with a dead white face, that stood stiffly facing him, bow in hand. Green from head to toe, a vivid, startling; skin-tight green that could not be mistaken. Green everywhere, save that white face that stared blankly.

When a reporter and an investigator from Scotland Yard (a former prison guard has been shot with an arrow) try to question Bellamy, they are unceremoniously thrown out. Bellamy really hates people - be it his staff, his family, or his neighbours. He even gets some dogs and trains them to attack trespassers. However, all of his efforts do not keep out that blasted Green Archer, who seems to have unlimited access to the castle, the grounds, and a cottage in the nearby woods.

As the story develops, we learn Bellamy's life story, and that of his assistant, and that of his neighbours, and that of a whole lot of other parties. I did mention that the plot was convoluted, right?


Anyway, it turns out that that Bellamy has much to hide. And where better to do the hiding than in the dungeons of his very own castle? 


Granted, most of what Bellamy wants to hide are pesky interlopers, and generally anyone who crosses his plans to enjoy his very own socio-pathic ways of life, which include ruining the lives of his late brother and ... others:

Abe Bellamy never lost sleep at nights thinking of the past. Remorse was foreign to his nature, fear he did not know. He had done evilly and was content. The memory of the horror of lives wantonly broken, of suffering deliberately inflicted, of children delivered to hardship and pain, of a woman hunted to death by a tiger of hate that the Moloch of his self-esteem should be appeased, never caused him a second's unrest of mind. If he thought of these old matters at all, he thought approvingly. It seemed right to him that those who opposed him should be hurt. Fortune had favoured him greatly. At twenty he was carrying a hod; at thirty-five he was a dollar millionaire. At fifty-five his million was ten, and he had shaken from his feet the dust of the city that made him and was one of the landed gentry of England, the master of a domain that the flower of English chivalry had won by its swords and built on the sweat and fear of its slaves.


But things just don't go to plan: the Green Archer runs wild trying to steal the key to Bellamy's safe, his neighbour's daugther suspects Bellamy of being involved with the death of her mother, the newspaper reporter suspects him of hiding a good story, a Belgian philanthropist suspects him of being involved with the death of a child, and the police suspect him of being involved with the illegal activities of a gang of London ex-cons.


That's a lot of suspicion to cramp poor Bellamy's style, so he does what all great villains do - he goes mad. (Or, rather, madder than he was already!) Hilarity ensues before the whole plot is explained in the end.



(And, yes, that is the Scotland Yard inspector setting a fuse. Mwahahahha...)


I really liked it. I also watched the 1960s film adaptation straight after and was surprised to find out that the film version (starring such favourites as Gerd Froebe, Karin Dor, Klaus-Juergen Wussow, and, of course, Eddie Arendt) was remarkably true to the original book - but they cut out a lot of the back-stories, which made the film's version a bit illogical. So, yes, amazingly, Wallace's original story make A LOT more sense than the film!


Nevertheless, the film is one of the better ones of the series and certainly captures the atmosphere of the story. 

Valerie Howett flew along, her heart nigh to bursting, her breath coming in short, sobbing gasps, the patter of feet growing nearer and nearer, and behind them racing footsteps of somebody human. She reached the edge of the trees and plunged headlong into their cover. Could she reach the ladder? She dared not look back, and there was no need, for the dog's laboured breathing came to her ears. Never once did she think of the revolver in her pocket, although every step she took brought the smack of it against her hip.

The wood lay on rising ground, a little hillock path led upwards, and the going became more, and more difficult. And then the dog leapt. She heard the snap of the fangs. They missed her heel by the fraction of an inch, and the dog lost ground. Her peril gave her superhuman speed, but she was coming into the open. She hardly realised this until she emerged with the crest of the hill before her. It was her speed that carried her on, otherwise she would have dropped in her tracks in sheer terror. For, clear in the moonlight, his set, white, puffy face staring at her, was a slim green figure, and in his hand a long bow that glittered in the moonlight. She could not stop herself. She was going from one horror to another, but her impetus carried her beyond the check of fear. And then she saw the bow come up, heard the twang of a loosened string, and fell. Some heavy body struck her on the shoulder. She had a momentary glimpse of a great black and yellow hound as it stretched itself in death, and then she fainted.


The story was written in 1926 and despite my enjoyment of the romp that it is, there were, of course, also elements that are a bit jarring to a modern reader. One of them is the - expected - use of terms to describe people from China or India.


Another, tho somewhat more intriguing, is one of the character's defence of capital punishment and as well as the punishment of flogging for some crimes. This makes even less sense when we also get to read about the light-hearted way that Wallace describes how this whole business of having to register guns with the police is such a bore.

"I want to ask you a favour," she said a little breathlessly. "Have you... could you get me a revolver?"

Then, seeing his eyebrows lift, she went on hurriedly and a little incoherently: "Lady's Manor is rather isolated, and it occurred to me... well, it is lonely, isn't it? And Mr. Howett never carries firearms of any description. I wanted to buy one... an automatic in London, but I found that there are stringent police regulations and one has to get a permit... Then I saw you, and it occurred to me..."

"Surely, Miss Howett," said Spike as she stopped to take breath. "I've got a gun at the hotel. I don't know why I carry it around in this peaceful land, but I certainly have one. If you'll wait I'll go get it."

He returned to the Blue Boar at a run and presently reappeared.

"It's loaded," he said as he slipped the weapon from his pocket, "but it is only a little one. And, Miss Howett, if you ever kill a burglar with it, will you give me the exclusive story?"

Because, yeah... Such fun!

Reading progress update: I've read 2%.

The Green Archer - Edgar Wallace

"Do you know Abel Bellamy-a Chicago man... millionaire?"


"Abe? Yeah... Is he dead?" asked Spike hopefully. "That fellow's only a good story when he is beyond the operation of the law of libel."

LoL. Apparently Wallace was the first reporter to be fired from the Mail because his sloppy reporting attracted a number of libel suits.  The Green Archer was written 16 years after his dismissal.


Gilded Needles

Gilded Needles (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Christopher Fowler, Michael McDowell, Mike Mignola

“You are falling into inanity,” said Judge Stallworth coldly. “I have told you, the lower classes do not take revenge upon the upper."

My third McDowell and I think I am a little in love with his writing. How else did I just enjoy a work of horror fiction with a blood-curdling and violent revenge plot at the heart of its story?


In an earlier update I mentioned that I could see some similarities between Gilded Needles and The Godfather. I still believe this is true. Except that Black Lena Shanks and her daughters are far superior in every aspect to any of the Corleones:


1. They seek to grow their business interests openly. 


2. They do not pick fights with rivalling families for reasons of business. When they escalate operations, it is for deeply personal reasons. And, yet, they limit extent of their wrath and try to shield the innocents and bystanders.


3. They are not afraid to take on "the man" - or in this case, the police, a senior judge, the newspapers, and pretty much all of "polite society".


I loved the scene-setting that McDowell uses in the first chapters to give us that panoramic view of the Black Triangle (a district in the underbelly of New York) on New Year's Eve 1881: we get to be drawn right into the crowd and mingle with prostitutes,  opium addicts, drunks, the sick, and all the other destitute characters that make up the society of outcasts. All of whom are outside the law, because the law neglects them, and outside of society because they are not deemed to belong. 


Here is another aspect where Gilded Needles compares with The Godfather: I was struck that the society described in The Godfather excluded and dismissed minorities (and women) as valueless disposables. In Gilded Needles, the society is based on an inclusion of minorities - and most of the main characters and acting agents of the plot are women. Granted, most of them were murderous, but still, if McDowell's aim was to create an alternative society that thrived on differences, this worked incredibly well. 


Gilded Needles was published in 1980. When reading, I could not help thinking the McDowell was not only writing about 1882, but also about his observations about society at the time of writing. There are descriptions of political scheming that could have easily been set in any modern decade, as could the observation how the legal system may not in fact offer equal protection to all members of society, and let's not even go into the treatment of minorities by society. 


Anyway, there was a lot more to this book than a crazed gang of villainous women going on a killing spree to satisfy their feelings of revenge. But of course, one could also enjoy the book just with that plot alone. If not, why do we find The Godfather so gripping? 


As I don't generally like horror (readers of my posts may have noticed), I've been trying to figure out what it is about this book that drew me in so much. All I can come up with is that McDowell was an author who really understood the art of writing: His characters are spot on, his scenes are dripping with atmosphere, we get this narration that just shows us everything that is going on without telling us how to feel about it:  

In the drugstore, which was neither larger nor brighter nor appreciably cleaner than Lena Shanks’s pawnshop, three fat, gaudy whores, whose vermilion lay half a dollar deep upon their cheeks, huddled at a small low table, on which stood three large glasses of absinthe. There was a short candle jammed in the mouth of a bottle and its guttering flame shining through the liquid in their glasses cast green shadows onto their pallid, pudgy hands.

Their gossip hushed when Maggie entered and they watched her closely and with evident mistrust. The shop was run by a young man whose hair had fallen out, whose skin was scarred with the smallpox, and whose eyes worked at cross purposes.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said slyly to Maggie, “what can I get for you?”

“Powdered opiate,” replied Maggie. “Three ounces.”

“Twelve dollars,” the druggist replied and, plucking out of a little wooden box his one- and two-ounce weights, dropped them onto one side of his scales. Then from a large jar filled with white powder he measured the opium, slipped it into a pink envelope, and slid it across the counter to Maggie.

“Can’t sleep?” he inquired in an oily voice. “Bad dreams? Pain in the tooth?” Mischievously he had listed the common lies of the addict.

Reading progress update: I've read 66%.

Gilded Needles (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Christopher Fowler, Michael McDowell, Mike Mignola

The revenge part of the story has begun. It is bloody. BLOODY! And, yet, I am kinda looking forward to it - which makes a change from my usual abhorrence of everything gory.


Maybe it is helped by the writing, maybe by the similarities to And Then There Were None in that every "victim" of the revenge plot has received an invite to their own funeral.

"Marian Phair had been shocked and indignant when her husband was returned to Gramercy Park in so disreputable a condition. She considered that victims of crime deserved as little sympathy as the perpetrators; there was something in one’s physiognomy, she contended, that invited victimization; something, she was certain, that all the Stallworths lacked, and that others— Cyrus Butterfield for instance— possessed in large measure.

“What happened, Duncan?” demanded Marian sternly, sitting at her husband’s bedside, just after the physician had left the house.

“I was attacked, Marian, by two women in the hallway of my offices. Just within the front door.”

“Why did they attack you? Did they want money?”

“No,” said Duncan, turning his face, “evidently not.”

“Duncan,” she said, “does this have anything to do with the cards that we received on Sunday? Are you keeping this from me? You and Father? Not telling me that we’re in danger?” Her voice became increasingly shrill."


Reading progress update: I've read 28%.

Gilded Needles (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Christopher Fowler, Michael McDowell, Mike Mignola

With Louisa helping either her mother or her sister as was required, and keeping books— she was a competent forger as well, and often found little ways of exploiting this talent— the Shanks women made just about fifty thousand dollars a year. This would have been a fortune to many New York families living with every trapping of respectability and good breeding. The greater part of these receipts was kept undisturbed in half a dozen banks along Sixth and Seventh avenues and had accumulated a great amount of interest through the years. Lena Shanks considered that avarice was no virtue among criminals, for greed led one into danger, and such hazards might compel one to take rooms in Centre Street— at the Tombs. “Be like Louisa,” cautioned Lena, “always we should be like Louisa, quiet . . . quiet. . . .”

I am so tempted to draw comparisons to The Godfather, except that McDowell's writing is far superior and his portrayal of life in the Black Triangle and his characters are so much more vivid, complex, compelling, and altogether more satisfying than Puzo's.


And despite the dark and seedy side of the story, I have not flinched once so far. Absolutely loving this and I hope the book will keep up that level of engagement to the end. :D



Halloween Bingo - In the Dark, Dark Woods

The Green Archer - Edgar Wallace

I've been having some trouble finding a book in my TBR that fits the Dark, Dark Woods square. I know there are several recent titles, but I have little interest in them. 

Also, I did not want to read The Jungle Books for this bingo task - I was looking for more of a mystery type of read. (And I don't fancy re-reading Endless Night even if it is a fantastic read.)  


From memory, I figured that there were some Edgar Wallace mysteries that might fit, but my memory of the Wallace books has been corrupted by series of 1960s German film adaptations - which, in case you are wondering, are pretty bad but quite fun! In fact, to give you a comparison, these adaptations are as fun as the Margaret Rutherford adaptations of Christie's books. But they are also full of cliches and tropes, and like the Rutherford adaptations, are probably nothing like the original stories.



Anyway, I had browsed through a few Wallace stories and discovered that The Fellowship of the Frog seems to include a scene in a forest. So, I had ear-marked this one for the Dark, Dark Woods square. However, from what I remember, most of the action takes place in the city (because of plot reasons). So, I had a re-think about using it for the bingo task.


I'm going to switch books and try The Green Archer for the task instead. At least, I know that this one is set on a country estate, and it appears there is cottage in the woods that plays a significant part in the story: 

In spite of her horror of the memory, the girl smiled. "If you put this in your newspaper I'll never speak another word to you, Mr. Holland!" she said. "But if you promise to keep it a dead secret, I will show you just where I saw the archer. I was looking at the place today. I didn't know that it was visible from the grounds, but it is. It was on a little hill that you can see from the wall of Lady's Manor. There is a wood there--they call them coverts in this country--that runs on the inside of the castle wall." She got up suddenly. "I'll show you," she said, "but--" she raised a warning finger at Spike "--you are never to tell, under any circumstances whatever, that I saw him. And he isn't a ghost."

If it turns out that it isn't that significant, I'll switch to something else.



Monstrous Regiment (Discworld, #31) - Terry Pratchett

‘You are holding up well, Mal,’ said Polly.

‘Maybe those acorns did the trick? You haven’t mentioned coffee at all—’

Maladict stopped, and turned slowly. To Polly’s horror, his face was suddenly shiny with sweat.

‘You had to bring it up, didn’t you?’ he said hoarsely. ‘Oh, please, no! I was holding on so tight! I was doing so well!’

He fell forward, but managed to get on to his hands and knees. Then he raised his head, and his eyes were glowing red.

‘Fetch . . . Igorina,’ he muttered, gasping. ‘I know she’s ready for this . . .’ . . . whopwhopwhop . . .

Wazzer was praying furiously. Maladict tried to stand up again, fell back on to his knees, and raised his arms imploringly to the sky.

‘Get out of here while you can,’ he mumbled, as his teeth visibly lengthened. ‘I’ll—’

There was a shadow, a sense of movement, and the vampire slumped forward, stunned by an eight-ounce sack of coffee beans that had dropped out of a clear sky.

Polly arrived at the farmhouse carrying Maladict on her shoulder. She made him as comfortable as possible on some ancient straw, and the squad consulted.

‘Do you think we ought to try to take the sack out of his mouth?’ said Shufti nervously.

‘I tried, but he fights,’ said Polly.

‘But he’s unconscious!’

‘He still won’t let go of it! He’s sucking it. I’d swear he was out cold, but he just sort of reached out and grabbed it and bit! It dropped out of a clear sky!’

I sympathise with Maladict. If it weren't for coffee, many horrible things would happen.

Wicked Stepmother

Wicked Stepmother - Michael McDowell, Axel Young, Dennis Schuetz

After another few moments, Cassandra asked, “Did you at least have a good time last night?”

“I think so,” said Verity after a moment of hesitation.

“You don’t know?”

“Well, we did a lot of coke, and then we drank something that— Cassandra, honest to God it was bright green, and I know it wasn’t crème de menthe.” With two fingers she rubbed the skin just beneath her nostrils. “And I’ve got nose-burn from the amyl nitrate.” Cassandra raised her eyebrows and shook her head.

“Are you shocked?” asked Verity, peering at her sister over the top of her dark glasses. “No,” sighed Cassandra. “Just surprised that in the midst of all that, you still had time to think about Father, and Louise, and Atlantic City.”


I have heard Wicked Stepmother described as sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll in Boston, and that is exactly what it was. That and a bit of creepy murder.


When I first met the Hawkes, I hated all of them. I had a hard time to decide whether the stepmother was wicked or whether the grown-up children were just horrible. As it turns out, they balanced each other quite well. While the "kids" dismiss their stepmother as and over-dressed wanna-be, she seems to be up to something else entirely...

“And what did you find out?” asked Cassandra curiously.

“That Louise was either planning to get high on airplane glue, or else she made a purchase of certain chemicals.”

“In a hobby shop? What kind of chemicals?”

“Little tiny bottles. For teenage chemistry sets. I wasn’t able to figure out what kind she got.”

Cassandra put down the brush. “You think Louise doctored Father’s sleeping pills?”

“I think that’s more likely than that Louise is sniffing airplane glue.”

“Verity, I don’t like this.”


I really enjoyed most of the book. The back and forth between the two camps in the family was horrible to watch because all of the characters (apart from Cassandra) were either vile or TSTL, but none deserved what they got - apart from... you know... the end.

Louise left off abruptly. Her movements had become jerks. All three of the Hawkes were watching her, and she forced a semblance of calm over her features.

Halloween Bingo - Genre: Horror

Gilded Needles (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Christopher Fowler, Michael McDowell, Mike Mignola

Just as well Obsidian Black Plague / Blue called the Genre: Horror square today because I finished McDowell's Wicked Stepmother last night and have been thinking about his work all day. 


Char introduced me to Michael McDowell last year, and I really enjoyed what I have read by him so far. I have had a couple of more books sitting on my kindle, waiting for an occasion to be read. What better occasion than Halloween Bingo?!


So, for the Genre: Horror square I will turn to McDowell's Gilded Needles, because...really... who could resist this blurb?

"Welcome to the Black Triangle, New York's decadent district of opium dens, gambling casinos, drunken sailors, gaudy hookers, and back room abortions. The queen of this unsavory neighborhood is Black Lena Shanks, whose family leads a ring of female criminals-women skilled in the art of cruelty. 

Only a few blocks away, amidst the elegant mansions and lily-white reputations of Gramercy Park and Washington Square, lives Judge James Stallworth. On a crusade to crush Lena's evil empire, the judge has sentenced three of her family members to death. And now she wants revenge."



Halloween Bingo - Gothic

The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole

I started The Castle of Otranto this morning as my current audiobook for the commute to work. 


I'm only a few minutes in, and I get the impression that I could not have picked a book that is more Gothic than this one. There have already been ample "in vains", trembling ladies, manly pursuits, " 'tis", "thou", a castle, fearful ladies, terrible aristocrats, poor peasants, necromancy, a tomb, and what appears to be a version of the Black Knight.


...oh, and there has also been a mysterious death by helmet. 




Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach

DNF @ 34%.


I looked at my current reads this morning and just cannot bear the thought of spending more time on a book I evidently don't enjoy when there are so many awesome reads to be gotten into.


Gulp was not the book I expected, even tho I had no idea what to expect. Maybe I had my hopes set on something that would be a bit more serious about the science of the alimentary canal than Roach evidently is prepared to offer up. 


Not that I needed a phd thesis or a text book, but I know that even a light(er)-hearted exploration of the topic can be done better. A LOT better.


I previously voiced my doubts about the lack of referencing, the book did not improve for me from that point. If anything, Roaches jumping from idea to idea without really exploring any of them in any depth just grated on me more, as did the - to me - irrelevant descriptions of choice of clothes of the people she interviewed.


I need more. Much more.

Halloween Bingo - 80s Horror

Wicked Stepmother - Michael McDowell, Axel Young, Dennis Schuetz

Right, I am ready for some more horror...


Last year, Char lead me to discover The Elementals, which was one of the scariest books I have ever read (I am not a horror fan) and yet I enjoyed McDowell's writing so much that I have put two more of his titles on my list for this year's game.


The Wicked Stepmother is the first I will try. It was written in 1983 and the description makes me think that there may be a fun element to it:


"Seducing a proper Bostonian was easy. Making him die of a heart attack a week after the wedding was hardly any trouble at all. Now she has money, social status, everything she has cunningly schemed to get since she was a poor little girl. Everything except the Brookline mansion and the multi-million dollar trust fund left to the three children. 

But what wicked stepmother couldn't get rid of three children? "



An Expert in Murder

An Expert in Murder - Nicola Upson

He suddenly had an image of his down-to-earth sergeant rushing home from the Yard every night to devour the latest thriller by his fireside. Better still, perhaps he was actually writing one of his own. The thought of Miss Dorothy L. Sayers turning out to be a portly, moustached officer of the law in his early fifties was priceless, and he made a mental note to mention it to Josephine when he saw her tomorrow night.

It appears I may have found that most rare of things: a literary tribute (a.k.a. fan-fiction) that worked for me!


Josephine Tey was a bit of a mystery. She was a private person, little is known about her, and that which is known seems to indicate that she deliberately kept her affairs separate from each other - i.e. she led a multitude of lives - one as playwright, one as a mystery writer, one in Inverness, another in London, perhaps quite another somewhere else.


Nicola Upson took what research she could get and jumped on the idea of making this mystery woman the star of a semi-biographical murder mystery. (The murder is no biographical...I think.) For me this worked really well. It had biographical fact mixed with imagined scenes, but because we know so little about Tey, these elements change over seamlessly in Upson recreation of the 1930s London West End theatre-land, which happens to be one of my favourite places, too.

In fact, I thought the whole scene-setting, which is the undoing of many (mystery) writers for me, worked really well in this one:


We're passing by Tey's compartment on the train south from Berwick, because we learn in Tey's own The Man in the Queue that there is no direct train from Inverness, yet, and that Tey would have had to change at Edinburgh Waverley. 

We get to see her being picked up by friends at King's Cross. 

We get to be in the crowd queueing for theatre tickets. 

We got go to the dress circle bar, mingle with the crowd outside the stage door after performances hoping to get an autograph. We get to go home with various actors and see behind the curtains. 


I thought Upson's writing had an easy and fun flow to it that made this quite an easy, cozy read. Yet, she tackles quite serious issues, amongst which I was delighted to read how characters dealt with the aftermath of the First World War. Granted these parts reminded me more of Dorothy L. Sayer's writing than Tey's, but hey, I have not read all of Tey's work yet and given that Upson was trying to re-create a distinct time period in the pages of this, her first, Tey mystery, I was drawn in from start to finish.


As soon as he saw the great Union Jack which had replaced the usual hanging at the front of the pulpit, Penrose realised that God’s representative – a sanctimonious bigot at the best of times, even if he was family – had changed his agenda. After preaching a terrifying sermon on the glories of battle, sanctifying maiming, slaughter and bloodshed with the blessing of a higher authority, the rector had urged all the young men to join the army, to sate the country’s appetite for soldiers who would defend the justice of the war. What he had failed to mention was that it was a cause for which thousands of them would be asked to give their lives, but his harvest sermon had done the trick: by the end of the year, every eligible man in the village had signed up to Kitchener’s new army, an exodus which was replicated all over the country, swelling the ranks by nearly a million in the space of just four months. Some expected garrison service at home while the real soldiers went off to do the real soldiering; most believed the papers when they said it would be a short war, over by Christmas at the outside. All had been wrong, and he was still sickened to the stomach when he thought of that call from the altar for young men to offer themselves for the glory of God and eight shillings and nine pence a week.

Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection -  Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry

‘Poor devil!’ he said, commiseratingly, after he had listened to my misfortunes. ‘What are you up to now?’

‘Looking for lodgings.’ I answered. ‘Trying to solve the problem as to whether it is possible to get comfortable rooms at a reasonable price.’

‘That’s a strange thing,’ remarked my companion; ‘you are the second man to-day that has used that expression to me.’

‘And who was the first?’ I asked.

This is the primer for, probably, the most influential meetings in literature. 


A Study in Scarlet was first published in 1887, and of all places, it was first published in Mrs Beeton's Christmas Annual. I say of all places, because for one, the story includes a portrayal of a kind of Christian extremism that makes it quite ironic to be published in a Victorian Christman Annual, and also...Mrs Beeton's? The Mrs Beeton that has claimed fame for publishing a bestselling cookery book and for advice to ladies on household management is the first to give us Sherlock Holmes? Come on, you cannot deny it is a little bit funny.


Anyway, even if I cannot bring myself to care for Mrs Beeton's advice to Ladies, I love her for bringing Holmes to an audience who has cherished him ever since - much to Arthur Conan Doyle's own despair over his creation. 


I've have read A Study in Scarlet a couple of times before, but this third read was my first with a reading buddy - and it was so much fun bouncing observations back and forth. This reading was also the first that I did not mind the break in the story between the London setting and the backstory set in Utah, which reads like a book within a book. 

And of course, this was my first time reading the story while listening to Stephen Fry's narration.


Let me start by saying that Fry's narration is wonderful. He brings out the different personalities of the characters, and I especially liked the way he pauses. It sounds silly, but his pauses give the story a very naturally sounding effect. But then, I am not surprised because Fry is as much of a Holmes fan as I am a fan of Fry ... and Holmes ... and Fry, and no image of him as Mycroft in some of the recent films can change that. (Seriously, just don't go Googling this from a pc at work.)


But back to the story: We get the first meeting. We get Watson's history. We get Watson's first impression of Holmes. 


Holmes is ... different.  

‘You mustn’t blame me if you don’t get on with him,’ he said; ‘I know nothing more of him than I have learned from meeting him occasionally in the laboratory. You proposed this arrangement, so you must not hold me responsible.’

‘If we don’t get on it will be easy to part company,’ I answered. ‘It seems to me, Stamford,’ I added, looking hard at my companion, ‘that you have some reason for washing your hands of the matter. Is this fellow’s temper so formidable, or what is it? Don’t be mealy-mouthed about it.’

‘It is not easy to express the inexpressible,’ he answered with a laugh. ‘Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes--it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.’

‘Very right too.’ ‘Yes, but it may be pushed to excess. When it comes to beating the subjects in the dissecting-rooms with a stick, it is certainly taking rather a bizarre shape.’ ‘Beating the subjects!’

‘Yes, to verify how far bruises may be produced after death. I saw him at it with my own eyes.’

‘And yet you say he is not a medical student?’

‘No. Heaven knows what the objects of his studies are. But here we are, and you must form your own impressions about him.’

And, yet, we can see that their first encounter is the start of a very special bromance friendship.


It is also one of the few stories where Watson tells us of Holmes' (imo, no one should call the original "Sherlock", but that is just my personal preference...) shortcomings. The story is worth it for this list alone!


In fact, ACD included a lot of humor in the in scenes that introduce us to world that Holmes and Watson inhabit - be it the characters they are or the characters they meet. However, it is also this very specific, jovial tone that distinguishes the story set in London from the injected story set in Utah, the backstory that is key to the solution of the mystery. 


It is this second part of the story that took me several readings to fully appreciate how it connects with the case Holmes and Watson are investigating.


It also took me several readings to get over the fact that ACD basically calls out the Mormon Church on being an extremist sect. Believe whatever you will, but ACD held no punches over his descriptions. I am led to believe by my reading buddy's research that ACD's estate is apologising to this group of believers - and having read the story, I get why: ACD's description has shock-value and it truly scary.


I read it from a point of view that at the time of writing there would be all kinds of stories of savagery in far-flung places. Whether these be committed by a sect in the far far away lands of Utah or by the sects of the far far away lands of India, may have been of little difference to your regular Victorian reader of Mrs Beeton's Christmas Annual. Little could have anyone known that over a 100 years later, this story is still widely read! And by an audience that has more awareness and more diverse sensibilities.

But saying that, ACD's writing in this part was still great. There was a lot of suspense in this part - would they be rescued? Would they escape before the ultimatum ran out? Based on the writing, this was a good story. It is just that the comparison of this very unsettling story with the familiar, homely, safe, almost cosy, world that we have with Holmes and Watson that makes the Mormon story so unlikeable.

Overall, I give the London part of the story 4* and the Utah part 2*. The writing was good but it took me three readings to really connect both parts of the story. 




Halloween Bingo - Cozy Mystery

An Expert in Murder - Nicola Upson

I seem to be on a Josephine Tey mission at the moment. I finished The Man in the Queue yesterday, but had only picked it up after starting this one on Friday, then setting it aside after a few pages because I felt I should read a Tey proper to get a feel for the original before diving into Tey-inspired fiction.


Anyway, I am reading An Expert in Murder for the Cozy Mystery square. I'm 120 pages in, the murder has occurred, but it was less descriptive than some Agatha Christie ones - so, to my mind, perfect for a cozy.


The story itself features Tey as a character. She seems to be based quite close on what we know of the real Josephine Tey/Gordon Daviot/Elizabeth Mackintosh and her circle of friends from her theatre life. I'm calling it like this because Tey kept her life strictly private and different aspects of her life quite separate.


So far Upson has done a very good job of bringing Tey and her surroundings (especially the thriving London theatre scene) to life.



Reading progress update: I've read 67 out of 348 pages.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach

Alright, so I finally made a start on this today. Part of me enjoyed the circumstances of reading the book - picture: bed, jammies, nice fresh cup of hazelnut flavour coffee, the sound of Sunday outside my bedroom window, and no rush to get up - more than the book.


I'm not sure about the irreverent tone. I don't find it funny. However, without it, I can't think of what would hold the book together.


Roach brings up interesting "tidbits" (I can see my fellow Flat Book Society readers rolling their eyes at this - you're welcome!) but there have been quite a few mentions of research (mostly on behavioural experiments, not so much on flavour testing) where I would have liked more information or at least a reference to the source or to further reading.


I also am not sure about the research included - if we look at Chapter two for example, Roach's bibliography cites two research papers: one from 1926 and one from 1936. Both papers are on comparative diets and seem to conclude that animals, like humans, have culturally informed food preferences. Now this is something that I find interesting. I would also like to know whether there has been a change in the conclusions of (particularly) the work of research that compared the food preferences in rats (the 1926 study by the Indian Research Fund Association) since it is obvious that rats domiciled in Britain thrived as much as rats in India. In the rest of the chapter, Roach puts forward a view that food preference is culturally informed, but also that it can be learned based on the food available. I would like to know what food the rats used in the experiment had been raised on before the experiment?


I have so many questions, but none are really answered by Roach's irreverence (or her bibliography) so far. 

Currently reading

Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson
Haiti Noir by M.J. Fievre, Nadine Pinede, Marvin Victor, Marie Lily Cerat, Josaphat-Robert Large, Marie Ketsia Theodore-Pharel, Kettly Mars, Yanick Lahens, Gary Victor, Katia D. Ulysse, Patrick Sylvain, Rodney Saint-Eloi, Louis-Philippe Dalembert, Ibi Zoboi, Evelyne Trouillot, Madiso
Progress: 70/311pages
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry
Progress: 14%
Thin Air by Michelle Paver
Progress: 108/228pages
Arguably: Selected Essays by Christopher Hitchens
Progress: 139/749pages
Das Wunder des Baums by Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Progress: 19/295pages
The Ghost Bride: A Novel by Yangsze Choo
Progress: 28%