Thursday, June 28, 2018

Greil Marcus, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations

Greil Marcus, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations
Harvard University Press, 2015
© 2015 Greil Marcus
ISBN 978-0-674-18708-5

I have just finished reading one of the strangest little books I have ever read.  Strange, in that it is about songs and singers you have never heard of.  Little, physically (it’s the size and shape of a mass-market paperback), in length (it’s a mere 164 pages, and maybe a third of that’s notes and the index), and in subject matter [it treats no high themes, it makes (explicitly) no great claims, it is, in the end, something like the third of the three songs].

The first song, and the first singer, will be familiar enough—it’s Bon Dylan’s epic “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” from his third album and the first of his albums I bought), The Times They Are a-Changin, released in 1964.  (A live version, by Dylan here:  A remarkable version of it, by Nina Simone, here:  Lyrics here:  I always, almost reflexively, thought it dealt with an actual event.  It did not.  But is seems in all its particulars too detailed, too demanding of our attention, to have been invented.  Marcus discusses the song in great detail.  But this is the key:

The story of the song is the story of how Bob Dylan was able to make the song sing as if it were not his, as if it were found as the images Michael Lesy* discovered in the files of Charles Van Schaik (in the 1890s the town photographer of Black River Falls),,,It’s the story of how Dylan finally made the song slip his skin, until it could feel…as mythical as “Frankie and Johnny,” as factual as “Casey Jones.”

It seems, listening to the song, that it must be real.  Or, alternatively, I think, as if is had grown from a real event, to become as mythis and as real as (to use another example) “Tom Dooley.”

But that’s just the beginning.  The second song is one I had never heard (or heard of) until I read this book.  The singer was also unknown to me (and as Marcus suggests, unknown to everyone, even to the obscurity of her name).  The song is “The Last Kind Word Blues,” and no one knows how old it is, or who first sang the version that grew into many versions.  Its first recorded version (that anyone knows of) was recorded in 1930 by the Paramount label (a division, believe it or not, of the Wisconsin Chair Company--, things are already getting weirder), in Grafton (which is nowhere near Black River Falls)), Wisconsin.  The song is credited to Geeshie Wiley (singer and guitar player).  But it soon escaped from captivity and took on a life of its own, with literally hundreds of performances and recordings, all of them probably different.  (You can listen to it here:; and one set of lyrics can be found here:  Marcus traces the song, and the people, and we can see how the song mutated and grew.  How it was rediscovered…

Finally, we arrive at the story of Bascom Lamar Lunsford (of whom some of you might have heard; he remained active into the early 1960s, performing at folk festivals—including his own, singing this song and many others) and another strange, constantly mutating song called (as Lunsford wrote it down) “I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground.”  (This is Lunsford:; here are his lyrics:   Marcus says of it that “…it is a song with a thousand face.  It’s an old American song—no one knows how old.’”  He traces some version of it back to the American Revolution (there’s  reference to a “forty dollar bill”—piece of currency that existed only in paper money issued by Alabama during the War of Independence—and he has a picture!)  It seems to be a song about making this world disappear:

I wish I was a mole in the ground
Yes I wish I was a mole in the ground
Like a mole in the ground
I’d root that mountain down
And I wish I was a mole in the ground

We also have lizards (which makes me wonder whether Jim Morrison, the Lizard King, knew or knew of this song).  We have birds in a tree, a killer in the sand, a dream in the night.  Marcus claims to see traces of it in Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” (a song worthy of exegesis in its own right).  Marcus notes its use by some in the Free Speech movement in Berkeley.  He digresses to quote Mark Twain at length about the difference between a humorous story (American), a cosmic story (English), and a witty story (French) (pp. 140-141).  He connects it (through Lunsford) to the “John Henry” saga. And he concludes:

He** knew the song was a mystery before and after it was anything else, and he knew it was a mystery he was passing on,  As he did so, every time he sang the song—Bascom Lamar Lunsford erase himself; He wished himself into the song and sent the song out into the world…

I’ll leave the rest of that passage, which is on the last page of the book, for you to discover for yourselves.

*See the book Wisconsin Death Trip.


Friday, June 22, 2018

Rex Stout, Triple Jeopardy

Rex Stout, Triple Jeopardy
© Rex Stout 1951. 1952
This edition Bantam Books, 1993
Available from used booksellers

A collection of immediately post-WWs novellas.  In my opinion, these are not among the strongest of the novellas Stout wrote about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  That means, however, that they are, at their worst, quite readable, and a must-read for any of the followers of the Wolfe saga.

The opening story, “Home To Roost,” is about the poisoning, in a quite public setting of Arthur Rackell.  He has been working in the import-export firm owned by his uncle Benjamin and living in the Rackell residence (Benjamin, spouse Pauline, and Arthur, with servants).  Arthur had, before his death, begun espousing political beliefs that echo that of the CPUSA at the time.  To avoid ongoing disagreements, especially with his aunt, Arthur has told her that he has been working undercover for the FBI as an informant.  He died while dining with 5 friends or acquaintances, 2 men and 3 women.  One of the men was the trustee of a bail fund for people accused of crimes in conjunction with their membership in the CPUSA.  Both the FBI and the NYPD decline to share any information’ even refusing to confirm or deny Arthur’s claims to his aunt.  Making little progress (following an extended session with all concerned), Wolfe sets a trap—into which he guilty party falls.  Parts of this are strongly reminiscent of “Poison ala Carte” (which was a later work), which is a little disappointing.  Furthermore, the story wraps up with what I think we would have to call little in the way of convincing evidence of guilt.

In “Cop Killer,” two undocumented immigrants (or illegal aliens, pick your label), Carl and Tina Vardas call on Archie to help them leave New York (they both work at the barber shop patronized by both Goodwin & Wolfe).  Archie convinces them to tell him why they are so eager to leave town—it’s because a cop has spent the day at the shop questioning everyone (individually) about their activities the preceding night.  Archie goes to find out what’s what, and discovers that someone has killed the cop.  When he finally gets away and returns home, he finds Wolfe lunching with Carl and Tina.  After lunch, and some questioning of them, Archie gets a call from Purley Stebbins (from the shop; he’s investigating the murder), and Archie returns to the shop.  Later, Wolfe shows up, and in fairly short order identifies the crucial piece of evidence and clears Carl and Tina.  This is the best of the 3 stories.
“The Squirt and the Monkey” is my pick for the least of the novellas.  Harry Koven, a successful cartoonist, wants to hire Wolfe to help him discover which of his associates has stolen a loaded gun from his desk.  Archie objects (privately, to Wolfe) o the undertaking, but Wolfe’s the boss, and Archie’s off to the combination home and studio.  The plan is for Archie to plant his (unloaded) gun in the desk and then Koven will develop a situation in which everyone has a view of the desk drawer—presumably the guilty party will do a double-take or something.  Of course, something goes wrong.  (What follows are spoilers.)  Someone, presumably our gun thief, gets Archie’s gun from the desk, returns Koven’s gun, and proceeds to shoot one of the inhabitants—Adrian Getz—with Archie’s gun.  The killer then opens a window (it’s very cold outside) for the purpose of harming a monkey that’s kept in a gage, and tosses Archie’s gun into the cage.  Inspector Cramer arrests Archie for carrying an unlicensed gun, threatens to revoke Wolfe’s PI license.  Wolfe sets up a mass meeting (by threatening to sue Koven) and discovers the killer.  Now, the things that are wrong with this are really annoying.  For one thing, Archie would never leave his gun, unattended, in an unlocked desk drawer for going on 5 hours.  Second, Cramer would know full well that Goodwin is not likely to have tossed the gun into the cage with the monkey.  So it had to be someone else.  But either Cramer has a brain cramp or he’s so intent on getting at Wolfe and Goodwin that he just ignores that.  The resolution—Wolfe’s discovery of the murderer is nicely handled, though.  And for me there’s an interesting economic tag.  In the final scene, Koven blurts out that his take for the cartoon is 10% of the gross--$400 a week—so the gross is $4000 a week, in 1952.  Adjusted for overall inflation, that would be the rough equivalent of $4,000 a week for Koven and $40,000 in total income from the strip.  Just thought you’d like to know.

Susan Spann, The Blade of the Samurai

Susan Spann, The Blade of the Samurai
© 2014 Susan Spann
A Thomas Donne Book/Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press

This is the second book in a series (so far at 6 books and counting: about Matsui Hiro (a shinobi—an assassin) who has been sent by his clan to serve as the bodyguard for Father Mateo, a Portuguese priest attempting to convert the Japanese to Christianity.  Set in the 16th century, the historical background seems to me (a dilettante in this time period and country) seems extraordinarily well done.  At that time, the Japanese only allowed external trade with the Portuguese, who had a small number of merchants in the country, confined generally to specific parts of the major cities.  The Japanese had also permitted a number of Catholic priests to accompany the merchants and, while not actively encouraging those priests, also did not prohibit their activities.  Most of the priests proselytized the upper classes; Mateo worked among the lower classes.  (A reasonable overview of the period is here:  In this period, the Emperor was largely a figurehead, with control of the government in the hands of the Shogun.

The books are set largely in Kyoto, at that time the residence of the Emperor and the most important city in Japan.  The period is known as the Sengoku (“Age of Warring States”), and was a period of considerable political instability and internal warfare.  This book is set in the 1650s (European dating), if I recall correctly.

The book opens with Hiro (his personal name; Matsui is a family name, and not, actually, his real name) being disturbed by a creaking floorboard, causing him to go into (if you will) ninja mode.  The intruder turns out to be a relative, Kāzu, who works as a scribe in a government office.  His superior, Ashikaga Saburo, has been murdered, with Kāzu’s dagger, and Kāzu is certain he will be accused.  He swears he is innocent.  (The dead man is a member of the Shogun’s family.)

And then there comes a hammering on the door—a messenger from the government compound has come to bring Father Mateo to investigate the murder of Saburo (because of his success in solving a prior baffling murder—with, of course, Hiro’s assistance.  Hiro does not reveal Kāzu’s presence, and arranges for him to slip away while Mateo, accompanied by Hiro, goes to begin an investigation of Saburo’s murder.  A complicating factor is that it appears that an army, raised by Lord Oda, is marching on Kyoto, apparently with the aim of replacing the Ashikaga Shogunate with an Oda Shogunate.  So there is also a concern that Saburo’s murder is in fact linked to the country’s political instability.

Spann does an excellent job of keeping the dynastic issues clear and this helps make the investigation of the murder stand out.  While dynastic issues seem to be at the forefront, the murder could easily have been a personal matter—Saburo has private as well as political enemies.  As Mateo and Hiro investigate, and as the political crisis looms, two more deaths complicate matters, and Hiro meets Saburo’s very young son (who turns out to be an important part of the story).

This is, in my opinion, an extraordinarily rich book.  The characters (especially, but not only the continuing characters of Mateo’s household) are well defined and developed people; I never got any sense that they were these just to move the story along.  Hiro, who is really the main character, and Mateo are engaging, complex characters, whose friendship enriches the story.  For me, this book is a must-read, as is (so far) the entire series.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Francis Duncan, Murder for Christmas

Francis Duncan, Murder for Christmas
Originally published in 1949 by John Long, Ltd.
Re-published by Vintage Books/Penguin, 2015
This edition, Sourcebooks Landmark, 2017
© Francis Duncan 2017
ISBN 1-13-987-4926-5170-3

Duncan (which was a pseudonym adopted by William Underhill) was a moderately successful writer of mysteries from 1936 until at least the mid-1950s.  This one is a fairly standard English country house murder, in which an assortment of people, with ties only to their host (Benedict Grame), come together to celebrate Christmas.  Grame has this sort of a Christmas celebration annually, and some (not all) of the guests are regulars.  On Christmas Eve, Grame places presents for each guest on or under the tree.  But this year, one of his guests is shot, near the tree, dressed as Santa Claus, late on Christmas Eve.

And, this year, Mordecai Tremaine (who has some notoriety as an amateur detective) is, for the first time, one of the guests.  And Grame’s confidential secretary, Nicholas Blaise, has appended a personal note to Tremaine’s invitation: 

Please pay us a visit if you can possibly manage it.  Benedict will be more than ordinarily grateful.  As a matter of fact, I’ve been feeling that there’s something here to interest you.  Benedict doesn’t say much—in fact, he doesn’t know I’m making this comment, so I’d be glad if you’d keep it confidential.  But I can tell there’s something wrong, and frankly I’m getting scared.

The guests include a Member of Parliament, a famous scientist, a young woman whose guardian refuses to let her marry the young man she loves (who is also there), Grame’s sister, and assorted others.

It’s fair to say, I think, that the pace of the story is leisurely, extending over 345 pages that take us from Christmas Eve to a day or two after Christmas.  If the time is covered in great detail, the story does not seem to drag (although the passages allotted to Tremaine’s state of mind probably are a bit extensive).  The tale proceeds as, essentially, a series of relatively amicable conversations between Tremaine and the other characters, during which we learn a lot about them, some of which provide hints as to the outcome.  And while the denouement is well-handled, I doubt that many readers of mysteries will be shocked by it.  This is a pleasant way to spend a few hours, and worthwhile for that.  (It might be more fun to read around Christmas than during a heat wave, too.)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Michael Innes, A Night of Errors

Michael Innes, A Night of Errors
Ipso Books (reprint, 2018)
© 1948 Michael Innes

I recently read Innes’ first mystery featuring John Appleby (Death at the President’s Lodgings (1936); reviewed here:, and my feelings about it were mixed.  A number of people urged me not to give up on his works (which I had not planned to do; I have read some o them in the fairly distant past, although none of the titles ring any bells).  I sorry to say that A Night of Errors seems to me to have been even less impressive than his first Appleby novel.

The book opens with a fairly extended introduction to the Dromio family history, from the first Dromio to arrive in England several centuries before to the current head of the family, Oliver.  The family had prospered to the extent that in the early 1800s, the head of the family (Ferdinand) received a baronetcy.  In an interesting quirk of family genetics, the family ran to identical twins.  In the current generation, however, identical triplets were borne to Sir Romeo and Lady Katherine.  And, two of those three died in a fire that was, seemingly deliberately set in the nursery in which the three were sleeping.  Leaving only Oliver.  Oliver proves, however, to be a poor manager of the family’s fortunes, and, as the story begins, is in America seeking an American heiress who is willing to marry a (minor) member of the English aristocracy.  Getting us to this point takes 50 pages.

Somewhat more quickly, we get to the first death, the circumstances of which I will not reveal.  But it leads to the local Inspector (Hyland) to enlist the services of John Appleby, retired from Scotland Yard and living nearby.  They endeavor to determine what has happened (including finding an explanation for the post-mortem treatment of the body, which is presumed to be that of Sir Oliver Dromio.  We have a cast of characters including the alcoholic butler, the somewhat less-than- energetic gardener (and other retainers), the Vicar, Oliver’s younger brother Sebastian…

The investigation is concluded by the end of the day following the first death.  But the narrative becomes fairly complex, including questions of identity, multiple explanations for the treatment of the corpse, and so on.  Unfortunately, by the time I got to the end, I no longer particularly cared who had killed whom.

I know Innnes’s work is highly thought of.  (His wikipedia page includes some of the reactions to his work:  I tend to agree with Julian Symons’s take.  He “identified Innes as one of the ‘farceurs’—crime writers for whom the detective story was ‘an over-civilized joke with a frivolity which makes it a literary conversation piece with detection taking place on the side’—and described Innes's writing as being ‘rather in the manner of Peacock strained through or distorted by Aldous Huxley.’ ” (The material here is quoted from the wikipedia page.)

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Sara Woods, Malice Domestic

Sara Woods, Malice Domestic
© 1962 Sara Woods
Avon reprint 1986
(Out of print; readily available from used book sellers)

“…Duncan is in his grave,
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well,
Treason has done his worst, no steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further.”
Macbeth, Act III, Scene 2 [1]

Late one evening, William Cassell, returned to England after 18 years in Portugal to visit his brother Ambrose and family, is shot through a window while writing a letter at his brother’s desk.  One of Ambrose’s grandsons, Paul Herron, is found outside, barefoot, holding the rifle that fired the fatal shot.  He was heard to say, to his grandfather, “I thought it was you.”  Unsurprisingly, he is arrested and charged with the murder of William.  Ambrose arranges for Paul’s solicitor (Mr. Bellerby), and is adamant that Paul plead not guilty by reason of insanity.  Bellerby takes the case to Sir Nicholas Harding (and his nephew, Antony Maitland).  Harding himself is opposed to using insanity as a defense, and there is some doubt that an insanity plea could be supported.

As is happens, 18 years earlier, on the day that William Cassell left England for Portugal, Matt Herron (Paul’s father; there’s a twin brother to Paul as well, Timothy; they were 6 at the time, and asleep in the house) shot and killed his wife Ruth, his twin brother Mark, and himself.  Paul’s insanity (and his subsequent history of sleepwalking), Ambrose argues, stems from the trauma of his parents’ deaths.

Antony Maitland, also a barrister, undertakes to investigate the circumstances of the current murder, which entails a series of conversations with all concerned.  (And the cast of characters, who are mostly related in one way or another, is large.)  He comes to believe that understanding what happened on that night 18 years ago, and what led William to return to England, are essential to developing a defense for Paul.  Clearly we have a tangled situation, and one that reminded me, the first time I read the book (probably in the 1970s) and again today, of nothing so much as Ross Macdonald’s complex and multigenerational Lew Archer books.  (Maitland is, to my tastes, a more interesting protagonist than Archer, but that’s clearly a matter of taste.)

I thought the characters of Paul and Timothy, in particular, were very well portrayed, and that keeping all the characters clear in our minds as readers was handled quite well.  This was the second entry in the Maitland series, and it is as characteristic of the whole as one could ask.  Although we have yet to see Harding and Maitland at work in a courtroom, we get a very strong sense of their approach to the law, and how they work so well together.  This was, when I first read the books decades ago, one of my favorite continuing series, and I am greatly enjoying re-visiting it.  Highly recommended.

[1] All the titles come from Shakespeare; I have quoted above the passage from which this title comes.