Sunday, February 24, 2019

In which I once again engage in copycat photoblogging

Chris Bertram has a great multiple reflections photo:

I have a single reflection in a window in Milan (from 2005):

Friday, February 22, 2019

Bill Crider, That Old Scoundrel Death

Bill Crider, That Old Scoundrel Death
Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press, 2019
© Bill Crider 2019
ISBN 978-1-250-16562-6
Also available as an ebook

The 25th (and, unfortunately, likely last) Sheriff Dan Rhodes book gives us an intriguing plot, Crider’s well-drawn characters (both continuing and those specific to this book), and a setting that pulls it all together into an entertaining few hours.  He does, however, leave one thread hanging:  Will Sheriff Rhodes run for re-election?  I rather hope that, in the world of Blacklin County and Clearview, he will continue to maintain law and order for many years.

We start off with a traffic incident.  Local lay-about and petty criminal Kenny Lambert has chased after a man named Cal Stinson, claiming Stinson cut him off.  Lambert is threatening to shoot him.  Stinson, a newcomer, explains that he’s been out to see the old school in Thurston, which some people in the county want to turn into a community center and others want to tear down.  Rhodes arrests Lambert, and one of his deputies (Ruth Brady) pulls in to tell Rhodes that there’s something he needs to deal with.  Rhodes turns Lambert over to her, and heads for the mayor’s office.

Where he discovers that there’s a new on-line “news” source in town—a blog calling itself Digging that Blacklin County Dirt, run by “Thomas Paine” and “Patrick Henry” which has just called the mayor a nincompoop for wanting to keep his old office once the new City Hall building opens, and the mayor wants Sheriff Dan Rhodes to do something about it.  Rhodes calms him down, pointing out the freedom of the press, among other things, and suggesting a way for the mayor to find out who’s running the operation—hire Seepy Benson, a teacher at the local junior college (and former ghost hunter), who has a PI license—to find out..

Back at the office, he learns (from Hack, the dispatcher) that Stinson has not come in to file a formal complaint.  Rhodes tell Hack to see whether he can find an address for Stinson; Hack can find no one named Cal Stinson in any database he can access.

The next day, a Thurston resident (Wanda Wilkins calls the sheriff’s office to report a dead body in the old school.  And it’s Stinson.  Well, not Stinson, but you know what I mean.  He’s been shot.  And, he had told the woman who later found his body that his name was “Bruce Wayne.”  (And I don’t have to tell you who “Bruce Wayne is, or was, do I?)  Which makes finding out “Stinson” really is somewhat important.  Which he does, in fairly short order (with an assist from Seepy)—he’s one of the people behind Digging that Blacklin County Dirt.  And, as t happens, they’ve been following the school issue.

Rhodes decides he’s going to have to talk to the people involved in the dispute over the school (after all, the body was found there).  And the people Rhodes talks to about “Stinson’s” death all seen to have something to hide. That includes the Hunleys [a family with two war heroes—father (Viet Nam) and son (Desert Storm)] the Falkners, and the Reeses.  The Hunleys are primary backers of saving the old school, and the other couples are the leaders of the “replace” forces.

That’s pretty much the setup.  There are no apparent specific leads.  Even “Stinson’s” car has vanished.  But Rhodes keeps asking questions, finding discrepancies and evasions, and finally has enough to put it all together and is able to identify the killer.  And that has always been Rhodes’s approach.  Ask questions, look for inconsistencies, ask more questions, until the pattern becomes clear and he knows whodunit and where, ultimately, to find the evidence.  I will say that one of the final scenes in the book strikes me as (atypically) implausible, but that’s a truly minor issue (and other readers may not agree with me anyway).  The resolution is in fact rather poignant, but true to the characters.

Crider always does a remarkable job with the low-life characters, in this case especially Kenny and Noble.  These two are none too bright, not ambitious, and have no redeeming social value, but he makes them almost sympathetic.  They are the sort of minor characters who could come back in another book, not as major figures, but as local color and background.

I’ve been reading the Dan Rhodes books since the mid-1990s, and have found them all somewhere between well above average to excellent.  This is one of the excellent ones.  And I will miss having additional opportunities to spend a few hours with Sheriff Rhodes. His deputies and staff, and his wife Ivy.  And the dogs, Speedo and Yancy.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (Annotations by Martin Gardner)

Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits
Annotations by Martin Gardner
Original publication 1876
This edition by W. W, Norton, 2006
Annotations © Martin Gardner 1962, 1974, 1981, 2006
Introduction © Adam Gopnick 2006
“The Listing of the Snark” © Selwyn H. Goodacre 2006
ISBN 978-0-393-06242-7

Lewis Carroll’s  original publication of The Hunting of he Snark was, in its own way something of a literary event, coming as it did a mere decade after the Alice books.  It is both much, much shorter [the text fits easily 31 pages (including Carroll’s introduction and original illustrations by Henry Hamilton)—which is the length of the other edition I have] and both a much more obscure and a much weirder tale than the Alice tales (which are themselves fairly strange.  As Carroll himself relates, as he was out walking one day the line “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see” came into his mind.  He recognized it as the end to something, and eventually set about writing the beginning and the middle.

The text itself can easily be read in less than an hour.  But reading and digesting the annotations (and other material) in this most recent English version will take much longer, and may—but only may—serve to make the text less obscure.  Carroll invents a number of words (beginning with Snark and Boojum) and a number of expressions (“What I tell you three times is true") that enrich the English language.  But as for what the text means…well, I suspect no one knows--or ever will know. 

Gardner’s annotations don’t really do much to unravel the mystery of the meaning of the poem, but they do help understand some of the references that are obscure to us (for example, the famous Tichborne claimant case which likely formed the basis of “Fit the Sixth” (about which you may find more than you ever wanted to know here: 
I do have a favorite from among the annotations, which is the sad fate of John Colenso, an English mathematician, theologian, and social activist.  Gardner describes it this way (beginning on p. 52):

In 1846 he was appointed Bishop of Natal, a South African province where the native Zulus badgered him with embarrassing questions about the Old Testament.  The more Colenso pondered his answers the more he convinced himself that Christianity was lost if it continue to insist on the Bible’s historical accuracy.  He expressed these heretical views in a series of books, using arithmetical arguments to prove the nonsense of various Old Testament tales…Such opinions seem mild today*, but at the time they touched off a tempest that rocked the English church.  Colenso was savagely denounced, socially ostracized, and finally excommunicated, though the courts decided in his favor and he was later reinstated at Natal.

This edition, which contains Gardner’s last reworking of the annotations, is sadly out of print.  It is, I am more than pleased to say, widely available from used booksellers, generally from around $10.  If you feel a Snark hunt in your future, Lewis Carroll’s magnificent poem can lead you to it, and Gardner’s masterful annotations will help you have some vestiges of ideas about what it all might mean. 

*Perhaps less mild than Gardner thinks.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Bill Crider: An Appreciation

I want to say some things about Bill Crider’s work, especially as what seems likely to be the final book is about to arrive.

I first discovered Bill in the nmid-1990s, so I am sort of a late-comer.  I was driving back from a long day of meetings in Bloomington (IN), at Indiana University, to Chicago where I lived at the time, and I stopped in Lafayette for dinner.  There was a bookstore off the interstate which sold only remaindered books, but, as I had nothing to read while I ate, I stopped and bought a paperback mystery novel titled Shotgun Saturday Night.  The cover copy was intriguing, and the over photo was brilliant, and it was a buck.  And the opening sentence:  Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.”  I had to force myself to stop reading and get back in the car.  When I got home, I stayed up until I finished…which was a problem, as I needed to get up and go to work the next morning.

I immediately began looking for more, (Amazon was an immense help, even then), and discovered another series of books (the Truman Smith PI books) and the earlier Dan Rhodes books (while Shotgun Saturday Night was only the second book in the series, I didn’t discover it until maybe 1995, at which time there were at least a half a dozen.  And then I found the Carl Burns books (of which there were three by then).  And I was hooked—on Bill Crider and on his books.

While the Dan Rhodes books make up most of what he wrote (25 books over 33 years), there were enough of the others to keep me busy (5 Truman Smith books, 4 Carl Burns, 3 Sally Burns, 2 with Willard Scott, 2 with Clyde Wilson, and 1 standalone—We’ll Always Have Murder, which I love).  Given that the man had a full-time job as a teacher and administrator, his ability to produce so much high-quality work is pretty amazing.  Clearly, the Dan Rhodes books are the center of his work.  I have a deep fondness for the Carl Burns and Sally Good books, because they are set on college campuses, and unlike many books in that sort of setting, he nails the setting.  They are good mysteries as well, but I’m an academic, and to have the academic part of it so well done was such a treat.

There is, I think, something of a tendency to consider his books to tend toward the “cozy” (a term than does not fit very well), because the continuing characters are pleasant, normal people, living (mostly) normal lives.  They aren’t border-line depressives (which is how I tend to think of Philip Marlowe) or eccentric geniuses (Nero Wolfe) or idealized fantasy heroes (Spenser).  But murder intrudes in their lives, and they have to deal with it.  For Rhodes, it’s a job, for Smith, it’s sort of tangentially related to his being a PI.  But for Burns and Good, murder is an intrusion into their lives…and threatens to upend or even devastate their worlds. 

But let’s focus on Dan Rhodes.  He is not really an ordinary man.  He’s smart, and passionately devoted to his job (and his wife and his dogs).  Doing his job well is a driving force in his life, and maintaining an ordered world is part of that.  His co-workers (I especially like Ruth Brady) are an integral part of that (and if Hack and Lawton occasionally get on me nerves, they also get on his).  For me, the whole series reads as an extended morality tale.  Death –violent death, death as destroyer, not death as an inevitable part of live—threatens to destroy the fabric of a community.  But, at least for now, that threat is forestalled, but not defeated.

And the Dan Rhodes books are funny as well, not in a slapstick sense, but in the way that life is often funny.  Wild boars, destructive as they are.  Ostriches?  Yes, ostriches.  Seepy Benton and his enthusiasms.  Hack (the dispatcher) and Lawton (the jailer) who keep the sheriff’s office together (and who apparently do not exist, except there.  Jennifer Loam who runs her own local, internet-based news service.  And Ivy, who anchors Dan’s life (and tries, not terribly successfully, to get him to eat sensibly—I’m with Dan on this one).

What Crider did (as Arthur Conan Doyle did, and Rex Stout, and Tony Hillerman, and a few others), and it’s a true and difficult achievement, is to create a world real enough that we can understand it and see ourselves inhabiting it, but is filled by a kind of magic, and so keeps us coming back, over and over again.

Friday, February 8, 2019

James R. Benn, Death’s Door

James R. Benn, Death’s Door
Soho Crime, 2011
© James R, Benn 2011
eISBN 98-1-61695-186-3

When I began looking for something to read, I thought it was time to get back to James Benn’s Billy Boyle series; I was surprised to discover that it’s been 3 years since I read A Mortal Terror.  That was way too long a gap.  So I picked up my e-reader, opened up the file, and read Death’s Door in two days.  It is yet another excellent entry (the 7th), in my opinion, one of the best books, because of the personal stakes for Boyle, in a series of 13 books.

Billy Boyle, who is a distant cousin of Eisenhower and was, before the war, a Boston cop, now serves as a sort of free-lance investigator for Ike in the ETO during World War II.  In this entry, he’s more-or-less AWOL when he is dragged back to undertake a job that will take him to the Vatican, with Rome still under German occupation, to investigate the murder of Edward Corrigan (who had worked in the Holy Office of the Pope, as a lawyer-within-the-church.  It seems that there are major religious and political figures in the US who want to know who did it, and why.

Boyle is immediately willing to go—not because he really cares about Corrigan’s death, but because the woman he loves (Diana Seaton, a British intelligence officer) will be in or around Rome, in a Gestapo prison—if she’s still alive.  And he intends, one way of another, to find her and get her out.  Going with him on this quest is his close friend, with whom he has worked throughout the war, a Polish Baron, Pitotr Augustus Kazimerz (Kaz).  Along the way a large number of “real people” have minor (Sterling Hayden) or major [any number of priests he works with (or against)] after he gets to the Vatican.

The historical setting is (as is usual in Benn’s books) remarkably well presented.  In this case, it involves the position of refugees (especially Jewish) hiding out from the Nazis, the privations (and some minor privileges for those fortunate enough) experienced by the population.  There’s even a moderately un-nasty German intelligence operative.  As Benn spells out in an afterword, many of the events in the book are historical fact (for one, which sheds no particular honor on the Allies, the bombing of Monte Casino).

The various threads of the story wind up coming together, and Boyle (and Kaz) complete their mission.  But it is, throughout, not a sure thing, with an occupying army, the Gestapo, other elements of German intelligence, and the machinations within the Vatican.  And a considerable number of the actors in this tale don’t come through it unscathed—or even alive.

If you have not yet encountered these books, I would suggest starting at the beginning (with Billy Boyle), and I would strongly suggest starting now.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Alan Beechey, An Embarrassment of Corpses

Alan Beechey, An Embarrassment of Corpses
Poisoned Pen Press, 1997/2014
© Alan Beechy 2014
ISBN 978-1-61595-4287 (ebook)

This is the first of (so far) three books featuring Oliver Swithin (author of the Railway Mice children’s books, featuring Finsbury the Ferret), Detective Superintendent Tim Mallard (Oliver’s uncle), and Detective Effie Strongith Arm.  The book opens with Oliver discovering the body of his friend Sir Hargreaves Random (commonly called Harry; author of boys adventure books)) in the pool surrounding Nelson’s Column.  It’s just after 6 AM, following the annual Snark Hunt organized by and for the members of their club, and based, of course, on Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.  It turns out, of course, to be murder, and a number of subsequent murders occur daily.  And they all have signs left suggesting the Zodiac—in reverse order of the calendar, beginning with Pisces (and you have already noticed that Sir Harry died in a pool, a pool with fountains in the shape of dolphins).

Oliver makes the transition from suspect to assistant to his uncle, and as the death count rises, tempers grow shorter.  And the pressure to find the murderer and stop these apparently random murders also grows.  More than that I don’t think I can say about the plot (although there is one point that I find basically unbelievable, which is the murderer’s actual motive).  Oliver, by the way, would like to get closer to Effie, a desire that is complicated by the people he shares a (large) flat with and by Oliver’s one-time involvement with Sir Harry’s niece Lorina.  I will say, though, that I found the denouement a bit contrived.  Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot.

The three main characters are all interesting and I’m looking forward to the other two in the series (This Private Plot and Murdering Ministers; all three are available as ebooks, but not, apparently new in print; they are available from used booksellers). 

Anthony Gilbert, Death Knocks Three Times

Anthony Gilbert, Death Knocks Three Times
Originally published by Walter J. Black (New York) 1949
© Anthony Gilbert 1949
(This book pre-dates the ISBN system.)

Anthony Gilbert was the pen name of Lucy Beatrice Malleson (thanks to Stop, You’re Killing Me), a prolific writer of mysteries published from 1927 t0 1974 (she died in 1973)  (Her wikipedia page-- much useful information about her career.  At this time, so far as I can tell, none of her books are in print; only one, a compilation of shorts (Sequel to Murder, a compilation published by Crippen & Landru in their “Lost Classics” series).  Even ABE is not much help; I find less than a dozen of her (nearly 75) books available there.

On the evidence of Death Knocks Three Times (by my count the 22nd in the series of books featuring barrister Arthur Crook), this is a pity.  I bought this one based on some very positive comments about it I read somewhere, and it is excellent (which is not to say perfect).  We begin with Crook driving through a storm, on his way home (which is London) following the successful completion of a trial.  The roads are bad, he has to take a detour, and finally comes upon an isolated house, where he seeks refuge.  The occupants—Col. James Sherren (ret.) and Jimmy Bligh, his servant—are surprised (in the case of the Colonel, somewhat outraged) that someone has arrived at their door. Crook, however, persuades them to offer him a (cold, uncomfortable) room.

Shortly after Crook’s return to his chambers in London, a police inspector calls on him, to ask what, if anything, he might know about the Coloner’s death.  He died the night following Crook’s departure, while his nephew, John Sherren, was there for a brief visit.  The (rather unique) cause of death is suspicious, and Crook is required to attend the inquest, at which the verdict is death by misadventure.

But Crook’s interest in the death of the Colonel does not end there.

The Colonel has left everything to Bligh (as his nephew knew).  And John Sherren is left with two maiden aunts, his mother’s sisters, Isabel and Clara Bond.  John inherited his mother’s estate, which was sufficient to support his efforts as an author.  Clara inherited the Bond estate from her father, from her (and Isabel’s) brother, with a stipulation that Clara take care of Isabel, with the balance to go to Isabel if Clara dies first. 

At this point, John is a none-too-successful author, and Clara and Isabel are living together, supported by their inheritance.  Until one day Isabel’s body is found on the rocky beach below their house on a bluff overlooking the sea.  (She had been, so far as anyone knows, home alone.)

And then Clara begins receiving threatening letters (some through the post, some left at the house).

So that’s the setting.  Clara sells the house and moves into a residential hotel.  And following dinner and after-dinner entertainments with John and a friend of Isabel’s, Frances Pettigrew.  With them at the end of the evening is a Mr. Marlowe, who had been courting Isabel shortly before her death.  (Miss Pettigrew is there because Clara has asked her advice about the threatening letters.)  That night, Clara dies, having taken poison.  The question, obviously is who and why.

Crook’s attention is attracted to the affair, and while he does not exactly investigate, he does take an interest, talking often and at length with the other parties.  And, following a long conversation with Miss Pettigrew, he indicates that he knows who is responsible for Clara’s death, and why.  In the course of that conversation, Crook also explores how, and why, Isabel died.  That’s not exactly the end, but it is the climax. 

This is a relatively sort (155 pages) book, but the story is complex and multifaceted.  It was, for me, an engrossing mystery, with a fairly well-hidden solution.  And so I am left hoping to find more of Anthony Gilbert’s books,

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
Liveright, 2015
© Mary Beard Publications 2015
ISBN 978-1-63149-222-8

In this stunning and compelling book, Mary Beard tries to understand, and to help us understand, the transition of Rome from a “republic” (governed, more of less, by the Senate) to an empire (ruled by an emperor).  For some reason, this seems like an important question, one that may have implications not just for our understanding of the (relatively distant) past, but for our present and near-term future.

Her narrative takes us from roughly 200 BCE to 200 CE, as the Roman republic increasingly experiences crises of government, with the first climax being Julius Caesar’s return to Rome (about 45 BCE) and his fairly open courting of becoming a king.  The second turning point is Octavian (Caesar’s adopted son) claiming the title of Emperor (in 31 BCE).  What follows, in Beard’s account, is a roughly 200 year period of empire, ruled by 14 emperors (as she notes, the following 100 years saw 70 or so “emperors”), of relatively peaceful governance of an empire that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to well into Asia Minor.  Her objective is to understand, and to help us understand, how Rome got from Caesar to Commodus.

What became clear to me was that Rome’s structure of governance was, by Caesar’s time, no longer up to the task of dealing with what was already an empire in extent.  The Senate remained (at least in theory) the center of governmental power, and executive authority was exercised by consuls (of whom there were generally 2) who served 1-year terms (although, as time went by, consul were more frequently re-elected to subsequent terms) and tribunes (who apparently could, and did, act independently of the consuls).  This was a pretty rickety structure, especially if the primary consul proposed (and the Senate enacted) significant “reforms.”  (The most obvious cases were that of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (tribune in 133 BCE) and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (tribune in 127 BCE):  Both were killed because many of the aristocrats opposed their changes.  Beard argues that Caesar faced similar resistance, which, along with fears that he might declare himself a king or emperor, resulted in his death as well).

And as Rome became the center of a physical empire—long before it was ruled by an emperor—the very real problems of how to control such a sprawling expanse made governance by the Senate increasingly problematic.  And so Rome inched toward more central control, more authority vested in one man, until, eventually, Octavian renamed him self Augustus and became the first emperor.

The story, of course, is much more complicated than my summary (and probably more complicated than Beard’s 500+ page book).  In my opinion, she does a magnificent job or making clear what the turning points are, and how (if not why; why is always harder) changes occurred.  She also helps us understand how the daily life of at least wealthy Romans went on during all this (and makes an effort to present the life of the poor and near-poor, as well; that task is complicated because there is next to no documentary evidence extant that helps much).

She also does an excellent job of making clear how much the late Republic and early Empire was reliant on very distant sources for many of the goods that made up people’s lives—including olive oil, grain, and other daily necessities of life.  One of my favorite bits of information involves the Monte Testaccio—which is not a mountain, or even a hill, but a trach dump, made up of (literally) millions of (empty) containers of olive oil.  (They could not be reused, because the oil seeped into the clay of the containers and turned rancid).  (A very good description of Monte Testaccio can be found at  I’ve included an aerial view of it.

Here's a ground-level view:

If you have an interest in Roman history, this is a must-read book.