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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/14/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 50
Table of Contents
Comments on Reading MOBY DICK (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was reading MOBY DICK again recently and some questions come to mind. I think of MOBY DICK is a rollicking good adventure with some interesting symbolism and some semi-religious views of the human condition, but is weighed down with prose that horribly gets in the way. Melville would think nothing of using a sentence like the following:
"So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two: that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another's mistake and misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death."
Now there is what I would call a totally overloaded sentence. It deserves a paragraph to itself. I believe that the majority of readers would become tangled in a sentence like that and when they extricate themselves from it at the end most of the ideas have been left behind. The reader breathes a sigh of relief only to have to plunge into the next sentence which, I assure you, is just as complex.
Well, this book was published in 1851. Could it be that people wrote in a different manner? Yes, but this was not the way. If the contention is that if you woke Herman Melville up at three in the morning he would speak this way, does anybody believe it? There is something else going on here. Instead, this style is an affectation. It is the modern view that prose writing style should be a lot like speaking style. At the very most it should be like formal speaking.
Nobody blames Shakespeare for writing in an English that is heavily stylistic. He is trying to write in poetry. But I am not sure how heavy style crept into prose writing. It is true that ponderous old books are ponderous because the writers felt that style was required for the writing to be good. It became like style in car design. A lot of that is not for purely practical reasons, but a desire on the part of the car manufacturers to make the car look good and be more profitable. And the designers often have mixed agendas. I remember when they used to recess the bumper into the front of the car. This supposedly made the car look better (or as Ralph Nader pointed out, it made the parts business more profitable since the car was now protecting the bumper instead of the other way around). It however hampered the purpose of the bumper. Similarly the writing style of even highly respected writers was at a highly elevated level at the cost of getting the idea across.
Just as the hero of the car story above was Ralph Nader, so too the story of stylistic prose had its hero in Mark Twain. At the time the man most people might have considered the greatest contemporary writer was James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper wrote thumping adventure stories with a high social agenda, the idolizing of the American Indian, in a style that everybody assumed was high and elevated. It certainly was hard work to read. But the action-adventure plotting made people want to read it. It was for the master cynic Mark Twain to point out that this was not good writing at all. He wrote an essay entitled "The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper." In no uncertain terms he mocked not just the writing style of Cooper, but of all writers who let ponderous writing style get in the way of telling the story. He wrote books like HUCKLEBERRY FINN in what was supposedly the language of the common people.
I think Damon Runyon may have taken this movement a step further by asking "which common people?" He writes his stories in the language of the bookies and petty crooks of Broadway. Everybody talks like Sheldon Leonard.
But back to MOBY DICK, while I know I am speaking heresy here by criticizing a beloved author of a beloved novel, but I think the book suffers from him using the inflated and pretentious prose that was an affectation of the writers of his time. That may be one thing that has improved since his time.
Speaking of his time, just when does MOBY DICK take place? This is a bit of a digression and a trick question. We are given some information about when MOBY DICK takes place. It apparently took place late last year some time. And I mean the year 2001.
"And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this: 'Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States 'Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael 'Bloody Battle In Affghanistan.'"
This is a direct reference to the news of 2001. When else in history was there a war in Afghanistan and a contested U.S. election? I tell you, it proves the not just the truth of Moby Dick, but that it really can be used to tell the future. I bet if we looked the book over using the methods used to look at the Torah Codes, every n-th letter, we would find a lot of interesting messages. [-mrl]
A Mess o' Mystery Reviews (book reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper):
As part of my retirement, I am reading more (though not as much more as I had hoped). And some of what I am reading a lot more of are mysteries. This is due in part, no doubt, to my having managed to get something like two dozen Dover mysteries for a couple of dollars during "bag day" at the local library book sale. But I have read others as well, and so I thought I would do a sort of collective review of the ones I've read so far this year. (Also, when people ask, "What do you do with all your time now?", this will provide a partial answer.)
Dover Books has been publishing inexpensive, well-bound trade paperbacks of classic mysteries from the 1880-1950 range (give or take). Most are English, that being the "Golden Age" of English detective stories. However, it turns out that pretty much all of the ones I bought have also gone out of print, even from Dover, which keeps a lot of older works in print. (For example, they have kept Olaf Stapledon's four major novels in print for at least thirty years now.) Luckily, most of these mysteries are available relatively cheaply as used books.
"The Experiences of Loveday Brooke" by Catherine Louisa Pirkis is one of the more peculiar. It is also one of the more difficult to shelve, being 6-1/8" by 9-1/4", rather than the standard 5- 3/8"x8". This is because, like all the Dover mysteries, it is a reproduction of the original publication, including illustrations, and since that was in a large-format magazine, making it any smaller would make the print unreadable. Written in 1893, it is one of the earliest series to feature a woman detective. While a bit limited by what a lady could do in those days, that is also part of its appeal. (And, yes, Loveday Brooke is a lady, not just a woman.) Unfortunately, not only is this now out of print, it is going for inflated prices as a used book ($27 and up).
Everett F. Bleiler's "Three Victorian Detective Novels" is a real bargain, with three for the price of one: Andrew Forrester's "The Unknown Weapon", Wilkie Collins's "My Lady's Money", and Israel Zangwill's "The Big Bow Mystery". "The Unknown Weapon" (1864) is probably the first modern detective story to have a female detective. Unfortunately, the denouement seems too much like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, although that may be a function of the more modern policy of providing all the necessary clues to the reader. "My Lady's Money" (1877) is a very early "drawing room" mystery, and more satisfying. And "The Big Bow Mystery" (1891) is the first real "locked room" mystery, and handles that aspect in a very deft manner. I will point out that although "The Big Bow Mystery" has its share of lower-class characters, it is not set in the London-Jewish milieu that Zangwill is best known for.
In Douglas G. Browne's "What Beckoning Ghost" (1947) the mystery is whether the supposedly supernatural happenings are really supernatural (a mystery that to some extent implies its own answer), and a chase through the London sewers that might have inspired Graham Greene's "The Third Man".
John Ferguson's "Death Comes to Perigord" (1931) is set on one of the Channel Islands. Ferguson is Scottish, so this isn't, strictly speaking, an English mystery, but it is interesting that he wrote about the other end of Britain rather than Scotland. This one is notable mostly for the setting, though the mystery/forensic aspect is handled well enough.
Mary Fitt's "Death and the Pleasant Voices" (1946) is full of mistaken identities and various wills which may or may not exist, but still seems somewhat mechanical in its plotting.
"The Middle Temple Murder" by J. S. Fletcher (1918) introduces some of the more important characters a bit farther into the story than modern readers might be used to, but is still better written and more engaging than a lot of the more recent works. (Maybe for me, the Golden Age ended around 1920.)
I found "Suicide Excepted" (1954) by Cyril Hare way too obvious--I knew who the guilty party was a quarter of the way through, with confirming clues showing up every few chapters after that as well. I don't think it's just because reading a lot of mysteries makes them easier--others are still just as surprising as before.
Not all the mysteries I read are old, but most seem to be set in an earlier time. For example, I follow the various Sherlock Holmes pastiches. The first in Larry Millett's "Holmes in Minnesota" series, "Sherlock Holmes & the Red Demon", was actually the third of the series I had read. (The other two were "Sherlock Holmes & the Ice Palace Murders" and "Sherlock Holmes & the Rune Stone Mystery", and a fourth "Sherlock Holmes & the Secret Alliance" is now out and "in process" at my local library.) It was passable, though a tad too "modern" in terms of attitudes for me. Martin H. Greenberg's "Murder in Baker Street" is another original anthology of stories of varying quality, but certainly worth a read for Holmes fans.
And speaking of too modern, Alan Vanneman has his take on one of the most famous asides in Sherlock, "Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra," this one with way too much sex (with Watson, not Holmes) to be at all true to the character of the original stories.
And when you get bored with Sherlock Holmes, there's Mycroft Holmes, in Quinn Fawcett's series. I had to go to Toronto to discover these (in The Sleuth of Baker Street) even though they're published by Tor here in the United States, because I don't really check the mystery sections in the bookstore, and because the first was published as mass-market originals, it didn't show up on the library's new book shelves. The first two, "Against the Brotherhood" and "Embassy Row", were acceptable, though the recurring premise of an evil brotherhood and a correspondingly good lodge fighting them didn't thrill me, and when I tried the third one, "The Flying Scotsman", I just couldn't get into it. (In spite of the photo and biography of "Quinn Fawcett" on the book flaps, Quinn Fawcett is a pseudonym for the writing team of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Bill Fawcett.)
I'm not sure where Peter J. Heck got the idea for having Mark Twain be a detective, but it seems to work. The fourth and fifth books, "Guilty Abroad" and "The Mysterious Strangler", continue the premise, and Heck seems to portray Clemens reasonably accurately without resorting to filling the book with caricatures and familiar quotes. These are among the most enjoyable mysteries I've read (though being a big Mark Twain fan probably affects my judgment).
Among the most unlikely literary detectives might be Will Shakespeare, in Simon Hawke's series. The second one, "The Slaying of the Shrew", has nothing to add to either detection or Shakespeare and seems to be designed mostly to cash in on Shakespeare's recent burst of popularity. (And even being a fan of Shakespeare didn't help me here.)
Though Edith Skom's book is titled "The George Eliot Murders", the only connection with Eliot is some parallels between "Middlemarch" and the murders. This is just your basic "take-to-the-beach-junk- food" mystery--not very well written, a bit obvious in spots, a bit contrived in spots (okay, a lot contrived in spots), and having the completely unbelievable setting of a midwestern professor vacationing at a *really* expensive Hawaiian resort. In spite of all this, though, I must admit it as a "guilty pleasure," probably because people in it were talking about George Eliot, "Middlemarch", and even Mark Twain.
This still leaves a couple of John Dickson Carrs, some Jewish- themed mysteries, and some "literary" mysteries (not about literary characters, but marketed as literary books), but they will have to wait for another time. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Many highly intelligent people are poor thinkers. Many people of average intelligence are skilled thinkers. The power of a car is separate from the way the car is driven. -- Edward de Bono
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