Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

04 October 2017

The Librarian Murder Mysteries

by Robert Lopresti

Thanks for all the additions, comments, and corrections! All those received by October 6th have been added in red.  Keep them coming!

Crime-writing attracts people from many different fields, including crime-fighters and, of course, criminals.  I am working on a list of mystery writers, past and present, who happen to be librarians.  (I am limiting it to this to fiction writers with M.L.S. degrees.)

I went to the geniuses who dwell at Dorothy-L, the listgroup for fanatical mystery fans, and asked for their collective wisdom.  And boy, was I impressed with the list they came up with.  If you know of any we missed, please pass them along.

James R. Benn.   Benn served as the head of school libraries for West Hartford, CT, and then managed a private history library before going full-time into mysteries.  The history stuff might have helped him with his books about Billy Boyle, a Boston police detective who spends World War II as confidential investigator for his "Uncle Ike," Dwight D. Eisenhower.  

Jon L. Breen.  Jon is a retired reference librarian who is best known for his nonfiction, which has won him both Edgar and Anthony Awards.  His What About Murder? is a definitive (and continuing) guide to reference books in our field (it now appears in each issue of Mystery Scene Magazine).  He has written around ten novels and several collections of short stories. My favorite is Kill the Umpire!, a collection of fair-play mysteries starring Ed Gorgon, major league ump.

Barbara Cantwell.  With her husband Brian, she forms B.B. Cantwell, who writes the Portland Bookmobile mysteries.  She did work on a bookmobile in th 1980s, and now stays more in one place  at the University of Washington.

Donis Casey.  Casey has been an academic librarian in Oklahoma and Arizona.  Now she writes full-time.  Her first book was The Old Buzzard Had It Coming.

Jo Dereske.  My friend reference librarian Jo Dereske wrote a series of comic mysteries about Miss Wilhelmina Zukas, who works at the public library in a small northwestern city not unlike the one where I live.  Helma is in some ways a stereotypical librarian but she has enough quirks and spine to make her a pleasure to spend time with.  In one book the police want to know who borrowed a particular book and to protect her patron's privacy, Helma destroys the records.  Making this more interesting is  that her would-be lover is the police chief.

Amanda Flower is a librarian in Ohio.  So is her character India Hayes who works and sleuths at a college there.

Charles Goodrum.  Goodrum may have been the first librarian to write crime novels about a librarian.  Dewey Decimated (1977) and its equally pun-titled sequels centered on an institution reminiscent of the Library of Congress, where Goodrum worked for many years.


Dean James used to be a medical librarian in Houston.  Under the name Miranda James he writes the Cat in the Stacks books about a small-town Mississippi librarian.

Jayne Ann Krentz. Krentz was a school librarian in the Virgin Islands (which she considered a "disaster" of a career move), and then worked at Duke University.  She is a hugely successful author or romantic suspense and donates generously to libraries, setting up a foundation to provide money for UCSC's humanities collection, among other gifts.

Eleanor Kuhns is the assistant director at the Goshen Public Library in Orange County, New York,  She writes about Will Rees, a weaver in Colonial America.

Robert Lopresti.  Yeah, that guy.  I wrote three stories about a public librarian buit couldn't sell them.  I got some satisfaction by slipping the character into one of my stories about eccentric mob detective Uncle Victor.

Mary Jane Maffini.  How many people can boast of once being the librarian of the Brewer's Association of Canada?  Maffini can.  She authors three series with female amateur sleuths.  The most popular may be the books about professional organizer Charlotte Adams, as in The Busy Woman's Guide to Murder.

Annette Mahon.  Mahon has worked in public and academic libraries.  Now she writes novels about the St. Rose Quilting Bee. The quilters, like their author, live in Arizona.

Jenn McKinlay.  She was a librarian in Connecticut, then tried writing.  McKinlay switched from romance to mystery because "I'm just better at killing people than I am at making them fall in love."  Among her series are the Library Lovers' Mysteries.

Shari Randall.  Randall has had two short stories published.  Her first novel, Curses, Broiled Again,comes out in early 2018.

Robert F. Skinner.  Skinner was the head librarian at Xaver University in New Orleans.  He wrote a series of novels about Wesley Farrell, a nightclub owner "passing for white" during the 1930s.

Triss Stein.  Stein describes herself as a small town girl who became a children's librarian in Brooklyn.  Later she ran the library for DC Comics!  How cool is that?   She says that part of the inspiration for her books set in Brooklyn neighborhoods came from the places she worked in libraries there.

Marcia Talley.  Most of these authors worked in public, academic, or school libraries.  Talley represents another major category: special libraries.  She worked for corporations, a non-profit, and the government.  She writes about Hannah Ives, a cancer survivor now living in Annapolis.

Will Thomas.  Thomas is a librarian in Oklahoma.  His characters Barker and Llewelyn are private inquiry agents in Victorian England.

Ashley Weaver.  Weaver runs the technical services side of things at a library system in Louisiana.  Her books are set far, far away, involving an Englishwoman named Amory Ames who solves crimes with her playboy husband in stylish spots in the 1930s.


Of course, one reason there are so many librarians in mystery fiction - including ones not written by people in the field  - is that a lot of librarians are fans, and therefore potential customers.  How many?  Enough to make it worthwhile to have a Librarian's Tea every year at Bouchercon.  Next week in Toronto a lot of people in my field will gather for tea and cookies and the chance to hear some famous writers tell us how much they love libraries.  And no one will tell them to shush.

09 September 2017

A Balloon for Ben

by Robert Lopresti

Hey good friends...  What with one thing and another (including the odd hurricane thrown in) we lost track of this date.  Blame it on me. 

Here is a video we thought you might like.  It's got a nice sentiment.

And wherever you are, stay safe.



06 September 2017

Timker, Tailor, Soldier, Empath

by Robert Lopresti

I scribbled down notes for this piece years ago when I saw an ad in Mystery Scene Magazine  for The Complete George Smiley Radio Dramas.  The BBC had created radio dramas based on the eight John le CarrĂ© novels featuring super spy George Smiley.  He is the protagonist of only four or five of the eight (depending on whether you think The Honourable Schoolboy is about him or about, uh, the honourable schoolboy).  

I have not heard the recordings but my first reaction was: Not possible.  Not possible turn my favorite of the books, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, into a radio drama and make it work.

I know people who read that book cover to cover and couldn't follow the plot.  I know people who have watched the whole six hour TV mini-series with Alec Guinness and were baffled by it.

For an earlier blog I wrote up the endings of twenty great mysteries (not identifying which books they came from, fiend that I am).  I spend twice as much space explaining TTSS as any of the others and still received a complaint that I had it wrong.



The novel's story is so twisty, so reverse-logic, that the idea of trying making it clear in a radio performance strikes me as insane.  If anyone has listened to the recording, please let me know what you think.

Here is one of the reasons the plot is hard to grasp.  Characters A and B are in effect asking: "Given that the situation is X why are Characters C and D doing what they do?"  The answer is: Characters C and D think the situation is Y.

(And by the way, the pretty-good movie version starring Gary Oldman, blew this part of the plot entirely, apparently just to put in one shocking scene.) 

My point is that to follow this part of the plot  requires  a leap of empathy, which no one in the book but Smiley is able to make, and a lot of readers have trouble with it, too.

I don’t mean sympathy, the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.   I mean the scientific sense of empathy: the ability to see things from the other person's point of view.

Decades ago a scientist named Daniel Povinelli taught chimpanzees to do a task for a reward.  Then the chimps saw a human doing a second related task.  Finally the chimps had to copy what the humans did.  In other words, the beasties' thinking process had to go something like this: "The human did a certain thing at the table and we both got fig bars.  Now the tables are turned (literally) and I have to do that same thing to earn us bars."

Which turned out to be no problem for most of the chimps to figure out.  But when the same experiment was tried with monkeys, well, it was like trying to teach them differential calculus on a roller coaster.  In spite of the old adage "monkey see, monkey do," those primates could not make the empathic leap.

It is easy to assume empathy is a good thing, but that's an oversimplification.  For example, it is an essential tool for con artists.  They have to see what the mark is seeing and know what the mark wants.  Science fiction writer Harry Turtledove wrote a story called "Bluff" in which an alien world's civilization is overturned when one character learns poker and discovers the concept of lying.

Other fields rely on empathy as well. I just read a terrific book by Nicholas Rankin called A Genius For Deception, about British trickery during the two World Wars.  One example is camouflage which, of course, depends in knowing how the object you are trying to disguise will look to an enemy soldier, sailor, or pilot.

But it is just as true in intelligence battles.  One of the frustrations of the British spies during WWII was that the Japanese intelligence units were so incompetent they would miss the false information that had been cunningly prepared for them.  In other words, you can't get someone into your trap if they don't notice the bait.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to the cunning of George Smiley.  If you haven't encountered Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I recommend it.  There are plenty of versions to choose from.

Addendum: After I wrote this I received an advance reader copy of John le CarrĂ©'s new novel, officially published yesterday.  A Legacy of Spies is being plugged as a new Smiley novel, but it appears that once again the cunning old fox manages to stay on the side lines. The main character is Peter Guillam, Smiley's protege, who is called out of retirement to explain some of the master's cases to a post-Cold War generation of spies. I'm reading it now, and so far, it's good.


30 August 2017

How to Find Us

by Robert Lopresti


This is going to be a quickie.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, one of our regular readers asked if there is a way to be notified when we put up a new piece.

As I said then, we attempt to have a new masterpiece up every day at midnight, Eastern time.  People being human and the Blogger software being occasionally possessed by demons, we are sometimes late.  But if you check in after midnight you should see our one and only entry for the day.  (On rare occasions more than one entry has appeared in the same day, but that means one of us - usually me - has lost another fight with Blogger.)


Here is another choice: Use a feed reader, alias a news aggregator..  With a free feed reader you identify blogs you like and the program gives you a list of entries that you haven't looked at yet. Here is a compilation of some feed readers.

I use Feedly.  The first illustration shows some of the blogs I follow.  The numbers indicate that there are X many entries I haven't yet read.

The second illustration shows my Feedly page for the SleuthSayers blog.  Pretty intuitive to use.  (Much more so than Blogger, believe me.)


A third suggestion: Are there any other  blogs you check regularly?  Some of them have a blogroll, a list of their favorite blogs, with the most recent etnries showing.  This illustration is from my website Little Big Crimes. 

As I said last time, if anyone has a different suggestion, let us know. 

16 August 2017

Sartre, Camus, and Me

by Robert Lopresti

Hey folks, before we get started, maybe you can help us with a technical question.  A reader recently asked how can she be informed when we put up a new piece at SleuthSayers?  Well, a short answer is we try to put up a new masterpiece every day at midnight eastern time. But do you have a system that reminds you that there is fresh wisdom waiting for you here?  If so let me know about it in the comments or email me at rob AT roblopresti.com  Thanks!

I am writing this on Tuesday, August 15. Normally I write well in advance but in response to the events of the last few days and Barb Goffman's column, I decided to write about existentialism.  Or my understanding of it, anyway.  Let's see if I can make that seem like it is reasonably connected.

This topic was on my mind because last week I had the privilege of hearing from some readers.  A book club had decided to examine my story "Street of the Dead House," and the organizer was kind enough to summarize the discussion for me.  Their reflections were full of insights, including things that had never occurred to me.  But I suggested that one element they missed, or at least did not mention, was the existentialist frame of the story.

The story is a retelling of  Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders on the Rue Morgue," from the viewpoint of the orang-outang.  In my version the ape has been experimented on by a mad scientist, giving him the power to think and, eventually to communicate via sign language.  The first sentence of the story is "What am I?"  and that is the question my character has to wrestle with.  He chooses to make the decision for himself. and carry it out through his own actions. More in line with Sartre and Camus than Dupin, I think.

So, here is my feeble understanding of existentialism, or the part that matters to me right now.  Consider this sentence.  I know you have heard similar ones:

I do bad things, but I am really a good person.

To which the existentialist says: no.  There isn't some hidden reserve, some secret part of you that is separate and unsullied by the things you do. You are what you choose to do.

Now move to a different sentence, one we have heard variations of in the last few days:

Yes, I went to protest the removal of a monument to the Confederacy, and I marched beside Nazis and Ku Klux Klanners, but that doesn't make me a racist.

And our existentialist might frown at labels like racist, but they would say, you showed your allegiance, you demonstrated which side you are on, and who you are comfortable with.  You can't claim that that isn't what you meant, because it is what you DID.

But on the bright side, implicit in existentialism is the idea of choice.  If you are what you do, you can always choose to be something different, by doing something different. 

Anne Frank, of all people, put it this way: How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

So that marcher who says he isn't what his actions say he is can start to improve the world this moment  by choosing different actions.  He can apologize, renounce old associations, and make up for past mistakes. But talk is not enough: people will continue to judge  him by his actions, especially if they contradict his words.

I thought about ending this with something Kurt Vonnegut said in one of my all-time favorite novels:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. 

But the last few days have even made me rethink that.  It turns out that Vonnegut's thinking only works if you pretend convincingly.

For example, let's say you are a public figure, and in a moment of crisis when people are counting on you, you say something that was weak and offensive.  After heavy criticism you finally say something better, and that's a good thing.

But you have to say it like you mean it.  Ideally you should apologize for your first statement.  You should not immediately send out messages whining about how badly you have been treated, as if having your actions criticized was worse than people being killed or hospitalized.  You could even stop associating with people who advised you to say stupid things in the first place.

Because if it is obvious you are just pretending to be something, people are likely to realize what you really are.

For all the SleuthSayer readers out there: be a little extra kind to yourself this week.  You deserve it.

 
 

02 August 2017

The Uncanny Valley of the Kings

by Robert Lopresti

I have been thinking a lot about the uncanny valley this year.  As I understand it, the concept was first described by Masahiro Mori in 1970, though it took a while to work its way into English.

Here's the idea, as I understand it: If something looks sort of human we tend to like it more until it looks too much  like a human and then we register it as creepy.  That creepy zone is the uncanny valley.  I suppose the evolutionary psychology explanation would be that there is an advantage to being turned off by someone a little too biologically far away to produce  successful offspring with.

Early this year I saw Rogue One,  the new Star Wars film.  There are two characters in it who appeared in the earliest films and have been reproduced here through computer imagery.  The first one I thought was a complete success; I felt totally convinced.  (On the other hand, a teenager who was with me said she "wasn't sure he was human."  So obviously not everyone bought it.)  And speaking of not buying it, the second CGI-built character, well.  To me, that one was the definition of the Uncanny Valley.  Unconvincing and just plain creepy.

A few months ago someone, I don't recall who, described Robert Goldsborough's novels about Rex Stout's character Nero Wolfe as occupying "the uncanny valley of literature."  In other words, they are recognizably not the real thing, but close enough to make a reader uncomfortable.

I bring all this up because July saw the release of The Painted Queen, Elizabeth Peters' last novel about Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody.  If you aren't familiar with these charming books, hop to it.  Peters covered several decades in the adventures of Peabody's family.  When she finished her main storyline she started filling in "missing years" in the saga.

And this book does that, exploring the circumstances of the discovery (and mysterious disappearance and resurfacing) of a magnificent bust of Nefertiti.  Naturally, all the odd historical events turn out to be related to the actions of the Peabody/Emerson clan.

And what does this have to do with my main topic, you may ask?  Elizabeth Peters died before the novel was finished.  We have it because her estate asked Joan Hess  to finish the book.  It certainly made sense; Hess is a talented mystery writer with a sardonic wit not unlike Peters, and they had been friends for three decades.  They had even discussed the plot.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so is this dish a banquet or a case of too many cooks?  (And that metaphor is a bit uncanny too.) I will start by saying  that if you are a fan of Peters you should read it.

 But to my mind, the uncanny valley is definitely visible.  I may be completely wrong but I felt like I knew to the very page when Hess took over the pen.  One of the characters just jumped, uh, out of character, and never jumped back.

It disturbed me for a while.  All I could notice were what I saw as false notes.

But eventually, I got used to it.  I found that if I concentrated on the plot and not the character details I could still enjoy the book.  It felt something like watching a movie based on a familiar book: a similar experience, but not the same.

I am not criticizing Joan Hess for honoring her friend in this way.  (You might argue she also did it to make money.  I would reply: Good; I hope she does.  And I imagine Elizabeth Peters would agree with me.)  But I hope no one feels the need  to write more in the series.

By the way, the book takes place mostly in Amarna, not the Valley of the Kings, but you can't expect me to resist a title like that, can you?

19 July 2017

Five Red Herrings 8

by Robert Lopresti


1. Maybe I've been here before.  Five years ago in this space (wow, we've been doing this a long time, haven't we?) I wrote a piece about incidental music in movies and TV, (and by incidental I mean it wasn't written for  that show and is not being performed by a character).  The inspiration was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" showing up in yet another TV show.  I wrote: "It was about five years ago that I concluded that the FCC had passed a new rule requiring every TV show to feature 'Hallelujah.'" I now have evidence that I was right (not about the FCC, but about the frequency of that song's appearances.)


I am reading The Holy or the Broken, a book by Alan Light that is entirely about you-know-which song.  It reports that the first appearance on TV was in Scrubs  in 2002.  There were five more visits in 2003 and seven in the year after.  Each performance pays in the $50,000 range, with half going to the author (and his publisher) and half to the performer (and the record company).  Not bad.

By the way, the whole book is fascinating.  If a writer of fiction tried to make up the story of Cohen's "Hallelujah" she would have to sell it as fantasy or magic realism.  It involves two generations of singers dying young, an animated children's film, TV talent contests, the 9/11 attacks...


Meet the new boss
Blonde as  the old boss
2. Blonde on Blonde. Going even further back in my blogging past, in 2008 I commented on my affection for the British TV show New Tricks.  I noted that there seemed to be a rule that all shows about cops working on cold cases (New Tricks, Cold Squad, Cold Case) had to be led by a blonde woman. 

I recently discovered new episodes of New Tricks and all but one of the  characters had been replaced, including the leader.  And yes, the new one is a blonde woman.
from Gratisography


3.  Getcha pretty pictures right here.  Some of us here at SleuthSayers HQ find ourselves from time to time looking for illustrations that we can use without fearing the Long Arm of the Copyright.  The website Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes has a very helpful list of four websites with images free for the using. 


4. Steven on Sherlock.  The latest issue of Strand Magazine (February-May 2017) has a very interesting interview with Steven Moffat, co-producer and co-creator of Sherlock.  Even if you don't watch his show, Moffat's insights into the great original are interesting.  To those who complain about his making the characters young and modern he replies that when Doyle invented Holmes and Watson they were young and used the newest technology available.  They aged into period pieces as Doyle wrote about them for forty years.  He also points out that people don't complain about the James Bond movies yanking the character out of his time period, although Fleming's character was a World War II vet.  Definitely worth a read.


5.  Riding a trend?  But maybe the most interesting thing in the Strand (and my apologies to John Floyd and the other authors of fiction who appear therein) is a full-page ad for Ted Allbeury's novel The Twentieth Day of January.  There are plenty of ads in the magazine for books, but this one is almost forty years old.  So why bring it back now?  Perhaps the plot description holds a clue: 

"Seemingly out of nowhere, wealthy businessman Logan Powell has become President-elect.  But veteran intelligence agent James MacKay uncovers shocking evidence that suggest something might be terribly wrong with the election: is Powell actually a puppet of the Soviet Union?"

Timing is the key to success.







05 July 2017

Not a Butterfly Collection

by Robert Lopresti

Let's start with this fact: In 1940 the U.S. Census-takers recorded about 1,500 women working for the railroads as engineers, mechanics, etc.  In the published records they were listed as "Tailors and Tailoresses."  Because they couldn't have really been doing those jobs, right?

For the past two years I have been working on a nonfiction book.  Not related to mystery, alas.  It is more about my day job as a government information librarian. 

WHEN WOMEN DIDN'T COUNT (published by Praeger last week) is a book about how women have appeared and disappeared in federal statistics over the past 200 years.

 The feds collect statistics on a lot of different subjects, so my book covers a lot of topics as well.  But I'll just give you some examples from the four chapters related to our favorite topic, crime.

  • The government's first survey on stalking and harassment had to be redone when it was discovered that it had accidentally included data about spam email and calls from bill collectors.
  • Congress passed the Mann Act in 1910 to forbid transporting females across state lines for immoral purposes.  It was intended to combat "white slavery," i.e. forcing women into prostitution, but it was often used against adulterers instead.  The Supreme Court quickly ruled that women who traveled willingly could be convicted of "conspiring" to transport themselves.
  •  The 1880 Census lists all the crimes for which women were in prison.  There are plenty of predictable offenses, plus a few that might get you writers out there pondering.  For example: 

  • The National Institute of Mental Health started collecting data on domestic violence in 1968 and concluded that it was a problem of "epidemic proportion," but they didn't mention this news to anyone until a decade later when Representative Barbara Mikulski started holding hearings on the subject.  Exasperated, the Congresswoman declared: "Well, this isn't a butterfly collection, ladies and gentlemen, that people gather for their own private enjoyment.  This is public dollars to get public information to help the American people."
  • The 1970 report Crimes of Violence explained the concept of "victim precipitation," meaning that the victim sometimes "contributes to the commission of the offense."  Examples included when "a wife has masochistic needs that are satisfied by her assaultive husband," or when "a female engages in heavy petting and, at the last moment, begins to resist the man's advances."  The report concluded that 4% of rapes fell into that category.
I examined well over  a thousand sources in putting this book together but now I get to tell you about my favorite.  In 1907 Congress authorized a study of how working outside the home affected women and children.  There was debate over whether the Constitution permitted such a thing, and the Southern states were worried that the result would be a hit job against them, since most child workers were in that part of the country.  Nevertheless, a 19-volume report was eventually issued, and you can read it all online.
But what I want to recommend is Volume 15, Relation Between Occupation and Criminality of Women.  Author Mary Conyngton was assigned to investigate the popular assumption that jobs in newfangled places like department stores and factories were leading women to a life of crime.  Her whole book is still readable, and fascinating.

The passage below, in which she quotes from an unnamed "worker specially qualified to speak on the subject" is worth quoting in full: 

The belief you mention in the general immorality of saleswomen is certainly widespread, but I have found nothing to prove it well grounded.  In the course of some investigations into the methods by which department stores seek to secure and retain the trade of the professionally immoral women, a trade which, as you probably know, is considered exceptionally valuable, I came on something which may throw some light on the existence of the belief.  Mr. _____, who was first a department store manager in several large stores, and then himself established a millinery business, said he had found the best way of gaining and holding this trade was by having a forewomen who was "in" with such women, which of course meant that she herself led an immoral life, thus being able to meet them in the way of friendship, and to gain their trust in a natural manner.

"Didn't you find such a forewoman had a bad effect on your other employees?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied, "she certainly did get some of the others into her habits.  But as soon as I found out they were going that way, I discharged them."

 Ah, the good old days.  May they never return.





21 June 2017

First Words

by Robert Lopresti

If you haven't read B.K. Stevens' most recent blog I recommend you do so now.  This is partly because it is very interesting and also because it inspired today's wisdom-dump.  I am referring specifically to the unfortunate remark the older policeman makes to the returning homeowner.

It reminded me of this scene from the classic police sitcom Barney Miller.  You want the bit that begins around 2:20.




I think it was after seeing that show that my wife and I formulated what I think of as the First Words Rule.  It states when you have to tell a friend or loved one about a bad situation that has just occurred (a car accident, a house fire, the atomic defibulator crushing the emoluments boot) the first words out of your mouth should be: Everybody's okay.  Assuming that is true, of course

Now, how does that relate to writing?  (This is a blog about writing and reading and crime, remember?)

Glad you asked.  We are looking at the difference between telling a story and telling the news.  It is natural for a storyteller to want to build up suspense, or to tell things in chronological order.  But the journalist knows that it is bad form to "bury the lede."  If you are reporting on a city council meeting and one of the members accidentally drops a bloody axe out of her purse, that's probably where you begin your piece, even if it didn't happen until New Business, way at the end of the evening.

Of course, years later when you are telling your grandchildren about your career you might want to build slowly up to the axe-drop.  But that's story-telling, not journalism.

These days fiction writers usually begin in the middle of the story, not with the journalistic lede, but as far in as they think they can go without baffling the reader.  To pick one favorite at random, here is how Earl Emerson opened Fat Tuesday:

I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man.  The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.

Not the beginning of events, but not the climax either.

You can start your story or novel wherever you see fit.  But when you're telling somebody the news, start with the most important part.
 

07 June 2017

The Mudie Blues

by Robert Lopresti


I have always been fascinated by the clash over evolution versus creationism.  I suppose it started in my pre-teen years when I saw the movie Inherit the Wind.  While other kids decorated their walls with Beatles posters, I had a badly photocopied picture of Clarence Darrow glaring down at me. (Yes, I was that much of a nerd. Would I make that up?)

Which may explain why I have been having so much fun reading Between Man and Beast, by Monte Reel.  It is the true story of Paul Du Chaillu, an African-born Frenchman who, in the mid-nineteenth century became the first non-African to see (and shoot) gorillas.

Du Chaillu
He exhibited his trophies in the U.S. and then England, which dropped him right into the controversy over Charles Darwin's Origin of Species among other squabbles.  The cast of characters in the book is remarkable: besides Darwin there are at least small walk-on parts for Abraham Lincoln (whose Secretary of War called him "the original gorilla"), Richard Francis Burton, Charles Dickens, T.H. Huxley, J.J. Audubon, and P.T. Barnum.  (If you don't despise Barnum yet, you will by the time his chapter is over.)

But the reason I am telling you all this is to bring up another person who appears tangentially in the story, a man I have never heard of.  Charles Mudie was one of the most influential people in 19th-century British literature and one who, in odd-ways, feels like a person from the 21st.  To use current buzzwords, he was an innovator who disrupted his industry through mass marketing.

So, how did Mudie affect literature?  He was not an author, an editor, a publisher, a reviewer, or even a bookseller.  In fact, he more or less invented his own occupation (and that's very 21st century, isn't it?).

In the 1850s he founded Mudie's Lending Library.  For an annual fee of a guinea (just over a pound) anyone could borrow as many books as they wanted - one at a time.  By 1860 when Du Chaillu arrived in London with his gorillas, Mudie had shops in many major British cities.  His main location held more than 800,000 volumes.

If he thought a book was going to be popular he could order enough copies to double a publisher's print run.  (And like many modern businesses he insisted on a punishing discount from his suppliers.)  He put out lists of "Principal New and Choice Books," essentially the first bestseller list.
Mudie

Nowadays a lot of people worry about how Amazon can dictate terms to the publishing business.  But Mudie was there first.  Publishers knew that if he found a book objectionable it might not find its way to his shelf, and it definitely would not appear on his coveted list.

The reason Victorian novels were published in three volumes?  So that Mudie could satisfy three customers at once.  His name is casually dropped in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?  where he is described as "the great librarian."  Funny, I always thought that was me.

And now I want to get back to Monte Reel's book, which I did not borrow from any kind of library. Pleasant reading, all.