Showing posts with label Louis Willis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Louis Willis. Show all posts

28 December 2014

“Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone”


Today our friend and colleague, Louis Willis, announces his retirement.

I first came across Louis in his own blog, where he critiqued black mystery authors and novels featuring black protagonists. He contributed articles to Criminal Brief and, as SleuthSayers was being formed, we invited him to become a permanent member. I often thought of Louis as ‘our academic’, because he studied literature more than most of us.

After his discharge from the Navy in 1958, Louis never lost his joy of learning and pursued higher education at Illinois Institute of Technology. Halfway through a degree in engineering, his love of literature induced him to change majors to English lit.

There he encountered… or more correctly didn’t encounter studies of black authors such as he’d appreciated in high school. When made aware of this shortcoming in their curriculum, IIT invited him to lecture about black authors in American lit.

Louis was familiar with Richard Wright and had begun reading James Baldwin. As he immersed myself in the research, he discovered Zora Neale Hurston (whose Florida home is minutes from mine), Ralph Ellison and many more.

Following formal retirement from the government decades later, he returned home to Knoxville from Richmond, California with his youngest daughter and her son to care for his mother who died a year later in 1997. With time on his hands, he returned to his love of learning and enrolled in a graduate degree program at the University of Tennessee and graduated in 2004 with a Masters in English.

Louis also has a son who attended Lemoyne Owen College in Memphas and had three sons himself, the youngest born a year ago on 31 December, nearly a New Year’s baby.

Louis’ favorite authors are Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Hemingway, Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Anton Chekhov, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jorge Luis Borges. Recently, he's studying Eudora Welty. In crime fiction, his favorites are Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, Richard S. Prather, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dame Agatha Christie, and of course all SleuthSayers authors.


— Leigh Lundin

The Long Goodbye that Isn't
“Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone”

by Louis Willis

I usually limit myself in writing an article to no less than 300 and no more than 700 words. Because goodbyes should be short, this post is under 300 words.

The title of this post is in quotation marks because I took it from a forgotten novel, a poem, or a line in a blues song. It expresses how I feel in having to say goodbye to all my SleuthSayers friends. I won’t be posting any more articles but I won’t be gone either, for I shall continue to read and occasionally comment on your posts. I’ll also continue writing critical reviews of African American crime fiction novels on my blog, which you can access here.

During the past three years, I’ve learned how writers think in constructing their stories. As I read your post, I experienced the sweet misery you go through while constructing your stories. Your posts also confirmed something I’ve always thought: writers write because they cannot not write.

As I write this post, I’m glad you can’t see me because I’m getting all choked up. Saying goodbye to good friends is not easy.

Thank you Leigh for giving me the opportunity to write for an appreciative audience.

Thank all of you for being an appreciative and encouraging audience.

30 November 2014

The First Female Detective


by Louis Willis

In my August post, “An Homage To Poe,” I discussed Andrew Forrester (pen name of J. Redding Ware) and his short story “Arrested On Suspicion.” I also mentioned The Female Detective, a collection of stories that he supposedly edited. I couldn’t find the book on Project Gutenberg. I found and downloaded it from Google Play. Because I couldn’t increase the small text in the scanned edition, I bought a print edition (released in 2012). The Female Detective was originally published in 1864.   
In the introduction to the 2012 edition of The Female Detective, Mike Ashley accepts Forrester as the author of the stories, though the scanned edition shows him as the editor. When  the book was published, there were no women detectives, either private or police, in Britain. It would be 50 years before women detectives appeared. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Pinkerton agency employed a woman detective in 1856, and the first policewoman appeared in 1908 in Portland, Oregon.
However, women as amateur detectives had appeared in stories prior to 1864, but “These works...involved women who, by circumstance, were forced to investigate matters.” According to Ashley, THE FEMALE DETECTIVE features the first professional woman detective: "Whether inspired by real events or entirely fictional it is clear that the mysterious 'G' is first and foremost the pioneering female detective.” 

G, as the police refer to her (she calls herself Gladden), is retired from the detecting business and was wise enough to allow a “literary editor” to revise her manuscript. G wrote the “book to help show, by my experience, that the detective has some demand upon the gratitude of society.”
The first case in the collection, “Tenant For Life,” is about a five year old inheritance fraud that G feels she must expose. Her round-about way of telling the story at first annoyed me until I accepted that she, like many of us old folks, likes to talk. She considers herself “a good talking companion, and “women are in the habit of talking scandal, with me for a hearer, within three hours of my making their acquaintance."
From a cabman and his wife, she learns the story of how, five years earlier,  the cabman bought a baby from a poor woman who appeared to be in distress. Shortly after the transaction, a lady ran after him looking for a woman with a baby and hears the baby crying in the cab. She offered him thirty pounds and he sold the baby to her. After hearing the story, G suspected the lady wanted to substitute the child for one who had died and that possibly an inheritance fraud was involved. She feels it is her duty to “deal out justice” and see that the property is return to the rightful owner, if it is in fact an inheritance fraud. 
I like the story for the way in which G goes about the investigation. Researching the birth and death records of the village where the cabman had sold the baby, she discovers it was born close to the same time a wealthy lady, Mrs. Shedleigh, in the village died. Armed with this information, she locates a family consisting of a five-year-old girl, her father Mr. Newton Shedleigh, and his sister Miss Shedleigh. Disguising herself as a seamstress, she gains entrance into the Shedleigh household and learns all she can about the Shedleighs. 
From her research on the law on inheritance, she learns that if the children of a husband and wife die before the wife, and she dies before the husband, he inherits her possession and becomes a “tenant for life.” If she dies without children, her property passes to her father’s brother. Her investigation of the Shedleighs leads to the dead wife’s uncle, whom she suspects is the rightful heir.
I like G even though she seems to be a meddlesome woman who interferes in other people’s lives to prove that detectives are necessary. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the remainder of her sleuthing adventures.

So long until next month when I must say goodbye.

26 October 2014

Not John Cheever’s Fault But Mine


by Louis Willis

         I’ve been alternating between reading stories in the anthologies The Dead Witness and Murder & Other Acts of Literature in my ongoing attempt to discern the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction. My post in August was from The Dead Witness.
         For this post, I read "Montraldo" by John Cheever (1912-1982) in Murder & Other Acts of Literature. I’ve read only one story by Cheever and that was in college. I don’t remember the story. What I remember is it didn’t invite me to read more of his stories. I decided, in choosing “Montraldo,” to give him another chance to impress me.
         The nameless narrator opens the story with the statement, “The first time I robbed Tiffany's, it was raining.” He goes on to describe how he did it. After his explanation, I was expecting him to rob the store again and maybe dodge the cops or pull some other jobs. I was disappointed.
         He uses the money from fencing the jewelry to travel to Montraldo in Italy. Instead of staying in one of the two luxurious hotels, he rents a room in a villa that is in poor condition– no running water and no toilet– because he likes the view and is curious "about the eccentric old spinster and her cranky servant." The two argue constantly.
         The servant, Assunta, insults the old woman (not named), calling her “Witch! Frog! Pig!” The old woman replies calling the servant, “the light of my life.” As the old woman lay dying after a fall, at her request, the narrator gets the priest.  
         About a third of the way through the story, I began to suspect what the surprise ending would be. When it came, I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I thought, “John, my man, I’m impressed.” Cheever didn’t help with my attempt to discern the difference between genre and literary fiction. Only one crime, the robber, is committed and, although the old woman dies, whether it was murder or an accident is ambiguous. Maybe one difference between literary and genre fiction is a tendency toward ambiguity in literary stories, while genre stories tend to be straight-forward.
         I can't judge Cheever based on only two stories, one of which I don't remember. “Montradla,” however, is one of those stories that I feel I would not have missed anything if I had not read it. Although I enjoyed “Montradla,” it didn’t invite me to read more of Cheever. That he is not one of my favorite authors is my fault not his. But I like what he said about "car thieves and muggers."

28 September 2014

I Learn Something New


by Louis Willis

In these postmodern times of information overload, I find it almost impossible to discover anything new under the sun because everything is moving so fast in cyberspace that I don’t have time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. One part of my brain urges me to pause and read information on a webpage. Another part whispers, “Click that link and you just might discover exciting new information about a subject that interests you.” That is how I stopped and read about the new way young people are using the slash (/) in conversation and on the Internet.
The use of the slash dates back to ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages in Europe one / represented a comma, two // represented a dash, which evolved into the equals sign and was eventually simplified as a single dash (— ). In English prose, the slash is usually used as a conjunction. Of course, it is used in other ways too, such as in poems to show a line break. It also has many nonlinguistic uses.
As with many other punctuation marks in this cyberage, the slash is now used somewhat differently. I discovered the new use in the article, “The One Word In Everyone’s Texts/Conversations Right Now” by Sara Boboltz on the Huffington Post website. The slash, she says, is being used in texts, instant messages, emails, and face to face conversations. 
Boboltz links to the article “Slash: Not Just a Punctuation Mark Anymore” in The Chronicle of Higher Education of April 24, 2013, by Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan. Professor Curzon requires the students in her history of English course to teach her two new slang words before class every day. In one class, a student mentioned “slash.” The slash is used as a conjunction, and slang doesn’t often create a conjunction. Instead of using the symbol /, the students used the word “slash” in their writings on Facebook, blogs, and Tweets as a conjunction. The students also used “slash” to mean “following up” and to indicate an after thought or topic shift.
It seems only the forward slash is currently used. I wonder how in the future the kids will use the backward slash. Maybe they’re already using it, and I just haven’t stumbled across an example. 
I imagine that at this very moment a graduate student is trying to earn his slash her degree studying the use of language on the Internet, and calling the study “netdialectology.” Maybe he slash she will come up with a name for this new way of speaking and writing that is evolving on the web. 
My candidates are netspeak, webspeak, cyberspeak, or nettalk, webtalk, cybertalk.
What are your thoughts on what we should call the language used on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites?

31 August 2014

An Homage To Poe


by Louis Willis

After struggling with the article on the colon, I once again turned my attention to the stories in the anthology The Dead Witness and selected “Arrested on Suspicion” by Andrew Forrester because the author pays homage to Poe. The narrator explains, “Of course I do not wish to hide from the reader that I was trying to copy Edgar Poe’s style of reasoning in this matter; for confessedly I am making this statement to show how a writer of fiction can aid officers of the law.”
In his brief introduction to the story the editor discusses the public’s attitude to detective stories, and the publication of the stories in “yellowbacks,” cheap magazines similar to the penny dreadfuls. Naturally, I had to see what the “yellowbacks” looked like. To Google once more I went. 






 Since the anthology was compiled in 2012, I assumed the editor also had access to Google. I therefore was somewhat skeptical of his claim that he couldn’t verify the  author’s birth and death. He also claims, “Andrew Forrester was a pseudonym employed by an important early writer whose real name is lost.” I looked up Andrew Forrester on Wikipedia. His actual identity was unknown until recently when a story of his, “A Child Found Dead: Murder or No Murder?” was discovered, reprinted, and published as “The Road Murder” under the name J. Redding Ware (1832-1909). He was a writer, novelist, and playwright, and created one of the first female detectives. He was apparently one of those writers whose works didn’t survive into the twentieth century, for I couldn’t find any of his books on the Project Gutenberg site. I did find on Google Play a book of stories, The Female Detective, that he edited.  
“Arrested On Suspicion” is a puzzle story with echoes of “The Purloined Letter” and Poe’s essay on ratiocination in the beginning of “Murder in the Rue Morgue.” John Pendrath, the narrator/protagonist, must free his sister Annie who has been arrested on suspicion of shoplifting a blue-stone ring. He employs Poe’s method of ratiocination to identify and catch the real thief or thieves. John refuses to give the reader his profession, but he apparently has some pull with the local police because he requests and is given an officer to help him catch the real thieves. Could he be a “writer of fiction?”
The arrest is a case of mistaken identity. Shortly after Mrs. Mountjoy moved in the apartment above John and Annie, he saw a blue-stone ring on Annie’s finger. Annie couldn’t afford to buy such a ring and certainly wouldn’t steal it. Mrs. Mountjoy’s  daughter, Mrs. Lemmins, sometimes visits her and looks enough like Annie to be her sister. Because of their strange behavior, John suspected Mrs. Mountjoy and her daughter were criminals from the day they moved in. He suspects Mrs. Lemmins stole the ring, and Mrs. Mountjoy gave it to Annie.
The puzzle has two parts. In the first part, John must find the piece of paper containing the message that Mrs. Lemmins sent to Mrs. Mountjoy in a laundry basket. John doesn't help the officer search the room because  he needs to hunt “with his brains.” To get into Mrs. Mountjoy’s mind, he sits in the same chair she occupied when she heard the officer coming up the steps.
In the second part, he decodes the message, which is written in criminal slang, to determine the criminal duo’s next move. With charts inviting the reader to try his or her hand at what, for John, is a simple code, the decoding takes up most of the story. Since I don’t normally like puzzle stories because I’m not very good at solving puzzles, I didn’t accept the invitation.
 “Arrested on Suspicion” is a nice example of an early writer following Poe’s rules. For me, not knowing how the theft was committed was a little disappointing.

27 July 2014

The Workhorse Punctuation Mark


by Louis Willis

When I began researching the colon, I expected to find, like the other punctuation marks, some controversy. I googled “punctuation marks colon” and got only about 30,000 hits (semicolon resulted in about 101,000 hits). The websites I visited defined the colon’s many uses and explained how to use it. I didn’t find any negative or positive articles about the little ubiquitous punctuation mark. To generate conversation don’t you need two opposing views, something to argue against? On the other hand, I could just provide information with the hope it may be useful.

The academic website of the Russia Federation says, “A colon informs the reader that what follows the mark proves, explains, or lists elements of what preceded the mark.” Since the information is in English, I assume it is aimed at students learning to write English. The site goes on to note that an Italian Scholar, Luca Serianni, “helped to define and develop the colon as a punctuation mark, identified four punctuational modes for it: syntactical-deductive, syntactical-descriptive, appositive, and segmental.” Serianni wrote the guide for the Italian language, but the rules are applicable to English as well as many other languages.

A definition wouldn’t feel right without something from that authoritative website, Wikipedia:

The colon is a punctuation mark consisting of two equally sized dots centered on the same vertical line. A colon is used to explain or start an enumeration. A colon is also used with ratios, titles and subtitles of books, city and publisher in bibliographies, business letter salutation, hours and minutes, and formal letters.

More from Wikipedia: “Use of the : symbol to mark the discontinuity of a grammatical construction, or a pause of a length intermediate between that of a semicolon and that of a period, was introduced in English orthography around 1600.”

As usual, the Internet finds a way to use a punctuation mark in new ways. I turn again to the Russian academic website for an example: “A colon, or multiple colons, is sometimes used to denote an action or to emote, similarly to asterisks. In this use it has the inverse function of quotation marks, denoting actions where unmarked text is assumed to be dialogue. 
“For example: 
“Tom: Pluto is so small; it should not be considered a planet. It is tiny! Mark: Oh really? ::drops Pluto on Tom’s head:: Still think it’s small now?
“Colons may also be used for sounds, e.g. ::click::, though sounds can also be denoted by asterisks or other punctuation marks.
“Colons can also be used to represent eyes in emoticons.”

But the field that most interest me and, I think, you is English syntax. In this respect, it is used to introduce a logical consequence (syntactical-deductive); a description (syntactical-descriptive); an appositive independent clause; and the segmental i.e., introduction of speech (at one time, it did so for quotations without the marks).

I think I knew all these syntactical uses of the colon without really thinking about them. I certainly never thought about the “syntactical-deductive” or “syntactical-descriptive,” although I suspect I must have encountered the terms in one  or more of the many books on grammar I’ve read.
The colon is not neglected. It should be but is not praised for its versatility. It’s just there, always present, used without thinking, which means it’s probably occasionally misused. I probably misuse it more often than I misuse its cousin the semicolon.

In my next post, I shall return to detective stories. This punctuation stuff gives me a headache.
:)

29 June 2014

Guilt and Vengeance


by Louis Willis

After finishing the Naguib story in Murder & Other Acts of Literature, I read two stories by women who commit literary murder on the page in the anthology. Guilt, not a woman scorned, fuels the desire for revenge in the stories by Alice Walker and Isabel Allende.

Alice Walker

  “How Did I Get Away With Killing One Of The Biggest Lawyers In The State? It was Easy” is a long title that identifies the 17-year-old narrator as the killer, leaving only as a surprise the motive. She is 14-years-old when the prominent lawyer Bubba (her name for him), the husband of her mother’s employer, rapes her. After the first encounter, they began a consensual relationship that lasts three years. Her mother constantly nags her about what she is doing with the man whose father is a segregationist. That he is a segregationist doesn’t matter to the teenage narrator because she thought, “he loved me. That meant something to me.” She knew nothing about civil rights; what she wanted was “somebody to tell me I was pretty, and he was telling me that all the time.” After three years, fed up with her mother’s constant nagging, with the help of the lawyer, she has her committed to an insane asylum. Three months later, she sees her in court when the mother’s lawyer challenges the commitment. To her surprise, her mother is really insane.  
Vapid was my reaction when I finished the story. It was difficult for me to objectively analyze it because of my anger at Alice Walker for the way she treated male characters, black and white, in The Color Purple, the first novel of hers I read a few years ago. I read two more novels and realized that she is a very good novelist. Not all her male characters are monsters, but I can’t shake my anger. So, I didn’t trust my reaction to the story.

Isabel Allende

  Isabel Allende, a Chilean writer has written numerous novels and received several awards. “An Act of Vengeance” is the first and only story of hers I’ve read. Like Walker’s story, it is about rape, guilt, and vengeance. During a violent time in a South American country, as his last mission, guerrilla Tadeo Cespedes comes to her village, kills her father, and rapes the 15-year-old Dulce Rosa Orellano. For 30 years, she thinks only of revenging the death of her father, who had sacrificed his life to save her. 
After 30 years, Tadeo, a powerful and important man in the new government, haunted by the image of the 15-year-old beauty he raped, returns to the village to find her.
The story is dissatisfying because of the predictable twist and easily guessed ending.
I enjoyed the stories, but, unlike the  Naguib story, which left me with the desire to reread, they did not invite rereading.

25 May 2014

The Rare Specimen


by Louis Willis

When I read stories in an anthology, I check mark the ones I want to reread. Looking over the table of contents of the anthology of literary crime fiction, Murder & Other Acts of Literature, I realized I had read only three of the stories and had marked only one for rereading. “By A Person Unknown,” a puzzling story by Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006). Mahfouz was the first Arab writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988). 
In the foreword, editor Michelle Slung explains why she compiled the anthology: “The most fun about compiling a book like this one is finding the stories themselves, with some tracked down like rare specimens and others hiding in plain sight.” Reading the foreword reminded me why I marked Mahfouz’s story for rereading. It is a rare specimen.
“By a Person Unknown” is a police procedural about a serial killer terrifying a community in Cairo. The only clue is the mark of a cord around the neck of each of the six victims. Unlike most serial killers, except for the mark, there is no pattern to the killer’s modus operandi. The killer “makes no distinction between old and young, rich and poor, man and woman, healthy and sick, a home, a tram, or a street.” The lack of clues takes its toll on the investigating officer who believes, “The sole accused in this case is myself,” because he cannot solve the case.
The superintendent of police, feeling that he must prevent further panic, concludes news of the murders will no longer be published because “news disappears from the world once it disappears from the press.” For him “Life must go on as usual, people must go back to feeling that life is good--and we shall not give up the investigation.”
I’m not sure if the story is about the emotional toll the investigation takes on the investigator or, considering the superintendent’s decision, Egyptian politics, especially since Mahfouz has acknowledged that most of his writings deal mainly with politics: "In all my writings, you will find politics. You may find a story which ignores love or any other subject, but not politics; it is the very axis of our thinking.”
No matter the subject, “By a Person Unknown” is a rare specimen because it has no ending , or least not a satisfactory or appropriate one. Nothing in the story suggests the killer’s identity or that he or she will be caught despite the ongoing investigation. Nevertheless I enjoyed the story, and I’ll probably continue to think about it because I’ll reread it a year from now to again puzzle over the meaning. 
After I finished the story, the first descriptive word that came to mind was ambiguous (personal or political), next absurd (a crime “has been committed without a criminal”). I’m still wondering if either of the adjectives applies.

As usual, I’m probably over-analyzing. Does meaning really matter if I enjoyed the story?

27 April 2014

A Novel and A Literary Detective Story


by Louis Willis

The book I discuss in this post is not a crime novel, but the history of its discovery and attempts to identify the author is a detective story.

In 2001, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,  chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University, discovered a holograph in the Swann Galleries catalogue that would change African American literature, especially our ideas about fictional slave narratives.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative was published in 2002 by Warner Books and edited with introduction by Professor Gates. The manuscript had never been edited by a professional editor or ghostwritten by a white person as many of the fictional and nonfictional slave narratives were. If the manuscript could be authenticated and the author’s identity confirmed, the novel would prove to be the first written by a former female slave in the United States.

The novel itself and the efforts of several scholars to establish the author’s identity make discussion of this fascinating book difficult.  A detailed discussion of the novel is necessary to examine the strengths and weaknesses of plot and characterization and the historical context. So, I discuss it only briefly. The effort of scholars to verify the author’s identity is a literary detective story deserving its own critical analysis. In his brilliant and illuminating essay “The True Story of American’s First Black Female Slave Novelist” on the New Republic website, Paul Berman discusses in-depth the novel and the efforts to prove the author’s identity.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts: A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped from North Carolina is the full handwritten title on the first page of this important black sentimental novel. Hannah, the literate narrator / protagonist, tells the story of her escape from a plantation in Virginia, her capture and resale to the Wheelers in North Carolina, and finally her escape to New Jersey. Aunt Hetty, an old white woman who lived near the plantation where Hannah grew up, defied the law and taught her to read. Like many slaves who learned to read and write, Hannah knows the Bible and begins each chapter with a biblical epigraph. Her tendency to philosophize shows she has read widely.

In the philosophical tone she displays throughout the novel, Hannah seemingly accepts her condition: “’I am a slave’ thus my thoughts would run. ‘I can never be great; I cannot hold an elevated position, but I can do my duty, and be kind in the sure and certain hope of eternal reward.[']”.  She is also a perceptive observer of people:  “Instead of books,” she “studied faces and characters, and arrived at conclusions by a sort of sagacity that closely approximated to the unerring certainty of animal instinct.” This talent for wearing the masks to conceal her feelings and thoughts from the masters, which many slaves learned to do, allows her to adjust to the different circumstances in which she finds herself.

The former slave clearly mastered the techniques of novel writing that made her an exceptional storyteller. She reveals the effect of slavery on master and slave, especially how supposedly kind masters supported the peculiar institution. In the preface she asks, “Have I succeeded in showing how it blights the happiness of the white as well as the black race?” My reply is a resounding yes.

The efforts of several scholars to identify the author is a detective story as exciting as the novel. As Timothy Davis writes in Salon, ink and paper experts helped Professor Gates establish that the novel was written in the 1850s. His analysis of the prose revealed the author was familiar with and borrowed from Jane Eyre and Bleak House. Unfortunately, he was unable to establish her identity. Once the novel was authenticated, the detective scholars went to work to solve the mystery: Who was Hannah Crafts?

An article in the New York Times dated September 18, 2013, claimed that Professor Gregg Hecimovich, chairman of the English Department at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, had found additional evidence that revealed the author was named Hannah Bond, a slave on the plantation of John Hill Wheeler in North Carolina. Professor Hecimovich planned to publish his discovery in a book titled The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts.

The novel is important because, as Professor Gates writes, “Holograph, or handwritten, manuscripts by blacks in the nineteenth century are exceedingly rare…” Rarer still are ones that haven’t been ghostwritten or edited by a white writer or editor.

30 March 2014

Slow Death by Disuse


by Louis Willis

The main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop. It’s used between two main clauses that balance each other and are too closely linked to be made into separate sentences. 
Oxford Dictionaries.

In his article “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?” on the Slate website, Paul Collins relates a brief history of the semicolon:

       The semicolon has a remarkable lineage: Ancient Greeks used it as a question mark; and after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe. Though London first saw semicolons appear in a 1568 chess guide, Shakespeare grew up in an era that still scarcely recognized them; some of his Folio typesetters in 1623, though, were clearly converts.  

Collins notes that the advent of the telegraph in 1850 might have “radically” changed language use because punctuation marks cost the same rate as words ($5.00). As far the semicolon, his perusal of “telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion.” He never quite says that in these modern times the Internet is killing the semicolon but strongly implies that it is. He believes, nevertheless, that “semicolons serve a unique function,...” but fails to say what that function is.
Matthew Kassel believes the semicolon isn’t dying but is “the perfect punctuation for the digital age.” In his "The Semicolon Is the Perfect Punctuation for the Digital Age" article on the New York Observer web site, Kassel argues “that the semicolon is...perfectly suitable for text messaging, instant messaging and online correspondence via Facebook and other social networks, where disparate ideas roam free and ‘unexpected juxtapositions’ are the norm.” He felt “compelled” to defend the semicolon because he “often uses semicolons in digital communication and [has] encountered some unexpected pushback.” Further, for him “the semicolon’s breezy informality… captures the unstructured, colloquial nature of digital correspondence more so than any other punctuation mark out there.” I didn’t find a whole lot of semicolons in his articles on the Observer site, and I couldn’t access his Twitter account, which was probably due to my unstructured, colloquial nature. 
The goal of communications on the social networks is to get the message out as quickly as possible and don’t bother about those little pesky things called punctuation marks. Way back in 1999, one writer, Amy Harmon, in an article "Internet Changes Language" published in the New York Times on February 20 noted that “Although judgments vary, what seems clear so far is that the Internet has propelled the traditionally deliberate pace of language evolution to higher speeds.” 
The semicolon doesn’t lend itself to the speed Twitter and Facebook requires because it insists on a brief pause to allow the reader to think. Readers who, like me, sometimes want, not just dip into an article, story, or essay, but to savor it, would, in these times of instant gratification, miss the semicolon. I have faith, though I don’t know if it is “the perfect punctuation for the Digital Age” as Kassel suggests, that its demise is not imminent. 
To you semicolon; may you live forever.

23 February 2014

Two More From “The Dead Witness”


by Louis Willis

The Parody
For this post, I read two more interesting stories from the Dead Witness anthology. One is a Sherlock Holmes parody , and the other involves a missing body part.
I sometimes have difficulty recognizing parodies because I’m too serious and tend to over analyze. But, through “inductive and reductive ratiocination,” I had no trouble recognizing Bret Harte’s “The Stolen Cigar-Case” as a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the greatest cerebral detective who ever lived, greater even than that master of ratiocination, C. Auguste Dupin. What tipped me off you might ask. The name of Hart’s detective: Hemlock Jones. Sherlock is a perceptive person. Hemlock is a poison that was used to execute criminals (and of course to kill Socrates). Hemlock Jones is poison to criminals. And Jones rhymes with Holmes. 
The story is a parody of the Holmes/Dupin method of “inductive and reductive ratiocination.” Hemlock Jones accuses the narrator (his Watson) of stealing his cigar-case and proceeds to present the evidence that without a doubt proves the narrator is the culprit. Jones is so convincing that, after the narrator left and never saw him again, he “often wondered, pondering on that wonderful man’s penetration and insight, if, in some lapse of consciousness, I had not really stolen his cigar-case.”  

The Missing Body Part
I like to read stories in which the title suggests a missing body part, which is why I chose the story “The Mysterious Human Leg” by James McGovan (1845-1919). I wondered how would a 19th century detective find the body, alive or dead, the part belongs to without the aid of forensic science? 
James McGovan was the pen name of William Crawford Honeyman, a professional violinist and orchestra leader who published books on the violin under his real name. In my search for information on Honeyman, under both his real and pen names, neither Google nor Bing was of much help, though Google listed the book How to Play the Violin by William C. Honeyman. Google Books was a little more helpful. From the site, I downloaded a collection of McGovan’s stories, Traced and Tracked: or Memoirs of a City Detective. I found no books on the Gutenberg website under McGovan or Honeyman. I declined Wikipedia’s invitation to create a page for McGovan. All the search engines wanted to change “McGovan” to “McGowan.” 
Searching for information on McGovan/Honeyman, I felt like a detective on the trail of the missing writer. Luck came my way when I visited the Birlinn website and read a review of McGovan’s book The McGovan Casebook: Experiences of a Detective in Victorian Edinburg. The review provides a brief biography, and claims that, although McGovan’s books are mostly forgotten, Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie admired his stories.
McGovan/Honeyman, having no experience in police work, pretended he was a real police detective writing stories about real crimes. The stories were so convincing that in 1888 Publishers’ Circular “proclaimed McGovan’s articles ‘the best detective stories (true stories, we esteem them) that we ever met with.’” But he tells a pretty good story in “The Mysterious Human Leg.” After a young boy brings a left leg full of carpet tacks to him, detective McGovan notices that the leg was expertly cut, suggesting a doctor had performed the surgery. This initial observation leads him to medical student Robert Manson and eventually to the owner of the leg.

Without, I hope, spoiling the ending, my question to the firearm experts is this was it possible in the 19th century to load carpet tacks in any type of firearm and fire them like bullets?

26 January 2014

Attacks on Punctuation


by Louis Willis

After reading Leigh’s post on the comma, I remembered reading two articles about the changing way the period is being used, and an article on the uselessness of the apostrophe. I decided to write my first article on the attacks on punctuation.

THE PERIOD (FULL STOP)
Certainly no one could have anything against the period,could they? At least if you’re an old fogey like me, you’d think the period, the most effective punctuation mark, would always find a place even in today’s world of texting and tweeting. Who would the most useful punctuation mark offend? In the world of cybertalking, the challenge comes from texters, those who talk with their fingers and thumbs on their smartphones and smarttablets.
From the article “The Rise and Fall of the Lowly Period” by Kevin Drum, on the Mother Jones site, I learned that texters stopped using the period because it is so small on smartphone keyboards. In texting, to end a sentence you just stop, kind of like in speech. Ending a sentence with a period is either confusing or offensive.
From the second and longer article “The Period Is Pissed” by Ben Crair writing in the New Republic, I learned that “In most written language, the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive.” Crair also notes, “On text and instant messages, punctuation marks have largely been replaced by the line break.” 
I haven’t learned to talk with my fingers and thumbs and I’m reluctant to give up on the lowly period because that little pissed off rascal might just find a way to fight back. I wouldn’t survive in the world of texting because I’d confuse and hurt people’s feelings with my habit of ending sentences with a period.

APOSTROPHE
“Apostrophes show possession (except for personal pronouns), mark omissions in contractions, and form certain plurals” (Harbrace College Handbook, 13th edition).
The fight to eliminate the apostrophe has been going on for a long time and it naturally continues into the 21st century. On the web site “Kill The Apostrophe” the unnamed author wants to eliminate the apostrophe because “The fact is that apostrophes are redundant and consume considerable time and resource and wed be better off without em.” It is also wasteful, a tool of snobbery, time consuming, impedes communication and understanding, and is a distraction “for reasonable and intelligent people.” The author doesn’t want to pass a law but wants to effect “some change down on the ground.” He wants us to wage war against the apostrophe.
John McWhorter, an American linguist and political commenter according to Wikipedia, strikes back at those who want to kill the apostrophe in his essay “The Foolish, Malicious War on Apostrophe’s” on the New Republic web site. He admits that “More than a few understand that apostrophes serve no function and could be eliminated from writing with ill effect.” However, “The only reason the apostrophe will always be with us… is not clarity but the mere fact that writing without it looks funny to us.”
Im the kind of person who wants to protect the language from the language police and I hope youre too. I’d like to agree with McWhorter that “the apostrophe will be with us forever.” But texting and tweeting give me no hope. Even The Apostrophe Protection Society, which reminds “all writers of English text, whether on notices or in documents of any type, of the correct usage of the apostrophe should you wish to put right mistakes you may have inadvertently made,” may not be able to protect it.
I wonder how in 50 years talking with fingers and thumbs will change written language. Will the period become a weapon of aggression? Will the apostrophe finally disappear? Will punctuation disappear?
Maybe the apostrophe has no practical use, but we should keep it but I’ve no idea why. Which side of the apostrophe fence are you on?
Finally, while surfing the web looking for more articles on punctuation, I stumbled on an interesting tidbit of information: September 24 of each year is “National Punctuation Day.”

Period. Full stop.

29 December 2013

Three Firsts


by Louis Willis

My favorite fiction in the crime genre is detective stories. Before I retired I didn’t read the introductions to anthologies because I felt the summaries of the stories would interfere with my enjoyment. Once I retired and began close reading, I discovered the introductions can be very informative, especially in putting the stories in historical context. 
I bought the anthology The Dead Witness because of the description above the title: “A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories.” I wondered if the connoisseur had included any surprises, if, in fact, he met his aim “to represent the vigor and charm of the Victorian detective story at its best.” Based on the three stories I read for this post, he has done a good job. I chose the stories because the connoisseur claims they were firsts.

***

"The Secret Cell" by William E. Burton (1804-1860) "has never been reprinted prior to its first appearance in 1837." It predates Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," but doesn’t replace Poe as the father of the detective story because it “doesn't challenge Poe's preeminence." 
When her daughter Mary disappears, Mrs. Lobenstein, the unnamed narrator’s former laundress, asks him to find her. He hires a policeman friend, who later in life became “the head of the private police in London,” to find Mary. Their investigation reveals she has been kidnapped. Their search leads them to a “secret cell” on the grounds of a Franciscan Monastery. With the help of more policemen, they storm the fortress to rescue her. 
No way could this story be considered as the template for the detective story. It was published only once probably because it is so badly written. Reading the the first person narrator felt like listening to a garrulous old man. 
An example of the prose style: Mrs. Lobenstein’s husband “had scarcely embraced his family ere he was driven off, post-haste, to the other world....” He died.
The detective story would have been stillborn if Burton had been its father.

***

"The Dead Witness; or, The Bush Waterhole" by W. W. (Mary Fortune 1833-1910), published in 1866 in the Australian Journal is "the first known detective story written by a woman." She published poems and stories using male pen names. When she began writing a series "The Detective's Album" an editor changed Waif Wander to the “genderless W. W.”
Australian police detective Brooke is sent to a small town to find a young artist named Edward Willis who has gone missing for several days. Two clues, a faulty photographic plate and a missing sheep dog, lead him to a waterhole where blood was found on the ground. While he and the shepherd Dick watch the sheep drink, a corpse rises to the surface--the dead witness. A good story, though the long, well done descriptions of the scenery seem, at times, to be padding. I downloaded three of Fortune’s novels that are in the public domain from University of Adelaide Library.

***

“An Intangible Clue" by American Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) features her female detective Violet Strange. Green was the first woman to write “a full-fledged detective novel”, (The Leavenworth Case published in 1878) and supposedly influenced Agatha Christie. 
The editor disagrees with some critics that The Dead Letter  by Seeley Regester (pen name of Metta Victoria Fuller Victor) was the first “book-length detective story by a woman.” He argues that it is not a true detective story because the detective uses the psychic visions of his daughter to solve cases, and Regester was "an inferior writer who depended upon coincidence, exhibited little wit, and had a poor sense of pacing." 
Violet Strange, a socialite good at solving crimes, works part time for a private detective firm but doesn't want to get her hands dirty solving "low-down crime." To persuade her to help the police with the case of an old woman who was brutally murdered in her home, her boss claims that a box with her name on it was found in the house. She realizes that he in fact wrote her name on the box. At the crime scene, pretending to be a curious, dainty woman as a policeman leads her about the house, she immediately identifies the clues that lead to the apprehension of the murderer. 
I downloaded some of the Violate Strange stories from the Gutenberg Project and included them in my to-read file.

***

Women have come a long way. Today, no editor or publisher would dare suggest a woman use a male or genderless pen name to get published, would he?

I hope you all had a

27 October 2013

Stranded and Kwiked


by Louis Willis

I began thinking last month what I’d write about this month and my mind was totally blank until I received my first issue of the Strand Magazine. Imagine my delight when I saw John Floyd’s “Secrets,” a slow-paced story with a fast moving plot and rising tension in which two strangers, a man and woman, meet on a ferry boat in what appears a coincidence (it’s not but to say anymore would be a spoiler). The plot ends, but the tension doesn’t drop and the story doesn’t stop because the plight of the two characters continues, suggestively, in the reader’s imagination.

The other stories in the magazine are good, but the one that also interested me was Joseph Heller’s (1923-1999) unpublished "Almost Like Christmas,” written sometime between 1945-1969. Why would the editors publish a story about Christmas several months before Christmas. Because it is not about the holidays; it is a story that “ ...gives readers a provocative glimpse of seething race-related prejudice in an otherwise respectable small town,” (editor). In a town where black farmers from the south are allowed to buy land, a white teacher’s effort to integrate the schools results in three white boys badly beating a black boy. One of the white kids is stabbed, and the black kid is blamed. As an angry mob begins to form with the intention of hunting down the black kid, the atmosphere becomes “Almost Like Christmas.” In view of some of the violent incidents involving race these days, the story is very topical.

Reading Janice’s post on length prompted me to reread Poe’s essay “Philosophy of Composition” in which he states “It appears evident...that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art — the limit of a single sitting....” but he admits this limit may be “overpassed” except in poetry. Her post also sent me to Amazon to buy Kwik Krimes. Editor Otto Penzler “thought it would be fascinating to see what authors could conjure if given the specific assignment of producing a mystery, crime, or suspense story of no more than one thousand words.”

I didn’t read all 81 stories before having to post this article. All, except one, of the 34 stories that I managed to read are well crafted and seem to comply with the word limit, plus or minus a word or two. I say seem because I didn’t count the words of each story, but based on page length, each is four pages long, plus or minus one or two pages. The disappointing story was the page and half “Acknowledgement.” It has no conflict though it suggests what happened to the narrator. It is like the acknowledgements in books thanking mama, daddy, uncle, aunt, agent, and anybody else who may have helped or hurt the author. To say what the ending suggests would be a spoiler. Since there is no mystery, suspense, or crime, it isn’t a story and seems out of place in this collection.

I give a big shoutout to Janice’s masterful story “The Imperfect Detective” in which the detective comes up with the perfect solution. It is so well crafted that any discussion of the plot would be a spoiler. 

If you haven’t already, add Kwik Krimes to your to-read list. Not only can you read one story in a single sitting, you can read three or four or, if you’re a speed writer, even more. 

One problem I have with reading flash fiction, short stories, and short short stories is the difficulty of avoiding spoilers in discussing them. If anyone has a solution to this problem, help.

But maybe I don’t need help because, according to an essay I read by Jonah Lehrer in the Internet magazine Wired two minutes before posting my article, “Spoilers Don’t Spoil Anything.” The article is certainly food for thought and a post on SleuthSayers if I can get around to thinking about what spoilers really do.