Showing posts with label mystery history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mystery history. Show all posts

25 February 2021

The Greatest Historical Mystery of all Time


A while back I read, among other things, a review of Roberto Calasso's La Folie Baudelaire(1)

"Calasso's book can be seen as a series of spirited improvisations on the theme expressed in Walter Benjamin's essays on Baudelaire: that the poet, though he remained resolutely in the Romantic tradition, was the first to express the dark new reality of what Benjamin called 'the permanent catastrophe of life after the Industrial Revolution.'"

To which my response was: "Maybe, but Genesis is the first work to express the dark new reality of 'permanent catastrophe' of life after the Agricultural Revolution."  

I've suspected for a long time that most of the very ancient myths, including Genesis 2-3 and Gilgamesh, are all really about the the Agricultural Revolution. It actually is one of the great historical mysteries, if not the greatest:  how humanity went from wandering the earth to settling down, from hunter-gatherer to farmer. Because there was nothing inevitable - or even logical - about it. Humans were hunter-gatherers for 90% of human history. Agriculture is only a blip of time, and the urbanized world we live in - with only 1.3% of the US population actually working in agriculture, and only 26.7% world-wide - is barely 100 years old.  

So how did it happen?

MY NOTE:  That's what myths are for, to explain mysteries that no one can explain.  How we got here.  Why we're doing the things we're doing here and now - because we have no idea what the hell happened.  Especially when you realize that you're stuck.  You can't go back.  

So, here's the thing:  Paleolithic and Neolithic hunter-gatherer societies were complex, advanced societies.  They had fire, dogs, tools, woven containers, clothing, religion, art, music, dance, and stories.  They invented rafts, nets, and skis (the oldest skis still in existence date back to 6,000 BC from Russia).  They buried their dead. They had some concept of religious ritual.  They built sanctuaries and raised monoliths, megaliths, astronomical calendars, and passage tombs in abundance.  Look up Gobekli Tepe, Warren Field, Newgrange, etc.  

They had phenomenal memories.  (As I always told my students, oral cultures aren't and weren't stupid.)  Whole genealogies, records of journeys, oral maps, oral encyclopedias of where the plants and animals were, what herbs you used for medicine, what parts of trees and animals were best for what function and endless  - they had it all in their heads, and passed it all down, generation to generation, to [almost] the present day.  

They lived well.  They ate just as many plants as animals, and in some cases and definitely in some seasons, more more.  They returned again and again to sites where specific plants (roots, tubers, nuts, berries, and even grains) grew.  And they often either made sure to leave a certain number of those plants intact (roots in the ground, seeds above ground) and even replanted some things. (Ginseng hunters in China were known to do the same thing.)

It was a fairly egalitarian society: there was a leader, and/or a master of the hunt, but when the hunting and gathering was done, all the food was shared out equally among the tribe. Enlightened self-interest was and is the norm for pre-industrial societies. Radical hospitality was and is mandatory - if a stranger shows up, take him in, feed him, treat him well, because some day it will be your turn.  

It was also a fairly non-materialistic society, in terms of stockpiling stuff.  It had to be, because you can't carry a lot of stuff with you as a hunter-gatherer. 

It was also a surprisingly leisured society.  Hunter/gatherers only spent about 4-6 hours a day hunting for food, and the rest of their time cooking, eating, making tools, decorating themselves, sleeping, talking, etc.(2)   

The main drawbacks were high infant mortality, as well as the occasional death from accident, injury, and murder (yes, people killed each other then as now - see my 2015 blog post, Death Comes at the Beginning).  And, of course, they were extremely vulnerable to natural disasters.  All that kept the population very low. At one point there might have been only 125,000 humans on the planet.  

And then came agriculture and animal husbandry, and everything changed.


By the time of this ancient Egyptian painting, world population is estimated to have increased to 5-10 million people.  The Neolithic Revolution fed a lot more people than hunter-gathering, increasing the population in ways hunter-gathering couldn't.  But it had its downsides as well: 

Disease: hunter-gatherers had much lower disease rates (lice, worms) vs. farmers (measles is rinderpest in cattle; TB and smallpox come from cattle; an excellent source of tetanus is horse manure; rabies, obviously; flu from birds or pigs).  There's also overcrowding; a hunter-gatherer tribe was close, but there weren't 300-3,000 of them packed into stacked dwellings in a small walled town.  

Insecurity:  If your crops fail - well, folks are going to starve to death.  There are too many people to go back to hunting and gathering.  (Especially today.  I hear people say, well, I'm going to go off the grid, up in the wilderness - to which my response is, what wilderness?  Also, just because you've watched Alaska The Last Frontier doesn't mean you know how to survive.)  

Possession / Greed / hoarding.  I grew this, so it's mine:  this is my land, my house, my crops, my animals, my family, etc.  Lock the door, bar the windows.  Apparently, the first use of writing was to record my land, my house, my crops, my animals.  Count 'em up and keep track of what's whose.

Kings, priests, armies, bureaucracy, and war all come with agriculture. Which leads back to the great puzzle of how they learned how to do all of this.  

And we have no records.  All the written records we have come after kings, priests, scribes, armies, bureaucracy, and agriculture are already in place - and practically irreversible.  

So, what happened?

Well, to figure that out, you have to take old myths seriously, but not necessarily how time has made people take them seriously.  Most myths have been transformed over time into what we call fairy-tales, folk-tales, religious texts, or epics.  This makes analyzing them hard.  Some people will even call it blasphemous, if you're analyzing their religious text. But there are certain universals.  There's a blind king in almost every ancient culture, from Oedipus to the Mahabharata.  There's a Cinderella story in Europe, the Middle East, and China.  And battling brothers is the basis of so many epics, so many founding fathers, so many wars - of course, that could simply be human nature.  And the Flood shows up everywhere.  So.  I firmly believe that there was, somewhere, some time, way back in time, a blind king, a Cinderella, and a terrifying flood, all so memorable that each story got carried from place to place and passed on down the ages.  

Which brings me back to Genesis 2-3.  A garden, in which every tree and plant is provided that's good for food.  And a great river flowing through it, with every beast and bird living on its banks.  And human(s) naming those beasts and birds.  There's a sense of infinite nostalgia, for a time when humans were one with their environment, where humans walked on the earth, knowing every tree, bush, plant, and flower, every animal, fish, and bird, and what each and every one of them was for. 

And then comes the serpent, “more subtil than any beast of the field” – and starts talking to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”  “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Now there's been a lot of water under that bridge, as to what kind of fruit, and what the real sin was - most theologians agree that it was a combination of pride and greed, basically disobedience to God. The Epic of Gilgamesh calls it a betrayal of nature (3).  And I agree. Because what really happened during the Neolithic Revolution was a turning away from a life that was based entirely on the existing seasons and habits of nature. Trusting, every morning, that nature would indeed provide food. All humans had to do was go and look for it. 

But discontent came, and the hissing voice - whether of a serpent or in someone's own head (4) - saying, "Aren't you tired of wandering all over the place and never knowing what you'll find? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to eat berries whenever you want, to store up enough food so that you don't have to be out in bad weather?  When winter comes, you'll be sitting tight in a nice warm place with all the food and more that you need? You can provide for yourselves. You can control nature, instead of it controlling you. You will be safe."

And they fell for it. Ever since, it's been a lot of hard work and (until very modern times) extremely little leisure.

NOTE:  There's a hint that God didn't appreciate it:  Genesis also has Cain and Abel, offering their produce to God - Cain gave vegetables, Abel gave a lamb, and God preferred the meat.  So Cain got jealous and killed Abel.

Another reason why I think this interpretation of Genesis might be the right one is that it came from one of the oldest known civilizations on the planet: Sumer. Remember, Abraham was Sumerian, he came from Ur, and he brought his folk-lore with him. And many of the stories in early Genesis are also from Sumer (the Flood, for one thing). Sumer, "the cradle of civilization" "the fertile crescent", one of the places where agriculture began the earliest, so that by the time of Abraham, there would have already been a couple of thousand years of farming.  That makes Sumer a very logical place for farmers to remember, longingly, of a time without kings, bureaucrats, armies, or war. A time when food was everywhere for the taking, and all humans had to do was wander through the earth like a giant garden. And wonder what had happened, why they had been cursed: and what a specific curse! 

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

The life of a pre-industrial farmer, and that's a curse, not a blessing.

(1) Primarily because he's the author of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, and Ka, two very interesting works on mythology, among other things.

(2) See Jared Diamond's The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.  BTW, I love central air/heating, antibiotics, anesthetics, gas stoves and screened windows. But I can wax nostalgic like anyone else...

(3) One last note:  The Sumerian epic Gilgamesh is even more obvious about one of the last meetings between the settler and the wanderer.  King Gilgamesh befriends the wild man Enkidu - "Abundantly hairy and primitive, he lives roaming with the herds and grazing and drinking from rivers with the beasts. One day a hunter watches Enkidu destroying the traps he has prepared for the animals. The hunter informs his father, who sends him to Uruk to ask Gilgamesh for help. The king sends Shamhat, a prostitute, who seduces Enkidu. After two weeks with her, he becomes human, intelligent and understanding words, however the beasts flee when they see him."  (Wikipedia)  Later, Enkidu helps Gilgamesh kill the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, where the gods lived (and where they plan to cut the trees down). But before that happens, Humbaba accuses Enkidu of betraying the beasts of the wild and, by implication, all of nature by becoming "civilized".

(4)This is why one should always beware of listening too loudly to the voices in one's own head.

04 March 2020

Today in Mystery History: March 4


This is the fifth installment in my series on the history of mystery fiction. Don't worry; I have 361 more to go before I run out.

March 4, 1881.   According to William S. Baring-Gould's  The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, it was on this date that one of the most famous fictional relationships began, when Dr John H.Watson's new roomie invites him to participate in a case.

March 4, 1881. On the same day, but thousands of miles to the southwest, T.S. Stribling was born in Tennessee. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Store, but we are more interested in his mystery stories about psychologist Dr. Henry Poggioli.  

March 4, 1931. This date saw the publication of John Dickson Carr's The Lost Gallows. It is one of his novels about Henri Bencolin, a French police detective referred to as "Mephistopheles with a cigar."  Where there's smoke...  (By the way, you may notice a French theme in today's entries.)

March 4, 1959.  On this day somebody started leaving severed hands around the streets of Isola.  So begins the plot of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novel  appropriately entitled Give The Boys A Great Big Hand.

March 4, 1982.  The premiere of Police Squad.  It only lasted six weeks because you actually had to watch it to get the jokes.  Fortunately movie-goers pay more attention so the spin-off Naked Gun movies were more successful.

March 4, 2003. Jean-Baptiste Rossi died on this day. His first novel, about a schoolboy who fell in love with a nun, was published in the U.S. as Awakening in 1952 and sold 800,000 copies.  A decade later, running into money problems, he started writing crime novels  under an anagram of his name: Sebastien Japrisot.  He won several awards for these books and most were made into movies.


March 4, 2014.  The publication date for Murder in Pigalle, Cara Black's fourteenth novel about Aimee Leduc.  In it she is five months pregnant and her neighbor's thirteen year old daughter goes missing.


15 January 2020

Today in Mystery History: January 15


This is the fourth installment in my occasional march through the history of our field.  Make sure you have your comfortable shoes on.

January 15, 1924.  Dennis Lynds was born on this date.    He wrote under the name Michael Collins, and won the Edgar award for his first novel, Act of Fear.  It featured one-armed private eye named Dan Fortune, who is often described as a transitional figure between the Hammett/Chandler school of private eyes and the Parker/Muller/Paretsky clan.  Besides almost twenty other books, Fortune starred in "Scream All The Way," a story in the August 1969 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I know that because it is the earliest story I can be certain I read in that magazine.  The tale and its illustration have stayed in my mind.

Under the name William Arden, Lynds also wrote fourteen books in The Three Investigators series, which I always enjoyed much more than the Hardy Boys.

January 15, 1924.  And speaking of Dashiell Hammett, he celebrated the birth of Dennis Lynds by publishing "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams" in Black Mask Magazine.  It's a suspenseful tale of a murderer in Montana who escapes from jail and runs into an innocent woman...

January 15, 1945.  On this date the Alfred Knopf publishing house started the Black Widow Thrillers, series.  It was perhaps the first attempt to canonize mystery fiction, creating a set of standard issue reprints of classic novels.  The first to arrive were Hammett's Maltese Falcon, Chandler's Big Sleep, and Ambler's Coffin for Dimitros.    Hey, Hammett is in three entries in a row.  Is that a trend?

January 15, 1948.  Sorry, no Hammett.  On this date Columbia Pictures released I Love Trouble, a noir movie written by Roy Huggins and starring Franchot Tone and Janet Blair.  If it is memorable today it is probably because Tone played a character named Stuart Bailey. You may remember that name from the classic TV show 77 Sunset Strip.  The movie and TV show were both based on Huggins' books/stories about that private eye.

January 15, 1965.  On this date  a certain famous person rang a certain famous doorbell...

January 15, 1973.  This was the year ABC gave up on trying to find a talk show host who could compete with Johnny Carson.  They chose instead to fill their late night slot with ABC's Wide World of Entertainment.  On this night they introduced one segment of it, a  series of 90-minute movies called Wide World of Mystery.

I learned about this in a very entertaining article by Michael Mallory in the latest issue of Mystery Scene Magazine. (You do subscribe, don't you?  If not, why ever not?)  The first night's movie was called "An Echo of Theresa," but I want to tell you about a movie that appeared in the series later.  With Mike's permission, I repeat part of his description here:

While many of the stories bordered on the bizarre, none were stranger than "The Werewolf of Woodstock," which aired January 24, 1975.  Set in 1969 (obviously) it concerns a bitter, alcoholic farmer who loathes the younger generation, particularly those who attended Woodstock, which was staged near his property and left the place trashed.  During a freak electrical storm he takes a direct hit from a lightning bolt; instead of killing him... it turns him into a werewolf!  In his new bestial form he goes on a rampage against anyone he deems a "hippie," chiefly the members of a garage band who come to the site to record their own album (so they can claim it was "recorded at Woodstock").

If this makes you desperate to see the movie (produced by Dick Clark!) there are excerpts available here and here.  Perhaps that is as much as a human being can stand.  The series ended in 1976, and personally I don't miss it a bit.


January 15, 1981.  I remember exactly where I was that evening: watching the premiere of a great cop show on TV.  Remember Hill Street Blues?  It received 98 Emmy nominations.  Hell, even its theme song was a hit.

January 15, 1993.  This day saw the publication of Generous Death, Nancy Pickard's first novel.  (Well, her first published one.  She wrote one before this but, as she said, it "just sat there like a dead trout.")  Since then she has won multiple awards including the Shamus, Macavity, Anthony, and Agatha

January 15, 2008.  This date witnessed the Broadway premiere of Alfred Hitchcock's Thirty-nine Steps, a hilarious version of the great movie based on John Buchan's novel which essentially invented the genre in which the hero is being chased both by the cops and the bad guys.  The play is performed by one man playing the hero, a woman who takes most of the female parts, and two other actors who take on the rest of the roles, including a swamp and a forest.  I recommend it.



31 July 2019

Today in Mystery History: July 31


This is the third installment in my occasional stroll through the calendar.  Enjoy.

July 31, 1904.  David Dresser was born on this date.  You probably remember him as Brett Halliday, the creator of Miami private eye Mike Shayne.  His first novel was rejected more than 20 times, but he went on to write 30 books, which were adapted for radio, TV, and a series of movies.  He stopped writing in 1958 but authors labelled "Brett Halliday" went on to write many more books about Shayne.  Until I was researching this I had no idea that the excellent movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was inspired by one of his books.

July 31, 1930.  The Detective Story Magazine Hour began broadcasting on radio today. This is mainly significant because of the show's announcer, a sinister presence played by an actor whose identity was kept firmly hidden.  He was known only as The Shadow and proved so popular that he spawned his own show, a magazine, and tons of novels written by Walter B. Gibson.  Bwaa ha ha!

July 31, 1940.  The British magazine The Sketch published "The Case of the Drunken Socrates" on this date.  It was part of a series of stories about a Czech refugee detective which Eric Ambler wrote while waiting to be drafted into the army. (Notice the title of the book that collected the tales.)  Of course, Ambler was much better known for his espionage thrillers.

July 31, 1948.  The issue of Saturday Evening Post with this date featured the first installment of The D.A. Takes A Chance, the next to last novel Erle Stanley Gardner wrote about district attorney Doug Selby.  Alas, the prosecutor was never as popular as that other lawyer Gardner created, the defense attorney whose clients always turned out to be innocent.

July 31, 1951.  On this date Mr. and Mrs. Rackell came to Nero Wolfe to seek the murderer of their nephew.  "Home to Roost" is probably the high point of Rex Stout's literary attacks on American Communists.  You can find it in his collection Triple Jeopardy.


July 31, 1975.  On this date the movie Bank Shot was released.  It starred George C. Scott in the unlikely role of Donald E. Westlake's hapless burglar John Dortmunder.  (Okay, his name was changed to protect the guilty.)    

 July 31, 1986.  Stanley Ellin died on this date.  He was one of the greatest author's of mystery short stories ever.  If you don't believe me, try "The Specialty of the House," "The Payoff," or "You Can't be a Little Girl All Your Life."

July 31, 2001. This date saw the publication of Nightmare in Shining Armor, part of Tamar Myers' series about a shop called the Den of Antiquity.  I haven't read it, but I'm guessing it's a cozy.

15 May 2019

Today in Mystery History: May 15


For the second time I am pillaging my files to report on highlights of this day in our field's history.  Enjoy.

May 15, 1923.  The issue of Black Mask Magazine  published on this date featured "Three Gun Terry," by Carroll John Daly.  It's not such a great story, even by Daly's standard, but it is a huge piece of mystery history: it is considered the first hard-boiled private eye story.  "For every man I croak--mind you, I ain't a killer, but sometimes a chap's got to turn a gun--I get two hundred dollars flat."

May 15, 1926.  Two great playwrights were born on this day.  Coincidentally, they were in the same room.  Okay, no coincidence.  Anthony and Peter Shaffer were twin brothers.

Anthony won two Edgar Awards: Best Play for Sleuth, and then Best Screenplay for same. He also wrote screenplays for Frenzy and The Wicker Man.

He co-wrote three mystery novels with brother Peter, who was best known for non-mystery plays such as Equus and Amadeus.

May 15, 1933.  Dime Detective Magazine for this date proudly contained "The Brain Master," by John Lawrence, a pulp writer whom Frances M. Nevins, Jr. referred to as "king of the unremembered."  This was part of a series featuring New York private eye Sam Beckett, not to be confused with the guy who waited for Godot.

May 15, 1948.  Jeremiah Healy was born on this date in Teaneck, NJ.  He was best known for his novels about Boston private eye John Francis Cuddy.  Half of these books were nominated for the Shamus Award for Best Novel.  The Staked Goat won.


May 15, 1961.  The second episode of Whispering Smith appeared on NBC.  This was a western but definitely a detective story.  Audie Murphy played a nineteenth century Denver cop.  (If you aren't familiar with Murphy, look him up.  During World War II he won practically every medal available to a U.S. soldier, including the Medal of Honor.)

So why should we care about the second episode of a long forgotten TV show?  Well, first of all, I can't tell whether the first episode ever showed.  The source of all wisdom (i.e. the Internet) says the show premiered on May 8 and also says it missed its premiere date.  So who knows?

But more importantly, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was so disturbed by the violence in the May 15th episode, "The Grudge," that they actually showed it at a hearing.  According to Wikipedia the assembled senators got to see: a fistfight, a mother horsewhipping her son, a false charge of sexual assault, a report that a man laughed after shooting another guy six times in the stomach, and a woman accidentally killing her daughter while aiming at someone else.  All it needs is dragons to pass for an episode of Game of Thrones.

Oh, the actor who got horsewhipped was  a kid named Robert Redford.  Whatever happened to him?


May 15, 1993. This date saw the publication of Charles Willeford's book The Shark-Infested Custard.  I know nothing about this crime novel, but I love the title.  Don't you?

15 March 2019

Today in Mystery History: March 15th


A few years ago I started a website called Today in Mystery History, listing one event in our field for every day.  It turned out that the amount of Fame and Glory generated was not sufficient to balance the effort, so I stopped adding to it.  But that left me with a whole lot of date-specific data.   I decided I will occasionally use some of it here.  So, take a gander at what happened on this date in previous years...

March 15, 1861. Rodriguez Ottolengui was born in Charleston, South Carolina.  He was a pioneer in the field of dentistry (x-rays, root canals, etc.) but he was also an author of mystery novels and short stories.  Ellery Queen listed his book Final Proof as a major step in the history of the mystery short story.

March 15, 1946. On this day Kenneth Millar left the navy.  A year later he published his first novel, Blue City. Eventually he settled on the pseudonym Ross Macdonald.

March 15, 1948. On this date the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote to his friend the mystery writer Norbert Davis: “Your mags are wonderful. How people can read Mind if they could Street and Smith [Detective Story Magazine] beats me."


March 15, 1950. Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train was published.

March 15, 1972.  Francis Ford Coppola's  The Godfather was released.  It went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

March 15, 1985.  On this date Ian Rankin  conceived his great character, Inspector John Rebus.

March 15, 1989. Sue Grafton's F is for Fugitive was published.

March 15, 200?  On this date 22-year-old singing star Cherry Pie suffers yet another overdose in Miami Beach.  Thus begins Carl Hiassin's Star Island..

So that's one date.  364 to go.