Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Sayers: Wishing Her Way to Success

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), creator of dapper detective Lord Peter Wimsey, is known for her complicated plots and aristocratic characters. What some may not know is that she developed her upper-class scenarios and players partly out of envy. During the 1920s, when she began writing the Wimsey adventures, she was living on a meager salary as an advertising agency copywriter in London. Eventually, her fiction became so popular and lucrative she was able to leave mundane work behind, settle in a country estate and live in the high style she formerly could only write about.

Incidentally, Sayers was one of the first women to earn a degree from Oxford (1915), receiving honors as a student of medieval literature.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Brown Mountain Lights

It’s possible more explanations have been proposed for the lights over North Carolina’s Brown Mountain than for any other mystery of either natural science or the supernatural. First studied more than two centuries ago, they’ve drawn countless curious tourists to the Morganton area -- where the U.S. Forest Service has placed an observation marker. Private scientists as well as officials of the U.S. Geological Survey and other institutions have studied the lights for many years.

They appear variedly as orange-red, yellow and blue-white orbs. Sometimes they hover, sometimes “wander,” both above the low mountain crest as well as down the slope, apparently prowling among the tree cover. They’ve reportedly lingered from just a second or two to half a minute before fading. The lights may appear singly or in great numbers. At whatever rate, they appear often -- on most clear, particularly dark nights.

Folk of a supernatural propensity tell stories of a ghostly lantern carried either by a murdered local woman or, according to a ballad, by an ante-bellum slave searching for his master who vanished in the hills. They also suggest homeless spirits of Native American warriors who died in a battle on the mountain.

Science, meanwhile, has suggested most everything but the kitchen sink: train lights (debunked when the lights continued to appear after a bridge washout disrupted rail traffic), aircraft, St. Elmo’s fire, “swamp gas” (there are no swamps on the mountain), forest fires, liquor stills -- those are only a few. Investigators in 1977 asserted they’d proved by experiment that most of the lights visible above the mountain were artificial light reflections. However, they couldn’t account for many of the sightings on the mountainside.

A lengthy article on the Brown Mountain Lights is forthcoming in my new e-book Blithering Antiquity, Volume One (available in April; e-mail for details).

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Back to Bermuda

It’s interesting to see the Bermuda Triangle issue revisited via history and science documentaries on cable TV these days. I became intrigued by the Triangle while in high school when I read Invisible Horizons, Vincent Gaddis’ study of nautical mysteries (Ace/Chilton, 1965). This was not long after Gaddis’ article in Argosy magazine first had aroused public interest in the phenomena which seem to occur off the southeastern coast of the U.S. I read all the books I could get my hands on after author Charles Berlitz raised the Triangle to fad status with his 1974 best-seller on the subject. However, Lawrence David Kusche’s “solution” examination, also a best-seller, seemed to put the lie to the hoopla a year later. Nonetheless, The Cyclops, the Atalanta, the “lost patrol” and the many other disappearances have continued to fascinate me.

What amuses me presently is that a new generation of “investigators” seem to have successfully reopened the Triangle case, at least in the eyes of the media. With the aid of newer science (detailed images of the region taken from space, the latest aircraft and shipboard equipment, recent underwater discoveries), they believe they’ve turned up fresh evidence suggesting something strange truly is happening out there. I must confess I’m not especially impressed by the new studies and commentaries. Perhaps what gives me pause is that few of the investigators seem to agree on any one possible explanation -- or on any two or three. They seem to be competing with one another for novel ideas. Their theories are all over the place -- moreso than ever before. It seems to me that if we actually were progressing in our exploration of the Bermuda Triangle, we would be finding clarity in the puzzle. Instead, new people are tossing new pieces (with varying shades of legitimacy) into the puzzle box. Confused and frankly a little bored, I fear I’m beginning to agree more and more with the position of Kusche, published 30 years ago. But I do like to read about it from time to time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Icelanders & Greenlanders

Funny thing about Iceland: It has no human “prehistory,” insofar as anthropologists can determine. That is to say, the first people to settle there are believed to have been the Vikings -- and that wasn’t very long ago, in anthropological measurements: approximately the 9th Century A.D. An early record titled The Book of Settlements goes so far as to identify the first settlers, a Norwegian married couple named Ingolfr Anarson and Hallveig Frodatottir, and the year they arrived, 874. They named their new home Reykjavik. Other settlers followed. Reykjavik, of course, is the capital of modern Iceland. (Incidentally, Reykjavik means “Bay of Smokes.”)

What’s interesting about that, to me -- and the reason I include this in my “mystery” blog rather than my “anything in the world I care to write about ” blog ( -- is that the much larger but bleaker neighboring island of Greenland does have what’s called a “prehistory.” Inuits, crossing the arctic and subarctic longitudes from what is now Canada, are believed to have inhabited Greenland as early as 1400 B.C.

One has to wonder: Why Greenland but not Iceland? Iceland is well out to sea from anywhere, it’s true. But it isn’t that far off Greenland’s southeastern coast -- about 200 miles. Why was Iceland discovered by Europeans rather than by the Inuits of Greenland centuries earlier?

Greenland is a dreadful place.
It’s a land that’s never green. . . .

So goes the folk shanty. Perhaps the Inuits, as scientiests assume, held to Greenland's western shoreline and ventured no farther, either into the mercilessly inhospitable interior or around the southern tip of the island by boat. If not, why not?

Monday, March 21, 2005

Double Jeopardy

Murder by knife has been one of the most common methods throughout history. A gruesome “twist,” as it were, is the occasional murder by poisoned blade.

Several incidents of it recently came to light during my research of Arab history. A Persian slave killed Umar, the second Islamic caliph, with a poisoned dagger in 644 A.D. Seventeen years later, the caliph Ali was slain with a poisoned saber.

In 1389, an Ottoman army under Sultan Murad I subdued Serbia at the Battle of Kosovo. Their victory was costly. In the heat of conflict, a Serbian noble entered the invaders’ encampment, feigning to defect to their cause. He finessed his way into the very presence of Murad and delivered a fatal stroke with a poisoned dagger. Bayazid I, Murad’s son, led the infuriated Ottomans on to triumph.

We can imagine infliction of an injury by poisoned dagger to be comparable to snakebite. The attacker need not strike deeply, but quickly. A notable difference is that the purveyor of the human deed has to be extraordinarily careful handling the weapon – something vipers don’t worry about.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Rhode Island's Lost Crewmen

Of all nautical mysteries, the most haunting are those involving shipshape vessels found adrift with no one aboard. The Mary Celeste (1872) is the most famous “wanderer.” Others are lesser known but no less mysterious.

Case in point: the Seabird. It ran ashore at Easton’s Beach in Rhode Island in 1850, nearing its base at Newport after a cargo voyage up the coast from Honduras. The sails were fully set, but the only sign of life aboard was a small dog. As in many such accounts, this one includes details of a coffee pot still hot on the stove; there even was said to be an aroma of recent pipe smoke. Local fishermen reported they had seen the vessel offshore not many hours before its grounding and had been hailed by the Seabird’s captain, John Durham -- a veteran New England salt.

Obviously, something had compelled the crew to abandon ship excruciatingly close to its home port. No solution to the riddle could be determined, and a few weeks later a storm took the Seabird back into the Atlantic, never to be seen again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Lycanthropy in Literature

Lycanthropy is the medical term for one of the weirdest forms of delusion: the belief that a human can become a wolf (or other animal). During the Middle Ages, when many folk lived in mortal fear of werewolves, lycanthropes sometimes took to the woods at the rising of a full moon. They howled like wild beasts and, given the opportunity, attacked people, scratching and brutalizing their victims. Of course, they didn’t go unpunished; being a werewolf was a capital crime.

Werewolves and other lycanthropes have made for literary horror and detection plots for centuries, dating at least to the time of Homer. In The Odyssey, the sorcerer Circe turned the hero’s ship crew into hogs. Odysseus himself escaped her shenanigans by finding an herb that made him immune.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Revisiting the Rue Morgue

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841, is considered literature’s first “modern detective story.” Have you read it? Until recent decades, it was almost standard fare in high school lit classes. Today, most youths learn something of Poe -- but not necessarily of his leading character Dupin, arguably the first “fictional detective.” (Our 18-year-old reports having read “The Pit and the Pendulum,” but she’s never heard of “Rue Morgue.”)

“Rue Morgue” is a challenge to enter, its opening pages dragging us through Poe’s discourse (talk about horror literature . . .) on the distinctions between calculation and analysis, chess and whist. It gets interesting once we meet Dupin, the author’s brilliant co-lodger whose deductive powers seem to exceed those of Sherlock Holmes or any other latter-day sleuth of literature. You definitely should meet him, if you haven’t yet.

Suggestion: Skip down to the sixth paragraph and begin at “Residing in Paris. . . .” You have my permission to cheat. (You no longer need the permission of Poe.)

Saturday, March 12, 2005

A Vanishing Off the Carolina Coast

The Patriot was a schooner, at one time used by privateers and later engaged in commerce along the Atlantic coast. It sailed from Georgetown, SC, on 30 December 1812 . . . into the mist of nautical mystery. It made for a particularly good mystery, nurtured by two generations of rumors -- some of which rang tantalizingly true. None of the crew or passengers arrived safely ashore. Among the missing: Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of American founding father Aaron Burr; she had married South Carolina Gov. Joseph Alston and was northbound for a visit with her father in New York.

A severe gale is known to have troubled the Carolina coast shortly after the Patriot departed. The best conjecture thus is that the schooner, like so many sailing ships of yore, simply succumbed to the ocean’s violence. Except. . . .

Deathbed “confessions” of crusty old pirates many years later told of the capture of a vessel named the Patriot at approximately that place and time. One identified a pretty woman passenger, “Odessa Burr Alston,” who had preferred to be executed with her shipmates rather than accept a proposal to become the pirate captain’s mistress.

Then again, the loss of the Patriot could’ve been the dastardly work of a UFO. . . .

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Roma

Many mysterious cultures inhabit Planet Earth (possibly some yet remain to be discovered!). Most are mysterious because they’ve deliberately lived in isolation from generation to generation. To me, the very most mysterious are the Roma, for while they inherently segregate themselves from society at large, they intrepidly stride into the midst of society at large when it suits their purposes.

The Roma are the Gypsies. That is to say, they’re probably the most clearly definable cultural category of Gypsies. Some people consider “gypsy” synonymous with “wanderer” -- which could mean anything from an independently wealthy world traveler to a tramp on the street (of any nationality, race or creed) to a soldier of fortune, a retired RV-motoring couple, a 21st-Century hippie and all ilk of middle-class job hopper in between. The Roma, by contrast, have innate bonds of language and even of biological genesis. They officially are classed (by our erudite PC classifiers) as a bona fide “ethnic group.” They live in America, Europe and elsewhere. You may know some of them and not know it. (After all, what difference should it make? Just as an aside, if Roma friends of mine were to inquire of my personal heritage, I likely could elicit an alarmed response or two from them by revealing my family’s Plain Truth. Forget their Romany hawking and their horse trading and their encampment revelry on the outskirts of town; I have some real drama in my bag!) (So . . . you prying Thought Policepeople . . . make what case you will of that.)

We’ll examine different facets of Roma lifestyle in subsequent blogs. The point here is that Gypsies have played rich and sundry roles in period mystery/gothic literature. Too often, they’re merely hinted at. In Conan Doyle’s “The Speckled Band,” for instance, a “band of Gypsies” are referenced on the grounds of the estate where a murder has been committed -- but merely as a reader diversion. Gypsy fortune-tellers made for excellent characters in many a period mystery work; they still do.

My own perception of the Roma is rooted in what’s known of a band of Travelers here in South Carolina, from decades past, and in (not surprisingly, to those who know me) folk music. Listen particularly to two ballads by the late Scottish folk revivalist Ewan MacColl, “Freeborn Man” and “The Thirty Foot Trailer,” and tell me what you think. Confusingly, MacColl wrote of Travelers, Gypsies and other rovers in the same verses. Purists differentiate. More later. . . .

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Quality of Galsworthy

One of my favorite period authors -- not considered a mystery or gothic writer, but not far off, in certain respects -- is John Galsworthy. Awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1932, the year before his death, Galsworthy was an English barrister turned novelist and playwright. He also wrote short pieces. I discovered him at the back of “The World’s One Hundred Best Short Stories” series, Volume Nine -- the ghost story collection (Funk & Wagnalls, 1927). His excellent, morose vignette of the Gessler Brothers, boot makers, is titled “Quality.” Quality was everything to the peculiar Gesslers, as it was to the writer.

Description was a particular forte of Galsworthy. Of the younger Gessler, he wrote: Himself, he was a little as if made from leather, with his yellow crinkly face, and crinkly reddish hair and beard, and neat folds slanting down his cheeks to the corners of his mouth, and his guttural and one-toned voice; for leather is a sardonic substance, and stiff and slow of purpose.

Dialogue was another. In “Quality,” most of the quotations were the words of the craftsman, and Galsworthy meticulously delivered them so that the reader can “hear” the old German’s imperfect English with perfect clarity. “Beople do nod wand good boods, id seems,” the wizened little man lamented.

And he told stories worth telling. Galsworthy was well-bred; his viewpoint was upper middle class; yet, with striking originality he effectively stirred sympathy for those who struggled economically.

Galsworthy’s brand of quality makes for exceptional reading, even today. (Especially today.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Whatever Happened to. . .

. . . Ambrose Bierce? The eccentric writer and columnist, a Civil War veteran, produced some of the most oddly morbid short stories on record (“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “A Horseman in the Sky,” “The Man and the Snake,” “The Eyes of the Panther,” etc.). Many of his tales are set during the great conflict, lending a curious reprieve from the sheer, brute militarism of typical Civil War literature.

“Bitter Bierce,” as he came to be known, went to Mexico in 1913 and vanished. He is believed to have served for a time on the staff of revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. Friends in the States stopped receiving letters from him in 1914, so it is supposed . . . but not ascertained . . . that he died that year, in his early 70s. Thus it was that one of the strangest masters of the grotesque bequeathed the ultimate mystery to his readers to solve.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Mark Twain, Mystery Writer

Well, it isn’t exactly a mystery novel, but Mark Twain demonstrated in Pudd'nhead Wilson a serious interest in crime detection in addition to his established flare for humor, social commentary and memorable characterization.

Published in 1894, the novel is set, like so many of Twain's classic tales, in an antebellum Mississippi River town. The “detective”: an eccentric lawyer given the nickname “Puddn'head” after making an enigmatic comment about a barking dog. The plot: Oh, you must read it for yourself. The book is short -- an hour or two’s diversion for most of you (a day or two for me, a hopeless editor who proofreads everything). Perhaps it will whet your interest to note the story hinges on fingerprinting, a science not officially accepted at the time of publication.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Tripe or True Literature?

You’re a serious student of mystery literature (or any literature) if you can you get through the following short passage without clicking to some other place on the Web:
The Bohuns were one of the very few aristocratic families really dating from the Middle Ages, and their pennon had actually seen Palestine. But it is a great mistake to suppose that such houses stand high in chivalric traditions. Few except the poor preserve traditions. Aristocrats live not in traditions but in fashions. . . .
A few of you may recognize that unique . . . ah, flourish of the pen, shall we call it . . . as belonging to G.K. Chesterton. It’s from the opening of “The Hammer of God,” part of his Father Brown canon, and it leads into a good story. But how many readers over the past century never made it past the word “pennon”?

Erudite command of the language probably counts for less than five percent in an author’s mission to hook a reader these years. Basically, the author gets one sentence or less in which to show off. After that, most readers demand tasty bait on which to nibble, or they’ll be quickly away, all over the pond, in search of entertainment easier to obtain. It was a different world in 1911, when “The Hammer of God” first appeared in print. Readers had no television, cell phone or e-mail chat group that guaranteed instant rewards for investing a few minutes of their time. They were willing to settle down with a book or magazine, tarry and give the writer time to engage them. Today’s author must lock them in with 25 words or fewer. Example:
Marybeth was pretty and smart and she wanted to marry her brother-in-law. That’s why she talked Tricia into buying her the amphetamines.
I just now spent perhaps one minute writing and revising that. By contrast, I’ve worked as long as an hour fashioning just the right opening for one of my “Harper Chronicles.” The point: The “Chronicles” aren’t selling; this tripe would have a better likelihood of selling, with diligent marketing. But life is too short, to my way of thinking, to waste any of it cranking out saleable tripe. Better to write something I’ll be proud of later.

So which one is vanity? Writing for riches, or writing for self-pride? And which is a true contribution to society -- writing to entertain thousands of readers, or writing for the edification of only the handful who will try to understand you and will support your work?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Judas in Eternity

Here’s a mystery for Christians to ponder: Will Judas Iscariot dwell among us in heaven?

The very suggestion that history’s ultimate betrayer might be brought into God’s eternal presence may seem heretical. For one thing, Judas rates only a sliver above the antichrist as the very worst examples of evil in human form. For another, he committed suicide -- an unpardonable act, in the opinion of certain believers.

However, a corollary might be implied in the salvation of the thief on the cross. The thief in his dying moments acknowledged Jesus as Lord, and thereby was assured a home in paradise. While Judas’ treachery was inconceivably vile, scripture indicates he, too, feared Jesus’ Lordship. Judas reportedly regretted what he’d done, going so far as to return his blood money to the high priests and confess to them that Jesus was an innocent Victim of conspiracy. We might observe further that no less a rock than the apostle Peter publicly denied knowing Christ -- thrice.

It would astound and fascinate me to notice Judas Iscariot loitering in the shadows of my heavenly welcoming committee, acknowledging himself with an embarrassed smile and feeble wave when at length he caught my attention. “Hi,” I imagine he would say. “Guess you didn’t expect to see me here.”

Probably I don’t expect to -- but it would represent the ultimate forgiveness, would it not? It strikes me as just the kind of thing Jesus would do.

We’ll know when we get there.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Sherlock Holmes' "Father" Was a Doctor

Did you know . . .

. . . Arthur Conan Doyle, creator/author of the Sherlock Holmes canon, was practicing medicine in Southsea, England, at the time the first Holmes work (A Study in Scarlet) was published in 1887? Doyle later served during the Boer War as a British Army doctor.