Saturday, July 30, 2005

A Missing Logbook

In researching the Flannan Islands mystery, I've been unable to locate the text of the actual log entries made by the lost lighthouse keepers during the days leading up to the tragedy. Fragments of notes have been published in different sources, but I'm keen to review the entire record. Do any of you know if it's obtainable, and where?

The three light keepers on station at the remote Scottish island of Eilean Mor in December 1900 vanished with no trace. There was evidence of a severe storm and the only natural explanation is that the keepers were swept away, probably in the vicinity of a lower landing area. Most researchers, however, question the likelihood that all three men -- sea-savvy veterans -- would have placed themselves at risk simultaneously, or even in succession. There seems to have been an assumed policy among lighthouse keepers that one man must stay inside to attend the light at all times.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Reading in the Dark

Did you know the Braille method of reading for the visually impaired was developed from a military innovation for reading in the dark? Capt. Charles Barbier, a French cavalry officer of the early 19th Century, devised a system of pressing different dot-and-dash configurations into heavy paper. Though a tedious process, this point-writing code enabled commanders to exchange brief dispatches that could be read by touch at nighttime.

Louis Braille, a blind student from Coupvray, was only 15 years old when, in 1824, he transformed Barbier’s technique into the famous system that bears his name. Braille communication is arguably one of the most important inventions in history.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Other Ghost of "Pickwick"

In a previous post (15 July 2005), we considered briefly the lingering question of the ghost stories included in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers: Were they written specifically as part of the Pickwick serial, or were they written as individual short stories which Dickens ultimately cast into the Pickwick sequence to meet publishing deadlines?

Pickwick was tarnished by a real-life tragedy, as well. It might be contended that Dickens’ arrogant temperament led to the stunning calamity. The series basically was the concept of noted illustrator Robert Seymour. Dickens, a young, struggling author at the time (1836), was commissioned by the publishers to write narratives to accompany a set of Seymour’s woodcuts. Dickens haughtily persuaded the publishers to reverse the priority and promote his tale, illustrated by Seymour’s drawings. The amended arrangement clearly did not set well with Seymour -- especially after Dickens criticized one of his illustrations and asked him to alter it. Seymour did so . . . then promptly killed himself.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Blind Max & The Mystery Author

A physical disability often serves to heighten one’s other senses and powers -- a truth you’ve very possibly observed in people you know. British author Ernest Bramah made use of such traits in developing his blind detective character, Max Carrados. Bramah produced three books of Carrados episodes: Max Carrados, The Eyes of Max Carrados and Max Carrados Mysteries.

Ernest Bramah (1868-1942) was the pen name of a London writer who wrote many other books besides the Carrados chronicles. He shunned public recognition so effectively that few during his day knew his real identity -- a real-life mystery that surrounded his wonderful fictitious mysteries.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

"Vintage Short Mystery Classics"

Aficionados of period mystery stories hopefully will take advantage of this new, free resource of classic short fiction. Hornpipe Vintage Publications has just launched the “Vintage Short Mystery Classics” series of e-booklets at Each short story is so old it’s now in the public domain. It’s contained in an e-booklet (PDF format), available free of charge for downloading and viewing with Adobe Reader -- the reader program you probably already have on your computer, or can obtain at no cost on the Internet if you don’t.

Stories in the series include mysteries, ghost stories, stories of crime and justice, and other intrigues of fiction from authors past, including some you undoubtedly recognize and others whose works may not yet have come within your reading purview. Included in the first group of stories are “The Confessed Crime” (Tolstoi), “The North Mail” (Edwards), “The Inn” (Maupassant), “A Horseman in the Sky” (Bierce), “The Red Room” (Wells), “The Paradise of Thieves” (Chesterton) and “The Cobweb” (Saki). New stories are being prepared and will be added each month. Come back often to see what’s available.

Please let me know what you think of the e-packaging for this series. Note that you’ll find my own historical mystery series, “The Harper Chronicles,” advertised at the back of each storybook. But it really doesn’t matter whether you ever dabble into my own works. The main thing is that the tradition of historical mystery fiction be carried forward to new generations of readers. Let me know, please, how you think I can improve the project.

As always, thanks for reading!

In Christ,

Friday, July 15, 2005

The Ghosts of "Pickwick"

Charles Dickens’ early comic work The Pickwick Papers (1837) contains no fewer than five ghost stories: “The Lawyer and the Ghost,” “The Queer Chair,” “The Ghosts of the Mail,” “A Madman’s Manuscript” and “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton.” The book consists of a series of stories Dickens recently had written for the publishing firm of Chapman and Hall. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club was the serial title.

The ghost stories, while intrinsically entertaining, created a mystery destined for perpetual debate in literary circles. To wit: Did Dickens originally intend to incorporate them into The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, or were they conceived as stand-alone short stories? They stand alone quite satisfactorily, as Peter Haining demonstrated by including them among The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens (Franklin Watts, 1983). Haining points out in his introduction to the collection that Dickens wrote the Pickwick serial facing relentless publishing deadlines; he may have resorted to extraneous materials in order to stay on schedule. What actually occurred, Haining concluded, “will probably never be satisfactorily resolved.”

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Foraging for Used Books

Ooooo. Oooo! A paycheck, a few extra dollars after tithing and bill-paying, and a trip to the downtown library to return some books brought me today to the rear entrance of my favorite used bookshop on Spartanburg’s Main Street (Books ’n’ Stuff; phone (864) 542-0887). For my time invested browing the shelves on this blustery day, waiting out the aftereffects of a tropical storm that has swirled far inland, I came away with:

* Bloody Business: An Anecdotal History of Scotland Yard by H. Paul Jeffers (Barnes & Nobel, 1992);
* The Edge of the Unknown by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1930);
* The Murder Book: An Illustrated History of the Detective Story by Tage la Cour & Harald Mogensen (Herder and Herder, 1971).

All are hardbacks. Total cost: so cheap I cannot reveal it. It's truly a pity such works are relegated to the bargain sections these years -- but we hope to change that by heightening awareness in classical, historical mystery fiction and nonfiction. (Don't we?!?)

As you probably know, Doyle immersed himself in spiritualism during much of his later life, partly in reaction to the death of his son. The Edge of the Unknown, possibly his last work, chronicles some of his investigations and personal experiences, with observations on Houdini, ghosts, etc. The Murder Book is particularly well illustrated.

Gotta go dig in. And you should pay a visit to your local used bookshop or antique store with an "old books" corner. Never know what deals you'll dust off. . . .

Friday, July 01, 2005

Tragic Metal?

The British airship R101 was a marvel of Depression-era transportation. Powered by five diesel engines, it was designed for global flight -- and it offered attractive accommodations to monied travelers. More than 700 feet long, the R101 could transport 100 passengers in style, with berths, excellent dining and recreational quarters. What it could not offer was secure passage.

In October 1930, a year after its launch, the R101 embarked southward from Great Britain, bound for the empire’s Indian colony. Soon after lift-off, navigating over France, it was damaged in a storm, crashed and burned, killing 46.

Historians aren’t fully agreed, but some believe steel girders from the R101 were recycled and, shortly afterward, the metal was used in the building of an even more impressive airship . . . the German Hindenburg. The Hindenburg’s fiery and mysterious destruction in 1937 gave it a permanent place in infamy (although fewer lives were lost than in the previous disaster).