Saturday, April 30, 2011

Happy Walpurgisnacht!

It's a gorgeous evening, and I'm a bit tired after roaming around all day, but I wanted to wish all my readers a happy Walpurgisnacht, whatever you're doing. It's weird to think that in parts of Europe this is celebrated with witch costumes and drinking and mischief...just like Halloween...and with bonfires and an overall carnival atmosphere to welcome in the spring. I think we need to adopt some of that here in the U.S. How about it...a big secular "Welcome to Spring!" carnival, with music and laughs and merrymaking? 
And it's Dust & Corruption's third birthday. Still going strong!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

At the Cinema: Hitch's REBECCA

My latest foray to the AFI was for Hitchcock's 1940 film REBECCA, his first film upon coming to Hollywood and also the only one of his films to win a Best Picture Oscar. Hitch was nominated, but didn't win.

This flick is great fun. It's really a Gothic romance (which would later inspire a storyline on "Dark Shadows") but the moodiness and exceptional visuals make it stand out. It's also interesting to note that at the time it was considered a huge leap forward technically, with exceptional editing, cinematography, and special effects. (Kind of like AVATAR today, except for, you know, a story that doesn't have you rolling your eyes at every cliche. Yes, I thought AVATAR was technically stunning but a total loss in the story department.)

There's neat touches; while Joan Fontaine is too beautiful for the role of the spinster narrator, she does manage to sell the character's sense of being lost in an alien world, and of her chronic low self-esteem. She's easily intimidated and is always comparing herself to Max de Winter's first wife and tries hard to be like her...of course, a good deal of this is Max's fault. With all his brooding, it's easy to believe that he's still in love with Rebecca, and doesn't sufficiently communicate to his wife that he loves her the way she is and doesn't want another Rebecca.

The script has Max making a big deal about his new wife's youth, and all through the movie, when she's moving through his huge house Manderley, doorknobs and latches are constantly at a very high level, almost with her chin, as if giving the illusion of a child in a grown-up world.

Now, one HAS to address the issue of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who is one of the great all-time screen villains. As the housekeeper who is fanatically devoted to the memory of Rebecca de Winter, it's often speculated that she was a lesbian and in love with Rebecca. However, through all her sabotage of the narrator and even urging her to kill herself, it never comes across as the product of sexual passion. Instead, I get the feeling that Mrs. Danvers either had a parental obsession with Rebecca, and viewed her as some sort of daughter, or viewed Rebecca as sort of a wish-fulfillment figure, wanting to be Rebecca herself (or someone very like her). Her increasing madness and eventual conflagration don't strike me as someone who's in love, but someone so devoted that she'd do anything to protect her idol's place in the house, even in Mr. de Winter's memory. (If you want lesbian subtext, check out THE UNINVITED.)

It's still a great film, and worth watching. There was also a BBC miniseries in the 70s with Jeremy Brett and Joanna David that was remarkably faithful to the novel and was my first introduction to the story when it aired on PBS' MYSTERY! And the novel, by Daphne du Maurier, was a huge bestseller and is still in print, and easily found in libraries and used book stores. But the movie works not only as a Gothic chiller but as a study of low self-confidence and self-esteem, and a great example of Hitch's genius.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Saturday Night at the Cinema: Entr'acte

Here's something I'll be doing from time to time, just for the heck of it.  Tonight, put aside your books and we'll all go to the movies.  This evening's show: Rene Clair's 1924 experimental film Entr'acte, with music by Erik Satie.

They were obviously having fun with this one. We'll all go out for absinthe later; there's a new club down the street...


Dang, I'm really getting to love C. S. Harris. Her Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries always deliver; never too nasty or noir-ish, but at the same time, never too sugarcoated and cutesy in their historical settings.

This time, there's a serial killer out there, targeting the sons of wealthy and prominent men, killing them and maiming them in horrifying ways. They're left in public places with strange objects shoved in their mouths, like a page from a ship's journal, or the hoof of a goat. Someone has an agenda and is sending a message...but who? and why?

Even though Sebastian is ordered off the case, at one point by the father of one of the victims, he perseveres in finding out the culprit's motive and identity. And at times it's pretty gruesome going.

Sebastian continues to be an involving character, and his determination to get to the bottom of the affair is believable. He meets a wall of silence from the families of the deceased, and realizes a horrible secret connects them all, something so dreadful they'd rather remain silent than prevent another death.  In a subplot, St. Cyr's mistress, Kat Boleyn, is torn between her love for him (and he truly plans to marry her) and threats that she needs to reveal a French spymaster in order to save her life. And sadly, their affair is ended, as an act of necessity.

It's a good, brisk read, and also meditates on two big societal taboos, cannibalism and incest, and when they're intentional, inadvertent, or committed in desperation. It's all believable and a darned good read, although there's a few times when you may want to mentally turn away for a little bit. The Regency setting is still very well-realized, and I was amused to realize that, after reading one of Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries, that these were running almost side-by-side in time line but with different styles and outlooks.

Why Mermaids Sing is a crackling good read, and C.S. Harris continues to be a big favorite of mine. Luckily, I found the next two books in the series at a library book sale, so I can read them at my leisure.

Monday, April 4, 2011


OK, I'm finally getting down to reviewing the Judge Dee series.  Don't sue me.

The Chinese Gold Murders is the third of the establishing quintet of Judge Dee novels, all titled The Chinese (four-letter-word) Murders.  Although coming after two other books in the series, it's the first chronologically, and is missing the opening framing story found in the other four, which all open with an unnamed narrator learning the facts of the novel from a supernatural source.

The year is 663 CE, and young Dee Jen-djieh, only 33, sets off to his first appointment as a district magistrate.  Accompanied by Hoong Liang, an elderly family servant, he encounters two highwaymen, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, but impresses them so much with his strength of character that they reform and become his stalwart lieutenants.  (I know, it's fairly cliched, but as these characters had already been established, they had to be given origin stories.)  With his retinue established (a fourth lieutenant will be added later), he arrives at his post: the city of Peng-Lai, located across a gulf from Korea, near military grounds and a busy river.  (There is a real Penglai in China, in the correct spot, as part of the city of Yantai, in the Shandong province.)  And then Dee face three cases, as he does in most of the novels; sometimes they're completely separate, other times they're interconnected.

The book has many of the hallmarks of van Gulik's Judge Dee series; a map of the city in which it takes place, illustrations by the author, and a cast of characters at the beginning giving you a list of who's involved in what particular case.  And they're also named: "The Case of the Murdered Magistrate," "The Case of the Bolting Bride," and "The Case of the Butchered Bully."

The first, "The Case of the Murdered Magistrate," is over how the previous magistrate, one Wang Te-hwa, was poisoned in his study, which was locked from the inside.  And there's no apparent motive, either; was he on to something?  In "The Case of the Bolting Bride," a newlywed woman, returning to the city after a visit to her family, vanishes.  Was she abducted? or did she run away? Is she alive or dead? And "The Case of the Butchered Bully" is over the disappearance of an unpopular local, and how he turns up brutally murdered.

Now, what does gold have to do with this?  Well, two of the cases are intertwined, but another ends up on a trail of huge smuggling operation involving members of the local Korean community and shady characters around town. And there's also a possible weretiger prowling outside the city, and the ghost of the dead magistrate showing up in the tribunal...or is it really him?

I'm very fond of this series as a whole, but this novel has two points of special interest for me.  I first read it as a high-school student, after stumbling on one of the later novels at a used book store, and I loved the atmosphere and immersion in an alien culture.  (In fact, the Dee series is often cited by sci-fi and fantasy authors as a perfect way to depict an alien culture in a way that's still comprehensible to the average reader, and they're recommended to many would-be sf/fantasy writers for that reason.  I've also heard of them being read as part of college courses in Chinese history.)

The first point was a minor character, Tang, a haunted, insecure man who's a senior scribe of the Tribunal.  In the course of the novel it's revealed that he's in love with another man, the chief clerk Fan Choong.  Late in the novel he confesses his love for Fan to the Judge, who brushes aside the man's guilt over his attraction, saying, "We go as nature directs us. If thus two adults find each other, it is their own affair. Don't worry about that."  And as a young man dealing with the early stirrings of his homosexuality, I needed to read that.  And, in fact, they're words I remind myself of often as the years go by. In fact, there's pro-gay sentiments expressed here and there in the series, probably to make up for a less-than-enlightened character who shows up in an earlier book. (And remember, this was the late 50s and early 60s; these were radical sentiments for their time.)

Second, I have always been filled with a wistful fondness for the character of the dead magistrate. Van Gulik really makes sure that you get a feel for the kind of man he was, and it's someone who's very likable and sympathetic, if something of a slacker.  There's a great scene where the Judge and Hoong investigate the old magistrate's library, and get a feel for him from his books.  And I'm going to go out on a limb and quote the scene, I love it so.

"Well, Hoong, I have now a fairly clear picture of the murdered man's personality. I have glanced through the volumes with his own poetry; it is written in exquisite style but rather shallow in content. Love poems predominate, most of them dedicated to famous courtesans in the capital or other places where Magistrate Wang served."

"Tang made some veiled remarks just now, your honor," Hoong put in, "to the effect that the magistrate was a man of rather slack morals. He often even invited prostitutes to his house, and had them stay overnight."

Judge Dee nodded.

"That brocade folder you gave me a few moments ago," he said, "contained nothing but erotic drawings. Further, he had a few score books on wine, and the way it is made in various parts of the empire, and on cooking. On the other hand, he had built up a fine collection of the great ancient poets, every volume dog-eared and with his own notes and comments written in on nearly every page. The same goes for his comprehensive collection of works on Buddhism and Taoist mysticism. But his edition of the complete Confucian classics is in as virginal a state as when he purchased it! I further noticed that the sciences are well represented: most of the standard works on medicine and alchemy are there, also a few rare old treatises on riddles, conundrums and mechanical devices. Books on history, statecraft, administration and mathematics are conspicuous by their absence."

Turning his chair round, the judge continued.

"I conclude that Magistrate Wang was a poet with a keen sense of beauty, and also a philosopher deeply interested in mysticism. And at the same time he was a sensual man, much attached to all earthly pleasures - a not unusual combination, I believe.  He was completely devoid of ambition; he liked the post of magistrate in a quiet district far from the capital, where he was his own master and where he could arrange his life as he liked. That is why he didn't want to be promoted - I believe Peng-lai was already his ninth post as magistrate! But he was a very intelligent man of an inquisitive mind - hence his interest in riddles, conundrums and mechanical devices - and that, together with his long practical experience, made him a fairly satisfactory magistrate here, although I don't supposed he was very devoted to his duties. He cared little for family ties; that is why he didn't remarry after his first and second ladies had died, and why he was content with ephemeral liaisons with courtesans and prostitutes. He himself summed up his own personality rather aptly in the name he bestowed on his library."

Judge Dee pointed with his fan at the inscribed board that hung over the door. Hoong couldn't help smiling when he read, "Hermitage of the Vagrant Weed."

I love that. It makes Wang come alive as a likable human being, and I've sometimes speculated about bringing him back to life for my own series of tales...or maybe not.  He had his flaws but was self-aware, and his sharp mind and keen love of beauty have made him something of a role model for me.  I just hope I don't end up like him.

The Chinese Gold Murders has my highest recommendation by default, because I consider the ENTIRE Judge Dee series to be Required Reading.

I'll be following the series in chronological order, so next up will be three short stories set during the Judge's time at Peng-lai.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Lillian de la Torre's Sam: Johnson Stories, Part One

There's four books of de la Torre's stories featuring the Great Lexicographer as a detective.  It's significant as being the founding volume of the historical-character whodunit; that is, a historical mystery featuring a real-life character from the past functioning as a detective.  Now the genre is almost overpopulated with it; I've read stuff featuring Aristotle, Edgar Allan Poe, Davy Crockett, P. T. Barnum, Richard Burton, Algernon Swinburne, Jane Austen...the list goes on and on.  But de la Torre came up with it in the 1940s and kept it least in the Western world, as in Chinese literature such a tradition was already common.

For the newbies, Samuel Johnson (or Sam: as he's called; he actually wrote it that way) was a poet, critic, essayist, editor and lexicographer who lived from 1709 to 1784 and was the most prominent man of letters of his age, and many regard him as the greatest of all time.  He wrote the first dictionary of English, edited an influential volume of Shakespeare plays, and was also an amazing wit and raconteur, something that came out with a biography written by his friend James Boswell, who carefully chronicled Johnson's life and conversation.  He also detailed Johnson's health and habits so carefully that a posthumous diagnosis of Tourette's syndrome was reached; Johnson was prone to nervous tics and weird gestures, with odd vocalizations.  And by all accounts, Johnson wasn't afraid to tackle criminals (including someone who picked his pocket), and took an active part in exposing the Cock Lane ghost fraud.  He experimented in chemistry and, interestingly, with ceramic glazes.  In other words, he had an active, curious intellect, a definite role model.

About the stories....they're in classic Holmesian style (and if you think about it, Doyle borrows from Boswell anyway) with the loyal friend/narrator recording the detective adventures of his best friend.  They're written in 18th-century style, with the style and spelling/grammar quirks of period writing.  And almost all of them contain actual historical characters, or thinly veiled versions of actual historical characters, or are based on real-life crimes or events.

First up: "The Wax-Work Cadaver," set in 1763, which is a great way to start off the volume.  Boswell and Johnson go to visit Mrs. Salmon's famous wax museum, only to end up in a tangle of murder and mayhem.  It's a fun story, full of detection and overtones of gothick horror, with bones inside wax statues and a grisly murder.  And who can resist a murder in a wax museum?  Wax museums seem to be made for murders.

"The Second Sight of Dr. Sam: Johnson" takes place during Boswell and Johnson's tour of Scotland and the Hebrides in 1773, and actually has chunks lifted pretty much directly from Boswell's account of the tour.  While on the island of Raasay, they stumble on some odd happenings, which end up in a tragic death.  It's probably the least of the series; the mystery depends on people overlooking some painfully obvious clues, like why an elderly woman who lives alone would be drying a wet pair of trousers by the fire.

"The Flying Highwayman" isn't specifically dated but seems to take place in 1763 or '64.  It involves at least one real person, the blind magistrate Sir John Fielding (brother of novelist Henry Fielding, and who would later star in his own series of historical detective novels, written by "Bruce Alexander," pen name of Bruce Cook), and looks at the real contemporary problem of highwaymen.  This time, a highwayman seems to appear and disappear at will, and is impossible to track down...until Johnson and Fielding join forces and nab the wrongdoer.

"The Mondobbo Ape Boy," also set during the Scottish visit of 1773, involves a bizarre real person, Lord Monboddo, an eccentric nobleman with many odd, loopy ideas, but whose ideas also prefigured the theory of natural selection and Darwin.  While visiting the eccentric, two rough men show up with a naked boy, whom they claim is a wild boy they captured in a nearby forest.  Monboddo is wild to take in the boy and use him as proof of his theories, but Johnson smells a rat...

Autumn of 1769 is the time of "The Manifestations in Mincing Lane," which is a fictional fantasia based on the real-life Cock Lane haunting that Johnson helped expose.  De la Torre had a talent with atmosphere; this is a memorable tale, and the solution to it is just about every bit as grisly as the mystery that preceded it.  What is the source of the knockings on the wall in an old house?  Who is the phantom that appears?  The final revelation seems unlikely but from what I've heard and read it's actually quite plausible.

Aaaaand we're back to Scotland of 1773, for "Prince Charlie's Ruby."  Boswell and Johnson are staying in the home of the famous Flora MacDonald, a heroine of what was known as "the '45" to which Boswell and Johnson are played as being sympathetic.  (Then again, this is during the reign of madman George III, so the Young Pretender was probably a viable alternative.)  A mysterious visitor is revealed to be none other than the Bonnie Prince himself (who, it is rumored, really did slip back and forth from France to Scotland and England), who is in search of a fabulous ruby that was supposedly hidden for his future needs.

The holidays of 1772 give us "The Stolen Christmas Box," which sees Boswell and Johnson spending the Christmas festivities with Johnson's real-life friends the Thrales, especially Mrs. Thrale, another of Johnson's biographers, and whom Boswell disliked intensely.  A valuable gem is stolen, and bizarre coded messages are found.  Who is responsible?  What is the importance of the messages?  The ending is actually very unexpected, but only a minor fictionalizing of real events.

"The Conveyance of Emelina Grange" is yet another return to Scotland of 1773.  Boswell and Johnson are called in to witness an ill woman signing a questionable document; they finally smoke out an imposture and abduction.  De la Torre makes a claim for historical basis, but I can find nothing to back it up, except for it being based on the capers of a noted rakehellion Simon Fraser, who was the last man to be beheaded on Tower Hill.

The last story in the collection, "The Great Seal of England," is set in 1784 and is the first story published.  Based on a real-life disappearance of the titular Great Seal, and including a number of political figures of the time, including Chancellor Thurlow.  The Great Seal, a monumental responsibility and an object vital to the functioning of the Empire, is missing; who took it, how, and why?  Other objects of value have not been taken, and it hasn't been ransomed.  What was the purpose?

All told, it's good reading, even when it's not at its best, and certainly educates one about history and the notable figures of the 18th century.  DR. SAM: JOHNSON, DETECTOR i's out of print, but worth seeking out.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

At the Phantom Ball...

Everyone's gathered in the ballroom, dressed in their bohemian finery.  The open dance and performances haven't quite begun yet, and latecomers are still trickling in, but as part of the opening entertainment, and to get the ball rolling, two of the best dancers show off a little while the rest sip their champagne or absinthe.

And that only sets the scene for a wild night...

I just had my first-ever tango lesson last night, as part of a weekend tango festival at the University of Maryland.  My friend Barbara and I signed up for the "Tango Bootcamp" which taught us quite a bit in a short period.

And same-sex tangoing is nothing unusual. While it raises eyebrows in this country, hardly anybody bats an eyelash at two men tangoing together in South America. From what I gathered in the comments on YouTube, these two guys are actually brothers who are popular tango performers.

I'm thinking of investigating the local tango community and seeing what it's like. There's a small queer tango subculture out there, too, so we'll see if there's any of that in Washington....