Saturday, January 23, 2016

Snowbound Satuday at the Cinema!

OK, so we can't get together for our monthly night at the movies because there's been a historic blizzard, with at least a couple of feet of snow covering the streets. We're all hunkered at home, in singles or in groups, but at least we all have power. Coordinating by phone and social media, we decide to all watch the same movie on cable. It's one of those old b/w mystery movies we love so much, and this time it's extra-special because it's "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" with Bela Lugosi!

Our interactions online are uproarious, as we each sample drinks and food in our own homes. Although it's not our monthly evening out, it's a pretty good replacement, and we plan to repeat this whenever we're all housebound...because they're saying these storms may come more frequently...

Friday, January 22, 2016

Tales of Hoffmann: A Twofer

I'm overdue, I know. I've had a few crazy weeks and haven't been able to concentrate. But now I'm housebound by the expected blizzard, so I'm sitting down to get updated and all...

For this episode of "Tales of Hoffmann," I read two stories....

First, "Tobias Martin, Master Cooper" is entertaining enough, but also kind of annoying. It's a story of a cooper (barrel-maker) who has a gorgeous daughter whom he refuses to marry off until she finds a cooper of sufficient skill to impress him. Several young men apprentice themselves to Dad, work hard, and eventually one of them is chosen by the daughter and they marry.

That's it.

Seriously, that's it. No magic, no mystery, nothing macabre or outre at all. Hoffmann may have been a Romantic writer, and there is something here about how great and clean it is to work with one's hands, and a bit of German nationalism, but that's it. This is the most mundane Hoffmann story I've read so far. It was part of his 1818 collection "The Serapion Brethren" and one almost suspects it is filler.

The other story...

In "The Mines of Falun," we have young sailor, Elis, who is depressed as he went to sea to support his family, but returned home to find them all dead. He meets an old miner who talks of the glories of the underground world, and even talks of a Queen of the underground, whom he has sworn devotion to. Elis, enchanted, follows a miner to the mines of Falun (a real-life copper mining district of Sweden, and the photo above is from the mines). He is initially horrified by the reality of the mines, but is convinced by the miners' good spirits and sense of community to start working. He meets the head honcho Pehrson and his lovely daughter Ulla, and soon falls for the latter.

But one day Elis is in the mine and meets the old miner again, who mocks him for his love for Ulla and tells him he must give his devotion to the Queen of the Underworld. He finds out later that this old miner is a ghost, Torbern, who was devoted to the mines and the underground world, and who vanished in a cave-in a century before.

Elis is tormented by his love both for Ulla and for the underground world. He is ready to marry Ulla but on an impulse, just before his wedding, he goes down into the mines to fetch a rare mineral for her wedding present...and he vanishes in a cave-in.

Fifty years later, Elis' body is found in the mines, in a perfect state of preservation. He is brought to the surface, where an old lady approaches. It is Ulla, who has lived alone and is now half-mad. She embraces the preserved body as it crumbles to dust, and then she collapses, dead.

Now THIS is macabre!

It's got some themes you'll start to recognize in Hoffmann, of being torn between the mundane everyday world and a world of dreams and magic. (We saw this in "The Golden Flower Pot.") There's dark, morbid stuff, and not just with the ghost....we're left to wonder if Elis wasn't some sort of arranged sacrifice to the Queen of the Underworld? And there's a bit of Romanticism in its praise of being a regular working guy and thinking what you do is beautiful. It's hard to decide of Elis had stumbled into this or if he had been lead into a trap by Torbern's ghost. This isn't Hoffmann at his best, but he is close to the peak of his power, and this is from the same collection that the previous story was in.

Another macabre twist is that it's based (somewhat) on a real incident. In 1719, miners at the Falun mines came across a corpse in a disused passage, in perfect preservation. Brought to the surface, he was identified as Mats Israelsson (or Fet-Mats, as he was commonly known) by his former fiancee; he had vanished 42 years earlier, in 1677. When he was brought into the air, his body dried and became stonelike. Touted as a "petrified man," he was put on display, where the naturalist Linnaeus saw him and said he wasn't petrified, but covered in vitriol, and would decompose when it evaporated. That proved to be true, and he was buried under a church floor in 1749, then dug up during renovations in 1860 and put on display again, until finally reinterred in 1930. Fet-Mats' story was famous and he was written about by many of the Romantics, but Hoffmann's story is the one that has endured. There was almost an opera based on the story, to have been bombastically composed by Wagner, but it never came to be.

So. One story not all that great, but the other packs a real whallop, especially when you learn of the back story. "The Mines of Falun" is very much worth checking out, and feel free to skip "Tobias Martin, Master Cooper."

Saturday, January 2, 2016


This delightful collection, from the Poisoned Pen Press' "British Library Crime Classics" series, is simply top-drawer stuff, with stories ranging from the Victorian age to the mid-20th century. Martin Edwards has put together a jewel box here.

It kicks off with one of Arthur Conan Doyle's non-Holmes horror/mystery stories, "The Case of Lady Sannox," an old familiar favorite for me, and then to an abridged version of a serialized story, "A Mystery of the Underground," about a serial killer stalking the subway. The author, John Oxenham (pen name of William Arthur Dunkerly), is almost forgotten today, but in its time the story was a sensation and actually caused a dip in Underground ridership.

Richard Marsh's "The Finchley Puzzle" is fun and interesting, yet utterly preposterous, while R. Austin Freeman's "The Magic Casket" is much more grounded....and yet even more interesting and exciting. You don't mess with Freeman. "The Holloway Flat Tragedy" by Ernest Bramah is him at his best, writing about blind sleuth Max Carrados. I'm not a fan of Bramah; I read his first book of Carrados stories, hailed as classics of detection, and found them poorly written and unengaging, but this story was pretty good.

"The Magician of Cannon Street" by J. S. Fletcher is different from the rest, not quite a straightforward crime-and-detection story, and because it's so different it makes me want to look into Fletcher's work more. Edgar Wallace's "The Stealer of Marble" is a rather good story, impressive as it comes from an author infamous for cranking out stories at an amazing and rapid pace, and often tone-deaf as to quality. Up next, "The Tea Leaf", by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson, is a minor classic and a darned good read.

Thomas Burke's "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" is good melodrama and a fun read, if slightly overwrought, and an example of another author with uneven output. "The Little House" is a great story by H. C. Bailey, an author I've recently discovered, who wrote a very highly-regarded series around medical detective Reggie Fortune. (And everything I've read so far is just delightful.) Hugh Walpole's "The Silver Mask" is a classic cruel tale, and actually pretty unsettling.

"Wind in the East" by Henry Wade is a good police procedural, but the real jewel of this collection is "The Avenging Chance" by Anthony Berkeley. This story is a genuine classic. Inspired by the real-life Christiana Edmunds case (and even mentioning it), a women is poisoned by fatal chocolates. The twist? The box had been sent to someone else and when the recipient wasn't interested, a friend took it home, so its seems as if the wrong person died. The real solution is pretty devious....and the story was later expanded into a novel, "The Poisoned Chocolates Case," which has a different solution.

"They Don't Wear Labels" is a darkly subtle tale from an author better known as a humorist, E. M. Delafield, author of "Diary of a Provincial Lady". Margery Allingham's "The Unseen Door" is a short-short with her series detective, Albert Campion. "Cheese," by Ethel Lina White, is a wryly humorous suspenser from the author whose work inspired the films "The Lady Vanishes" and
"The Spiral Staircase." And winding it up is "You Can't Hang Twice" by Anthony Gilbert, in which a not-always-ethical (but still battling for the right) lawyer plays cat-and-mouse with a murderer in the London fog.

I can't speak highly enough of this collection; this is a great candybox of some of the best British crime writing out there, and a good way of being introduced to some of the best Golden Age detectives. This is a recent issue, still out there in bookstores and available in libraries. Required Reading.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all my lovely readers! If you had a great 2015, congratulations and keep up the good work! If your 2015 was bad or so-so (mine definitely on the lower end of so-so; this was a bad year for me at work), then here's hoping for a better year to come.

So, to get the year off on the right foot, here's a popular march from Strauss...