Something to add to my last blog. The launch of Linda Stratmann’s new novel, THE POISONOUS SEED, is at Waterstone’s Islington Green on Thursday 2 June from 6.30. I can’t be there, but maybe you can? All are welcome.
While I’m here I’ll mention that Anne Fadiman’s second book of essays, AT LARGE AND AT SMALL: CONFESSIONS OF A LITERARY HEDONIST. Hugely enjoyable, just like EX LIBRIS. Loved it and I enjoyed them all the more for having met her.
I spent Thursday to Sunday last week at Crimefest, where I moderated a couple of panels. Linda Stratmann was on one of them. She is the author of a book entitled CHLOROFORM which I’d heard was good – and it is. As far as I’d thought at all about it, I’d been aware of chloroform as a staple plot device in nineteenth century crime fiction and I might also have been able to come up with the fact that Queen Victoria was one of earliest women to have the pangs of child-birth relieved by it. But there is far more to the story of chloroform and Linda’s carefully researched and well-written account is enthralling. Until its discovery surgery had been an agonising process and the risk of shock was considerable. Chloroform at first seemed nothing short of miraculous. However it was not longer before rumours of a disquieting nature began to circulate; a number of young and apparently patients failed to come round from the anaesthetic. It was to be a very long time before the reasons for this were discovered and for around a hundred years chloroform continued to be in common use. It was superseded by among other things, including ether, which I remember being given at the dentist as a child. It was vile stuff, and chloroform in spite of its risks sounds much nicer. I was amused to learn that it would take far more a whiff of a chloroform-soaked hanky that so often features in early mystery stories to put someone out. However it was nice to learn from Linda at the conference that Agatha Christie, who had worked in a hospital dispensary, was one writer who knew her poisons.
Linda’s own first novel, THE POISONOUS SEED, set in 1880s Bayswater, has just come out.
I am working full tilt on the first draft of a new novel and that makes it hard to find time to blog. It also makes it hard to find time to read fiction, or rather, it’s not so much a matter of time, more there is something about being deep in my own narrative that makes me reluctant to muddy the waters by reading someone else’s. During the week, non-fiction is better with fiction being saved for week-ends. Fortunately there is plenty of non-fiction to hand and I’ve very much enjoyed my reading group’s latest choice, THE SURGEON OF CROWTHORNE by Simon Winchester. It is subtitled ‘A Tale of Murder, Madness, and the Love of Books’ and is the extraordinary story of how a convicted murderer played a vital role in the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. There are a number of remarkable aspects to this, not the least being that it was quite a while before Dr James Murray, editor of the Dictionary, came to realise that his assiduous correspondent, Dr, W. C. Minor, was not, as he had supposed, leading the leisured life of a country gentleman, but was actually banged up in Broadmoor. Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War had been committed there after shooting dead a labourer in Lambeth in 1872. He was suffering from what would now be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. Relatively well-off he was allowed to amass a substantial library from which he supplied thousands of quotations recording the context in which entries to the dictionary had been used. The account of how the great dictionary was begun and complied are as fascinating as anything else in the book and it’s a thoroughly good read.
Martin Edwards’ blog with the wonderful title: ‘Do You Write Under Your own Name?’ is a favourite of mine and I often pick up tips for books I might enjoy, especially in his forgotten books section. Not long ago he wrote a review of a novel by Fredric Brown which made me think that I’d like to reread a novel I hugely enjoyed when I first read it, Brown’s NIGHT OF THE JABBERWOCK. I took it away to read on holiday. I don’t think I’ve read it since I started writing myself and this added a whole new dimension. The first time I just read on, heart in mouth, absolutely mesmerised, really unable to put it down. This time I marvelled at the plot, which dovetailed like a piece of finely made furniture, appreciated the economy of the style and admired the skill with which Brown enlists our sympathy hor his quizzical, down at heel and humane narrator. It’s scary, suspenseful, and funny, too. I laughed out loud. It would have to figure on a list of my all-time favourite crime novels. Martin, if you read this, I want to know if you have read it. If not, you have a treat in store.
Another of Martin’s recent commendations was THE BURNING COURT by John Dickson Carr. Carr specialised in locked room mysteries, and there are two in here. I partly guessed the solution to one of them, but I am not terribly attracted to the puzzle novel, and what for me really distinguishes Dickson Carr’s novels is their creepiness. This one is truly sinister. I won’t spoil the ending, suffice it to say that just when I thought I knew what was going on things took a turn that I really did not expect and I ended the novel feeling, well, gobsmacked, really.
A while ago I blogged about Anne Fadiman’s little book, EX LIBRIS, and a kind reader let me know that she was giving a lecture in Sheffiel last night so I went along. She spoke about the difficult relationship between Coleridge and his son, Hartley, drawing on their correspondence. It was excellent, and when I spoke to her afterwards, she was charming. I’m going to hunt out some of the other things she has written.