I read lots of old books. Lots of old books, ranging from the 1970s back to the 30s and beyond. Most of the time it’s pretty easy to make sense of these, despite the occasional reference which, though clear at the time, is lost on a modern reader, and despite differences in the authors’ environment and my own. I won’t go into how long it took me to comprehend the Inns of Court, for example.
But some stories, stories that even today are considered classics, were written for such a specific audience, and with assumptions about the knowledge that the audience would possess, that some of their finer points are just about indecipherable today.
The specific story that prompted me to write is an excellent ghost story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad”, written around 1900 by the English writer M. R. James. James was a scholar and teacher at both King’s College, Cambridge, and at Eton, and his stories were initially written to be read aloud to his colleagues and students at those schools. As such, they assume that the listener (or reader) will be familiar with Latin, with English literature, with history and geography, and with the Bible.
I’m about to detail the plot of “Oh Whistle”, so if you haven’t read it, go now and do so.
The story concerns a youngish professor at Cambridge by the name of Parkins, a man of little humor and only a bit more imagination, who disdains those who believe in ghosts, ghouls, or other such supernatural manifestations. During the Christmas break he’s made plans to go to Burnstow on the coast of East Anglia to work on his golf game. Upon hearing of this, a fellow professor asks if he could look at the remains of a Templar preceptory there. This Parkins readily agrees to.
He discovers the old ruins quite easily, and while poking around, makes another discovery: a brass whistle, inscribed in Latin, apparently hundreds of years old. The first line of the inscription reads “Fur Flabis Flebis”. The second reads “Quis Est Iste Qui Venit” (“Who is this that comes?”), a reference to the Book of Isaiah.
Parkins proceeds to blow this whistle, and after many odd and unpleasant happenings, is at length assaulted by a supernatural being that forms a corporeal body from the bedclothes of the second bed in his room at the inn.
But while the story presents a translation of the second portion of the Latin, the first is a mystery even to Parkins himself. Presumably this was of great amusement to the James’ listeners, as it means (approximately) “You will blow this, thief, and you will weep.”
That seems like a rather important thing to know if you want to understand the story. In addition, the title is from a poem by Robert Burns that details an illicit romance – surely intended ironically in this case, and another nuance easily missed. By me, at least.
As I said, most writers are not so willfully obscure as James is, and I’m really not sure if understanding the story completely was worth the effort it took. Since I first read it 20 years ago, I suppose it is nice to finally know what the Hell was going on! James wrote many other excellent stories, the best know of which is “Casting The Runes”, which pretty much everyone will understand, and since his work is in the public domain, it’s widely available for free.
I do recommend the excellent collection Casting The Runes And Other Ghost Stories, which is not free but includes an excellent introduction and many footnotes by Michael Cox.
(The title of this post, naturally, translates as, “Oh, the times! Oh, the ways!”)
Horace Rumpole, barrister, was not hard to find. The self-proclaimed “Old Bailey hack” was frequently at work there in London’s Central Criminal Court, or at the Uxbridge Magistrate’s court, or meeting with a client in Wormwood scrubs. He could be found – rarely – in his chambers at Equity Court, in the fictitious Outer Temple, and more frequently at Pommeroy’s Wine Bar nearby. Sometimes he even returned home to his wife Hilda, whom he referred to as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
In addition, back in the 1980s, he could also be found on the shelves of any bookstore you happened to enter. Though not much spoken of today, the Rumpole books by John Mortimer sold by the bushel.
The books are mostly collections of short stories, many adapted by author John Mortimer from his own scripts for the British television series. Rumpole is presented as an experienced barrister still clinging to a low rung on the ladder of his profession, and not expecting to rise much further. He’s a confirmed blowhard and cynic, and derives much of his pleasure in life from needling the judges and opposing counsel he faces each day.
No description could possibly convey the utter hilarity of these stories. Rare indeed is the situation that Rumpole takes seriously, though he does in the end generally come through for his clients (sometimes despite their wishes!). And in addition to the humor there are moments of melancholy and outrage, as his clients circumvent justice or fall unfairly into its implacable grasp. Rumpole himself rarely despairs, but continues to soldier on, despite at least one forced retirement, as well as cases with titles such as “Rumpole’s Last Case” and “Rumpole and the Angel of Death”.
You can really start anywhere, but if possible it’s best to read the stories in chronological order, as the cast of continuing characters come and go, get married, become judges or take silk as Queen’s Counsel, and so forth. Through it all Rumpole is unchanged, as enduring as England itself, and frequently as silly.
I DVRed Another Thin Man a while back and finally got around to watching it last night. Not bad! Perhaps a bit dated but the chemistry between William Powell (no relation, sadly) and Myrna Loy was really good, and the supporting cast was top-notch.
The story: Nick and Nora Charles have just returned to New York from California, new baby in tow. Their business manager (and Nora’s father’s old partner), Colonel MacFay is being stalked by a former employee who went to jail for ten years and feels he’s owed compensation. This man, Church, says he’s dreamed about MacFay’s death twice, and if he dreams about it again, it will happen.
So naturally he’s the main suspect when MacFay does turn up dead. Hijinks follow.
Sheldon Leonard is really good as Church, as is Abner Biberman as his henchman Dum-Dum. Marjorie Main has a hilarious scene as a landlord. And even Shemp Howard turns up!
But the most interesting of the bit players is Tom Neal. Here he’s as clean-cut as he can be, and a romantic – he writes plays! He has a crush on the boss’s daughter! His part sort of echoes his upbringing, as a well-to-do midwestern college boy. Unfortunately, his more famous turn as an amoral drifter in the noir classic Detour is closer to the remainder of his life.
Neal was a jealous man with a violent temper, and as a former boxer, could back it up. He famously beat the crap out of Franchot Tone over a woman, leaving the Frenchman with a broken cheekbone and nose (basically, he smashed his face in) and a concussion. Years later, apparently tired of his third wife, he shot her through the back of the head with a .45 and served six years for manslaughter.
He got out in 1971 but didn’t get to enjoy his freedom much. The next year he fell over dead from a heart attack at 58.
I picked up John Keegan’s The First World War the other day. I read his book about World War II many years ago and enjoyed it, and though I’d learn a little more about The War to End All Wars.
As I was wandering around the bookstore with this doorstop under my arm, I got to thinkink about World War I and popular fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of traditional mysteries lately, and in may of them – especially those by Jacqueline Winspear and Charles Todd – the war looms large. These character’s lives are changed for ever by the war, and damaged by the things they’ve seen and done, sometimes beyond repair.
But I’ve also read a lot of mysteries that were written in and about Britain in the 1920s and 30s, by authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Philip Macdonald, John Dickson Carr, and others, and these books rarely if even mention the war.
Now, there were books such as Good-by To All That and, in Germany, All Quiet on the Western Front, but not much in the popular fiction of the day. My own guess is that the war was too sensitive a subject to be brought up in something as lightweight as mystery. But it’s interesting to me that so many writers essentially pretended that such a wrenching event that affected so many lives had never even happened.
How about you? Can any of you think of any contemporary references to the was that I’ve missed?
Went to see the Texas Rangers’ last home game of the season yesterday, and got to see them crush Seattle 12-5. I had only heard of two of the Mariners’ players, Ichiro Suzuki and Wily Mo Pena. One of their starters was under the Mendoza line.
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE! As part of fan appreciation day I walked off with this fine commemorative figurine:
Now, having just been at Bouchercon, it occured to me that it can’t be that hard to churn out cheap pieces of crap like this. So why not for writers? I mean, who wouldn’t like a cruddy clay statue of John Connolly or S.J. Rozan, as turned out by slave-wage laborers? We could even make them in action poses. Who wouldn’t want a tiny statue of Robert Crais pounding a typewriter, scribbling in a notebook, or throwing back drinks at the Bouchercon bar.
Somebody really needs to make this happen. No, not me. Sorry, I’m busy.