Sunday, May 12, 2013

Things I Learned While Reading Detective Fiction

The more I dig into all these forgotten mysteries of the past the more my curiosity is aroused. I end up discovering more unusual tidbits about pop culture, world history, medicine, physics, animal behavior, what have you. For instance, a character will mention he played a game of bezique and I react with a cry of "What?" sending me off to my laptop a-Googling into the vastness of cyberspace in an attempt to quench my thirst for more trivia.

Here's a list of the most recent learning in my extracurricular education.

1. Bezique is a trick taking card game for two players. It can be traced back to the early 19th century in France. Winston Churchill apparently loved it. The scoring seems arbitrary and rather complicated. I am determined to learn how to play it if I can get Joe to stay of out of the garden for a couple hours in the coming months. (mentioned in Death Comes to Cambers by E.R. Punshon)

2. The Maginot Line, France's attempt to build a series of fortifications along the French-German border with the hope that it would contain fighting along the borders and prevent interior attacks, had a system of underground barracks interconnected with railways. A very cool set of map endpapers in Papa Pontivy and The Maginot Murder by Bernard Newman was pretty much the deciding factor in my purchase of this book. Still reading it and a review is soon to come.

3. August Wimmer (1872-1937) was a Danish psychiatrist who pioneered the field of study involving dissociative identity disorder back as early as the 1900s. The disorder is more commonly (and inaccurately) referred to as multiple personality disorder. I later learned one of his most important works, Psychogenic Psychoses (1936), wasn't even translated into English until 2003. (Can't reveal the name of the book where I learned this or the entire story is ruined.)

4. The first postage stamp was created in England in 1840 and is known as the "penny black." Stamps created for the island of Mauritius because a printing error (I later learned this was a myth) were at one time the most highly prized stamps in the world of philately.  Does anyone still collect stamps? (Mentioned, along with lots of other philatelic history in the excellent stamp collecting mystery A Most Immoral Murder by Harriette Ashbrook

5. The Monkey Gland Cocktail created sometime in the 1920s was named after a trendy surgical procedure developed by Serge Voronoff. (mentioned in The Dead Walk by Gilbert Collins)

6. Playing time on records of any given musical composition can vary from record to record depending on who is singing or conducting. This may seem obvious to most of you but it was a bit of an eye opener for me. (Murder Plays an Ugly Scene by L.A.G. Strong)

7. There is a fish called a roach native to Europe that is often found in brackish freshwater. When spawning they get violent and often jump out of the water. (Between Twelve and One by Vernon Loder)

8. I learned more than I ever dreamed of about aerodynamics, the science of wind tunnels, and their importance in designing aircraft in the fascinating military mystery Death Flies Low by "Neal Shepherd", aka Nigel Morland.

9. For an FFB post back in February I ended up researching the life of Huey P. Long after learning that his bid for the U.S. Presidency had inspired Sax Rohmer to write President Fu Manchu.

10. Elevator design does not seem all that much improved from 1930. OK, this one is facetious. This is mostly based on my frustrations in the new building where I work where all the staff elevators despite being computerized behave as if they are being operated by hand crank. (suggested by the elevator problems in From This Dark Stairway by Mignon G. Eberhart)

This may be a continuing series.  Let me know if anyone wants more trivia in the coming months.


  1. I love this post. You are right, there is so much to learn from mystery novels. The mystery that had all the information about aerodynamics and wind tunnels sound very interesting.

  2. Excellent post. I enjoyed reading it, John and yes, as a new subscriber to this blog, I'd love to read more trivia.

  3. Good post, John! Never thought one could pick up so much from reading early or forgotten mysteries. I should be more attentive when I read mysteries or other fiction. You should make this a regular post.

  4. Or movies. I spent the weekend watching the LADY CHAPLIN spy movie. I'm still trying to figure out what kind of sporting event was going in the first part of the film. It had something to do with women, badminton and men betting. I think.

  5. Great post, John. Weird, wild stuff. On a more prosaic note, I find that detective fiction is a great storehouse of data on how people lived, day by day, in times gone by. It's a genre that takes the minutiae of everyday life seriously—pretty much by design, since every mundane detail might actually be a Vital Clue in disguise.

  6. F.A.S.C.I.N.A.T.I.N.G. John. Absolutely you should continue this series. Why didn't I think of it? Huey Long's life also inspired ALL THE KING'S MEN, novel and movie. You probably knew that, but just thought I'd mention it.

    Ah, the Maginot Line. And didn't it fall rather quickly once the Germans showed up. It's always amazed me how the French went to all the trouble of establishing this barrier, then at the first sign of trouble...well, you know the rest.

    I learned a heck of a lot about philately in Ellery Queen's CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY.

  7. In re the monkey gland cocktail, you might find the history of the American quack John R. Brinkley to be interesting. He was doing "goat gland" transplants at about the same time. He was such a charlatan he may well have ripped off the monkey gland guy, but his fame was so widespread it might have been the other way around. Here's a link to his history in case you are interested. Fascinating guy. In any event, I love your blog.