|Cartoon ©2014 by Nina Paley|
Alexander Pope wrote "A little learning is a dang'rous thing/Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring" Oh, I like a very deep drink from that mythical fount of knowledge. Spare the sipping straw and hand me a ladle. Better yet give me one of those yard long glasses -- the Coachman's Quaff! I'll be there for hours gulping away until my thirst for little known facts is quenched. I can't help it but I am one of those people whose curiosity never dies and who can't keep his fingers away from the Google search box. Throw an arcane nugget my way. Go on! I will not sleep until I find out exactly what it means or refers to. For your reading delectation here's another potpourri of esoterica gleaned from my reading of obscure murder mysteries and adventure novels.
1. Almoner is an odd word I’ve never seen nor heard in all my fifty plus years. In the some hospital scenes in the suspense thriller Give Me Back Myself
(review coming soon) I understood an almoner to be a person who arranges for welfare benefits for indigent patients. It was never really explained outright. The word was dropped into conversation and I had to glean meaning from the context. Further internet searching taught me that the word dates back to the medieval era when almoners were more prominent as distributors of alms. Usually an almoner was a monk, priest or other member of the clergy. It’s a distinctly British word (explains why I’ve never heard it even in all my decades working in hospitals) but I suspect that its use is probably passé these days. Anyone serving in a hospital as an almoner is almost certainly called a social worker or perhaps even may be a chaplain with extended duties.
2. Chances are if you’re a drinker you’ll know what a Manhattan is. But have you ever heard of a Bronx cocktail? Never came across it in books or bar menus. Never heard it ordered by my worldly college drinking pals who were known for their predilection for unusual potent potables. A Bronx turned up in a list of cocktails Waldo Lydecker ordered in Laura
. I was hoping for something strange but a Bronx is a nothing more than a standard martini (gin mixed with both sweet and dry vermouth) plus orange juice. No olive, of course. Sounds dreadful, frankly. Who wants to ruin good gin with fruit juice of any kind?
3. Reading The City of Whispering Stone
was like getting a crash course in 1970s Iranian politics and culture. It enlightened me about that country’s oppressive past and how the Shah, despite his charismatic persona as portrayed in US media of the 1970s, was a pretty nasty fellow especially regarding his suppression of political dissenters in consort with SAVAK, the Iranian secret police.
4. I have for some years now been reading and writing about witchcraft and devil worship as a motif in the detective novel. I thought by now I knew everything there is to know about the history of witchcraft in Europe and America. Wrong! Though I was hip to Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General, and his nightmarish campaign against witches in 17th century England I did not know of his book The Discovery of Witches
. In Witchwater
G. M. Wilson also tells us that within this notorious memoir, more a handbook for torture than a historical document, Hopkins lists the names of the most popular witch’s familiars. Paddock and Graymalkin who are beckoned by Macbeth’s Three Weird Sisters are there as well as Pyewacket (Kim Novak's pet in Bell, Book and Candle
). Another cat familiar named Elemauzer is mentioned too, though it is spelled Ilemauzar in the illustration below taken from a copy of Hopkin's original text. And it is a stray black cat named Elemauzer that ultimately provides the detective in Witchwater
with his most important piece of evidence.
5. Cultural enlightenment in art, music, and theater came to me at the most unexpected times. I learned all about the Mexican silversmith trade in Kathleen Moore Knight’s excellent South of the Border mystery The Blue Horse of Taxco
. Charles Willeford fooled me into thinking that numerous artists and painters he invented in The Burnt Orange Heresy
were real so compelling were their portraits. Imagine how frustrated I was when no one turned up in my Google searches. I actually started to laugh as my own gullibility. A Sad Song Singing by Thomas B. Dewey
gave a documentary feel to the early 1960s folk music and coffeehouse and hootenanny scene in New York City’s lower east side.
6. Had I been as curious as I usually am when I encountered the names of François Arago, Boisgiraud, and Sir Humphrey Davy, pioneers in the field of electromagnetic physics, I would’ve had one of the most ingenious mysteries I read this year ruined. And of course I’m not telling you the book’s title or even who wrote it. If you’ve already had the pleasure of reading this particular book you’re sure to know the title and author.
|Tjitjingalla corroboree, circa 1901|
7. One of my favorite reads of 2014 was The Glass Spear
, Australian writer Sidney Courtier’s first novel and a corker of a mystery. Within its pages I uncovered a treasure trove of Aussie lore and Aboriginal rites and celebrations including the corroboree
, a ceremonial ritual involving tribal costumes and masks, dance and acting as well as kurdaitcha
, a kind of aboriginal magic usually tinged with evil intent.
8. Joanna Cannan’s near parody of a detective novel The Body in the Beck
was rife with literary allusions to -- of all things -– mountaineering poetry! I learned more than I have ever wanted to know about those minor poets from the dusty halls of truly forgotten literature.
9. Even new books have a lot to teach me. I had a full-on immersion in the Inuit culture while reading The Bone Seeker by M. J. McGrath
. Though I didn't get a chance to review this book during my hectic summer it's a highly unusual mystery that I recommend to readers who like an anthropological challenge. You may come away with a whole new appreciation for Nunavut cuisine which includes pickled walrus flippers and aalu
, a dipping sauce made from caribou meat, fat and blood.
10. I got pages of info dump when reading Syndrome E
, another contemporary thriller, ranging from the neuromarketing trend in advertising to the fundamentals of splicing and editing 16mm celluloid. But the most gruesome bit of arcana came when I read of a shameful part of Quebec's history in the tragedy of the Duplessis orphans
. There's an example of a horror story in real life that one hopes is never repeated.