Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Things I Learned While Reading Detective Fiction, part 3

For a quasi Luddite like myself a smart phone was one of the last things I ever wanted to purchase. Begrudgingly I have come to recognize how handy the phone can be. Like satisfying my never waning curiosity. In the "pre smart phone" days if I came across some arcane tidbit while reading I would make a note of it and then wait until I had computer access to look it up. Now I just pull out the phone and get the answer immediately. Odd names, unfamiliar places, historical events, mythological creatures, even foreign words and phrases are no longer mysteries that remain to be solved along with who did in Lady Gertrude Horsey-Ridingsworth in the locked, sealed and unusually hot conservatory. All my questions are answered instantaneously with a few simple keystrokes.

And with that long winded introduction out of the way let’s segue into this year’s annual post dedicated to only a smidgen of the really cool trivia I’ve gleaned in my reading of both long forgotten and contemporary crime and supernatural fiction.

1. Ever hear of the kylin? Probably not. All you sinologists probably prefer qilin, the accepted transliteration of this Chinese word. In fact, it took me a while to find it online since it was spelled kwylin in The Golden Salamander by Victor Canning where I first came across the word. It’s a mythical Chinese creature and according to a Chinese cultural website the qilin (kylin or however you wish to spell it) "is somewhat like a deer, with horns on the head and scales over the body. Its tail is like that of an ox's. The kylin is said to be an animal of longevity that could live for 2,000 years. It is also believed that the beast could spit fire and roar like thunder." Supposedly the kylin appeared to presage the arrival or passing of a wise person or a powerful leader. Its image is used on talismans, art and sculpture to signify good luck, prosperity and intelligence. One of the "Four Divine Creatures" the kylin is second only to the dragon in terms of importance in Chinese mythology. So how come we’ve never heard of it? We’ve certainly seen plenty of them in movies, post cards and Chinese restaurants. Check out the photo used here. Time to start a "Remember the kylin!" movement.

2. British life jackets were made of cork during World War 2 and blackout procedures so well known on land throughout urban England were also in place on ocean liners. This comes to you courtesy of the madcap plot in Nine -- And Death Makes Ten by Carter Dickson , also known as Murder in the Submarine Zone. I also learned all about George Robey (1869-1954), a music hall performer who is mentioned in passing in the novel. He apparently was very popular in the pantomime scene in the early part of the 20th century and was well known for his crazy eyebrows exaggerated and enhanced by make-up.

Thomas Hood
3. I had only heard the name Eugene Aram in the context of an obscure book by Bulwer-Lytton. Little did I know that the man was a real person. Eugene Aram was a resourceful philologist and linguist prior to becoming a notorious murderer. The story of Aram’s crime was made popular one year earlier than Bulwer-Lytton's novel in a lyrical ballad by poet Thomas Hood (1799-1845). Thanks, Joan Fleming, who dropped several allusions to the poem and Eugene’s fate in her crime novel Polly Put the Kettle On.

4. World history has always been lacking in my knowledge. Not much of what I learned decades ago in high school stayed locked in my memory bank. Thanks to my voracious reading, however, I’m always learning something new. In Captain Cut-Throat by John Dickson Carr I received a crash course in the Napoleonic Wars and got more than I ever would want to know about Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s Minister of Police who serves as a leading character in one of Carr’s most successful historical crime novels.

A early Murphy drip
It ain't for brewin' java.
5. Long forgotten medical procedures tend to crop up a lot in vintage crime novels. I learned all about the Murphy drip and proctolysis in The Cat Saw Murder. You know what a proctologist studies and treats, right? Well, back in 1909 Wisconsin surgeon John Benjamin Murphy invented a very early alternative to intravenous and subcutaneous injections that focussed on a human's rear end as an entry. It was primarily used like an enema to administer fluids and drugs when the regular oral method was not viable. Here I thought a colonoscopy was the worst possible medical procedure a human could endure.

6. The Strangler Vine by Miranda Carter was one of the best historical adventure novels I’ve read in recent years. I learned all about the amoral business practices of the East India Company, how they had their own army (!) and how the company operated on its own agenda disregarding all rules, regulations and humanity in their plan to take over India and subjugate its people. Long live imperialism! (That’s sarcasm, gang.) Yes, it’s a novel but Carter used numerous historical texts and diaries as research in order to tell her story. Eye opening and highly recommended.

7. Ancient Egyptian burial practices and the mythology of Egypt served as the background for The Game of Thirty by William Kotzwinkle. The name of an unrecognizable god or goddess appeared about every five pages and their importance in ancient Egyptian beliefs filled those pages. Rather thrilling for a mythology junkie like me. What wasn’t so thrilling was the pedophile subplot that polluted the rest of the pages. Seemed like every other book published in the mid 1990s was about murderous pedophiles. I always avoid these books and was pissed off that Kotzwinkle included one in his plot.

"Vision after the Sermon" by Paul Gaughin is featured
prominently in Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec

8. I learned a heck of a lot about Paul Gauguin and (to me at least) the obscure group of artists who made up the Pont-Aven School in the fascinating German crime novel Death in Brittany (originally published as Bretonische Verhältnisse). I thought Gauguin moved to Tahiti and did all his most well known work in the South Pacific. Little did I know that he founded an entire style of painting in the small town of Pont Aven in Western France, that his early work done here is considered by the locals to be the birth of modern painting, and that he is celebrated throughout Brittany. Someday I’d like to visit this part of France which we completely bypassed the first time I travelled there.

9. Who doesn't learn something arcane when devouring a Christopher Fowler book? Take his latest, The Burning Man. Its pages are chock full of Guy Fawkes facts and legends and the origin of burning effigies that led to the annual celebration of the Gunpowder Plot. But I never need to double check on anything when reading his books because Fowler always gives you *all* the details you'd ever want.  And then some!

10. Even a former Brit Lit student like me needs a refresher in his supposed field of expertise. So when I came across Malbecco in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusion in Catherine Aird's excellent impossible crime novel His Burial Too I was not so surprised that he turned out to be a minor character in The Faerie Queen. I wasn’t a fan of Edmund Spenser back in my college days. I tend to forget everything about that epic poem other than the Bower of Bliss section and that I found most of it boring as hell. Turns out that using the name Malbecco is an arcane way to call someone a paranoid jealous husband. He’s in Book III, Canto X (et al.) of Spenser’s seemingly endless poem if you want to read about him. I think an Othello allusion would've sufficed. What a show off that Catherine Aird is. Witty and smart, but a show off.


  1. Good post! In the same vein - all I know about Judaism comes from Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small books. ;)

    1. I read a couple of those back in my teen years. I knew nothing about the Talmud until I read Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. Kemelman probably taught a lot of people about his religion with those books.

  2. The problem is they are too handy and you can end up wiling away hours looking things up.

    1. It's become a fairly compulsive habit for me with nearly every book I read. I look up at least two or there things no matter what I'm reading. Sometimes I end up spending more time reading the info online than the book I've chosen!

  3. The first time, I remember, learning anything from a detective story was in a book by Appie Baantjer, which explained why people from Ghent, Belgium are called stroppendragers (noose bearers).

    Not long thereafter, I read one of ex-police commissioner's J.A. Blaauw's true crime books and one of the cases described was about the murder of Belgian man nicknamed "De Strop" (The Noose). There was no explanation for the nickname, but I knew at that point.

    1. That happens often with me, too. One example: after reading most of Webster's plays in college I had a good grasp of many of the allusions to The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi that for some reason turn up very frequently in vintage crime fiction.

  4. You're a better man than I, John, if you can learn those facts "with a few simple keystrokes". The little keys are half as wide as my fingers, the screen is squint-at-it small, and navigation is often more frustrating than fruitful. Enjoyed the post, though.

  5. Turn the phone on its side, Richard, and enlarge the text.

    Thomas Hoods last words, to his wife: Alas, my dear, I fear you're losing your livelihood.

  6. Great stuff John (and the fact that you retained this much from the books - I find it all too easy to put much of my mystery readinf details behind me - shocking, I know). And I sympathise about the phone by the way, as I am about to take the plunge having resisted for a very, very long time ... (but I love my Nokia!). Maybe I'll wait until the new year ...

    1. It helps that I keep an index card with a running list of the more outré trivia I uncover in my reading. There's no way I would remember most of this stuff when it came to writing this post.

      Good luck with the smart phone. I have entered the world of near daily texting - something I thought I'd never be doing - primarily due to the fact that everyone I know prefers to send me emails and texts rather than calling me.