Review: Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well by Nancy Atherton

I which I betray a liking for cozy mysteries and thereby revoke my mancard.

Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well. Nancy Atherton. Viking. $25.95.

aunt-dimity-wishing-wellLight and dark. Sweet and sour. Night and day. Work and rest. Life is best lived by moving through contrasts, enjoying each in turn. We derive pleasure from experiencing changes, and when we’re sated, we can only wait for the renewal of desire.

Which is a roundabout way of anticipating criticism for saying that I liked “Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well.” Fiction, we’re told repeatedly, are supposed to teach us, make us more empathetic, show us a new way of viewing the world. In other words, the puritans in intellectual clothing warn us, we are fallen and must mend our ways, and Gaia forbid that we praise a book for being entertaining.

It doesn’t help matters that Nancy Atherton’s mystery story is set in a paradisiacal English village overseen by a ghost full of sound advice, a spectral Dear Abby if you will. In the small Cotswold village of Finch, everyone knows everyone and their business. No one seems to work for a major corporation or has to commute long distances to go to work. There’s the owner of the tea shop, the riding academy, a lawyer, the local businesswoman who owns several businesses, the vicar and a mother, Lori Shepherd, who narrates the stories. There are retirees and semi-retirees who still keep their hand in.

Then there’s Aunt Dimity. She extraordinary because she’s dead, and she talks with Lori with the help of a blue notebook in which she writes. Lori keeps the notebook next to a stuffed rabbit that is sort of her talisman.

Even for cozies, sounds awfully twee, but bear with me for a moment.

“Wishing Well” opens with the funeral for a quiet man who kept himself to himself and never got to know the villagers very well. At the graveside, the residents are surprised at the late arrival of a personable young nephew from Australia. Charged with fixing up the place for sale and to deal with his uncle’s memoir, he is the focus of everyone’s curiosity, particularly when clean-up begins on the overgrown yard and reveals an unusual wishing well. Not surprisingly, wishes are made and, surprisingly, many of them are granted.

And that’s where the fun kicks in, because while the village can be a paradise, the villagers are not. There’s jealousy, meanness, and pettiness, and the well’s gifts sometimes come with a sting attached.

“Wishing Well” is an easy book to sneer at as a comfort read. I supposed some people sneer at sleep, but we need it, too. Reading “Wishing Well” got me into bed, under the reading lamp, early on a Friday evening. The wife was downstairs reading about resource depletion on the computer, and the kids were safely occupied. For awhile, my life and its concerns faded while I roamed with Lori and Aunt Dimity, seeing the villagers discover that not all wishes are golden, and learning who was behind them and why.

So I admit it. When I closed the book, its tale told, I felt more at ease with the world. What more could I want?

Categories: Mysteries & Thrillers | 1 Comment

Today’s Weather Report from the Hershey Area

Mornings start early at the House Beautiful. The kids get up for school 6:30. Ivan the Terrible meows us up at 5:45. Ivan spends the day sleeping to prepare for his duty of acting as unofficial alarm clock. Which works fine except on Sundays. That earned him a stint on the Florida room, but I suspect that a couple hours spent contemplating nature only encourages him.

The point is that today we woke up to the first extended shower of the season. There’s something comforting about sipping my coffee, looking over my to-do list, hearing the patter on the skylight and knowing that none of my chores requires me to go outside.

Except to take the kids to school. On Tuesday and Thursdays there’s early band rehearsal, so I had to go out anyway.

But here’s the view from the front window, to get you situated:

Hershey in the spring, 2014.

As you can see, the daffodils exploded. But what inspired me to take the picture and post this is to remind myself of what this looked like two months before.

Hershey in winter, 2014

We’ll have to enjoy it while it lasts. It’s 63 now. It’ll drop to below freezing tonight.

Categories: Rough Draft | Leave a comment

Dashiell Hammett’s The Master Mind (223B Casebook)

One fact that’s cropped up in my researches into Sherlockian parodies is how many great writers turned their hand to the task. A.A. Milne, P.G. Wodehouse, O. Henry, and even Watson’s literary agent (a chap by the name of Conan Doyle) seemed to have quite a bit of fun with their stories. Everyone except for Mark Twain, who didn’t appreciate Holmes’ talents.

Dashiell Hammett and his sherlock parody pastiches

Dashiell Hammett

In the latter couple of years of Doyle’s life, some surprising names turn up. Thanks to Charles Press’ “Parodies and Pastiches Buzzing ‘Round Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” we find that humorist James Thurber, as a 29-year-old reporter for the
Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, wrote a dozen parodies for the newspaper in 1923, where they have remained ever since, unseen by anyone. Are the good? Are they interesting? We won’t know until someone goes down to the Columbus Public Library and examines the microfilm. Volunteers?

Then there’s the case of mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, who turned in this brief, acidic portrait of “The Master Mind” for The Smart Set, then under the editorship of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. The magazine had published his debut story, “The Parthian Shot” in October of the previous year, and his leftist views and experiences as a Pinkerton detective influenced his take on Holmes.

Stories from the 223B casebook — Sherlock Holmes parodies and pastiches published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — are published here every Monday and Friday. The up-to-date list can be found here.

The Master Mind, Dashiell Hammett Sherlock Holmes parody pastiche

Categories: Sherlockian Parodies and Pastiches | Leave a comment

Winter Laundry

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introduction

I have never been really keen on sending my money to the electric company. Please don’t misunderstand me. I love electricity. There is no good substitute for electric lights or refrigerators or washing machines. That said, why use — and pay for! — what I don’t need. I can always find better uses for my cash.

I grew up with my mother hanging laundry on a clothesline. She was very happy to get a dryer but still hung the wash out whenever she could. At the time, I could not understand why my mother didn’t use the dryer for every load of clothes. Once I acquired my own electric bill, I understood a little better. When Bill and I got married, I moved from my apartment into his house and for the first time in years, had a clothesline again. So, I started using the clothesline every sunny day. We lived in South Carolina then, so there were a lot of warm, sunny days, even in January. I did not have to use the dryer that much.

Then we moved up here to central Pennsylvania. It is lots colder in the winter and not quite as hot in the summer. It takes longer to warm up in the spring and cools off quicker in the fall. Winter days tend to be shorter with less daylight and sun. Which is to say, the clothesline season is not nearly as long as it was in South Carolina. I used my dryer frequently. When it was raining, when it was cold, when it was convenient, when I hadn’t planned ahead, when I had a load of towels and I wanted them snuggly soft. My electric bill went up. When the rates were raised, it went up some more.

I went back to Amy Dacyzyn and “The Complete Tightwad Gazette” and recalculated how much I was spending, every time I used the dryer. You need to know about how long the dryer runs, what its wattage is and how much you pay the power company for each watt used. Electric utilities bill by the kilowatt-hour or KWH. A KWH is 1,000 watts used in one hour. Your dryer (or other electrical appliance; this works for all of them) should have the wattage marked somewhere on it and, maybe, in the instruction manual. Multiply the wattage on the dryer times the number of hours you use it per load and divide by 1000. This is the dryer’s KWH usage. Multiply this number by the electric company’s fee per KWH which is on your bill. This is how much it costs to run that appliance for however many hours you use it per load. Don’t forget to add in the cost of any magic dryer products you use. For us, it worked out to about fifty cents per load. So, if I dry thirty loads of laundry per month then it costs me fifteen dollars a month in electricity plus a box of dryer sheets now and then. We won’t count the wear and tear the dryer inflicts on clothing.

As we are very, very serious about our goal of financial independence, we always look for ways to spend less. Using a clothesline is free, so this was an easy choice. I planned ahead and all the laundry went onto the line, weather permitting, in spring, summer, and fall. On rainy days and cold, gloomy winter days, I used the dryer.

This cut our electric bill noticeably, but still not enough. I wash more laundry in the winter because we wear more, heavier clothing. What in the summer might be one load of shorts and t-shirts, becomes two loads of long pants, turtlenecks, and sweaters. Thus, my costs are higher.

I became more aggressive about hanging out the laundry on iffier days. Gradually, I began using any day that it wasn’t actually raining or snowing. Heavy, humid mist and fog counts as rain. Outdoor temperature became immaterial and so now you see me, in a parka, putting wash on the line in 15 degree weather.

suburban-stockade-clothesline-1

Hanging Out in Winter

Hanging laundry in the winter is quite different from the summer. In July, it really doesn’t matter what time you hang it up as long as you get two or three hours of daylight. In the winter, every hour of daylight is precious.

To start with, you have to get outside with the laundry basket before ten AM. If you have a second load to do, get started washing earlier and wash the heavier, longer drying items first. Things like polar fleece and acrylic sweaters dry pretty fast. Jeans, heavy wool and cotton sweaters, and bulky layered fabrics take a lot longer. That load has to be washed first so it can go on the line first. Then it has some additional drying time while load two is being washed. This extra hour can make the difference between being dry enough to put away and still wet garments that have to finish overnight on the racks.

Winter laundry should be spaced so that there is air flow around each and every piece. Clothing or towels that are overlapped because you don’t have enough clothesline space will not dry. If you haven’t yet set up your clothespoles, think about how much space you will need for multiple loads of winterwear and plan ahead for extra line space. T-poles with three or four lines are much better than those square clotheslines. The laundry won’t shade itself and hangs freely with more space for air and sun. If you have a choice in locations, put the poles in full sun and at right angles to the prevailing winds. Avoid the square clothesline unless you have no space for anything else.

I went into huge detail in the “Hanging Laundry” post how to exactly hang everything you own so I will try not to repeat it here too much. In the winter, you have less sun and less time in which to extract moisture from the laundry so clothes management matters.

Sort your laundry inside the house! A pile of wet, tangled garments will freeze into a solid mass and that gets difficult to work with. I arrange my laundry on the line so it is easier for someone else to bring it back inside and put away. As I pull clothes from the washer, I shake out each garment, open any buttons, snaps, zippers, or Velcro and lay them out flat in the basket. I put the lighter weight stuff (like socks) in the basket first and end with the heavy sweaters and jeans. They take much longer to dry and they freeze up fast so they go on the line first. Shake out every wrinkle and smooth every collar and flap while you are still inside and warm. Crumpled clothes will freeze up and won’t dry well and they get permanent press wrinkles as well. I also pull out any pockets so they hang free, and undo and smooth out any ties or sashes.

I keep a special pair of gloves by the door for laundry use. Heavy gloves get in the way of my hands and I end up taking them off. Holding wet, frozen laundry in twenty degree weather is a good way to court frostbite so find a pair you can live with. My gloves are a cheap pair of Joe Boxer two layer knit gloves from K-Mart. The pair consists of a full, inner glove of some cheap polyester knit and an over, fingerless glove of the same cheap knit. Worn separately, the gloves are pretty poor at keeping the cold out. Together, they work fairly well at a) keeping your hands from freezing and b) allowing you fine muscular control of your fingers so you can manage the clothespins. The other reason I like these gloves is the fingerless portion (the over-layer) can be separated and worn while typing in our cold house.

Once I have put on my parka, hat, and special laundry gloves, I head outside. A full sun day with a breeze will dry almost all laundry no matter how cold it is. Overcast and windy will work pretty well too. No sun and no wind mean that only things like sheets will dry completely. Everything else has to finish on the indoor drying racks. Fortuitously, my clothesline is at right angles to the prevailing north wind. We lucked out here; we put the clothespoles alongside the existing sidewalk. This means I, sometimes, get sun on the front of the garments and wind on the back. If the day is windy, with no sun, I will hang the laundry from the back side of the clothesline so that the wind blows through the garments. This is especially helpful with heavy pants, to have the wind blow down through the legs. Any openings on the garments: sleeves, necklines, legs, pocket flaps; if you can face them into the wind, then do so. The wind will blow into the garment, separating front from back and it will dry far faster. As you hang everything up, shake out wrinkles and crumples and open up legs, sleeves, pockets, and the legs of socks. Two layers of fabric frozen together will take far longer to dry. Having an airspace speeds up the process.

In the summer, I may hang tops by the shoulder seams or by the bottom hem, depending on the garment. In the winter, all tops get hung by the bottom hem as the sleeves, especially the armpit area dry better. When a pullover is hung by the shoulder seams, the sleeves hang down alongside the body of the garment and the underarm area just won’t dry. Regular sweatshirts and pullovers get four clothespins, evenly spaced on the hem, to support the garment. I don’t want to stretch out the hemline. Sweaters get five, seven, or even nine clothespins on the bottom hem to keep it smooth, well supported, and unrippled.

Putting the wash outside in the dead of winter cut my dryer bill down substantially. I only used it when it was raining or snowing or to finish off slightly damp laundry. But I wanted to do more. I knew about indoor clotheslines (Amy Dacyczyn has one in her attic and I saw, while house hunting here in Pa, a few basement clotheslines) but we had no space for one. The drying racks I had seen were tiny and flimsy. And then, there they were. Waiting for me at Wilhelm’s Hardware were an array of Amish made heavy duty, solid wood drying racks of various sizes. The biggest ones had just shy of forty-eight feet of total drying space.

I bought two racks in the largest size for about 115 dollars for the pair. We have had these racks for eight years now. They get used on a regular basis and have held up beautifully. They see some use in the summer when it rains, but they really shine in the winter. It took a few years of use to pay back their initial cost and now they cost me nothing but some time and floor space. Since purchasing my two lovely racks, I have trash picked some others and been given a few racks as well. None of them hold as much as my big racks, but they allow for overflow.

Now that I have a bunch of racks, I can see that there are things to look for. Solid wood construction is at the top of the list. Anything else just won’t hold up. How the rungs are arranged can affect how much clothing you can put on the rack. Tippyness is a big defect. My best trash picked rack is solid wood and is clearly designed to hold underwear and socks. Get the very biggest racks you have space for! Underwear, socks, heavy sweaters, pants; they all take an amazing amount of rack space. Consider that a big clothesline may have 150 feet of linear drying space. You will need several big racks to come close to that amount of room. You also have to have storage space for the folded racks that is easily accessible (so you use them instead of the dryer) but not too much in the way. The biggest racks hold the most clothes. They also take up quite a lot of floor space when in use.

When you go shopping for racks, start with old time, local hardware stores. They are more likely to have well made, wooden racks than Wal-Mart or Lowes will and they can use your business. Antique stores may have old wooden racks too. Ask around; many people have a rack or two tucked away that they inherited when Grandma got her dryer. Solid wood racks can be repaired with new dowels and rubbed down with butcher block oil to restore them. If you have to put butcher block oil on a rack, let it stand for a few weeks before using so nothing gets on your clothes. Lehman’s catalog and the Vermont Country store both sell wooden racks but they are expensive and the shipping for a big one gets costly. Go local and ask around first.

Laundry that goes straight to the racks from the washer gets handled a little differently than laundry that goes on the clothesline. Clotheslines have far more room and it is all in a straight line. Racks hold a lot of garments in a very small space with rungs close together and the bottom-most rungs only inches off of the floor. So if I have two loads, I wash the smaller, lighter stuff first and fill the rack from the bottom up and the inside out. The second, heavier load gets washed last so as to go on the top and outside rungs. Underwear, socks, and napkins go closest to the floor and I will arrange and rearrange until everything is on the rack, without any overlap or crowding. Practice has made me a lot faster in loading a drying rack. I wash most of my laundry inside out to prevent sun and washer fading of the fabric. I put the garments on the rack inside out and then, at the end of the day, I turn the clothes right side out to finish drying overnight. Racks do take more time to dry heavy clothes completely; far more than an outdoor clothesline ever will so be prepared for this. Don’t put away even slightly damp garments as they get a mildowy, musty odor from this practice.

I use the racks to finish drying any wash that is still damp from outside. When the weather is bad, the laundry goes directly onto the racks in our living room. Depending on the item, it may take 12 or more hours to dry, but everything is always dry by morning. The only laundry the racks don’t do well are sheets and large towels. This is a function of acreage, not drying ability. You have to have a huge rack in order to spread out a king size sheet. As large as my racks are, sheets have to be folded over multiple times to fit and then they don’t seem to dry as well. So, I let the sheets wait for better weather.

Eventually, we may set up a clothesline on our Florida room so as to dry sheets, towels, and other large items when the weather is bad. I am flexible in my laundry schedule, I have storage space for some waiting laundry, and the racks let me dry all the regular stuff so this hasn’t really needed to be done. A Florida Room clothesline would give me more flexibility with sheets, fabric yardage and such so I keep revisiting the idea when we have bad weather for days and big stuff piles up.

Exercise, fresh air and savings

So, a fair amount of work to save fifteen bucks or so a month. But hanging clothes outside in the winter isn’t as much work as it would be to earn that money. That money adds up over time. Earning extra money would be taxed. I am not levied an additional tax when I choose to keep more of my income in my pocket. As a side benefit, I get a little exercise walking back and forth, fresh air, and much needed sunshine.

I look at winter laundry as an exercise in mindfulness and goal-setting. How serious am I at achieving financial independence? Do I really want to be able to never set foot off of my property unless I really, really want to? Am I willing to live my beliefs of caring for my environment and not sending dollars to terrorists and heartless corporations? Or am I going to take an easier way, a less organized way, a more costly way that says I don’t want to be bothered with meeting my values; that I don’t believe in them when it takes some time and effort. Winter laundry is a way of saying my goals matter to me. Do your goals matter to you?

Categories: Suburban Stockade | 1 Comment

The Unmasking of Sherlock Holmes (from the 223B Casebook)

“So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle, / The doll and its maker are never identical.” So wrote Arthur Conan Doyle in 1912 in a poetical rebuttal to a critic’s accusations that he borrowed from Poe’s stories only to have Holmes’ dismiss his detective-hero Dupin as “very inferior.” We know, of course, that Doyle admired Poe. To an American reporter’s question about whether he had been influenced by Poe he replied, “immensely!”

John Cusack portrays Edgar Allen Poe

When your author has appeared in movies more often than you, it’s time for a gritty reboot.

He wrote later: “If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay a tithe to a monument for the master; he would have a pyramid as big as that of Cheops.”

Nevertheless, those who could not distinguish between the theft of others’ words and the use of ideas to create original works were fond of bashing Holmes. Today’s example from the February 1905 issue of “The Critic” comes from Arthur Chapman (1873-1935), the newspaper columnist and cowboy poet whose most notable work is “Out Where the West Begins.”

Stories from the 223B casebook — stories published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — are published here every Monday and Friday. The up-to-date list can be found here.

In all my career as Boswell to the Johnson of Sherlock Holmes, I have seen the great detective agitated only once. We had been quietly smoking and talking over the theory of thumbprints, when the landlady brought in a little square of pasteboard at which Holmes glanced casually and then let drop on the floor. I picked up the card, and as I did so I saw that Holmes was trembling, evidently too agitated either to tell the landlady to show the visitor in or to send him away. On the card I read the name:

Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin,
Paris.

While I was wondering what there could be in that name to strike terror to the heart of Sherlock Holmes, M. Dupin himself entered the room. He was a young man, slight of build and unmistakably French of feature. He bowed as he stood in the doorway, but I observed that Sherlock Holmes was too amazed or too frightened to return

the bow. My idol stood in the middle of the room, looking at the little Frenchman on the threshold as if M. Dupin had been a ghost. Finally, pulling himself together with an effort, Sherlock Holmes motioned the visitor to a seat, and, as M. Dupin sunk into the chair, my friend tumbled into another and wiped his brow feverishly.

“Pardon my unceremonious entrance, Mr. Holmes,” said the visitor, drawing out a meerschaum pipe, filling it, and then smoking in long, deliberate puffs. “I was afraid, however, that you would not care to see me, so I came in before you had an opportunity of telling your landlady to send me away.”

To my surprise Sherlock Holmes did not annihilate the man with one of those keen, searching glances for which he has become famous in literature and the drama. Instead he continued to mop his brow and finally mumbled, weakly:

“But—but—I thought y-y-you were dead, M. Dupin.”

“And people thought you were dead, too, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said the visitor, in his high, deliberate voice. “But if you can be brought to life after being hurled from a cliff in the Alps, why can’t I come out of a respectable grave just to have a chat with you? You know my originator, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, was very fond of bringing people out of their graves.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll admit that I have read that fellow, Poe,” said Sherlock Holmes testily. “Clever writer in some things. Some of his detective stories about you are not half bad, either.”

“No, not half bad,” said M. Dupin, rather sarcastically, I thought. “Do you remember that little story of ‘The Purloined Letter,’ for instance? What a little gem of a story that is! When I get to reading it over I forget all about you and your feeble imitations. There is nothing forced there. Everything is as sure as fate itself—not a false note—not a thing dragged in by the heels. And the solution of it all is so simple that it makes most of your artifices seem clumsy in comparison.”

“But if Poe had such a good thing in you, M. Dupin, why didn’t he make more of you?” snapped Sherlock Holmes.

“Ah, that’s where Mr. Poe proved himself a real literary artist,” said M. Dupin, puffing away at his eternal meerschaum. “When he had a good thing he knew enough not to ruin his reputation by running it into the ground. Suppose, after writing ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’ around me as the central character, he had written two or three books of short stories in which I figured. Then suppose he had let them dramatize me and further parade me before the public. Likewise suppose, after he had decently killed me off and had announced that he would write no more detective stories, he had yielded to the blandishments of his publishers and had brought out another interminable lot of tales about me? Why, naturally, most of the stuff would have been worse than mediocre, and people would have forgotten all about that masterpiece, ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue,’ and also about ‘The Purloined Letter,’ so covered would those gems be in a mass of trash.”

“Oh, I’ll admit that my string has been overplayed,” sighed Sherlock Holmes moodily, reaching for the hypodermic syringe, which I slid out of his reach. “But maybe Poe would have overplayed you if he could have drawn down a dollar a word for all he could write about you.”

“Poor Edgar—poor misunderstood Edgar!—maybe he would,” said Dupin, thoughtfully. “Few enough dollars he had in his stormy life. But at the same time, no matter what his rewards, I think he was versatile genius enough to have found something new at the right time. At any rate he would not have filched the product of another’s brain and palmed it off as his own.”

“But great Scott, man!” cried Sherlock Holmes, “you don’t mean to say that no one else but Poe has a right to utilize the theory of analysis in a detective story, do you?”

“No, but see how closely you follow me in all other particulars. I am out of sorts with fortune and so are you. I am always smoking when thinking out my plans of attack, and so are you. I have an admiring friend to set down everything I say and do, and so have you. I am always dazzling the chief of police with much better theories than he can ever work out, and so are you.”

“I know, I know,” said Sherlock Holmes, beginning to mop his forehead again. “It looks like a bad case against me. I’ve drawn pretty freely upon you, M. Dupin, and the quotation marks haven’t always been used as they should have been where credit was due. But after all I am not the most slavish imitation my author has produced. Have you ever read his book, ‘The White Company ‘ and compared it with ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’? No? Well do so, if you want to get what might be termed ‘transplanted atmosphere.’”

“Well, it seems to be a great age for the piratical appropriating of other men’s ideas,” said M. Dupin, resignedly. “As for myself, I don’t care a rap about your stealing of my thunder, Sherlock Holmes. In fact, you’re a pretty decent sort of a chap, even though you are trying my patience with your continual refusal to retire; and besides you only make me shine the brighter in comparison. I don’t even hold that ‘Dancing Men’ story against you, in which you made use of a cryptogram that instantly brought up thoughts of ‘The Gold-Bug.’”

“But you did not figure in ‘The Gold-Bug,’” said Sherlock Holmes with the air of one who had won a point.

“No, and that merely emphasizes what I have been telling you—that people admire Poe as a literary artist owing to the fact that he did not overwork any of his creations. Bear that in mind, my boy, and remember, when you make your next farewell, to see that it is not one of the Patti kind, with a string to it. The patience of even the American reading public is not exhaustless, and you cannot always be among the ‘six best-selling books’ of the day.”

And with these words, M. Dupin, pipe, and all, vanished in the tobacco-laden atmosphere of the room, leaving the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, looking at me as shamefacedly as a schoolboy who had been caught with stolen apples in his possession.

Categories: Sherlockian Parodies and Pastiches | Leave a comment

Agatha Christie: Murder Among the Academics

As we noted yesterday, an author’s works can get spread through the culture by being recast and retold. The work gets stripped down and rebuilt by others, much like the way a home can be remodeled. A Victorian can have its gingerbread ripped off, its wooden clapboard siding covered over with vinyl, and its furnishings of heavy dark oak and ceramic be replaced with couches and tables devoid of any ornamentation. A kitchen hearth that would have delighted our grandparents can be replaced with chrome and steel countertops and tables that remind one of an autopsy suite and be declared beautiful and enjoyable. At least that’s the only way I can explain why Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” can resurface as an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle.

When literary scholars debate Agatha Christie.

When literary scholars debate.

Another way an author gains immortality is to be put on the dissecting table by professors and students of literature. This usually happens to literary writers such as Edith Wharton, Henry James or James Joyce. Even with the rise of Genre Studies or Cultural Studies (usually focusing on television), Christie has been ignored by those who strive for their PhDs or MFAs.

But in recent years there has been an infestation of scholarly rummagings inside the body of Christie’s works. A seething lava of studies and papers has been produced that will erupt this weekend at the University of Exeter in southwest England.

As Christie was born and raised in Torquay, the Riviera of England, it’s natural that the university would take an interest in its native daughter. The university acquired her correspondence with her lifelong business agent, Edmund Cork, the only publicly available archives of her papers.

So this weekend, they’re putting on a daylong show at Exeter: “Agatha Christie: Crime, Culture, Celebrity.” Scholars from around the kingdom, including two from Europe and one from the U.S., will gather to display their collages of papers created by breaking down her books like auto thieves in a chop shop.

Reading the schedule creates an effect much like seeing a celebrity you’ve known for a long time after undergoing an extensive round of plastic surgery. It’s the same person, but something artificial has been applied that’s disconcerting.

The titles of these lectures tantalize. It’s a bizarre world of reading Christie, not for entertainment, but with an eye for the hidden meaning and unconscious associations. Can Christie’s “The Hollow” really be compared to Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” as Dr. Makinen will describe in “Anxiety of influence and the woman as artist”? Did Jane Baker (no doctor, alas) find enough cloth to weave into “Textiles in text: Clothes in Agatha Christie’s interwar detective fiction? Can Poirot survive being queered by Dr. Atay in “Queering Agatha Christie’s work?” And when did “queering” become a verb anyway?

And the work must give the educated some joy. After considering a career plowing through Thomas Mann or James Joyce, ground that has been harvested to the point of depletion, it must be a pleasure to dwell in Christie’s world.

I’m sure all of these talks make perfect sense to the scholars in attendance. Evolution has trained the human eye to find patterns in everything it sees. But I also have no doubt that Christie would be vastly bemused by all the fuss.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger Meets Agatha Christie, And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

(Yes, I am ashamed to write that headline. Let’s move on and pretend it never happened.)

What keeps a writer like Agatha Christie alive once she is no longer around? Writers and other artists seem like firewood to be used and consumed. Some burn like oak: long-lasting and giving off an even heat. Some go up like flash paper. Then there’s the damp twigs and worm-riddled logs that never catch fire at all.

Arnold meets with movie critics after the premiere of "Sabotage." based on an Agatha Christie novel

Arnold meets with movie critics after the premiere of “Sabotage.”

Agatha Christie has been gone nearly four decades, and she seems to be burning like well-seasoned pine. It’s been a steady flame, with the stately progressions of TV adaptations and continued sales of her books. Every now and then, she gives off a pyrotechnic pop, emitting a shower of multi-colored sparks that catch your attention.

There have been several sightings of sparks lately that has caught my attention. The biggest one came from Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose movie “Sabotage” failed to find an audience when it premiered last week. It’s the story of a DEA agent and his squad who find themselves in an isolated place and being slowly killed off, one by one.

Can you guess that it was “inspired by” a Christie book? Can you guess which one? Can you watch the “red band” trailer below, with added dollops of violence, cursing and general Arnoldish-ness, before deciding that life is too short to spend with this?

I admit that I was skeptical about the Christie connection, but it was repeated so many times that I had to accept it as fact, especially after it was revealed that the movie’s first working title was “Ten.”

What I can’t imagine is the producers thinking that it was worth paying Agatha Christie Ltd. for the right to use her book as the skeleton for Arnold Freakin’ Schwarzenegger. The concept of a group of people locked away somewhere being slowly killed is hardly original to Agatha, as anyone who has heard of the “Friday the 13th” movies would recognize. And they certainly wouldn’t have revealed the Arnold/Agatha connection without paying the estate.

One could only conclude that the original idea was to remake “Ten Little Indians,” perhaps with another actor in the lead role. Then Arnold was signed, and like a black hole, the light of the story had to be bent around this new gravitational field, distorting it so much that it reworked the title from “Ten” to “Sabotage,” and guaranteeing that the movie would fail. Because “Ten” (now permanently emblazoned “And Then There Were None”) is essentially a tragedy, a tale of revenge.

And Arnold doesn’t do revenge unless he’s dishing it out.

Time to reboot Poirot

What they should have done, you see, is bend the light the other way. They needed to do what Christie did in her time, rewrite the script with Arnold as Hercule Poirot.

Plus, Arnold would look soooo cute as Agatha Christie's Poirot with a wax mustache.

Plus, Arnold would look soooo cute with a wax mustache.

Imagine it! A Poirot who is fussy and foreign. Arnold could do that. Poirot is a comic figure who no one would believe was that smart. Arnold had been underestimated as a lunkhead with muscle for brains, yet succeeded as a movie star and governor of California.

Admit it, you want to hear “my little grey cells” spoken in an Austrian accent.

Imagine the premiere of “Dead Man’s Folly,” shot where Christie set the story, at Greenway, her home on the River Dart. We’d get to hear David Suchet opinion of Arnold’s performance, which would probably rank among the greatest acting jobs of his life.

And you know what? I’ll bet the producers will still manage to insert a chase scene at the end, with a dapper Poirot taking down a row of baddies with a machine gun while spitting out “let’s see your little grey cells.” Because, after all, Arnold must still be Arnold.

During it’s first week, “Sabotage” took in only $8.9 million. It’s rated 22% by the critics and 46% by the audience on Rotten Tomatoes. Arnold-as-Poirot will certainly take in more than that.

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Great Moments in Bad Timing: Vanity Fair and Mickey Rooney

With the recent passing of film star Mickey Rooney, Vanity Fair found itself pushing the boundary of “Too Soon?” too far.

“Too Soon?” has become something of a catch-phrase to identify any joke involving a recently dead celebrity or tragic mishap.

In the case of Rooney, the magazine’s Hollywood issue last month contained a page of movie set slang. Among them was a phrase for a slow dolly shot called “a little creep.” The term was inspired by Rooney, who one anonymous set drone characterized as “a nasty piece of work.”

mickey-rooney-vanity-fair-little-creep

Of course, Vanity Fair is embracing the late star on the front page of its web site with a hastily written story by Mary Jo Sales about her encounters with the actor.

But there’s no doubt that the man was great at entertaining folks, as you can see by reading his memoirs. The stories need to be taken with a grain of salt larger than Mickey. There’s one about him and Howard Hughes fighting over Ava Gardner that ended with her braining Howard. That part happened, but Mickey wasn’t there.

Then he tells a story about being at Phil Silver’s apartment with Dick Paxton and Sidney Miller. They decided to get a hooker. Rooney proposes a contest to see who lasts the longest; winner gets his date paid for.

According to Mickey, they last five minutes, but Rooney wins with 20. Afterwards, after Rooney leaves, Silvers corners the girl and says “Did Mickey really last for twenty minutes?”

“Are you kidding? Four minutes of fucking and sixteen minutes of imitations.”

“She had the numbers right,” Mickey confesses, “but the order was wrong. I’ve always found that it’s better to get a woman laughing first.”

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The Succored Beauty (223B Casebook)

smart-set-oct-1905Little is known of William B. Kahn, and therein lies a mystery, because his sole contribution, published in The Smart Set magazine’s October issue, has earned a place in the pastiche canon. It was republished in a limited edition in 1964 by the Beaune Press, again in “The Game is Afoot” anthology, and was praised in LeRoy Lad Panek’s “The Origins of the American Detective Story” as being one of the first to recognize how many Holmes stories involved marital problems. Research revealed the existence of a William Bonn Kahn (1882-1971) who wrote “The Avoidance of War, a Suggestion offered by William B. Kahn, written for the Society for Peace” in 1914. Could it be the same person?

Stories from the 223B casebook — stories published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — are published here every Monday and Friday. The up-to-date list can be found here.

One night, as I was returning from a case of acute indigestion—it was immediately after my divorce and I was obliged to return to the practice of my profession in order to support myself—it chanced that my way homeward lay through Fakir street. As I reached the house where Combs and I had spent so many hours together, where I had composed so many of his adventures, an irresistible longing seized me to go once more upstairs and grasp my friend by the hand, for, if the truth must be told, Combs and I had had a tiff. I really did not like the way in which he had procured evidence for my wife when she sought the separation, and I took the liberty of telling Combs so, but he had said to me: “My dear fellow, it is my business, is it not?” and though I knew he was not acting properly I was forced to be placated. However, the incident left a little breach between us which I determined on this night to bridge.

As I entered the room I saw Combs nervously drinking a glass of soda water. Since I succeeded in breaking him of the morphine habit he had been slyly looking about for some other stimulant and at last he had found it. I sighed to see him thus employed.

“Good evening, Combs,” said I, extending my hand.

“Hello, Spotson,” cried he, ignoring my proffered digits. “You are well, I see. It really is too bad, though, that you have no servant again. You seem to have quite some trouble with your help.” And he chuckled as he sipped the soda water.

Familiar as I was with my friend’s powers, this extraordinary exhibition of them really startled me.

“Why, Oilock, ” said I, calling him, in my excitement, by his praenomen, “how did you know it?”

“Perfectly obvious, Spotson, perfectly obvious. Merely observation,” answered Combs as he took out his harmonica and began playing a tune thereon.

“But how?” persisted I.

“Well, if you really wish to know,” he replied, as he ceased playing, “I suppose I will be obliged to tell you. I see you have a small piece of courtplaster upon the index finger of your left hand. Naturally, a cut. But the plaster is so small that the cut must be very minute. ‘What could have done it?’ I ask myself. The obvious response is a tack, a pin or a needle. On a chance I eliminate the tack proposition. I take another chance and eliminate the pin. Therefore, it must have been the needle. ‘Why a needle?’ query I of myself. And glancing at your coat I see the answer. There you have five buttons, four of which are hanging on rather loosely while the fifth one is tightly sewn to the cloth. It had recently been sewn. The connection is now clear. You punctured your finger with the needle while sewing on the button. But,” he continued musingly and speaking, it seemed, more to himself than to me, “I never saw nor heard of the man who would sew unless he was compelled to. Spotson always keeps a servant; why did she not sew the button on for him? The reply is childishly easy: his servant left him.”

I followed his explanation with rapt attention. My friend’s powers were, I was happy to see, as marvelous as they were when I lived with him.

“Wonderful, Combs, wonderful,” I cried.

“Merely observation,” he replied. “Some day I think that I shall write a monograph on the subject of buttons. It is a very interesting subject and the book ought to sell well. But, hello, what is this?”

The sound of a cab halting before the door caused Combs’s remark. Even as he spoke there was a pull at the bell, then the sound of hasty footsteps on the stairs. A sharp knock sounded upon the door. Combs dropped into his armchair, stuck out his legs in his familiar way and then said: “Come in.”

The door opened and there entered, in great perturbation, a young lady, twenty-three years of age, having on a blue tailor-made suit, patent-leather shoes and a hat with a black pompon ornamenting it. She wore some other things, but these were all that I noticed. Not so Combs. I could see by the penetrating glance he threw at her that her secret was already known to that astute mind.

“Thank heaven,” she cried, turning to me, “that I have found you in!”

“Are you ill, madam?” I began; but suddenly realizing that I was not in my office but in Combs’s consultation room, I drew myself up stiffly and said: “That is Mr. Combs.”

The young lady turned to him. Then, lifting her handkerchief to her beautiful eyes she burst into tears as she said: “Help me, help me, Mr. Combs.”

The great man did not reply. An answer to such a remark he would have regarded as too trivial. The lady took down her handkerchief and, after glancing dubiously at me, said to Mr. Combs: “Can I see you privately?”

Once, and once only did I ever before or, indeed, since, see such a look of rage on Combs’s face. That was when Professor O’Flaherty and he had that altercation in Switzerland. (See “Memoirs of Oilock Combs.” Arper & Co. $1.50.)

“Madam,” said he in frigid tones, “whatever you desire to say to me you may say before Dr. Spotson. How under the sun, woman,” he cried, losing control of himself for a moment, “would the public know of my adventures if he were not here to write them?”

I threw Combs a grateful look while he reached for the soda water. The visitor was momentarily crushed. At last, however, she recovered her equanimity.

“Well, then,” she said, “I will tell you my story.”

“Pray, begin,” said Combs rather testily.

“My name is Ysabelle, Duchess of Swabia,” the visitor commenced.

“One moment, please,” interrupted Combs. “Spotson, kindly look up that name in my index.”

I took down the book referred to, in which Combs had made thousands of notes of people and events of interest, and found between “Yponomeutidae” and “yttrium” the following item, which I read aloud:

“Ysabelle, Duchess of Swabia; Countess of Steinheimbach; Countess of Riesendorf, etc., etc. Born at Schloss Ochsenfuss, February 29, 1876. Her mother was the Duchess Olga, of Zwiefelfeld. and her father was Hugo, Duke of Kaffeekuchen. At three years of age she could say ‘ha, ha!’ in German, French, English, Italian and Spanish. Between the ages of five and fifteen she was instructed by Professor Grosskopf, the eminent philosopher of the University of Kleinplatz. By sixteen her wisdom teeth had all appeared. A very remarkable woman!”

As I read this last sentence, the duchess again burst into tears.

“Pray, pray, compose yourself, duchess,” said Combs, taking a pipe from the table and filling it with some tobacco which he absent-mindedly took from my coat-pocket.

The duchess succeeded in calming herself. Then, rising majestically and gazing at Combs with those wonderful eyes which had played havoc with so many royal hearts, she said, in solemn tones:

“I am lost!”

The manner in which she made this statement as well as the declaration itself seemed to make a deep impression upon Combs. Without uttering one word he sat there for fully four minutes. The way in which he puffed nervously at the pipe showed me that he was thinking. Suddenly, with an exclamation of delight, he dashed out of the room and down the stairs, leaving the amazed duchess and myself in his apartments. But not for long. In forty-three seconds he was again in the room and, dropping into his chair thoroughly exhausted, he triumphantly cried:

“I have it!”

Never had I seen my friend wear such a look of victory. The achievement which merited such an expression upon his countenance must have been remarkable. By and bye he recovered from his fatigue. Then he spoke.

“Madam,” he said, “I have the answer.”

The duchess sobbed in ecstasy.

Combs continued:

“The moment that you said you were lost,” he began, “an idea came to me. You must have noticed, Spotson, how preoccupied I seemed before.

Well, that is the sign of an idea coming to me. Before it had time to vanish I dashed down the steps, into the vestibule, looked at the number of this house and jotted it down. Madam,” he cried, drawing out a book and looking at one of the pages, “madam, you are saved! You are no longer lost! This is No. 62 Fakir street. You are found!”

During this entire recital the duchess had not said a word. When Combs had finished she stood for a moment as if she did not understand and then, realizing the fact that she was rescued, she wept once more.

“My savior,” she cried as she prepared to leave the room, “how can I ever thank you?” And she pressed into Combs’s outstretched hand a large gold-mesh, diamond-studded purse.

The door closed, the carriage rolled away and the Duchess of Swabia was gone.

“Spotson,” said Combs to me, “don’t forget to write this one down. It has a duchess in it and will sell well to cooks and chambermaids. By the way, I wonder what she gave me.”

He opened the purse and there, neatly folded, lay two hundred pounds in bills.

“Bah!” cried Combs contemptuously, “how ungrateful these royal personages always are.”

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Spouse Conversion or Being A Team (Part 2)

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It is hard to change someone else's behavior without coercion and even harder to change someone's way of thinking.

It is hard to change someone else’s behavior without coercion and even harder to change someone’s way of thinking.

So you decide to stay. Overall, you and your children are better off if you stay with the spendthrift. Now comes the hard part. Fixing or at least modifying your spendthrift spouse’s ways. It is hard to change someone else’s behavior without coercion and even harder to change someone’s way of thinking. If you could change someone’s long-held beliefs through a closely reasoned argument, then they didn’t really believe what they claimed at all. Think of atheists and Baptists arguing at cross purposes!

You can, much more easily, modify your own behavior. First and foremost, you cannot expect anyone to do what you won’t do yourself. If you leave your clothes all over the floor why should anyone else pick up theirs? If you buy whatever strikes your fancy, why would your partner reign in their spending? So you can spend even more? That won’t ever happen.

If you are disorganized, random in your habits, refuse to plan your trips to save on gas, won’t reheat and eat leftovers, and turn up the thermostat in the winter to 70 degrees, then don’t expect your partner to suddenly pick up the slack because you are concerned about resource depletion and waste. They won’t do it and why should they? You don’t.

Since we do what is important to us, if you want tidiness and refuse to tidy up yourself, the message being sent is you are a control-freak jerk who wants other people to clean up after you. If you claim to be genuinely concerned about the environment, then start walking and bicycling and stop driving everywhere. If you don’t, then you are a hypocrite expecting other people to cut back on their carbon footprint while you continue to do everything you want, when you want. If you really believe hard, economic times are coming, then don’t sit in front of the TV without darning socks or some other hand work. You have to model the behavior that you want to see.

So, back to what you can change. If you want to start cutting down the debt load and building up the savings, then you need to curb your spending first. Set up an emergency fund (if you don’t already have one) and start funneling the savings into it. If you know your partner will spend every extra penny on comic books and overpriced shoes, then you may have to take over paying the bills so you can divert saved dollars to debts and saving.

An easy trick to show how money can add up is to get a gallon glass jar and start putting all your change into it, every day. Keep it out of sight. Find out how much your spouse spends every day on vending machine snackies and store-bought coffee. Put that amount in the jar too. When your partner bemoans how much she needs some spare cash, present the jar, count the amount, and show how little expenses add up. Then use the saved change to pay a bill off or stock up the pantry. This method can help because many people have no imagination at all. They simply cannot understand that a dollar or two a day can really add up to lots of dollars over several months or a year. They have to be shown.

If you keep your paychecks, bills, and other monies separate, then focus your energy on paying off your personal debts and building your personal emergency fund. Keep a ledger as you go to prove that you succeeded at getting debt free by not spending. That is, you did it the hard way by saying no, and not by winning the lottery and hiding the money from your spouse.

While you are getting your financial house in order, stop ragging on your partner for their spendthrift ways! It doesn’t work, so instead, mention that you are cutting back so as to pay off your student loan and thus improve the household’s long-term security. When the transmission falls out of your car, pay for the repairs from your emergency fund instead of your Visa card. When your spouse asks how you did this, tell them you stopped shopping for recreation and started planning ahead for the long-term security of the household.

Explaining why

Notice the use of this phrase: long-term security of your household. The whole idea behind planning for the future, savings, getting debt-free, reskilling, becoming self-sufficient, being energy efficient, improving your health, and bettering relationships with other people is long-term security for you and your loved ones. If you don’t care where your future meals and lodging are coming from, then you might as well drift along. It is a lot less work.

Does your partner know and understand why you want to turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater? You must lay out your reasons. Unless your spouse is a mind-reader, then he won’t know why you want a fully stocked pantry. You have to explain to him that you want to be better prepared for disruptions at the grocery store because of hurricanes (like Katrina and Sandy), tornados, earthquakes, blizzards, ice storms and other natural disasters. Your natural disaster will vary depending on your location; no one in Florida will believe you are prepping for an earthquake but they all understand the concept of hurricanes. Any area with a winter is vulnerable to ice storms and extended power outages. These are easy reasons to explain and easy for most people to understand. “I want our family to be better prepared, just like the Red Cross and FEMA recommend.”

If your partner has trouble even conceiving that anything bad could ever happen, then you can turn to the media. Seeing or reading detailed scenarios can really clarify to the non-imaginative person why you want to have some food stashed away. Disaster movies, TV shows, and novels can all be great aids for disaster preparedness. Observe and comment on the poor communication skills and total lack of preparedness and ask your partner what they would do if the power went out for a week in January. A good novel like “One Second After” or “Alas, Babylon” can illustrate what-ifs in an easy to understand way. The author’s scenarios more than compensate for the lack of imagination of your partner.

This is magical thinking on par with refusing to make a will since if you don't have one, you can't die.

This is magical thinking on par with refusing to make a will since if you don’t have one, you can’t die.

Your spouse may answer that preparing for problems invites them to happen. This is magical thinking on par with refusing to make a will since if you don’t have one, you can’t die. I think this kind of thought pattern is really a fear of the future and a fear of not having control. You can explain that having money in the bank and food in the pantry does not invite problems into your house. It means that you can still put food on the table even when the grocery stores are closed or you had to take an unpaid furlough at work. Having savings and no debt give you more options if you are laid off. Your household does not sink into an immediate disaster; you have some leeway, some cushioning in which to find other work while still meeting your bills.

It may help to show your spouse that you are not one paycheck away from disaster. You are two, four, even twenty or more paychecks from disaster. Does knowing this make your spouse feel more secure? More willing to not buy those unwearable shoes? That radial-arm saw that will never be used? Point out to your spouse that the long-term security of your family and household is your main concern. Prove it by your actions.

“Just in case” preparedness

Another way of illustrating the need for disaster preparedness is insurance. Why do you have house insurance? It isn’t because you expect (or want!) your house to burn down. It is just in case. Why do you have term life insurance? Same reason again. You don’t expect (or want) your partner to die. But if they meet the Mack truck at the red light, it would sure be nice to have some extra money to take care of the kids. A big cash payout won’t lessen the grief. But it will give breathing room while the family recovers.

Why do you wear a seatbelt? In case of an accident. Why do you lock your doors? To discourage burglars. Why do you floss your teeth faithfully? To prevent long-term, expensive dental problems. These are all actions we perform, not because we think we will have a burglar or an accident, but because of “just in case”. “Just in case” is the purpose behind disaster preparedness. Use “just in case” when talking to your partner about stocking the pantry, learning how to garden, taking a martial arts class, and exercising every day. It may make why you are concerned about the future much clearer.

The basics of disaster preparedness and thrift can then lead to a deeper understanding of the need for a food garden, no debt of any kind, basic home security, and lots and lots of skills that you actually practice.

It can be deeply depressing to contemplate disaster, both short term like a tornado or long term like a years-long economic collapse. If your partner is overwhelmed by an uncertain future, then your actions can show how your household can exert control. That planning ahead, that getting ready, that doing things “just in case” can make your lives better and safer. Show how savings can add up. Show how the emergency fund paid for a car repair. Show how a full pantry kept your household eating when the stores were closed. Show how insulating the attic lowered heating bills. Show how a vegetable garden put fresh salads on the table.

Remember that your spouse won’t do a blessed thing if YOU don’t act on your beliefs. Model the behavior you want to see in thrift, exercise, preparedness, reskilling, anything. Read and leave laying around books on thrift (such as “The Complete Tightwad Gazette”), disaster preparedness (“Just in Case: How to be Self-Sufficient when the Unexpected Happens”), gardening (“Gardening When It Counts” and “The Resilient Gardener”), health improvement (“Perfect Health Diet: Regain Health and Lose Weight by Eating the Way You Were Meant to Eat”). Whatever you are currently working on. Explain why you are doing what you are doing. Repeat as necessary. Don’t sit with idle hands in front of a game show on TV and expect your partner to be darning socks. Explain some more.

Don’t forget the power of positive reinforcement. When your partner picks up a hoe to weed the garden, then praise, praise, praise! Praise every positive effort and ignore (as best you can) the unwanted behaviors. Stop belittling and demeaning comments. They don’t help. Spouse conversion is a process that can take years, so better start now. And, most importantly, don’t ask your partner to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.

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