Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Knightsbridge Mystery by Charles Reade



Foregone conclusions
The Knightsbridge Mystery, a novel by English author Charles Reade, was originally published in 1882. The story takes place at a country inn called The Swan, located on Knightsbridge Green, which at that time was outside the city of London. Reade introduces us to the regulars who reside at this establishment and involves us in the routine of their everyday activities and relations. The peace and comfort of this rural retreat is shattered when one of the guests is murdered, presumably for his gold. Evidence points to a neighborhood drunkard, who is apprehended, tried, and sentenced to death. The inspector on the case, however, is not entirely convinced of the convicted man’s guilt.

The main problem with The Knightsbridge Mystery is that it is no mystery. Even before the crime is committed, Reade has already told you the identity of the killer, his motive, and much of his modus operandi. All that’s left for the reader to do is wait for the murderer to get caught. In that sense, The Knightsbridge Mystery bears less resemblance to most Victorian detective fiction in the Sherlock Holmes vein than it does to today’s cinematic crime stories, which often tell the detective’s and the criminal’s stories in parallel, the audience being expected to sympathize with both parties. In such villainless tales, the suspense arises less from the solving of the crime than from the emotional drama of the characters’ lives. In The Knightsbridge Mystery, however, Reade delivers the narrative in such a deadpan fashion that the emotional roller coaster of murder, inquest, and capital punishment is surprisingly flat and mundane.

The overall effect left behind by The Knightsbridge Mystery is one of frustration. Reade has crafted a complex crime story admirable for its legal and psychological authenticity. One can’t help thinking, however, that if it had really been treated like a mystery, with some questions left unanswered throughout, it would have been a lot more entertaining. When all is said and done, this book is a decent read but nothing to get excited about. Its brevity keeps it from being a waste of time. It leaves the reader with a suspicion that Reade may have the potential for great writing, and a hope that that potential is realized in some of his other works.
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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Essays in Humanism by Albert Einstein



A voice for peace in dark times
As a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Albert Einstein became famous for formulating the theory of relativity, the equation of mass-energy equivalence, and other important discoveries that changed the way we view the universe. During his lifetime, however, his renown as a scientist allowed him to extend his sphere of influence beyond the realm of physics. As a public intellectual, he also spoke out on politics, economics, and social issues. Essays in Humanism is a collection of Einstein’s nonscientific writings in these areas. First published in 1950 by the Philosophical Library, this collection has been recently rereleased in ebook form by Open Road Media. The 43 essays included, written from 1933 to 1949, were originally presented as public speeches, book forewords, or newspaper and magazine articles.

Because of the time frame in which these pieces were penned, World War II hangs like an evil spectre over the entire proceedings. Whether commenting on the rise of the Nazis before the war or the Cold War that immediately followed it, Einstein ardently advocates for world peace. Having contributed to the making of the atomic bomb, and having seen its effects in Japan, Einstein feels compelled to see that nuclear weapons are never used again, though Cold War antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union make Armageddon an ever-present threat. To prevent World War III, Einstein proposes that nations relinquish their military power to a supranational governing body, stronger than the United Nations, which would insure peace by settling international disputes through judicial rather than violent means. His proposal for this plan is outlined in great detail over the course of many of the essays included here. A Soviet counterargument is also reprinted, along with Einstein’s rebuttal. Surprisingly, even in the early days of the Cold War, Einstein publicly recommends socialism as an economic solution to many of the world’s problems, a stance for which he would likely be vilified today.

The essays in this book are not arranged chronologically, but rather thematically. This one issue of international security through supranational governance takes up roughly two-thirds of the book. Then follows a series of several brief tributes to great scientists of the past, such as Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, and brief eulogies of departed scientific colleagues, including Marie Curie and Max Planck. The remaining quarter of the book deals with issues pertaining to the Jews, their persecution in Europe, and their attempts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Einstein praises settlement efforts in Palestine but argues against a totally self-governing Jewish state, as he fears it will only give rise to the sort of rampant intolerant nationalism that spawned the two World Wars in the first place.

Overall, Einstein’s writing is excellent. He states his opinions very articulately while expressing an undying compassion for humanity and a conviction for social justice. Most of the book’s faults are editorial. The goal here seems to have been to collect anything that Einstein wrote, regardless of worth. Some of the “essays” are only two paragraphs long, and there is quite a bit of repetition among the selections. Nevertheless, this book gives the 21st-century reader a great deal of insight into the world political climate of the 1930s and ‘40s. Much of what Einstein describes—xenophobia, fear-mongering, extreme income disparity—bears a disturbing resemblance to the world in which we live today. His insightful perspective provides great food for thought and a touch of hope in dark times.
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Friday, October 13, 2017

Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O’Neill



The consequences of denying one’s nature
Beyond the Horizon, a three-act play by Eugene O’Neill, premiered on Broadway in 1920 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same year. The play takes place on the Mayo farm, located a mile from the sea. There, James and Kate Mayo live with their two grown sons, Robert and Andy. The drama opens the night before Robert is due to ship off to sea with his uncle Dick Scott, a salty old ship’s captain. Robert is a dreamer who, fueled by his voracious reading, longs for romance and adventure. The farm makes him feel awkward and confined. He desires to venture “beyond the horizon” to indulge his wanderlust and see the world. His brother Andy, on the other hand, is a natural-born farmer who enjoys working the land. Andy plans to stay put, run the farm, and marry Ruth Atkins, their neighbor on the farm next door. In the first scene, however, Ruth declares her love for Robert. The two brothers are then forced to pull a switcheroo, each acting against his nature, as Robert stays to marry Ruth and Andy angrily storms off to ship away with his uncle.

Like many of O’Neill’s early plays, Beyond the Horizon was a groundbreaking work of realism in American drama. His gritty, naturalistic plays were a marked departure from the sort of romanticized contrivances that previously occupied the stages of America’s theatres. O’Neill’s plays deal with the sort of real-life drama that audiences might experience in their daily lives: unrequited love, financial hardships, dysfunctional families, the death of loved ones, and shattered dreams. One problem with Beyond the Horizon, however, is that he lumps all those personal catastrophes onto one family, which results in a play that is a bit too melodramatic, overwrought, and operatically tragic to ring true.

The plot of Beyond the Horizon is built upon a contrast that often shows up in O’Neill’s plays. The sea equals freedom, independence, and opportunity, while the land equals captivity, dependence, and stagnation. If you’re living in an O’Neill play, the worst thing you want to do is get tied down. Love is the bringer of misery, and women are the root of all evil. If not for Ruth, the Mayo brothers would have lived their lives to their fullest potential. Though her part is written as an authentic multidimensional human being rather than a caricature of an evil temptress, O’Neill still makes it clear that everything is all Ruth’s fault.

It’s easy to see why actors and stage directors would love this play. It offers meaty roles and scenes with the potential for great emotional power. In the hands of talented actors, this could be a profoundly moving tragedy for the theatergoing audience. The experience of reading it off the page, however, is not as affecting or as effective as other O’Neill plays like Anna Christie or The Hairy Ape. There are no surprises here. You can see what’s coming a half an hour ahead of time. The reader spends a significant portion of each scene waiting for the characters to catch up to the inevitable.

O’Neill won the Nobel Prize in 1936, and he may very well be America’s greatest playwright. His work is head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries and always worth reading. Beyond the Horizon is not a bad play by any means, but by O’Neill standards, compared to his other works, it is not among his best. It shows inklings of greatness, but he would go on to better things.
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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Common Man by Mack Reynolds



Hover cars are not enough
The Common Man is a science fiction novella written by Mack Reynolds. It was originally published in the January 1963 issue of Analog Science Fiction–Science Fact under the pseudonym of Guy McCord. Reynolds was a prolific sci-fi author who published dozens of novels and at least a hundred short stories under several pen names from the early 1950s until his death in 1983. I have read about a dozen of his shorter works and have found them to range widely in quality from works of bold genius to the merely mediocre. The Common Man, unfortunately, falls into the latter category.

The story opens with three scientists knocking at the door of an unassuming middle-class home in the Midwest. When the homeowner answers the door, the visitors inform him that detailed statistical analysis has determined that he, Don Crowley, is officially the perfectly average American. That in itself, however, is not the reason for their visit. They tell him that they require a specimen of his utter averageness to act as the subject of an experiment. They are testing a formula that endows the recipient with a certain superhuman power, and they need to gauge whether it will work on the typical American man. After some coaxing, Crowley agrees to be their guinea pig.

This story takes place at some point in the future. We know that because Reynolds mentions hover cars. Other than that, however, the setting is no different than the world in which we live. This is not the only story in which Reynolds inserts a flying car into an otherwise nonfuturistic tale. It seems as if he was required to do this in order to get his stories published in science fiction magazines, because, in fact, a lot of his stories are barely science fiction. Often, they are just expressions of his political or sociological opinions, but the presence of hover cars conveniently makes them sci-fi. In this story, the science of the experiment factors very little into the narrative. It is soon revealed that the scientists are not seeking to find out whether the formula will work on Crowley; they already know it will. What they really want to know is how he will behave once he is endowed with the superpower. What sort of ethical choices will he make? The study is psychological, not physical. Instead of a guinea pig, Crowley is more of a rat in a maze.

This comical premise is funny at first, but it devolves into kind of a dumb gangster story. Reynolds offers his commentary on human nature, but it comes across as both preachy and half-baked. His most biting and cynical satire is expressed in the personal qualities of Crowley as a representative of “the common man”: a high school drop-out education, gullibility, bigotry, sexism, poor morals—in general, a complete lack of sophistication and civility. Later in the story, Reynolds backs off from this scathing criticism by introducing a plot element that negates much of what came before. This revelation is intended to be a surprise twist, but if feels more like a cop out.

You just never know what you’re going to get when you dive into a Mack Reynolds story. I won’t tell you not to read his work, but I do recommend that you don’t read this one. So far the best writings of his that I’ve read are the novella Adaptation and the short stories “The Business, As Usual,” “Gun for Hire,” and “Compounded Interest.”
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Monday, October 9, 2017

The Trail of the Goldseekers by Hamlin Garland



A rather dismal Klondike travelogue
Jack London became a literary superstar by writing about the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s in works such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang, but he wasn’t the only author to venture up to the Yukon Territory during the great stampede to the North. Hamlin Garland, one of American literature’s pioneers of realism, also made the arduous journey to the Klondike River region, as chronicled in his book The Trail of the Goldseekers: A Record of Travel in Prose and Verse, published in 1899. Unlike London, at the time of the Gold Rush Garland was already an established man of letters, having achieved some degree of literary fame with books like Main-Travelled Roads and Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly.

The two also differ in that while London went North with the serious intention of striking it rich, Garland makes it clear that he is “not a gold seeker, but a nature hunter,” who went simply for the experience of the journey and to enjoy the beauty of the landscape. In pursuit of the latter end, he decided to take the longest route to the gold country, the overland route through British Columbia, also called the Long Trail. From his home in Wisconsin, he takes the Canadian railroad to the end of the line in Ashcroft, British Columbia. There, he and his traveling companion Burton purchase horses and supplies and begin the long haul northwestwards towards Dawson.

Though London’s trip to the Klondike was far from successful, he reveled in the romantic, adventurous spirit of the undertaking. Even his nonfiction writings on the Gold Rush are filled with admiration for the hardy souls who undertook the adventure and the savage wilds through which they passed. Garland’s account of his own journey, on the other hand, is dull and grueling by comparison, taking the form of a repetitive sequence of indistinguishable rivers, barren fields, and mosquito-infested, hoof-sucking swamps. In other works I’ve read by Garland, he has demonstrated a faculty for beautifully descriptive nature writing, but such passages are rare in this book. The beauty of the land is measured by the availability or scarcity of horse feed. Though he judges the Gold Rush as a foolhardy endeavor and opines that the goldseekers are rapers of the land, his own account presents a surprisingly unpoetic and utilitarian view of the natural landscape.

Nor does the book succeed very well as a journalistic or historical record of the Klondike experience. Garland clearly was better off than most of the men he encountered on the trail. Unlike the typical goldseeker, he could afford the finest horses and a boat ticket whenever one was required. In the final chapters, as he reaches the mining towns in Alaska and the Yukon, Garland finally delivers some first-hand perspective of the Gold Rush as a sociological phenomenon. For the better part of the book, however, he is off on a trail where he seems to be quite happy with minimal human contact. Unlike London, Garland doesn’t show much interest in the stories of the men he meets. More than anything, he just wants to write about his horse.

As its subtitle indicates, this book includes poetry in addition to prose. Each of its 26 chapters is followed by one to three poems. These are generally rather simple, straightforward rhyming stanzas of realistic natural imagery. Garland is no Robert Frost, but his verses are pleasantly evocative of the North and are a welcome addition to the narrative. As a whole, prose and verse combined, The Trail of the Goldseekers is just OK. I consider myself an admirer of Garland’s writing and am grateful for his contribution to American literary naturalism, but this is not his best work.
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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2017

Congratulations to Kazuo Ishiguro!
The Japanese-born British author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go has just been announced as the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. I’ll confess I’ve never read any of his books, but perhaps some day I will. I’ve always found the roster of Nobel laureates a good list to draw from when looking for new authors to try from around the world. 

Here at Old Books by Dead Guys we prefer our Nobel laureates a bit more antiquated. As happens each year on this occasion, I present the cumulative list of works by Nobel Prize winners that have been reviewed at this blog. Since last year 15 new works of literature have been added, and four new authors make their debut on the list: Henrik Pontoppidan, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Hemingway, and Boris Pasternak. If you’re looking for a Nobel-worthy read, check out the authors below and click on the titles to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland

Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel) United Kingdom

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany

Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel) Denmark

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France


Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland


George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland


Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America

Eugene O’Neill
 (1936 Nobel) United States of America


Pearl S. Buck (1938 Nobel) United States of America (raised in China)

Hermann Hesse (1946 Nobel) Switzerland (born in Germany)

Bertrand Russell (1950 Nobel) United Kingdom

Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden

Ernest Hemingway (1954 Nobel) United States of America

Halldór Laxness (1955 Nobel) Iceland

Borris Pasternak (1958 Nobel) Russia (Soviet Union)


Bob Dylan (2016 Nobel) United States of America


See you next year!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



Mycroft, Moriarity, and more marvelous mysteries
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1893, is the second anthology of Holmes short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, following 1892’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The American edition contains 11 stories; the British edition has 12 (too complicated to go into here, but the missing story was included in a later collection, His Last Bow), all of which were originally published in the Strand Magazine. Overall, the quality of the stories in The Memoirs doesn’t quite measure up to the groundbreaking Adventures collection, but it is still an excellent volume of detective fiction, and a few of its mysteries are among Holmes and Watson’s greatest cases.

Although this is only the second volume of Holmes tales, at times the franchise feels like it’s already losing a little steam. “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk,” for instance, is a fine mystery, but it feels a bit like a rehash of “The Red-Headed League” from the first collection. The boring and confusing “The Reigate Puzzle,” is the worst Holmes story I’ve read so far, and I’m still not quite clear on the motive for the crime. “The Resident Patient” is also a bit of a dud and features little of Holmes’s trademark deductive reasoning. There are also a few stories in which the mystery itself is not particularly puzzling, but merely serves as a vehicle for Conan Doyle to provide a back story similar to what might be found in his non-Holmes fiction. “The ‘Gloria Scott’” is just an excuse to tell a sea story, while “The Crooked Man” is yet another tale of the British military in India. Conan Doyle also seems to feel the need to vary the plot template so the stories don’t become too formulaic. Sometimes this works to his advantage and sometimes not. There are a couple of stories where Holmes relates mysteries from earlier in his life—before his fictional debut in A Study in Scarlet—and all Watson gets to do is sit in an armchair and listen. One of these is the aforementioned disappointment “The ‘Gloria Scott,’” but the other is “The Musgrave Ritual,” one of Holmes’s best stories and much better than the Basil Rathbone movie it inspired.

As a whole, The Memoirs contains more hits than misses. Like “The Musgrave Ritual,” “Silver Blaze,” about a missing racehorse, is often regarded as one of the best Holmes mysteries. On the other hand, “The Yellow Face,” is usually rated by Holmes fans as falling towards the bottom of the pack, but I enjoyed it because of the interesting view it provides into Victorian perspectives on a particular social issue. “The Greek Interpreter” is a fun and notable entry because it introduces Sherlock’s smarter older brother Mycroft Holmes, a fascinatingly quirky character who nightly attends a club for those wishing to avoid human contact. It may not be the most puzzling of mysteries, but the story is exciting throughout. “The Naval Treaty” is yet another suspenseful adventure in which Holmes and Watson must recover a missing document in order to avoid an international incident. Lastly, “The Final Problem” introduces us to Professor James Moriarity, one of the truly great villains in the history of fiction. In Conan Doyle’s original take on the character, the evil professor of crime oozes a chilling malevolence that is unmatched among his countless film portrayals.

By the time he finished the stories collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle may have grown tired of the character, but there’s still plenty for the reader to get excited about. Though we have been inundated by countless adaptations over the past century, the original Holmes and Watson stories are still the best incarnations of these immortal characters and still a joy to read.

Stories in this collection
Silver Blaze 
The Yellow Face
The Stock-Broker’s Clerk 
The “Gloria Scott”
The Musgrave Ritual
The Reigate Puzzle 
The Crooked Man
The Resident Patient
The Greek Interpreter
The Naval Treaty 
The Final Problem

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