Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Gets bogged down in its own intricacy
The Mystery of the Yellow Room is a novel by Gaston Leroux, best known as the author of The Phantom of the Opera. Originally published in 1907, it is the debut adventure of Joseph Rouletabille, a newspaper reporter with an uncanny knack for solving puzzling crimes. The character is clearly influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. One unique twist is that Rouletabille, at only 18, is closer in age to Encyclopedia Brown. Nevertheless, don’t make the mistake of underestimating this amateur sleuth. His reasoning powers are advanced for a man so young, and the book is clearly intended for an adult audience. This novel is highly regarded as one of the first and best examples of the genre of the “locked room mystery.” The story and the character both have great potential, but overall I was disappointed by the novel’s slow pace, tedious details, and convoluted plot.

Professor and Mademoiselle Stangerson, father and daughter, reside in a chateau in the region of Seine-et-Oise, outside Paris. Both scientists, they conduct experiments in their laboratory, which is located in a pavilion on the grounds of their estate. Adjacent to the lab is a bedroom—the so-called yellow room—where the mademoiselle sometimes spends the night. Late one night, after she has gone to bed, her father is still working in the lab. He suddenly hears the sound of screams and gunshots coming from his daughter’s room. He rushes to her aid and, with the help of some servants, breaks down the locked door. Inside, he finds his daughter alive but half-strangled and beaten. Someone has attempted to murder her, but the assailant is nowhere to be found, and there is no visible means of exit from the locked room. The next day, news of the attack has spread, and reporter Rouletabille wants details. With the help of a friend who is acquainted with someone in the household, he gains entrance to the chateau and is allowed to examine the crime scene.

Through the first several chapters of The Mystery of the Yellow Room, I was enthralled. After a while, however, it started to remind me of the television series Lost: it kept raising more and more questions without ever offering any answers. Obviously, all these strange occurrences and confusing twists were intended to set up a big reveal in the book’s final chapters. Leroux doesn’t realize, however, that to keep your audience interested you have to throw them a bone once in a while. It felt like a cheat when, in the middle of the book, it is revealed that Rouletabille had prior interaction with some of the principles in the case before the crime was committed. The mystery hinges on a complex series of entrances, exits, and escapes, so the reader must wade through far too many chapters that minutely describe the arrangement of hallways, doors, and windows. When the solution to the case is finally revealed, it ends up being a letdown, because many of the revelations aren’t really all that surprising.

Like I said, it had me from the start, so it’s a shame this mystery couldn’t live up to its promise. Rouletabille is an interesting character, but hardly a match for Holmes, at least not in this book. If you’re looking for a French counterpart to Conan Doyle, I would recommend Maurice Leblanc’s stories featuring Arsène Lupin. They are at least as intellectually challenging as The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and a lot more fun. 
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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Danger! and Other Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A kitchen-sink collection from the master storyteller
If there’s a better all-around storyteller in the English language than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I’m not sure who it would be. I know, these days it’s probably more fashionable to drop some modernist’s name into the debate, but I’ll take Conan Doyle’s good old-fashioned fireside storytelling any day. When you step away from his Sherlock Holmes works and dive into one of his other short story collections, you never know what you’re going to get. It could be mystery, medicine, horror, science fiction, espionage, literary parody, or even a children’s story. Danger! and Other Stories, originally published in 1918, delivers all of the above. Overall, this grab-bag may not be Conan Doyle’s best work, but it’s always a joy to wander through this master’s workshop and just marvel at his versatility.

Almost all of these ten stories had been published in The Strand magazine prior to being collected in this volume. The title selection, “Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius” is a 1914 story that presages the outbreak of World War I. England declares war on the small European nation of Norland. The minor power retaliates by terrorizing the British Empire with its tiny navy. Conan Doyle wrote the story to warn Britain of a weak spot in her defenses. His choice to tell the story from the point of view of the Norland naval commander is a stroke of genius that injects a dash of humor into this wartime adventure. Another World War I-related tale is “The Prisoner’s Defence.” A British soldier is charged with the murder of his lover. When brought to trial, he recounts to the courtroom how he met and fell in love with the victim, a French woman with a vehement hatred of the Germans. What starts as a courtroom drama turns into a first-class thriller.

“The Horror of the Heights” is a top-notch sci-fi classic that also appears in the collection Tales of Terror and Mystery. “One Crowded Hour” is a fun tale of highway robbery in the early days of the automobile. “The Surgeon of Gaster Fell” offers a mystery with lots of spooky imagery of the remote moors, reminiscent of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle indulges his fascination with the paranormal with “How It Happened,” a macabre tale related by a “writing medium.” The most unusual piece in the book is “The Three of Them,” which transcribes a series of dialogues between a father and his three young children. The topics of conversation range from animals to cricket to God. The subject matter has the potential to be cutesy and annoying, but the way Conan Doyle handles it is quite clever and charming.

Alas, they can’t all be winners. “A Point of View” is a strange little piece of social commentary which discusses the differences in the servant classes of England and America. “The Fall of Lord Barrymore” is a slapstick comedy about a bully nobleman getting his comeuppance. At the bottom of the heap is “Borrowed Scenes,” about a young man who decides to live life in the style of his idol, English novelist and travel writer George Borrow. This consists of asking a lot of bizarre questions and generally acting like an ass. Having never even heard of Borrow before, the humor was lost on me.

Though Conan Doyle doesn’t hit it out of the park with every story, any collection of his short fiction is likely to please more than disappoint, and Danger! is no exception. Its diversity is its biggest strength. Approach this collection ready for anything, and follow the master wherever he leads.

Stories in this collection
Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius 
One Crowded Hour 
A Point of View 
The Fall of Lord Barrymore 
The Horror of the Heights 
Borrowed Scenes 
The Surgeon of Gaster Fell 
How It Happened 
The Prisoner’s Defence 
Three of Them

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume VIII by J. W. DeForest, et al.

The goods outweigh the bads, just barely
Henry A. Beers
This is the eighth installment in the ten-volume series Stories by American Authors, published by Charles Scribner’s sons in 1884. It consists of five short stories that were originally published in magazines like Century, Putnam’s, and Harper’s. The vast majority of authors featured in the Stories by American Authors series are unknown to today’s readers, and you won’t find any household names in Volume VIII. The quality of the overall series has been spotty at best, and this collection continues the trend. Of the five stories included here, one is excellent, two are pretty good, and the remaining two you could do without.

Despite its pretentious title, “Split Zephyr: An Attenuated Yarn Spun by the Fates” by Henry A. Beers is the best story in the book, and one of the best so far in the series. On commencement night, five Yale graduates discuss their future plans. Four classmates, conveniently initialed A, B, C, and D, spell out their intentions to the narrator, Frank Polisson. Fifteen years later he checks up on them to see what they’ve made of their lives. It’s a thought-provoking piece on the elusive nature of happiness. The message is a simple one, but meaningful even for today’s reader. The characters are admirably well-sketched, and their engaging life stories offer an intriguing glimpse into the options available to a gentleman of the 19th century.

Another promising selection in the book is “Zerviah Hope” by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, about a mysterious New Yorker who volunteers to nurse the sick in a remote South Carolina town stricken by an epidemic of fever. The story is quite riveting until the end, when it turns into a religious tract. “The Life-Magnet” by Alvey A. Adee fares better. An American student, spending a hiatus in Freiberg, Saxony, meets a scientist who claims to have discovered a means to chemically isolate the human life force. It’s a crafty bit of old-school science fiction, though unfortunately marred by a confusing ending and a rather dim-witted hero.

Two pieces remain at the bottom of the barrel. J. W. DeForest’s “The Brigade Commander” takes place during the Civil War. It opens with some interesting human drama, but that storyline is soon abandoned in favor of a tedious military history narrative replete with artillery movements and flanking maneuvers. Wargame enthusiasts might enjoy it, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea. The book closes with its worst selection, “Osgood’s Predicament” by Elizabeth D. B. Stoddard. This meandering melodrama concerns a man of limited means who is supported by his wealthy aunt and uncle. After becoming engaged to a high-class woman he’ll never be able to comfortably support, he regrets his decision and runs away to Cape Cod. None of the characters are particularly appealing, so the reader couldn’t care less.

As a whole, the Stories by American Authors series has failed to impress. Nevertheless, this is one of the better books in the series so far, placing third behind volumes III and VI. At the very least, those interested in 19th-century literature will likely find the Beers and Adee selections to be worthwhile reading.

Stories in this collection
The Brigade Commander by J. W. DeForest 

Split Zephyr by Henry A. Beers 

Zerviah Hope by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps 

The Life-Magnet by Alvey A. Adee 

Osgood’s Predicament by Elizabeth D. B. Stoddard

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray

Anatomy of a boomtown
In Gold Diggers, published in 2010, author Charlotte Gray crafts a fascinating history of the Klondike Gold Rush. Covering the period from June 1896 to the Summer of ‘99, Gray charts the trajectory of gold fever in the Yukon Territory from its boom to its bust. I first became aware of this book through the television miniseries Klondike, a highly fictionalized adaptation produced for the Discovery Channel (which is very good, by the way; rent it if you haven’t seen it). I’m a huge fan of the author Jack London and his stories and essays about the Klondike. I was eager to learn the truth behind the fiction, and Gray’s account does not disappoint. The real history that she presents in Gold Diggers is every bit as exciting, fascinating, and incredible as London’s wildest literary interpretations.

Gray approaches the subject as a group biography, intertwining the lives of six diverse Gold rush participants: prospector Bill Haskell, author Jack London, entrepreneur Belinda Mulrooney, Jesuit priest Father William Judge, British journalist Flora Shaw, and Officer Sam Steele of the North-West Mounted Police. Although these six larger-than-life personages get the most attention, there are plenty of supporting characters that stand out as well, from government bureaucrats to newspaper editors to dance hall girls to “Klondike Kings” who struck it rich. In fact, it’s often difficult to remember who Gray’s six primary subjects are, because what really comes through is the story of a community. Gold Diggers is first and foremost the biography of a town: Dawson City. Gray relates the life of this remote mining outpost from its origins as a mud flat at the confluence of two rivers to its dubious distinction as the “Paris of the North” to its eventual mass abandonment in favor of the next big score.

At first I wasn’t very impressed by Gray’s approach. The initial chapters concentrate solely on Bill Haskell’s journey to the Klondike. Having read everything that London ever wrote, Haskell’s adventures sounded rather familiar, and Gray relies so heavily on Haskell’s memoir that I wondered why I shouldn’t just read that instead. However, once Haskell arrives in the Yukon and Gray begins to broaden her scope, I was hooked. I’ve read several biographies of London, but Gray opened my eyes to specific details about his Klondike experience that often get left out of the more general cradle-to-the-grave accounts. At times Gray takes some artistic license with her material, describing the thoughts in her subject’s heads or minute details of their daily activities that wouldn’t normally make it into the history books. She has a knack for combining historical facts with descriptive passages of literary quality. Where the book really succeeds is in its establishment of atmosphere. You truly get a sense of what it felt like to walk the muddy streets of Dawson, dance in its smoky saloons, hike a frozen river at 50 below, or hunker down in a drafty cabin for a long, lonely winter. You become so involved with the lives of Dawson’s inhabitants that after a while you feel like a citizen yourself. Gray vividly recreates the Klondike in all of its beauty, adventure, and filth.

The book ends with a “whatever happened to . . .” essay on the six main characters and an extensive bibliography of Gray’s sources. As satisfying as this book is, she has inspired me to want to learn more. Anyone interested in the Klondike Gold Rush will love Gold Diggers. Even if you’re only slightly intrigued by this episode of history, give this book a try and you too may be stricken with gold fever.
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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Oxford Guide to Library Research by Thomas Mann

A world of information is your oyster
I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in library and information science. The introduction to The Oxford Guide to Library Research was assigned as a supplemental reading for one of my courses. I liked what author Charles Mann had to say and decided to read the entire book, both for my own benefit as a student and for the benefit of my future library patrons. It should be clarified up front that the libraries being discussed here are research libraries. Usually this means an academic library at a college or university, but also includes private institutions and governmental libraries such as the Library of Congress, where Mann works. I purchased the 2015 ebook edition. Not only was it far less expensive than the required textbook for my course, it also proved to be vastly more beneficial.

Mann’s approach to this research guide is unique. Instead of categorizing his research lessons by topic area or type of information resource, he has organized the chapters by search method. For example, he covers searching by Library of Congress subject headings, by database descriptors, by keywords, by citations, and by browsing bookshelves. Mann covers many online resources, but few of them are free and open to the general public. Most are only available to users who log in through their library’s website. In addition to what’s on the web, there’s plenty of research material that’s not available online at all, and Mann recommends print resources when applicable, such as reliable print bibliographies or archival materials. Mann tells you what resources are the best, where to find them, and how to find what you’re looking for within them. He even reminds us of one source of information we often forget: actually talking to knowledgeable people.

At first I wasn’t crazy about Mann’s presentation. At the front of the book there are lengthy lists and descriptions of academic databases. I think I would be better off just exploring the list on my university’s website. The farther I got into the book, however, the more impressed I was by Mann’s recommendations. I learned a lot from his chapter on crafting search queries, which goes way beyond the typical Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT. He opened my eyes to a wealth of available information resources of which I was previously unaware and can’t wait to dig into.

This book is packed with useful information, but the writing can wear on you with its redundancy. Mann argues that brick-and-mortar libraries have an immensely greater breadth and depth of information to offer researchers than what’s available on the internet. He also asserts that the search methods he describes yield much more targeted results than simply entering a keyword into the search box on Google. I wholeheartedly agree with Mann on both these points, but I didn’t need them hammered home four or five times each chapter. Another unfortunate mark against this book is that it is riddled with typographical errors. Apparently Oxford is using spell check for its proofreading, because countless instances of subject-verb disagreements and missing or duplicated two- and three-letter words went unnoticed. These errors don’t hamper the reader’s understanding, but they do annoy.

Despite my complaints, this book really has a lot to offer. It will prove extremely valuable for incoming undergraduate students who are clueless about what academic libraries have to offer. It will also greatly benefit doctoral and professional researchers looking to track down every last source on a given subject. I wish this book had been a required text for my reference services class in library school. It’s a must-read for any academic librarian or any student serious about research.
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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Northwest! by Harold Bindloss

Mild adventure in the Canadian Rockies
Harold Bindloss was an early 20th-century English author who wrote many novels set in Western Canada. Northwest! was published in 1922. I have heard Bindloss described as an adventure writer, and—always on the lookout for the next Jack London or Bret Harte—I thought I’d give him a try. If this book is any indication, however, Bindloss barely qualifies for the adventure genre. Northwest! is like an English society novel that just happens to be set in the Canadian wilderness.

The story takes place somewhere between Calgary and Vancouver, at a luxury hotel perched in a scenic mountain locale. Jimmy Leyland is an Englishman, the heir to a cotton mill fortune. Forced to undergo a waiting period before he assumes his portion of the family business, he drifts around Europe for a while before deciding to explore Canada. Jimmy hooks up with a mountaineer named Stannard who acts as a sort of mentor, instructing him in the ways of the idle rich. The two live the lives of extravagant tourists, lounging around the hotel and engaging in all-night bouts of gambling between hunting, fishing, and climbing trips. Traveling with them is Stannard’s daughter, who just happens to make a convenient love interest for Jimmy. British Columbia is a long way from London or Lancashire, and life in a western town can be a great leveler of class distinctions. As a result, Jimmy and Stannard find themselves associating with rougher characters like Deering, a professional gambler, and Okanagan Bob, a local jack-of-all-trades with Indian blood in his veins. A fine English gentleman but a bad card player, Jimmy soon finds himself racking up debts that may lead him into trouble.

The main thrust of the story revolves around a pursuit through the Rockies, but it takes a dozen chapters of dining room conversations just to get the ball rolling. Regrettably, the whole business hinges on a stupid mistake—a literal shot in the dark. The action is slow and the attempts at suspense are tame. The dangers of the wilderness never seem perilous enough. In Bindloss’s hands, the wilds of British Columbia come across like an English game preserve. There is a stretch of the book in which Jimmy is “alone” in the wilderness, yet he isn’t really alone. He has an Indian guide and packer with him. Yet the Indian is basically invisible, and never speaks. Bindloss treats him like a backpack, not worthy of notice, even though he might very well be keeping the hero alive. Contrast that with London’s tales of the Canadian wilderness, in which Native Americans are integral players in the narrative.

This book is not terrible, but there’s little to distinguish it from the ordinary. Adding to the mediocrity is Bindloss’s repetitive prose. His favorite adjective is “keen,” and he uses it 86 times. People are keen, glances are keen, temperatures and winds are keen. To the book’s credit, at times I did care about the characters—Jimmy is likeable for the most part, even though he’s a bit stupid and naive—but often I couldn’t care less.

Bindloss was a prolific author, and I still think he might have a good book in him, but Northwest! isn’t it. It’s an OK read, but not worthy of the audacious exclamation point in its title. I have heard his novel The Gold Trail is good, so I might give that a try.
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