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text 2017-11-07 18:44
Reading progress update: I've read 175 out of 425 pages.
Carpe Jugulum (Discworld, #23) - Terry Pratchett

 

This is one of my left-over Halloween Bingo books; I'm reading it for the Calan Gaeaf part of square 1 of the "16 Tasks of the Festive Season". 

 

I started this book last night because I urgently needed a comfort read after Val McDermid's disappointing Forensics.  So far, it's not really doing the job, however ... too little Granny Weatherwax!  (And decidedly also too little Greebo, for that matter.)  I trust Granny will return in time for the grand finale, but man ... a Discworld Witches book where she scarcely even shows her face during almost the entire first half of the book?  What was Pratchett doing, trying to demonstrate what an essential part of the Witches subseries Granny is?  Thank you, I already knew that without having it jammed into my face sledgehammer-style!

 

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review 2017-11-07 18:25
Investigative Journalism and True Crime Writing Masquerading as Science
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

I had long rants going through my head on pretty much every page of this book while I was reading, but bottom line, it just doesn't deserve the attention of my detailing them.  I like McDermid's crime fiction (most of it, anyway) and I'd very much wish she'd stick to that in the future.  There is enough writing "for the effect", garnished with sweeping (moreover: repeatedly dead wrong) generalizations about the justice system and legal history in here to last me the next several years at the very least -- and the fact that this is the way she is writing about the one area that I know personally and in-depth only enhances my doubts about her writing concerning the areas with which I am less deeply familiar, and about which I would very much have liked to learn more.

 

As I said in my one and only status update, this isn't science writing -- not even popular science writing.  McDermid lists a number of science books in the bibliography at the end of this book, but there is no indication -- neither in foot- or endnotes nor in any other way -- how, if at all, the contents of those or other books, or other forms of research, personal knowledge and experience actually impacted her writing, are reflected therein, or would provide further information on specific topics that she addresses (by which I don't mean general areas and disciplines such as entomology or toxicology as such but individual aspects of these disciplines that she touches on). 

 

The only thing we may reasonably be assured of is that she talked to a number of scientists and (hopefully) renders the salient contents of their answers with a modicum of faithfulness.  Nevertheless, it is their statements she quotes, not her own independent research and knowledge, and obvioiusly, their answers only cover the topics she asked about, leaving plenty of questions both unasked and unanswered.  Hence, the actual scientific contents of this book is never more than skin-deep.  The vast majority of the book's chapters are a mixture of true crime writing à la Ann Rule and David Wambaugh on the one hand (including lavish, detailed, tabloid-style descriptions of the victims and their suffering), a journalist's description of the physical attributes of her interview partners on the other hand, and a historical and general introduction to the various areas of forensic science that, in any university program, wouldn't merit more than a few minutes' discussion and a recommendation for further reading at home.  Mind you, I'm interested in history, so I did enjoy the individual chapters' paragraph-(or-two-)long introductions dealing with the origins of the respective disciplines, but I most certainly could have done without the plethora of lengthy true crime narration and I also didn't need to know what McDermid's interviewees looked like.  With very few exceptions, I've learned more about forensic science in law school and by reading forensic accident reports in civil cases and pathologists' statements in criminal cases -- and, more specifically, about forensic anthrophology also by reading Kathy Reich's Tempe Brennan mysteries -- than from this book by Val McDermid.

 

On more than one occasion, there is not even any indication how McDermid selected her interview partners in the first place (what exactly do the attributes mean that she uses to characterize several of her interviewees in lieu of detailing their professional background, such as "eminent": who awarded these people those attributes, and on what basis precisely?).  Indeed, in several instances, there is every reason to believe that these just happen to be people she has come across in her day job as a crime fiction writer.  The Professor Bernard Knight she references, for example, is very likely the mystery writer and, according to his own standard short biographical blurb, former Home Office pathologist and professor of forensic medicine who since the early 2000s publishes the Crowner John mystery series and is one of the authors of the "Medieval Murderers" round robins (the first of which appeared in 2005); and the scientists she references from the University of Dundee were involved, last year, in an open university forensics project that used McDermid as a figurehead.  That doesn't mean, of course, that these people don't know what they're doing as scientists (in fact, the frequently plodding nature of Knight's fiction writing makes me suspect that he is probably a better scientist than fiction writer, and from what I saw of the Dundee open university project before I had to drop it due to other commitments, it looked both fun and informative) -- but if McDermid's book had the least bit of claim to being a genuine contribution to (if only: popular) science writing, she would openly state her connection with these sources.  (As an aside, it is not good journalism, either, not to have done so.)

 

Final note on the visuals of the specific edition that I read: I was initially pleased because the cover of this edition seemed to promise a relatively matter-of-fact approach without any recourse to showy effects.  Unfortunately, that proved to be the case with regard to this particular print edition as little as it is with regard to the book's substantive contents, as the fly making an appearance as the cover's sole illustration also makes an appeareance on the book's every single page, for purely "ornamental" purposes and without the slightest reference to the actual contents of those pages:

 

(Scans from the final 2 pages of the chapter on facial reconstruction.)

 

Can you possibly get any tackier -- in a book aspiring to a scientific contents, no less?

 

I read this as the November group read of the Flat Book Society and was planning to use it as my "16 Festive Tasks" book for the "Newtonmas" square: I'm going to leave it on that square provisorially on the basis of the occasional scientific bits contributed by McDermid's interviewees, but will very likely be replacing it by the December rogue Flat Book Society buddy read, The Science of Discworld.

 

 

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text 2017-10-25 13:09
Reading progress update: I've read 107 out of 528 pages.
The Golden Age of Murder - Martin Edwards

Finished Part 1 last night -- Part 2 will be "The Rules of the Game."  So far, the structure seems to be similar to that of the beginning of The Story of Classic Crime (a few chapters on the origins of it all, then moving on to an exploration to what it all meant in terms of writerly approach), except that the focus is on the writers themselves here instead of specific books, and on the Detection Club itself of course -- and on putting it all into the context of the era. For a 500-page, tiny-print brick it reads quickly, and so far II'm enjoying the ride and the insight into what the early 20th century writing and publishing world was like. 

 

Interesting tidbits on marketing and writerly self-promotion in particular. Would these authors have enjoyed the changes that social media have brought in recent years?  I think Berkeley in particular would have hated them -- Christie not so much, perhaps, at least not initially; she'd have been quick to capitalize on the marketing potential, although one wonders what she'd have done about her "no photographs" rule; and if she hated the tabloids of her day, a Facebook / Twitter sh*tstorm might well have convinced her to leave marketing to her publisher after all.  Sayers would likeky have seen the marketing potential, too, but she'd probably have found it an even greater challenge than Christie to maintain her privacy ... hmm.  One thing is certain, self-governed authors' associations aiming at the promotion and monitoring of a certain level of class and substance in writing seem to be more called for today than ever before!

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text 2017-10-24 15:01
Reading progress update: I've read 67 out of 528 pages.
The Golden Age of Murder - Martin Edwards

 

Some basic background on where some of the chief movers and shakers of the Detection Club were in the 1920s (and how those events were going to impact their future lives) to get us started -- I knew the stuff about Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, but the chapter on Anthony Berkeley was interesting.  Still wondering why Ngaio Marsh never was elected to membership, not even honorary, it appears ... it can't have been her being a native New Zealander; Helen Simpson was Australian by birth (and both she and Marsh lived in England), and John Dickson Carr was American.

 

I've decided I'm going to count this towards the Free Square of the Detection Club bingo ... what with Eric the Skull making an appearance there, it feels only right.  (Besides, it's the logical follow-up to using Edwards's Story of Classic Crime for the center square of the Halloween Bingo.)

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-10-23 17:00
Hanging the Elephant (Also: Final 2017 Halloween Bingo Read)
She Walks These Hills - Sharyn McCrumb

 

Well, I'm glad that this year's Halloween Bingo ended on a high note for me -- in terms of writing, that is, even if not topically.

 

She Walks These Hills is one of Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad novels, set in the Roan Mountain / Cherokee National Forest part of the Appalachian Mountains -- I'm guessing that the town of Hamelin, TN, featured in the novel is based on Hampton, TN.  (There actually is a Hamelin, TN, too, but it's in a different part of the state, whereas the location of Hampton fits the book's geographical references perfectly.)  The novel is named for the legend of one Katie Wyler, a pioneer girl who in 1779 was abducted by a group of Shawnee, but managed to flee from her captors and walk all the way back home, covering a distance of several hundred miles; only to be killed once she had reached what she believed to be safety -- and whose spirit is believed to still be haunting the area.  While the novel's Katie Wyler is fictitious, McCrumb based her legend on the story of several actual pioneer women who suffered a similar fate (minus being killed upon their return home); most notably, Mary Drapler Ingles

 

That being said, while Katie's story provides the novel's background, the actual plot weaves together the stories of several contemporary (well, 1990s) protagonists:

 

* Hiram "Harm" Sorley, a 60+ year old escapee from a Mountain City prison where he'd been serving a de-facto life sentence without the possibility of parole for killing an affluent neighbor some 25 years previously, and who is (rightly) believed to be trying to return to his hometown of Hamelin, TN -- never mind that he's suffering from Korsakoff's Syndrome, i.e., the memory loss condition where, though you do recall events of your remote past, your short term memory is only able to record things for very brief periods (think of the movie Mememto);

* Hamelin Deputy Sheriff Martha Avery, promoted from dispatcher to her current position (on a probationary basis) as a result of a staffing shortage, who, after volunteering for her current job in an attempt to better herself, unexpectedly finds her relationship with the town's other deputy sheriff (Joe LeDonne) on the rocks -- all the while wondering why she seems to be the only person in the office who is taking Harm Sorley's escape seriously and considering him a potential threat;

* History PhD student and teaching assistant Jeremy Cobb, who has made Katie Wyler's story his pet research project and part of his PhD thesis, and who -- though a city kid and a bookworm who hasn't even gone hiking, let alone camped out in the woods a single time in his life before -- decides there is only one way to "get close" to Katie; namely, by hiking part of the rough, lonesome wilderness trail she must have been traveling some 200 years ago (yeah, well, talk about a recipe for disaster right there);

* Henry "Hank the Yank" Kretzer, a local country & folk music DJ (originally from Connecticut, hence his nickname), who covers the Harm Sorley story on the radio and becomes interested enough to try and track down the circumstances that ended up in Harm's life sentence to begin with;

* and Harm's wife and daughter, Rita and Charlotte, who after Harm's conviction went on to live a life very different from the hillbilly / "white trash" life they had been sharing with him, and whom Rita's new middle class husband Euell had shut off from Harm entirely, enjoining them to consider his being locked up in prison forever the same thing as him being dead.

 

And, in addition to these and other people's stories, which dramatically converge once Harm does actually make it back to the Hamelin area, this is also the story of this particular corner of the Appalachians, whose vast forests, valleys and mountainsides very much make the area's nature and geography a character of its own, and provide for a magnificent backdrop -- and the age-old tale of history repeating itself in that the interests of the defenceless are sacrificed, sometimes very publicly, on the altar of money, power, corruption, and greed: as epitomized by the (real!) story of Mary the elephant, a circus elephant who in 1916 in Erwing, TN, was hanged by a local mob, after she had acted out against and killed a handler who had severely hurt her ... and after the circus owner had realized that as a result she had become a liability instead of the asset she had been so far, and the only way he could generate one last large wad of money out of her was by putting her on display for her public execution.  (Note: You may want to think twice about following the above link or the one in the below first footnote, or researching the story online, if you find it hard to look at images or read descriptions of animals being mistreated.  In fact, I'm going to put the whole passage from the book in which "Hank the Yank" tells the story to his listeners into spoiler tags for the same reason, too:)

"Now the circus was in a pickle. They had to choose between sacrificing an eight-thousand-dollar elephant -- that was Rolls-Royce money in 1916, folks -- or missing play dates in Johnson City and Rogersville.  And the newspaper had fired folks up so that they were screaming for her blood.  It doesn't appear that anybody considered Mary's feelings in the matter.  Ws she a victim of abuse under a  cruel and inexperienced trainer?  Did she consider her actions self-defense? [...]

Those are nineties questions, neighbors.  Nobody asked them in 1916.  The circus owner reasoned that he couldn't afford to lose money from missing show dates, and after the notoriety occasioned by Eldridge's [the handler's] death, he didn't think he could get any other show to buy her.  Apparently, he decided that the only way to profit from the experience would be to reap some free publicity by staging a spectacular public execution.

That's where Erwin comes in.  I mean, how are you going to kill an elephant?  Poison?  How many pounds would it take?  Electrocution?  I wouldn't want to be around if you miscalculated the lethal dosage and pissed her off.  But Erwin, population in 1916 two thousand, was the site of the repair shops for the Clinchfield Railroad.  It offered the circus owner a solution.  Why not hang the beast on a one-hundred-ton railroad derrick?  That's the equipment they used to lift railroad cars.  A five-ton animal would pose no problem at all for such a contraption. [...]

The circus people put a chain around her neck and hoisted her right up off the ground.  It took them two tries,* but they finally succeeded in kiling a rare and intelligent creature, that maybe had no business being enslaved in a sideshow anyhow.  Maybe she even preferred a quick death to a life of servitude.  I don't claim to be an expert on the opinions of elephants."

(spoiler show)

Hank concludes the story of Mary the elephant:

"I do know this: sometimes the law seems more concerned with shutting up mobs who are too dumb to be reasoned with than they are with dispensing justice.  Maybe you're wondering what all this has to do with one old man who took an ax to his prosperous neighbor a quarter of a century ago.  It's just a feeling I have, folks.  Something tells me that Harm was just as much a pawn as Mary was.  I think there's another side to both stories, and while we're never going to hear the truth in Mary's case, I'm still hoping that it can be unconvered for Harm Sorley."**

She Walks These Hills was published in 1994, but given recent political events both in Washington, D.C. and, inter alia, in places like the coal mining areas of West Virginia (which aren't actually so terribly far away from the area where this story is set), large parts of it still read shockingly relevant 23 years later -- now more than ever, in fact.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* Sensitivity warning: The below spoiler adds a detail on the hanging procedure.

(spoiler show)

**Contents spoiler warning: Don't read the below spoiler if you haven't read the book and don't want to read anything related to its conclusion.

Turns out that while Harm Sorley's action wasn't self-defense, he certainly was severely provoked -- it's at the very least debatable whether his act would genuinely have qualified as first degree murder; and if he had had the money to afford a better lawyer, he almost certainly would have gotten off with a lighter sentence.  Then again, if he'd had the money (and sophistication) to hire a better lawyer, he'd likely have resorted to different means altogether ... if that rich neighbor whom he ended up killing had dared to do what he did to him and his family in the first place.

(spoiler show)

Merken

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