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Or, as they say, not, in France, Gharrbahggge. They don’t call it that, but they do put it into a poubelle, which sounds so much more beautiful than a garbage can, or trash can, or even circular file.
While I was working my way through Sleep School, aka, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for my insomnia, I whiled away many evenings reading mysteries, watching movies, TV mystery series, doing Sudoku puzzles, playing scrabble, indulging in long phone calls with people on the west coast, all in a seemingly never-ending struggle to stay awake until my appointed bedtime. Bedtime was at midnight but has moved slowly and incrementally up to a more reasonable 11PM. Now I’m aiming at 10:45. Not bad. I’ll still have time to read.
In the mysteries I entertained myself with, past and present, written or filmed, it dawned on me that the detective (professional, or the more entertaining amateur) might have to search through dumpsters, landfills, dumps, and sweet sounding poubelles to find clues. On the way to finding clues, there was a lot of yuck. Sometimes the yuck was a clue. Yuck.
Amateurs braved the garbage themselves unless they were independently wealthy and had an assistant to do it for them. They probably won’t have that assistant for long. Professionals had a string of underlings who aspired to reach the top rung in the ladder of detection and therefore dared not give up. They were given Hazmat suits. Lucky them.
I considered my own personal poubelle at the side of my desk this morning and wondered what clues it would yield to the inquiring mind. At the moment I’d wondered I had just tossed in a chocolate wrapper. It was exceedingly good chocolate, and I would recommend it to anyone who asks. In the same receptacle is a potato chip bag. Also a good quality chip.
What would those items tell a snoop?
However, the bulk of the trash is folded, smashed, wrinkled and torn up paper; my attempts at writing. They are the critiqued pages of my stories, handed back to me in good faith by my faithful companions. The notations had been gone over, the comments were read and may be applied.
There is nothing physically yucky in there, no need to suit up. I try to keep it all burnable.
But what would it tell someone who thought I had committed some heinous crime?
The crime indeed would not lie in my choice of snack. My taste in chocolate is impeccable. Quality over quantity every time.
But what about the paper? Quantity over quality?
Ah, there might lie the crime.
I was whining away on a Facebook page the other day (Golden Age Detection) about how the current “rules” for mystery novels are turning them boring. So today, a positive note: a review of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries that breaks many of those rules, Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh.
The book begins, as Marsh’s always do, with a list of the “dramatis personae.” Marsh worked in the theatre, and some of her best mysteries take place during theatre productions. (Her very best book, in my view, is Light Thickens, in which she violates the most sacred commandment of the Detection Club by…
SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read Light Thickens yet, scroll past the single line in italics immediately below this one.
…ending the story with the entirely satisfactory discovery of a homicidal maniac.
I love to make my way through the dramatis personae list, imagining likely interactions, spotting promising eccentrics and provokers of conflict. In Dead Water, the obvious candidate is “Miss Emily Pride, Suzerain of [Portcarrow] Island.”
Dead Water comprises only nine chapters, and the first of them is that major no-no, a prologue. Its title is actually “Prelude.” It recounts the alleged appearance of a fairy in a modern-day (that’s 1963) UK fishing village, and village’s resulting transformation into a folklore-y spa. Conflict is confined to minimal levels of discomfort as the whole cast of characters is introduced. Far from leaving anyone hanging from a cliff, the final sentence of the Prelude informs the reader that the story is about to leap over the following two years. This prologue takes up its full 1/9 of the text.
(“Prelude” also sets up one rule-blessed plot thread of which Marsh was fond: a romantic young couple, who will – the reader always knows – live happily ever after once the inevitable murder is cleared up.)
The first quarter of Chapter Two is very heavy to backstory, another no-no. The vivid characterization makes it perfectly smooth and perfectly fascinating. One of Marsh’s best creations, Miss Emily Pride, born ca. 1880, was formerly French coach to rising members of His Majesty’s diplomatic service. The rest of the chapter sets the scene for future confrontations, but the participants in the main conflict of the story remain hundreds of miles apart.
In Chapter 3 the enemies meet and conflict escalates, but nothing worse than threats and minor assaults occur. Not until the end of the chapter does the detective/protagonist appear on this scene of not-quite-crimes. In this reader’s opinion, the threatened victim beats out our hero for character and interest. (I’ve never been hugely enamored of Marsh’s detective Roderick Alleyn. He and the mysteries he unravels serve, it seems to me, largely as an axis for the galaxy of her dramatis personae.)
We are now 1/3 of the way through the book. The first quarter of Chapter 4 is a comic and entirely believable account of a disastrous village festival, ending in nothing worse than a thunderstorm. Not until the end of the chapter, at the 40% mark, does the first and only corpse in the story appear, and it is not a cliffhanger but an elegant switcheroo.
From that point, detection takes over, with no diminution of character interest or involvement with the setting. Marsh’s brilliant plotting picks up from the early chapters clues and red herrings –– including the fairy and the thunderstorm – so subtle as to have been invisible even to experienced mystery readers as they passed by. When the usual climactic scene of derring-do is complete (another rule that Marsh generally followed), Chapter 9 continues with an extended explanation by the detective, a happy ending for the lovers and charitable provision made for innocent sufferers. This denouement covers two days.
Marsh’s editors seem to have had no problem with passages inserted for sheer fun. Here’s one of my favorites. A now-deceased character, whose sole function is to have made a plot-generating bequest to Miss Emily, is described:
My sister, Fanny Winterbottom,” Miss Emily announced, “was not free from this fault. I recall an informal entertainment at our Embassy in which she was invited to take part. It was a burlesque. Fanny was grotesquely attired and carried a vegetable bouquet. She was not without talent of a farouche sort and made something of a hit. Verb. Sap.: as you shall hear. Inflamed by success she improvised a short equivocal speech at the end which she flung her bouquet at H.E. It struck him in the diaphragm and might well have led to an incident.
So there’s an instance of brilliant, rule-breaking mystery writing. A small prize (a blog shout-out) is offered to all who can name a recently published equal.
I Told Myself That I wouldn’t Write About This. . . but, here I am, about to bore my gentle readers to tears over my tale of woe, and seeming success.
Anyone out there with insomnia? You might be the only ones who won’t be put to sleep by this post.
Almost one month ago, after decades of dealing with insomnia, I went for a sleep consultation at a nearby hospital. The doctor called my condition ‘Pure Insomnia,’ though I’m not at all sure about its purity. She said I was a poor candidate for spending the night hooked up to various things because I’d never fall asleep. I didn’t have sleep apnea because I didn’t sleep. She suggested Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
CBT. Of course, I was familiar with the term, but not the actual practice. It was torture for the first few days. Waterboarding looked like a fun way to pass the time.
How hard could it be to change a life-long habit? Hard. Maybe the first few days for a heroin addict, or an alcoholic, to go without their substance of choice might be more painful, but my experience was undoubtedly similar to physical and mental withdrawal. My end-of-the-day reward, my life-long habit of reading in bed, was about to be ripped from my life. I would not be permitted to snuggle up to a book in the comfort of my memory foam mattress and the nurturing love of my pillow. For three hours, 9 PM to midnight, I paced the floor outside the door of my bedroom, not allowed to enter lest I fall into temptation, and bed. I struggled mightily, not knowing what to do.
I carried on like this for a few nights until my husband suggested a movie. That passed some time. Knitting helped. But for some reason reading outside of my bed at night never felt right.
As I said, that was one month ago. I’m doing better now.
I don’t think that reading in bed caused my condition. After all, I’ve read in bed since I could, and that was early. I was the flashlight-under-the-blanket type of kid, unable to get up in the mornings because of the adventurous life I led before dawn. But, when insomnia began because of some cruel twist of fate, the reading habit exacerbated it. I’d lie in bed for hours after lights out waiting for sleep that never showed up. I’d lie in bed in the mornings hoping to catch some z’s and couldn’t. I’d lie in bed for ten hours to get 3 hours of sleep.
What the CBT did, through forced sleep deprivation (amusingly called Sleep Restriction Therapy), was to limit the time I could be in bed. An amount of sleep time was determined using hard, cold calculations, and a predetermined rising time set. For me, it was midnight to bed, and 6 AM to rise. Yes, 6 AM even if I didn’t sleep! Well, if I could sleep for the whole 6 hours, I would have twice as much sleep as I was getting, so I leapt at the proposal.
The first few nights, even after strenuous pacing, and pulling out my hair, I slept as usual. Lousy. Then the forced sleep deprivation took hold, and I slept almost the whole 6 hours.
No napping was allowed.
No lying in bed if I wasn’t sleeping.
No breaks, like sleeping in on the weekends. I was in the army now, my hand behind the plow.
CBT is not for the weak. But it is for the determined.
If, after every seven days, my actual sleeping time increased I’d be permitted to add 15 minutes to my allotted time. You have no idea how I look forward to that little reward. Like a prisoner in solitary who watches for the hand with the tin plate at the door slot, I looked forward to the hands of the clock moving toward my new bedtime. At the end of this week, I can hit the sack at 11 PM.
Still no books in bed, but I’m getting used to reading sprawled out on the sofa, fighting off sleep till I’m allowed to close my eyes in the sanctity of the bedroom.
Now, I don’t want to wake you if you’ve fallen asleep reading this, but I’m done.
The To Be Read pile is an ambiguous object.
On the one hand, there’s a genuine guilt factor: “I really shouldn’t spend any more on books till I’ve read these. Or at least till the pile is smaller.”
On the other hand, there’s the built-in humblebrag: “You should see my TBR pile! The floor joists are starting to creak!” (“Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth this kind of youth must be!“)
Neither argument is relevant for a book hoarder deciding to buy a new book. Books aren’t substitutable. This is something that non-bibliophiles find hard to understand. Raise your hand if anyone has ever said to you, “Don’t you have enough books already?”
The fact that David Mitchell’s sixfold fantasy Cloud Atlas, acquired a month ago at the Five Colleges Book Sale, is waiting on my TBR pile does not mean that I can pass up The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy, a novel based on Ireland’s Celtic Tiger property boom.
But is it fair to call this book accumulation hoarding? The book hoarder – or let’s just say ‘owner’ – fully intends to read the books. True, all those people living between stacks of decades-old newspapers also defend their possessions fiercely, claiming that they will, or may, or might read them someday. The social worker brought in by the family claims to know better.
Let us try for objective truth here. The Literary Hub website provides a scientific calculation of the number of books you can read before you die. Plug in your age and your own estimate of your reading speed (“average,” “voracious” or “super”) and they will tell you how many books you’ve got to go.
Getting the number is like hearing the first Bong! of the church bell for your own funeral. My number is 875. Only three digits. On the bright side, my TBR pile is much smaller than that. Even if I count all the TBRs that have moved over the years from the Pile to my shelves, unread, because a higher pile threatened an industrial accident, I can probably buy a few hundred books and still die absolved. Only a few hundred.
Suppose your number is smaller than your TBR pile, honestly counted. Is it hoarding then? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, the criteria for hoarding concern an inability to discard hoarded items. Nothing about how much you acquire. (Note that the APA is vaguely aware of a definitional difficulty here: they are currently debating whether to say “regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions” or “regardless of their actual value.”)
No problem there. I just donated seven cartons of books to the above-mentioned book sale. I now have exactly enough room for my TBR books on my shelves. The only remaining problem is where to put the next 875.
However, the DSM also stipulates that “the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).”
Again, we have a definitional problem. Distress or impairment to whom? I don’t mind the occasional spilled coffee when I miss the one remaining mug-shaped space on the table with my current reads because my eyes are fixed on the text. Is the pained expression on my husband’s face “clinically significant”? If so, he must need a psychiatrist.
It might be spring if you just planted a couple of pansy six-packs in outdoor planters and then had to bring them in the house because the temperature would be dropping below freezing.
It might be spring if you had the back door open for the noonday sun to warm the house but you still wanted something hot for lunch.
And it might be spring if, while you were heating up said lunch, the cat who had been soaking up rays on the back deck came streaking through the house warning you that there was something outside and that something was a cute, rumply, cuddly, year-old black bear with his nose twitching away at the door in eager anticipation of a home cooked meal such as Mom might have taught him to enjoy.
I shut the door on his cute little nose, and he never batted an eye.
He was awfully cute with his mussy fur coat decorated with twigs and bits of leaves. I watched from the windows as he walked around the house investigating empty planters, glass globes hanging from the naked branches of hydrangeas and lilacs, and turning over with his thumbless hands and huge claws items of suspected gustatory interest.
That was two days ago. The cat hasn’t come out of hiding except to snatch a bite to eat now and then. The sight of bears does that to him. And as adorable as that little tyke of a bear was I also hope he doesn’t come back.
It’s spring when the days are warm and dry, and you want to be out in the yard doing things rather than hunkering down by the wood stove. But hunkering, I think, is more conducive to thinking great thoughts than is basking in the sun. Should I be glad that I live in the north country where summer is literally only 12 weeks long? Would the other 40 weeks give me enough time to write great American flash fiction? Forget the novel. Can anyone in more torrid zones (south of New Hampshire) think clearly enough to imagine great things when they had all those temperate months to bask? I suppose if anyone south of New Hampshire read this post they could accuse me of being a latitudinalist, and they might be correct.
Being anything ‘ist, or phobic these days is bound to get you in trouble. Am I an ursidist, or maybe even ursaphobic if I prefer that cute little feral creatures not wander through my yard when big mama might be close behind? My cat is. And my pansies are exothermistophobes, but then they are pansies; they don’t want to be left out in the cold. Who can blame them?
I’m not sure where this post is going, but I’m going to sit in the sun before it freezes, which it will again tonight. It might be spring in the day, but at night it’s another story.
I had already invented a historic house for my murder. It dated to pre-Revolutionary times. I knew how it had begun –smallish, built by a hard-working tiller of the stony New Hampshire soil – and how it had grown as the family prospered. The foursquare, four-room shelter expanded, front, back and sides, as the nineteenth century progressed. The second story lost its sloping bedrooms and acquired an attic. Greek Revival doohickeys appeared. Even the sheds and barn grew neat.
This week, I got a chance to visit the kernel of my mysterious house. A kindly neighbor is selling his 1775 farmhouse, and he gave me a royal tour. I found myself regretting that I had allowed my fictional Stark House to be tinkered with by a bunch of equally fictional ancestors.
We stepped from the narrow front porch into a graceful swirl of centuries. A narrow wooden staircase on the left of the hall was painted in a deep, vivid blue, like the rich colors that once graced Mount Vernon. The paper on the walls reminded me of the papers Americans imported in the eighteen hundreds, when they established themselves among the nations — as consumers with the best of them.
To either side of the hall were parlors, each with its fireplace, rooms deliberately kept small to conserve heat and prevent drafts. There were signs of new prosperity here, too: the wood-paneled walls may have been the work of a carpenter known to have come through town in the 1830s. He dressed up a number of the local houses – no one wanted to be left behind the fashion. My neighbor had stripped off the centuries of paint that disguised it; you can now stroke the original wood of this 19th-century upgrade.
Behind the smaller parlor was the “warming room.” It shared a chimney with the large kitchen behind the company rooms. Here babies came into the world and the old left it, tended by the women of the family as they kept the kitchen fire going and the stew on the simmer. Our woods here in the Upper Valley still grow good lumber, but the trees that provided its wide floor boards and the original rafters above the kitchen are no more.
The old kitchen has become a living area, its original rafters once again visible, and the extension of the house to the back now houses a modern kitchen. One thing hasn’t changed: my host had a stew in progress that any Puritan goodwife would have envied (or at least asked for the recipe.)
When we made our way down to the basement, I knew that I had missed a great opportunity for my fictional Stark House. Its walls were made of fieldstone, like the walls that run through all our woods and pastures here, but with a big difference. These had been matched and placed with such care and skill that the corners were militarily precise. Just over our heads – we’re both about middle height – huge wooden beams lowered over us. Many had been replaced over the years, but some were still unsquared trunks from those ancestral forests. Think what crimes I could have committed – and concealed! — in such a basement. Just a little monkeying with the light fixtures….
Outside, under the lawn, there are signs of another foundation, probably the barn. I ached to know whether it had once been connected to the house by sheds and work buildings in the style known as Big-House-Little-House-Back-House-Barn. Those convoluted connections figure largely in my murders.
I can see that I’ll have to write a sequel, if only to add the counterpart of this lovely place to my fictional Oxbow, New Hampshire.
Packing day—to return home—is never long enough. (Packing to go to AZ should be a piece of cake. It starts as soon as I stop wearing my summer clothes. That can be any day from October 1 until the second. Of October. I am not kidding you. That’s when summer ends in New Hampshire, which gives me almost three months to fill two suitcases. Does that mean I start packing on October second? You already know the answer to that if you have been following this blog. Just search “procrastination” and you’ll have a good idea of what day I start packing.)
My largest suitcase (my LARGEST suitcase lost a wheel in Australia and is unfortunately sitting in a landfill) was packed three days ago, though I did struggle. Whittling my wardrobe down to three days worth of clothing was difficult, especially when you consider everything we packed into these last three days.
Saturday we watched a grandson play two games of a basketball tournament; they won both! (The most fun was when the grandmother from the other side of the family and I agreed to collaborate on a book together!) By seven p.m. we were at Rawhide Western Town and Event Center for a granddaughter competing in the Regional Level 7 Gymnastics competition. The other regions represented were Utah, Nevada, Southern California and Northern California. She did extremely well and brought home three medals.
Yesterday the ladies of the Arizona family (two daughters, three granddaughters, and me) dressed up for lunch at the English Rose Tea Room in Carefree. So much fun!! The Tea Room is in a plaza of cute shops with a gorgeous Southwestern garden area. Elephant Bluff and Skull Mesa were visible to the north.
Last night some of the men (my husband and two grandsons) joined the ladies at San Tan Flat for a farewell dinner. Margaritas, outdoor tables, rancher tips and steak, two vicious games of Uno (my granddaughters are sharks), s’mores cooked over our own fire pit, and dancing to live music. We couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff (unless our sons-in-law were not tied up with work obligations and could have joined us)!!
See you in New Hampshire!!
PULL UP OUR SOCKS?
That’s what Heidi urged us to do when our blogging was going down the tubes. I looked up the expression and found this:
Socks didn’t always have an elastic band around the top. Our great-grandparents used to wear garters to keep them up. In days gone by, schoolboys in shorts could regularly be seen with socks drooping around their ankles and were told to smarten themselves by pulling their socks up.
Poor kids. Try rolling a hoop down the street with lengths of knitted tubing fluttering around your feet. A definite dog attractor. There are other sock expressions found and explained on the internet, but I won’t go into them here. Some are fun and suitable for a writer to utilize.
So, here we are, pulling up our socks.
Heidi went at it with a vengeance (see two posts ago), with her medieval manuscripts post, and Karen followed with her short story woes. I feel for her; I’m in the same boat, struggling with word counts that don’t allow for character expansion or descriptions out the wazoo. Wazoo is a fascinating word. Thank goodness that it has gone beyond its original meaning and is now acceptable in family settings and good clean writing. At least I think it has. If I use it, if I’ve even heard its new meaning, it generally indicates it’s been in usage for ages. Like, pull up your socks.
My short story woes are slightly different than Karen’s. I enjoy ripping the clothes off my overdressed stories till they are clad only in the basics. Just a tad more than a birthday suit, the suit in which your story was dressed when it first occurred to you. No one wants to see that. Still, I need to have a complete story within the confines of competition requirements, one that sounds right for the word count, neither sparse or wordy, There’s a great word in Yiddish; ungapatchka. It means too much. I love it. Don’t bother looking it up; it’s not there. It’s a word that just is. I don’t think there’s an opposite, an antonym, or maybe I haven’t heard it yet.
I added a program to my computer (drum roll here), that’s been helping me with my writing. It’s called Grammarly. There is no part of my brain that can deal with grammar and punctuation. This program spots all my errors and, with my permission, will correct them for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to memorize Strunk and White’s Elements of Style to no avail. This program is the cat’s pajamas. Probably Dr. Denton’s with the socks attached.
So now I’m whizzing through my short stories like mad, not because I have this program but because all the competitions I want to enter are due at the end of this month. Grammarly is a real blessing to those who have a phobia to usage.
I’ve gotten four stories out already (these were pre-written stories; nobody is that good), whereas I (my critique mates, actually) would still be struggling with the grammar in the first one or two. I’ve spared them unnecessary anguish when their own troubles already besiege them.
You see how well I’ve pulled my socks up, Heidi?
I’ve never considered myself a short story writer. I read them—and enjoy them–but I never feel as satisfied when I’m done with them as when I read a novel.
Yet here I am, reviving a short story that I’ve been working on for a few years. I have twenty-six saved versions of this story (with four different working titles) on my laptop. When I originally wrote it—back in 2014—the total word count was eleven thousand words. I’ve condensed it to five thousand words. As you can imagine, it doesn’t read like the original story. (And that’s a good thing–I’ve reread the original story.)
Why revive this project if I couldn’t finish it in 2014—or 2016—or 2017?
The need to complete a piece of writing is driving me, not exactly insane…more like to write. Something that I can submit for publication. Or rejection. Going back and forth working on the novels of my Woodbury trilogy without making any discernible progress has left me frustrated, unsure of my ability to write and revise, over and over, until I can say it is as good as it gets.
Just possibly, I’m finding that writing a short story is good practice for writing a novel. (Or just for learning how to write.)
With my short story, I can revise the entire piece in a day less than a week, submit it to my group for critique, and, within six days, I can produce another revision. Of the entire story. I can keep track of the changes I’m making from the beginning to the end of the story. I can reread the entire story each time I work on it. Try doing any of those things with a novel.
A major problem I am facing with my short story is fitting in all the scenes and dialogue that I need with a limited word count. I believe the story can be told in five thousand words. But I am beginning to suspect that I need more words than that to write it. It’s easier to take words out than to have to add them in. Or so I’ve been told. Maybe I’ll just ignore that nagging word count on the bottom left of my screen and write.
Does this mean I will abandon my trilogy for the pleasure of writing short stories? Doesn’t strike me as likely right at the moment. Though I can envision always having a short story in progress to turn to whenever I need the instant gratification I can’t get from writing a novel.
You know how the writing mavens warn you against letting yourself get carried away by your research? Against noodling around in depth upon depth of interesting stuff instead of turning out text? Today we consider how much fun you can have if you ignore them.
At present, I’m plotting a mystery that will involve a rare books library and its collection of illuminated manuscripts. My first and most valuable co-conspirator is that deeply respectable institution, the British Library. Their daily Medieval Manuscripts blog greets my every morning with some new twist on their very old theme. The BL is digitizing its collection, so you can burrow down to find what interests you or browse just for fun.
This phoenix was on display at the BL’s recent exhibition “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” which brought together texts and museum objects that Harry himself might have used to pursue a wizardly education. It comes from a bestiary that might have been the text for Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class. (The exhibition sold out long in advance for every single day, a first for the Library.)
For facts and figures, and above all to avoid howlers, I’m studying Christopher de Hamel’s 2017 blockbuster, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. (Okay, it may not have been on the bestseller lists. But it’s 632 pages long and weighs three pounds.) De Hamel is the former librarian of the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, a treasure house of manuscripts.
De Hamel travelled the world to research this book, visiting twelve of the most important and most beautiful manuscripts in existence. The earliest dates to the late 500s, the latest to about 1515. Each essay combines his travels, accounts of each rare book library and its denizens, his musings on the manuscripts – including some new observations and deductions on the making and history of each – with multiple images of the illuminations, of their present homes and of the men and women who bought, sold and preserved them.
Chapter One concerns the Gospels of St. Augustine, owned by Corpus Christi itself. It is the oldest surviving Latin gospel book anywhere in the world. The saint in question is not the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo but the missionary who brought Roman Catholicism to England. The book’s readings of the text and its imagery served as exemplars for later and more elaborate gospel books down the centuries.
Its predecessors may be even more interesting: scholars suggest links between the style of its art and Ethiopia, a home of early Christian monasticism. That style of Ethiopian religious painting persists today.
De Hamel’s anecdotes are even more enticing than his scholarship. Here we see him in his librarian persona, dressed in full academic regalia, presenting the Gospels of St. Augustine for Pope Benedict’s veneration when he visited England. That’s Rowan Williams, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, on the left.
The Gospels of St. Augustine are also used during the enthronements of Archbishops of Canterbury, and at the last two such ceremonies, de Hamel again presented the book. He reports that in 2003, at the enthronement of Rowan Williams, at the first vibrating notes of the opening hymn, the parchment pages of the book rose and fluttered. He adds that the same did not occur for the current incumbent.
In the succeeding chapters, we meet, among others, the Book of Kells, the Copenhagen Psalter and the Visconti Semideus. Here are a few tidbits that may find their way, suitably transmuted, into my mystery:
De Hamel says he is often asked if the Book of Kells is like a Book of Hours. And if so, his questioners want to know, what is a kell? Such innocent ignorance pales beside the vandalism of one George Mullen, who “restored” the Book of Kells in the 1820s and saw fit to touch up the decorations with white paint, to “improve the definition.”
The Copenhagen Psalter, we learn, was probably created as a first reading book for a young prince. This purpose is demonstrated by a large, carefully drawn alphabet and a table of punctuation and abbreviations. Its illuminations are certainly royal. If manuscripts, de Hamel says, were accompanied by music, the Copenhagen Psalter would require trumpets and a church organ.
More endearing, though, are the marginalia, calculated to appeal to a child. One of them shows a cat playing a rebec, a sort of early fiddle. This image occurs in many illuminated manuscripts and harks back, de Hamel believes, to whatever tale or folk belief gave us “Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle.” He adds that when a dinner guest of his own, a master of medieval music, arrived with a rebec, an experiment became possible. The musician played, and de Hamel’s cat “rushed in as if drawn by a magnet, rolling on the floor in ecstasy, as punch drunk as a dervish.”
The Semideus is a manual on warfare, presented to Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan, in 1438. The violent subject matter was appropriate to the recipient, a warlord whose emblem was a blue viper devouring a child. Yet the pictures of tactical devastation are charming, washed with soft pastel colors and full of tiny, perfect detail. This battle scene is viewed from the opposing page by the Madonna and Child, beaming down on the carnage from the center of a sunburst (another Visconti emblem.)
The St. Petersburg National Library is the current home of the Semideus. When de Hamel arrived, he went through a near-Soviet experience of rigid and inexplicable bureaucracy interspersed with casual Russian friendliness. At last he settled down to inspect the precious manuscript. He was so immersed in his work that it was well past lunch time when he looked up. The Russian invigilator keeping watch over the reading room realized he had missed the meal – so she brought him a handful of whiskey-flavored chocolates to eat while he continued to handle the manuscript.
Could I put together my mystery plot with less information than this? Logic says yes. I say no. These winding little back alleys of fact are putting flesh on the bones of my story and slowly filling the memories (and the unconscious) of several of my characters. At any rate, the mavens can’t prove that I don’t need to do this. Until they can, I plan to enjoy myself.