Saturday, January 31, 2009

The UK's "Big Read": The Lost World.

How cool that across the UK the "big read" is Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. (Hat tip to Shelf Life.)


Posted in Yale's Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities are a few pages from the 1822 False Stories Corrected, which tells children that Jack Frost, the centaur, and the mermaid, among other beings, do not exist.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Upcoming new bio, John D. MacDonald.

Buried within the January 26th issue of Publishers Weekly was the news of an upcoming biography of John D. MacDonald, which appears will be published in fall 2009. Further details here.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Washington Post Book World, RIP.

Count me among the mourners about the news of the Washington Post Book World's demise. Despite the relentlessly optimistic responses of Sarah Weinman and Jeff Pierce, Book World was more than its next incarnation as just another a Web books column would imply. People routinely carried it with them on buses and the Metro (it was a very handy size)—sometimes toting more than one issue at a time. They took it to libraries and bookstores as they tried to determine what to read (or buy) next. Its bestseller list was a cut above the others, as it would include a "Washington Is Also Reading" section, which was culled from local independent bookstores; these selections were always atypical and interesting. Book World sparked spirited discussions in Mike Dirda's weekly book chat (which is also defunct). It was a nexus of literary events and culture in the Washington, DC, area. A dedicated section sends a clear message about the importance of books and reading (to which John Updike, God rest him, fiercely testified). Book reviews easily lost in the Style section—ie, amid Paris Hilton's latest antics and where sometimes you have to hunt for the Books column—hardly send a message of legitimacy. I'm one of those people who curls up in an armchair with the Sunday paper and a cup of coffee; Book World was ideally suited to this activity. I don't want to curl up with my computer.

Update, September 25, 2022: Washington Post Book World relaunched today.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

People have too much time on their hands: Peeps dioramas.

The University of Chicago Magazine is sponsoring a Peeps diorama contest with a Chicago theme and cash prizes; deadline for entries is March 29th.

Visit past Peeps diorama contests at the Denver Post, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune.

Perhaps we need a mystery-themed Peeps diorama contest. Hercule Peep-ot, anyone?

About the photo:
"Soylent Yellow Is Peeps," by Thomas W. Webster, Denver

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Holmes and Poirot via Sharpie.

A man in Lexington, Kentucky, has decorated his basement walls with various inspirations, including Holmes and Poirot, with his trusty Sharpie. Go here for the article and panoramic views of his artwork.

Monday, January 26, 2009

BBC World Service dramatizes Ellroy's
My Dark Places.

The BBC World Service has dramatized James Ellroy's nonfiction account of his mother's murder, My Dark Places, which stars Toby Stephens. More information here; go here for an interview with Ellroy about the dramatization.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Classic detective shows return on RTN.

The Retro Television Network is showing episodes of mystery TV series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Ironside, Kojak, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Simon & Simon, and—my personal favorite—Ellery Queen starring Jim Hutton. A list of RTN affiliates by state can be found here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Conan Doyle, Capote works do well at auction.

At Bloomsbury's English literature auction on January 22nd, a signed first edition of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood went for £380 (approximately $518). The following Conan Doyle items also fared well:
  • Author's edition of The Works (13 vols.), from a limited edition of 1,000 copies, signed by Conan Doyle: £1400 (approximately $1,910)
  • First edition, The Valley of Fear (1914), sold with first edition, The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, ed. Ellery Queen (1944): £400 (approximately $546)
  • The Great Boer War (1900): £180 (approximately $246)
Among the mystifying unsold items:
  • first English edition, Robert Bloch's Psycho
  • first edition, Sue Grafton's first novel, Keziah Dane
  • first English edition, David Goodis's Nightfall

Friday, January 23, 2009

AJR on funny headlines and cliches.

AJR (aka the American Journalism Review) sometimes features the columns Take 2 (funny headlines and otherwise botched copy) and Cliche Corner (self-explanatory). One sample from Take 2: "Couple from Hell Wins Halloween Lottery." Go here for the latest issue (including a piece on Pat Boone as pundit).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

St. Cloud, MN, likes Erle Stanley Gardner.

Over at the 18-year-old independent bookstore Books Revisited in St. Cloud, Minnesota, there's a slew of affordable offerings of Erle Stanley Gardner, his alter ego A. A. Fair, John Dickson Carr, and his alter ego Carter Dickson.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Vera Caspary's The Secrets of Grown-ups.

Through the magic of Interlibrary Loan I borrowed The Secrets of Grown-ups (1979), the Edgar-nominated autobiography of Vera Caspary—author of Laura (1943), screenwriter of A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and Les Girls (1957), playwright, and wife of producer I. G. Goldsmith. A Chicago native, Caspary started out writing sometimes dubious correspondence courses (including learning ballet by mail—yes, you read that right), advertising (no doubt explaining the barbed portrayal of the advertising world in Laura), and editing Dance magazine. A Greenwich Village bohemian and a writer on the "Greylist" due to a one-time (albeit confused) association with the Communist Party, Caspary examines her successes and failures with an unflinching eye and such a wry vitality that it is hard to believe she has been gone for more than 20 years.

At age 29 she published her first novel, The White Girl, about a black woman passing as white. About the genesis of Laura, Caspary says:
Mysteries had never been my favorite reading. The murderer, the most interesting character, has always to be on the periphery of action lest he give away the secret that can be revealed only in the final pages. If mystery writers were to expose character in all of its complexity, they could never produce the solution in which the killer turns out to be the butler, the sweet old aunt or a birdwatcher who ruthlessly kills half a dozen people in order to get hold of the cigarette case with a false bottom that conceals a hundred-thousand-dollar postage stamp. . . .

Every character in [. . .
Laura], except the detective, was to be a suspect— particularly the heroine, with whom the detective was to fall in love. If her innocence was in doubt, how could her thoughts be made clear to the reader? I did not want to cheat.

. . . The story fascinated my friend Ellis St. Joseph, who suggested that I try the Wilkie Collins method of having each character tell his or her own version, revealing or concealing information according to his or her own interests. (
The Secrets of Grown-ups 194–95)
Caspary goes on to dub her contract for the film "one of the worst contracts ever written" (208) and believes that her fierce battle with Otto Preminger over the script resulted in a sparkling rewrite by Samuel Hoffenstein.

I wish The Secrets of Grown-ups was in print, as its voice is unique, refreshing, and especially inspiring to women in its independent outlook. Caspary's Laura and Bedelia have been reprinted as part of Feminist Press's Femmes Fatales series.

. . . I decided to become an onlooker, witness to the romantic achievements of my friends, enjoying rather than envying their romances. I began consciously to shape myself to this pattern, to become a spy on the side of humanity, to observe and learn, to grieve and rejoice over the affairs of others. . . . It was good training for a novelist, even better as education for a baby who had to become a woman.

Nights are not so lonely when there are stories to be written, problems to be solved, paragraphs constructed, and the companionship of ornery, beautiful, wicked, exotic, irresponsible characters more alive to me than the widows counting pennies at restaurant tables.—Vera Caspary, The Secrets of Grown-ups 35–36, 280

About the photo: Vera Caspary, by Jane Rady. From The Secrets of Grown-ups.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Historical inaugurations.

On this inauguration day you can take a historical look at the inauguration and various past swearing-in ceremonies from the Senate, as well as view the Obama inauguration and take a guided tour of Blair House, dubbed "the president's guest house," on C-Span.

About the photo: Harper's Weekly illustration of Theodore Roosevelt's inauguration address, 1905. TR is reported to have worn a ring to the inaugural that contained some hair from Abraham Lincoln, which was loaned to him by former Lincoln secretary John Hay.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy birthday, Alexander Woollcott.

Amid the hoopla of the 200th Poe birthday today, let us not forget the 122nd birthday of New Jersey-born Alexander WoollcottStars and Stripes journalist, theater critic, writer, member of the Algonquin Round Table, radio personality, and model for Sheridan Whiteside in George S. Kaufman's The Man Who Came to Dinner. His mystery story "Moonlight Sonata" appears in The Vicious Circle (2007), ed. Otto Penzler. Although Penzler states that the onscreen Waldo Lydecker in Laura is modeled on Woollcott, it's quite clear from A. B. Emrys's article in Clues 23.3 ("Laura, Vera, and Wilkie") that Caspary's character originates from Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.
Alexander Woollcott says that each new play is a fresh joy to him, but the question is whether he's a fresh joy to each new play!—I wonder.—Noel Coward, Terribly Intimate Portraits (New York, 1922) 19.
About the photo: Alexander Woollcott by Carl Van Vechten, ca. 1939. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

New journal on black cinema.

Indiana University Press has announced that it will publish, in conjunction with IU's Black Film Center/Archive, a new scholarly journal called Black Camera, ed. Michael T. Martin (director of the archive). "Devoted to the study and documentation of the black cinematic experience," the journal will commence in fall 2009 and be published biannually. Go here for contributor guidelines.

There's been some analysis of African Americans on screen in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, such as "Shades of Black on Homicide: Life on the Street: Advances and Retreats in Portrayals of African American Women," by Thomas A. Mascaro.

About the photo: Photographer (later director) Gordon Parks, ca. 1943. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div reproduction no. LC-DIG-ppmsc-00190.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Happy birthday, Nevil Shute.

Aeronautical engineer and novelist Nevil Shute was born today in Ealing in 1899. His works include the apocalyptic On the Beach (1957); his prophetic warning about the dangers of metal fatigue in planes, No Highway (1948; film 1951); and the World War II-era love story A Town Like Alice (1950), made into a solid miniseries with Helen Morse and Bryan Brown.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sarah Booth Conroy, 1927–2009.

I was saddened to read the news of the death of longtime Washington Post reporter Sarah Booth Conroy at the age of 81 due to Alzheimer's disease. Sarah Booth was a die-hard mystery fan (her husband Richard wrote some mystery novels plus two humorous memoirs on his foreign service career, Our Man in Belize and Our Man in Vienna); was a familiar, warm presence at Malice Domestic in her one-of-a-kind jewelry designed by Richard; and often interviewed mystery writers for the Post. It was her Chronicles column on Sarah Caudwell that revealed that Caudwell's ancester, Admiral George Cockburn, burned the White House during the War of 1812.

As Sarah Booth had known Alice Roosevelt Longworth during her journalistic career, I took the opportunity to run my impressions of Alice by her before I wrote two short stories that featured TR's eldest daughter; I was relieved to learn that I was on target.

Sarah Booth's one novel, Refinements of Love, was an interesting treatment of the Five of Hearts group: Henry Adams, Clover Adams, John Hay, Clara Hay, and Clarence King. For a tribute to her from a Post colleague, go here; for a look at some of the wonderful things that were in the Conroy home, go here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Happy birthday, Dennis Lynds.

Dennis Lynds (aka Michael Collins and several other pseudonyms) was born today in St. Louis in 1924. He received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart during his World War II service in the army. He received an Edgar for Best First Novel for Act of Fear (1967) that featured one-armed detective Dan Fortune. Among his numerous works are several books in the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series; novels featuring Walter B. Gibson's The Shadow; and Slot Machine Kelly, a collection of his PI tales from Crippen & Landru. He died in 2005.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Commas and cutups at the Chicago Manual of Style.

The University of Chicago Magazine covers in its blog those wacky mavens at the Chicago Manual of Style and their Q&A section, including the sage advice "I'm not sure you should annoy the person who provides the enchiladas."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The mummy strikes.

Envy the residents of Los Angeles, who get to view The Fine Art of Film Posters: Selections from the Los Angeles Public Library Collection, running until March 8th at the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library and including the poster at left.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male this week on BBC Radio 7.

Geoffrey Household's nail-biting tale of a British hunter who takes a potshot at a European dictator (read Hitler) and then is pursued relentlessly is featured this week on BBC Radio 7, along with Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia. Go here for the schedule or to listen.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Happy birthday, Jasper Fforde.

Jasper Fforde, former film cameraman and author of the Thursday Next literary detection spoofs (The Eyre Affair, etc.) and the novels featuring nursery rhyme detective Jack Spratt (The Big Over Easy, etc.), turns 48 today. Fellow writer Katie Fforde is married to a cousin of Fforde's.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

New year's resolutions from 1904.

Yale's Room 26, Cabinet of Curiosities features some examples of elegant typography from turn-of-the-century Chicago firm P. C. Darrow, including some tongue-in-cheek new year's resolutions from 1904, including "Resolved—that if my friend loses on a horse race I will weep with him—while inwardly rejoicing that I missed being 'tipped.'"

Friday, January 09, 2009

Happy birthday, Walter R. Brooks.

New Yorker writer and complimentary Maltese Falcon reviewer (in Outlook) Walter R. Brooks was born today in Rome, New York, in 1896, but he has a lasting claim to fame as the creator of the beloved Freddy the Pig, including the porcine one's stint as sleuth in Freddy the Detective (1932). Overlook Press has reprinted the Freddy books, and the Friends of Freddy are a substantial presence on the World Wide Web. Brooks's "Ed Signs the Pledge" (Argosy, June 1944) was the basis for the TV series Mister Ed, featuring a talking horse, of course, of course.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Happy birthday, Dennis Wheatley.

Dennis Wheatley, British thriller writer (and recipient of a US Bronze Star for his services to the Allies during World War II), was born today in London in 1897. His work, which includes touches of the occult, historical novels, and some detective stories, ranges from The Forbidden Territory (1933, film 1938), The Devil Rides Out (1935; film 1968, with a screenplay by Richard Matheson), Herewith the Clues! (1939), and Three Inquisitive People (1940) to The Scarlet Imposter (1940) and The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948). He died in 1977.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

On authors and publishers.

"The publisher is the partner, the help of the author and his high servant or minister to the people. It is work worthy of large men and of high-minded men. Honest men we are—those of us who conduct the publishing houses that are in good repute. But I sometimes think that we miss being large men; for we do not do our business in (shall I say?) a statesmanlike manner. We imitate the manners of tradesmen. We speak in the vocabulary of tradesmen. We are too likely to look at small projects as important—to pay our heed to the mere tricks of our trade—and to treat large enterprises, if we have them, as if they were but part of the routine. A good book is a Big Thing, a thing to be thankful to heaven for. It is a great day for any of us when we can put our imprint on it. Here is a chance for reverence, for something like consecration. And the man or the woman who can write a good book is a form of capital infinitely more attractive than a large bank account or a great publishing 'plant.' Yet, if we regard an author simply as 'capital,' we are not worthy to serve him."

Walter H. Page [of Doubleday, Page], A Publisher's Confession [1905], 169–70.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Happy birthday, Joan Hess.

Agatha and Macavity winner Joan Hess, whose comic mysteries feature Sheriff Arly Hanks (once played by Kate Jackson) and bookstore owner Claire Malloy, turns 60 today. Her latest is Mummy Dearest, which takes place in Egypt and includes certain sly references to friend Elizabeth Peters.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Hammett's "Secret Agent X-9" this week on BBC Radio 7.

This week BBC Radio 7 features "Secret Agent X-9" (from the comic strip by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond; films 1937, 1945) and Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Go here for the schedule or to listen.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald.

To add a small mite to the various items around the Internet on the late Donald Westlake: At left is an utterly charming photograph on loan from Maynard MacDonald. Westlake is on the left, John D. MacDonald on the right.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

BBC 4 looks at the Victorian detective.

BBC 4's Thinking Allowed program looks at the culture of the nineteenth-century detective, including the role of Collins and Dickens. Guests include Kate Summerscale, author of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher; Louise Westmarland, a senior lecturer in criminology at the Open University; and Dick Hobbs, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics.

Friday, January 02, 2009

2008 book thefts.

PhiloBiblos provides an extensive round-up of cases involving thefts of books and/or other literary materials in 2008.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

An answer to the Chicken Little atmosphere in publishing.

I have one reply to the gloom surrounding the acquisitions freeze at Harcourt and the Random House reorganization: consider the example of Harper & Brothers (some of the Harper siblings can be seen at left, taken by Matthew Brady bet. 1855 and 1865).

As the twentieth century approached, Harper & Brothers had published the Brontë sisters, Richard Henry Dana (author of Two Years Before the Mast), Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Washington Irving, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, William Makepeace Thackeray, Mark Twain, and Gen. Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur).

An instructive timeline:
Mar. 1817: J & J Harper founded by James and John Harper.

1833: Name changed to Harper & Brothers when Joseph, Wesley, and Fletcher Harper join firm.

Dec. 1853: Harper & Brothers premises in New York are destroyed by fire; damages are estimated at $1 million, with only $250,000 covered by insurance.

1854: The offices of printers to whom Harper & Brothers farmed out printing burn; plates for various books are wiped out.

1855: The Harper brothers open rebuilt facilities that are considered an architectural and technological marvel at the time.

1899: Harper & Brothers goes bankrupt. Says William Dean Howells, whose Rise of Silas Lapham was published by Harper & Brothers: “It was as if I had read that the government of the United States had failed” (qtd. in Strouse, Morgan: American Financier 366).

J. P. Morgan gives nearly $2.5 million to keep the firm afloat. Firm leaves Harper family. Col. George Harvey, who previously served as managing editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s World, is appointed manager of the firm.

1902: Harper & Brothers publishes Woodrow Wilson's five-volume A History of the American People.

1903: Harper & Brothers publishes Henry James's The Ambassadors.

1912: Harper & Brothers publishes Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage.

1913: Harper's Bazar sold to William Randolph Hearst.

1917: Harper & Brothers publishes Edna St. Vincent Millay's Renascence and Other Poems.

1934: Harper & Brothers publishes Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again.

1940: Harper & Brothers publishes Richard Wright's Native Son.

1946: Harper & Brothers hires editor (and eventual mystery legend) Joan Kahn.

1947: Harper & Brothers publishes Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon.

1949: Harper & Brothers publishes John Dickson Carr's The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

1950: Harper & Brothers publishes Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train.

1955: Harper & Brothers publishes John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.

1962: Harper & Brothers merges with Row, Peterson & Co.; firm becomes Harper & Row.

1970: Harper & Row publishes Tony Hillerman's The Blessing Way.

1978: Harper & Row acquires J. B. Lippincott (latter est. 1792).

1980: Harper's Magazine taken over by John R. MacArthur and the Harper's Magazine Foundation.

1987: Rupert Murdoch acquires Harper & Row.

1988: Harper & Row acquires Christian publisher Zondervan.

1989: Harper & Row acquires textbook publisher Scott, Foresman.

1990: Harper & Row merges with UK publisher William Collins (which publishes Christie, Tolkien, and Wells) to become HarperCollins; sells Lippincott to Wolters Kluwer.

1993: HarperCollins publishes Lisa Scottoline's Everywhere That Mary Went.

1994: HarperCollins acquires scholarly publisher Westview Press.

1999: HarperCollins acquires William Morrow and Avon from Hearst Corp.; Ecco Press from Daniel Halpern.

2006: C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia makes $104 million in one quarter for HarperCollins.

Apr. 2008: HarperCollins announces plan to substitute profit-sharing for author advances and intention to eliminate returns.

June 2008: CEO Jane Friedman leaves HarperCollins.

Nov. 2008: Publishers Weekly reports that HarperCollins' first-quarter revenue drops from $330 million to $315 million.
In sum, on the eve of the twentieth century, Harper & Brothers was poised on the brink of oblivion. As can be seen in this brief example, however, there were many, overwhelmingly better things to come.