The Worsted Viper, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

Before you begin this book, assuming that you are not intimately familiar with the towns of Wroxham, Acle, Thurne, Barton Turl and the like, do yourself a favour and take a brief excursion round the internet. Search for “Norfolk Broads map,” or follow this link, if it still functions at time of reading. Alternately, select your own, as long as it gives the major towns, rivers, and lakes of the region (collectively, “the Broads,” specifically, the Norfolk Broads, as the Suffolk ones do not really come into play in the story). For more on the region itself, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start. There is also some excellent information in an old book that I happen to own, called The Norfolk We Live In (yes, dangling participle, I know), so if you stumble across a copy of that it’s worth picking up. In whatever circumstance, you’re looking for a map of the area north and east of Norfolk, so however you accomplish it, do what works best for you. Print the map out and tuck it into your copy of The Worsted Viper, to refer back to as needed. Now read on.

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The Worsted Viper, by Gladys Mitchell (Minnow Press, 2010, Reprint)

As you will have guessed, geography, unsurprisingly, plays an important role in this 1943 novel by Gladys Mitchell. I don’t say that you will be unable to follow and enjoy the book without knowing the area, but I do humbly suggest that you’ll enjoy it a good deal more if you have a nodding acquaintance with the lay of the land. Norfolk is a wide, largely flat stretch of coastal plain, and the Broads are a series of interconnected rivers (including the Ant, the Bure, the Thurne; further south lie the Yare, the Chet, and the Tas) and lakes. These waterways make for enjoyable, calm boating holidays, and in The Worsted Viper, they are central to the plot.

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Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut: A Baroque Dithyramb

All of this happened, more or less. Anna Jean was real, and that was almost her name. Babette was real, but that wasn’t her name. I guess I’m more afraid of upsetting Babette than Anna Jean, even after all of these years. The two kids are real too, but I won’t name them, to protect their anonymity and mine, as anonymity’s a precious commodity too easily sold these days. The explosion in the quarry really happened, too, but in Kansas City, Missouri. It killed six firefighters. Buck Drumstick is real too, but he won’t ever read this. Not because he’s dead, no. It’s just because even if he knew that I was alive, and had written this, he wouldn’t give a fuck. So it goes.

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Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (Dell Laurel Edition, 1988; first published 1969)

There are blackbirds and sparrows calling outside my open French doors as I write these words, and the news is full of worrying tidings. Robert Kennedy will have been dead fifty years soon, so for him, the early 21st century is a dawdle. He had just died, Vonnegut tells us, as he, Vonnegut, was nearing the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, as he tells us at the beginning of the final chapter. He doesn’t have to worry about the maddest faux-President since Nixon (although that’s unfair to old Dick, as he was actually elected), the renewed threat of Global Disaster, and the insanity of attempting to undo the rational, scientific application of good government by a bunch of sociopathic lunatics. The two kids are two kids that I know. Not in a sinister way. They don’t work for me, or arrange my speaking appearances. No, they just go to school and, when I pick them up twice a week so they can visit us at home, they occasionally give me little insights into things in their lives, like an old lady in a park hands out breadcrumbs. They’re reading Slaughterhouse-Five, by the much-missed Mr. Kurt Vonnegut, in their English class. Slaughterhouse-Five is an American novel written in the late 1960s. It’s about a lot of things. Mostly it’s a savage attack on war, conventionality, and being abducted by aliens. Mr. Trumpkin probably hasn’t read it, since it doesn’t seem like he’s read much, but it’s a good read. He might learn something from it (well, that’s doubtful, but we can live in hope, as that hasn’t been made illegal yet), and he’d probably like page 209 (in my edition at least), because there’s a drawing of a pair of tits there. So much for the dignity of the presidency.

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Laurels Are Poison, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

The 14th Mrs. Bradley novel marks the opening of a new era for the character, and also does an admirable job of papering over the cracks in the gap between the first thirteen, pre-Laura Menzies novels, and all that were to follow. One could scarcely imagine that, at the time, Miss Mitchell was aware of the momentous nature of the introduction of this new character. Unless, of course, she planned it all from the start. If so, planning for fifty-two novels is quite the long game.

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Laurels Are Poison, by Gladys Mitchell (Hogarth Press, 1986, Reprint)

Mrs. Bradley is asked to the Cartaret Training College to investigate the disappearance, of Miss Murchan, the former Warden of Athelstan House at the College. Her disappearance after going to fix her hair during an end-of-term dance has caused some consternation. When Mrs. Bradley takes up residence, things immediately begin to happen. Tripwires have been set up across some doorways. There’s an unauthorised bonfire outside. A cook goes missing. A girl’s lovely hair is crudely and cruelly shorn. Oh, and there’s one skeleton too many, and in a nearby limestone pit, someone’s been cooking something rather large. With a numerous student body, divided into different houses with resonant names from English history, suspects are available a-plenty, and the danger seems very real.

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Books in Groups, Fit the Second: Heron Books Library of Crime

I enjoy things that come in sets. It’s some sort of weakness of mine, or possibly even a mild personality disorder, that drives my near-compulsion to fill in the gaps in a collection in which I’ve taken an interest. I did it with the CBS Great Performances LPs, a chase which occupied the better part of two years. I’ve also done the same thing with several authors.

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You know it’s going to be a good day when you get a giant bag from the Royal Mail. The postman may not be your biggest fan, however…

When I stumbled across references to the Heron Library of Crime series on several occasions, while researching, perhaps predictably, the crime novels of Gladys Mitchell, I was intrigued. With the exception of several abortive attempts to find her an audience in the United States, and the occasional translation into French or German, Mitchell’s books had largely been restricted to availability within the Commonwealth, and Britain specifically. So I was further intrigued to discover that, unusually, a late novel of Mitchell’s, 1978’s Mingled with Venom, had been issued as a part of the Library of Crime. Published by Edito-Service S.A., out of Geneva, Switzerland, and printed in Italy, collectively the Library of Crime is a rather odd animal. Online listings for Heron Books titles show them to have been an English-language reprint house, with series of spy novels, children’s classics, fiction, and mystery novels. Published in 1981 and 1982, the Library of Crime are sometimes difficult to identify, as only a few of the latter titles, for whatever reason, are assigned ISBNs, making them harder to locate despite appearing ten years after the ISBN was introduced to help standardise publishing.

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: A Brief Consideration

I’ll wager that you’ve never seen anyone whipped.

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass (Penguin Books, 1986)

I’ve read about it in books often enough. In C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books, it’s referred to as “kissing the gunner’s daughter,” because the sailor who committed the offence against the ship’s order was bound over a cannon to secure him for the application of what was — at the time — legal and proper punishment. And sailors, although they were pressed into service more often than not, were nominally free men, at least. So if they disobeyed orders and had to be beaten until their backs bled, well, they had the freedom, in many cases, to do the job right the next time.

But I’ve never been completely under someone else’s power, with no recourse and no right to appeal, and seen that person take out a whip, with the intent of stripping the clothes from the back of someone that I know and care for, and to begin to beat them, methodically or frenziedly, until the victim’s back bleeds and the scream for mercy or faint from the pain, only to be revived and then beaten unconscious again.

Frederick Douglass saw that and more. And, what’s worse, he did so from a young age.

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Something for St. Valentine’s Day

I used to read a lot more poetry than I do now. Tastes shift and change, and experience brings the perspective to realise that a lot of sentiments expressed through poems have either (a) already been written, far better, by someone else, (b) are completely unrealistic (poets seldom wax rhapsodic about the mortgage, or the insurance), or (c) have already been co-opted by the evil empire that is the greetings card industry. It was either Douglas Adams or a general sort of cliché which once propounded the notion that a poet is someone who can’t get out of bed without writing a song about it, and over the years, I’ve come to feel that the accusation isn’t entirely unjust. I feel on safe ground in saying this, as I used to write some (incredibly bad) poetry myself. Fortunately, those notebooks are long destroyed (don’t bother looking for them), for the good not only of my reputation, but for the general future of human civilisation. The stuff that I wrote may or may not have been as good as Vogon poetry; I will certainly never tell.

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The Faber Book of Love Poems, Edited by Geoffrey Grigson (Faber & Faber, 1973 – paperback, 1983)

All that being said, a love poem done well is a thing worth celebrating, and this morning before settling down to work, I pulled out my old favourite collection on the subject, The Faber Book of Love Poems, edited Geoffrey Grigson. The Faber books of verse were a staple of my early poetry reading, with their authoritative voices and their whimsical cover design (the distinctive “ff” pattern), these books got anthologies right, in a way I haven’t really seen since. There are 401 poems in this volume, with a percentage in French, and several containing sections in Latin (if you are a fan of poetry in French or Latin, I would also suggest looking into the relevant books published by Oxford University Press).

The selection in The Faber Book of Love Poems is idiosyncratic, but Grigson was clearly a man who knew his poetry, and loved it well. The earliest English and French poems are mediaeval, but the contents span the centuries up to the middle part of the 20th century, with poets like Robert Graves and A.E. Housman represented. Women are not heavily represented, although Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti both get a look in. This may make the collection too old-fashioned for some tastes, but I would defend it with the somewhat trite observation that good poetry is good poetry, no matter.

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Books in Groups: Fit the First

So today is another #DarwinDay, an annual event commemorating the birthday of English naturalist Charles Darwin, born this day in 1809.

In honour of that fact… look, I made a pretty picture on the carpet:

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A collection of works by Charles Darwin, in a variety of modern editions.

Since I’ve been in a dark place, lately (to be fair, so have a lot of people, so no, my darkness isn’t especially dark, or greater than yours, if you see what I mean), I thought I’d try for a ray of sunshine on this — yet again unseasonably warm, probably due to climate change — otherwise not unpleasant day.

I’ve read a fair amount of Darwin’s writing over the years, but I haven’t even really scratched the surface of his work. And today, I’ll probably just end up flipping through the facsimile first edition of On the Origin of Species for a few minutes, like I always do. It’s the same copy that I used in a university course some years ago. Simpler times.

But Darwin’s work also serves as an important reminder of that dreadful old cliché that the only real constant in life is change. Time advances. Entropy increases. So while we have our health and our liberty, let’s raise a glass to change, and damn the buggers that would bring us down.

Oh, yes… and this: evolution is a fact. Not a statement of belief, but a statement of fact. It really happened. It’s still happening. And whether you like it or not, whether you believe it or not, it’s going to carry on happening. Evolution doesn’t need your permission.

Happy Darwin Day, 2017.

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