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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

So ends August.....! As the kids are back in school here next week (poor sods) I've decided to scatter some school/education posts through September - because I can. I hope you like them....

Just Finished Reading: In the Shadows of the American Century – The Rise and Decline of US Global Power by Alfred W McCoy (FP: 2017) [256pp] 

An interesting way to look at modern US history (post-Civil War) is to see it as an Empire in the mould of the British or ancient Athenian empires – not one simply of conquest and domination but almost accidental (in the sense of not entirely deliberate).  Built through the provocation of wars and interventions from the Spanish-American war to the First and especially Second World Wars, America found itself torn from its preferred isolationist comfort zone and thrust onto the world stage as a player par excellence. It was World War 2 that made the US into a global powerhouse and the ‘arsenal of democracy’ (to say nothing of the world's richest nation by far and – briefly – the world’s only Super-power) but it was the subsequent Cold War that made the United States into an Empire in all but name. With the need to contain and, where required, combat the proxies of the ideological opposing force of Communism wherever they were found across the entire planet's surface (or beyond) the build-up of a truly staggering military force, the construction of numerous military bases around hot spots and the building of alliances for mutual defence developed into an Empire almost by default and, it seemed, almost as an afterthought. But built it was and the post-1945 world was named, without irony, the American Century. 

The previous empire (the world spanning British) that the Americans had now overshadowed had its own century running from 1815 to 1914 – going into slow and then accelerating decline after the exhausting Great War – and it was, at least initially, thought that the pax Americana would both outlast and outshine its predecessor. But the going has been far from easy. The Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons far faster than had been anticipated and the US no longer held the monopoly on world destruction. Other countries followed and the nuclear ‘club’ has been slowly expanding ever since. Although the military might of American forces was certainly not to be trifled with – as seen in Korea – the defeat in Vietnam tarnished their reputation for decades until the lightening victory in the first Gulf War. But, as we know, subsequent conflicts in Afghanistan and Gulf War 2 televised as they were for all the world to see showed beyond doubt the America’s predominance on the field of battle was no longer a given. The American Empire must now co-exist with other rising powers, most especially China, and come to terms with being more of a first amongst equals in a multi-polar world. The question is, naturally, just how long can the US retain its present position. Even with recent setbacks, the Chinese economy is due to overtake the US sooner rather than later. Likewise, the Chinese military strength grows by the day. If those two nations ever came to blows the outcome and the winner is up for debate, and it is far from certain that the US would prevail. We are indeed living through interesting times. 

This was, to be honest, a definite highlight of the year for me. The author most certainly ‘knows his stuff’ and manages to bring together almost a century of geopolitical history into a coherent narrative that is both persuasive and a little frightening. It also throws into perspective, at least for me, the present political turmoil that the US is going through. Looking at it through the lens of an Empire in decline it makes perfect sense. Indeed, its exactly what you might have expected to see as the Roman Empire crumbled long before the barbarians arrived at their gates. A fascinating read and highly recommended for anyone wanting to both understand the history of the US and, just possibly, its future. 

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Monday, August 28, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Top of the Heap by Erle Stanley Gardner (FP: 1952) [222pp] 

LA private detective Donald Lam was well acquainted with rats, and he could smell this one almost as soon as he entered the office. He knew it for certain when he heard his proposal. What the rat needed from his agency was, on the face of it, simple enough and the proffered bonus certainly helped his boss to take the case on. The rat, it seemed, needed an alibi confirmed before the cops came running. The reason? Supposedly he had hooked up with a pair of San Francisco girls on the rebound from a gangster's moll who had subsequently ‘disappeared’ not long after her lover had been shot. So, with much reluctance, and his bosses' evil eye, Lam would do his investigation. Managing to track the girls down in record time they vouched for the rat and corroborated his story – word for word. At this point the smell of rat was almost overwhelming. Lam just couldn’t help himself and so kept digging. It wasn’t long before the ‘alibi’ started to crumble leaving hints to the real story behind. That story involved the mob, illegal gambling, money laundering and a fake mine. There was only one problem – the people who didn’t want the story to be made public. Donald Lam was about to find out if he was as smart as he thought he was.  

I am, as my regular visitors will know by now, a sucker for all things Noir which is the main reason I’ve been reading the Hard Case Crime novels. Although the series is a bit hit and miss (with some rather spectacular misses) this one was generally above average. Lam himself is the archetypal PI, although in this case working for a female boss which is unusual and must have been even stranger in 1950’s America. The case is very convoluted – indeed at first I had very little idea what exactly was going on – but slowly the pattern emerged and started to fit together. The plotting was clever although I did think the character list was a tad excessive for such a short book. There was a lot packed in between the covers though as alluded to above. The scam at the heart of things was quite clever and I liked the way Lam figured things out even with him being a little ‘bull in a China shop’ at times! It was also nice reading a crime novel that wasn’t simply about someone ending up dead – and especially as it wasn’t the usual standby of men killing women because of various species of jealousy. Two bodies were involved (both killed ‘off page’) but these crimes were incidental to the big crime the murders were meant to cover up, so that was refreshing. The descriptions of 50’s LA and San Francisco were interesting from a cultural history PoV and I loved the fact that Lam produced a mini camera and a tripod from his bag to photograph a cheque signature! The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the apparent need for extended exposition at the end to explain things to the reader. Not only was that somewhat overlong but Lam ended up doing it twice – once to the SF police and once to his boss back in LA. But despite that mild annoyance this wasn’t a bad noirish outing. A reasonable read. Recommended with caveats.  

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"...the task of good governance is neither to avoid popular revolution nor to provoke popular revolution. The task of good governance is to manage popular revolution. To, in a word, govern it. A society in which revolution burned brushfire-like out of control would be a catastrophe. And a society in which revolution was permanently stifled would be a sterile and stagnant place. You think... that the current state of affairs is not a revolution? You think that AI is not Lenin at the Finland Station?"

Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders (2017)

OK, now that is officially my favourite metaphor of the month - possibly the YEAR. AI is Lenin at the Finland Station..... BEYOND brilliant!

Sunday, August 27, 2023

SMART Girl....!

"...the distance at which you might literally be able to 'dodge a bullet' is around 800 yards. You'd need a quarter of a second to register the tracer coming towards you - at this point the bullet has travelled 200 yards - a quarter second to instruct your muscles to react - the bullet has now travelled 400 yards - and half a second to actually move out of the way. The bullet you dodge will pass you with a distinctive snap. That's the sound of a small object breaking the sound barrier inches from your head."

War by Sebastian Junger. 

Saturday, August 26, 2023

I guess he's just back from seeing Barbie...?

 Early Reading, Investigating the World 

Time for some more early reading I think... As before this is a snapshot of about a year's reading with every 10th book picked out to highlight (or at least indicate) the sort of things I was spending time on.   

Candy Man by Vincent King
Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock
An Alien Heat by Michael Moorcock
The Best SF Stories of Brian Aldiss by Brian Aldiss
Volcanoes by William J Cromie (Non-Fiction)
Life in the Artic by Alexander B Klots (Non-Fiction)
War Machines: Sea edited by Tom Perlmutter (Non-Fiction)
Practical Occultism in Daily Life by Dion Fortune (Non-Fiction)
Boys and Sex by Wardell B Pomeroy (Non-Fiction)
The Eighth Galaxy Reader edited by Frederik Pohl

This was when I discovered Michael Moorcock and read a great many of his often strange works, which were a mixture of Fantasy and odd-ball SF from the ‘New Age’ of Science-Fiction mostly from the 1970’s. They were, as you might imagine, rather mind bending! Of course the big thing that jumps out from the list above in the VAST increase in non-fiction reading. Not only was I launching into anything scientific I could get my hands on but there’s also the hint of my life-long interest in all things military history – especially the technology of warfare.  

There are, as you’ve probably noticed, a few strange entries here too. The first is a book on the Occult! For a sceptic from a very early age, I have been LONG fascinated with Magic and magical thinking and have read a great deal about the subject since my teens. Not only is the practice of magic – and the belief surrounding the idea – of great interest to me, I’m also greatly interested in the changing attitude of society towards those practices and beliefs.  

The other ‘oddity’ is a book on sex! As a very curious teenager I was, naturally, interested in sex. As this was a subject never raised at home – being the 70’s and not a subject for family chats – I felt the need to find out about it in other ways. Sex education in school was, to say the least, minimal. I remember watching a film in school – on an actual film projector back then – of a cow giving birth and we had discussions about the development of chicken eggs. Of course, being state education, we also had warnings of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (the good old STDs) and apart from, I think, one lesson on the theory of human reproduction that was it. So, being me, I naturally sought out books on the subject which were, as far as I can remember, pretty lame! But at least my reading scope was expanding both beyond simply science fiction and beyond fiction itself. I’m kind of curious myself what I got into next... [lol]  

Friday, August 25, 2023

How 'weak-sauce'! I remember, back in the days of playing World of Warcraft, that me and my gaming buddies would take a WEEK off work when a new expansion dropped. My boss thought I was a bit cracked for doing so, but she was probably pleased that I was taking time off work for *something* even if it meant that I hardly left the house.... 

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Just Finished Reading: A Mind of its Own – How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives by Cordelia Fine (FP: 2005) [211pp] 

Do you think your brain has ever lied to you? Well, the short answer is: Yes. I’m not talking about optical illusions or anything like that. I’m talking about the real-time modification of everyday reality – minute by minute, second by second. Again, I don’t mean that your reality is being modified by outsiders, by the media or big business – no, you’re being manipulated from the inside, by your own brain.  

How do we know this? Essentially from hundreds of experiments undertaken over decades of research into how our brains operate and how they manipulate reality to make you feel good, to get you to do things and to get you through the day in (mostly) one piece. The brain can edit your memories to show you in the best light after you’ve messed up or had been caught doing something you shouldn’t - even something as simple as breaking your diet. The brain can blame others for your faults and see responsibility for other’s failures while waving away your own responsibility without a second thought. It will tell you that you can indeed drive that fast safely and that you are indeed above average (along with 85% of those surveyed) in a whole host of skills and abilities. Your odds of getting ill, according to your grey matter, is much lower than average as is the speed of recovery if you do, indeed, fall prey to a nasty bug. You will, naturally, live longer than average and may indeed live long enough that science catches up and makes you immortal. There is, of course, practically nothing to worry about and whatever goes wrong just isn’t you fault and never could be.  

I could go on, but I won’t. I picked this up last year along with another of the authors books in my favourite Indie bookshop. Overall, it was a fun read if a little repetitive looking at study after study and experiment after experiment showing that our brain just can’t be trusted to tell us the hard cold truth about ourselves or the world around us. What made it more that readable for me was the authors style which was very down to earth and often very funny. I did laugh out loud more than once at her observations regarding the hoops our brains jumped through to accommodate their version of reality. I think the biggest thing I took away from this slim volume is that when your brain/mind tells you something that seems ‘obvious’ about what’s going on around you – just pause for a second and think about what potential BS your brain is feeding you. Was what just happened REALLY out of your control or is that just a cover for you not paying attention or not thinking things through before you opened your mouth or pressed that button. Is that person ahead of you REALLY a deadbeat or is that just your deep-seated prejudice talking (or your parents' prejudice echoing inside your head). It’s time to pause and reflect. 

Of course, the only problem with a lot of Psychology and Social Psychology experiments is the fact that the tests are run on university students by and large in the USA or Europe. So, we have a small, self-selecting group that is supposedly telling us things about the WHOLE of humanity. Generally, these people are going to be above average intelligence (or they probably wouldn’t have made the grade to get into Uni) and more likely to be Middle Class or at least relatively wealthy. I’m also guessing that most of the experimental volunteers are male and white – and the results of these experiments are extrapolated to cover ALL of humanity is all of its diversity. So, pinch of salt required... But, saying that, this is an interesting read that will get you wondering exactly why you do, want to do, or think/believe in the things you do. I think we all know people who blame others for everything bad that happens to them but who absolve themselves of any responsibility for their own failings – now I know exactly why such things happen. Recommended and more to come from this author. 

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Monday, August 21, 2023

Time for a close up.......

Just Finished Reading: Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes (FP: 1942) [226pp] 

September 1939. Shortly after war is declared, recently called up Lieutenant Anthony Rhodes finds himself in France as part of an advance Engineering unit of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). His job is to secure local accommodation and supplies for the rest of the Battalion following behind. Their ultimate job is to secure the left flank of the French forces and to begin enhancing the weakest part of the Maginot Line. For the next 8 months of the ‘Phoney War’ Rhodes and his unit organise supplies of sand, gravel and cement and build ‘cookie cutter’ pill boxes on the French side of the Belgian frontier. Week after week and then month after month little changes. News, when it does filter through, is vague and untroubling. No one seems to know exactly what the enemy are doing. Whatever it is, they’re not doing it anywhere near Belgium. The men thought that they’d be sitting in a trench about now, protected by barbed wire but even that simple expectation failed to materialise. News of the fighting in Norway seemed to change little and still they waited. Only when the German army crossed the Belgian border did they move forward – to the cheers of the locals who saw the BEF as saviours. Days later, as the BEF withdrew to their starting positions such cheering was notably absent. Almost before they had settled in an order arrived to pull back further and then further still. The enemy, it seemed, was behind them. Another day another order to pull back, this time to a new location – the nearest available port for evacuation: Dunkirk. 

I came across this set of books – the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics – some months ago and was immediately intrigued. So much so that I bought all 13 without first reading a single one. Well, this is my first and I was not disappointed. Spread across the war I decided to read them in historical order, starting with the loss of France and the evacuation at Dunkirk then moving onto other aspects before finishing with D-Day and beyond. It should be quite an interesting adventure. 

This novel was, as you might have guessed from the main characters name, a barely fictionalised account of the authors experiences in France during the so-called Phoney War and the first weeks of the real one. I have long wondered over why the French and the BEF lost the Battle of France so quickly – of which more later. Here was an account, written very soon after the actual events, which points out at least some of the reasons for British failure. Despite the BEF being heavily mechanised (much more so that their German equivalents) it seemed that the soldiers at the sharp end expected a repeat of WW1. They were not expecting to move very much and were certainly not expecting to move anywhere quickly! Communication tended to be very bad with few radios and many rumours. It seemed that the Army learnt what was going on from BBC broadcasts! From the (lightly fictionalised) experience of the author things seemed either laughingly na├»ve or hopelessly confused. Not only did the footsloggers have little idea what was going on or why they went were they went their higher ups had no idea either. They just responded to things and followed orders. Naturally the scenes on the Dunkirk beaches were viewed through the images of the 2017 Christopher Nolan movie and they seemed to match up almost seamlessly. 

Being at the very beginning of things it was interesting to see the variety of officers thrown together from very different backgrounds. There were, of course, the upper-class officer elite who tended to be either completely out of touch or really decent chaps depending on the luck of the draw. I liked the fact that the unit's doctor was a gynaecologist in civilian life – just like the army to send him to a frontline combat unit! Interesting also was the fact that one of the team was a pretty hardline Communist. I guess that in 1939-40 there were a few of them about. The author was generally very positive to the French he encountered throughout his stay and there were a number of interesting little cameos by businessmen, priests, local politicians and ordinary civilians as they began to realise that the war was here and that it was not going at all well. Although, as you might imagine, not a lot ‘happened’ in this book – certainly not very much actual combat – this was still a fascinating insight into the fighting man in France during those chaotic early months of the war. I have a number of non-fiction books on this period – both modern and contemporary accounts – and I look forward to seeing how this fictionalised account stacks up against them. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in the event. Much more to come from this series (a novel of The Battle of Britain is next in the stack) and from the early years of the war. 

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Sunday, August 20, 2023

England...! Or Northern Europe. It's been raining here, almost every day, for the last 8-10 weeks. NO chance of fires here.... Sure there's the odd flood, mudslide, coastal cliff collapse.... But you pick your destination and take your chances, right..... 

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Nothing is entirely new........

A Date with Destiny 

I finished a book recently (A Mind of its Own by Cordelia Fine) which outlined in great detail exactly how the brain deceives its ‘owner’ in a number of ways. One of those ways, so well-known to all teenagers and especially young men in their 20’s, is the belief that you’re essentially going to live forever – right up till the moment you don’t. How does the Rush song go: “You’re only immortal for a limited time”... So, as part of the discussion, the author referenced a website charmingly called ‘The Death Clock’ (www.deathclock.com) which I couldn’t help but check out. When I Googled the address, I was a bit surprised that a number of sites offered this ‘service’ so, naturally, I tried two of them including the Death Clock. Each site asked a variation of pretty standard questions: 

Smoking & Drinking habits
If you were an Optimist or Pessimist (I answered Neutral on both)
One site asked for a BMI (Body Mass Index) reading which I worked out even if BMI is a VERY questionable proxy for general health. 

The results were interesting and broadly similar in longevity. One site proposed my estimate death day to be Tuesday 16th July 2041 and the other (the actual Death Clock site) suggested Thursday 17th December 2043. So, not TOO shabby. Of course, being a Gamer what I see isn’t an expected last day but rather a score to beat. I guess only time will tell. In other interesting news a few days after I had this information the Universe (or The Matrix?) decided to totally troll me by showing me an article which predicted the collapse of Western civilisation (whatever THAT means) in 2040. So, not only can I watch the world slowly collapse I can actually be around for the FALL. Thanks Universe!! [LOL] 

In an aside, about 5 years ago in work we had a new ‘intern’ (we pay ours the standard salary for the position rather than make them work for free) in his early 20’s. For some reason the BBC website I visited each lunchtime was offering a quick and dirty Life Expectancy widget, so I tried it out. The intern did too and was a bit annoyed that it suggested that my life expectancy was greater than his – despite me being in my late 50’s and him being young, fit and around 30 years my junior. I suggested that it was because he was still in his stupid 20’s when people his age were skateboarding off mountains and that I had also passed through my late 40’s/early 50’s when there’s a significant spike in male suicides. He still had to make it through those filters... So, the good news is that I’ve (hopefully) got another 20 years of reading ahead of me. That MIGHT just be enough to work through the unread books I’ve already got. Possibly... 

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Churchill and the King – The Wartime Alliance of Winston Churchill and George VI by Kenneth Weisbrode (FP: 2013) [189pp] 

One of the things that most intrigued me in the excellent 2017 movie Darkest Hour (more later!) was the relationship between the newly appointed PM, Winston Churchill and the new(ish) King George VI. To be honest it wasn’t something that I’d ever thought about before as my knowledge of and interest in the Monarchy is generally pretty low. So, when I came across this book I snapped it up. 

Now Winston and the King obviously knew each other for a host of reasons – for one thing they moved in the same circles and Winston had been a minister in various roles long before he became PM. There was also some baggage between the two as Churchill had championed the Kings older brother during the recent, and still raw, Abdication Crisis. So, with all that said and with Winstons' mostly deserved reputation as a maverick and a self-publicist how did they become allies and then, apparently, friends? That is the meat of this surprisingly detailed but slim book. The short answer (or answers) is that they both had a great deal in common – in their personal, family and military histories – and they both had strengths and weaknesses that complemented those of the other. After some reluctance they both came to recognise each other's positive attributes and their shared determination to win the war seemingly against the odds. 

I learnt a LOT here. I’m generally familiar with Churchill’s troubled relationship with power from various readings over the years (much more of that to come I’m afraid) but I knew almost nothing about George VI. I had read a while back about his brother’s abdication and knew that he (George) was at first a reluctant monarch but that was about it. I’m now much more familiar with the man himself and with his relationship with Winston (which I guess was the point of the whole book!). It’s an interesting one. Was the King vital to the defence of the realm in those dark days? No, but he wasn’t irrelevant either. Winston’s job as PM would have been more difficult – and arguably much more difficult – if the King had opposed him as Edward might have done in George's place. It’s feasible that Churchill might have thrown in the towel at several points during the war without the King’s very public and, more importantly, private support. That’s something I hadn’t considered before. All in all, this was an interesting and sometimes fascinating look at a part of Britain’s war that I had previously overlooked. If, like me, you wondered about the relationship between these two men I can’t think of a better place to start to understand it. Recommended.  

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Monday, August 14, 2023

I think cats would LOVE that house!

Just Finished Reading: Thinning the Turkey Herd by Robert Campbell (FP: 1988) [185pp] 

Jimmy Flannery thought that he’d heard everything by now. But he was still surprised to discover that Chicago was a magnet for aspiring models who couldn’t make it to either New York or LA. Naturally he wasn’t surprised that most of them never ‘made it’ and ended up pursuing other dreams. Many went back home, some moved on still looking to make it big, some stayed in the city and some simply vanished. So, when Jimmy heard from an old friend that her girlfriend had disappeared on the very day they were due to move in together he didn’t have a good feeling about it. But what could you do, right? Well, you do what you can and start asking questions. Naturally the cops didn’t exactly like someone messing in their backyard, but with Jimmy’s political connections they turned a blind eye to his poking around – so long as he didn’t muddy the waters. The place to start was the girl's apartment building which seemed to contain suspects galore – a crazy landlord who carried an axe wherever he went, a creepy photographer with strange eyes, an ex-hooker who seemed to know everything, a rat catcher who had a key to every apartment and that was just the start. The more Jimmy dug and the more questions he asked the more tangled things seemed to be – until they found the body and things got very serious... 

This is my 3rd (and I think last) Flannery novel – essentially because I’ve run out of them and don’t think I’ll be spending the extra effort tracking any more of them down. Overall, the plot is a simple one – find the missing girl and then, once found, find out who killed her (I’m really not giving away much here). As with the previous novels the character of Jimmy himself is pretty good, as are the supporting cast – although here his wife and father don’t get much of a mention. The suspects are a motley bunch, some of which I liked (the odd-ball rat catcher especially), and others I definitely didn’t, presumably as you were supposed to. Much like the previous novel, the plot seemed to plod along nicely for the most part but I found myself (again) wondering how Jimmy was going to solve the case as the final pages approached. There seemed to be a lot of sub-plotting that never really addressed the main thrust of the book. Although generally well written I thought the pacing was definitely an issue and the ending (satisfactory as it was) felt rather rushed with a ‘pulled out of the air/a hat’ tinge to it. This was a fairly fast read and a mostly enjoyable one but there are better crime novels out there. Fun but very disposable. Reasonable.

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Sunday, August 13, 2023


"There is in fact a category of people who get unusually close to the truth about themselves and the world. Their self-perceptions are more balanced, they assign responsibility for success and failure more even-handedly, and their predictions for the future and more realistic. These people are living testimony to the dangers of self-knowledge. They are the clinically depressed".

Cordelia Fine, A Mind of its Own - How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives (2005)  

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Original inspiration for the Sistine Chapel.......... 'The Creation of Cats'...

Early Reading, Some Small Expansion 

My earliest reading, as I’ve mentioned before, was almost exclusively within the Science Fiction genre. But what this reading did was prompt within me questions – lots and LOTS of questions. These questions covered everything from ‘Is Time Travel or Faster than Light travel even possible’ to ‘What’s the Moon like’ and ‘How do fish breath under water’. Science Fiction led me to want to know more about the world I lived in and the Universe it existed in. So, where did my reading start to take me: 

Out of this World 6 edited by Mabley Owen
Crosstime Agent by Andre Norton
The Seedling Stars by James Blish
Five to Twelve by Edmund Cooper
Animals without Backbones (Volume 1) by Ralph Buchsbawm (Non-Fiction)
Prisoner of Fire by Edmund Cooper
The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris (Non-Fiction)
A Far Sunset by Edmund Cooper
Out of the Mouth of the Dragon by Mark S Geston
New Writings in SF 12 edited by John Carnell

Fiction-wise we’re still very much in SF territory with some teasing into semi-Fantasy. Interesting, as I’m only picking out every 10th book, we get another THREE Edmund Cooper novels. He was very popular with me at that age! But finally, we’re starting to see a few non-fiction titles – essentially Science based and (as seen to the present) largely Biology based. As you can also tell, a pretty common occurrence around that time was books of short stories which I’ve always found to be a great way of discovering new authors that deserve a read in a longer format.  

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Just Finished re-Reading: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (FP: 1887) [156pp] 

Recently returned from Afghanistan to recover his health it was fortune indeed that Dr John Watson encountered an old acquaintance on London's busy streets. Not only was it good to see a familiar face in the midst of so many strangers, the meeting also pointed Watson in the direction of a potential co-occupant of some affordable rooms. Despite rather vague warnings that Sherlock Holmes was a little strange, Watson took an instant liking to him and agreed to meet at the proposed location of their future habitation together - 221B, Baker Street. It was a seemingly mundane start to a long relationship full of mystery, intrigue and death. For Watson was unaware that Holmes was what he referred to as the world’s first consulting detective, who proffered his singular services to anyone with an interesting conundrum to solve. To Watson’s evident surprise these services were much sort after by Scotland Yard and one such case had arrived at their shared doorstep. A man had been found dead in an unoccupied building without a mark on him – despite fresh blood on the floor and elsewhere. He was an American had not been robbed. Despite the efforts of Scotland Yard's two finest men, they were at a loss at how to proceed. Would Holmes help them? Reluctantly, as Holmes clearly thought the case too simple for his time to be wasted, he agreed. Refreshingly for Holmes, and intriguingly for Watson, the case was nowhere near as simple as everyone thought. The game was afoot! 

I first read this, and the subsequent Holmes books, in my teens and early twenties. I was, however, already a decided Holmes fan – indeed Holmes is one of my 3 foundational heroes – after being introduced to the movie versions of his adventures starring the iconic Basil Rathbone (who, until Jeremy Brett starred in the role, was how I ‘saw’ Holmes in the books). Reading this around 40-45 years ago meant that I had forgotten almost all of the plot and was only reminded of pieces of it when it arrived on the page – the scratched word in the plaster for example. What I do remember being both fascinated and intrigued by was the Holmes method of deduction which he explained a few times throughout the book. This instructed me at an early(ish) age to be more observant than most – I think – and also to try to work things out logically and to try, as much as possible, not to add things into the mix based on pure speculation.  

As to the book itself... I can’t say that I was disappointed by it. After all it is very much an origin story – at least for the Holmes/Watson relationship – and only his second published work. Both Holmes and Watson are interesting constructions, and the book would’ve left the reader wanting to see more of their adventures and to know more about them both. It was interesting to see that Lestrade had a rival in Scotland Yard which I wasn’t expecting. I also wasn’t expecting the sudden arrival and importance of the ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ in the first book. For some reason I thought that these ‘street Arabs' was a latter addition. The ‘mystery’ itself was fine if not all that mysterious. What I hadn’t expected, until Marian H mentioned it over at her place, was a substantial 47 page aside in Utah. Honestly, I thought this was a pointless addition to the text. The antagonist, once caught, essentially reiterated the story to the police in a lot less than 47 pages, so the side plot detailed previously added little to the actual plot beyond deepening the motivation of the killer. That, I think, was by far the worse aspect of the short book although I understand that removing it would result in the novel being a rather long short story! So, not exactly a winner but an important read as it laid the foundation for one of THE iconic detectives of all time. Much more Holmes (and the others) to come. 

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