Saturday, February 5, 2022

Setting Off For Adventure with Agatha Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit

Scott D. Parker

Well, I’ve finally read my second Agatha Christie novel.

The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) was the January 2022 selection from the good folks over at It’s part of the Read Christie 2022 project. For the past two years, they’ve done something similar. This year, they’re focusing on Christie’ love of travel and selecting books with that theme.

I didn’t do the challenges the last two years, but opted to read this novel, Christie’s fourth book. Our lead heroine is Anne Beddingfeld, a young woman, on her own after her father passed away. With her whole life in front of her and with her mind swirling with the drive for adventure, young Anne finds all that and then some.

In a London subway station, Anne sees a man look at her in shock right before he plunges over the edge of the platform and dies. An odd-looking man swoops in to examine the body, claiming to be a doctor. But Anne questions the newcomer’s intentions. Couple that with a piece of paper dropped by the supposed doctor and Anne starts to see a mystery.

The mystery leads her to a ship bound for South Africa. On the ship, strange things occur and she’s introduced to a number of other characters. One is Sir Eustace Pedler, a member of Parliament, who brings with him a pair of secretaries, Guy Pagett and Harry Rayburn. Also of note is Colonel Race, supposedly of the British Secret Service, and Suzanne Blair, a married woman who befriends Anne on the voyage.

Lots of things happen on the boat and they continue when they get down to South Africa. It’s fascinating to read what was dubbed a thriller circa 1924 and compare it to what we think of as a thriller nowadays. Like many a mystery story set between the two world wars, there’s a quaintness to this novel. There’s the tendency of the bad guys to expostulate to the heroine, laying out the bad guy plan in detail. There’s the somewhat coincidental nature of some of the plot points, like what happens on the boat at night that just so happens to have Anne present.

Then there’s how the story itself is presented. A prologue shows us a few characters basically told from the author’s point of view. Then the novel switches to the narrative Anne writes herself. Spliced amid Anne’s reminiscences are those of Sir Eustace himself. It’s a clever trick because it enables Christie to show the reader certain things Anne and the others don’t know.

I’ll admit there was a time or two I’d have to think and remind myself which character Anne was referring to. I listened to a well-done narration by Emilia Fox and it wasn’t her fault. It was my own disjointed listening schedule. But by the time I was on the final homestretch, I was deeply into the story and barreled ahead until its conclusion.

And I rather enjoyed learning the identity of the mysterious antagonist nicknamed “The Colonel.” [No, it’s not Colonel Race. Christie obviously didn’t read all those how-to-write-a-mystery books in which you’re not supposed to name characters with similar names or titles.]

I enjoyed it, but it’s certainly not what I think of when I think of Agatha Christie. No Poirot, no Marple. But that’s likely the point of a reading adventure like the one planned for 2022. It looks like they’ll feature books that aren’t always on the top of people’s mind when they list favorites from the Queen of Mystery Fiction. Granted, the February book is Death on the Nile (to coincide with the new movie), a title I do know, but I’m looking forward to the rest of the selections throughout the year.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Book Review: Spooky Archaeology by Jeb J. Card.

Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past

Jeb J. Card

ISBN: 9780826359148

   “How did we come to a place where the most recognizable explanation for the human past is space aliens?” That’s a striking question, asked late on in Jeb J. Card’s Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past. I should note, in all fairness, that it’s not the key question of the book. Card is handling a much larger and broader history. But it is the question which led me to seeking the book out. 


   My long-time reader will know I have engaged in a number of sub-culture deep-dives in recent years. Bigfoot. UFO’s. Atlantis. Ancient Aliens. The occult. I usually pass this off as research for my books, fishing for interesting ideas to play around with for 80,000 words of fiction. But there has been a deeper drive behind it. The last decade has seen the whole world seem to splinter into factions of ideas, and most-troubling has been the drive towards anti-expert thinking. It's a push that leads to us doing nothing about climate change. A push that leads to Brexit because we’re ‘sick of experts.’ A push that leads to Trump. And yadda yadda yadda a bunch of people in shaman cosplay storm the US Capitol. But tackling each of these issues can feel too large, too divisive, and so instead I turned my obsessive streak towards subcultures. Why do grown men dress up like commandos to go hunting for Bigfoot? Why do believers try to reinvent all of science to accommodate their idea of a giant ape in North America (who may-or-may-not be able to teleport?) Why do people cling to the belief that an alien spacecraft crashed in New Mexico in 1947, even after the full truth of the incident had been available for decades? Even after an archaeological dig was carried out on the ‘crash’ site that found no signs of a crash? How did Plato’s fictional and allegorical account of a lost city -understood as such for over a thousand years- somehow transform into something people believe is a ‘genuine’ myth? Why do people still search for this allegorical fiction? In each case, I started out thinking these sub-cultures would be an interesting way to try and understand obsession, and to try and understand how identity seems to be coming into conflict with expertise. But more and more, I came to find this was all connected. The bigfoot LARPers. The UFO crew. Those who believe ancient brown people were too stupid to move rocks. It all added up to the same thing, to this anti-science, anti-expert, anti-proof thinking. 


   “Mainstream science” is wrong. The “lamestream media” is lying to you. The government are covering up Bigfoot. And, somehow, also covering up the existence of aliens who have the technology to travel millions of light years but only ever seem to turn up when it’s dark. Archaeology is wrong, or worse- the Smithsonian is hiding the truth. Only a precious few people can be trusted to tell you how it really is. But they seem to need your money along the way. Before you know it, a creationist is sharing a platform with Bill Nye, to millions of viewers online, insisting that science can only observe the present and we can’t know anything of what happened in the mysterious past, except for what is written in one book. And there are people who live below ground that drink the blood of humans. And then, yadda yadda yadda….shaman….capitol.


   I find myself more and more interested in the question of folklore. And to what extent is fake news a feature or a bug? Is it just an extension of that need for folklore? We seek out narratives that feel true, that comfort some part of our identity. We are emotional and anxious apes, yet those of us who most want to argue for progress keep talking about reason and how all people can be reached with the right facts. I now believe that misses the point of who and what we are. Rome has been burning for a while now, with the flames on show in ‘documentaries’ on tv channels that use names like ‘History’ and ‘Discovery’ as cover for pushing dangerous information. And I don’t think we can put out those flames until we reckon with ourselves, and with what drives us. 



   Rant over. 

   This is supposed to be a book review. 


   All this by way of saying:  Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past scratched my exact itch. I should point out for balance that the book isn’t a skeptical or debunking book as such. This is more of a history, looking at the development of archaeology and modern myth, to try and decide to what extent archaeology contributes to its own ‘spooky’ reputation. 

Humans have been creating a spooky and mysterious past ever since we began encountering the remains of people who came before us. This inspired different versions of fairy lore across the world, as we imbued 'ancient' stone relics with mystical origins long before we had a real understanding of our own development. From here, Card takes us on a journey through mistakes, misdirections, cons, and romantics, tracing the evolution of archaeology from myth-making to antiquarianism, to modern science. The first full-on lightbulb moment for me in the book was the simple realization that we constantly 'other' the deeper past by placing the cultures and remains of our deeper ancestors in 'Natural History' museums, along with rocks, fossils, and dinosaurs, instead of the art museums that our more recent forebears are housed in.  

This book is full of insight and learning points. From the myths and ideas propagated by early antiquarians before the hieroglyphs were translated, to the creation of theosophy in the Victorian era that sought to push back against modernity by reaching for the ‘spiritual’ past. From the fiction of HP Lovecraft who combined these theosophical ideas with the ‘myths’ of Atlantis and the Egyptology craze, to the invention of flying saucers which were -and remained- steeped in the same theosophy ideas. Aliens who are both creatures from another world and visitors from another dimension, or beenath the sea, or from bases underground, and sometimes bringing Bigfoot with them. And now a man with silly hair is one of the most recognizable memes on the internet for the passing of racism as the real history of our people and of every scientific advancement. (And if you think I’m being overly dramatic about the dangers and damages of that show, know that it’s all based on the work of Erik Von Däneken, whose best-selling book Chariots of the Gods was edited by Wilhelm Utermann, who was a literal Nazi. A paid-up member. The same Nazis who cribbed ideas straight out of theosophy, and of a lost spiritual past, and who are now regularly linked to stories about UFO’s and people who live underground.These are the views, and the people, being platformed in these shows.)


   The question Card is dealing with here is how much of this is encoded within the very nature of archaeology. A lot of these bad ideas have been spread by people doing archaeology. A drive to understand our past usually goes through myth and mysticism on the way to finding fact. Governments have been happy to use excavations, myths, and expeditions as cover for espionage. (The Yeti. The Titanic.) Card argues that “accepting our checkered past should be an exercise in ‘constructively deconstructing’” and I find his case to be solid. The book is more than solid. If you have any interest in any of the subjects I’ve mentioned today, you’ll find something interesting in these pages. 


   Now, if you’ll excuse me, Rome is still burning and there’s a hole in my bucket.   

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Wise Words About Writing

I recently caught up with Wes Anderson's film The French Dispatch, and I found that it has the best line about writing that I've heard in a long time:

"Just Try To Make It Sound Like You Wrote It That Way On Purpose."

The French Dispatch is a fictional mid-twentieth century newspaper run by Americans but operating in France that, as the film's narrator says, is "A factual, weekly report on the subjects of world politics, the arts (high and low) and diverse stories of human interest.”  The words about making what you write sound the way it does on purpose are spoken with gentleness by the magazine's editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (played by Bill Murray), and it's hard to imagine any editor saying anything to a writer more well-intended.  

I laughed when I heard this line, which is said more than once in the movie, because, after all, it's a simple line but it so catches the very essence of what you're trying to do when you write.  And that goes for any kind of writing, fiction long-form or short, non-fiction in any of its guises. It's a central line in a film that is a love letter to a highly idealized, in Wes Anderson fashion, past time when such things as high-end magazines where writers ruled and were catered to proliferated.  I thought the whole thing downright irresistible, not to mention very funny, though I am, I should say, someone who has liked nearly every Wes Anderson film so far. If J.D. Salinger served as inspiration for The Royal Tenenbaums and Stefan Zweig, among other pre-World War II central European writers, for The Grand Budapest Hotel, writers such as Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, Mavis Gallant, and James Baldwin are models in The French Dispatch.  And The French Dispatch is his most writer-infatuated movie yet, almost like candy, I think, to any writer watching.

As a side note, it occurred to me while watching The French Dispatch that Anderson, if he set his mind to it, could construct a truly hilarious send-up of a mystery story.  With his love of artifice, misdirection, and eccentric characters, and with his Rube Goldberg-like ingenuity, Anderson could do an isolated mansion-type mystery in a way that would be ridiculously complicated and a lot of fun.  I doubt he has plans to make such a movie, but if he did, I'd race to see it.

"Just Try To Make It Sound Like You Wrote It That Way On Purpose."

Great advice.  It does still leave a question hanging, though.  Even if you did it on purpose, made those choices in language and structure and tone on purpose, went that way with the plot on purpose, does what you did on purpose work?  

Monday, January 31, 2022

Ms. Magazine Turns 50


In December of 1971 New York magazine featured a very special, one-time supplement with its otherwise typical distribution. Ms. magazine was the creation of Gloria Steinem, a notion born from her work in journalism and the publishing industry and years of activism.  She worked with publishing executive Patricia Carbineto to create a magazine committed to highlighting and spotlighting feminist ideals and concepts. The magazine and supplement sold out in eight days, proving this new idea had an audience.

Ms. magazine, proud and on her own, hit the stands and stores in July 1972. The first issue pulled no punches. “We Have Had Abortions,” perhaps one of the most defining and ground-breaking articles of the time, featured 53 famous American women declaring their truth, they had undergone abortions. Abortion was still illegal in most of the U.S. at this time and participation in this feature was courageous.

Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron, Judy Collins, Billie Jean King, Susan Sontag and Dorothy Pitman Hughes added their name to the petition, among others. The hope of these women and the writers of the article was to save lives by casting aside the stigma of abortion and the shame and guilt that is forced by society. They hoped to move the idea of a woman commanding authority over her own body to law. 

And all these years later, we are fighting to keep those rights.