"I can tell you one thing about her. She is over-sexed."
"Is that just feminine intuition?"
"No. I am not very feminine and I have no intuition. But I have never known anyone -- man or woman -- with that colour of eye who wasn't. That opaque dark blue, like a very faded navy -- it's infallible."
Robert smiled at her indulgently. She was very feminine after all.--Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair
Thinking about Agatha Christie because of this post, I said to myself: "self, it's been quite some time since you've read one of those, hasn't it?"
"Yes," I replied. "It certainly has been."
"How long do you reckon?"
There was a long, uncomfortable silence while both of us, that is to say, I, struggled to come up with an answer. Math and keeping track of things were never our strong points.
"I know what you're thinking," I finally said, "and I'd strongly advise against it." But it was too late. He, or rather I, had already begun to bound over to the nearest disordered pile of paperbacks and had pulled out the Agatha Christie title nearest the top, sitting down and beginning to read it before I could say "no, not that one, that's not a particularly good one. Let's try to find Crooked House instead…"
The book in question was Murder in Retrospect, also published under the title Five Little Pigs in 1942. I was wrong about its not being a particularly good one. It is, in fact, tolerably good, an unusual take on the customary detective puzzle where the subtly conflicting stories of the suspects are expounded in the form of written accounts by each of them, composed sixteen years after the events occurred (hence the "retrospect" in the US title.) Many people will tell you that Agatha Christie is a "bad writer," and I probably would have told you that too in my younger days before I became a writer myself and truly realized how hard it is to do any kind of writing, especially the kind that she managed to do once or twice a year for her whole life, which is to take the tiniest bit of fluff and somehow spin it into a compelling narrative that keeps the reader engaged and eager to reach the final page, come what may. In this case, the germ of the story is a single spoken sentence that leaves a different impression on the characters who hear it depending upon how they interpret the word "packing." (I hope that's not too much of a spoiler, but if it is, sorry.) Massaging the word "packing" into a two-hundred page story, even one you almost promptly forget about after you read it, as I have almost done, is a kind of magic and worthy of high praise. It's good writing even if it isn't "good writing" (which I suppose it isn't) if you get what I mean.
Anyhow, what I want to mention is nothing to do with that. It has to do with this: at one point in the book there is this passage:
Poirot spread out his hands in a gesture of resignation. He got up to go. He said, "You permit that I ask one little question?"
"What is it?"
"At the time of the tragedy, you had lately read -- had you not? -- a life of the painter Gauguin?"
Angela stared at him. Then she said, "I believe -- why, yes, that is quite true." She looked at him with frank curiosity. "How did you know?"
"I want to show you, mademoiselle, that even in a small, unimportant matter I am something of a magician. There are things I know without having to be told."
What I found was that the text in my 1985 paperback had been altered. In the original text, the book referenced was The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham, which is, evidently, loosely based on the life of Gauguin. If the wikipedia description of the book is accurate, its narrative approach ("the narrator tries to piece together [the artist's] life there from the recollections of others") seems to have been appropriated by Christie for her book, which is maybe a meta-clue to the reader of something or other, though its actual significance within the narrative's constructed world is still dark to me. I suppose the editor of the more recent edition felt contemporary readers would be less familiar with W. Somerset Maugham than their 1942 counterparts, and elected to make it easier on them by glossing it. Since no one on the internet seems to have any idea what Poirot or Christie might have been getting at with this reference, in either form, the gloss seems a bit beside the point. Did the editor "get it," I wonder? Maybe it will become clear when I read The Moon and Sixpence, which I guess I may do, one day, if my self allows it.
Anyway, as I've mentioned before in various contexts, I find silent altering of literary texts (beyond mere correction of errors) infuriating, and wrong, even when it is done with the best intentions. That goes for Huckleberry Finn, Are You There, God, It's Me, Margaret?, Charley and the Chocolate Factory, A Separate Peace, what have you. And it even goes for something as trivial and relatively unimportant as a passing reference in a silly little murder mystery like Murder in Retrospect. I can think of many reasons to retain the reference to The Moon and Sixpence (for one, it just sounds better; for two, it was, evidently, a popular book at the time, and the character who read it is said to have had good taste in popular literature, rather than a generic interest in the biographies of artists; for three, much of the appeal of reading these books lies in their straightforward, largely unselfconscious depiction of their time and place, which effect updating random references obviously undermines; for four, it's what the freakin' author actually wrote.) On the other hand, I can think of not a single good reason for changing it, particularly because the gloss illuminates nothing.
Even if it did illuminate something, though, I'd still like some way of knowing, when reading a book of any sort, that such alterations have happened. Something, perhaps, like the warning you see when they show edited movies on TV: "the book you are holding in your hand has been altered from its original text: it has been dumbed down for contemporary readers."
I mean, seriously, if you think Agatha Christie needs dumbing down, you're sadly in need of "perspective." Or, you've got the right perspective and society is even more doomed than I assume it is. How do we know readers will know who Gauguin is? Maybe it would be better, in future editions, to replace "Gauguin" with the Belgian-accented phrase: "some painter dude who used to be famous, eh bien? Ah, I suspected as much…"
I'm sure it happens all the time, far more than I'd like to know. And I guess the only way to know for sure you have read the real book, in the end, is to seek out the original edition, which seems like a hassle and an expense (and would indeed deprive the publisher of a sale, if anyone were actually to do this -- which, they won't of course. If there are others who care about this, I bet there aren't many.) See, they tried to make it easier, but actually made it more difficult. So it goes.
I just realized that the comment function on this blog is broken and has been since 10 July. Some of the attempts to leave comments have wound up emailed to my bulk mail folder, but they didn't post on the blog, and when I tested it out myself just now that's what happened as well.
Sorry about that. No idea why it happened or what, if anything, is to be done about it. Email me if you've got something to say.
added: I just switched the comments off completely, since they are non-functional.
I hadn't known till I read this post from Drew Mackie that the premise of the twist-denouement of Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side was appropriated more or less exactly from an incident in the real life story of actress Gene Tierney. (Read the post for the details if you're not familiar with the plot.)
Unlike Marina Gregg, Tierney didn't murder her Heather Badcock, but rather simply walked away imperiously, providing a withering, rather heart-breaking quip after the fact.
I don't agree with Mackie's contention that Dame Agatha's use of this story in a breezy murder mystery makes her a "deplorable hack" or a "cheap, opportunistic, exploitative monster," though, except to the extent that all writers are cheap, opportunistic, exploitative, monstrous, etc. Which is obviously the case. You should watch what you say around novelists, since they will invariably cannibalize the best, least flattering bits and use them for their own purposes, and they won't always remember to say "can I use that?" before doing so. Anyway, using that anecdote as the linchpin of a murder mystery is very clever indeed, though I doubt many people, hearing that story, would have seen the potential so keenly. The book has never been one of my favorites, but I am impressed, and can't help liking it a little more now that I know a bit about how it was inspired.
added: reading a few of Mackie's "related" posts, I came across quite a few other such interesting stories accompanied by imputations of mean-spiritedness that I couldn't agree with, or fathom. Here's a post about the actress credited as Angela Dorian in the film Rosemary's Baby (in the role of Rosemary's laundry room friend Terri Gionoffrio.)
Mackie is disturbed by the fact that the script has Rosemary tell her she looks like Victoria Vetri, the actress, when in fact, Angela Dorian's real name is Victoria Vetri. There's a "meta" gag in there somewhere, somehow ("personally, I don't see the resemblance," she says) but I can't say it ever struck me as sinister in any way. As with Dame Agatha and Gene Tierney, I can't quite fathom Mackie's outrage over what he deems a "malicious wink" on (I presume) Polanski's part:
She achieved some fame as a sex symbol, but never became a household name — as Victoria Vetri or Angela Dorian.
Consequently, the joke now seems mean-spirited because not only is it unlikely that dumb ol’ Rosemary Woodhouse would have recognized her, but today hardly anyone else would either.
Roman Polanski said,"by the way, how do you look in dark hair and can you look Italian?" I said, "well, I am Italian." He said, "I'd like you to play the part of Terry Gionoffrio, Angela." I said, "Okay," and I played the part under Angela Dorian, my fictitious name. On the set one day he said, "Angela, we cannot use Anna Maria Alberghetti name. Can you think of an Italian name?" I said, "How'bout Victoria Vetri?" He said, "that's fantastic! What an imagination!" I said, "that's my real name." He said, "my God, why are you using that name of a sunken ship, the Andrea Doria?" I think Victoria Vetri has more of a - ah, what the hell, it's Italian.Roman Polanski's sins are well known, but let the record show that maliciously winking at Victoria Vetri by casting her as Terri Gionoffrio and including her real name in the dialogue of one of the greatest movies ever made is not among them.
I was, however, surprised to learn that Victoria Vetri, the actress, is currently in jail awaiting trial for shooting her husband. Now that's weird.
I found this book on the street a couple of days before a flight to Baltimore and I took that as a message from the universe that I should take it along and read it on the plane rather than spending fifteen bucks on a Ruth Rendell or something at an airport bookshop. And I gotta say, the universe had a point in this particular instance. I can't think of a better way to distract yourself from the the fat people spilling out of their seats on either side of you, the screaming baby behind you, and the chattering teens in front of you than a good page-turning thriller about sex and Nazis. Six hours just flew by, so to speak.
I was a kid when this was a big blockbuster as a book, and later as a movie starring Donald Sutherland. I do remember the movie, vaguely. I recall the scene where the wife (whose name I have already forgotten -- about which, more later) has to have sex with Donald Sutherland even after learning he's a Nazi spy as being a lot more shocking and emotionally intense on-screen than it was in the book I just read, but that is perhaps because I was young and innocent and still harbored romantic ideas about marriage and such. It was the only scene I really remembered from the movie, which possibly tells you something about me, or it, or both. I would say, though, that Donald Sutherland was probably miscast as the book's self-effacing, ruthlessly-efficient, spy-next-door super-villain. I'll have to see it again to make sure of that, though.
But yeah, as I said, four weeks later I can't remember any of the characters' names or all that much about their characters. Sweet wife, bitter, crippled husband, rumpled academic spy-catcher, cold, calculating Nazi with close-cropped hair and a detached manner, who happens to like chess. I could have told you that just from looking at the cover before reading it, it's true. (And I don't even know if the chess thing was part of it, but I'm sure there was something like that, chess or birdwatching or orchid cultivation. You know the kind of thing I'm talking about.) That's weak "characterization" by definition; and I suppose the prose style wouldn't win any awards for hit-you-over-the-head grace and literariness either. But doing that stuff is nowhere near as difficult or elusive or as impressive as making six hours fly by, and it did that just great. Lots of stars from me, in other words.
It's kind of a weird thing to do to "review" an old best-seller found in the street like that, but I've done weirder. Now that I've done it, I think I'm going to post this as my sole review on goodreads, just because I have this empty account and I think that's kind of funny whether it really is or not. But, in the spirit of internet reviews, let me add:
this book was ridiculous I couldn't get into it and as for England and Germany being in a big huge war that England (!) won, I just wasn't buying it. Also it was terrible how the man treated his wife and wouldn't even kiss her or something, even though they had a baby -- not my idea of a good time. And the guy who kept killing people with his stilettos? Ahem, Mr. Auther man, but I'm pretty sure men didn't start wearing stilettos in Germany till at least the '80s, and certainly not in World War One like he is in the book. It's called research. To sum up, I couldn't relate to any of these people at all, they just seemed old and weird. Sell-back bin.
That's at the Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF CA. Doors at 9PM.
I did it last year and it was lots of fun.
I think I may have accidentally deleted a few legitimate comments in the course of mass batch deleting several thousand spam comments yesterday. Sorry about that. It's not personal.
Yes, people should wear seatbelts, but do we really need yet another pretext for police to stop and "investigate" motorists? Jacob Sullum on "primary enforcement" of seatbelt laws:
[P]rimary enforcement of seat belt laws provide[s] an excuse for stopping anyone at any time, especially since the cop can always claim you buckled your belt only after you saw him. And once you've been pulled over, there are further opportunities for
harassmentinvestigation, such as vehicle searches based on an odor the officer claims to have smelled, a drug dog's alleged "signal," or your "consent" to a "request" from an armed agent of the state who has the power to deprive you of your freedom. A search might not even be necessary if the cop claims to have seen something suspicious "in plain sight."
Assuming you're not carrying anything that justifies detaining you further, in some states, including Texas, you can be arrested (and maybe, if you're lucky, strip-searched!) simply for driving with your seat belt unbuckled—a violation that rests entirely on an officer's word. In Arizona, you can be detained based on suspicion that you are in the country illegally, an authority that is apt to disproportionately affect people with dark skin and foreign accents (which is why the Supreme Court, in rejecting a Supremacy Clause challenge to this provision, left open the possibility of a challenge based on the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause). Elsewhere police might decide to confiscate your cash, jewelry, or car based on a hunch that it is connected to drug dealing in some way—a hunch you then have to disprove through a process that probably will cost more than the property is worth.
Last night at the Metro they asked me to write a brief bio to help the MC announce me, and this is what I wrote:
p.s. In case it's not obvious, you press the black triangle to play the song. I was pretty surprised to find that the old google audio player no longer works (and that there doesn't seem to be a replacement version that does.) Anyone know of a good, free audio embed gizmo?
If I'm reading it right, this thoroughly, obviously innocent woman spent 53 days in jail because the cop who responded to her stolen truck report didn't listen carefully enough to the last name of a subsequent suspect wanted for assault who also happened to be named Teresa.
It seems to have been abundantly clear to everyone in the system they had the wrong person, but no one in the police department, the jail, or the DA's office seems to have cared that much either way, so the system ratified and processed the cop's initial mistake, compounding it into an impressive miscarriage of justice that nobody seemed to care about either.
"That's not her," the assault victim finally was able to tell the judge when the case eventually came up, although he had called the police and the DA's office several times to say they had the wrong Teresa. Oops. The judge apologized and dismissed the felony assault charge but then, somehow, managed to forget about an additional misdemeanor assault charge, so she had to stay in jail for another week till that too was dismissed. Oops again. Ho hum.
Then, this happened:
Culpepper was released from jail on Oct. 12 to find she had been evicted, all her belongings stolen and her truck sold for parts to cover the towing company’s costs. Culpepper had to repay the federal government the $1,000 disability payment for her medical condition that was deposited in her account while she was in jail; the law does not allow for disability payments to be made to anyone in jail even if they have not yet been convicted of committing a crime.
“Everything was gone,” Culpepper said.
She'd have been better off not reporting the theft in the first place, quite obviously. The moral of the story, I guess, is: don't report a stolen vehicle if you suspect that you may share a first name with anyone else living in the same metropolitan area. (Or make sure you have an unusual name: the arresting officer himself, one Jaidon Codrington, seems to have the right idea there. On the other hand, if your name happens to be Jaidon something-or-other and you find yourself unexpectedly suspended for ten days and given an Officer of the Year award a bit later, you'll know what probably happened.)
The heads that should roll over this will not roll all that much, of course. The "domino effect of indifference" alluded to in the article will doubtless remain. And officer Jaidon Codrington will still be on the job rounding up God only knows whom on the basis of God only knows what. So it goes. (The settlement for cases like this should come out of the officers' and DA's salary and pension: I'd vote for that reform.)
(via an Instapundit "tar/feathers" link.)