Decider, by Dick Francis

Several of you encouraged me to try Dick Francis’ mysteries when I posted following his recent death. I took your advice. Thank you. Decider was my first Francis, but it won’t be my last.

The hero of this novel is Lee Morris, an architect and builder who specializes in converting ruined historic buildings into habitable homes and usable places of business (which serves very well as a metaphor for his activities in the story).

He’s a strong, independent, honest man, but no plaster saint. He lusts (passively) over younger women, and his marriage, to a beautiful woman he once loved passionately, has now gone cold. He’s terrified his wife will leave him, though, because he loves the life he’s made, and the six (!) sons she’s given him.

When he’s approached by the managers of the Stratton Park racecourse, asking him to try to influence the board of directors, he’s not much inclined to help. He’s owned shares in the racecourse since his mother’s death, as she was once married to a member of the aristocratic Stratton family. He has little interest in horse racing, and none at all in a closer association with the Strattons, of whom his mother had traumatic memories. Still, for reasons of his own, he gets involved with the family dispute—some Strattons want to tear the course down and sell it, some want to rebuild and modernize the grandstand, and others want to change nothing. A few of them are rather nice, more of them are passive and ineffectual, and a couple are dangerous loons. Before long a spectator has been killed in a steeplechasing accident, and the grandstand has been blown up, nearly killing Lee and one of his sons. The Stratton family, like all aristocratic families in fiction, has dangerous secrets, and there are those who will go to any lengths to keep them covered up. In the end, Lee’s life and those of his sons depend on his ability to solve the mystery.

In the same way that Jane Austen’s novels are comedies of manners, this book is a mystery of character. Not merely the well-drawn, vivid characters author Francis sketches, but the idea of personal character and integrity. Lee Morris among the Strattons stands out by virtue of his decency, his sanity, and his human caring. A passage from a friend’s old diary, which he reads (with permission), gives a hint at the theme:

More rumors about Wilson Yarrow. He’s being allowed to complete his diploma! They’re saying someone else’s design was entered in his name for the Epsilon prize by mistake! Then old Hammond says a brilliant talent like that shouldn’t be extinguished for one little lapse! How’s that for giving the game away? Discussed it with Lee. He says choice comes from inside. If someone chooses to cheat once, they’ll do it again. What about consequences, I asked? He said Wilson Yarrow hadn’t considered consequences because he’d acted on a belief that he would get away with it….

I found Decider a most satisfying book, on several levels. Highly recommended.

Honest Coffee Lovers of the U.S., Unite!

This is what browsing the InterWebs will do for you: introduce you to a vintage advertisement demanding high quality of coffee in America in 1960. “The time has come to take a stand!” insists the League of Honest Coffee Lovers. “More coffee in our coffee or fight!”

The Pan American Coffee Bureau (PACB) was soliciting citizens to insist on pure or purer coffee from the coffee growers of the world, and I gather coffee growers wanted to comply if it weren’t for dropping global prices. Farmers in Africa and Latin America were straining to make ends meet, so they didn’t mind U.S. drinkers having weaker brew while paying the same price, but the PACB wouldn’t have it. They urged Life magazine readers and others to insist on a standard coffee measure for their coffee.

The campaign went nowhere except to be fodder for Mad Magazine writers who published a satire for the fictitious League of Frightened Coffee Growers, who had “java jitters” over the impending coffee drinker crusade.

(Source: Uncommon Grounds: the History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World By Mark Pendergrast)

New University Center for Writing Named for Walker Percy

Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana, will open the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing next Wednesday, March 10. The center intends “to foster literary talent and achievement, to highlight the art of writing as essential to a good education, and to serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing by providing educational and vocational opportunities in writing and publishing.”

Percy taught at Loyola and had a heart for new and struggling writers.

The holmgang duel, part 3

Holmgang 3

As you will learn in the article below, a genuine holmgang did not look like this. Photo credit: Emily Chesley.

We have discussed the importance of the judicial duel in Viking society as a method of limiting violence in a community with no police protection. And we have looked at the preparations, including the laying out of a limited fighting space marked by a barrier, outside of which the participants might not step, and into which the onlookers dared not trespass.

If one participant failed to show up for the duel, he naturally lost his honor. This meant more than a loss of reputation. A man without honor — a niðing — lost important legal rights.

Before the fight started, it was the obligation of the challenger to recite the rules of the duel. Although there were generalized rules for a holmgang, the duelists might make special rules for this particular engagement, if both agreed. The summary that follows comes from the best information we have concerning the customary procedures. Continue reading The holmgang duel, part 3

The holmgang duel, part 2

Holmgang 2

Photo credit: Emily Chesley

The Vikings lived in an honor-based culture. A man’s self-image was based, not on what he knew about himself, but on what others thought of him. Reputation was everything.

In a culture like that, social life is a minefield. Say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and your neighbor may take deadly offense. An apology is not an option, because that would diminish you in the eyes of your neighbors. And an offense against any man is taken personally by his kinsmen and friends.

Thus do feuds begin. And feuds are a sad waste of energy and resources for any community, not to mention a drain on much-needed manpower.

So how are quarrels to be settled without metastasizing into feuds? For small offenses, the assessment and payment of a fine will do. But for greater offenses, it’s impossible to keep trained warriors, in a society without police, from resorting to their weapons.

This is where the judicial duel comes in. The judicial duel — the “holmgang” in Viking Scandinavia – is intended to release the pressure of the quarrel by permitting — while at the same time limiting — the violence. Continue reading The holmgang duel, part 2

The holmgang duel, part 1

Holmgang1

Two “Vikings” (me and my friend Ragnar) face off for a duel. Photo credit: Emily Chesley.

[I recently wrote a series of articles on the Viking judicial duel–the holmgang–for the newsletter of my Sons of Norway lodge. I offer them now for you here, in three installments. lw]

“By law shall the land be established, and by lawlessness laid waste,” says the title character in the Icelandic Njal’s Saga. Historian Magnus Magnusson writes, “I can never resist reminding my sceptical friends that it was these allegedly pitiless savages [the Vikings] who introduced the word law into the English language.”

Anyone reading the sagas will soon realize the extreme importance of the idea of law to the Norse. And it’s in the context of this importance that the judicial duel, the holmgang, must be understood.

The Vikings had laws and courts, as we do today. What they did not have was a police force. Delegating the use of force to someone else would have seemed shameful to any free Norseman. Continue reading The holmgang duel, part 1

Looking for the Beautiful

Mr. Silva is blogging about seeing beauty in life.

The current state of publishing has me thinking about the future.

It’s hard not to these days. Everywhere you look there’s another announcement of the electronic squashing print. I imagine this big trash-can-head robot stomping books into the mud and I have to set down my quill and cry a little into my ink-stained tea mug.

(Imagine people wanting to move to the space station on Mars just to get away from the disturbing technological society we’ve created on Earth. It isn’t so far fetched to consider–the sci-fi writers are all wondering why I’d even bring it up.)

Your government at work

Above is a facsimile of the new United States Postal Service “blank stamp,” which is set to go on sale on April 1, 2010.

“There has been considerable criticism from several quarters against the tradition of printing images on stamps, images which necessarily offend certain members of the community, since there’s no image that doesn’t offend somebody,” said a spokesperson for the USPS at a press conference in Washington D.C., earlier today. “As giving no offense has become a primary objective of government policy, we’ve decided to nip the problem in the bud. The blank postage stamp was an obvious solution.”

When asked why there are also no words or numbers on the stamp, the spokesperson answered, “In order to respect the feelings of the growing American illiterate community, the decision was made to omit all words and numbers, in order to bolster the self-esteem of that valued citizen group. If you wonder what the value of a stamp actually is, a toll-free number will be available where inquiries may be made.”

One reporter noted that, without the traditional “simulated perforation” die-cutting of previous self-adhesive postage stamps, the new stamp is actually indistinguishable from the Avery self-adhesive labels anyone can buy at an office supply store.

“There is no truth at all to the internet rumor that claims the Post Office has just bought a supply of labels from Staples, and is selling them to the public for forty-four cents a piece,” said the spokesperson. “These are genuine U.S. Post Office stamps, designed with great care by a noted conceptual artist who has asked to remain nameless, and backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.”

“What’s to prevent people from just sticking Avery labels on their letters?” one reporter asked.

“In order to prevent that kind of unconscionable counterfeiting,” the spokesperson answered, “we have been authorized to require every U.S. citizen to buy a supply of these stamps, whether they plan to use them or not. It’s the only way to insure fairness.”

Longfellow’s Weariness

O little feet! that such long years

Must wander on through hopes and fears,

Must ache and bleed beneath your load;

I, nearer to the wayside inn

Where toil shall cease and rest begin,

Am weary, thinking of your road!

O little hands! that, weak or strong,

Have still to serve or rule so long,

Have still so long to give or ask;

I, who so much with book and pen

Have toiled among my fellow-men,

Am weary, thinking of your task.

O little hearts! that throb and beat

With such impatient, feverish heat,

Such limitless and strong desires;

Mine that so long has glowed and burned,

With passions into ashes turned

Now covers and conceals its fires.

O little souls! as pure and white

And crystalline as rays of light

Direct from heaven, their source divine;

Refracted through the mist of years,

How red my setting sun appears,

How lurid looks this soul of mine!

“Weariness” by H.W. Longfellow

The Long Way Home, by Andrew Klavan

At one point in The Long Way Home, the second volume (just released) of Andrew Klavan’s Young Adult series, The Homelanders, Charlie West, the hero, reminisces about talking with his school buddies about various geeky subjects, such as why the second part of any trilogy is never as good as Parts One and Three. I can’t say how The Long Way Home stacks up against the third book, coming this fall, but I’d say that it definitely lives up to the promise of Volume One, The Last Thing I Remember.

Nobody does literary chases better than Klavan, and fully the first quarter of this book is a hot chase, with Charlie fleeing both terrorists and the police on a motorcycle and on foot. Like the masterful chase that played such a major role in the author’s book True Crime (which became a Clint Eastwood movie), this one would strain credibility pretty tight, if the author gave you time to think about it. Fortunately, he doesn’t, and the young males who are its chief intended audience will eat it up like nachos. I can’t guarantee your nephew will like it, but I’m pretty sure he won’t tell you it was boring. Continue reading The Long Way Home, by Andrew Klavan

The Devil’s Workshop, by Stephen J. Cannell

I’ve been enjoying television writer and producer Stephen J. Cannell’s novels recently, as you may have noticed. The Devil’s Workshop did not disappoint me in terms of story or character (I found the ending especially moving), but I’m glad I didn’t read it first, because it might have turned me off his work from the outset. Continue reading The Devil’s Workshop, by Stephen J. Cannell

Book Reviews, Creative Culture