‘Trent’s Last Case,’ by E. C. Bentley

I’ll bellyache about my developing self-exile from all popular culture in another post. Suffice it to say, just now, that I’m thinking about trying to find good mystery stories from the past to read. In that spirit, I bought E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, one of the groundbreaking novels in the genre.

Edmund Clerihew Bentley has the distinction, not only of being the author of some seminal mysteries, but of inventing a form of light verse, a sort of short-cut limerick called the Clerihew. Here’s one of the more successful ones:

“The mustache on Hitler
Could hardly be littler,”
Was the thought that kept recurring
To Field Marshall Goehring.

On top of that he was a childhood schoolfellow and lifelong friend of G. K. Chesterton. So he comes highly recommended.

His novel, Trent’s Last Case, published in 1913, stars Philip Trent, a young artist who doubles as a crime reporter for a London newspaper. He is sent to a country estate in the wake of the murder of its owner, a predatory American financier. Faced with a confusing scenario – why was the victim dressed in mismatched clothes, and missing his false teeth? – he finally comes to a conclusion about whodunnit – which he suppresses for private reasons. But that’s only half the book. The second part involves a series of further revelations that confound all his conclusions.

It’s a clever book, in the English tradition (later established in the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction”) of the “cozy” puzzle mystery. But honestly, it’s all a little too clever for me. In order to fool the reader, the author (it seems to me) pushes and crosses the bounds of plausibility. He works hard to make it all seem consistent with real human nature, but he does not entirely succeed – in my view.

Also, the prose style somewhat irritated me. Granted the author lived before Hemingway, but when he gives us a short biography of each major character on their first appearance in the story, rather than showing us what they’re like through their words and actions, it seems like lazy writing to me. I mean, Conan Doyle was considerably older than Bentley, but he knew how to reveal a character.

I can’t condemn Trent’s Last Case – it’s an acknowledged classic. But for me it didn’t work very well. Your mileage will likely vary.

On the bright side, no content cautions at all are necessary.

Satisfy Us in the Morning, O Lord

“So teach us to number our days
  that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O Lord! How long?
  Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
  that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:12–14, ESV)

Morning at Millabedda, Hopton, Badulla.

On verse fourteen, the great Charles Spurgeon writes:

The prayer is like others which came from the meek lawgiver when he boldly pleaded with God for the nation; it is Moses like. He here speaks with the Lord as a man speaketh with his friend.

O satisfy us early with thy mercy. Since they must die, and die so soon, the psalmist pleads for speedy mercy upon himself and his brethren. Good men know how to turn the darkest trials into arguments at the throne of grace. He who has but the heart to pray need never be without pleas in prayer. The only satisfying food for the Lord’s people is the favour of God; this Moses earnestly seeks for, and as the manna fell in the morning he beseeches the Lord to send at once his satisfying favour, that all through the little day of life they might be filled therewith. Are we so soon to die? Then, Lord, do not starve us while we live. Satisfy us at once, we pray thee. Our day is short and the night hastens on, O give us in the early morning of our days to be satisfied with thy favour, that all through our little day we may be happy. That we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Being filled with divine love, their brief life on earth would become a joyful festival, and would continue so as long as it lasted. When the Lord refreshes us with his presence, our joy is such that no man can take it from us. Apprehensions of speedy death are not able to distress those who enjoy the present favour of God; though they know that the night cometh they see nothing to fear in it, but continue to live while they live, triumphing in the present favour of God and leaving the future in his loving hands. Since the whole generation which came out of Egypt had been doomed to die in the wilderness, they would naturally feel despondent, and therefore their great leader seeks for them that blessing which, beyond all others, consoles the heart, namely, the presence and favour of the Lord.

Wangerin Describes His Life

Paul Pastor reviews Walter Wangerin’s memoir, Everlasting in the Past.

The contemporary Christian memoir has behind it a richly populated tradition of self-reflection: Augustine’s Confessions, Julian of Norwich’s Showings, Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul, C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet, and countless other narratives that use personal experience and devotion to point to a larger Christian path.

. ..

[Wangerin’s] prose is miniaturized, fitted like clock parts, each sentence turning the next. Just when you think you are witnessing an over-written sentence, he expertly surprises you. The book is paradoxically both spare and extravagant, and it will not be to everyone’s taste. It’s high craft, but he avoids pretense, and it works, as Dun Cow did. It’s distilled, dense. Delicate. I love it.

(via Prufrock)

The Self-Balancing Functions of Personality

There are many personality calculators, each trying to give us an accurate and helpful picture of who we are and how we might play well with others. I remember a quiz given to my General Psychology class, which paired a profile with a biblical character. Which figure from the Bible do you most resemble? (The guy who got paired with Judas went on to become a politician.)

The Myers-Briggs test isn’t one I ever had to take, but it’s widely accepted as a solid measure of personality (with some opposition). Ruth Johnston points out that this profiler has its strengths, but like with other tests, people can easily get the impression that their personality is a bit like a cafeteria meal, each piece selected independently. In her book, Re-Modeling the Mind: Personality in Balance, she presents a model for understanding personality “as an interacting, self-balancing system.”

Lily Macro Retouched

Johnston has studied the roots of the Myers-Briggs indicator, the work of Carl Jung, and found what she believes to be a relevant model for understanding personality. “Jung’s personality system had leapfrogged over some of the 20th century psychological assumptions that are now being discarded. His model had been rejected by academic psychology long ago, but it actually suited the new neuroscience ideas very well.”  Continue reading The Self-Balancing Functions of Personality

Blasphemy, Prayer, and Vikings

  1. Why you never question Allah: Islam’s trouble with blasphemy. This points out the shallowness of Islamic teaching. Their god supposedly knows everything, but if you don’t keep your nice face on, he’ll hammer you. Of course, it appears he will hammer you for just about anything, which is a theological perspective not unique to Islam.
  2. In the United Kingdom, an video intended to play among the trailers in front of the new Star Wars movie encourages viewers to seek the Lord in prayer using The Lord’s Prayer specifically. It has been pulled from the schedule because it could offend someone, which Andrew Wilson says is precisely what it should be doing. There is, after all, only one true God.
  3. St Helen’s Church in Eston, Middlesbrough, has suffered vandalism for years. It’s now being rebuilt, brick by brick, forty miles north in County Durham.
  4. Twenty-five things we’ve forgotten about vikings.
    (Last two links via Medieval News)

‘The Greater Trumps,’ by Charles Williams

Back in the 1970s, in the flush of an upsurge of interest in C. S. Lewis and the Inklings, Eerdmans Publishers brought out American editions of Charles Williams’ novels. One that came later than the others and (if my perceptions were correct) did not stay in print long, was The Greater Trumps. Williams is not a writer for everyone, and this book in particular was especially unsuited for Eerdmans’ market. I borrowed it from a friend and read it at the time. I recalled it over the years with bemusement and some affection. Recently I acquired a complete Kindle edition of all Williams’ novels (which oddly seems to have now disappeared from Amazon), and read it again. My reaction is mixed.

Prof. Bruce Charlton, of the invaluable The Notion Club Papers blog, has been posting about Williams quite a lot recently, and has brought out some information that was not well known in the past – even, apparently, to Lewis himself. Charles Williams was not the saintly, highly spiritual character his friends thought he was. Without judging his salvation, he seems to have carelessly crossed a number of moral and theological lines. He was serially unfaithful to his wife, and he dabbled in the occult. And that’s where the first, obvious problem with The Greater Trumps makes itself apparent. The Greater Trumps is a Christian fantasy centered on the Tarot, the occult system of fortunetelling through cards.

Mr. Coningsby (his given name, to his lifelong distress, is Lothair) is a Commissioner in Lunacy – if I understand correctly, that is a civil service position delegated to evaluate the competence of people in the commitment process. He is a stuffy and unimaginative man, but not malicious. He has a sister, Sibyl, a middle-aged maiden lady who long ago renounced the flesh and devoted herself to loving everyone and everything around her, as expressions of the great Love (that is, of God). He also has a daughter, Nancy, who recently become engaged to a strange young man named Henry Lee. Henry is descended from Gypsies (spelled “Gipsies” here), and – although he genuinely loves Nancy – he has an ulterior motive in their relationship. Mr. Coningsby recently inherited, from a friend, a valuable collection of antique playing cards. Among these packs, unknown to him or to anyone except for certain Gypsies, is the very first, original Tarot pack. This pack was created by a great mystic ages ago, and partakes of the very nature of the universe itself, along with the mystical powers that control it. For that reason, the cards not only can tell the future, but can be used as magical talismans to manipulate nature. Continue reading ‘The Greater Trumps,’ by Charles Williams

Bye bye, ‘Murdoch’

A little while back I told you how much I was enjoying the Canadian police series, Murdoch Mysteries, on Netflix. I spoke a few days too soon.

To be fair, the series, set in 1890s Toronto, had always reserved the right, not only to resonate with contemporary life but to comment on contemporary issues. One of the first episodes involved homosexuality, and they were not shy about making statements about sexism and racism (one episode had Murdoch himself experiencing anti-Catholic prejudice). Particularly troubling was a story line that had Murdoch and Dr. Ogden, the pathologist he loves, driven apart by a difference over abortion (they later resolved that by papering it over, having Murdoch simply say, “I care nothing about that”).

But they really let themselves go in the fifth season. I think it may be former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s fault. According to Wikipedia, the conservative PM let it be known he was a fan of the show, which must have surely caused the whole staff considerable embarrassment. Worse than that, he visited the set while the fourth season was filming, and they somehow they ended up adding a scene where Harper, playing a dim policeman, arrests the TV version of the prime minister by accident. Great joke – the stupid Conservative is too dumb to know what a real PM looks like, let alone be one.

Still, they must have felt the stigma of Harper’s approval, because during season five they seem to have pulled the political stops out. The first episode featured a famous socialist, Jack London. The second episode featured a saintly portrayal of noted anarchist Emma Goldman. In this episode, there is fear of a terrorist bombing, but – wouldn’t you know it – the terrorists are purely imaginary. It was all set up by an agent provocateur working for the US government. This episode also gave Inspector Brackenreid an opportunity to express his utter contempt for all Americans in an earthy fashion.

I watched a couple more episodes, hoping that once they’d got that out of their systems they’d go back to entertaining. But I found I’d lost my enthusiasm. I meant to watch yet another episode, but somehow… I found that a day had gone by, then three days, then a week, then a couple weeks. I just didn’t care anymore. Especially since I know from the Wikipedia page that Dr. Ogden will get involved in the birth control movement. Maybe they’ll even bring in the saintly Margaret Sanger, who will conveniently fail to mention her views on racial eugenics.

I’ll never know. I’m done. It was fun while it lasted.

Memoirs Are the New Fairy Tale

“Here we take fairy tales, magic tales, and wonder tales so seriously. This is the land of magic. I think it’s because overall American culture is still able to dream about a better future, to dream that something better is going to come. It’s part of the American DNA.”

Armando Maggi, professor of Italian literature and a scholar of Renaissance culture, says the American memoir is the new fairy tale.

Do We Still Harbor Racism in the Church?

Jarvis Williams asks a few questions in an attempt to shed light on what may be intellectual racism in the evangelical movement. He asks, among other things, “In certain cases, why are black and brown intellectuals not taken seriously by evangelicals unless some prominent white evangelical voice grants his stamp of approval on them?” In this particular situation, I wonder if the trappings of celebrity are more involved in who is popularly accepted. I don’t quite know what being taken seriously means, but if it means that scholars and writers are ignored, couldn’t it be that established scholars and writers have already gained our interest and more likely to draw attention than one of many unknown authors? I’m sure Dr. Williams recognizes this possibility, which is why he is asking questions, not making accusations.

The same rationale would not apply to another of his questions, “Why is black and brown scholarship often ignored in many evangelical colleges and seminaries?” For this question, I have to ask what scholarship on non-racial issues is recognized as being black and brown. Is there a particularly good study that hasn’t gained the attention among evangelicals that we might think it should? Is there a seminary of black and brown scholars producing good work without adequate recognition from other seminaries? From where I sit, there are a handful of ways one seminary or individual may be dismissed by another: declared denomination, professed theological perspective, suspected theological perspective, and guilt by association with disrespected scholars. The essence of it all is simply a lack of trust. They don’t know the scholars they are ignoring and will not be challenged by or interested in scholars they don’t trust.

Scientists as Superheroes

Super Science Friends! is a developing animated series from Tinman Creative Studios, which boasts “just the right amount of smart, just the right amount of stupid.” In it, Winston Churchill has assembled a team of scientific greats, Telsa, Curie, Darwin, Einstein, and Freud and a few others to combat scientific evils and well as those who would use them for their own ends. Unfortunately, it’s not for kids. Which is odd.

How Many POV Characters Should a Story Have?

Writers may ask themselves, “How many point-of-view characters should I use in my story?” And while the correct answer is three (as anyone who’s anyone could tell you), some may want a more thorough answer than that. Marcy Kennedy says, “One technique we can use for figuring out what’s best for our individual story is to write down all the potential point-of-view characters we might want to use, and then ask ourselves the following questions.”

Reading Moby Dick Aloud

More than hundred writers and artists read ten minutes each of Moby Dick last weekend at the Whitney Museum of American Art In New York. The marathon reading event started in 2012 as a biennial celebration, but the Whitney wanted to do again this year. Many participants had not read the novel completely beforehand, which one person said may be part of the appeal.

It sounds like fun and perhaps exhausting, but I doubt they have an edge on the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon, which “celebrated its fifteenth annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville’s literary masterpiece [in January 2011] with an expanded 3-day program.” Take a look at these photos.

Some read in Portuguese, Japanese, Italian, Danish, Spanish, Hebrew, Russian and/or French, followed by that same passage in English. One passage is read from Braille.  The Seamen’s Bethel hosts the singing of “The Ribs and Terrors in the Whale” and the reading of Father Mapple’s sermon. At the end, a few hardy souls will have stayed for the whole adventure.

How, Exactly, Should We Tell the Truth?

Jason Morgan asks, “Should you be telling the truth like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, or Dewey Short?

Let us say you are in a large lecture hall. The teacher begins to compare Scott Walker to Hitler. (Would that this were only a hypothetical case, but Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recently took to Twitter to do just that.) Your hand goes up, perhaps against your better judgment. The professor looks up and acknowledges you. Now what?

Book Reviews, Creative Culture