lady molly of scotland yard

There’s a lot of news about Amazon these days. There’s the attempt to strong-arm Hachette and their authors, the fact that they will now charge you ten dollars a month for the equivalent of a library card, and their plan to use small drone aircraft to go into people’s homes and take away their hardcover books in order to increase the sales of e-books.

Well, that last one may not have been publicly announced yet.

But this post was triggered by two positive things about Amazon. One was their habit of recommending things for you to buy, based on things you’ve bought before.

Sometimes this doesn’t work so well. My enthusiasm for Les Miserables, which has been reflected in my Amazon purchases, does not imply any interest in any other Broadway musicals. No number of inveigling emails will get me to buy anything to do with Phantom of the Opera.

But this did work: I read and very much enjoyed The Burning Court, and that book mentioned The Old Man in the Corner, by Baroness Orczy, which I also bought. Which led to a recommendation for the “Female Sleuths Megapack,” featuring some of the earliest mystery stories with female detectives, including Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910), also by Baroness Orczy.

Why did I not know about this before? Is it possible that Lady Molly, along with Loveday Brooke and Amelia Butterworth, also represented in this volume, have been forgotten by history because of their sex?

Anyway, the Lady Molly stories are pretty good, though definitely not perfect. One is rather gimmicky, and another depends on a trick which any experienced mystery reader would spot right away. But other than that they are solid. And, of course, in 1910 there weren’t experienced mystery readers as there are now. There hadn’t been enough mysteries yet.

Lady Molly’s stories are narrated by her loyal assistant, Mary, and I don’t think any detective has ever had a more devoted Watson. Mary has, as she puts it, raised obedience to the level of a fine art. Not that she’s helpless when her “dear lady” is unavailable — in fact she’s quite fearless and decisive — but she’s much happier when Lady Molly is there, and there is no situation so fraught that Mary can’t pause to praise Lady Molly’s hair, her clothes, her figure, her intelligence, her sensitivity, her eyes, etc.

Also in the Megapack volume are stories about Loveday Brooke, by C. L. Pirkis (1894), and Miss Amelia Butterworth, by Anna Katharine Green (the first Miss Butterworth novel came out in 1897, but Anna Katharine Green’s earliest mystery novel, with a different detective, preceded the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes by ten years). The Loveday Brooke stories are pretty good, but she’s definitely the least interesting of the three detectives (though I will definitely write a book at some point called “The Experiences of Jan Sleet, Lady Detective,” based on the title of the collection of Loveday Brooke’s stories).

The first Amelia Butterworth novel was a bit of a revelation, though. It was a complex story, with a series of explanations of the crime, each of which was then disproved by further evidence (Ellery Queen used this template quite often). Miss Butterworth is a spinster lady, living in New York, of colonial ancestry (as she reminds us periodically), and well-regarded in society. When she becomes a witness to a murder in the house next to hers, she starts investigating, and she rather sharply informs the police detective assigned to the case that she will be his rival, not his “coadjuter.” Their investigations are along separate lines (though part of his investigation involves having Miss Butterworth followed — he obviously takes her seriously), but near the end they do compare notes. Their explanations are completely different, and each has discovered facts which disprove the theory of the other, but it’s her investigation which leads to the real explanation (which I certainly didn’t see coming), and a wonderfully dramatic resolution.

Miss Butterworth is clearly the model for Miss Marple, but her personality is very different, and really delightful (though it’s probably more fun to read about her than it would have been to meet her — but that’s true of a lot of fictional detectives). There’s one scene where Miss Butterworth and charwoman are witnesses at the scene of a crime, and a police officer refers to them collectively to a detective who has just arrived. Miss Butterworth is quietly horrified to be lumped together with a charwoman (she who is highly regarded in society, after all), but she reasons that, of course, before the law their testimony must be seen as equal — and this is doubtless what the officer had in mind.

Miss Butterworth is an interesting contrast to Lady Molly, by the way. Miss Butterworth’s prejudices are clearly not shared by the author, and we’re supposed to think them a bit absurd (like the various types of snobbery in Sarah Caudwell’s novels). The Lady Molly stories are full of this sort of thing, too, and this is apparently an expression of the baroness’s real opinions. Manners and customs in the French colonies are “very peculiar,” a servant has a “pleasant vagueness peculiar to her class,” landladies are usually a “grasping type,” etc. At one point a man refers to the fact that Italy is rife with secret societies, anarchists, and the Mafia, and that the police and courts are all corrupt — and Mary our helpful narrator makes a point of saying that there was truth in these statements, in case any readers should think that these are baseless accusations.

And now it turns out that Anna Katharine Green also created Violet Strange, a teenage society girl who secretly works as a detective. I’m starting to read about her adventures now (I’m saving the other two Amelia Butterworth novels — I don’t want to use them up too quickly :-) ).

Oh, the other nice thing about Amazon? All of these great novels and stories? A total of 99 cents. :-)

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chapter two: a family trip

The first part is located here. More to come.

It all started because of the books.

Jan Sleet had been “a literate girl” when she was younger (that was her term — others might have said “shy, awkward, and bookish”), so she’d owned a lot of books. When she’d left college to start her life as a famous amateur detective and “intrepid gal reporter” she’d had to travel light, so she’d carefully packed up her books and stored them in a neighbor’s basement.

For several years after that, she and her assistant, Marshall, were pretty much always in motion, staying in one hotel room after another — or sometimes sleeping in bombed-out buildings or even once in an abandoned mine — so they basically had the clothes on their backs (and her typewriter, and her notebooks, and her cigarettes…).

After they had settled in U-town, though, she’d said several times that they should go get her books, but there were always other things to do and it kept getting put off.

What changed her mind, though, was her daughter, Ron.

At dinner one night, Ron had told Jan and Marshall about a new class she was thinking of taking. The class had a fancy name, as was common at the U-town school, but it was apparently a statistics class. Most schools, of course, did not offer statistics classes to thirteen-year-old students, but the U-town school was very flexible in this area.

They could tell that at least part of the reason Ron was interested was because it sounded like something which would be useful in solving mysteries. If Ron had had her way, schools would offer pre-detective in addition to pre-med and pre-law. She’d have been mortified if they’d ever mentioned it, but she was obviously planning to grow up to be some version of her mother.

“I studied that in college,” Jan said. “I think I still have my old textbooks.” She smiled. “We should go get my books. All of them. We can find somewhere to put them.”

Marshall turned to Ron. “Would you like to come? You can see where your mother grew up.”

Ron shrugged. “What about school?”

“You’ve got time off coming, don’t you? You can take a week.”

“Yeah, okay,” she said. This was, for her, a very enthusiastic reaction indeed, so they were satisfied.

Later that night, as they were getting ready for bed, Jan turned to Marshall as she unbuttoned her shirt.

“It is a quandary,” he said.

Jan smiled. “I’m sure you’ll think of something clever. Let’s go to bed.”

Stephanie enjoyed working out with Christy. Growing up she’d always worked out with her father. Since she’d left home she’d continued to exercise, of course, using the plan she and her father had developed for her, but it was much more fun to do it with someone else.

And the exercise was only part of it anyway. You couldn’t box by yourself, after all. And the Jinx, the gang Christy belonged to, had a real boxing ring in the basement gym of the huge warehouse building that was their headquarters. Stephanie thought that was so cool, to have your own boxing ring. “The squared circle,” as her father had always called it.

Today, though, after they’d been sparring for a while, Christy suddenly reacted to something she saw over Stephanie’s shoulder. Stephanie wasn’t about to turn around, though. Christy would have made her regret that, the same way her father would have.

Christy held up her gloves and Stephanie dropped hers and turned around.

It was Marshall, Jan Sleet’s assistant. He waved from the doorway and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt.”

Christy panted loudly and leaned over, her gloved hands on her knees. “It’s okay. She’s wearing me out anyway.”

Stephanie had the momentary urge to talk trash, to call Christy “old woman” or some such, but they all understood that Christy was just being polite or making a joke — that she was the Jedi Knight and Stephanie the eager pupil. Stephanie considered it an achievement when she could get Christy to break a sweat.

But then there was an awkward moment as Marshall stepped inside the room and said something, and Christy suddenly straightened up and turned her back on him. She quickly climbed out of the ring and pulled on a T-shirt.

She came around the outside of the ring, drying her red hair with a towel. It was probably just exertion, Stephanie thought, but Christy actually looked like she might be blushing.

Stephanie thought this was very unusual behavior for adults. Yes, by leaning forward the way she had, Christy had given Marshall a bit of a show down the front of her top. But Stephanie thought that two adults, friends, people who’d worked and traveled together, wouldn’t be as awkward as teenagers about something like a view of some freckled cleavage.

And she wondered when she would start including herself in the category “adults.” Did that happen automatically at some point? Maybe when she turned twenty, or twenty-one.

“So,” Christy said as she approached Marshall, “what do you need?”

That could have sounded obnoxious, or very formal, but she gave him a dazzling smile and he smiled back.

“Some advice, I confess,” he said, stepping forward.

Christy gestured at the narrow bench that ran along one wall. “Have a seat and tell me about it.” Stephanie wasn’t sure if this meant her session with Christy was over, but the older woman gestured for her to join them.

Stephanie was to wonder later if Christy had had an inkling, even then, of Marshall’s question.

“We’re going on a trip,” Marshall said. “Jan and Ron and I. Some family history — we’re going to show Ron the places where Jan grew up — and there’s also the practical matter of collecting Jan’s books, which have been in storage since she left college.”

“Sounds like fun,” Christy said. She’d finished drying her hair, and she draped the towel around her shoulders. “So, I guess she’s admitting that you’ve settled down here?”

He nodded, smiling. “At first, she liked to maintain the idea that she was still an ‘intrepid gal reporter,’ who might rush off to some far part of the world in search of a story at any moment. What changed that was Ron. Not,” he added quickly, “because she couldn’t, but because Ron led a very uncertain life before we adopted her, as you know, and she’s always sort of half expecting us to run off or kick her out or something like that. So, we always try to emphasize to her that we’re staying put, and that she’s staying with us. During that trouble with her sister, I told her that if she ever ran away we’d follow her and bring her back home.”

“You can’t escape from the world’s greatest detective,” Christy said with a grin.

“Exactly. And she thinks her mother is superhuman, so that impressed her. So, it was kind of a threat, but it was really a promise, that she’s our daughter no matter what.”

Christy nodded. “I know what her first parents did, so I guess she got the point.”

Stephanie raised an eyebrow, and Christy turned to her. “She ran away from her parents, I think mostly to get them to chase her and prove they loved her, and they just let her go.” Christy was, to Stephanie’s surprise, apparently on the edge of tears. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m always upset when I even think about it.”

“And I guess she didn’t run back, like most kids would?”

Marshall shook his head. “Not Ron. She’s tough as nails.” He smiled, and Stephanie could see his pride in his daughter. “She stayed away, living on the streets until she made her way to U-town, and eventually we adopted her.”

“Anyway,” Christy said, apparently eager to move the conversation to more pleasant topics, “I gather there’s a question in here somewhere?”

to be continued…

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things with wings

I saw a couple of interesting movies recently.

One was Maleficent. I was on the fence about seeing it, but then I read this article in The New Yorker: “Love’s True Kiss: Maleficent’s Complex Sexual Politics.”

It’s not a great movie, but the story elements that the New Yorker article talks about are compelling (though the movie does the usual “don’t let the hero actually kill when you can make it the victim’s decision or fault” thing, as I talked about here), and Angelina Jolie is terrific. This is one of those movies which would be unthinkable (or unbearable) with anybody else In the lead role.

By the way, Alyson just reviewed Maleficent over at The Best Picture Project, where it was, appropriately, the first movie she saw after becoming a mother.

I also saw Three Days of the Condor, mostly because it was mentioned a lot in reviews of the last Captain America movie (and I was somewhat embarrassed that I hadn’t seen it back when it was released).

It’s a really good movie — better than the Captain America movie, which was good but which had an ending which was, predictability, somewhat of a cop out. When a movie set in the 21st century resorts to Nazis as villains, you can tell that a committee sat down at some point to decide how to tell the story with the least chance of offending anybody in the real world.

Three Days of the Condor is the sort of movie that mostly doesn’t get made in the U.S. these days — a smart, topical thriller with solid writing, excellent acting, and no explosions or fancy special effects. The only films of that type which I can think of in recent years were the Millennium movies (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and so on) and The Ghost Writer. (It is telling about Hollywood these days that the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was so expensive, for what it brought in, that the other two movies in the series have never been made.)

The cast of Condor was excellent (Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson, and John Houseman), but the most impressive was Faye Dunaway, because her character was the most problematic. I had sort of forgotten how good an actress she is, but she does an amazing job of selling the idea of a kidnap victim who ends up sleeping with and helping her captor.

And, for all of it being made almost 40 years ago, it was striking the extent to which we are still (and maybe even more now) living in the world of Condor. Which is why it made sense to use it as a template for the Captain America movie.

And, because it was made in the 1970s, it was possible to give it a completely ambiguous, non-reassuring ending. You don’t see a lot of those out of Hollywood these days.

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i really do need to read the book

I saw the new Broadway version of Les Misérables a couple of weeks ago. It was excellent — very different staging than before (I saw the original Broadway run when it was about to close), and a cast that ranged from good to excellent.

I also just watched the movie version from the 1990s (it’s an adaptation of the book, not of the musical), which is what I want to talk about today.

(By the way, I have to share this joke I read somewhere: Uma Thurman was in The Avengers, Les Misérables, and a Batman movie. Which would have been an incredible year if she’d done it in this decade, but unfortunately she did it in the late 1990s.)

The biggest problem with the movie was that it focused too much on Valjean vs. Javert. The actors were excellent (Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush), but this leads back to my recent post about heroes and protagonists.

Javert is the antagonist (he’s pretty much the definition of an antagonist), but he’s not a villain (Thernardier is a villain, by contrast). Javert is trying to do good; he’s just wrong about some things (in the musical, the scene when Valjean spares his life and sings “You are wrong, and always have been wrong” may be my favorite moment in the show — Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe nailed this scene in the recent movie, by the way).

In the 1998 movie, however, even Geoffrey Rush’s haircut screams, “I am the villain!” Javert’s superiors and subordinates all dislike him, too.

On the other hand, what the 1998 movie did do, which surprised the heck out of me, was present a really interesting and compelling Cosette. Eponine is absent (alas), but instead we get a Cosette (Claire Danes) who actually acts, rather than just mooning around, and who asserts herself with her father in a very good way. She learns her father’s history much earlier in the story than in other versions I’ve seen, mostly because she insists on it. And it makes a difference that, unlike in the show, she doesn’t just fall in love with Marius and then immediately get separated from him — they are obviously lovers here, over a period of time, and that makes her urgent desire to stay with him something real, as opposed to just an adolescent crush.

(Oh, and yes, Uma Thurman was in the “wrong” Les Misérables, the wrong Batman movie and the wrong Avengers movie, but she’s very good as Fantine.)

The other problem with reducing the story to hero vs. villain (this was also true of the radio adaptation Orson Welles did in the 1930s) is that you remove les misérables (the wretched) from Les Misérables. The musical puts the people of France (suffering, and later rebellious) at the center of the story from the very first scene, and that frames all the individual stories.

Which I’m pretty sure was true in the book.

Which I really do need to read.

(And which is, of course, free for the Kindle. :-) )

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i would plant an apple tree

I really enjoyed this article about Roger Ebert and the very positive effect he had on a lot of filmmakers.

And all that support certainly didn’t mean he was soft on the films if they sucked. But, as he said once, “If you give one [a negative review] to the work of a friend, and they’re not your friend any more, they weren’t ever your friend. As Robert Altman once told me, ‘If you never gave me a bad review, what would a good review mean?’”

But Altman understood the point in the article about dealing with things, even very bad things, by making another movie. There was a period when many of Altman’s movies were not available on home video, and he was asked how he dealt with that. “How can I deal with it?” he asked. “I make another movie.”

You move forward, not backward and not stopping. And Roger Ebert would have understood that, too. After all, he always identified himself as a newspaperman, and it’s pretty basic in the newspaper world that no matter how well, or how badly, you write one day, you start again the next morning.

Which is pretty much how it works in serial fiction, too. As I said last time, there are a few continuity glitches in my stories. Some people are bothered by that sort of thing, but I think the best way of dealing with it is to write another story.

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