Wednesday, April 07, 2021

For Writers: B. Kliban

 Familiarity with the work of B. Kliban is fading fast; which is a damn shame. He was one of wildest minds and most influential cartoonist of the 70s and 80s till his death at 55 of a pulmonary embolism.  He entertained us with such collections as Cats, Never Ear Anything Bigger Than Your Head, and Whack Your Porcupine. When Gary Larson's The Far Side gained notoriety, Kliban fans knew we were getting toned-down Kliban; Larson acknowledged his influence.

This is my favorite B. Kliban cartoon. So much so that years ago when I lived in Houston with my friend the Rainbow Trout, I reproduced it on one of the walls. I don't think we got our deposit back on that apartment.

It strikes you as laughably simple, right? a man is working on a 4-piece puzzle of a yin-yang symbol. He appears to be giving it far more thought than necessary. His brow is furrowed. Ha-ha, dumb guy, right?

 But think about it for just a second. Don't we constantly overthink, making mountains out of molehills, second-guessing ourselves, making the simple difficult?

Now look at it again on a yet another level. He's contemplating how the elements if the yin-yang symbol mesh. Yin-yang is a powerful, highly complex symbol.

Two opposing forces: active and receptive, male and female, before and behind, light and dark.  The duality of nature.Yet are the two forces opposing each other or chasing one another, alternating? And each force contains the embryo of the other, each giving birth to each other: the oneness of nature. One might well hesitate over such a conundrum.

So the moral of the story (yes, there's a moral) is: when you're writing, don't get caught up with the simple or obvious. But realize that few things are simple or obvious.

To hear this song, click here.

To Librarians, with Love

It's National Library Week. This seems like an apt tribute.


Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Agatha Christie


“There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you're writing, and aren't writing particularly well.”

                                     ― Agatha Christie

Moriarty's Ghost

 "I am not a fanciful person, but I give you my word that I seemed to hear Moriarty’s voice screaming at me out of the abyss." 

In all the annals of Sherlock Holmes, there is only one recorded instance of him personally taking another life...Moriarty, mano a mano, at the Reichenbach Falls. This is well l known.

What isn't known is how Holmes felt about causing that death?  (I know, the unfeeling Mr. Holmes. Hogwash.) Certainly it was self-defense. But certainly it was premeditated. And he watched the man plunge to his death. Never to face justice. How did that make him feel?

I think it shocked him to his core. I think he felt insupportable guilt and shame. So much that he could not face his beloved London for three whole years. What else could explain his decision to abandon his beloved London to the predations of the criminal underworld? Fear for his life? Please. Does that sound like Sherlock Holmes, who had always faced danger head on? And with the trials of Moriarty's confederates ongoing? Would he not be needed as a material witness?

No; Holmes was undergoing a crisis of the soul. Where did he go? The first name he mentions is Florence; no doubt he continued on to Rome. Then he treks to Lhasa, to meet with the Dalai Lama. From there he goes on to Mecca, no easy task for a city forbidden to unbelievers. If he followed in the path of Sir Richard Burton. he must have spoken at least passable Arabic. Then he pays "a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum." This would have been Abdullahi ibn Muhammad, the Sudanese ruler who had taken up the mantle of Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, upon the death of the original Mahdi, Muhammad Ahnad.

Can there be any doubt that Holmes was seeking solace in a variety of what were (to him) a series of exotic religions? 

As for his "several months "studying coal-tar derivatives" in Montpellier, I think Holmes was withholding the truth, that he in fact had unfinished business in Montpellier with a French cousin. (For more about this cousin and the reason he mentions coal-tar derivatives, you'll have to wait for my next novel, The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter.)

But none of these ploys offer the peace he seeks, and he finally decides, as he counsels Watson, that "work is the best antidote for sorrow." and turns his face toward home. Yet he has not given up on his spiritual quest entirely. What book does he drop in front of Watson? The Origins of Tree Worship-- seeking answers in his native British Druidism? This, for a man who'd espoused his admiration for the writings of William Winwoode Reade, an avowed atheist, was quite a journey.

But would he have been able to reveal himself to Watson, if not for his accidental meeting with his associate that morning at Park Lane? Perhaps not--not because his affection for Watson had lessened, but because of Watson's role as his public chronicler. He no longer wants the public's eye upon him. He forbids Watson from publishing any new reports, and lays this injunction upon him for a full ten years before he relents.

Did Holmes ever come to terms with the death of Moriarty? In The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle, I introduce a pet raven to Holmes's retirement--a raven named Moriarty.

But you'll have to wait for my third book (in the works now) The Strange Case of the Pharaoh's Heart, to see whether Holmes at last comes to terms with the blood of Moriarty on his hands. 

Until then.

As they say in The Godfather


My book supply is almost completely deleted now. 10 books are winging their way to the winners of my Goodreads giveaway in the far-flung corners of America and up in Canadi-i-o.  I hope they enjoy the book and they let me know about it, one way or the other. I like hearing from readers. I'n a habitual reader myself.

 As they say in The Godfather,

Inaudible Books

  I don't know whether to try to crowdsource this or go straight to the big financial backers in Silicon Valley, but I've got a great new idea for an invention -- Inaudible Books™!

Inaudible Books™ are just like Audible Books, except that the volume of the narration is so low you can't hear it at all. This will be perfect for people who are intimidated by audible narrators, or people who can't get to sleep because of the noise. And it should attract high-quality celebrity narrators who always shied away before for fear of straining their vocal chords. Imagine the Outlander novels narrated by Queen Elizabeth, but so low you won't be irritated by that squeaky little voice. Or The Art of the Deal narrated by Teller, in the voice that made him famous.

I know, right now you're begging me to take your money. And I'm willing to, because I'm your friend. Let's just wait till I hear back from the Shark Tank people first, eh? Inaudible Books™-- listen for them everywhere! Closely.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Also...Indie Bookstore Day!

indie bookstore day
April 24th.
Find out how you can support your local indie and score a free audiobook! Am I good to you or what?


It's National Library Week !

                            Celebrations during National Library Week

  • Monday, April 5: State of America's Libraries Report released, including Top Ten Frequently Challenged Books of 2020.
  • Tuesday, April 6: National Library Workers Day, a day for library staff, users, administrators and Friends groups to recognize the valuable contributions made by all library workers.
  • Wednesday, April 7: National Library Outreach Day, a day to celebrate library outreach and the dedicated library professionals who are meeting their patrons where they are.
  • Thursday, April 8: Take Action for Libraries Daya day to rally advocates to support libraries.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Missed Opportunity?

 Let me get this out of the way: I hate to criticize, so let me just say after one episode that Netflix's The Irregulars is not my cup of tea. It's not your cup of tea. It's not a cup of tea at all. More like a cup of treacle, if I had ever tasted treacle, which I haven't, and I do not intend to test my simile.

But among its many apostasies from the Canon, one struck me. 


Girls in the Baker St. Irregulars.

And why not? Although Doyle only mentions boys, that doesn't actually preclude the possibility of girls in the group. He mainly refers to them as street arabs (a term which I suspect has fallen out of favor in our more enlightened times). And even if Holmes specifically required boys, who's to say that a young girl dressed as a boy wouldn't have escaped his notice? He wouldn't have strip-searched them. I think he left recruiting details up to Wiggins.

So why, pray tell, couldn't a motherless, nearly fatherless, ragamuffin girl of the streets been a member? 

A girl named Doolittle.

Eliza Doolittle.

Now, if this possibility had occurred to me when writing The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle, would I have incorporated it into the book? Very possibly. It would be hard to resist. How much or how little would it have changed the telling? I'd hate to speculate here, because even speculation would require innumerable spoilers. I'll let you rewrite in your minds, as you're reading or re-reading the novel. And let you mull over the road not taken.

Calvin Trillin


“A new regulation for the publishing industry: 

The advance for a book must be larger than the check for the lunch at which it was discussed.”

           -- Calvin Trillin

Saturday, April 03, 2021

John Watson, Groupie


I fear I’ve done John H. Watson a grave disservice.
 This blog should after all really be named The Strange Cases of John. I’m leaning shamelessly on the incandescent fame of Sherlock Holmes, even as John did. After all, Holmes may be the hero of the stories, but John is certainly the protagonist. Doyle
made that decision when he changed his name from off-putting Ormond Sacker to plain John Watson. Holmes is more of a mentor in the stories. It is through John’s eyes we experience the action. And it is John who is the founder of Holmes fandom, the original groupie. We are all John Watson. 

   That’s right, I said groupie. 

What better way to express the Holmes/Watson relationship? A completely unbalanced relationship, in which Holmes is always the star, and Watson garners what recognition he can by association, assiduously chronicling his successes (and even at times his failures, for the purpose of displaying his intimacy with his hero) And what better candidate for groupiedom? A damaged child who has developed a penchant for danger, seeking out another damaged soul who shines far brighter than himself? It’s classic groupie psychology. If Watson were alive today, he’d wear a      Guns’n’Roses t-shirt. 

Wait, damaged child? 
   Of course. Why do you think Watson never mentions his family, and Holmes’s only sparingly? (And Holmes returned the favor, in return for Watson's concealing his past.)

 The one thing we know about Watson’s family, thanks to Holmes’s rather perfunctory analysis of his pocket watch, is that he had a brother, a drunkard who frittered away his fortune (what was left after his father's frittering) and died young. The watch was inherited from their father. 

There are a few inferences one can make from this, which Holmes refrained from saying out loud: John's brother, Harry was an older brother, who inherited not only the watch but most of his father’s wealth. He was the favorite son, who also inherited Henry's genes for incipient alcoholism. Both resented John’s discreet words of caution when they drank. His father beat John regularly when he was in his cups. The only reason he did not beat his wife as well was that she had abandoned him when John was young and gone back to her people in England--after he thrashed her once within an inch of her life.

 She had pleaded to let her take the boys, at least John, knowing he would never let Harry go, but he was implacable, refusing even to let them see her letters, which finally dwindled away as the years passed. John didn't know even where she was for years, until he gained fame through his connection with Holmes. That was when she reached out to him--for money. She was always a practical woman, and assumed John had inherited something--a notion which John did not try to disabuse her of.  It was enough for him to know that she read his chronicles in The Strand. It was in reaction to this treatment that John always treated women so honorably, so fastidiously. 

 John had a wicked temper of his own, which led him to Afghanistan--away from his father. But he left it on the battlefield there. By the time he returned to England, the drink had killed Henry and Harry both. Depression replaced his anger, along with a certain buttoned-down British attitude, which might have led him to join Holmes in his addiction--but he had already seen the destruction caused by addiction, and quietly set about to cure Holmes--succeeding eventually (Whether he enlisted the help of Dr. Freud, only Nicholas Meyer can say). 

He was addicted to excitement though, and mortal risks, the same as Holmes (a condition well captured by the writers of Sherlock). He would dare any danger, any humiliation, to be next to his star. And thanks to John, we’ve been trying to get next to Sherlock Holmes ever since.


Thursday, April 01, 2021

Roger Angell

 “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young. Sitting in the stands, we sense this, if only dimly. The players below us—Mays, DiMaggio, Ruth, Snodgrass—swim and blur in memory, the ball floats over to Terry Turner, and the end of this game may never come.”

― Roger Angell