Looking Something Up in an Actual Book.

An interest in Buddhism, a fluctuating chronic illness and a near-fatal bout of cancer has left me with a feeling that belongings aren’t terribly important.

However, probably because I studied English at University,  I absolutely love my bonkers, hard-to-use, compact Oxford English Dictionary. We’ve been through a lot together.

The complete twenty volumes of the O.E.D are squeezed into a single book – “micrographically.” Nine pages are printed on each page and you have to use a magnifying glass to read anything. I bought the one-volume version in 1991, while I was at University, for £50.

A text search doesn’t compare really. I would miss the ceremony of looking something up. Also, an old book doesn’t charge you a year’s subscription for reading it (the online O.E.D.’s annual fee is £215 to those that can afford it.)

The light on the magnifying-glass still works after nearly three decades.

Samuel Johnson’s dictionary was published in 1755. It remained the standard text for 150 years until the OUP began publishing the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884. The first CD version of the O.E.D. was produced in 1987. The third edition of the dictionary will be published in the 2030s.

(P.S. I do a lot of my reading digitally, after all it is 2019.)

Edgar Allan Poe’s Less Successful First Detective.

Edgar Allan Poe

It is often claimed Edgar Allan Poe invented the modern detective story in “The Murder in the Rue Morgue.”

When the character of C. Auguste Dupin first appeared in 1841, the word detective did not yet exist.

Poe claimed this new type of story was a tale of “ratiocination”- in which the main concern of the plot is to think and solve problems in a logical way – ascertaining truth through observation and data.

In the tale a woman and her daughter, living in the Rue Morgue, are killed in the middle of the night.

A newspaper reports, “Above the fireplace they found the dead body of the daughter… on the neck there were dark, deep marks which seemed to have been made by strong fingers… Behind the building they found the body of the old woman. Her neck was almost cut through, and when they tried to lift her up, her head fell off.”

After reading the news story Dupin exclaims, “A mystery it is, yes. But there must be an answer. Let us go to the house and see what we can see!”

The detective clears the falsely-accused bank clerk Adolphe Le Bon of  the double murder by using what the narrator calls “his unusual reasoning power.”

Dupin notes that no gold was stolen – robbing Le Bon of his motive.

He notes the murderer would need superhuman strength to force the daughter’s body up the chimney.

He formulates a theory – in which the murderer could have entered the room and killed both women – involving a climb up a lightning rod and a leap to a set of window shutters.

The detective discovers  an unusual tuft of hair and comes to the sensational conclusion the crime was committed by an orangutang.

“Dupin” originated from the English word dupe – the hero is a man who uncovers a deception.

“Rue Morgue” is the template for a traditional heuristic voyage – in which both the detective and reader acquire knowledge as the story progresses.

Through evidence and reasoning the mystery is eventually solved.

Arthur Conan Doyle said Poe’s Dupin stories “are a model for all time” – and an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes because solving mysteries did not rely on chance or co-incidence.

It’s surprising, therefore, that a year before “Rue Morgue” was published Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” appeared in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine.

In the story a man in a London coffee shop, convalescent from a serious illness, finds himself  “in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui –moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs.”

The shop is on one of the “principal thoroughfares in the city” and he spends the afternoon reading the paper and watching the other people.

“Merely to breathe,” he says, “was enjoyment.”

He stays until the “the lamps were well lighted,” and “two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door.”

The narrator becomes absorbed in identifying the details of the mid-Victorian crowd outside the window – merchants, tradesmen and pick-pockets. He dissects and recognises everything in a self-satisfied way. All are identified and dealt with.

Then he sees a decrepit old man whose expression transfixes him. A face of “vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense -of supreme despair.”

The narrator rushes out into the night and follows the man through the city.

“He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare.”

As morning approaches he watches the man enter a gin-house and walk amongst the drinkers.

The narrator follows the old man all of the next day and “as the shades of the second evening came on, I grew wearied unto death, and, stopping fully in front of the wanderer, gazed at him steadfastly in the face. He noticed me not, but resumed his solemn walk.”

He concludes that “This old man… is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd.”

But there is no crime. As with the old man’s meandering journey there is no discernible plan or obvious intent.  We are left, like the storyteller, with a series of disturbing events.

It is an an anti-detective story. A post-modern detective story that pre-dates the actual first detective story.

A criminal without a crime. A blank human being.

In the beginning the narrator is able to minutely dissect every member of society. By the end he knows nothing.


An audio version of this blog is available here:

(Thanks to Charles Turner for his help in this)

Note – The illustration used is fake – Poe’s head is superimposed on the body of an unknown doctor or medical student from a c. 1890s cabinet card. Details –http://fringepop.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/medical-cabinet-card-circa-1880s.html

Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” and The Horror of Psychological Horror

Illustration from Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea,” by Edward Ardizzone.

There are no monsters in real-life, right? No ghosts, vampires or werewolves? So to avoid being laughed at some supernatural writers choose to go down the psychological route.

As is the case, for instance, in the short story “Green Tea,” written by Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (text here.)

In the tale – first published in Charles Dicken’s magazine All the Year Round in 1869 – Jennings, an English clergyman, is haunted by a small spectral monkey that is invisible to everyone else.

The reverend’s subsequent descent into terror and despair are recorded in the papers of German physician, Dr Hesselius.

Hesselius is of the opinion that his patient’s downfall is self-inflicted. He gives two reasons for this diagnosis. They are

1) Jennings is given to excessive consumption of green tea.

2) Whilst drinking the hot beverage Jennings obsessively reads books on paganism – into the early hours.

For Hesselius, the reverend’s choice of hot drink is central to his downfall. The story is called “Green Tea” – indicating the key role the substance has in the story.

When Le Fanu’s tale was published tea-drinking had become popular in Britain. But there was still a mistrust of oriental tea growers and packagers – particularly those involved with green tea – who were often accused of adulterating or contaminating the product. It’s foreign-ness makes the reverend’s favourite beverage suspiciously exotic – and dangerous.

As for the second reason, a fondness for “pagan”  books – Hesselius admits he shares his patient’s (at the time relatively novel) interest in non-Christian philosophy. So reading them hardly seems a reason for the poor man’s life-destroying delusions.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the reverend isn’t really guilty of any serious wrongdoing -apart from drinking tea and staying up late. Certainly not enough to warrant his terrible hallucinations and torments.

But in the light of Hesselius’s diagnosis it’s hard to avoid somehow blaming Jennings.

Which is one of the cruel things about this type of psychological horror. Monstrous, even.

An audio version of this blog is available here:

Illustration from Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea,” by Edward Ardizzone, 1929