Adventures in Immortality, by George Gallup Jr with William Proctor

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McGraw-Hill, 1982

Over an eighteen-month period during 1980 and 1981, George Gallup Jr utilised the resources of the Gallup Poll to investigate beliefs about life after death, publishing its findings in Adventures in Immortality in 1982.  The book examined attitudes towards life after death, mystical experiences and near-death experiences (NDEs), using quantitative and qualitative data, both among the general public and those who had had NDEs, or ‘verge of death’ experiences as Gallup preferred to call them.  A number of ‘leading scientists’ were surveyed separately.  There were some limited international comparisons but the primary focus was on the United States.

A number of ‘entrances, or windows, on the afterlife’ were identified: physical accidents, childbirth, hospital operations and other illnesses involving drugs or anaesthetics, sudden illnesses outside hospital (in which drugs were less likely to be involved), criminal attacks, the deathbed, and religious visions, dreams, premonitions and other spiritual experiences.  Fifteen per cent of respondents answered yes to the question ‘Have you, yourself, ever been on the verge of death or had a “close call” which involved any unusual experiences at that time?’  The survey identified a number of types of phenomena reported by those who had had NDEs, familiar in descriptions: out-of-body experiences, such as feelings of peace, a tunnel, life review, finding oneself in another world and encountering other beings there, and the return.  Of the demographic variables (age, gender, class, race, occupation, educational attainment, region of residence, income, religious affiliation and frequency of church attendance), there was generally no relationship with incidences of NDEs.  In addition to the questions concerning life after death, respondents were also asked about their views on reincarnation, extraterrestrial life and contact with the dead.

The chapter on psychological issues provides caveats that are crucial when analysing NDE reports.  For example, there is what Gallup refers to as the epistemological issue, the problem of determining what the words used by experients actually refer to, if anything.  Further, he notes the tendencies either to exaggerate or downplay experiences, the latter perhaps more likely through fear of ridicule.  Thus the bald figures need to be treated with caution over and above the problem of sampling error.  Even at that early stage in the development of near-death studies he refers to the danger of experients reporting in terms of what they have read, shaping the raw experience in terms of their expectations.  Then there is the role of brain chemistry and how it might affect – or generate – the raw experience during trauma.  In the space at his disposal Gallup can do little more than allude to these issues, but they have been taken on board since in NDE research.

The main text concludes with chapters outlining some views of scientists (they were less likely than the general population to accept a paranormal aspect to NDEs), a selection of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish doctrines (but little about Islam – eastern religions were excluded entirely), and what the findings of psychology have to say about it all.  A lengthy appendix supplies an extensive range of data on which the commentary is based, with an outline of the methodology employed for the surveys.  The sheer effort that went into collection gave confidence to researchers that what they were investigating was a phenomenon affecting a significant portion of the population rather than having to rely on occasional anecdotal reports.  From that perspective it stands with Raymond Moody’s 1975 Life After Life as a pioneering study.

Unfortunately it is marred by George Gallup’s religious preoccupations.  We rely on pollsters being objective, and doubtless the data gathering was scrupulous; but the biographical paragraph on the inside flap describes Gallup, among his professional qualifications, as Director of the Princeton Religion Centre, and co-author William Proctor had published books on religion.  Gallup’s theological interests determined that a significant proportion of the questions would relate to the subject in various ways, and the theme is woven through the commentary.  While noting the purpose of the exercise was not to provide proof of immortality, Gallup believed the results spoke for themselves, that is they bolstered the reality of a heaven.  If they went beyond what can be gleaned from scripture, they did not contradict it and were therefore congruent with it.  The discussion examines the possibility of a subjective origin for NDEs, and contrary views are included, but the weight is on the existence of the afterlife as according with Christian doctrines, and the Bible is frequently used as a source of ‘evidence’.

The book provides a very readable snapshot, but it inevitably feels dated both in the poll results (US demographics having changed considerably in the succeeding 35 years), and in the analysis.  At the time the field of near-death studies was in its infancy and while the data were invaluable, a lack of sophistication in the treatment of the implications is evident.  In particular Gallup does not reference previous research in any systematic way.  As a popular book, academic depth has been sacrificed in the interests of readability.  While noting this approach, Kenneth Ring, in a generally positive review in Anabiosis: The Journal for Near-Death Studies (December, 1982, pp. 160-65) concludes with the judgement: ‘An indispensable reference, Gallup’s book is sure to become a classic of its genre’.  That verdict has not been borne out, but it is still a valuable contribution to the field, even one which has seen an explosion of research in the three plus decades since it was published.

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Souvenir Press, 1983

The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, by Louis Kaplan

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Louis Kaplan’s 2008 book is a valuable contribution to the literature on spirit photography.  It focuses on William Mumler, an engraver-turned-photographer who began producing spirit photographs in the United States in the 1860s and is most famous for the photograph of presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirits of her deceased husband and son.  Initially operating in Boston, Mumler claimed to be able to capture images of otherwise invisible departed spirits in studio photographs, and he sold these to the sitters for a substantial premium.  Having become a controversial figure in Boston he removed to New York where in 1869 he found himself on trial when, as the result of a complaint received, the mayor assigned a marshal, Joseph H. Tooker, to investigate a possible scam and Tooker had his photograph taken in Mumler’s studio.  Following this sting, Mumler was accused of two felonies and a misdemeanour: fraudulently obtaining $10 from Tooker, and defrauding the public by taking money by false pretences.

The book consists of a compilation of primary documents, accompanied by two scholarly essays by Kaplan and illustrated by a generous number of Mumler’s spirit photographs.  A selection of newspaper articles is divided into two chapters, the first dealing with the beginning of Mumler’s spirit photography career, the second his trial.  Those in the first are drawn from the Spiritualist papers, with the exception of one from The British Journal of Photography; the second is devoted to the trial and articles are drawn mostly from  general New York newspapers.  Why this set has been chosen out of the extensive coverage Mumler’s activities and trial attracted is not clear, but what has been included gives a sufficient flavour.

The coverage begins in September 1862 with Andrew Jackson Davis’s Herald of Progress describing this ‘new and interesting development’ and the articles included give an indication of the disagreements Mumler stimulated.  Mumler was enormously assisted by such periodicals as the Herald of Progress, the Banner of Light and the Spiritual Magazine, a literature that was helping to form the Spiritualist identity.  The mainstream articles in the second of the chapters provide a valuable resource for their detailed coverage of the trial, airing the issues raised by defence and prosecution.  It was one of the papers which was responsible for the trial – the New York World instigated the investigation of Mumler when its science correspondent alerted the authorities.

In addition to press articles the chapter on ‘Spiritual Photographing’ in P. T. Barnum’s 1866 The Humbugs of the World is included (no prizes then for guessing Barnum’s view of spirit photography).  Barnum appeared at the trial, enjoying himself hugely, even though he admitted he had never met Mumler.  He said they had corresponded but thought the letters destroyed, though Mumler denied any communication between them.

There is also Mumler’s own 1875 self-justification Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit-Photography, in which he recounts how hard done by he was, and retails an extensive number of testimonials.  Not all Spiritualists were convinced of the genuineness of the photographs and Mumler’s son was not allowed to display samples at a New York Spiritualist meeting, reporting to his father that the person in charge had told him ‘to clear out with those humbug spirit-pictures’  (it is surprising Mumler should have included this incident when it would have been to his advantage to give the impression the Spiritualist community backed him wholeheartedly and he was persecuted solely by wicked materialists).

Elbridge T Gerry’s long-winded case for the prosecution in the trial is included, an astonishingly lengthy dissection of what was on the face of it a minor offence, but for Gerry there was more at stake than the accusation of a $10 fraud because his speech highlights the threat Christians considered Spiritualism to be.  He indicates a range of methods by which Mumler might have cheated, but the bedrock of his lengthy dissection is a view that Spiritualism runs counter to Christianity and cannot therefore be true.  For someone like Gerry it would have been yet one more strand of attack, the other coming from scientific debates about evolution generated by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 (not mentioned by Kaplan).  The case is therefore located at the intersection of science, theology and the law.

Very usefully Gerry lists nine methods photographic experts had suggested to him for Mumler’s effects, and he argues this menu could be tailored to the circumstances according to how much leeway Mumler had from his sitters; repeated sittings leading to a loss of concentration could be employed with particularly awkward customers.  For Kaplan’s readers not familiar with cameras of the period and the way the collodion wet plate process worked this section will not be terribly enlightening, and an explanatory gloss by Kaplan would have been helpful in assessing the various possible methods put forward by Gerry by which Mumler might have faked the images.

On the other side of the camera, Gerry analyses the sitters and notes that in their will to believe they would have been prepared to acknowledge faces as those of deceased relatives even when the image was faint.  The assertion by supporters that Mumler achieved results where no photograph of the deceased while alive was extant could be countered by claiming that as long as Mumler had some idea of the deceased’s appearance and could supply a generic likeness, imagination by the sitter would fill in the rest (as indicated when different sitters thought the same extra to be their own kin).  Those instances where extras were identified as still-living individuals did not help his credibility.

Despite the elaborate nature and ingenuity of his arguments, the close analysis of 20 specific images and hypothetical methods for their production, Gerry was unable to prove conclusively how Mumler did it and was reduced to characterising those individuals called by Mumler’s defence as foolish dupes, too desirous to accept the extras to be able to assess the process dispassionately.  Meanwhile Mumler’s defence was careful to claim he had no knowledge of how the extras arrived on the plates, thereby side-stepping the charge he was a conscious cheat.  Judge Dowling, while ‘morally convinced that there may be fraud and deception practised by the prisoner’, stated that in his opinion the prosecution had failed to make its case, and Mumler was acquitted on all charges.  The Banner of Light was jubilant that whatever Mumler had or had not done, the trial had afforded Spiritualism a great deal of coverage in the daily press, allowing the views of the movement’s leaders to be promoted widely, and with the bonus that the outcome would discourage similar prosecutions in future.  This was scant consolation to Mumler who found himself in financial difficulties, as a result of which he returned to Boston.

The primary material is bookended by a pair of Kaplan’s own essays: ‘Ghostly Developments’ and ‘Spooked Theories: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Specters of Mumler’.  The first is the more grounded, looking at how spirit photography fitted into the development of Spiritualism, scientific and religious debates, how Mumler’s operation and his trial were utilised by the growing popular and specialist press as a way to boost circulation, the legal ramifications of his trial, the development of visual entertainment, and how spirit photographs were part of the culture of therapeutic memorialisation.  A single essay cannot do justice to all these points, and Kaplan can only touch on them lightly.  The second essay is more theoretical, with the usual suspects: Sigmund Freud’s uncanny, Jacques Derrida’s hauntology, Jacques Lacan and the gaze.  This concluding essay will be as useful to the reader as he or she finds such concepts as psychoanalysis and deconstruction to be valid.

By bringing together Mumler’s own writing on his work, critical views and newspaper coverage, and not least Mumler’s own photographs, Kaplan allows the reader to see the issues in the round.  He adopts a neutral pose on the reality of the images while charting what he refers to as the ‘iconoclash’ between sceptics and believers.  It is a fair assumption that nowadays more readers will consider Mumler’s spirit photographs fraudulent than genuine, but the situation was not clear-cut in the mid-nineteenth century.  A realisation that there was not necessarily an indexical relationship between what was in front of the camera and what was captured on the plate was already growing.  It was increasingly clear that photography was capable of going beyond what was visible to the eye, not least the use of photography in the spectral analysis of light, big news in 1861.  Spirit photography was similarly advanced in scientific terms by its proponents: if photography could be utilised to render the invisible visible in one sphere, why not in another?    Conversely, the use of darkroom manipulation to make composite prints and humorous stereoscopic ghostly forms using double exposures was becoming well known, and if an obviously fake ghost could be produced as an entertainment, why should spirit photographs be taken seriously on the word of the photographer?  A commentator asked despondently after the trial how anybody could now trust the accuracy of a photograph; the answer was nobody ever could.

This is not a comprehensive biography of Mumler, about whom there is a lot more to say than that he was a spirit photographer.  The final paragraph of Kaplan’s introduction quotes from Mumler’s obituary in the Photographic Times in 1884, noting various accomplishments as a photographic experimenter.  He deserves a comprehensive biography, however, as far as his involvement in spirit photography is concerned, Kaplan’s compilation is an excellent resource.

Underwater Dogs, by Seth Casteel

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Seth Casteel’s 2012 book Underwater Dogs has a straightforward premise – toss a ball or a rubber ring (or in one instance a clockwork penguin) into a pool and photograph a dog going after it with the camera submerged – but the execution was undoubtedly more complicated to get decent images, and these are crystal clear.  There are big dogs, feisty small ones as fearless as their larger brethren, aristocratic ones, mutts, all united by water.  Some look manic, others appear in philosophical mood.  Some are balletic, others possess the elegance of an old sack.  Not all take enthusiastically to the water; a few just dip their noses in.  Others are so comfortable they might be amphibians.  In general they may not be in their natural element, but they are in their element all the same.

This is a view only water can reveal, at times making even the most benign of animals feel sinister, dachshunds like monsters.  It’s not how we are used to regarding loveable old Fido; you certainly appreciate what big teeth, and big eyes, they have.  As Casteel says, they may be domesticated on the outside, but they still have a wild side, and here it comes to the fore.  Dogs are as entertaining under water as they are above it, but there is something primal on display as well.  One force of nature meets another, in contrast with the sedate out-of-water portraits which conclude the book.

We love dogs because they live in the moment, and we envy them their uncomplicated freedom.  Catching a tennis ball in a pool is the most important act in the world, and nothing will come between them and their goal.  It’s the best thing ever, until whatever they do next.  The book is as much fun for the browser as the aquatic experience was for the dogs because their enthusiasm is infectious and life affirming.  Casteel has identified a great niche; it may seem limited but it has endless scope (just one aspect of the dogs-doing-funny-things industry that now exists).  His introduction is perfunctory but there is really little to say.  One hardly needs to analyse photographs of dogs underwater in great depth, better rather to just go with the flow.

The Coral Thief, by Rebecca Stott

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Having been unimpressed by Rebecca Stott’s first novel Ghostwalk, I picked up her second, The Coral Thief, with low expectations.  However I was pleasantly surprised to find it was a great deal better, with some fine writing.  Set in 1815, shortly after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, a young English student, Daniel Connor travels to a Paris occupied by the allies to work for Georges Cuvier at the Jardin des Plantes in order to facilitate his scientific career.  He has been entrusted with a manuscript, precious pieces of coral and a mammoth bone, but after he falls asleep in the coach approaching the city he finds a woman he has been talking to has disappeared taking the objects, along with his letter of recommendation and his notebooks, with her.  He reports the theft to police commissioner Henri Jagot at the Sûreté, a thief-turned-policeman modelled on Eugène François Vidocq, who recognises his description of the thief.  Leaving, Daniel to his surprise finds himself under surveillance.  Then the woman, Lucienne Bernard, turns up beside him in the Louvre and he finds himself entranced by her.  She promises to return his stolen items and from there he becomes increasingly involved in her nefarious activities and they become lovers, until he finds he has agreed to be her accomplice in a daring jewel heist at the Jardin.

While an improvement on Ghostwalk, Stott still has a problem with her characters.  Straight-laced ambitious Daniel is initially devastated at the theft of his possessions, to the extent of thinking he will have to return to England in disgrace, yet he easily becomes seduced into Paris’s tough bohemian drinking culture and suddenly isn’t too bothered about his career.  Three months later, most of the artefacts having been returned, he is top assistant to Cuvier.  Knowing he is being shadowed by the police he recklessly visits Lucienne’s hiding place, and doesn’t seem puzzled why a raid does not immediately follow.  Daniel evolves as a character through his underworld associations, but it is a stretch to believe he would willingly risk all he had worked for through love of Lucienne.

Lucienne’s motivation is even less credible.  She is in danger in Paris, stalked by the wily Jagot, but doesn’t leave even though by staying she puts her beloved daughter at risk.  In delaying she becomes involved in a robbery plot fraught with difficulties when she could have been comfortably off in her Italian villa with her books and natural history collection.  She has much to lose by staying in Paris, nothing to gain, certainly not a life with Daniel – she stays because the plot demands it.  Anyway, Lucienne seems more of the twenty-first century than of the early nineteenth in her attitudes and behaviour.  Above all, why is the sophisticated, liberated and knowledgeable Lucienne interested in the Englishman who is almost half her age and with restricted horizons?  She found his stolen notebooks interesting apparently.  The relationship between Daniel and Lucienne doesn’t convince.

Whatever else may be said about Professor Stott’s fiction, it cannot be claimed she wears her learning lightly.  As well as foregrounding her interest in the scientific climate, she relies heavily on nineteenth-century fictional models.  The Coral Thief is partly a novel of ideas, particularly good on the debate over whether species are fixed or evolve, as one would expect from the author who would later pen Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution.  We learn something about the circulation of evolutionary ideas in the early 1800s, and the friction between the new progressive theories in which Lucienne is steeped and the theological dogma Daniel had absorbed at home and retains despite his scientific training at the University of Edinburgh.  He stands in for the assault on outdated scientific thinking, symbolised by Cuvier.  His scientific horizon expands under Lucienne’s tutelage, learning of alternatives to the orthodoxy of fixed species, notably the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin.

Lucienne is not the story’s only thief: a theme is the relationship between scientific progress and loot.  The purpose of Cuvier’s party, utilised by the robbers at the end of the book, is to persuade Sebald Brugmans, a Dutch emissary, to allow exhibits in Paris taken from the Dutch by Napoleon’s forces to be allowed to remain there in the interests of science.  Cuvier’s argument is that knowledge transcends national boundaries and its subject matter should be where it can be of greatest value.  Doubtless he would have resisted a counter-argument that the lot could as easily accomplish those ends in The Hague; this disingenuous argument is a cover for the maintenance of national prestige as much as it is an international ideal of scientific advance, but his argument that it is in bringing together information from a variety of sources (his example being elephant skulls) which allows advances to be made is a reasonable one, even if, because of his belief in the immutability of species, Cuvier makes an incorrect inference in assuming no connection between the mammoth and modern elephants based on skull shape.

However, the adventure aspect comes increasingly to the foreground to compete with the ideas, and the two aspects never feel properly integrated.  The old pre-Haussmann Paris is evoked nicely (though the 2017 series Taboo, set in 1814 London, is a a more realistic depiction of a city without adequate sanitation).  So is the fluid political situation, albeit the general mood among the citoyens is surprisingly upbeat given that France has just lost a major war.  But the pacing is off – the lead-up to the climactic robbery is excruciatingly slow when the rhythm should be accelerating.  Stott is too enamoured with conjuring up the period at the expense of the plot for The Coral Thief to be entirely successful.  For some time her website has promised another novel, ‘about contemporary and Roman London called Dereliction’, but this summer (2017) she is due to publish a memoir about her childhood in the Exclusive Brethren in Brighton.  Perhaps she has finally decided novels are not her forte.  Her non-fiction is much better.

NB In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that Rebecca was my supervisor (one of several) when I undertook a PhD at Anglia Ruskin University.  Our professional relationship was terminated by her move to the University of East Anglia, an act for which I accept no responsibility.  My opinion of her as a person has not affected my view of her novels one way or the other.

The Singing Sands, by Josephine Tey

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The Singing Sands was Josephine Tey’s final novel, found among her papers after her death in 1952 and not therefore necessarily as it would eventually have seen print, assuming she thought it of sufficient quality for publication.  In it Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard has suffered severe mental strain through overwork and has reluctantly been given leave of absence by his unsympathetic superior in order to recuperate with his cousin and her husband in the Scottish highlands.  His symptoms include claustrophobia so the only way he can make the journey from London is by overnight sleeper, a stressful experience but better than the alternatives.

Alighting from the train after a sleepless night he happens to pass a compartment as the guard is shaking a man on his bunk on the assumption that he is dead drunk, given the reek of alcohol.  With his professional eye Grant sees immediately that he is actually dead.  Grant straightens the corpse’s jacket and goes on his way but finds over his breakfast in the station canteen that he seems to have picked up the dead man’s newspaper, and in the empty stop press section there is the scrawled fragment of a poem:

The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sand,

… [standing in for something something something something]
That guard the way
To Paradise.

It appears on the face of it to have been an accident, the drunk man having fallen over and bashed his head on the basin.  While accepting that it probably was an accident, Grant cannot help feeling that not all is as it seems – supposedly a French mechanic called Charles Martin, he wrote in fluent English with a script that seems English rather than French.

From such an unpromising beginning Grant is gradually drawn into the mystery of who the man in compartment B Seven was and why he was on the train.  The novel’s slow first half builds up a portrait of Grant’s psyche as he grapples with his demons and puzzles over the death while fishing and having his cousin try to set him up with a widowed but impoverished (those wretched death duties) aristocrat.  Asking his sergeant in London about Martin does not help because it seems that the man’s family in Marseilles has positively identified the body from a photograph and the death has been ruled an accident by the coroner.  Meanwhile as he ponders he fishes, during the course of which he meets a kilted Scotsman called Wee Archie.

The trail takes Grant to an island called Cladda in the Hebrides which reputedly possesses singing sands, where he is surprised to find Wee Archie giving a lengthy speech but fails to pick up any clues.  He puts an advert in newspapers referring to the poem.  In response he is visited by an American called Tad who says the lines had put him in mind of a missing friend, Bill Kenrick, a pilot like himself, who was supposed to meet him in Paris but failed to turn up.  Tad is concerned, and says that Bill had been distracted since an incident when bad weather had blown him off course in the Empty Quarter of Arabia – a place with plenty of sand.  He has a photograph with Bill in it, and Grant is able to see that the face he saw in the compartment was that of Kenrick.

Finally Grant heads enthusiastically back to London where his life really lies.  After some detective work – including a side-trip to Marseilles to question Martin’s family where he sees a photograph which shows Martin to have had a superficial resemblance to Kenrick in his post-mortem state – not to mention a lot of luck, the puzzle is solved.  He finds that clues that had seemed to point to Scotland in fact refer to Arabia, in particular the legendary city of Wabar, famed as the Arabian desert’s answer to Shangri-La, lost for centuries. Bill had discovered it when blown off course, but had been killed for the secret by the eminent explorer Heron Lloyd.  Grant tapping Lloyd as the murderer is handy because Grant had merely approached him for expert advice, so having a suspect thrust under his nose is most fortunate.

Ironically a rival expedition finds Wabar, rendering Bill’s death irrelevant.  Lloyd, having he feels committed the perfect murder, wrongly as it happens as he had overlooked some incriminating fingerprints, writes a lengthy confession setting out how he did it and why (a clunky weakness in the structure to wrap everything up) and flies his plane into Mont Blanc.  Grant likens him to Wee Archie in his vanity, a significant character flaw in Grant’s estimation.  Lloyd’s contempt for Bill, finding him ordinary and of no account, reveals more about Lloyd than it does Bill; in his composition of the poem Bill not only provides the stimulus for the solving of the mystery but indicates that someone considered bland can have unseen depths.

A rejuvenated Grant finds that recuperation is better served by having a mystery to solve than fishing.  Despite musing on whether to retire, he is a policeman through and through, and from a casual puzzle to occupy his time he realises that he owes a debt to the dead man for helping him to overcome his own crisis.  His recovery is incremental; from dreading travelling in a car or being shut in a room, he is eventually able to fly without a moment’s thought.  The minor characters too are well drawn, with the exception of Tad the stereotyped American and Wee Archie the caricatured Scottish nationalist.  Grant’s relatives in Scotland are nicely sketched in, his cousin Laura with whom he is still a little in love but who is married to his old school friend, and their young son Pat who idolises Grant, his affection taking the form of presents of hideous fishing lures.

The book contains great descriptions of Scottish scenery.  However, there is a coolness towards Scottish identity and nationalism which is curious given that Elizabeth MacKintosh, Tey’s real name, was from Inverness.  London by contrast is regarded in a positive light for its ‘grace and power’, and particularly for its scarlet buses compared to the ‘miserable’ blue Scottish ones.  The Glasgow accent gets a particularly raw deal.  Such overt signs of Scottishness as wearing a kilt Grant finds bogus.  Pat is getting a bit too Celtic for Grant’s liking, so he considers the best thing for the boy would be to send him to an English boarding school to make him less parochial.  Wee Archie, going around fomenting separatism, is derided, and turns out to be an agent for an unnamed – but we know who it is – foreign power (Tey probably had in mind someone like Hugh MacDiarmid who was a nationalist Anglophobe Stalinist, though he had had a fondness for Mussolini as well).  The food in the highlands is uniformly terrible, the hospitality industry out of season dire.  The fishing is about the only decent thing in the whole place.  This title won’t be high on the SNP’s recommended reading list.

Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives, by Tom Shroder

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Ian Stevenson (1918-2007) was a US-based Canadian psychiatrist who researched reincarnation cases, or as he cautiously phrased it in book titles, cases ‘of the reincarnation type’ or ‘suggestive of reincarnation’.  His is still the best-known name in the field of serious reincarnation research, yet his reputation has been buffeted since his death by accusations of credulity and poor methodology.  Tom Shroder’s 1999 book dug under the surface of Stevenson’s published work to provide a glimpse of what it was like to undertake overseas trips to collect data, and he also gives an insight into Stevenson as a person.

Actually the story does not begin with Stevenson but with Brian Weiss, who wrote the bestseller Many Lives, Many Masters in which he describes using hypnotic regression to past lives in order to treat a patient for a severe phobia, with positive therapeutic results.  Shroder, writing an article on Weiss’s approach, was unconvinced that his patients were tapping into past lives, and when Shroder himself underwent the procedure felt he was role playing (a feeling I can endorse).

Tapping into alleged past lives through hypnosis seemed to lack credibility, evidence of no more than the human imagination’s creativity.  Anyway, for Weiss and other therapists employing the technique the primary concern was its efficacy in assisting their patients’ recovery, and the validity of the past lives recounted by them was of secondary importance.  Weiss admitted he had done no research to see if there was any supporting evidence for the claimed lives described by his clients.

Then Shroder learned about the fieldwork being conducted by Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia.  Funded to a large extent by money from Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography, Stevenson had for decades been collecting case studies of individuals who as children, generally between the ages of about two and five, claimed to be able to recall past lives.  Hypnotic regression threw up ‘past lives’ from centuries before, but Stevenson’s cases featured previous lives from no more than a few decades before, death often occurring only several years prior to the birth of the supposedly reincarnated individual, among people who were still alive and could corroborate the evidence.

In the reports supplied to Stevenson, if the two families met the child would typically recognise members of the deceased person’s family, neighbours, the location of places that in some instances no longer existed, recount events that were private and known only to the person being told and the dead person, and might act in ways characteristic of the dead person.  Sometimes the child remained close to the deceased person’s family, occasionally feeling they had two sets of parents.  The child might exhibit mannerisms and dress preferences beyond their years.  However, memories were often fractured, with gaps and inconsistencies, and tended to fade with time.

Tracking down Stevenson’s books proved to be difficult, but having examined the literature discussing his work and talking to the man himself, Shroder asked to be allowed to accompany him on field trips to examine his methods, and document those aspects of an investigation which never make it into the published report.  Shroder went on two major expeditions with Stevenson, to Lebanon and India in 1997 and 1998, where they undertook a mixture of following up old cases to fill in details, and checking new ones.  The final examples in Shroder’s book are from the US, but are sketchily drawn in comparison with the others, included mainly to rebut the claim that spontaneous reincarnation memories only arise in cultures with a tradition of believing in reincarnation.

The book graphically describes the difficulties Stevenson faced in places with poor, not to say dangerous, infrastructure, language barriers, complex bureaucracy and patchy records, moving among people who not infrequently projected hostility, either on account of anti-American feeling or resentment at the disparity in affluence; and it’s not lost on Shroder that circumstances have improved somewhat since Stevenson began his trips in the early 1960s.  The group had more than one encounter where its members felt physically threatened.  Stevenson, aged nearly 80, took it all in his stride.

Shroder is surprised to find that reincarnation anecdotes are so common among the Lebanese Druze and in India when he was expecting them to be hard to find.  Naturally though the quality varies enormously and there is no perfect case.  Ideally Stevenson wanted ones where the families had not met to compare notes prior to his interviewing them, and he was particularly interested in birthmarks as evidence of a correspondence between physical trauma in the previous life and the reincarnated one; he went to a great deal of effort to trace medical reports containing such details. Intra-family cases had a low value as information could easily have been conveyed to the child.

Shroder weighs the evidence and asking the questions an intelligent newcomer to the subject would ask.  You get a good feel for the sheer physical effort required to research these cases, a sense not available from reading Stevenson’s own publications.  The two clearly got on well and Stevenson gave Shroder an interview in which he talked about his life.  The book’s strength is its effort to cast a light on the cases Stevenson investigated on those trips, but we are repeatedly reminded that they are a handful out of thousands he and his associates studied, and there is no overall analysis by Shroder of Stevenson’s collection.

Assuming they are not dismissed out of hand, the reader will probably share Shroder’s ambivalence towards these cases.  Some details seem convincing, yet there is always a feeling there could be a normal explanation, and however stretched to explain a particular case it is always going to be more plausible than the reincarnation possibility, sets of facts with no supporting theory as to how the process might be accomplished.  As Shroder puts it, ‘In the absence of compelling reasons to believe in souls and soul transfers in and of themselves, a rational person had to choose the unlikely over the unexplained.’

That is not to say there will not be an explanation eventually, and Shroder sits on the fence, probably the most sensible critical posture.  What he does feel is that while there are difficulties in reaching neat conclusions about whether the children really do somehow incorporate elements of deceased individuals’ surviving personalities into their own, such instances point to some larger force linking us which we do not understand.  It may sound nebulous, but he still considers such matters appropriate for scientific scrutiny.

He stands in for the interested reader who would like to take the evidence seriously but finds these investigations share the general problem of spontaneous cases in the lack of control, and the reliance on good faith and accuracy of recall by witnesses.  One common charge he refutes is that lower-caste children conveniently recall lives of people from higher castes, which will be socially advantageous to their families. Shroder found that while this does happen, generally past lives are recalled within the same social sphere, or even where it is disadvantageous – crossing religious boundaries for example.  Overwhelmingly, the families Stevenson interviewed were not in it for the money.

While it does air some of the issues, Old Souls is not the best place to start for those wanting an overview of reincarnation research, laying out the arguments pro and con; but for those who would like some insight into the data-gathering process this is an invaluable addition to the literature.  As a snapshot of Stevenson’s life the book is admirable, but leaves one wanting a fuller assessment of his career.  However, he conceded his books were not best sellers, so Old Souls usefully brings his research to a wider audience.  If it leads to more people reading his work it will have done a good job, even if the conclusion is that Stevenson spent a large amount of Chester Carlson’s money and endured a great deal of discomfort for scant return.  As to Stevenson’s undoubted dedication, in her personal reminiscences of Stevenson published in the January 2008 number of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Mary Rose Barrington writes the following:

‘Recently I discovered Old Souls (Simon & Schuster, 1999), a book by the journalist Tom Shroder, who in the late 1990s accompanied Ian on his reincarnation research travels in Lebanon and India, writing his own account of these enterprises. Only after reading Shroder’s descriptions of hours spent in extreme discomfort on dirt track roads, arduous journeys undertaken in the hope of interviewing a witness, obtaining a document, examining a birthmark; of weeks spent surrounded by squalor, and sometimes by hostile crowds, in dire conditions, all borne with stoic heroism despite his advanced age and imperfect health, only then did I realise the courageous and unstinting dedication that went into Ian’s collection of reincarnation-type case records.’

The Victor Legris Mysteries #1 and #2, by Claude Izner

murder-on-eiffel-tower-cvr

Murder on the Eiffel Tower and The Père-Lachaise Mystery

 

Murder on the Eiffel Tower

Claude Izner is the pen name of two Parisian sisters, Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre.  Their first collaboration is set in Paris in the hot summer of 1889, at the time of the Universal Exposition held on and around M. Eiffel’s brand-new tower – then the world’s tallest free-standing structure – which dominates the city’s skyline.  As if the excitement of the expo isn’t enough, a woman dies on the tower in mysterious circumstances.  Attributed to a reaction from a bee sting, the police aren’t much interested in the freak accident.

Bookseller and amateur photographer Victor Legris happens to be visiting the tower at the time of the lady’s death to discuss contributing a literary column to a scandal sheet titled Le Passe-partout, recently founded by a friend, Marius Bonnet.  The Passe-partout staff make the most of the opportunity presented to them and use the sudden death, plus anonymous letters sent to the paper which suggest that the death was murder, to boost sales.

It becomes clear that there is more to it than the single unexplained death, especially when it is linked to that of a rag-and-bone man who died in a similar way during a reception parade for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  Victor is reluctantly drawn into the mystery as it seems his business partner and mentor Kenji Mori, and a cartoonist on the paper, in whom Victor is interested, Russian Tasha Kherson, may be implicated.  Meanwhile Le Passe-partout’s circulation goes from strength to strength as further deaths are attributed to the same cause.

Victor turns detective as much to prove those he cares for are innocent as to discover the guilty party, but the waters become ever-murkier.  Could it be that either Kenji or Tasha is the murderer?  Kenji in particular is acting strangely, with his secrecy and lies.  Victor finds that there is a common denominator in the register visitors to the tower signed to mark their ascent on a particular day, and the trail eventually leads to the architect of this series of crimes.

A problem for the narrative arc is that Victor is actually not much of a detective.  He suspects one person after another, invariably being proved wrong as the body count increases.  He finally stumbles on the murderer’s identity much more by luck than judgement.  There are not enough clues for the reader to be able reasonably to deduce the villain’s identity beforehand and the novel is wrapped up with a lengthy written confession to explain to the reader why the murders were carried out.

The authors make a good job of evoking fin-de-siècle Paris and its culture, and the plot is satisfyingly convoluted, but the characters are thin and occasionally clichéd.  The result is a pleasant tour of Paris at the high point in its development as a world city, but Victor as a detective does not convince, and much of the suspense hinges on Victor and Kenji – whose involvement is due to some unlikely coincidences – failing to talk to each other, which seems implausible given their supposedly close relationship.

 

The  Père-Lachaise Mystery

If Victor didn’t seem much of a detective in his first outing, in the second in the series he makes up for it in spades as he rushes around Paris putting clues together to solve yet another mystery.  It is now 1890, a year after the events in the first novel.  Victor is still running the bookshop with the enigmatic Kenji.  His relationship with Tasha is firm, though she is determined to maintain her independence.  Victor is still assisted in the shop by Joseph, an enthusiast for crime novels who is writing one of his own, and Victor has broken with his mistress Odette de Valois, who figured prominently in the first volume.

The novel opens in Colombia, with a dying man and someone with him who wants to cover up the real cause of death.  The meaning of this scene is only revealed at the end.  The action then shifts to Paris, where Odette, now widowed, is mourning her late husband.  But on a visit to Père Lachaise cemetery she disappears.  Her distraught maid Denise, who had been with her, goes to see Victor, the only person she can think of, to seek his help.

Feeling uncomfortable at being involved,  Victor is initially indifferent, assuming that Odette has gone off without telling Denise, and when he does go to the police they aren’t interested. He finds Odette’s flat disturbed, and as he begins to think something is amiss, Denise too disappears and Victor later recognises her body at the mortuary.  As the mystery deepens he is determined to get to the bottom of it and is soon on the track of a missing painting, The Blue Madonna, which Odette’s late husband had sent to her from Central America and may be the key to the mystery.

Belle Époque Paris is faithfully described, and the authors certainly know their history.  They are keen to include aspects of French social history to leaven the detection: in the first it was the 1889 exposition, here it is the impact of the Panama Canal and the financial chaos it caused in France; and to a lesser extent the influence of Spiritualism, which Odette adopts.  Real characters – Anatole France, Georges Méliès – are mentioned, and the geography is, often painstakingly, laid out.

Unfortunately, for such a complex plot the identity of the murderer became fairly obvious quite early on simply because it was a new character who quickly became heavily involved in Victor and Tasha’s circles.  There did not seem anyone else it could reasonably be.  The mechanics of why the murders were committed are more interesting than the identity of their perpetrator, and while it is not always easy keeping track of what is going on, the story is well structured, though the end feels slightly rushed.  What is lacking in the series so far is depth of characterisation, and I’m not tempted to proceed further with these accounts (there are now eight books in the Victor Legris series) of Victor’s career in crime detection.

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