Memories, by Teffi

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Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi (Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, 1872-1952) is an account of the author’s gradual flight south from the Bolsheviks into exile during the Russian Civil War.  It describes her travels through Russia and Ukraine, from leaving Moscow in September 1918 to leaving Russia forever for a new life as an exile.  Told as a series of vignettes, her observations are drawn with great economy, by turns sad, humorous, tense and poignant.

The work was serialised in Paris in a Russian-language newspaper in 1928-1930 and published in book format in 1931.  It was thus originally aimed at fellow émigrés, evoking lost times in the old country.  Pushkin Press produced this English-language translation in 2016.  As well as the excellent translation that captures Teffi’s personality, there is an informative introduction by Edythe Haber placing Memories within Teffi’s life and times, detailed endnotes and translators’ note.

Teffi was well known as a playwright, poet, satirist and journalist, producer of very popular feuilletons before the war.  Though not a Bolshevik herself, she had worked for a Bolshevik newspaper, New Life, in 1905, supporting the revolution of that year.  However, on his return from exile Lenin had jettisoned the cultural elements of the paper, focusing solely on the political, and Teffi felt a lasting grievance towards him.  Now he was in power, living under communist rule was not something she was willing to try.

Her departure from her beloved motherland was incremental, supposedly temporary until the situation stabilised, and not until the end was she conscious she was leaving forever.  She was invited to join a group travelling to Kyiv – at that point under German control – to read her work (which we learn she hated doing).  She had no idea she would not see Moscow again.  The journey to Kyiev was fraught, but when she arrived she found a thriving cultural scene as many of those she had known in St Petersburg and Moscow had made the same journey.

The stay in Kyiev was short-lived, as the political situation was made more complex by Ukrainian nationalists declaring a republic, pushing the Whites further south and creating hazardous conditions in the city.  Teffi, along with many others, continued their odyssey, firstly to Odessa, then by sea in an only marginally seaworthy tub to Novorossiysk on the eastern side of the Black Sea, and on to Constantinople, from whence she eventually reached Paris at the end of 1919 where, with a short stay in Berlin, she lived for the rest of her life.

We leave her, in a more seaworthy vessel, sailing from Novorossiysk, her dreams of returning to Moscow via Vladivostok at an end.  A woman on the lower deck wails and laments as they are about to pull away from the dock; in a sense she represents all those who had had to flee, and who knew they could never go back except in memory.  The rest of the passengers stare at the land.  The book’s final words are: ‘And, like Lot’s wife, I am frozen. I have turned into a pillar of salt forever, and I shall forever go on looking, seeing my own land slip softly, slowly away from me.’  The evocation of loss is heartbreaking.

It is impossible to feel anything but admiration for Teffi, always stoical in adversity, even when she had no idea where she would sleep that night or where her next meal was coming from.  There was uncertainty and fear, with chaos or arbitrary law as civil society broke down and authority contested.  Life was unpredictable and violence could happen without warning.  It must have been a terrifying experience at times, and although she does not talk about it, there must have been a great danger of sexual violence as would-be protectors could turn into predators.

On her journey she meets a colourful cast of characters.  Some are famous, others noteworthy because of their characters or appearance.  Some people are kind, others are on the make exploiting the situation, or making empty promises.  She did have advantages, though, because undoubtedly her fame assisted her journey, a benefit denied to many making the same trek.

Her constant theme is the resilience of the human spirit, particularly the ability of women to endure (the distance a woman has gone can be gauged by the state of her sealskin coat, getting shabbier the further she travels).  They may seem frivolous at times, concerned about clothes, shoes and manicures, but they know these symbolise their determination to get through this hell and make a life, whatever it takes.  Teffi is good on the small things people do to maintain a semblance of humanity in extreme circumstances.  As must happen in all conflicts, gradually they become inured to their own hardship, and the hardships and deaths of others.  Small treats, like chocolate, become reminders of what has been lost and achieve great significance.

The reader does not learn much about the mechanics of the revolution and civil war, but Teffi brings home the human cost, as the currents of history swirl around and ordinary people try to keep their heads above the tide.  There is nothing strident in her tone: she is anti-Bolshevik but is able to weigh the pros and cons of both sides, and view the faults of both sides dispassionately.  Her journey shows the complexity of the situation, as at various times she experiences Bolsheviks, White Russians, Ukrainian nationalists, and German and French armies of occupation.  Teffi’s personal testimony is a valuable complement to more formal histories of the period, all the more valuable for describing the situation away from the political centres of Moscow and Petrograd.

Shortly after finishing the book I visited the Tate Modern’s exhibition dedicated to the work of Natalia Goncharova, and it occurred to me that her trajectory was similar to Teffi’s as she too left Russia, though in her case before the revolution to work with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and like Teffi settled in Paris, never returning to Russia.  On exiting the exhibition there was a display of books, Teffi’s among them, including Memories, with an explanatory card making precisely this point.  If the two of them knew each other they would have had some interesting conversations.


How the Dead Live, by Will Self

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The Afterlife can take many forms, and in the one in How the Dead Live (2000) the dead continue to coexist with the living, more or less occupying the same space and pursuing similar activities as pale facsimiles of their pre-mortem selves.  Lily Bloom, a heavy-smoking secular Jewish American widow living in London, dies at the age of 66 from cancer and finds that her new existence is a grottier version of the one she left behind, complete with the need to work.  No lying on clouds strumming harps to the glory of God here, though there is plenty of time to muse back over her life, her major achievement having been the design of the plastic cap on biro pens.  The narrative covers her existence while alive, her death in 1988, and when dead over the next few years, with another strand in 2001 the meaning which is gradually revealed.

Picked up after death at the hospital by a Stetson-wearing aboriginal death guide, Phar Lap Jones, in a cab with a Greek driver, she finds herself holed up in a filthy flat in a place called Dulston in North London, existing in the interstices of the world of the living.  There she is obliged to stay in company with a calcified foetus she did not know she had called Lithy, who has an extensive repertoire of pop songs; a group of blubbery women – the Fats – who represent all the weight she has lost and regained over a lifetime of dieting; and ‘Rude Boy’, her foul-mouthed resentful nine-year old son who had been killed by a car and whose attitude has not improved in the interim.  Thank goodness she had never had an abortion.  She is advised to attend AA-style meetings at the community centre to find out how her new existence works; being dead in Dulston really is that boring.

She learns the dead can eat, but only as a reminder of life, and they have to throw it up into a bucket afterwards.  Similarly they can, and most do, smoke like chimneys, but as a mechanical act without the pleasure of being able to inhale, though of course without the health risks.  Lily does not consider having died of cancer a deterrent to resuming the habit.  Naturally, being disembodied, sex is not successful, though the dead try, again out of habit.  Lily even ends up working back in PR to pay her bills.  After an unsatisfactory life the first time round her new one is no compensation whatsoever.

Despite the disapproval of the after-death bureaucrats (the ‘deatheaucracy’) Lily finds she is still attached to the earth and, unable to move on, keeps an eye on her two daughters back in the land of the living (if you call it living).  One is a successful owner with her husband of a very successful chain of ‘Paperchase’-type outlets making the most of the 1990s consumer boom, but blighted by her inability to have a baby.  The other is a needy wastrel self-absorbed junkie going steadily downhill.  When Lily attends her own funeral she sees that only her junkie daughter has turned up, so now she knows how much affection there was for her.

The meaning of the cryptic 2001 sections is finally revealed.  There is reincarnation, and after over a decade of Dulston, Lily ends up being born again.  Unfortunately either karma or a bad joke sees her reborn as the child of her junkie daughter, so her life prospects are blighted from the start.  They go further downhill when the daughter and her boyfriend OD, leaving Lily-the-toddler to scavenge and drink water from the toilet, with nobody knowing what has happened or likely to until too late.  She is probably going to be back in Dulson before long.  An afterlife spent there may represent purgatory, but her short new life proves to be hell.

Will Self clearly isn’t keen on London and loses no opportunity to emphasise its griminess and lack of soul as seen through Lily’s jaundiced eyes.  But she has much to be grumpy about apart from drab English culture: wasted opportunities, two failed marriages, her lack of a successful and interesting career, guilt over the death of her son, her disappointing daughters.  She adapts to the afterlife quite well, if not enthusiastically, because her expectations are low.  It cannot be said it is a learning experience for her; or perhaps the lesson is that the afterlife, like life itself, is what we make of it, and Lily does not bother to examine ways to improve her situation.  Self uses a quote from The Tibetan Book of the Dead as an epigraph, the lack of progress in this iteration suggesting Lily has some way to go before the cycle of rebirth ends in enlightenment and she can escape the Dulston bardo forever.

Room 13, by Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace’s 1923 novel introduces J G Reeder, who reappears in later stories.  Here though he is a shadowy figure taking a back seat to Johnny Gray who, as the story opens, is well into a two-year stretch in Dartmoor prison for his involvement in a horse-racing scam involving substituting a horse.  After an early release he visits an old associate, Peter Kane, whose daughter Marney he is in love with but who has not written during his incarceration.

Kane had written, though, to inform him that Marney was going to marry a Canadian, Major Floyd.  Having been a successful villain who had never been caught and is now retired, Kane is keen his daughter should marry someone above reproach.  That rules Johnny out, however close they had been in the past and even though Johnny is a gentleman of independent means (complete with valet), and not an habitual criminal.

On arrival, to Johnny’s dismay he finds Floyd and Marney had married that morning, and worse, ‘Major Floyd’ is Jeff Legge, son of Kane’s arch-enemy Emanuel Legge.  Emanuel thought Kane had cheated him on a heist and ‘squeaked’ to send him down.  While Kane had lived in respectable luxury, Legg had gone to prison for fifteen years.  There’s dirty work afoot, as it becomes clear Legge senior is going to use his son’s marriage to Marney to get back at his old enemy.

The revenge story is intertwined with Johnny’s investigation of a sophisticated counterfeiting operation which is masterminded by Jeff – ‘The Big Printer’ – his fakes so good even the authorities cannot identify them.  The apparently vague Reeder, seemingly more concerned with chickens than counterfeiting, also takes an interest and appears to have access to large amounts of information.  A key location is the ‘Highlow’ club, owned by Emanuel and location of the titular room 13.  The club’s membership is restricted to the upper echelons of the criminal fraternity.  Implausibly, a window is left open for discreet entrances and exits via the fire escape, meaning the front desk can have no idea who is in the building; a useful plot device.

The narrative is pacy, with Johnny thrown out of a train by the elderly Emanuel Legge; bigamy; jealous molls; and many of the cast waving guns at some point.  Jeff is wounded, though not severely, there is a murder, and Marnie is kidnapped, before it all comes to a climax in a disused prison just outside Oxford which is being used as the base for the counterfeiting.  Mr Reeder is on hand when things get sticky for Marnie and Johnny and the case is neatly wrapped up.

A surprising twist absolves Johnny from the crime he was alleged to have committed and provides an honourable reason for his incarceration, meaning Kane can accept him as his son-in-law with an easy mind.  There is a confusing bit when Reeder says his name is actually Golden, the man he was supposed to have replaced in whatever job it is he does, and Johnny, with whom he has been working, is actually John Gray ( i.e. J G) Reeder.  How could Johnny have kept his surname secret from Peter and Marney Kane and why would Reeder use Johnny’s surname instead of his own?  Who knows.

Such niceties matter not.  Wallace’s emphasis is on moving the story on, with plausibility secondary.  There is plenty of 1920s underworld argot, presumably authentic, to give a sense of the period’s crime scene, though in practice it seems unlikely such a big counterfeiting operation could be kept secret for that long even if the authorities believed the desire for privacy was due to sensitive scientific research, nor its banknotes be so perfect.

Wallace is sympathetic towards the low-level crooks who are often the victims of circumstances and lack of intelligence, reserving his disdain for the kingpins such as Jeff and Emanuel Legge who would not stoop to using an innocent woman to hurt the father with whom they have their beef.  The identity of the murderer is a cheat because it is not deducible from clues, but Wallace is more concerned with the thriller aspect than the detection, the murder being peripheral to the action, and on that score he is successful.

Dr Soal: A Psychic Enigma, by Donald J West and Betty Markwick

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‘Dr Soal: A Psychic Enigma’ constitutes volume 6o, part 224 (October 2018) of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.  It is a painstaking and at times fairly technical examination of the career of S. G Soal, a mathematician and psychical researcher whose results in the latter field have been rejected as fraudulent.  The 170-page report has been produced by two veteran members of the SPR: Professor Donald West has been its president three times, and Betty Markwick has for many years been the Society’s Hon. Statistical Advisor.  West knew Soal and had occasionally helped with his experiments.  The Proceedings follows a paper with the same title given by the authors at the SPR’s conference in Swansea in 2013.

Samuel George Soal (1889-1975) lectured in mathematics at Queen Mary College, University of London, but his major interest was psychical research.  He joined the SPR in 1922 and was a Council member from 1928 to 1961, serving as the Society’s president in 1950-52.  During his career he produced an impressive body of work indicating that telepathy was a genuine phenomenon.  After a brief biographical sketch, West and Markwick plunge into his psychical research.  Inspired by reading Sir Oliver Lodge’s Raymond, and having lost a brother in the war, he began by examining mediums, notably Blanche Cooper, but was ambivalent about the results, considering telepathy or unconscious whispering to be possible factors.  He practised automatic writing, receiving scripts that seemed to emanate from Oscar Wilde, though there was nothing in them Soal could not have read.  He also investigated the mentalist Frederick Marion.  However, he is best-known for his extensive card-guessing experiments.

While critical of J B Rhine’s experiments using Zener cards, Soal decided to try extra-sensory perception tests using animal pictures.  He found ‘star’ subjects in Basil Shackleton and Gloria Stewart, who proved to be consistently high scorers when Soal checked for displacement effects – that is, when the subject’s response matched not the target but the image preceding or succeeding it.  On the surface Soal was a painstaking researcher, berating colleagues whose methods he considered sloppy, and he obtained startling results under apparently tightly-controlled conditions.  Unfortunately even during his lifetime there were suspicions of fraud, and these increased after his death.

Markwick published an analysis in the SPR’s Proceedings in 1978 demonstrating Soal had cheated.  This involved going back to the score sheets from card-guessing experiments Soal had conducted with Basil Shackleton, where she found signs of manipulation of targets to match guesses.  She and West continued that work, and a scrutiny of the Stewart sessions found evidence of forged score sheets, often crudely done.  Their attempt to determine if there were any genuine results in his investigations uncovered even more fraud, plus inconsistencies and suppression of anything he considered inconvenient, than had hitherto been suspected.  West and Markwick were not able to show how he may have cheated in every case in which he obtained significant results, but on the balance of probabilities it is reasonable to assume they were fraudulent as well.  If Shackleton and Stewart were capable of exhibiting genuine effects, we shall now never know thanks to Soal’s machinations.

His final major work in the field, with a pair of cousins in Wales, has long been held to have been dubious, the boys perhaps using a code employing dog whistles.  There were weaknesses in the controls, but Soal said he was reluctant to impose too rigid conditions in case they had an inhibitory effect.  It surprising to learn that West made contact with the cousins later in life and they did not admit to fraud (when they might have been expected to, in order to show how they had got one over on Soal), laughing at the notion they had employed whistles.  Intriguingly, there were some significant results when Soal was not present, suggesting they might be genuine, but fraud on the boys’ part cannot be ruled out, and naturally Soal’s involvement in testing them has tainted all results obtained.

The authors conclude by speculating about Soal’s motives.  These were probably mixed, including a bid to be considered a significant figure in psychical research and ‘pious fraud’ to substantiate abilities he considered real but frustratingly elusive.  Noting his tendency to display mental dissociation, they wonder whether he would even consider himself to be cheating if he was merely strengthening effects he thought were there already.  To them, the clumsiness of the manipulation of records suggests ‘a mind divided against itself rather than a coldly calculating fraudster with full control over his actions,’ as they put it.

Soal comes across as a very odd man, extremely unsociable and private to the point of paranoia, but it is worth noting that he saw service in the First World War, including at the Somme, and in 1917 sustained a head wound (he attributed his partial deafness – a handicap in his research – to shrapnel piercing his skull).  In addition he had a difficult family background: apart from the loss of his brother Frank in 1918, his brother Charles had mental health issues and his sister Lottie died in a psychiatric hospital.  One can speculate that these experiences had a significant effect on his personality, which was introverted and aloof, secretive, and given to occasional outbursts of anger.

West and Markwick have produced a devastating critique, and anybody who thinks psychical researchers are credulous should bear in mind that Soal’s exposure came from within the discipline.  Fortunately, those engaged in psychical research have learned from the Soal debacle and procedures are much tighter, generally conducted in controlled university settings.  The tragedy is that Soal spent a huge amount of time and effort (as did those with whom he worked either as collaborators or subjects), not to mention money, on psychical research, yet all the work with which he was associated has no value as we cannot rely on his honesty at any point; the authors conclude that with the partial exception of the Jones boys he could have fraudulently produced all the positive results, without the need of an accomplice.  Worse, he is used as a stick by sceptics to beat honest researchers, as they assume any positive results cannot be trusted.  West and Markwick’s study should stand as a warning to others tempted to cut corners that there is a good chance they will be found out.

The SPR’s Proceedings is free to members as part of their subscription, or can be obtained as part of a separate subscription to the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.  As well as the print version, members can download a digital copy.  Donald West has also produced an article on Soal for the SPR’s online Psi Encyclopedia.

Mr Briggs’ Hat, by Kate Colquhoun

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The full title of Kate Colquhoun’s 2011 non-fiction treatment of an 1864 murder is Mr Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder, but while the murder most certainly created a sensation in 1864, this is hardly a sensational account of it.  Instead Colquhoun has provided a detailed overview of the murder, the efforts to apprehend the murderer, and what happened when he was brought to justice, while shedding light on social aspects of the times.

Thomas Briggs was a 69-year old City of London bank clerk, and after work on Saturday 9 July 1864 he spent the evening with relatives.  Returning home to Hackney, at the Fenchurch Street terminus he got into a first-class compartment on the 9.45 North London Railway train to Chalk Farm.  When the train stopped at Hackney, two bank clerks (who by a strange coincidence worked for the same bank as Mr Briggs), entered the carriage and noticed fresh blood on the seat, window and door.  The ladies in the compartment behind had been spattered with spots of blood which had come in through the open window, but nobody had heard any commotion.

Of Mr Briggs himself there was no sign, apart from his bag, stick, and a squashed hat that it transpired did not belong to him.  Mr Briggs was found further back on the track, still alive but badly injured, and he died shortly afterwards without regaining consciousness.  His gold watch was found to be missing.  It was logical to assume that if the hat did not belong to Mr Briggs, the murderer must have left it behind.  It was the only clue, and it led to a prime suspect.

Considerable unease was generated by the murder, particularly as the victim was a member of a respectable class who was sitting in a first-class carriage in a train traversing the nation’s capital.  When crime rates, particularly violent crime, were falling, it was a blow to have such a brutal attack occur.  If such acts could occur, was nobody safe?  It was feared that until the perpetrator was brought to justice he might strike again.

Facing enormous public scrutiny, a police investigation was immediately begun.  The profession of detective was fairly new, and there was huge pressure to secure a conviction as there was widespread scepticism of the force’s abilities.  The hunt for the assailant, spearheaded by Inspector Richard Tanner, is described in loving detail, with the evidence trail leading to Franz Müller, a 23-year old German tailor residing in London.

Unfortunately for the detectives, by the time Müller was pinpointed as the chief suspect he was en route to the United States, then in the middle of its civil war.  The British police followed on a faster vessel and were able to meet Müller’s ship on arrival in New York.  After some legal wrangling over the extradition, Müller was returned to England to face trial.  He confounded expectation by being slight and inoffensive-looking, rather than the hulking brute of popular imagination.

Despite protesting his innocence he was found guilty at the Old Bailey and sentenced to death.  Appeals failed and he was hanged in front of Newgate Prison on 14 November; the entire business – murder, capture, trial and execution – had taken only four months.  This was one of the last public executions in Britain as they were abolished in 1868, and there is a vivid account of the enormous crowds building up to see the spectacle of Müller’s final moments.

In examining this murder, Colquhoun has shone a light on a period in which the railway was changing the face of Britain, leading to the expansion of the suburbs and the rise of commuting distances between home and work that would not have been feasible previously.  But while the railway represented freedom, it also hinted at despoliation, an ambivalence captured by Dickens in Dombey and Son and by George Eliot in Middlemarch.

This was the first murder on a British train, though there had been one earlier in France, and it generated calls for improved safety for travellers.  The box-like compartments were locked between stations with no means of signalling for assistance, putting the occupants at risk.  There were calls for safety measures to be introduced on trains, though they were slow to be implemented because of the expense.  The case of Colonel Valentine Baker in 1875, convicted of an indecent assault on a woman in a railway carriage, indicated that rail travel continued to be hazardous to some extent, though as is often the case, public anxiety was disproportionate to the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime.

There are hints in the book that Müller might not have been guilty, not least because he had injured a foot before the murder, but his innocence on this evidence seems unlikely.  The case does shine a light on the difficulties the jury had in reaching a clear verdict, however.  There were few constraints on the press’s freedom to report what they liked, threatening to muddy the investigation. Forensic analysis was rudimentary and circumstantial evidence unreliable, added to which the judge set a very low threshold for the jury to assess the probabilities.  The calibre of the witnesses and the nature of the evidence presented, though it pointed in no other direction, created some dissatisfaction in the public mind.

As was the custom at the time, Müller was not allowed to speak during his trial on the grounds that this prevented him from saying anything that might incriminate himself, but it greatly hampered his defence’s ability to convince the jury of his innocence.  He was supposed to have said on the scaffold that he did do it, but Colquhoun suggests that while he may have intended to rob Briggs, he may not have intended to kill him.  He was surprised that the old man had died, and he had not considered himself a murderer.  If so, a prison sentence rather than execution would have been appropriate.

Clearly the subtitle’s sensation reference nods to the sensation novels which were popular at the time, and for many it was as if such a novel had unsettlingly come to life.  It is slightly misleading in this instance and the reader may feel shortchanged at finding it is not a thrilling page-turner.  But for the Victorianist it is an illuminating tour through the British and American legal systems, the class system, and stereotypical attitudes to foreigners.  We also learn quite a bit about hats.  But precisely what really happened on that July night is still something of a mystery which, as Colquhoun concludes, will probably never be resolved.

Joyland, by Stephen King

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Stephen King’s 2013 Hard Case Crime original Joyland follows University of New Hampshire student Devin Jones’s eventful summer and autumn of 1973 working at a North Carolina amusement park, as told by the older Devin some decades in the future.  Joyland, run by a nonagenarian, has an old-fashioned carnie feel, but it is under threat from the likes of better-financed attractions like Disney and Knott’s Berry Farm.

Devin has just been dumped by his girlfriend Wendy and is suffering badly as he begins his vacation job at Joyland, retreating to The Doors for solace and harbouring occasional thoughts of self-destruction.  Life has lost its savour but he makes new friends, particularly fellow boarders Erin and Tom, and he enjoys the job of selling fun.

He had been told when visiting Joyland for an interview that one of the rides, the House of Horrors, was the scene of an unsolved murder, and is reputedly haunted by the victim’s ghost.  Intrigued, Devin wants to find out more about the case.  On a trip through the House of Horrors with Erin and Tom he does not see the ghost, but Tom does, indicating there is some truth to the haunting.

The other significant element is the introduction of a mother and child living in a beachfront property.  Walking to work each day Devin makes the acquaintance of Annie and her disabled son Mike, who sit out on the boardwalk with their dog.  The mother’s inability to fly a kite leads to them striking up an acquaintance, and eventually the family becomes important to him in ways he could not have imagined.

In all this Devin is a bit of a marvel.  He is good in company, a quick learner at the various tasks he performs at Joyland, is brilliant with kids and a genius in the ‘Howie the Happy Hound’ furry animal suit.  He saves two lives with his basic first aid, knows how to fly a kite without getting in a tangle, and identifies a murderer the police have apparently stopped bothering about (and works out that he is in fact a serial killer).  We should all be this mature at 21.

The story is very slow to get going – there is much on Devin’s sexless relationship with the ghastly Wendy, his interview at Joyland, meeting people who work there, conversations with his new landlady, bonding with his dad – before the job even starts.  The old unsolved murder is introduced in passing, thus in genre terms Joyland is not really a good fit for Hard Case Crime, and the lurid pulp cover certainly does not reflect the slow-paced story inside.

The cover shows redhead Erin holding a Speed Graphic camera.  The job of the green-clad ‘Hollywood Girls’ is to walk round the park snapping customers, who would buy prints.  One wonders how the operation worked.  It must have required a big photographic department developing and printing we never hear about.  Given the likely numbers of photographs sold compared to the costs of production, it hardly seems economic.  But the photographs are necessary for Dev to work out the murderer.

Still, the crime element is secondary to Devin’s emotional growth, and the story has that elegiac quality King does well, evoking the atmosphere of an independent amusement park as it is about to succumb to blander corporate forces.  As we grow older we experience a wistfulness when we think back to our twenties, a time we suffered rejection and began to determine our direction in life, though as the older Devin notes, later we discover we have been holding the map upside down.

Unsurprisingly for a King novel there is a paranormal element.  While Devin pinpoints the murderer, conveniently still working at Joyland, he has help from Erin who does some desk research, and young Mike, who has intermittent psychic abilities: not to the extent of being able to see who the killer is, but good enough to help save Devin’s life at the contrived climax; you just knew his mum being a crack shot with a rifle would come in useful at some point.  Joyland’s resident fortune teller has some psychic ability too, though she is not able to work out the murderer either.  But the crime aspect plays second fiddle to character development.  Hard-boiled this is not.

The Spectacle of Illusion, by Matthew J Tompkins

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Matthew Tompkins’ The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the Paranormal & the Complicity of the Mind (2019) has been published to coincide with the Wellcome exhibition Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic.  Like the Wellcome exhibition, the book looks at the connections between Spiritualism, psychical research, stage magic and science.  It is beautifully illustrated and a pleasure to look at, though the accompanying text, covering a lot of ground, leaves something to be desired in terms of depth.

Tompkins is psychologist with a particular interest in the psychology of illusions who previously worked as a magician, a similar trajectory to that of Richard Wiseman, whose attitudes to the paranormal he shares.  However, Wiseman was also for a while a Council member of the Society for Psychical Research and had a better grounding in psychical research and parapsychology than is displayed here, even though his interventions in the subject were often controversial.

The book focuses on the ambiguities of stage magicians and mediums who might use a similar range of techniques, but for different ends: the former for entertainment, or occasionally edification; the latter to suggest they are in communication with the beyond.  The core of both is deception, the difference being that in one the punter knows it is a trick and enjoys the deception, in the other the punter believes the presentation to be genuine and does not realise he or she is being deceived.

Magicians have a tradition of investigating sceptically those who profess paranormal abilities, most famously Harry Houdini and James Randi.  The sceptical mentalist Stuart Cumberland is a surprising omission in the book; Washington Irving Bishop, another muscle reader, is included, except half the space devoted to him concerns his possible autopsy while in a cataleptic trance, a gruesome, and oft-told possibility, but not particularly relevant.

Others assisted psychical researchers who wanted to find ways of precluding cheating in experiments, such as ‘Professor Hoffmann’ (Angelo Lewis) and S J Davey.  Tompkins acknowledges that their research helped to lay the groundwork for the establishment of psychology as an institution, but overall his stress is on the detection of fraud rather than experimental procedures employed within psychical research that were improved as a result of their contributions.

Thus we learn that Eleanor Sidgwick ‘reached out’ to Lewis for advice, but not that she was a significant and energetic researcher in her own right.  Her only other mention, a brief caption under her photograph, informs the reader incorrectly that she was the first president of the SPR, and was the wife of Henry Sidgwick (who was the first president).

Tompkins goes on to examine recent developments in the use of techniques derived from magic’s ability to misdirect (just as mediums misdirected, in their case for ulterior purposes) in order to explore issues in the psychology of perception and memory, demonstrating what illusions can tell us about our cognitive processes and how we make sense of the world.  The use of the word ‘complicity in the book’s subtitle is misleading because it implies a conscious agreement, whereas these effects rely on unconscious processes.

Overall The Spectacle of Illusion is superficial for the researcher, relying on popular sources Tompkins fails to interrogate adequately, but probably jumps about too much for the general reader.  Its major failing is that there is none of the sense the tough-but-open-minded psychical researcher, cognisant of the difference between explaining and explaining away, frequently has that a sceptical explanation of an historical event is too glib, and that it is impossible, on the available evidence, to reach a definitive conclusion about what occurred.

Reading the book is often like reading a Wikipedia page, in which everything is unambiguous and the sceptical solution straightforwardly correct.  A good example is Tompkins’ assumption, because sceptics maintain it, that efforts to replicate Daryl Bem’s presentiment research have met with ‘consistent failure’, which, whatever one thinks of the implications, simply is not true.  The impression is that Tompkins’ reading has been broad but not deep.

His assessment of the calibre of psychical researchers is not particularly high.  We read that D D Home, in experiments with Sir William Crookes, was able to play an accordion held by one hand in a cage without touching the keys.  Even if he had managed to touch the keys without Crookes noticing, it is still hard to believe he could play a recognisable tune one-handed without being spotted.  Tompkins assures us that ‘Many subsequent writers have proposed ways that Home might have accomplished his feats by natural means, including the use of translucent catgut thread…’, but without providing any details how these feats might have worked in practice.

Similarly, the idea Home might have mimicked the sound of the accordion with a harmonica hidden under his mustache, and managed to fool Crookes, stretches credulity.  The argument goes that Crookes, not having been trained in techniques of deception, being more used to dealing with inanimate matter (and perhaps assuming no test subject would have the temerity to try to fool him) could not tell that the accordion sound was actually Home – close by – wielding lengths of catgut or playing a tiny harmonica hidden in his facial hair.

The easy assumptions of fraud are predicated on an equal assumption that experienced researchers are fools who would have failed to consider the explanations opponents make from the comfort of their armchairs, or else are far-fetched and rely on the position that if an effect could have been achieved by fraud then we can assume it was, even if it seems preposterous to anyone without an axe to grind.  Home may well have fooled Crookes, but critics have to do better than this.


An example of Tompkins’ lack of familiarity with psychical research is to be found in an article he wrote in 2016 for BBC Future about an experiment veteran SPR researcher Tony Cornell conducted in a Cambridge cinema, in which he paraded past the screen dressed as a ‘ghost’.  In his article, Tompkins discusses Tony’s experiment, as reported in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, and congratulates himself that:

‘However, by the time I finished, I had come to the delightfully absurd realisation that his designs had (inadvertently) anticipated developments in cognitive psychology by nearly half a century.’

A happy realisation, though far from absurd, but he was certainly not the first to come to it.  He uses the famous Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’s classic ‘gorilla in our midst’ video (shown in the Smoke and Mirrors exhibition and referred to in passing in the book) to describe an example of inattentional blindness, and notes that Tony’s experiment exemplified this phenomenon.

However, at the 2010 SPR conference Bernard Carr gave a talk about Tony Cornell’s life, Tony having died earlier that year, during which Carr referred to the cinema experiment.  The following day, Chris French gave a talk during which he discussed inattentional blindness, using the ‘gorilla in our midst’ video.

During the discussion, Carmen Dell’Aversano noted the link with Tony’s experiment, and added that Tony was well ahead of his time (I included this point as a postscript to my examination of what was playing at the Rex cinema that night).  Tompkins believes he has had a novel insight, but Dell’Aversano was a few years ahead of him.  This is perhaps a trivial example, but it still highlights the issue that non-psychical researchers discussing psychical research can be quick to assume they have had a new idea without realising someone has been there before them.

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