Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas, by Jules Verne

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Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin), by Jules Verne, is an 1870 novel told from the perspective of a naturalist, Prof. Pierre Aronnax.  In 1866, there are repeated maritime sightings of a something that is either a creature new to science or a powerful vessel of unknown origin.  The United States government sends a ship, the Abraham Lincoln, to track it down, and Aronnax, who happens to be in the US, is invited along on account of his expertise in marine biology.  The entity is attacked but the Abraham Lincoln’s rudder is damaged and Aronnax and French Canadian harpoonist Ned Land are pitched into the sea, Aronnax’s faithful manservant Conseil jumping in to save his master.

After many hours in the water the three are picked up by the mystery vessel and find they are on an advanced submarine, the Nautilus.  It is owned and commanded by Captain Nemo, who offers allegiance to no flag other than his own.  They are essentially prisoners, though given the courtesy of being designated guests.  Aronnax is impressed by the opportunity to investigate the depths but the trio, and particularly freedom-loving Ned, are less enamoured of Nemo’s condition that now they are on board he will never allow them to leave.  Thus they embark on a journey of circumnavigation which will take them 20,000 leagues under, and on, the seas and oceans.

If that sounds an exciting premis, the execution is only sporadically so, as much of the long narrative is taken up by Aronnax’s observations of the natural world, allowing Verne to show off his research but not providing much action.  Fortunately for science the bodies of water the Nautilus travels through are clearer than one might expect from personal experience, and Aronnax and company (for a lacky, Conseil is a surprisingly expert taxonomist) are able to witness many marvels of the deep by means of the submarine’s illumination and extra-vehicular excursions.  A keystone of the book is wonder at the alien world beneath the waves, so vast yet so little understood.

While the result is occasionally ponderous, there are some set-pieces to keep the pages turning, such as cannibals and a fight with a gigantic cephalopod, but this is as much a survey of the seven seas as it is a ripping yarn.  It is noteworthy how far the 1954 film diverges from the book in injecting drama, notably giving Nemo an island base which would have been abhorrent to Verne’s Nemo, who had forsworn contact with land and only uses what the seas can provide in his exile.

Despite the Nautilus being far in advance of anything available in the 1860s, Verne extrapolated from current technology and made his creation scientifically plausible as far as he was able, taking few liberties with what he thought might be achieved at some point.  Despite his efforts there are elements that seem creaky to the modern reader: he has not figured out a system for replenishing oxygen other than by surfacing and opening the hatch, and the way the waste products from the generation of electricity for the propulsion system are dealt with is a little vague.  A surprising visit to Atlantis seems to have been taken from a different kind of book.  His prediction of a sea passage to the South Pole was inaccurate and many other details are wrong, such as the length of time a pearl diver can remain submerged.  His belief that one can tell it is raining when in a diving suit underwater is peculiar.

The information about the natural world interweaves with the action sequences, and the gradual unfolding of the portrait of Captain Nemo.  He is a complex creation, a maverick more in tune with nature than with humanity (to the extent of eventually becoming a mass murderer) despite possessing advanced technology that could only exist through human ingenuity and the social accumulation of knowledge.  He is counterposed with Ned, the bloodthirsty hunter who would happily exterminate a species: the two are rationality versus instinct.  The ecologically progressive Nemo values the biodiversity of the oceans, which he exploits in a sustainable manner.  He has a particular animus against the whaling fleets pursuing their prey to extinction, and he also assists a pod of peaceable whales when they are about to be attacked by a group of orcas; for all his admiration of the submarine world’s natural order, he is willing to intervene in a way that accords with human values.

Aronnax by contrast is a conventional bourgeois figure, and it becomes apparent Nemo feels some contempt for him, judging by the number of times Aronnax records Nemo walking into the room where Aronnax is and apparently not noticing him.  Despite Aronnax’s stolidity, Conseil has a touching relationship with him; he is willing to risk his life for his master without thinking, leaping into the sea before they end up on the Nautilus, and when they are running out of oxygen wishing he could sacrifice himself so Aronnax might live.  They seem to hold hands quite a bit at times of crisis.

The novel’s major problem is pacing, the slowness and episodic nature of the action, whether the protagonists are in danger or are merely exploring the undersea kingdom.  We get a travelogue as the Nautilus visits diverse locations, but it all feels purposeless, and had the voyage not concluded when it did one could imagine Nemo literally going round in circles.  And the ending is frankly terrible.  Aronnax, Conseil and Ned escape in a dinghy while the Nautilus is in the Maelstrom off Norway and it looks bleak for them as they are being swept to oblivion.  Aronnax hits his head and is rendered unconscious: end of chapter.  Regaining consciousness in a fisherman’s hut with Conseil and Ned squeezing his hands, he says he does not know how he got there – but he could always have asked Conseil and Ned and then let his readers know.  It is as if Verne had run out of patience or time, and stuck on the hasty ending.  It is an abrupt conclusion after travelling almost 400 pages in the company of Aronnax’s dull narrator.

The Oxford World’s Classics edition (1998) is well edited by William Butcher, but is missing the original line illustrations gracing publisher Jules Hetzel’s original publication.  These can be found in the 1981 Castle Books Jules Verne: Classic Science Fiction, a volume containing also From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon, though the uncredited translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues is inferior to Butcher’s.

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Inspector West Alone, by John Creasey

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John Creasey (1908-73) was a hugely prolific novelist best known for his Toff, Baron and Gideon of the Yard series, though he is much less read now than he was during his lifetime.  In fact I was mainly drawn to Inspector West Alone (1950) by the attractive cover on this 1957 Hodder and Stoughton reprint.

Ninth in a lengthy series running from 1942 to 1978, it begins with Chief Inspector Roger West of Scotland Yard lured to an isolated country cottage in Surrey after having received a message supposedly from his wife saying she has gone to visit a cousin and asking him to join her.  When he arrives late at night he soon realises something is wrong, and after breaking in he finds a dying girl, battered beyond recognition.

He is knocked unconscious by someone in the room, and he wakes up to find the police have arrived and his possessions have been switched with someone else’s.  Naturally the police assume he is the murderer, but as he is being driven away the car is held up and he is abducted by criminals and taken to a sanatorium.

It soon becomes clear that by being framed it is intended he become a cog in an extensive criminal network.  After a period when his willpower is attacked to overcome his defences he is given plastic surgery to completely alter his face, and is blackmailed into working for Kennedy, the mastermind behind the organisation.

Compliance is obtained by means of the promise of wealth on the one hand, and on the other, threats to expose West for the murder and bring harm to his wife and children.  The downside is that he must leave his old life behind completely.  Kennedy soon shows he can be ruthless in removing permanently those who oppose him, and West is in no doubt he will carry out his threats if he feels West might pose a danger to him.

The reason for the elaborate plan is to have unfettered access to West’s extensive knowledge of the Metropolitan Police, which will be useful in helping to extend the gang’s influence.  To that end he is soon being used to help plot criminal activities and identify further individuals who can be corrupted.

West, or rather Rayner as he is now known, is forced to cooperate, monitored constantly until his loyalty can be established beyond doubt.  West pretends to go along with Kennedy’s scheme while trying to work out how to extricate himself and bring Kennedy to justice without harm coming to himself or his family.

As a crime story it is a page-turner and is well plotted, but psychologically it is absolute tosh.  Why on earth would Kennedy go to such lengths to secure the services of a previously upright Scotland Yard detective when he could find malleable individuals to blackmail, a method he had used previously with great success and hoped to do with other members of the Yard?  There are so many ways the intricate, and no doubt expensive, plan could go wrong for what was not that great a pay-off given the scale of Kennedy’s overall business empire and his ability to coerce others for his own ends.

Now West has to go through the rest of the series with a different face.  His nickname had been, rather oddly, ‘Handsome’, and although nobody says the new face is any less attractive than the old one, it might be tactless to refer to him with that soubriquet in future.  The novel ends, of course, with the Chief Inspector restored to the bosom of his family, feeling that everything will be fine but before the point at which his young children see him, necessitating an awkward conversation.

Fortunately nobody seems too bothered with the illegal activities in which he was involved as Rayner, notably organising a plot to spring a high-profile remand prisoner from Brixton prison, enabling him to flee abroad, and facilitating the corruption of a detective sergeant, albeit one with an already dubious reputation.  Put all the implausibilities to one side and it is an enjoyable yarn for a wet afternoon.

On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers, by Kate Marsden

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Kate Marsden (1859–1931) must have been persuasive as she was very good at involving royalty, British and Russian, as well as Russian officials at all levels, in her ambitious scheme to travel to Siberia to assist lepers directly by establishing a settlement, and by locating a herb rumoured to have properties beneficial in treating the disease.  She had first encountered the dreadful disease, for which then there was no cure (the mystery herb notwithstanding), while working as a nurse in Bulgaria during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

In pursuit of her goal she arrived in Russia in November 1890, and set off for Siberia with letters of introduction from the Tsarina in February 1891.  She covered some 11,000 miles, much of it through inhospitable terrain and often at very real risk of serious mishap.  This was pre-Trans-Siberian railway, before the region began to be opened up, so she employed a variety of transport, including train and boat where possible, as well as the titular sledge and horse.

A map in her book traces her route: she travelled to Irkutsk, close to Lake Baikal, then along the River Lena on a grain barge to Yakutsk, and on to Vilyuysk (where, in the village of Sosnovka, a statue to Marsden was raised in 2014 to commemorate her epic journey and humanitarian mission).  Although her focus is the effort to help the lepers, a sense of the vastness and remoteness of Siberia comes through strongly, and Marsden provides a vivid portrait of this region of the Russian empire.

The trip took nearly a year.  She was accompanied part of the way by Miss Field, who acted as interpreter, but curiously Marsden neglected to learn Russian, so when Field was obliged by ill health to leave Marsden at Omsk and return to England, Marsden had to manage as best she could.  Despite her linguistic deficiencies, throughout the account Marsden shows herself keen to build bridges between Britain and Russia, seeing them both as great powers.  She also foregrounds her Christian faith, and is ecumenical in discussing the merits of both her Protestantism and Russian Orthodoxy.

She was not always in the best of health, and she endured privations and discomfort, including bitter cold, mosquitoes, and an abscess from riding a horse (which she rode astride rather than sidesaddle).  She was often exhausted, and what accommodation she could find along the way generally left something to be desired.  As if that was not enough there was often the danger of running into wolves and bears.

What she witnessed on her journey was appalling.  The lepers were outcast because of fear of contagion and pushed onto marginal land where, overcrowded and poorly clad, in unsanitary conditions, they subsisted on donated food and what fish they could catch.  Children born to them were obliged to remain with them in degrading conditions in case they contaminated the rest of the population.  Essentially the infected were waiting to die, when they would be buried by those in their community who still had the strength.  Because life as an outcast was so hard, some lepers hid in the healthy population, increasing the risk of spreading the disease.   If there was a herb with healing properties, there was no sign of its application here.

Community diagnosis may have led to the banishment of non-lepers: Marsden notes the similarity of symptoms of leprosy and syphilis, and although diagnosis was generally accurate, she did find one woman suffering from syphilis rather than leprosy, an error with unfortunate consequences for the individual.  Altogether the way lepers were dealt with was ad-hoc and unsatisfactory.  On the other hand, Marsden made a side-trip to Riga where she saw a model community she described as ‘charming’, not a word much used in connection with leprosy.  The progressive way the lepers were treated was in stark contrast to Russian conditions.

As well as her interest in the lepers, wherever possible she made a point of visiting prisons to provide comfort to the inmates, whose conditions of confinement were harsh.  This took the form of provisions and religious tracts, the latter of which she distributed a large number.  The prisoners declared themselves grateful, but in reality probably more for the provisions than the tracts, particularly as many of them were political.

After her strenuous journey she arrived back in England, and her book was published in 1893 (the 2012 Cambridge University Press reprint incorrectly states 1891 in the colophon).  Despite her achievement, Marsden does not seem to have had a happy life subsequently, being dogged by accusations of lesbianism and financial mismanagement.  However, the Royal Geographical Society elected her a fellow in recognition of her achievement.

Was the herb merely a ruse to justify the trip?  It was not essential to go to such remote regions to find leper colonies, and her attentions focused on just a few dozen unfortunates.  One gets the sense Marsden was a social climber, emphasising her links to aristocratic patrons, and the trip helped to raise her profile among the higher echelons of society; but for a single woman making her way in a hard world it is understandable she would want to make the most of her connections.

Whatever one thinks of the project, Marsden did a valuable service in highlighting the terrible conditions under which lepers were forced to live in Russia.  She made a definite impact, as the Sosnovka statue attests, raising awareness and funds both in Russia and more widely, and encouraging nuns to make the journey east to nurse the lepers.  And at a time of Great Power rivalry, the connections she made between Britain and Russia helped to bring people together; a lesson for us all.

Audition, by Ryu Murakami

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Aoyama’s wife Ryoko has been dead seven years, leaving him alone with their son Shige.  In his view they had had a happy marriage, though he had not always been faithful to her.  Since her death he has built a successful documentary video company in Tokyo, but has remained single, living with Shige, with whom he has a good relationship, and their beagle Gangsta.  Fifteen-year old Shige suggests he start dating again but he is not sure how to begin.

His friend Yoshikawa has the idea to cook up a fiction film proposal based on one of Aoyama’s documentaries and use it as a pretext to hold fake auditions.  These would enable him to interview a selection of women and learn about them to see who fits his criteria, as he is looking for someone who is cultured as well as physically eye-catching.  Aoyama and Yoshikawa put the plan into operation and receive large volumes of applications, but as soon as he reads her CV Aoyama is drawn to Yamasaki Asama, and immediately she enters the room he is smitten.

He arranges to meet her again, and he falls deeply in love with her.  She tells him about her abusive childhood and he marvels at the way she has overcome her difficult background.  He fantasises about their future life together, taking her consent for granted.  She is beautiful, elegant and demure, with a melodious voice, and had been a ballet dancer until forced to stop by a hip injury.  Aoyama feels she is a perfect candidate for his second wife, despite her being, at only 24, nearly half his age.

He starts to woo her slowly, taking her to interesting restaurants, until he feels he can declare his love for her.  Unfortunately there are soon hints that Miss Yamasaki is not all she seems, signals to which Aoyama remains oblivious.  Yoshikawa has an uneasy feeling from the start that there is something not right about her and does some digging.  He points out that there is nobody who can directly vouch for her.  She mentions having had a previous mentor but Yoshikawa establishes he is dead, of a heart attack, and disturbingly he died as somebody tried to cut off his feet.  Aoyama doesn’t care, but the reader begins to feel that Yoshikawa is justified in his reservations.

Then while out with Asama in a restaurant Aoyama sees a young man in a wheelchair enter who, when he spots her, becomes agitated.  But Asama always has a convincing reason to rebut any reservations, and Aoyama feels Yoshikawa is being unfair to her.  The owner of a restaurant they go to, who had been a geisha and has wide knowledge of people, has concerns as well, suspecting Asama is either an angel or a devil, but nothing in between.

The reader shares their disquiet and frets for Aoyama, while possibly disapproving of his unethically voyeuristic way of meeting women under false pretences that had wasted a lot of their time, and the shallowness of becoming attracted to someone based on appearance (which it turns out is indeed deceptive in this case) and a self-reported history which may not be true.  When their relationship has progressed to the point that he takes her away for a couple of days, it becomes apparent she is indeed strange.

They make love, described in luridly unsettling terms, but when Aoyama wakes up the next day he finds he has been drugged and she is gone, taking her belongings and leaving only a note which says ‘No forgiveness for lies’.  Even then his self-deception is so deep he believes that there has been a misunderstanding, despite her bizarre behaviour, and he rationalises her drugging him.  Despite searching for her, he is unable to locate her to clear things up.

Yoshikawa suggests he put it behind him and move on, but Aoyama cannot.  He loses weight and becomes depressed, submerging himself in classical music, but later, when he is alone, Asama turns up at his home unexpectedly and he sees the real her.  It turns out that Yoshikawa was right to feel a sense of unease because she harbours deep trauma from childhood that manifests in pathological behaviour towards men who disappoint her.

Ryu Murakami’s novella plays on the fear that a prospective date may not be the smooth and charming person they appear on the surface.  One expects face and manner to be an index of personality, but there is no reason why they should, and the mismatch between Asama’s beauty and her psychopathic actions is disturbing.  Even when she is mutilating Gangsta and terrorising Aoyama, her face does not change; it is the same beauty with which he fell in love.

Also disturbing is Aoyama’s assumption that Asama would want to settle down as wife and stepmother, so absorbed in his own wants that he believes he is as attractive to her as she is to him.  When a woman acts demurely and flatters a man, is she really being submissive or is she, when relationships are asymmetric, playing a part to give him what he wants to believe?  Murakami interrogates a key aspect of Japanese femininity and makes a point that many men who consider subservient women appealing might find unsettling.

Unfortunately for him, Aoyama has mistakenly read into Asama those very characteristics which constitute his ideal, and she destroys it in front of his eyes.  Apart from speculating (at Shige’s suggestion rather than it being his own insight) that she might believe he has more money than he in fact has, it never occurs to him to wonder what Asama might see in him, and why she would want to be with him.

Murakami’s style is pared down, and Takashi Miike’s film version particularly improves on the climax.  In fact readers coming to the book after having seen the film will be surprised at how compressed the former is, how close to the end the body horror occurs, and how abruptly the story terminates (and how gruesomely comedic is the idea of poking a freshly-severed stump into an assailant’s eye).  This is an example of an adaptation being better than the original.

Though the book perhaps suffers from the reader’s assumption that the gore is going to be more extensive than it is, it works best as a character study of what can happen when naive middle-aged longing is adrift from common sense and someone unsuitable is its object of desire.  After Asama disappears from the hotel, Aoyama ponders that all his memories of her are ‘ambrosial and poisonous, in equal measure,’ not that any alarm bells start ringing as a consequence.  However, these qualities are not equivalent: the poisonous ones are certainly that, but the ambrosial ones are those in which she reflects back his own ego, before he realises his attraction has no foundation in reality.

The Mesmerist, by Wendy Moore

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Wendy Moore’s 2017 book on the rise and fall of mesmerism in nineteenth-century medicine focuses on John Elliotson (1791-1868) who was, in the words of the subtitle, ‘the society doctor who held Victorian London spellbound’; spellbound in more ways than one.  He came from a modest social background in Southwark, south London, and through intelligence and formidable industry achieved a high profile as both a doctor, building up a lucrative private practice, and lecturer at University College Hospital.  Medical appointments were largely based on nepotism and patronage, and he had to work hard to advance his career.

As the son of a pharmacist he had seen first-hand the intersection of illness and poverty, and with his enquiring mind was keen to examine ways to improve the state of medicine.  He pursued the uses of quinine and iodine, pioneered the stethoscope, and determined the cause of hay fever (pollen rather than hay).  Less usefully he became convinced of the validity of phrenology.  Thomas Wakley, founder of the Lancet and a campaigning journalist who sought to sweep away the pseudoscientific underpinnings of medicine and put it on a rational footing, was impressed by his campaigning efforts, and gave Elliotson a platform to promote his views.

Elliotson combined ambition with a social conscience, but unfortunately he possessed a rigid temperament which took disagreement badly, as was seen when he became obsessed by mesmerism.  Having witnessed demonstrations by Baron Dupotet in 1837, Elliotson, always ready to investigate methods to make treatments less traumatic for patients, decided to try it himself.  Mesmerism was introduced at a time when medicine was still under the influence of earlier authorities.  In fact, in some ways treatment was positively mediaeval, with doctors resorting to leeches and toxic substances.

Hygiene standards were poor and, lacking anesthesia, surgery was a painful, dirty business with a high mortality rate, at a time when a surgeon’s reputation rested on how quickly he could amputate a limb while the patient writhed in agony.  The medical establishment was conservative and reluctant to move away from established practices, even when worse than the ailment they were supposed to treat.  Mesmerism offered to take the distress out of the process, and Elliotson became its enthusiastic champion, working tirelessly to promote its application.

Elizabeth Okey was his most celebrated patient at UCH, later joined by her sister Jane.  Moore stresses that the name was Okey, and the family English, rather than O’Key, the way it was usually spelled, a form hinting at anti-Irish bigotry.  Elizabeth was admitted suffering from fits, and Elliotson found mesmerism could calm these, but it had a marked effect on her behaviour generally.  Physically attractive, she was normally demure, adhering to female norms, but when mesmerised became outgoing and acted in ways contrary to those expected of women, being in particular familiar with the men.  Elliotson concentrated much of his mesmeric investigations in exploring the sisters’ aptitude for entrancement.

In that state Elizabeth was able to lift weights considered too heavy for a woman (though perhaps men underestimated what women could manage), and was subjected to painful stimuli to which she apparently remained oblivious.  As the experiments continued with the Okeys as the stars, they began to assert themselves.  They made clairvoyant diagnoses and Elizabeth enlisted the help of a negro ‘spirit guide’, and even predicted when patients would die.  They effectively subverted the doctor-patient relationship, taking the doctor’s controlling role rather than the patient’s passive one.

The sisters were in much better circumstances in the hospital than they would have been at home, so it was in their interests to play up to Elliotson’s expectations.  Unfortunately for him, the more florid manifestations attracted opposition from the medical establishment, especially the unscientific post-hoc explanations Elliotson brought to bear to rationsalise seemingly contradictory aspects of the Okeys’ performances, which to his enemies merely demonstrated his credulity.

In this way mesmerism had a divisive effect on the medical establishment, with accusations of quackery pitted against its medical efficacy.  For Elliotson’s opponents it was easier to claim patients were faking lack of sensitivity to pain, than mesmerism worked.  Once they had administered more rigorous tests in Ellliotson’s absence in order to discredit him, many of the effects he had demonstrated – transferring the mesmeric influence to objects or water, for example – were found not to exist.

Elliotson refused to curtail the more flamboyant phenomena with which mesmerism had become associated and had so badly damaged the hospital’s reputation.  His demonstrations were as much entertainment as edification, but he refused to consider the notion the Okeys were acting a part.  Elliotson’s downfall was his insistence on the supposed ‘higher phenomena’ of mesmerism, causing more sober colleagues to dismiss the entire phenomenon as nonsense.

In 1838 Elliotson resigned from UCH, after the hospital management became impatient with the way his mesmeric activities were disrupting hospital routine and creating a negative perception in the medical press, Wakley having thrown the Lancet against the use of mesmerism.  However, despite what seemed like a definitively negative verdict by the medical establishment, the practice continued to flourish at a local level as a procedure that was safer, not possessing the often fatal side-effects (albeit it was slower), than ether and chloroform.

Elliotson too continued his mesmeric activities.  He founded a magazine, the Zoist, devoted to mesmerism and phrenology, which flourished for thirteen years until Elliotson ceased publication on the grounds he had achieved his purpose.  He was a driving force behind the London Mesmeric Infirmary (LMI), established close to UCH.  However, the LMI did not long outlast Elliotson, closing the year after he died.

The Mesmerist is about more than mesmerism, as Moore sheds sidelights on the nineteenth century’s approach to healing the sick, in particular the growth of institutions such as UCH, and of professional bodies, in gradually driving up standards.  Magazines such as the Lancet and the London Medical Gazette were opening up debate on medical issues both for the profession and the public.

In this context Elliotson was not a gullible dupe, because he was keen to investigate potential advances, about which he kept an open mind.  Mesmerism was one more possibility as a method that could assist the profession.  The establishment was not so open-minded: there was a concern that mesmerism was continental and thus un-British, with the sinister implication of being able to bend another’s will to one’s own.  There was even a school of thought that argued suffering was necessary for the recovery process, so surgery should be carried out without recourse to anaesthesia.

On a positive note, contrary to the general conception of Elliotson being ruined by his often unwisely enthusiastic promotion of mesmerism, Moore shows he was largely rehabilitated and resumed his practice.  His previous obsession was seen by many in an affectionate light as he became an elder statesman in the medical world, mesmerism set in the context of his various achievements.

He cultivated literary contacts, in particular being a close friend of Charles Dickens, and through the interest taken by writers, mesmerism became entrenched in popular culture.  Sadly, Elliotson’s later years were clouded by mental decline and financial mismanagement.  Most surprisingly for someone who had espoused materialist views previously, he became a Spiritualist after a meeting with D D Home at Dieppe in 1863.  Moore sees mesmerism as a vogue superseded by Spiritualism after 1848, and many individuals were adherents of both.

In her conclusions, Moore assesses the value of mesmerism.  Noting that the LMI had a success rate of just over one in three, and even more patients experienced some relief, she lists possible factors, such as the placebo effect; the amount of attention given by the physician; the distinct possibility of misdiagnosis, the illness not being as severe as specified and going into remission or resolving naturally over time; and not least substituting mesmerism for harsh and often toxic remedies.

One must though have some sympathy with mesmerism’s opponents.  Without rigorous protocols to control the variables it would have been difficult to assess its worth.  Waving your hands about in front of a patient would easily have looked like a pseudoscientific approach.  Even today debate rages about the benefits, if any, of alternative remedies.  It would have been even harder in the 1830s to sort out useful from useless, especially when couched in terms of invisible fluids.

Moore has drawn on a wide range of sources, producing a clear account of a complicated business which avoids undue technicalities and brings the personalities to life.  She is very good on the politics, as the medical establishment struggled to delineate the boundaries of orthodoxy and determine what was genuinely therapeutic and what was quackery.

Of the characters in Moore’s book, Wakley (pugilist, surgeon, founder of the Lancet, campaigning journalist, MP, coroner) is one who definitely deserves his own biography.  He fell out with Elliotson over mesmerism, and they became bitter adversaries.  It is a shame they were never reconciled as they both, in their various ways, did so much to try to improve the health and wellbeing of ordinary people.

One Lonely Night, by Mickey Spillane

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Mickey Spillane’s 1951 novel has a bravura opening with Mike Hammer smarting from a judge’s unflattering assessment of his personality.  He had killed in self defence but the judge considered he had crossed a line and, although Hammer might be technically innocent of murder, saw him for what he was.  Seething, Hammer walks to the state line on a damp foggy night to get it out of his system.

Crossing a bridge he suddenly meets a terrified woman, and following her is a man with a gun.  Hammer disposes of the man with his .45, but the woman, believing Hammer to be a threat as well, jumps into the river.  From this unsettling incident, and finding some oddly-shaped green-coloured cards (as opposed to green cards) that turn out to denote membership of the Communist Party, the plot spirals in increasing complexity.  Then Hammer’s enquiries intersect with a rare type of politician who is out to do good and attempts by his enemies to smear him prior to an election.

Much of the plot is taken up with rants about communism and its negative effect on American politics, featuring the penetration of Moscow agents into everyday American life.  This was at the height of the McCarthy HUAC investigations and Spillane plays on fears of infiltration by the alien ideology.  Not all communists are irredeemable – one socialite who had been seduced into working for the cause sees the errors of her ways – but its influence is a corrupting cancer that must be excised.  The politics on display are reactionary and unsubtle: communists without exception are Moscow stooges, and Hammer is the ultimate individualist, saving the body politic from itself.

For someone who sees himself as an outsider, refusing to participate in politics and professing not to care, Hammer is as patriotic as they come.  He considers himself to be similar to the bad guys in his propensity to kill, but deems himself justified because he is on the side of good.  Fortunately the commies are not very bright (obviously they can’t be or they wouldn’t be commies, would they) though they have some success in evading the attentions of the FBI.  Even so, the thought of Hammer walking into the Communist Party’s secret headquarters and everyone assuming he is an MVD operative simply because he produces the correct piece of green card is hard to swallow.

Bloodlust: the feature marking out Hammer from his fellow men.  He has a taste for killing picked up fighting the Japanese in the Pacific and is strident about it to the point of hysteria, with a psychopathic enjoyment of meting out death in tension with his righteous attitude to defending the American Way.  This is expressed not least in fantasies of violence, such as lining up the occupants of the Kremlin and gunning them down.  His jungle experience comes in useful when he goes up against a different enemy in New York and disposes of a communist cell single-handed with lethal force.  Eventually he has to concede that the judge had a point in his criticisms of Hammer’s dark side, however much Hammer tries to rationalise his actions in terms of good versus evil.

Spillane’s characterisation is thin, but the narrative drive is intense.  The plot is satisfyingly complicated, though when there are twins in a story it is a fair bet there will be some confusion of identity, and so it proves.  The politics will make liberals squirm, as will Hammer’s conviction that doing society’s dirty work vindicates his actions.  One wonders to what extent Spillane believed all this, and to what extent he might have been cynically pandering to the fears and desires of his readership to increase sales.  Hammer was an unpleasant character perfectly suited to unpleasant times.

The Paris Enigma, by Pablo De Santis

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Pablo De Santis’s The Paris Enigma was originally published in Spanish in 2007 and in an English translation the following year.   The story is told from the viewpoint of Sigmundo Salvatrio, the son of a cobbler and shoe repairer living in Buenos Aires.  Also in the city is Renato Craig, founder of the Twelve Detectives.  This is an informal international brotherhood of the most charismatic, famous and successful private detectives.  Each detective has his own assistant  (or ‘acolyte’ as they are termed), who acts as the master’s shadow, apart from Craig that is, who has always worked alone.  Assistants remain subordinate, and do not themselves become detectives.  Their task is to act as a foil to assist the detective’s cogitation and reflect his brilliance, and maintain a record of the cases for public consumption.

Now, in February 1888, Craig organises an Academy for Detectives to attract young people interested in the art of detection so he can share his knowledge, to which Sigmundo applies.  He is accepted, and he and his fellow students suspects Craig has changed his mind about the need for an assistant and is looking for someone to fill the role.  Sigmundo is perhaps not the most talented of the group, but he is enthusiastic.  Unfortunately the Academy and Craig’s career take a dive when the star pupil disappears on an investigation.  Under pressure to solve the case, Craig has a good idea who the perpetrator is and eventually forces a confession and locates the murdered student’s body, but in a way totally at odds with the expected norms of detection: brute force rather than cerebration.  Calling it his last case, Craig becomes reclusive.

In 1889, the Paris World Fair is taking place, with the grand opening of the Eiffel Tower.  The Twelve Detectives have agreed to use the Paris fair as an opportunity to gather, finally meet each other, showcase their methods to the public, and debate their varying approaches to detection.  Unfortunately the Association is riven by internal feuds and jealousies, promising to  make the gathering a difficult one to manage.  All the other students bar Sigmundo have deserted Craig so Craig decides to send him to the meeting as his representative, though there are strict rules that assistants are not permitted to speak, the right belonging only to the detectives.  Craig tasks Sigmundo with carrying a message for Viktor Arzaky, co-founder of the Twelve, and an artefact for the exhibition.

Then, Louis Darbon, one of the Twelve Detectives and one of the two resident in Paris, is found dead at the base of the Eiffel Tower, and there is a case at hand for the other members to solve.   Arzaky, the other Paris-based detective, though Polish by birth, is without an assistant so Sigmundo steps in on a temporary basis but soon finds that, contrary to the code of the organisation, he is exceeding the acceptable boundaries for assistants, and withholding information from Arzaky and the rest of the detectives, as he delves into the fin-de-siècle Parisian demi-monde, with its flourishing occult scene: the antithesis of fact-based detection.

In a satisfyingly metatextual manner, the novel affectionately deconstructs the conventions of the detective story, particularly the presence of the sidekick who acts as the rather prosaic foil to the brilliant detective (one of the Twelve has a female assistant he has to keep secret because assistants are male).  The detectives debate the philosophy of their business, often illustrated by anecdotes detailing past cases, but it is clear that they are not always as brilliant as their legends might suggest, and Sigmundo realises there could be a distinct gap between the reality of an investigation and the way it is written up for public consumption in the periodical The Key to Crime.  The Twelve may opine loftily about induction and deduction, but the reality is much messier and contingent.

Thus in an era in which the Exposition represents modernity, the individual consulting detective begins to look dated.  For them the essential metaphor for the process of detection is the locked room mystery, representing the ultimate puzzle.  Except such a plot is obviously a game between a writer and a reader, and not something most real-life detectives worry much about.  The locked room represents a rational approach to crime, and crime is usually anything but rational; one of the detectives laments that for their methods to work, criminals need to be predictable, but disobligingly they insist on being ‘unruly’.  The Paris murders hinge on a detective’s desire not to be associated with a crime of passion, ‘the worst of all crimes’ – worst because the most impulsive and least cerebral of criminal acts.  The consulting detective, able to solve a mystery while the police huff about, is soon to be replaced by the greater resources and professionalism of the official forces of law and order.  Amusingly a police detective in The Paris Enigma apes The Twelve by having his own acolyte, but the future is his.

While De Santis has produced a novel about detection, the reader assuming The Paris Enigma is going to be a straightforward detective story will find it heavy going.  In terms of content it shares similar territory with Claude Izner’s Murder on the Eiffel Tower, but stylistically it is much richer.  Even so, anyone who begins to suspect the Parisian deaths (because in the grand traditions of the formula there is more than one) will teasingly go unsolved can rest easy: for all its nods to deconstruction there is a satisfying denouement, with Sigmundo proving he is far more than merely an acolyte.  Even as a successful detective back in Buenos Aires, though, he finds that his clients compare him unfavourably with Craig.  When legend and fact conflict, people often prefer the legend.

 

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