Moby Map

I love the Internet. I really do. People are out there doing imaginative things, and coming up with wonderful stuff like Moby Map, an interactive map based on Moby Dick, which “compiles over 350 geographic locations from the novel (with a few mysteries still unsolved!) into an interactive flash based Google map of the world. Also included is the plotted course of the Pequod, accompanied by descriptions from throughout the novel and icons showing historic whaling grounds.” Brilliant.

Hat-tip to Power Moby Dick.

Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction

Crime stories and fictional detectives are often identified by their locations: Morse and Oxford; Holmes and London; Rebus and Edinburgh; Marlowe and Los Angeles; Warshawski and Chicago. So the idea of a book exploring the cities and wider locations used in crime fiction is an interesting one. The editor of Following the Detectives, a book which does just that, is Maxim Jakubowski, a well known anthologist, editor, crime fiction aficionado, and former owner of the late lamented Murder One book shop on Charing Cross Road in London. The book’s 11 contributors, besides Jakubowski himself, include many well known names in contemporary crime fiction and crime fiction criticism, such as John Harvey, who writes about his own Nottingham-based detective, Charlie Resnick, J. Kingston Pierce, of The Rap Sheet, and Sarah Weinman, critic at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

Following the Detectives is a smart, modern take on the reference book, informed by the breezy informality of the Web, but playing to all the tactile advantages of a physical book in an age of ePub, and iBooks. Production values are high: heavy paper, with an embossed card cover, lots of photos and illustrations, useful double-page maps, further reading, trivia boxes, and notes on other crime writers connected with a given place. The book feels and looks great.

The content is well done too. Twenty-one locations–15 cities and six regions–are featured in the main chapters, from Los Angeles, and San Francisco, to Iceland, Paris, Sweden, Nottingham, and Shropshire. All are represented by at least one fictional detective. The colours are bright, the style is consistently light and easy, and I can see this going down well as a Christmas or birthday gift.

In his introduction, Jakubowski explains that the idea was to create a book that was neither a travel guide, nor a detailed reference book, but one that had something of both. Size and weight rule out taking this with you on a walking tour of San Francisco, Edinburgh, Oxford, or Ystad–there are walking tours in all those places anyway–but Following the Detectives is a good place to start thinking about it. Better than that, though, it introduces writers, and characters, locating them in their respective cities in ways that help them make more sense to outsiders. For example, Michael Carlson’s chapter on George V. Higgins, Robert. B. Parker, and Boston, brings local knowledge that non-Bostonians may never grasp on their own, such as the significance of long-term sporting failure on the collective psyche of a city’s inhabitants; an explanation, he speculates, for a Bostonian sense of proportion in comparison with New Yorkers.

I’d recommend this book as a gift for a crime fiction fan, but I have some reservations that go beyond the book itself and speak to the environment in which it is published. As I have said, this is a beautiful book: heavy, as well made as a ‘paperback’ can be, smartly designed, and written. But I can’t help feeling, with a heavy heart, that what it really needs to be is not a book, but a website, or perhaps an iPad app. Ten years ago, when I was making a modest living writing and editing large-scale reference books, I would come across something on the Web that warranted a link in the references of an entry. Now I think it is the other way around: the Web is the first place I’d go for information at this level. While reading Following the Detectives I wanted links to click and internal threads to follow, I wanted more detail on writers who were name checked. More than that, I wanted it to have the potential to grow over time, to become something truly inclusive, encyclopaedic, something to follow. Although each chapter includes lists of useful websites, typing out web addresses exactly as they are written is a real drag. For example, imagine typing out these, rather than clicking them:

I suspect that anyone who does take the time to type those wouldn’t go back to the book for quite a while.

If physical books are going to survive at all in the long run, they need to offer something that isn’t available online, or on rich media devices like the iPad. This book offers a physical, tactile experience that the Web can’t match, and the focus on real locations is well conceived, and beautifully presented. What strikes me though, is that we interrogate, rather than read, books like these, and that we do so for the content, and for the connections between ideas, rather than how they feel. Books have a resistance that works in their favour in some cases: the big, simple maps in this book are particularly good as a tool for envisaging the geography, of, say, Edinburgh in Rankin’s Rebus novels. But for making and following links, for referencing connected but external sources, and for speed, the Web does it better.

Buy Following the Detectives from the publisher New Holland. Use the discount code Routledge to get 20% off.

Reasons For Self-Publishing: Lessons from History

… Owing to my having been my own publisher and thereby displeasing all London bookseller/proprieters of reviews I am to be most severely handled in the Quarterly, Westminster, Monthly Lit. Gazette &c–but how Edin. will treat me I do not know. You will, however, be glad to learn that I have the consolation that I have 7,000 subscribers amounting to no less than £7,000!–My first object in being my own publisher was to get the book up so as to be a credit to the nation and all concerned, my 2nd object was to give it to the public cheaper, and to show thereby how the booksellers impose on both the authors and the public–and lastly that I might keep the property in my own hands.

–From a letter by Sir John Ross to William Scoresby, 28th April 1835. Quoted in Tom and Cordelia Stamp, William Scoresby, Arctic Scientist (1976).

My Books of 2009–Mostly for Kids

This year has been a strange reading year for me. It began with a neck injury that made sitting still painful and concentrating on anything more than a tweet almost impossible. It ended with two university courses to teach and books to read ‘for a purpose’. Looking back, apart from reading for teaching–twentieth century American novels and primary texts from the history of America–I’ve read very little this year that wasn’t written for children. Among the few adult books I’ve read just because I wanted to, the three volumes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy were the most enjoyable, providing the immersive world you always hope for in a book or series but rarely experience.

Of the books for children, this has been a bumper year. My daughter, who is five, is a completist of the highest order, so we’ve read all of Tove Jansson’s Moomin novels, eleven Famous Five novels (in the right order), several Roald Dahl novels, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox, Kurt Schmeltzer’s The Long Arctic Night which I mentioned here and A Christmas Carol as well as stories snatched from Stanza on my iPod Touch and Just William, read by Martin Jarvis, in the car. We’re starting on the first Harry Potter now.

One thing I’ve noticed is that quality comes in different forms. Jansson’s books are extraordinary creations with a depth and darkness that is breathtaking at times. And yet they deliver it with a lightness that makes it all seem natural and bearable. The more I read of Jansson the more I admire her. The Famous Five books are almost the antithesis of the Moomin adventures. They are practical, utilitarian, dogmatic, lacking in whimsy, as well as repetitive, badly plotted and somewhat dated. And yet of all the books we’ve read together this year these are the ones we have raced through. Blyton’s books, for all their obvious faults, are the ones that make us late for school.

My pick of the year though is A Christmas Carol. We would have struggled with this if the younger partner in the endeavour hadn’t seen the recent film, but as it was we raced through it, leaving questions about vocabulary and quaint Victoriana hanging in the air. Many of those questions will be resolved by the time we read it again next year. There was disappointment (for her) that the graveside scene wasn’t extended in the book as it is in the film and surprise (for me rereading after a long gap) at just how unevenly paced the book is, with plot development frequently suspended in favour of lengthy, convoluted, and often unnecessary description and point making. But in the end this is one of the great stories and Dickens’s words are made to be read out loud. In fact it is the only book that broke out of our normal reading routine and appeared spontaneously with the question ‘Can we read …?’

About a Hut: The Long Arctic Night

longarcticnightThe Long Arctic Night is a fictionalised account of William Barents’ third voyage to the Arctic in search of the Northeast Passage, a voyage from which he did not return. I credit this book with turning me into a reader. It wasn’t the first ‘chapter’ book I read for myself, but it is the one I remember most clearly. I was a bit worried that reading it again would be a disappointment but it is every bit as clear and well paced as I remember.

Barents set out on May 6, 1596, from Amsterdam, only for his ship to become trapped in the ice, forcing the crew to overwinter in a tiny wooden hut they built on Nova Zembla:

Meanwhile we had made good progress with the building of our hut, and the four walls were almost completed, so that everyone could see there were to be three doors, one facing east, one south, and one west. The north wall, however, was entirely solid, as the rawest and coldest winds generally blow from that direction; and Piet, well aware of that, had, with foresight, provided for it in his construction plan. … On the following day we added the slanting roof, which sloped at an oblique angle from north to south, and covered it thickly with mud paste, which froze as usual the instant it was applied.

Barentshut_1881The men encounter bears, live on seal meat and develop scurvy. When the ice finally melts the following Spring they find the ship has been crushed, forcing them to sail back to the mainland in two small boats.

Amazingly the hut itself was rediscovered almost 300 years later, in 1871; many artefacts were recovered and are kept at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The photograph shows how it looked in 1881, but the site is now marked by a memorial and is visited by arctic cruise ships. In recent years, as global warming melts the ice, the Northeast Passage has become passable to shipping, shaving around 3000 miles from the journey between the Netherlands and South Korea.

Malcolm Lowry Centenary Exhibition and Book

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano. His home city of Liverpool will be commemorating the event with an exhibition at the Bluecoat Arts Centre between September 25th and November 22nd. Ahead of that though comes the release of a book about Lowry and Liverpool co-edited by poet Helen Tookey and Bryan Biggs. Helen writes:

It includes twelve new pieces of writing (critical and creative) and some fabulous images from artists who have been influenced and inspired by Lowry. You can buy it from the well known online bookshop whose name begins with an A, or indeed from Liverpool University Press’s own website (click here). Meanwhile, preparations are in full swing for the centenary exhibition Under the Volcano at the Bluecoat, which will include visual art, film, and fascinating archival material relating to Lowry – described by biographer Gordon Bowker in his essay for our book as ‘probably the most neglected genius of modern English literature’. [Read More]

Helen is also running a short five-week course on Lowry at Liverpool University, in the Continuing Education department entitled Voyaging Under the Volcano: An Introduction to Malcolm Lowry. For more information visit the Continuing Education English webpage or contact the Centre for Lifelong Learning t Enrolment ends on Monday September 21st.

The Reader Magazine #35: Starting the Reading Revolution

READER 35 cover-blogThe Reader magazine has been around for over ten years and has always been passionate about books and reading. In issue 35 it gets serious about its mission. Entitled ‘Starting the Reading Revolution’ this issue contains a special editorial by Philip Davis, who writes ‘This is not simply a magazine any more, it is a campaign’.

Also in this issue:

    New poetry by Les Murray, Connie Bensley and Tom Paulin; and John Greening writes the latest in our ‘Poet on His Work’ series
    New fiction by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Richard Flanagan
    Essays by Catherine Pickstock on Tracey Emin, and Paul Kingsnorth of the Dark Mountain Project on the myths and stories that threaten our world
    The Reader Gets Angry a searing indictment of teacher-training in this country from Gabriella Gruder-Poni
    Interview with Liverpool composer Kenneth Hesketh
    Recommendations from Adam Phillips and Frank Cottrell Boyce

You can buy your copy of #35 here. Or subscribe here. Recent back issues of the magazine are available as a free download and on here.

via. The Reader Online

Melville Davisson Post Birth Date Mystery Solved

Melville Davisson Post's headstone at the Elkview cemetery, Clarksburg, West Virginia. Image by Katina Peters.

Yesterday I was researching a short piece on Melville Davisson Post, the magazine short story writer who created Uncle Abner, a Jeffersonian-era detective from the backwoods of what was then Virginia. For a time at the start of the twentieth century Post was apparently the best-paid magazine short story writer in the United States. His first creation, a crooked lawyer named Randolph Mason, drew criticism because many people felt his techniques for evading justice would give the criminal fraternity ideas. In fact Post, who started out as a lawyer, used the Randolph Mason stories to expose loopholes in the law. Here are a few examples of his stories.

So far so good I thought, but I hit problems when I tried to establish and verify Post’s birth and death dates. My first port of call was Wikipedia, which claimed he was born on April 19, 1869 and died on June 23, 1930. Of course you can’t stop with Wikipedia, so I looked at several other sources, including Webster’s Biographical Dictionary (1995 edition), the venerable Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler (1976), which I bought in a book shop in Santa Rosa, California a few years ago, and Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure (1941), which gives brief biographies of detective fiction writers. They disagreed. Webster’s claims he lived from 1871-1930, Steinbrunner and Penzler picked 1869-1930, while Haycraft, whose book was published only 11 years after Post’s death, says 1871-1930. Finally, I looked at Find a Grave, an excellent website which helps you do exactly that. Find a Grave listed 1871 as his birth year.

After all that I was thoroughly puzzled. I asked on Twitter to see if anyone had any ideas, but still couldn’t get confirmation. In the end I resorted to emailing Katina Peters, who lives in West Virginia and provides photographs of headstones to people researching the whereabouts of their ancestors through Find a Grave. She very kindly sent me two links to pages at which states its mission “is to identify, preserve, protect, promote, and present the ideas, arts, and artifacts of West Virginia’s heritage, building pride in our past accomplishments and confidence in our future”. It carries free online copies of birth and death records for West Virginia residents, including Melville Davisson Post. And here they are:

Born April 19, 1869
Died June 23, 1930

Note that the death certificate claims he was born in 1871; that’s probably where the error crept in. This kind of discrepancy is surprisingly common in official records and after years of working on this kind of thing I have come to the conclusion that a great deal of what we believe to be true about the past is actually invented. Curiously many sources claim Post died after falling from a horse, but whether he had a fall or not, he also had some kind of cirrhosis which his doctor cited as the primary cause of death.

Find a Grave will be updated.

Edit July 9, 2009: Image of headstone added.

Raymond Chandler Competition

The Reader Organisation is running a Liverpool-based competition to win five new hardback editions of Raymond Chandler novels. These are lovely books so if you are in or near Liverpool tomorrow (March 26th, 2009), this could be for you.

To mark fifty years since the death of Raymond Chandler we are giving away a special set of five Chandler hardbacks absolutely free! Reissued by Hamish Hamilton with their original first-edition cover art, the books go on sale tomorrow priced £12.99 each.

Visit The Reader Online here for instructions.

Crime Fiction Exotica

In the Observer today Tobias Jones writes about ‘crime fiction set abroad’, a category which I would have thought depends on where you live. I’m not entirely convinced by several of the claims made in this piece but Jones has a point about the international market for crime fiction that has recently opened up to British readers. Also in the article’s favour is that it begins with a quotation from Raymond Chandler who died fifty years ago this month:

Raymond Chandler once wrote of crime fiction that the “mystery and the solution of the mystery are only what I call ‘the olive in the Martini'”. You don’t order a Martini just for the olive, he implied, and you don’t read a whodunit merely to find out who did it. “The really good mystery,” he continued, “is one you would read even if you knew somebody had torn out the last chapter.” Quite what a crime novel contains, other than “the olive”, varies: it can be anything from one-liners and wisecracks to social commentary and political opinion. In recent years a new fashion has emerged: crime writing has been spliced with travel-writing. Having an exotic backdrop is almost more important than the plot itself. There’s nothing new to crime books being set abroad: think Eric Ambler or Michael Dibdin. But what’s striking is the sheer number of them now being published. If you go into a bookshop looking for a crime novel, it’s actually easier to find one based abroad than in Britain. [Link]