It's the creepiest day of the year and I hope everyone has some some good Halloween activities lined up tonight. I toyed with the idea of dressing up as Stalker Author Kathleen Hale because what's easier than getting in my car and randomly sitting in front of people's houses wondering if they are the book blogger I'm looking for? But since I didn't get an invite to Harper Teen's big Halloween Bash, I suppose my efforts would be wasted. Alas, there's always next year.

So what Halloween treat do I have for you this year? In an effort to make up for my missed Sunday Webcomics episodes, I'm giving you one of the most lauded and scariest webcomics of all time, Bongcheon-dong Ghost Story. Originally a part of a group of web short stories that appeared back in 2011, this amazing short story by HORANG is based on a South Korean urban legend and seriously ought to come with a health warning, so I'm giving you one right now:

DO NOT READ if you have heart problems or 
any other health issues that severe fright might exacerbate. DO NOT READ
if you do not like wetting your pants or letting out a little scream.

You've been warned, right? 

Now, Happy Halloween! Enjoy!!!

The Bongcheon-dong Ghost Story (follow link, then read the webcomic by scrolling down)


Yes, it's been very quiet around here lately. Mostly because I gathered up family, hopped on a couple of airplanes, and jetted off to Tuscany for a bit. And while I did get myself one of those fancy-schmancy wireless internet pocket devices while we were driving around the Italian countryside and had complete blogging access to the interwebz, I'll be honest....I just didn't feel like it.

we had the Mr. with us, too, but he was the official photographer

Cinque Terre
balcony where the reading got done

In fact, I wasn't all that bookish at all throughout our travels. Aside from enjoying the Tuscan sunrise with my coffee and Ian McEwan's The Children Act, I wasn't voraciously plowing through books. Perhaps there was something about the northern Italian countryside that encouraged me to slow down and read McEwan's new novel languidly. The story, blurbed as the conflict a family judge experiences deciding a case in which a minor child - a Jehovah's Witness - wishes to refuse a lifesaving blood transfusion, actually turned out to be a fascinating and insightful character study of London judge Fiona Maye who is facing her own person crises as she carries on with her professional duties in family court. I found myself exceedingly drawn to Fiona: a married career woman who has, consciously or not, given up children of her own for a very successful career in law. The reader, like Fiona herself, can't help but wonder whether this choice has in any way contributed to her husband's recent abrupt announcement that without a dramatic and immediate change in their marital relations, he intends to embark upon an affair with another, and of course younger, woman.

Fiona's introspection is magnificent as it is interwoven with her current case of a young man just shy of legal adulthood who requires a blood transfusion to live but is refusing it on the grounds of his religion. Fiona makes her decision in the case rather early in the novel and the rest of narrative tells the story of the (shocking) repercussions of her ruling. It is this perspective that propels the novel from merely good to excellent, reminding everyone why McEwan is so very admired in his field. All of this he does in a mere 224 pages. Is The Children Act his best work? I wouldn't go that far, but I will say it is an admirable, thought-provoking piece to add to his canon. 

And of course I should admit that McEwan's poke at longer novels being in sore need of editing probably got my attention as well. As much as I love a good long novel, I must admit that he is correct: very few are well-written enough to justify their length. You can read his controversial thoughts on the matter here.

I'll be talking a little bit more about Italy, the drama that occurred in the book world while I was away, and some changes that are going to be made to this blog as a result of all this as the week goes on. In the meanwhile, I hope everyone has been reading some good stuff while I've been away (readathon, anyone?) and getting ready for Halloween. What great books have I been missing?

The Disappearance of Agatha

I've been on a bit of an Agatha Christie binge lately, helped along by Masterpiece Theater and their fabulous renderings of some of the best Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries. Although she wrote more than just the Poirot and Marple series - did you know she wrote romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott? - Christie will always be known as the Queen of Mystery. She's also the most-read novelist of all time. We know so much about her as a novelist, but little is ever discussed about her personal life.

Of course this wasn't always the case. In 1926, the Queen of Mystery made headlines around the world when she herself disappeared. It was a Friday, December 23, when Agatha Christie kissed her daughter goodnight and left her home in Berkshire around 9:45 pm and drove away without explanation. Her abandoned car was later found near Guildford but without a trace of the author to be found. No clues. No ransom note. No sign of foul play. 

Christie was enjoying the soaring heights of success. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was her newest novel and was enjoying exceptional sales. As the days passed with no sign of the author, the country began to fear the worst. Police mobilized 15,000 volunteers to search the local area, including a local lake called the Silent Pool which Christie had used in one of her novels for a character's death. Suspicion also turned toward Christie's dashing WWI Airman husband, Colonel Archibald Christie (police even tapped his phone); suspicions perhaps not too unfounded, as it turned out.

For eleven days England feared the worst. Then, inexplicably, Christie was discovered safe and sound at a spa in Harrogate, signed in under the name of Theresa Neele (if you're keeping track of clues, this is one is important). If you're wondering what the hell? you're not alone. So was everyone else. Word on the street was that Christie was suffering from temporary amnesia, but really, no one was really talking, especially Christie herself.

What we do know:

1. The good Colonel Archibald was indeed playing hokey-pokey on the side. He had found himself a mistress by the name of Nancy Neele (ahem, note the name) and was, in fact, spending the very weekend of the disappearance cooped up in a love-nest with his mistress. Prior to Christie's disappearance that night, the Colonel had informed Agatha that despite twelve years of marriage and a child together, he had fallen in love with the good Ms. Neele and wanted a divorce.

2. Earlier in the year, Christie's mother, with whom she was quite close, had passed away. It had fallen to Christie to deal with the post-death arrangements as well as the closing up of her childhood home. Christie's husband, the Colonel, being otherwise occupied (see #1).

3. Christie wrote several confusing (or misdirecting?) letters just prior to her disappearance. One was to the local police constable stating that she feared for her life. Another was to her brother-in-law (Colonel Archie's brother) telling him she would be leaving on a spa vacation shortly. Indeed she would.

4. While the country was expecting the worst and all resources mobilized, Agatha placed an advertisement in the London Times stating that Mrs Theresea Neele was looking to get in touch with relatives and they could find her at the spa in Harrogate. It wasn't until her fellow guests at the spa began note the similarities between "Theresa Neele" and the missing Agatha Christie that the whole thing blew up. Colonel Christie drove down to the spa, scooped her up and that was that.

5. England was, needless to say, absolutely furious. Most people believed that the entire thing either was a staged publicity stunt set up by Christie's publisher to up the sales of her book, despite doctor's statements to the contrary or a personal vendetta by Christie herself to punish her wayward husband. The wasted resources and - most likely - the disappointment over a possible national tragedy turning into a simple spa visit inspired righteous indignation as only the English can produce. 

6. The official word from the Christie camp seemed to claim temporary amnesia brought on by stress, although incident was swept under the rug as quickly as possible and never officially spoken of by the author herself ever again. She and the Colonel never lived together again and their divorce became final in 1928. How she put her life back together is another story altogether.

The disappearance of Agatha Christie remained one of the most gossiped-about events of the early part of the 20th century. But for me, it is only a glimpse into what must have been one of the most excruciatingly painful periods of Christie's life. The death of her mother; a husband who was obviously crappy even before he requested a divorce. This was 1926 when the Colonel would have every right, despite his philandering and downright crappiness, to expect to obtain full custody of their daughter. While her writing may have been a success, her personal life was completely disintegrating. 

So did Christie suffer from temporary amnesia? Frankly, it's none of my business. I'm simply thankful that she made it through that period of her life and went on to find stability, happiness, and a typewriter. Because if she hadn't, the world would be a lesser place.

Oh, and one last thing. In 2013, a very valuable silver cigarette case came up for auction in London. It was fondly inscribed to a certain man from Mr. and Mrs. Christie in 1926. The man in question happened to be the person who blew the whistle on Agatha at Harrogate Spa all those years ago, alerting authorities as to where their missing author really was. Make of that what you will, super-sleuths.

Welcome to the Detection Club

I recently finished reading the new William Morrow edition of Agatha Christie's classic mystery novel After the Funeral. It goes without saying that there really cannot be too many editions of the Queen of Mystery's books and this particular Poirot whodunit remains one of her more satisfying efforts. After turning the last page, once again failing to name the culprit before the big reveal (yes, I used a detective's log and no it didn't work), I flipped back to the introduction I had skipped over in my haste to begin the story. (I have a horrible habit of skipping introductions. I don't want to hear what someone else thinks of a book before I even begin reading reading it. Spoilers lurk everywhere in introductions. It is a minefield to be avoided at all costs.)

This particular introduction was written by Sophie Hannah, the author who was chosen to pen the upcoming "Agatha Christie Mystery" The Monogram Murders. (If you harbor doubts about anyone else - regardless of talent - writing as Agatha Christie allow me to assure you that you're not alone. But that is a discussion for another day.) In her introduction Hannah muses that the kind of mysteries Christie wrote, "the ones with the high-concept, seemingly-impossible-yet-possible solutions, the ones that take your breath away," would not curry favor with contemporary readers whose "expectations of novels have changed." She notes that during Christie's time, readers simply expected an exciting story, while today's readers expect more realism. In some sub-genres, of course, this is true. She never explicitly says so (and I wondered if she knew it herself), but she is simply describing what is known as the different Schools of Mystery.

Agatha Christie belonged to what is known as The Golden Age of the British Detective Novel which flourished between the 1920s and the 1930s (also called Puzzle-Plots). Cleverness was the name of the game and outwitting the reader was the goal. Grisly violence, social or political commentary, and descriptive sex was all off limits because it was untidy and couldn't be resolved with a return to nice, neat British social order by the end. Our cousins across the pond do love things nice and tidy...little wonder I harbor such an affinity for them. 

Agatha Christie
And who can blame the public for making these novels bestsellers? The 1920s saw Europe in tatters. World War I had just ended and everyone was still questioning the death, the carnage. For what? Order - not just social order - had been destroyed. The Lost Generation was groping it's way through the arts.  Fascism was rising across the Continent. The average reader lacked an anchor...stability. The British detective novels were, if not quite solvable for the average reader, predictable in format. They provided a safe feeling that order would be restored by the end of the novel.

In 1928 a group of authors gathered together to form a club (a club which is still, by the way, still in existence today). They called it the Detection Club. The first President was C.K. Chesterton. Founding members: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Miles Burton/John Rhode, Father Ronald Knox, and Freeman Wills Croft. Members of the club agreed to rigidly adhere to the following ten rules as established by Knox:

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman may figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

1932 Detection Club Dinner
If the rules and format of a British Detective Novel from the Golden Age sound vaguely familiar to modern day readers, it might be because you still see their offspring in what we now refer to as cosy mysteries. I find it fascinating that the name of the sub-genre reflects the comfort that the original genre produced in it's audiences. I don't believe that to be coincidence.

The Puzzle-Plots that Agatha Christie wrote were only one of many Schools of Mystery that have made an appearance since Edgar Allan Poe first ushered in what would become an irresistible genre of reading. From hard-boiled detective fiction to locked-room mysteries; from police procedurals to psychological thrillers, the mystery genre has a variety of schools that are all worthy of study. I'm not entirely certain that they completely evolved from reader demands, but rather were simply a reflection of the times. While Sophie Hannah contends that modern day readers find Christie's plots not "plausible" enough to find commercial success, I would argue that the fact that William Morrow is publishing brand-new editions of Christie's novels refutes that argument entirely.