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The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders

As if I didn’t have enough books of my own, I can’t resist browsing the library books when I’m doing research. Although my current research topic is a Victorian-era Landscape Architect who was a part of the Garden Cemetery movement, this totally unrelated book was just screaming my name…although I did rationalize reading it instead of my research because murdered people are buried in cemeteries. ;-D

Released in 2013, this 400+ page work is impeccably researched and presented in an eminently readable manner. Flanders covers the vast time frame of the Victorian era (most of the 19th century) as pertains to crime in Great Britain. She tells stories of the rich and the poor, along with the newly rising middle-class. Gleaning insights of these male and female killers (or purported killers) from newspaper articles, broadsides, and theatre productions (as found in the official censorship records of the period), Flanders shares stories of murders thematically. She discusses the great hysteria that led to the “poison panic” at mid-century, the rise of murders as entertainment, court trials as grand theatre, and hangings are festive occasions, as well as the rise of the professional police force, especially the detective. Most fascinating of all are the connections Flanders is able to make between a particular crime (or crimes) and great works of fiction, including most, if not all, of Dickens’ catalog.

Some of the transitions between one crime story and the next feel a little forced, and there are times that she references a particular name in a previous or upcoming story in a way that the reader may have difficulty following, yet these are minor issues in an otherwise compelling narrative. It is apparent that Flanders did extensive research for this book but the effort is not a drag on the text. The tiny snippets of information each source provides have been woven together to tell a cohesive narrative that is better than fiction.

bookcaseDid I mention that I own a lot of books? Took some time this winter break to build bookcases. That’s 85′ of bookcase, 65′ devoted solely to books!

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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Book Reviews

 

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Russian Summer

Discontent with the Russian system was a fact of life before the revolutions of 1917. In Angel of Vengeance: The “Girl Assassin”, the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia’s Revolutionary World*, Ana Siljak tells the story of Vera Zasulich,

a young woman from a noble family who became a devoted anarchist and decided to do more than talk. In 1878, Vera walked into the receiving room of the Governor of St. Petersburg, swathed in an oversized shawl. Under the shawl, she hid a gun. As she approached General Fedor Trepov, she withdrew the gun and, with a cry of “revenge!”, shot him. The revenge she sought was for a friend of hers,  Alexei Bogolyubov, a young man who had been flogged for refusing to remove his hat in the presence of General Trepov.

Unrest was rife in the ranks of the bourgeois at this time. Vera was involved for several years and came to recognize that many of the people in the movement were content to simply talk of a utopian future. With her single act, Vera set in motion the “Age of Assassination” that unsettled Russian society. Her trial for murder (even though Trepov did not die), was attended by the creme de la creme of society dressed in all their finery. Vera, a generally quiet and reserved person, was the picture of composure. Her attorney did a brilliant job of turning the trial into a condemnation of General Trepov and the Russian government in general. Acquitted, Vera left the country and discovered Marxism. She became a passionate supporter of socialism and was aghast at the use of assassination as a political tool of her fellow revolutionaries. She translated the works of Marx into Russian and both her trial and her translations (and further writing) influenced the leaders in the early 20th century who eventually brought about the rise of the Soviet Union.

Siljak does a masterful job presenting the story of Zasulich. The people who populate the book, the members of Vera’s social circle, her friends, her influences, her lovers, are presented in a vibrant manner that allows the reader to feel the energy and flow of life that guided Vera. Vera herself is rendered as a fully three-dimensional person. The reader gains deep insight into her psyche, her thought process, and her feelings. She is a woman to be admired, a woman of action, a woman of thoughts, a woman who functioned in a manner outside the confines of her time. Yet, even Vera regretted some of the effects of her actions and words. This complicated woman makes for a great subject and Siljak has created a lively book that captures her brilliantly.

One of Vera’s biggest regrets was that the “Age of Assassination”set in motion by her own attempted assassination eventually led to the murder of Tsar Alexander II on March 1, 1881. John Curtis Perry and Constantine Pleshakov document the aftermath of this assassination in The Flight of the Romanovs: A Family Saga.

The Flight Of The Romanovs A Family SagaThe story of the family of Tsar Nicolas II and his family, murdered in 1918 is fairly well known. The women with bodices lined with jewels, dying slowly as their bodices prevented assassins bullets from hitting the mark. The story that is not well known is what happened to the rest of the Romanovs. This book presents the tales of many of the vast number of Romanovs. The Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, Nieces and Nephews that supported the monarchy, or the revolution, or their self-interest, or their adopted homes, or the homeland of their non-Romanov parents. Those who buried their heads in the sand, and the ones whose lives seemed touched with tragedy long before the revolution.

Perry and Pleshakov weave the stories of these various family members in a smooth manner that makes for an eminently readable book. Even with the various Nicholas’, Alexander’s, Constantine’s, Alexandra’s, Olga’s, Perry and Pleshakov use family nicknames to help the reader keep all of the stories straight. It’s fascinating to follow this large family at this time in history that saw so many changes, and particularly fascinating how many strong-willed women influenced the course of history. In the Romanov family, the old rejoinder of a strong woman being behind every strong man is particularly true. The Romanovs of the earlier 20th century paid the price for generations of decisions made by their antecedents, as well as their own choices. The ones who left Russia generally survived. Those who thought they could protect themselves in Russia, generally could not.

Tragedy and Triumph, all in my Russian Summer.

*This is the title of the book as I read it. It has also been released under the alternate title shown in the image of the book cover.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone)- 2001

I watched this film in Spanish, although it is available with English subtitles as well. This screenplay was written (with some collaborators) and directed by the incredibly talented Guillermo del Toro and centers on a haunted orphanage in a remote part of Spain in 1939, the last year of the brutal Spanish Civil War. It is sold as a ghost story, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. Certainly, there is a ghost in the story (several, in fact), a young murdered boy, Santi (Junio Valverde), but it’s not a “ghost story” in the traditional manner. It’s not about scaring the audience, it’s more about the ghosts of life that drive each of us.

Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the son of loyalists who leave him in the care of his tutor before being killed by Franco’s forces, is left by his beloved tutor at a distant orphanage in a town with a large, un-exploded (but de-activated) bomb in the center of town. Carlos is small and, as the newest boy in the orphanage, is challenged by Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), the resident bully, to fetch water from the kitchen after lights-out, a violation of the rules. Carlos agrees, as long as Jaime accompanies him. Jaime abandons Carlos, who stumbles into a storage area with a large cistern, where he hears a whispered warning of impending death for all. He has a run-in with the handyman Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who is not happy to see him near this particular area. Carlos manages to get back to the dormitory, which (along with taking the blame for being out in violation of the rules and taking blame for owning a knife which Jacinto finds– and uses to slash his face), earns Carlos some respect from the other boys.

Carlos visits Dr. Casares (the venerable Federico Luppi), who addresses his cut. A large jar containing a fetus with a severe spina bifida malformation– most of its spine is exposed– resides in a glass jar in the doctor’s office. The doctor tells Carlos that this is known as a “Devil’s Backbone” and explains that the orphanage brings in extra money by selling quantities of the spiced rum this and other specimens are kept in as a cure-all to the villagers. The doctor claims this rum can even cure impotence, and is later seen ingesting the rum himself. Dr. Casares is in love with Carmen (the equally venerable Marisa Paredes), headmistress of the orphanage who has a heavy artificial leg she must drag around in order to walk. Although she beats herself up over it and continues to insist that this time will be the last time, Carmen has a sexual relationship with Jacinto, each encounter overheard by the brokenhearted, but impotent Dr. Casares. Jacinto was once an orphan in the care of the orphanage, and has a genuine hatred for the place, yet stays on as caretaker. He uses the key his girlfriend, Conchita (Irene Visedo), has as a teacher at the orphanage to search for gold. He knows that Dr. Casares and Carmen are loyalist sympathizers who have hidden gold that was dropped off my men fighting Franco for safekeeping. He intends to find the gold and steal it for himself, before leaving the orphanage and town behind forever.

Carlos investigates the idea of a ghost and is told by the other boys that they believe it is Santi, a young boy who disappeared the night the bomb fell on the town. Carlos also posits that Jaime knows more about Santi’s fate than he is willing to admit. The war is coming ever closer, and Dr. Casares convinces Carmen that they must flee the orphanage. As they begin gathering the children, it is discovered that Jacinto, who had been shot and sent running by Conchita, has returned and poured gasoline all over the orphanage. He sets fire to the gasoline, which blows up the kitchen where Carmen and some of the children had gathered. Carmen is killed, but Dr. Casares survives as he was just outside the building, loading children into a vehicle. He holds Carmen as she dies in his arms, and tells the surviving children, Carlos and Jaime included, that he will protect them. Dr. Casares and the kids spend the night in the charred remains of the orphanage, an injured Dr. Casares sitting in front of an open window on the second floor, looking out for Jacinto’s return, shotgun at the ready. Jaime finally tells Carlos the story of Santi’s death. He and Santi were in the room with the cistern, hoping to collect slugs, when they witnessed Jacinto trying to break into a safe that he believed contained the loyalist’s gold. Jaime managed to hide before being caught, but Santi was seen by Jacinto. Jacinto struck Santi and the boy hit his head on the rocks surrounding the cistern. Jacinto got rid of the body by dumping it into the cistern. Thus, a ghost was born. Jaime has decided that he is no longer afraid of Jacinto, and vows to kill him if he ever sees him again.

In the morning, the boys discover that Dr. Casares has succumbed to his wounds, still keeping watch at the window. The boys are caught by Jacinto and locked into a small room. Jacinto continues to search for the gold, but the boys know he will kill them once he has found it. They scheme together to take him down, rationalizing that there are several of them and only one him. They create weapons out of things that are at hand, and are able to escape the room with the help of Santi’s ghost. Jacinto finds the gold (I won’t tell you where), but encounters the boys down in the room with the cistern. In a scene reminiscent of Ceasar’s murder at the hand of the senators, the boys all stab Jacinto, and he is dumped into the same cistern where he had dumped Santi’s body. Jacinto struggles to escape from the cistern but, in a bit of ironic justice, he is impeded in his efforts by his gold-laden pockets. The ghost of Santi comes up from the deep and helps to drag Jacinto to his death. The boys are free and walk away from the orphanage, the ghost of Dr. Casares still keeping watch over them.

I am a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro. He has managed, despite massive commercial success, to continue to create projects in the manner of an independent filmmaker, slowly, meticulously, telling unique stories from a distinct point of view. All of his movies have a feel that identify them as his work, but they are not mere copies. This film, in particular, showcases the exceptional talents of the two older leads, Luppi and Paredes. Though not necessarily well-known in the States, they have had long and distinguished careers overseas. They are enormously talented and I was particularly drawn to Luppi’s interpretation of Dr. Casares; warm and gentle, sad and strong. The scene where, heavily injured, he insists on keeping a look out for Jacinto from the second floor are particularly touching. This is why I love watching independent foreign films so much…the stories are strong, the acting stronger.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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