Books I read this week: January week 4


The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale is fascinating. In 1860 a 3 year old boy was murdered on the grounds of  his family’s estate.  As he was taken from the room where his nanny and sister slept, it quickly became obvious that the murderer was someone who lived in the house. The question of who did it became the purview of Mr. Whicher, top detective at Scotland Yard.  This book is part mystery, part history lesson, and it reads like a novel. One of the most interesting elements is the lack of trust most people had in police and detectives at the time, and the somewhat dysfunctional relationship between local police and Scotland Yard. Whicher detected his way to the murderer, and even had them in custody, but was unable ultimately to prove it to the courts’ satisfaction. The fact that the person that he suspected eventually confessed didn’t matter in the course of things; Whicher’s career was ruined, as was the family’s life. The whole thing is so interesting, and very well written.

A Victorian detective was a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a newly uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organize chaos. He turned brutal crimes- the vestiges of the beast in man- into intellectual puzzles.

Many felt that Whicher’s inquiries culminated in a violation of the middle class home, an assault on privacy, a crime to match the murder he had been sent to solve. He exposed the corruptions within the house-hold: sexual transgressions, emotional cruelty, scheming servants, wayward children, insanity, jealous, loneliness, and loathing. The scene he uncovered aroused fear (and excitement) at the thought of what might be hiding behind the closed doors of other respectable houses. His conclusions helped to create an era of voyeurism and suspicion, in which the detective was a shadowy figure, a demon as well as a demi-god.

Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 1) by Jeff Vandermeer is a book that I’ve had my eye on for a while, and finally picked up at the library. I’d been on the fence about it, but after reading a description that described it as a cross between Lovecraft and Lost I decided that I needed to read it. That description is pretty apt, as a group of scientists enter a quarantined area to investigate it. They’re the 12th expedition to go in, and the return rate has been far from positive. Things get really strange really fast, and that’s really all I can tell you without ruining things. It’s great science fiction that also falls solidly in the weird fiction category. I’ve read my fair share of weird fiction, so some of the big surprises were perhaps not as surprising as they could have been, but it’s really well written and highly enjoyable. 

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

Authority: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 2) by Jeff Vandermeer takes everything from the first book and turns it on its head as you get more information (or perhaps misinformation) about what’s going on. If we’re going with a Lost analogy, the first book is on the island, and this book is about Dharma. Kind of. It’s also excellently written and a great read.

Acceptance: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 3) by Jeff Vandermeer takes the previous two books and kind of puts them in a blender. You do get answers, and it’s pretty awesome.  I really recommend all three.

Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher is a collection of essays, written after a while of her undergoing electro convulsive therapy (or shock treatments). ECT affects memory, and that’s a theme of a number of the essays. She writes a bit about fame, a bit about her parents, a bit about Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor. There isn’t completely a through line, but the essays are conversational and sly, and her personality shines through them. She’s a compelling person, and she’s not shy about her shortcomings or mistakes. She’s also not reticent about her successes, which is nice. This was a quick read, but I enjoyed it.

There’s a breed of women in Hollywood who wander among us looking very tense and very mad. Of course they’re angry. Who wouldn’t be enraged about having to ensure you’re looking an age you haven’t been in a generation?

I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.

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