The Crime Studies network now has a vlog where folks are giving presentations of work in progress from their research. Looks to be quite interesting. This is the first one that caught my eye. If you’re a crime fiction scholar, they’re looking for submissions, so think about it.
Tarot goes #noir
While musing onNightmare Alley(something I do more than most people I suspect) I often wonder how deeply William Lindsay Gresham studied the tarot and whether it was for more than just carny sideshow purposes. So I was pleased to receive a gem from a talk hosted by the Folklore Society.
The Katharine Briggs Lecture by Dr Julia Woods, ‘“I Cannot Find the Hanged Man”: Tarot Cards in Fantastic Fiction’traced many references to tarot in fantasy fiction in the modern age (from a medievalist’s perspective the 19thcentury is modern). Since my knowledge of The Inklings was limited to C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and ‘some other guys but not women’ I was delighted to hear more about Charles Williams and his novelThe Greater Trumps. Not only is it a novel steeped in the tarot (yeah I ordered it), but Gresham wrote an…
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Muriel Spark is an endless delight and not nearly enough good films have been based on her books. This film for television has a stellar cast and does a reasonable job of portraying her macabre humour, though it loses the subtlety of her novel (as inevitably movies seem to do) making it a little more homophobic (rather than just some of the characters being so) and spelling out the meaning in case viewers couldn’t put it together themselves. Spark has a delightful time playing with the tropes of drawing room mysteries and putting them to an altogether different aim. Well worth your time and available on YT if no where else.
I have actually read some books lately, which seems such a novelty. Well, I’m always reading books, but for the whole of this shit year of lockdown I’ve often found it difficult to finish them even if I am enjoying them. I’ll be re-reading a bunch of books as I’m teaching the Killer Women course again (and fending off non-stop requests to over-enroll it, too). Maybe I’ll post about that collection of novels later. And there’s Highsmith’s 100 birthday next week. In the mean time:
This is a thrill ride that just doesn’t stop. It packs events plucked from the headlines with the non-stop craziness of social media, the weird exclusive life of the rich, a reclusive ex-pop star, eating disorders, jetting around Europe (ha, that’ll date it now, eh Brexiteers), hauntology (!), and the coldest killer imaginable. As usual Mina knits it all together with humour and effortlessly efficient prose. Don’t start reading this late at night — start in the morning so you can be sure to finish it.
Liz has been obsessing about Henry Darger for years. I recall a talk she gave on him and other ‘outsider artists at ICFA in the 90s or early noughties. But it was her mom who suggested putting him into a book as a detective. This book is just stuffed with the careful research she did of the era — don’t let that scare you off: it’s seamlessly knit together — including the amusement park where much of the action takes place. There’s also the nascent movie company through which Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery and other luminaries pass like the ambitious Glory, who wants to be an opera singer but making pictures pays better. She dazzles Pin, the girl who’s hiding as a boy and carrying the grief of a murdered sister along with some other heavy loads (also a dawning realisation about her own sexuality).
While Pin is the main anchor of the narrative, chapter to chapter we follow along other character, including the former cop/whistleblower who’s now security at the park and Darger himself, who thinks like he writes. There’s all the amusement park folk, some of whom are based on historic figures: Clyde, the black magician, Max & Maxene the ‘She Male’ and Pin’s mother who is a fortune teller. Then there’s the ride Hell’s Gate where the first murder takes place.
An ambitious weave of storylines with wildly different voices, but Hand makes it all work.
Am I a clown? Do I make you laugh?
K. A. Laity
It was the clown.
The party had been lively enough before her arrival. Shrieking children seemed to entertain themselves for a while. She promised fun on her website—that balloon-littered vomit of coarse Pantone tones with too many gurning GIFsa and autoplay videos. That should have been a warning flag. It had been almost impossible to find the contact info. But they persisted: she was local.
Nothing in her arrival suggested more than the usual horrors offace paint, oversized shoes and a larger-than-life‘personality’ as promised.
But the children were weeping now and several demanded to go home. Unmitigated disaster.
Not everyone could tell jokes, eh? But most would avoid actually blowing up a hamster.
They would never look at a balloon without shuddering now.
KILLING TIME IN THE CATSKILLS
The Twisted Tale of the Catskill Ripper:
Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ McNally Halliday
Moonlight Press, 2019
You know how it is being a crime writer: you idly google to find any local crime or interesting murders in the region, so being confined to the Hudson Valley at present I decided to do a little looking around and discovered the tale of Maggie/Lizzie McNally [several other married names] Halliday (or actually Halladay because her last husband’s name was misspelled). Intrigued by the short version of her life and misdeeds, and like so many of us at present far too inclined to use any excuse to get more books, I ordered Owen’s in hopes of getting a lot more useful detail on the intriguing suggestions an internet search brought. She was interviewed by Nellie Bly! What all did they talk about? She was actually Irish: was she really credibly accused of not only being ‘the worst woman on earth’ but also possibly Jack the Ripper?
Owen’s book offers a lot of detail presented in a straight-forward manner, reasonably free of the constant rhetoric deploring the obviously terrible actions which can mar these local histories. Believe me, her actions speak quite plainly for themselves! She may not be the worst woman on earth even in the late 19th century, but she sure caused a lot of mayhem.
Lizzie (or Maggie as she was called by her family then) came over from Co Antrim after her father John and oldest brother Sam got a foothold in the US. The youngest of eight children, at about 8 years of age, Maggie/Lizzie arrived in Newburgh, NY with lots of other Irish immigrants. Like so many of the immigrant women who arrived then, she soon left school and went into service. It didn’t take long to find out that her temper did not suit being a servant. A pattern soon emerged of Lizzie demanding money that she felt she was owed and revenge against anyone who said otherwise.
Lizzie found being a washerwoman offered some measure of independence in comparison to being a servant in a fine house, where her last job ended when she threatened a child with a knife. As Owen points out, there wouldn’t be much record of her early life ‘if not for her outbursts of violent temper and threats to others’ (19). At fifteen she marries for the first time one of her washing clients, Charles Hopkins — who of course is not really who he says he is but Keetspool Brown, a deserter from the British Army. Oh and he’s still involved with a married housekeeper — who’s soon found dead. Was it suicide? Was it Charles/Keetspool? Was it Lizzie? Did her murderous career begin here?
She has a child with her first husband — a son who will eventually be taken away from her for his safety. His fate is unknown. Also the cause of death of her first husband was unclear: typhoid? Too long inhaling bristles from the brush factory he worked in? Or maybe poison? She claimed it wasn’t her: husband number two — much older and with a good pension and an opium habit, that was much more likely to be Lizzie’s plan. The third husband lost all his money but managed not to lose his life. The fourth survived some poisoned tea. The fifth was the first to be almost as young as she, but soon disappeared. For a time Lizzie took to ‘tramping’ (hobo life) and sometimes living with the Travellers who had come to that region.
Things go on all the way to her last fatal husband and a curious double homicide that may have had something to do with revenge. The murders were a sensation — her capture and trial even more so. Women who murdered tended to be more genteel: the brutal and contemptuous manner of her final spree shocked the nation.
And it didn’t all end there!
Well worth a read. A few quibbles: not once was Antrim spelled correctly; the page layout is a bit wonky but you get used to it. Because part of my interest was wanting to dive into the primary materials I found the bibliography a confusing mess. With no footnotes or endnotes, it is doubly vexing to have no discernible order to the works cited nor connection to the information in the text.
By the way, no: no credible chance of her being linked to the Whitechapel murders.
Looking for things to read in these in-between times?
You’ll find plenty of fiction and non-fiction over at Pulp Noir Magazine.
Talking with Strangers (inadvisable!)
Playing Ripley (Highsmith’s favourite character on stage)
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (unusual noir)
Summer Wine (quaff at your own risk)