August Pleasure Reading: Summer Winds Down

Many students of archaeology share an experience:  they once took a class in which the professor compared archaeology to detective work.  “Archaeology is kind of like detective work.  We tell the story of the past through the clues we find.”  The sense that this might be true is felt oh-so-much more in recent years as the public (and archaeologists) have been exposed to crime scene analysis, so much so that the bridge has been built between archaeology and forensic applications.  Archaeologists watching television often see their very tool kit being appropriated when the TV CSIs are out sifting for evidence. 

In books like The Body Farm, we are exposed to the real life experiment that makes physical anthropology central to the work of forensic specialists.  In White Fire, the detectives search the bones and documents of the past diligently to find the key to some present-day serial arsons, murders, and more.  In Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery, it is the sensational and contentious dimensions of archaeological discovery that lead to murder most foul (I’m glad this doesn’t happen in real life).

In that most famous of all detective stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Neolithic archaeology of Devonshire is used to contribute to the emerging sense of dread.  Meanwhile, the story’s amateur archaeologist-medical doctor brings an unexpected chuckle or two in contrast to A. Conan Doyle’s quintessential construction of a dark and foreboding mood.  Arguably, the author meant for Dr. Mortimer’s discourses on craniometry to be funny, not simply proof of authenticity and expertise in a turn-of-the-20th century sort-of-way:  the funniness sometimes lands squarely on Sherlock Holmes, at other times on the doctor himself.  

If you are looking for something to read this August (should you get a little time off) try one of these:

The Hound of the Baskervilles:  Another Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, by A. Conan Doyle (Paperback, Dover Thrift Editions, Mineola, New York, 1994; original American hardcover edition by Grosset and Dunlap, New York, 1902).  

“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”--  Dr. James Mortimer, p. 26.

The plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles is pretty well known:  an alleged enormous hound from hell is the curse of the aristocratic Baskerville family, whose domain is on the moors of Devonshire in the southwest of England.  Recorded in relation to the death of a Baskerville lord in the 17th century, at the end of the Victorian era the beast has emerged from legend and struck again.  Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson have been enlisted to investigate (and help, if help is at all possible).

There is little chance of me giving away the ending here; many of you know it.  This story is so familiar that there are only three things I want to mention.  First, the last time I read this book, I was struck by the recurring, funny portrayals of Dr.  Mortimer’s interest in skulls.  Here, the author, Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, has fun with craniometry.  For example, Dr. Mortimer to Holmes on page 9:  “You interest me very much, Mr. Holmes.  I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull, or such well-marked supra-orbital development.  Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure?...I confess that I covet your skull.”

Second, in A. Conan Doyle’s capable hands, the past becomes part of the device for creating horror and dread in this novel.  We of the 21st century want this to be horrifying, and the story has so long been part of popular culture that it is the hound as a living, breathing, running, howling menace, plus the stark bleakness and isolation of the moors that are iconic.  But I think that there was more than that available to set the mood for Doyle’s contemporaries.  The moors of the story are full of stone hut ruins, the long abandoned homes of Neolithic people, who apparently were much more numerous and much more in control of the moors than the 19th century English.  What caused their decline?  Why did they abandon the moors?  What calamity of historic proportion do the moors hold for humanity?  The legacy of the Neolithic stone huts and the dangerous nature of the moors are not just background; they are central to the plot (to be confronted by the rational Holmes, armed with his great mind, his friends, and a little luck).  I see the horror of this story drawn as a set of structural oppositions:  the savage inheritance of the past versus the fragile equilibrium of the present, nature versus culture, wild versus domesticated, uncivilized versus civilized, pre-modern fear of the supernatural versus modern rational analysis.  To the English reader of the early 20th century, the sense of dread might not pass when the book was closed.  The perceived threats from the uncivilized--  the ceaseless encroachment of nature; the lurking of less-than-civilized people masquerading as fellow Victorians; the escaped convict, the unfaithful servant, the abusive husband, the abandoning father, the homicidal next-in-line--  had long been palpable, and were woven into the horror story from the context of beliefs about empire, history, civilization, and the discontented.  The hint of Neolithic disaster and the ancient legend of the great infernal hound carried the old, savage threat into the present.

Third, and not least, I have read this book several times.  It is always entertaining.  In the last hundred pages or so, you don’t want to put it down.  And if you are thinking of reading White Fire, it would be good to brush up on The Hound of the Baskervilles.    

Sherlock Homes and Rune Stone Mystery, by Larry Millett (Paperback, Penguin Books, New York, 1999).

“I do not know, Watson, I do not know, though I must always remain a skeptic.”--  Sherlock Holmes, p. 330.  

In 1899, Holmes and Watson journeyed to Minnesota, at the behest of the King of Sweden, to investigate with an eye to possible acquisition a certain rune stone found there by a Swedish immigrant farmer.  This wasn’t the first time the detectives had been in Minnesota, although these trips remain not widely publicized.  

Buy the premise, buy the joke, the great man said; and in order to suspend your disbelief enough to get lost in The Rune Stone Mystery, you need to buy this premise:  Dr. John Watson did not publish all of the Sherlock Holmes adventures (for a variety of reasons, including Holmes’ sometimes waning support of Watson’s project).  Some of these unpublished Sherlock Holmes manuscripts were, in fact, the tales of Holmes’ and Watson’s adventures in Minnesota, which St. Paul newsman Larry Millett has endeavored to track down for the benefit of the reading public.  The Rune Stone Mystery somehow found its way from the hand of Watson to that of Albert Carlson, an early 20th century Minnesota newspaperman.  This is the manuscript Millett eventually obtained.  Or so the premise goes.

The other thing that you need to know is that this story follows fragments of truth mixed up with poorly understood claims concerning a stone actually inscribed with Scandinavian runes and a few Roman letters that appeared (some say it was found) in Minnesota in 1898.  This, the Kensington Stone, is carved with the date AD 1362, and tells the story of a group of Norwegians and Goths (i.e. Swedes; it was one kingdom back then) who had been attacked on a journey, and while asking Saint Mary for help, placed the stone to memorialize their dead comrades.  Is this a hoax or a genuine artifact of Norse exploration in the interior of North America?  The stone gained more traction as likely genuine after research showed that the expedition could have belonged to Paul Knutson, a Norwegian knight who was ordered on a mission to find the Greenland colony in 1354 (I have found no actual report of Knutson’s travels or discoveries).  Nowadays, the Kensington Stone is widely regarded as fraudulent, but not by everyone.  I take care to add this last with respect, having made the mistake once of blithely and thoughtlessly referring to the Kensington Stone as a hoax.  In Minnesota.

For Holmes and Watson, the mystery not only involves whether there was a hoaxer, but also, who killed the farmer that found the rune stone, and why?  The team of sleuths joins forces with the Minnesota-wise bartender-turned-detective Shadwell Rafferty to run this one to ground.  Was the motive for murder greed?  A cover-up?  Nationalist pride of patrimony?  Read Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery to find out!    

The Body Farm, by Patricia Cornwell (Paperback, Berkley Books, New York, 1994).

“I used to put a plastic tent over the body and do the fuming inside it.  But too much vapor and the skin gets too frosted.  Dr. Scarpetta, you can set the fan in that window.”--  Dr. Thomas Katz, p. 57, on inventing fingerprint recovery from skin.

In the Kay Scarpetta novels, Patricia Cornwell made forensic analysis central to solving fictional murders, and as a medical examiner, Scarpetta brought focus to the deceased human body as a rich and essential field of investigation.  Many years later, we take it for granted that forensic analysis will help solve the crime on TV and in life:  even when compelling the confession is the dramatic highpoint, the medical examiner is a necessary role from Castle to Major Crimes.  An entire staff of forensic scientists led by the most emotionally detached of anthropologists collaborates to solve murders in Bones, a TV show in which a fictional review of a fictional book by a fictional author stated “Anthropology has never been more exciting!”  This kind of crime fiction is now a genre within a genre.  Even Dr. William Bass, real-life creator of the University of Tennessee’s “body farm”, has become an author of forensic-based crime fiction.  But (with Quincy acknowledged as an ancestor spirit), this thematic explosion in popular culture traces back to Cornwell and Scarpetta, who found their version of Bass’s research center along the road to making crime fiction more scientific.   

In fiction, The Body Farm is the fifth of Cornwell’s Scarpetta novels, and it provided my introduction to this series.  It is a book that leapt out at me in the used book store, and it remains my favorite.  In real life, the body farm is a research station run by an anthropology department where the bodies of people who so will it in life are studied after death in a wide variety of decompositional situations, providing valuable information on subjects such as determining the time of death in a murder investigation.  In the novel, Scarpetta, a state medical examiner in Virginia, is consulting with the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit at Quantico.  An elusive serial killer may have struck in North Carolina and the investigation is at an impasse, until a trip to Tennessee for collaboration with the body farm scientists finally provides an important key.  But finding out who done it is only part of the path to justice.  Even with all of the help of the body farm investigation, will Scarpetta be able to tie this one up?  Or will there be plenty left over for her next journey into forensic crime analysis?  

White Fire, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Paperback, Vision, New York, 2013). 

 “When was the last time you read The Hound of the Baskervilles?”--  Agent Pendergast to Corrie Swanson, p. 170.

In London, during August, 1899, A. Conan Doyle met Oscar Wilde who had returned from a tour of America.  In a Colorado mining town (according to this novel’s premise), Wilde heard a horrifying story of death.  This he relates, with voice lowered, to Conan Doyle over dinner.

In the present-day, Corrie Swanson, protégé of the singular and extraordinary FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast, is working on her thesis in forensic osteology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.  Struggling with her subject, but gleaning a bit of information from Conan Doyle’s diary (which briefly recorded his meeting with Wilde), Corrie heads off to Roaring Fork, Colorado to study the bones of the 19th century miners recently exhumed for a construction project.  Miners supposedly killed by a grizzly bear.  The mysteries here are parallel stories of:  (1) what really happened to the miners, (2) who is setting fires to resort McMansions and cruelly killing the people inside, (3) what secrets are the ski-resort developers hiding, (4) who is trying to kill Corrie; and (5) what evil is spanning the 130+ years since really gruesome killings first occurred in the fictional town of Roaring Fork?  Corrie and Pendergast meet an interesting cast of characters while she stays dedicated (despite trouble) to studying the remains of the miners, and he helps the police to investigate the present-day serial arsons and murders (when not in England chasing down his most important lead). 

This book is a great page-turner and it contains an interesting plot device, involving a Sherlock Holmes novella built into the Pendergast novel. Following the premise (we have seen before) that not all of Watson’s Sherlock Holmes stories were published, Preston and Child provide a long and interesting one, “The Adventure of Aspern Hall”, which tells a story that (we are led to believe) was too controversial, too revolting, to give to the reading public of the early 20th century.  Still, Conan Doyle eventually did something with it, and it became a different, scary story more in resonance with late Victorian sensibilities.  

Once read, the Aspern Hall story becomes Pendergast’s big clue.  It reveals to him the true nature of what happened in Colorado in the 1870s, and the problem those events have made for Corrie and the victimized vacationers and town-folk of present-day Roaring Fork.  This is possibly the best of the Pendergast novels, and I predict that someday the brave and observant student Corrie Swanson will become a great crime-fiction detective in her own right.