The man who wanted every book; the quintessential English detective; and the first American crime novel; and morenewsletter May 18, 2018

May 21, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: newsletter.

This newsletter was emailed to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,644) on May 18, 2018


A summer head cold attacked me this week, making life miserable for a few days, but I tried not to let it slow me down too much. The major woodworking project that I mentioned last week was completed and is explained below. It’s also been a week of interesting discoveries, and I have included a few of those in this week’s newsletter. Just a few. There are more to come later.

And it’s a pleasure to report that warm weather is here in East Tennessee, and the beehives (I had a peek inside some of these for the first time in several weeks) are roaring away. We will see what they produce.

Have a great weekend.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.


The public, the press, and the detective — an uneasy relationship from the very beginning 

In late June 1860, Saville Kent, who resided with his family in a house in Road, Wiltshire, England, was murdered. He was three years old. His throat had been cut, and his body had been left on the floor of an outdoor privy used by the servants and tradesmen at the house. It was not at all clear who killed him or why.

The case quickly achieved international fame, and it produced the genre of the English country house murder. More importantly, it did much to give us the concept of the English detective — the clever man who, viewing things from the outside, can spot the inconsistencies, the hidden stories, the fear, and even the hate of the participants.

Except that’s not exactly how this case developed. I’m not going to include any spoilers here. If you’re interested, you can read Kate Summerscale’s excellent book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing a Great Victorian Detective. She has all the details, and there are many.

The detective in question is Jack Whicher. He was a member of the first detective squad put together by Scotland Yard in 1842. By 1860, his fame had grown to national proportions because of an enthusiastic press and a general fascination with crime, particularly murder. Whicher’s cleverness and success made him the prototype for the English detective of both fact and fiction that would come down to us today.

But in reading Summerdale’s book, I found some interesting nuances that cloud the picture of the great English detective. I’m not talking about Whicher himself but about that image of the detective.

Read the rest of this short post on


My latest woodworking project

A musical instrument of any kind is not easy to make, so I got some special satisfaction from the completion of my latest woodworking project: a mountain dulcimer. I completed the one pictured here at the end of the week last week, and it made its world debut at a meeting of my local dulcimer club on Wednesday. It’s all about the sound, of course, and this one sounds pretty good.

The dulcimer is made from pecan (body) and walnut (headstock, fretboard, and tailstock). There is no standard wood for a dulcimer, so that makes each one sound a little different.

Dulcimers are popular all over the world — thanks in great part to the late, great folksinger Jean Ritchie — but they used to be confined to certain parts of southern Appalachia. A well-played dulcimer can be magical.

It takes as much patience as skill to make one of these, and I have to thank my friend Bruce M. for giving me lots of help and direction.



The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.

The Amazon gift card raffle that we included in the newsletter for the last couple of weeks has ended, but I haven’t been notified about the winners yet. When I have their names, I will publish them. We’ll likely be doing another raffle like this one next month.


The first American crime novel — actually, a sensation novel — had a female author

Metta Victoria Fuller Victor authored and published The Dead Letter in 1867. It is thought to be America’s first full crime novel. (Edgar Allan Poe’s stuff was short stories.) In its day, it was known as a sensation novel.

But it’s not America’s first detective novel.

The Dead Letter has a crime, of course. There is evidence. There are clues. The novel has a police detective — a clever one — and he had a daughter who is also clever in a different way. The detective has a backstory that explains why he’s there.

The problem, as LeRoy Lad Panek points out in his book, The Origins of the American Detective Story, is that the crime is not “solved” by the detective (or his daughter). It’s solved by an accidental discovery. Panek notes that in the pre-detective novel era of crime fiction or sensation novels, it wasn’t necessarily up to the detective to solve the crime. Something else was going on.

That something has a lot to do with the views of and attitudes toward criminals and justice that lie under these kinds of books. Crime and justice in a sensation novel depend on faith in a universe that is eventually and inevitably just and governed by providence: this goes back to the sure knowledge that “murder will out” that serves as the basis for what happens in century upon century of Western literature from Chaucer’s “Prioriss Tale” to MacBeth and Hamlet. (pp. 13-14)

It is the concept of “inevitable justice,” Paneck points out. Victorians and people before them did not need detectives. Truth, providentially, would always take over.

If you are interested in reading The Dead Letter, you can do so here at Project Gutenberg.

Tom Wolfe, the reporter with the right stuff

Few journalists manage to do what Tom Wolfe did, both with his words and his approach.

Wolfe, who died Monday (May 14, 2018) at age 88, pioneered in the 1960s an approach to journalism that became known as The New Journalism. What that involved was intensive reporting — not a five-question interview with a couple of ready sources, but a commitment of days, even weeks, talking and observing.

Then there were the words.

As the New York Times obituary says of him:

His talent as a writer and caricaturist was evident from the start in his verbal pyrotechnics and perfect mimicry of speech patterns, his meticulous reporting, and his creative use of pop language and explosive punctuation. Source: Tom Wolfe, Pyrotechnic ‘New Journalist’ and Novelist, Dies at 88 – The New York Times

Wolfe never ceased being a reporter, even with the novels he wrote. Like a good reporter his curiosity was never in question and never satisfied.

RIP, Tom Wolfe.


The man who tried to get every book in the world

Hernando Colón (1488-1539), the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus, spent much of his life traveling around Europe — and later America — amassing what was then the largest private library in the world.

His goal was to collect all of the knowledge of the world into one place (Seville, Spain, as it turned out) because he believed Spain would one day rule the world. It needed an extraordinary base of knowledge to do so, and Colón was determined to make that happen.  Colón was wrong about that, but the error does not detract from the man’s amazing achievements.

Those, indeed, were numerous.

He created Europe’s first botanical garden, gathering specimens from many of the places where he traveled.

He wrote a dictionary.

He helped created the first modern maps of the world.

He seemed to know everyone who was anyone during his age, including Albrecht Durer, Thomas More, and Erasmus.

He gathered the largest collection of printed images in the world.

He had the largest collection of musical scores in the world.

And with so many books, where do you put them? How do you put them? According to Edward Wilson-Lee, author of a recently published biography of Colón titled The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library:

“In essence, he invents the modern bookshelf: row upon row of books standing upright on their spines, stacked in specially designed wooden cases.”

In its description of Wilson-Lee’s book, University of Cambridge writes:

“Colón had an extraordinary memory and an obsession with lists,” says Wilson-Lee, whose research on Colón was funded by the British Academy. “Each time he bought a book, he would meticulously record where and when he bought it, how much it cost and the rate of currency exchange that day. Sometimes he noted where he was when he read it, what he thought of the book and if he’d met the author. As pieces of material culture, each is a fascinating account of how one man related to, used and was changed by books.”

So why have we not heard more about this extraordinary man? Read the rest of this post on




Jean T.: The censor who reviewed all Shakespeare’s plays was still operating as the censor of British Theatre until 1968  – the Lord Chamberlain- when the role of the official censor was abolished by the Theatres Act 1968. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office is still working in the Royal Household. They plan State visits, Royal Garden Parties, the State Opening of Parliament, Investitures, Royal Weddings and funerals. Not sure if they are doing much about Harry and Meghan’s wedding though – if what the celebrity mags say is true. 


Don M.: Living 50+ miles from the nearest library, makes MY Kindle Tablet my library…😀….that way I’m not limited to 3 books only and save time and expenses… traveling back and forth…time I spend reading on my Kindle. Many of us live in villages without a public library. … .😕

Good point. Try

Mary Wollstonecraft

A.J.N.: Your portrait of Mary W. reminds me of a current “feminist” writer, Rita Mae Brown. I love Rita Mae Brown’s “Mrs. Murphy” mystery series, and her “Sister Jane” mystery series that revolves around a group of modern-day foxhunting enthusiasts (who really do fox chasing from horseback, NOT actually hunting, as the greatest care is taken NOT to kill the fox!).


Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Hemingway and cat

A friend asked for some caricatures of 20th century American writers for her business. No. 1 on the list, of course, is Ernest Hemingway. Thought I would have some fun with this one.

Best quote of the week:

To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.” Tom Wolfe, journalist (1930-2018)

Helping those in need

This is my weekly reminder to all of us (especially me) that there are many people who need our help. It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here). When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The first feminist, the power of the story, Golden State Killer followup, Shakespeare, and more: newsletter, May 11, 2018



Point Spread’s latest review
A very kind reader (David P.) has left the following review of Point Spread on Amazon. Thanks, David.
Point Spread by Jim Stovall

Interesting premise told from a teenage girls point of view and I think Stovall totally nailed it. I loved the way the plot unfolded bit by bit having you trying to guess what comes next. It’s about doing something wrong for a good reason. It’s a look into life in the 60’s in a small town, about moral dilemma, determination and solving a mystery. It is full of a cast of characters that you can relate to and seem very real. It is extremely well written and a very enjoyable read. It kept me involved and interested in the story from the first page to the last. More Please!

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