This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,753) on Friday, January 13, 2023.
The “bad news bias” of the news outlet that I regularly visit has been all too obvious lately. I know enough about journalism not to blame the messenger. There’s plenty of bad stuff out there that we need to know about.
But there is good stuff, too, that often gets overlooked. The New Year is a good time to try out some different news outlets that might point your head away from how awful the world is. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to suggest a few news outlets that you may want to try.
The first is Positive News. This one comes from Great Britain, and this is what it says about itself: “When much of the media is full of doom and gloom, instead Positive News is the first media organisation in the world that is dedicated to quality, independent reporting about what’s going right.” Try out this article: What Went Right in 2022. Careful: this stuff could be addictive.
Have a great and literate weekend, and a very Happy New Year.
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Harriet Spofford and the first female-authored detective series
Her work had been published in a variety of newspapers and magazines, but most of them were low circulation periodicals. Harriet wrote incessantly, sometimes as much as 15 hours a day, because the money that she received from her publications barely covered the family’s expenses.
In 1859 she wrote a story that she believed was worthy of a larger audience, and she boldly sent it to the leading periodical in America at the time, the Atlantic Monthly. The editors were impressed. But James Russell Lowell, the chief editor, and one of the leading literary figures in America at the time, had doubts.
The story Spofford had written, “In the Cellar,” was set in Paris, and was detailed in its description of the city and the locations that she selected. How could a young woman who had never traveled outside of New England write so perceptively, Lowell wondered. He came to the conclusion that she had not written the story but had simply translated it from the original French.
When questioned, Harriet met that conclusion with these words: “Made it up, every word of it.”
She was confident enough and convincing enough that the editors of the magazine, including Lowell, believed her and published the story. The editors also sent the author a check for $100 along with a letter of recommendation that she could show the other editors to whom she sent contributions.
That incident opened the door for Spofford to have one of the great writing careers of any female in America in the mid-19th century.
Her Atlantic Monthly story was a detective story, but the detective was never named. In two subsequent stories, “Mr. Furbush” and “In the Maguerriwock,” she does name the detective and was the first author in America to write a series of detective stories using the same American detective character. Both of these stories were published in Harper’s New Monthly in 1865 and 1868. Spofford thus joins Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, Louisa May Alcott, and Anna Katharine Green as female authors who made significant contributions to the development of American detective fiction between the work of Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s and the appearance of the most famous fictional detective of them all, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, in 1889.
Spofford, Victor, Alcott, and Green were not concerned so much with the development of the detective genre as they were with making a living. During that time, American readers had an almost insatiable desire to read fiction, and “story magazines” proliferated. These publications paid for their contributions, though the pay was not enough to grant the authors much luxury or leisure.
Spofford stood apart from most of her peers for her popularity and success. Her writing was richly descriptive and avoided many of the sensationalistic devices common to much of the storytelling of her day.
Her first novel, Sir Rohan’s Ghost, was published in 1859, the same year that her story appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, and it was a critical success. She went on to write numerous novels, short stories, reviews, and critiques during the next five decades, right up until her death at the age of 86 in 1921.
Although she sank into the obscurity fated for many of the female writers of her day, scholars have lately revived her work and paid particular attention to her small collection of detective fiction. Canadian professor Rita Bode, in an article examining this work, writes:
Her recognition of the potential in new technologies is a kind of paradigm for her treatment of her subject matter; she looks above and beyond the literary modes of her period, working her way carefully through a thought-ful exploration of both private conscience and social injustice. Spofford raises issues and provokes thought, confounding her detective and simultaneously confronting her reader with the complexities of human behavior. Although her detective stories remain few in number, she nonetheless makes her mark at the beginnings of a genre that was destined to endure. (Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol: 26:1)
The Tylenol murders
Forty years ago, you could walk into a grocery store or drugstore and grab a bottle of Tylenol off the shelf. The only thing that stood between you and the medicine was an unglued carton, screw-on bottle cap, and a small wad of cotton.
Today, if you grabbed that same bottle off the shelf, you would have to break through several seals to get to the medicine.
It would be the same for almost every over-the-counter, consumable product that you would buy anywhere.
The change is the result of the fact that in late 1982, seven people died because the Tylenol in their bottles had been poisoned with cyanide. They all died within a few hours of one another. Three of those who died were in the same family—two brothers and the wife of one of those brothers. Another victim was a 12-year-old girl. All of the victims lived in the Chicago area.
Their deaths caused a nationwide panic and an unprecedented search for the persons who had caused these tragedies. No one has ever been convicted of these murders, and their deaths still haunt those who investigated the crimes.
Two recent podcasts from excellent sources review much of what we know about the 1982 Tylenol murders. The most detailed is the eight-episode Unsealed: the Tylenol Murders podcast reported by two journalists from the Chicago Tribune, Christy Gutowski and Stacy St. Clair. If you want a quick one-episode summary of the Unsealed podcast, take a look at episode The Tylenol Murders in the This is Criminal podcast with Phoebe Judge. This is Criminal is about as good a podcast as you can find if you are looking in the true crime genre.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
From the archives: Bat Masterson: gun-slinger first, then sports reporter
The world today knows him as one of the Old West’s most famous gunslingers, fearless associate of the famous lawman, Wyatt Earp.
But in 1921, the world knew Bat Masterson as a world-class sports writer for the New York Morning Telegraph and one of the foremost experts on the second most popular sport of the day, boxing. (Baseball was the most popular sport, and professional football was hardly thought about.)
Bat Masterson was indeed a gunfighter in Dodge City and elsewhere in the West during his younger days. He was also a buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, and scout for the U.S. Army. But that phase of his life was finished by the mid-1880s when he was in his thirties. Moving to Denver, he became a “sporting man” and gambler and developed himself as a leading authority on prizefighting, which was growing in popularity with the public and with newspaper sports writers.
Masterson was a personal friend of people such as Gentleman Jim Corbett, Jack Johnson, John L. Sullivan, and Jack Dempsey, all legends of the boxing ring. He attended just about every major fight of that era, and his expertise on the sport was unsurpassed.
In 1902 he moved to New York to become a sports reporter and columnist for the Morning Telegraph and did that until his death in 1921. On the way, he became a personal friend of President Theodore Roosevelt and accepted a federal appointment as a U.S. marshal from him. He died at his sports writing desk of a massive heart attack on October 25, 1921. In the late 1950s, a television series loosely based on his life and starring Gene Barry was broadcast for several seasons.
He was writing a column when he died as his desk, and his final written words were:
“There are many in this old world of ours who hold that things break about even for all of us. I have observed, for example, that we get about the same amount of ice. The rich get it in the summer—and the poor get it in the winter.” New-York Historical Society http://sports.nyhistory.org/bat-masterson/
Masterson’s friend, Damon Runyan, named his lead character in Guys and Dolls Sky Masterson after the old gunfighter.
DeArment, Robert K. Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson’s New York City Years. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2013.
Group giveaways for January
Kill the Quarterback and Murder Most Criminous are part of six group giveaways during the month of January:
Each of these giveaways includes more than 20 books of various sub-genres. You can download any or all of them in exchange for your email address. The email address will be shared among all authors participating in the giveaway. The purpose of these giveaways is to get books into the hands of readers and to increase email lists for the authors.
Vince V.: My nudge word for 2022 and 2023 is “stoicism.” I’ve been amazed that beginning in 4 B.C. and continuing through 180 A.D. that the three most popular Greek stoics––Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus––supplied all the mentoring anyone needs to lead an examined and happy life. There’s really nothing new under the sun. I begin each day reading them.
Eric S.: The Washington Post column you mentioned about nudge words (a term new to me) grabbed me. I’m not a religious guy, just read parables like the one about the Pharisee and the tax collector, the former bragging about how humble he is, the latter asking forgiveness for his transgressions. Humility is something I must work on.
Finally, your take on libraries coincides with mine. The public library is as essential an ingredient to civilized society as museums, city parks and the local coffee shop. Check that. More essential.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Ethyl
Best quote of the week:
Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right. Isaac Asimov, scientist and writer (1920-1992)
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
If you are interested in reading scripture, either the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both, you might be interested in the videos, commentary, and podcast of the BibleProject.com. The people who work on this site have done some deep and thoughtful reading of the Bible, and the videos they have produced (generally shorter than 10 minutes) are both entertaining and enlightening. They view the Bible as a single entity with a single purpose, and their approach is both delightful and refreshing.
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them 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 (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The first American detective novel, an ode to libraries, and the first published poet in American newsletter, January 6, 2023
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