This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,829) on Friday, January 20, 2023.
As promised in last week’s newsletter, I continue to present websites that attempt to avoid, as best they can, the “bad news bias” of many of the mainstream media. This week’s entry is YES! magazine.
YES! emphasizes what it calls “solutions journalism.” It says, “Through rigorous reporting on the positive ways communities are responding to social problems and insightful commentary that sparks constructive discourse, YES! Media inspires people to build a more just, sustainable, and compassionate world.”
The problems it tackles might be political, societal, or personal. You will probably find more than one article that grabs your attention—things you won’t see elsewhere. For instance, this one got mine: You know what else is contagious? Good health. The story is told mostly through informational graphics, and it is fascinating.
If you have a website that seeks to avoid the bad news bias, let me know. Have a great and literate weekend, and a very Happy New Year.
Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,829 subscribers and had a 38.6 percent open rate; 12 persons unsubscribed.
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Freeman Wills Crofts, setting the standard for the ‘police procedural’
Freeman Wills Crofts is not a name that is heard these days along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but that’s because we’re living in the 21st century. If you were reading detective fiction in the 1930s, the “golden age” of the genre, you would be very familiar with Crofts and likely would have sampled some of his work.
Crofts was the master of the “inverted mystery,” the story where the killer is revealed to the reader early in the story and the detective must work things out with the reader watching. As such, Crofts offered his readers interesting characters, fascinating locations, and above all intricate plots.
Crofts’ stories often revolved around railroads or steamships. He knew these modes of transportation very well because of his training as an engineer and his professional experience working with the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway.
Crofts was born in 1879 in Dublin, Ireland, and by the time he was 17, he had attended two colleges in Belfast and was apprenticed as an engineer to his maternal uncle who worked for the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway. He took to the precise nature of the work and helped to design the expansion lines of the railway. He might have continued doing that for the remainder of his days, but in 1919, when he was 40 years old, he became ill and had to endure a long convalescence period.
It was during that time that he wrote his first novel, The Cask, which was published in 1920. It was a critical and commercial success and put Crofts at the forefront of the emerging genre. The Cask is still considered to be a masterpiece and thought by many critics to be Crofts’ best work.
Despite the success of his first novel, Crofts continued working at his job for another 10 years. He also continued to write, and during the rest of his life he published about a book a year until his death in 1957.
In 1929, he left his job and moved to a village south of London. He was now writing full-time, but he was also battling periodic bouts of ill-health. It was during this time that he became a member in good standing of the Detection Club, along with Christie, Sayers, Hugh Walpole, G.K. Chesterton, and other famous mystery writers.
Although the mystery novel was a well-established form, some writers experimented with variations, and Crofts was one of those. Not only did he write the inverted mysteries, he also occasionally had his characters, or a narrator, speak directly to the readers about clues or situations in the stories. He also occasionally tried his hand at humor.
In addition to his writing, Crofts was a serious musician and was organist and choirmaster in Killowen Parish Church, Coleraine, St. Patrick’s Church, Jordanstown.
Crofts was well-respected by writing colleagues, enough to be asked to contribute a chapter to the club’s round-robin novel, The Floating Admiral (see the post below). Crofts’ work, even though not read widely today, was important in setting the standard for what we know as the “police procedural.”
Note: Many of Crofts’ books are still in print and available for purchase. A few are contained on Project Gutenberg, FadedPage, and LibriVox.
The Floating Admiral, the most famous of the round-robin novels
The admiral had lots of authors—13, to be exact—help him into his dinghy. Unfortunately, none of them helped him stay alive while he rowed across the lake that night. They, of course, had a vested interest in seeing that he was dead by the time he reached the middle of the lake.
Mystery writers—you can never count on them to keep you alive.
The book in question is The Floating Admiral, published in 1931, and it is the most famous, though not the first, of the round-robin mystery novels. A round-robin novel is where several authors agree on a situation, some rules for the story, and an order in which authors will write. Then each author writes a chapter after the one before has written the previous chapter.
The last author has to tie the story together, and that is the toughest job of all.
The Floating Admiral is famous because of the authors involved: Victor Whitechurch, the writing team of G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald A. Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane, and Anthony Berkeley. An introduction was written by G.K. Chesterton, the then president of the club. How did all these heavy-hitters of 20th century British literature come together to write this book?
The answer is that they were all members of the Detection Club, a group of published mystery authors who met periodically in London for dinner, drink, conversation, and maybe a little shop talk. The idea of the book came from something Dorothy L. Sayers had done for the BBC a few years before.
The BBC was new to the air and searching for interesting programming, and the Talks Department (yes, that’s what it was called) contacted six authors—Hugh Walpole, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, E. C. Bentley, and Ronald A. Knox—about doing a round-robin detective series for the radio. Such a series would be a challenge for the authors on a number of levels. First, the episodes would have to be short. They would have to be written for the ear, not the eye. And, finally, they would have to be written with a deadline in mind.
None of these authors was used to any of those conditions, but they all accepted the challenge. Sayers was put in charge of managing the project and keeping everything on track. The audience was invited to submit solutions to the mystery at the end. The broadcasts were first heard in June and July of 1930, and the BBC considered it a great success, despite the trouble that Sayers had in keeping everyone on track and on deadline. There were more than 1,700 entries to the solution from listeners, and one was chosen as the best, and a prize was awarded.
The BBC was so pleased that they all did it again two more times.
Sayers carried the idea forward to her colleagues in the Detection Club, this time with the idea of making money. The club wanted to rent its own space in London for its meetings, and sales from a book would do the trick. It worked. The authors made their contributions, the book was published, and it sold enough copies so that the Detection Club was able to rent a couple of small rooms in SoHo.
Some of the authors tried the idea of a round-robin novel again, although not in precisely the method of The Floating Admiral. The results were Six Against the Yard in 1936 and Double Death in 1939. Many critics have tagged Double Death as the best of the lot.
The Detection Club still exists today, although they no longer have their rooms in SoHo. They do meet to eat, drink, and talk several times a year.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
From the archives: Smithsonian Institution’s name and unusual founding
The Smithsonian Institution did not start out as the “nation’s attic.”
It began as the storage house for the relics and collections of a British scientist whose connection with the United States is unclear.
James Smithson was born in Paris in 1765, the illegitimate son of an English duke. He obtained British citizenship but traveled extensively and never had a permanent home.
As a scientist, he studied and collected a wide variety of materials. He also accumulated substantial wealth, apparently through wise investments.
When he died in 1829 in Genoa, Italy, he left his estate to a nephew, son of a half brother, with the stipulation that if the nephew died without heirs, the estate was to be given to the United States of America for the founding of a museum in Washington, D.C.
No one knows why he did that.
Fortunately for the U.S., the nephew never married. He died in 1835.
The U.S. government was informed of the bequest the next year. Smithson had left enough money to fund the transfer of the estate and the building of a building in Washington, and that is the castle-like structure that you can see on the Mall in Washington, D.C., today.
No self-respecting tourist comes to D.C. and passes by the Smithsonian, but few know of its origins.
Smithsonian archives website: https://siarchives.si.edu/history/james-smithson
American football, the game we love in spite of our better selves
Americans’ love of football remains undiminished despite the spectacle of Damar Hamlin collapsing on the field during the Buffalo Bills-Cincinnati Bengals nationally-televised game a couple of weeks ago. Hamlin had just taken a normal hit to the chest on the previous play, but this hit sent him into cardiac arrest. He nearly died.
It was all there, right in front of us for anyone to see.
The nation was shocked, outraged. As Reid Forgrave writes in Plough magazine:
We chastise the NFL for its checkered record with player safety. We pledge we’ll stop watching football. We claim to truly care for the human being wearing that uniform. We tweet about how horrified we are at football’s violence and the NFL’s money-at-all-costs machine.
But we aren’t being fully authentic in our outrage, are we? The next weekend, players play, fans watch, commercials air, and reform ends up only happening at the margins – tweaks to the rules, improved equipment, better concussion protocols, but nothing that ruins the sanctity of our brutal, beautiful national sport.
Football’s violence always stays. Because that violence is what we love about football.
Forgrave is the author of Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy. His article examines the affection that Americans have for the game and why, no matter what, we can’t give it up. We spend time and money on the game, and despite the moral ambiguities that it creates, we will continue to do so.
Group giveaways for January
Kill the Quarterback and Murder Most Criminous are part of five group giveaways during the month of January:
Murder and Mayhem Mailing List, January 2023
Things that Go Bump in the Night
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.
Check out last week’s newsletter
Elizabeth S.: Thank you for the Pray-as-you-go and the Bible Project sites. A great way to start my day!
Ethyl is one cool cat!
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Firing the imagination
Best quote of the week:
When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people. Abraham Joshua Heschel, rabbi and professor (1907-1972)
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.
You can connect with Jim on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and BookBub.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The first female-authored detective series, the gun-slinger who became a sports reporter, and the Tylenol murders: newsletter, January 13, 2023
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