Thursday, March 7, 2019


CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provide a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website majikwoids. A link is provided in the sidebar.

Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.



Rex Stout
(1886 - 1975)

Rex Todhunter Stout, born in 1886 and a published writer by 1920, was best known for creating what are generally considered the most refined and sophisticated detective fiction of his time. Nero Wolfe, his reclusive sleuth, worked as hard on cultivating orchids and his palate as he did at solving murders. His foil, Archie Goodwin, served as Wolfe's factotum and more. No longer the somewhat obtuse friend as Conan Doyle and Christie had portrayed Watson and Hastings, Goodwin became an equal with the fat man.

And it is with Archie Goodwin that some first steps are taken towards the creation of the hard boiled detective to come. When Wolfe needs to circumvent the law, it is Goodwin who beaks and enters. It is Goodwin who carries the gun. It is Goodwin who throws the punch. He may be suave and witty, but the veneer is thin and beneath lurks the tough guy who doesn't hesitate to do what needs to be done.

Like Doyle and Collins, Stout worked a variety of jobs in order to support himself while he wrote. He stopped writing for several years as he found earning a living and writing too daunting. His decision was to work and save until he could support himself as a writer. Fortunately, he sold a banking system designed primarily for schools to various institutions, and the income from the sale freed him to resume his writing.

Stouts first four novels, not mysteries, found publishers and moderate sales. He had written several short detective stories, and in the early 1930s made the decision to concentrate on that genre. Fer-de-Lance, published in 1934, brought Nero Wolfe to the reading public. Stout, though not exactly a model for Wolfe---always rather thin and outgoing himself --- did imbue the detective with his passion for fine food and gardening. The top floor of Wolfe's fictional brownstone in New York City had been converted to a potting room, work room, and green house. Besides Goodman, the household consisted of Theodore, who looked after the 10,000 orchids, and Fritz Brenner, the master chef, who catered to Wolfe's appetite.


Fer-de-Lance sold well and Stout began churning out a new Wolfe story every year. He also found time for political activism, supporting various democratic organizations. He was a past president of the Mystery Writers of America and won numerous awards including a nomination by an international panel as the foremost writer of the genre.

He died at his home in Danbury, Connecticut.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provide a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website majikwoids. A link is provided in the sidebar.

Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.




Agatha Christie
(1890 - 1976)



Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller is arguably the best selling author of all time. Estimates of the sales of her 83 books stands at about 2 billion books. She created two detectives who are as recognized as most top film stars: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Poirot is a Belgian dandy whose methods were taken from Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Poirot relies on 'his little grey cells' and deductions follow. Marple is an observant elderly lady who is most often underestimated. She, too, relies on deduction.

Christie was the daughter of an American father and a British mother. Born in England in September of 1890, she was taught at home, learned to read at five, and grew up surrounded by a family that thoroughly enjoyed telling stories. At 24, she married a Colonel Archibald Christie.

Unfortunately, the marriage failed badly. The Colonel was a philanderer. Christie drove off one day in December of 1926 and disappeared. Stress induced amnesia of one sort or another was the diagnosis. She had checked herself into a resort hotel under her husband's mistress' name, and claimed to remember nothing of the intervening days.

Regaining her health --- divorcing the Colonel no doubt helped --- she resumed writing. She had already published five novels with some success. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, earlier in 1926, became a best seller, and launched the public acclaim for both Christie and her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. In her autobiography, Christie acknowledges that she was " ... still writing in the Sherlock Holmes tradition --- eccentric detective, stooge assistant, and a stolid police man ..."


By 1934, Christie had found a new niche. Her novels began to feature unlikely scenarios in which her characters acted in the most likely manner. Miss Jane Marple, one of the author's favorites, first appears in Murder In The Vicarage. Marple, no doubt speaking Christie's mind as well, often remarks in the calm manner of your favorite grandmother, that all human beings are prey to their weaknesses and that some few are completely immoral. And it is the books of this period that Christie espouses the philosophy that to kill a killer is only justice.

For her exemplary career as a writer, Agatha Christie, age 81, was named a Dame of the British Empire, a woman's equivalent of knighthood.





Saturday, February 2, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provide a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website majikwoids. A link is provided in the sidebar.

Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(1859 - 1930)


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh on May 22, 1859, just a year after Wilkie Collins published The Woman In White. His family was impoverished largely due to an profligate father who gambled and drank. Nevertheless, Conan Doyle managed to receive a good education at a Jesuit school despite the sometimes brutal physical punishment that was meted out to the school's students. With an absent, errant father, mother and son formed a strong bond. From her he learned to appreciate the art of story telling, and managed to publish his first story while still a student.

Though he studied to be doctor, his medical practice was never on solid footing. While in London, writing stories rather than prescriptions, he managed to sell 'An American Tale'. "It was in this year," he later wrote, "that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials."

Well educated, well read, and soon to be well traveled, Doyle became a man of many interests. At twenty, he made a voyage to the arctic as a ship's doctor. While repulsed by the slaughter of seals, he relished the shipboard camaraderie. That voyage " ... awakened the soul of a born wanderer ... "

In 1886, he began a novel which would make him famous. Originally entitled A Tangled Skein, his protagonist was named Sheridan Hope. His crony was named Ormand Sacker. The book would be renamed A Study In Scarlet, and the characters would become Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

With the immediate success and celebrity of Holmes, Doyle faced a dilemma. The detective stories, as a genre, even then were considered "commercial" works; and Doyle wished to be considered a 'serious' writer, a literary man. So in spite of the financial rewards of the Holmes' stories and a now flourishing medical practice, Conan Doyle was restless.

He moved to Vienna with his wife and daughter and set up a practice, which failed rather badly. The inactivity, however, gave him a good deal of idle time to think. He made the decision to write a series of stories with the same characters. The Strand magazine agreed to publish, and Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson became the obvious protagonists for the stories. The collaboration between Doyle and The Strand became an immediate success, lasting for many decades.


In May, 1891, he suffered a severe bout of influenza; and Conan Doyle came to the realization that attempting to combine a medical career with a literary career was too daunting a task. His choice was easy: he gave up medicine and concentrated on writing.

Despite the success of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle began to feel oppressed by his character. By 1893, the demands to write more stories were constant. His solution to the problem was to kill the golden goose. In what was entitled 'The Final Problem', Holmes and his arch enemy Moriarty fight and both fall to their deaths into the Reichenbach Falls. Subsequently, 20,000 subscribers to The Strand magazine cancelled their subscriptions.

Relieved to be rid of this burden, Conan Doyle traveled and concentrated on his 'serious' writing. The death of his wife and son led him to the occult. As he grew older, more and more of his time and energy were spent delving into the mysteries of the afterlife and going off on what he termed 'psychic crusades.' It was estimated that he spent a million pounds ($30 million in today's money) on his esoteric studies.

Curiously, Holmes, too, had his 'afterlife.' Whenever Conan Doyle ran short of funds he would trot out another Holmes' story and replenish the coffers. Four novels were published as well as six short story collections. His 'science of deduction' became the standard for all other detectives until the 1930s when detection and detectives took on a darker cast.


sketch of Holmes by Sydney Paget



Sunday, January 20, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provide a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website majikwoids. A link is provided in the sidebar.

Last week I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post begins the biographies of those writers.


William Wilkie Collins
(1824 - 1889)

William Collins was born and raised in the fashionable London district of Marylebourne. Wilkie, as he was affectionately known, then spent the remainder of his life within the same few blocks. Curiously, the fictional home of Sherlock Holmes also was located in the district at 221B Baker Street.

By any standard, Collins led an unconventional life. Early on he became a story-teller. At boarding school, the short, stout boy with the disproportionately large head and shoulders with a lump on his forehead, and with small hands and feet, began spinning tales to appease a bully. His ungainly physical attributes, however, seemed no burden to Collins. He seems to have used himself for the model of Count Fosco, one of the principle characters in The Woman In White.

Initially a journalist, at 24 he entered law school and passed the bar in 1851; but he never practiced. He had begun writing fiction in 1843 and his first story appeared in a popular illustrated magazine. His first novel, inspired by the death of his father, was The Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. The book was published in 1848, receiving good reviews. Wilkie never looked back.


Writing afforded him the financial wherewithal and the freedom to cultivate his bohemian preferences. He remained a lifetime bachelor, though he did live with several women. He indulged in good food, good drink, often to excess. Wilkie wore flamboyant clothes, frequently traveled to France and Italy, was widely read, and maintained a vigorous sense of humor. Despite his apparent joie de vivre, his health was often poor. To relieve the symptoms of his many ailments, he took larger and larger doses of laudanum, a tincture of opium, which was a common medication of the 19th century.

His wide circle of friends included Charles Dickens; and for many years Collins provided material for Dickens' magazines. The Woman In White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone were his best known works. During his lifetime he wrote over thirty major books, hundreds of articles, short stories and essays, and a dozen plays. He was noted for his cynical regard for the Victorian establishment, and for championing the many victims of the prevalent social injustices.

As we shall see, that cynical regard for establishment would become a major theme in all subsequent detective fiction.




Sunday, January 13, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the sites provide a vehicle for sharing my own words and language.

In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my website majikwoids. A link is provided in the sidebar.


Top Ten

Top ten lists are ubiquitous. Any subject one cares to name probably has its list. Groups of ten are numerically satisfying. The metric system is a case in point. Such lists are brief, but still manage to capture the essence of the subject. Top ten novelists, top ten baseball players, top ten dogs, top ten automobiles: peruse the lists and one is immediately immersed in the subject. Which is not to mention the initial letter alliteration.

As my current project involves the equally ubiquitous detective novel, I thought it appropriate to list the most influential writers of this genre, and provide a brief biography of each. My list is not a top ten, nor a 'best' compilation. The list is comprised simply of six individuals who became benchmarks for all writers in this genre. The six will be listed in chronological order.

Wilkie Collins must certainly begin any such scheme. Two of his novels---The Woman In White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868) --- are still read and rank among the best written. Arthur Conan Doyle (A Study In Scarlet, 1886) next in line, is arguably the most influential of the group with his creation, Mr Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie (The Mysterious Affair At Styles, 1920) the most prolific of the group, has sold millions of books and her man, Hercule Poirot, is almost as well known as Holmes. Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, 1930) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, 1939) come up next. These two created what amounts to a sub-genre of detective fiction. No more Mr Nice Guy. With Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, the hard boiled detective takes center stage, and would set the tone for the next fifty years. Last on the list is Rex Stout (Fer-de-Lance, 1934). Stout, like Christie, was a word machine. He created Nero Wolfe in the 1930s; and took the concept of the locked room, a common motif throughout detective fiction, and turned it on its ear. Wolfe solves all his cases from the custom built chair in his office in the New York city brownstone where he resides.

Others beside these six might well have made the list. My time frame, however, is roughly 1850 to 1950. Many more minor --- they would not appreciate the label, I am sure --- writers have penned stories during this time frame: Philo Vance, Mickey Spillane and Charlie Chan's creator Earl Derr Biggers to name but three. But if 'influential' is the governing descriptor, I will stick with my 'big six.'

Sunday, January 6, 2019


The Blind Geisha
lll - 15

Pall of Smoke

Pale dawning. She was alone on the beach with wisps of ground fog trailing the shuffle of her bare feet. The soft break of the low swell was glassy in the dead calm. Down the beach, a pall of smoke squatted above the laurel hedge, rising slowy above where the house once stood. Now charred timbers. One red truck remained; the crew of three probing debris and spraying hot spots. The pudgy neighbor stood gaping from his driveway.
"Not there, you say?" he said.
"That's right."
"But ... she's always there."
"What you see is what you get," the fireman said.
"But ... "
She had walked to the point in the darkness of early morning wearing just her gray night gown. Tide in, she thought, the rock pools all covered. Flood. Then ebb. The coarse sand of the upper beach, littered with pebbled stone from the cliff's wall, pricked and pained her tender feet; and she stopped, standing with a hand against the rough wall of rock. She stood quite composed looking out to sea, a smudge on her cheek.
With looping swirls of foamy sea water lapping her feet, she had turned and retraced her steps, the fire's glow in the distance, a siren's wail. At the little creek, she walked across the swale of drifted sand to sit in a hollow in the lee of driftwood and flotsam, the detritus of gales past. She sat on a log and remembered that she had not looked up the bird---a tern, was it? Smaller than a gull--- and then said, "My glasses."
Swirls of fog, a bit of breeze rising. She ran a hand through tangled, lank hair. Tendrils, she thought. Fragments ... vacant thoughts ...
Hunched, her body now slack, leaning against the shabby, rumpled bed, in the distance the whaler's stench coming down the breeze, a gull dancing the tide, turning now, sudden rush of water hissing up the sand, a horn sounding, yelling in the street, crow caws, and down the beach, the child calling




Sunday, December 30, 2018


The Blind Geisha
III - 14

Flickering Candles


Early morning, darkness beyond the panes of her window, the candles flickering, the scent of sandlewood. She rubbed her eyes, then reached a hand to the top her head, patted, frowned. "My glasses," she said. Fiddlesticks. Where ... And found them on the floor beside the leg of her chair. Elizabeth sighed, bent for them awkwardly, placed them deliberately behind her ears, gently on the bridge of her nose. She took up her pencil and wrote:

Ikkyu died in 1481. He was 88 years old. His death, ascribed to acute ague, came, like the death of so many Zen masters, while sitting in meditation at Daitokuji, his Kyoto temple. His death poem, written shortly before his life ebbed away, was in his own hand. The Daitokuji claims to have the original of this poem. It reads:

South of Mt. Sumeru
Who can match my Zen?
Even if Hsü-t'ang comes
He's not worth half a penny.

Elizabeth pulled her glasses to the end of her nose, scratched her forehead. A challenge, those words. They were not meant to be disrespectful, not boastful; but rather, I think, to be a goad to his followers. Zen was rife with slack monks who gave no thought to practicing what they preached. And Mori? Had she outlived Ikkyu? Or was she, too, already buried on her beach? Or, if still alive, would she have known of Ikkyu's death? From her manuscript, this:

He sat on the rickety verandah of the old shed, hands draped over knees, thumbs and middle fingers just touching. A small boy ran by, dust kicking up beneath his heels. A mother's shrill cry. In the distance, the mill's wheel turned and thumped, and song rose from the flooded fields as the farmers began to plant their rice.

I brought him his tea, but he simply shook his head. Plagued with dysentery these past few weeks, Ikkyu was now resolved. I knelt beside him. His kimono had opened at his wizened throat exposing a boney white chest. My small bundle sat just beside a narrow bench.

"Please go now," he said. His voice was quite strong. "Nothing done, everything complete." Then he was silent.

I bowed, took up my bundle and turned away. Drums beat from the field. Women hurried with their baskets of young shoots. I walked down the village street towards the high road to the coast. I saw Ikkyu no more.

Elizabeth removed her glasses, rubbed her eyes. All we are left with is speculation. Did Ikkyu die in this nameless village? Lake Biwa is thirty odd miles from Kyoto. Did he recover sufficiently to return to Daitokuji? Or have his followers created a little Zen tale? Many questions. No answers.
"We need a time frame here," Elizabeth said. It would be good to know when they parted, those two. Say, late spring through early summer for the rice and towards the end of the war. "And that helps us how?" she said aloud.
Was his death at Daitokuji just some revisionist history? And that death poem? Genuine? Most think so. Perplexing, the whole business. She absently wiped the lenses of her glasses on the hem of her robe. In the margin of the page she wrote: Note to self: Is some explication of the poem necessary? Should the reader know who Hsü-t'ang was? And 'ague.' A bit literary. Would 'fever' better serve? I'll ask Grace.
Her hand moved to the brown manila envelope. In Grace's looping hand, an address and her phone number. "Eureka," Elizabeth said softly. She took her glasses from her face slowly with both hands. The flickering candles blurred. Reluctant morning sky still in darkness.