Saturday, December 10, 2011

by Kate Colquhoun

British trains during the 1860s were nothing like their American counterparts. The Victorian trains were comprised of carriages and each one of them were divided into separate box-like compartments. There were doors on both sides that opened onto the station platform but no corridor or door was between them. So, if a passenger had an emergency or needed to call somebody for assistance, they were out of luck.
Thomas Briggs would become that one unlucky man and for him, it would be fatal.
Briggs boarded the North London railway on a first-class carriage at 9:45 pm. Soon afterward, two bank clerks entered this same compartment but Briggs was not there. What was discovered, instead, was blood on the cushions, floor and windows. A walking stick, an empty leather bag and a broken watch chain were left. The most conspicuous object was a hat which was not the kind that Briggs normally wore.
In due time, the hunt for the killer began. The police force used their best detectives and were able to figure out the identity of the murderer from different witnesses and by offering rewards to help solve the crime. They found out where he lived and were ready to arrest him but the killer had taken off to America where a sister of his lived. Now the chase was on for the inspectors to take a ship, themselves, and try to nab the fugitive as his prospective ship landed at the ports of New York. They would be successful and would bring him back to Britain for a trial.
This crime caused quite a sensation and shocked the world at that time. People would eagerly read the newspapers, every day, as the event unfolded.
Kate Colquhoun has written quite a suspenseful book and it's very hard to put down. How she describes the case, the characters involved, (there's a complete list at the end), the railway system, and the use of capital punishment makes for mesmerizing reading.
It's definitely a quirky tale and if you like true-to-life mysteries, this one is quite a winner.
Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

by Charles J. Shields

While he was alive, there were no entries in dictionaries about him. Critics were always hard on his writings dismissing them. He was much loved, though, by the young (college-aged) crowd. But his life in public and what he wrote in his books was a complete contradiction to his private persona. He was never a happy camper and always felt lonely.
Kurt Vonnegut grew up in a home with servants. His father, Kurt Sr., was an architect and his mother, Edith, was barely a parent. They entertained quite lavishly but never hugged their children. Kurt Jr.'s older brother, Bernard, was favored because he was gifted (he became a scientist), so he got the attention. The only time Kurt Jr. felt wanted was during the summer when the Vonnegut family would go to Lake Maxinkuckee in Indiana. Other relatives would be there for him lending support and sympathy. (Having an extended family was one of the features in his books.)
Nobody listened to him (he was the youngest child) and the only way he could change that was to tell ridiculous stories that made people laugh. Humor became one of his strengths which he would use later in life when he would appear at events.
High school is when he began to write and it would become all-consuming to him. He also picked up two bad vices: alcohol and cigarettes (he smoked only Pall Malls) and could never shake off these addictions.
By the time Vonnegut was in college (Cornell and a science major), he was writing pretty steadily. He never graduated and enlisted in the army and became part of the 106th division that were captured by the Germans. (He saw the bombing of Dresden.) All of the POWs were housed in a huge slaughterhouse (supposed to be used for animals). The name of the compound was Schlachthof-Funf: Slaughterhouse-Five.
When Vonnegut returned from the war, he got married and he and his wife had four children. Soon enough, there would be four more but they would be his sister's boys. She died of cancer and her husband was killed in a train crash. Vonnegut was a terrible father. He ignored his kids (they thought of him more as a friend) because he was always holed up in his study writing. His relationship with his wife wasn't much better (he had dalliances on the side). They lived pretty meagerly since he was the sole breadwinner. He had written quite a few articles for magazines and a couple of novels but nobody knew who he was. Slaughterhouse-Five finally put him on the map and he really never had to write another book again. At the age of fifty, he was wealthy.
Having read Vonnegut's novels in high school and college, I never really considered what the man was like behind his writings. Charles J. Shields has brought him to the surface and it's very revealing. It took Shields five years to compose his research from interviews with Vonnegut, friends, family, neighbors and fifteen hundred letters. He gives you such a bird's-eye view that you feel as if you are a part of an intimate story.
The book is a real page-turner and very engrossing.
Highly recommended.