Miranda Carter: A Homage to Poe

[This article by Miranda Carter was originally written for the Raven Crime Reads]

My second Blake and Avery thriller, The Infidel Stain, is set in 1841, the same year – not altogether accidentally – that what is arguably the first detective story was published. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ was written by Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer, poet and genius known best for his brilliant gothic short stories and poems and – quite unfairly as it turned out – for his short, gothicly syphilitic, drug-addled, mad life. But that’s another story. This very blog is named for his great poem, ‘The Raven’.

At the heart of the story is an impossible crime: two women brutally murdered in a 4th floor room locked from the inside. Neighbours think they heard the voice of the murderer but they cannot agree what language was spoken. C. August Dupin, gentleman of leisure who lives in self-imposed seclusion with his friend the narrator, and goes out only at night, is intrigued by reports and offers his services to the Chief of Police. The solution is clever, extremely creepy, entirely satisfying and Dupin arrives at it with a succession of brilliant imaginative deductions.

Poe wrote two more stories about Dupin. He called them his ‘tales of ratiocination’, Dupin’s name for his method – the idea that through close observation, careful research, the ability to put himself in the mind of the criminal, and deductive reasoning, he can see connections where others cannot.

The point about ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ – apart from the fact that it is still a terrific read – is that in it Poe invented so many of the classic ingredients of the mystery story as it has come down to us: the conundrum of the unsolveable crime (‘locked-room mysteries’ are themselves a whole sub-genre), the atmosphere of claustrophobia and night, the clod-hopping police, the clues which the reader can follow, the solution announced at the end and then the reasoning behind it explained. And of course the prototype of the brilliant amateur detective – years before the word ‘detective’ was actually coined. Dupin is an eccentric gentleman outsider who likes puzzles and codes, and closes himself off from human interaction – apart from his unnamed friend who tells the stories. He regards the cases as intellectual challenges to which he applies his method. You can immediately see him in Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Margery Allingham’s Campion and a slew of others. Conan Doyle acknowledged the debt. He wrote of Poe: ‘Each [of his stories] is a root from which a whole literature developed.’

Even today it is, I think, almost impossible for a mystery writer to completely avoid Poe’s long shadow. Almost inadvertently I find in my own books that I’ve followed him. I have a brilliant detective and a less smart narrator. I made my detective deliberately working class and grouchy, but he is still a classic outsider and I prize his cleverness, his ability to read faces and tells, his creative imagination, and his ability to put himself in other’s shoes. Vive Mr Poe!

[Review] 'The Strangler Vine' by Miranda Carter

Lately I have become enamoured by fiction that features India and its history. As one might expect, I encounter quite a mixed lot. Now, however, I have read 'The Strangler Vine', exquisitely written by biographer and historian Miranda Carter.
[Buy the book here]
'The Stranger Vine' is the story of William Avery, who arrived in Calcutta in 1837. He is then tasked by the English East India Company to keep an eye on Jeremiah Blake, a man with 'a chequered history' as one might say. Their mission is to find Xavier Mountstuart, writer of 'Leda and Rama', a roman scandaleuse, that has caused much furore and discomfort in the higher circles of Calcutta. Although he had promised to leave India, Mountstuart vanished in India's interior. He endeavoured to write a lengthy poem about the elusive thugs, the fabled killers.

Miranda Carter has a way with words. She writes in perfect prose that transports the reader to times long gone. Sentences are composed with great care and I have never before read the surface of a lake at night being described as 'undulating black silk'.

'The Strangler Vine' has been described as 'a pinch of Moonstone, a dash of Sherlock and a soupçon of Fu Manchu. These descriptions, laudatory though they are, are all quite wrong. The story is a mystery and Avery is no Watson to Blake. To explain one might think back to the other side of the globe where 'greenhorns' were inexperienced cowboys and 'old hands' were the seasoned ones. Also, there isn't an evil genius, like Fu Manchu, secretly at work. The forces Blake and Avery are up against are working 'for the greater good', which is even more terrifying than it sounds.

The title of this immensely rich and gratifying novel tell us as much: a strangler vine is a vine that wraps itself around a tree. When it grows stronger, it starts to strangle and suffocate its host. It is a perfect analogy of the way the East India Company was dealing with India and its inhabitants. It was to be its downfall.

'The Strangler Vine' is - not surprisingly - highly recommended. Buy the book here.

Fungal resistance to space radiation

As I have written here before, fungi have an extreme zest for life and can survive in the most extreme of environments. One of these is outer space and it turns out that spores of fungi can survive doses of radiation 200 times higher than those that would kill a human.

Such hardiness could make it difficult to eliminate mold's health risks to astronauts. Mold might even invade, invest or bring life to (depending on your personal view) other parts of the solar system—with hitchhiking mold spores from Earth.
[Mold growing inside of the ISS, where sweaty clothing was hung to dry]
Astronauts on the Russian Space Station (Mir) and the International Space Station (ISS) battle constantly with mold, which grows on the walls and equipment of these space station. That mold, of course, is in a protected structure in low-Earth orbit, where radiation doses are low. Outside of the station, doses are higher—and they would be higher still on the hull of a spacecraft going to Mars or beyond.

To find out what might happen to mold there, Marta Cortesão, a microbiologist and her colleagues beamed X-Rays and heavy iron ions at Aspergillus niger, a well-known black mold, which grows plentiful in the ISS[1]. The researchers fired 'stupid amounts' of radiation on that mold, Cortesão said, much more than would be encountered on a spaceship bound for Mars (0.6 gray per year) or on the surface of Mars (0.2 gray per year). The gray is a measure of the amount of absorbed radiation energy.

The researchers discovered that the spores could survive radiation doses of 500 to 1000 gray, depending on which type of radiation they were exposed to. Humans, by contrast, get radiation sickness at doses of 0.5 gray and are killed by 5 gray. Cortesão also found that the spores survived large amounts of UV-C radiation (3000 J/m2), which is commonly used as a hospital disinfectant and has been proposed for sterilizing the surfaces of spacecraft.

Cortesão also mentioned in her paper that at least one older study suggests that mold spores resist radiation even better in a vacuum[2].

[1] Cortesão et al: Fungal Spore Resistance to Space Radiation, paper at the 2019 Astrobiology Conference. See here.
[2] Silverman et al: Resistivity of Spores to Ultraviolet and γ Radiation while Exposed to Ultrahigh Vacuum or at Atmospheric Pressure in Applied Microbiology – 1967. See here.

[Review] 'The Alchemist's Daughter' by Mary Lawrence

During the latter part of Henry VIII's reign (1509-1547), Bianca Goddard knew a thing or two about medicinal herbs. When her friend Jolyn visits her, complaining of stomach pains, Bianca's tonic only seems the exacerbate the pains and Jolyn dies. While Bianca suspects that Jolyn must have been poisoned elsewhere, the law in the form of Constable Patch is certain that Bianca's cure must have been the cause. Bianca needs to find the killer before she herself is convicted of the murder.
If I were in a friendly mood, I would say that the plot meanders slowly through the story, like the Thames does through London. But if I'm honest, the plot is so full of holes, a small moon could pass through them. In 1543, London was home to about 50,000 inhabitants, but almost non of them seems to have found their way into 'The Alchemist's Daughter'. London seems to be devoid of people and only the characters in the story often coincidently meet each other.

The protagonist Bianca is portrayed as strong-willed and intelligent, but her antics and foolish decisions put her constantly in danger and imprisonment. Where it not for her lover John, she would not have survived her own adventure. Furthermore, Mary Lawrence seems to have an obsession with rats and uses them as a means to describe the filth of London, but also as a solution to a problem. There are simply too many of them in the story.

There are other problems. The author is from the US and her use of Tudor English is contrived and sometimes Americanisms filter through. And I wonder if the first name of Bianca would be allowed in Henry VIII's England.

New life in Chernobyl's exploded reactor

Life has a remarkable drive to flourish in even the most harshest of environments. Most plants, most algae and all cyanobacteria developed photosynthesis that uses chlorophyll to convert sunlight into chemical energy.
But what if life is seemingly impossible. Think of places where ultraviolet radiation is so high that prolonged exposure will result in damaged cells, leading to possible cancer. Places like the highest of mountain peaks, the Arctic and Antarctic or orbiting spacecrafts[1]. Or what about the inside of the exploded nuclear reactor of Chernobyl?

It seems that some fungi do not use photosynthesis to convert oxygen into energy, but toxic levels of gamma radiation. These so-called radiotrophic fungi appear to perform radiosynthesis, that is, to use the pigment melanin to convert gamma radiation into chemical energy for growth.

In 1991, radiotrophic fungi were discovered growing abundantly inside and around the exploded nuclear reactor of Chernobyl's Power Plant. Research showed that three melanin-containing fungi - Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Wangiella dermatitidis and Cryptococcus neoformans – grew faster in an environment in which the radiation levels were 500 times higher than in the normal environment.

Exposure of Cryptococcus neoformans cells to these radiation levels rapidly (within 20–40 minutes of exposure) altered the chemical properties of its melanin, and increased melanin-mediated rates of electron transfer three- to four-fold compared with unexposed cells[2]. Which means that these fungi 'eat' radiation to grow.

Similar effects on melanin electron-transport capability were observed by the authors after exposure to non-ionizing radiation, suggesting that melanotic fungi might also be able to use light or heat radiation for growth.

[1] Dadachova, Casadevall: Ionizing Radiation: how fungi cope, adapt, and exploit with the help of melanin in Current Opinion in Microbiology - 2008. See here.  
[2] Dadachova et al: Ionizing Radiation Changes the Electronic Properties of Melanin and Enhances the Growth of Melanized Fungi in PloS One – 2007. See here.

Abir Mukherjee: The Case of the Poisoned Grapefruit Juice

[This article by Abir Mukherjee was originally written for the Sunday Times Crime Club]

The second novel in the Wyndham & Banerjee series, A Necessary Evil, sees our heroes on the trail of the assassin of a maharaja’s son. But my research into the India of princely states dug up one particular case where the truth was stranger than fiction.

The year was 1874 and the British Raj is at its zenith. Yet much of India remains nominally independent, ruled by extravagant maharajahs with legendary reputations for excess: one filled his pool with Dom Perignon to celebrate the birth of a son; another bought every Rolls-Royce in a London showroom and converted them to garbage trucks.
[Malhar Rao, Gaekwad of Baroda]
Still, the case of Malhar Rao, the Gaekwad of Baroda, stands out. Baroda was a princely state in Western India, and Rao became ruler in 1870 amidst rumours that he’d murdered his brother en route to the throne. He was apparently a less than ideal monarch, but the Raj had a system to cope with men like him. Every Indian prince had a British Resident, or adviser, appointed by the Foreign Office, to guide him. In Rao’s case unfortunately, the Resident was a Colonel Phayre, who seems to have been as unsavoury as the man he was there to advise. Malhar Rao despised him and petitioned the Viceroy for his removal.

Things then became interesting. Malhar Rao was arrested on a charge of attempting to murder Colonel Phayre by poisoning his grapefruit juice with arsenic and diamond dust. Rao denied the charge and sent for one of England’s top lawyers, William Ballantine, paying him 100,000 rupees in advance. On his way to India, Ballantine stopped off in Paris, got drunk, and apparently blew the lot.

Nevertheless, he arrived in India and proceeded to defend the Gaekwad, claiming he was framed. There was no direct evidence linking Rao to the poisoned juice, and Colonel Phayre was a poor witness at best. When asked why, instead of preserving it, he threw away the contents of the glass he believed contained poison, his only explanation was, "lest I may be tempted to drink more!"
[Laxmi Vilas Palace, Baroda, built  in 1890]
In the end, the panel of judges (three British and three Indian) were split down the middle. Rao was acquitted and Ballantine became a hero in Baroda and Bombay. The British, though, took no chances, deposing Rao the following year. As for Colonel Phayre, he was packed off to the middle of nowhere to be Governor of Mauritius.

E.S. Thomson looks back on the gruesome and bloody history of Scottish medicine

[This article by E.S. Thomson previously appeared on 03 September 2016 in the Daily Record]
White-coated doctors, anti-bacterial hand-wipes and bleach-rinsed floors are what we expect in hospital today. But medicine hasn’t always been so sparkling clean. Grave-robbing, blood-letting and even murder were once everyday parts of medical practice.

Writing my crime novel, Beloved Poison, I learned a lot about the dark history of Scottish medicine. Rather than being places of hope and cure, hospitals were once dark, forbidding places. If you went in before 1850, there was every chance you’d not come out. Wards were filthy, crowded and unventilated. Doctors might go from the mortuary to the wards without washing their hands, transferring death to all they touched.

Operations would take place without anaesthetic, the patient often sedated only with alcohol. Surgeons prided themselves on how quickly they performed complex procedures. Early 19th-century pioneer James Syme was first to remove a hip joint, upper jaw, lower jaw and ankle – all without anaesthetic. His speed and skill were legendary.

Chloroform was eventually pioneered by Scots doctor James Young Simpson, who tried it on himself and his pals at a dinner party in 1847. Surgeons worked without antiseptic as well as anaesthetic. Wounds and instruments went unsterilised until Joseph Lister, professor of surgery at Glasgow University, pioneered antiseptic in the late 1860s.
[James Young Simpson]
There were no white coats either until Scot William Macewen developed his theories on fighting infection in the 1870s. Before then, surgeons wore their own clothes. Many had a favourite coat which got soaked in gore over the years.

Scots have contributed greatly to our understanding of anatomy, but the way they got their knowledge is the stuff of nightmares.

John Hunter, born near East Kilbride in 1728, was once the most famous anatomist in the world and amassed a huge collection of specimens – along the way testing the idea that gonorrhoea and syphilis had the same origins by smearing infected pus onto his own penis. But he was also in cahoots with the grave-robbers (or resurrectionists), taking in bodies at the back door of his home-based anatomy school while his wife opened the front door to society ladies. Once the corpses were dissected and the samples pickled in formaldehyde, Hunter boiled up the bodies in a great copper cauldron until the bones were clean. He was hugely proud of his collection – which included the skeletons of 14,000 preparations of birds and animals and the bones of 2,31 meter Irish giant Charles Byrne.
Byrne had wanted to be buried at sea, but Hunter bribed the undertaker with £500, filled the coffin with rocks and snatched the corpse. Hunter insisted all the senses were used when performing a post mortem – including taste.

And more alarming still was his practice of pulling poor children’s new teeth and transplanting them in the mouths of 'quality' patients.

Many others loom large in medicine’s macabre history. Victorian toxicologist Robert Christison was a professor of medicine at Edinburgh University for more than 50 years. He did much of his research by testing poisons on himself, with a glass of salt water handy so he could make himself vomit after noting down the symptoms.

Dr James Barry studied medicine at Edinburgh from 1809 to 1812 and served in the Army around the Empire. But on his death, it emerged 'he' was a woman who had hidden her identity to become a doctor.

Joseph Bell, who worked at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in the 1870s, pioneered forensic pathology and inspired fellow-Scot Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. He was used by Scotland Yard in 1888 to analyse the Ripper murders. Of course, this story isn’t just about the people at the top. It also gives a unique view of those at the bottom – the patients. Their minds and bodies were riddled with diseases doctors could not cure. Cholera, smallpox, plague and typhus destroyed whole communities, and both the pox (syphilis) and the clap (gonorrhoea) were incurable until the 20th century.

Before Scot Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics in 1923, patients were often as likely to be killed by their medicine as their disease. Doctors treated venereal disease with mercury – a poison. Patients’ teeth and hair fell out and they produced copious amounts of black saliva. Opium, often in the form of liquid laudanum, was prescribed for numerous complaints from insomnia to toothache. Overdose or addiction were common. Leeches were widely used up to the 1860s, with Scotland’s large infirmaries going through thousands every year.

It was also commonplace to cut patients to 'bleed' them. When Edinburgh suffered an epidemic of 'relapsing fever' in 1826 and 1829, one student noted that the hospital floors were 'running with blood… it was difficult to cross the hall without fear of slipping'.

Consider too what we might call the 'ancillary services'. The grave-robbers were the most notorious, digging up the newly dead to provide subjects for anatomists and their students. William Burke and William Hare worked for Dr Robert Knox at Edinburgh University. And when new corpses grew scarce, they took matters into their own hands. In 1828, they murdered between 16 and 30 men and women over just 10 months. When they were caught, Hare turned Kings evidence and escaped the gallows. But Burke was hanged and his body dissected by the surgeons he had supplied. His skeleton is still in the anatomy museum at Edinburgh University Medical School.

[Review] 'The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra' by Vaseem Khan

Yes, Vaseem Khan can certainly write. He writes with a sense of humour that pervades the entire story. His description of today's hot, humid and filthy India is spot on. But something is not quite right. Let me explain.
[Buy the book here]
'The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra' starts with the day Inspector Chopra retires from the Mumbai (formerly Bombay) police force. On this last day, two unexpected events came to pass: he inherits a baby elephant called Ganesh and he has to deal with the death of a young boy who appears to have drowned.

Now, a pensionado, Chopra feels the need to investigate the death of the boy, because something doesn't quite feel right about the case. Chopra and his baby elephant dive into the murky underworld and the glittering 'upperworld' of Mumbai in search for the truth. There's also time to explore the relationship between Chopra and his wife and mother-in-law.

So far so good, you might think at this point, but no, it's not. There's a rather large discrepancy between the lightheartedness of the writing and the darkness of the crime. And I have the impression that the elephant is written into the story simply because nobody has ever done that before.

Well, there's a reason that an elephant has never been used as a side-kick before. That's because it doesn't really work. It is just a gimmick.

[Review] 'A Necessary Evil' by Abir Mukherjee

'A Necessary Evil' by Abir Mukherjee is the second book in the Sam Wyndham series set in India in the years after the horrors of First World War.

Captain Sam Wyndham, formerly from Scotland Yard, and Sergeant 'Surrender-not' Banerjee of the Calcutta Police Force are tasked with escorting Adhir, crown prince of Sambalpore. Then the crown prince is shot and killed, apparently by a religious assassin. As a matter of professional pride, Wyndham and Banerjee want to find out who's behind the assassination.
[Buy the book here]
The clues lead them to Sambalpore, a small exotic semi-independent state in Northeastern India. It is a state made wealthy by its diamond mines, much coveted by the Anglo-Indian Diamond Company. The crown prince was adamant to modernize his country, but tradition, religion and superstition were very much against those ideas.

So, who was responsible for the killing? Was it his own younger brother who was now in line to be the next maharajah? Was it someone who did not want others to find out that proceeds of the diamond mines were siphoned away? And what is the role of the enigmatic and beautiful half-Indian half-English Miss Annie Grant? Wyndham and Banerjee slowly unravel the plot.

1920's India is already a time of change and Abir Mukherjee beautifully describes that change. We are vividly drawn into that lost world of empire that is now part of our collective memory. Mukherjee is able to show us that India shouldn't only be seen in an Euro-centric way, but also in an India-centric way. Doing so enriches us all.

Abir Mukherjee about 'his' Captain Sam Wyndham

Abir Mukherjee is the author of a series of thrillers that feature Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant 'Surrender-not' Banerjee. To date three books have been published ('A Rising Man', 'A Necessary Evil' and 'Smoke and Ashes'), while one awaits publication ('Murder in the East').

Abir Mukherjee tells us more about his unlikely hero.
Sam Wyndham is an ex-Scotland Yard detective and veteran of the First World War who’s been scarred by his experiences and finds himself in Calcutta looking for a fresh start.

Life’s not exactly done him many favours. His mother died when he young and he was packed off to a boarding school in the middle of nowhere, which he was forced to leave when the money ran out. From there he pretty much fell into becoming a policeman, a job which, fortuitously, he’s rather good at. He’s quickly promoted from a beat copper to CID and then to Special Branch. The coming of the war derails his career and in 1915, he enlists in the army, mainly to impress the girl he loves into marrying him.

After a year of sitting in a trench and being shot at, his superiors realise that his talents could be put to better use and he’s transferred to Military Intelligence. He’s wounded close to war’s end and is shipped home, recovering in time to find that his wife has died in an influenza epidemic.

Scarred by his experiences, and because there’s nothing left for him in England, he accepts the offer of a job with the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta.

Like anyone else, Sam’s a product of his experiences. He’s always been an outsider, but what he saw during the Great War – the carnage, the futility and the ineptitude of those in authority – has left him cynical. He likes to think he sees the world for what it is, rather than blindly swallowing other people’s preconceptions and prejudices, and in this sense, he is a man of the modern age, and a man with a conscience. But I don’t think he’s as ‘modern’ as he likes to think he is. In truth, his unwillingness to accept what he’s told is as much down to his general stubbornness and distrust of authority as it is to any sense of open-mindedness, and despite his protestations to the contrary, I think there are certain racial taboos he’s not willing to break.

He has a rather dark, gallows sense of humour, which colours much of his outlook on life, and I think this is a reaction to what he’s been through. The war and the death of his wife have destroyed his faith in a god, and he’s come to see the world as a cruel and arbitrary place where any search for meaning or justice is absurd and ultimately futile. If he has a philosophy, it would be similar to Kierkegaard, not that Sam would ever have read any of the man’s work.

Finally, I think Sam’s come to India to find something. He doesn’t know what it is, and I don’t know if he’ll ever find it, but it’ll be an interesting to see where it goes and I’m looking forward to the journey.

Alternative etymology: Marsala

The Italian city of Marsala, known for its fortified wine, is situated on the western extremity of Sicily. It was founded by the Carthaginians in 397 BC.
Modern Marsala is built on the ruins of the ancient Carthaginian city of Lilybaeum. It's name in Roman times has been lost. The modern name, claim historians, is most likely derived from the Arabic مَرْسَى عَلِيّ (marsā ʿaliyy or 'Ali's harbor') or possibly from مَرْسَى اللّٰه (marsā llāh or 'God's harbor').

That the name of an Italian town should trace its origins back to the Moorish occupation (827-902) isn't that strange, but usually geographical names are very resiliant and are often simply 'translated' when it is occupied by people with another language.

The Roman Londinium, became known as Lundenwic when the Romans abandoned the city, and eventually it became known as London. The Celtic city of Camulodunon became Camulodunum and Colonia Claudia Victricensis in Roman times, but via 10th Century Colneceastre, the city is now known as Colchester.

This applies even in modern times. When Germany ceded Prussia to Poland, the German names of cities changed into Polish names but many are still recognizable today: Danzig became Gdańsk.

It is therefore not logical to translate or transliterate Marsala's original name via Arabic. If the Arabs 'Arabized' the name, they would probably simply translate the original Latin name of the city into Arabic.

If you translate 'the port of Julius (Caesar)' into Latin you get Portus Iulii, which results in a perfect Arabic translation as marsā ʿaliyy. Because Caesar was deified and was called Divus Julius, the second translation marsā llāh or 'God's harbor' is also quite reasonable.

So, Marsala was once called Portus Iulii, the Port of Julius Caesar. That makes perfect sense.

Alternative etymology: Curcuma

Since times immemorial, the roots of curcuma or turmeric (Curcuma longa) have been used on the Indian subcontinent as a spice and as a pigment. It was used as a somewhat cheaper substitute for saffron, the vivid crimson stigmas and part of the styles of crocus (Crocus sativus).
If one searches for the lemma of 'curcuma' in the Etymology Dictionary, you will find that the word originates from the Arabic kurkum, meaning both 'saffron' and 'turmeric'. Well, that etymology would be acceptable if Arabs were trading in both spices and if we can find an etymology that gives an acceptable meaning of, say, 'yellow'.

Wikipedia claims that kurkum is derived from Sanskrit kuṅkuma, referring to both turmeric and saffron. However, says Berthold Laufer in his book 'Sino-Iranica' (1919), 'It cannot be too strongly emphasized that Sanskrit kuṅkuma strictly denotes Crocus sativus, but never our Curcuma or turmeric (which is Sanskrit haridrả), and that our genus Curcuma has nothing whatever to do with Crocus or saffron'.

As the American Museum of Natural History still calls Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) 'one of the most distinguished sinologists of his generation', we must accept his views.

But if Laufer is correct, then we have to search elsewhere for the origin of the word curcuma. We find a solution in Martin Bernal's 'Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume III: The Linguistic Evidence ' (2006), where he writes that '… girls wore robes over their normal garments, the colour of which was κροκωτος (krokotos). The usual translation for this word is “saffron, yellow” as in crocus. Many scholars, however, have plausibly seen it as “tawny” to match a bear's fur. It should be noted that the Greek word κροκοδτιλος (krokodtilos) “crocodile” comes from the same root: it could also mean “tawny”. The chromatic uncertainty is confirmed by the mixed colour of the equivalent of the crocodile skin on the backs of the geniii portrayed on a fragment of Myceanean wallpainting'.

To conclude: the origins of the words 'crocus' and 'curcuma' are entirely different and 'curcuma' means 'tawny' (brownish-yellow or yellowish-brown').

[Review] 'Spycatcher' by Peter Wright

When 'Spycatcher' was released it caused a major uproar. Peter Wright (1916-1995) had clearly violated the Official Secrets Act, but how do you prevent a book from publication when the author is out of reach. Wright was living in Australia and the book became a runaway success in that country and the US.
[Buy the book here]
'Spycatcher' was the story (and revenge) of former intelligence officer Peter Wright. The reason for his book was simple: when he switched jobs to join MI5, Wright was promised that his pension would be taken care of. When it was time to retire, nothing was ever done to repair his pension. The book was his way of earning his well-deserved pension.

The story of 'Spycatcher' is engrossing, but badly written (by journalist Peter Greengrass) and has a garbled timeline. Stories sometimes appear twice and out of sync. However, we end up with a picture of a scientist-turned-spy and his quest for moles in the service.

Delving through reports of defectors, through sometimes only partially decoded secret intelligence and interviews with old colleagues, he would uncover spies and moles throughout his career. His hunt for the infamous 'Cambridge Five' was intense and could be called a personal vendetta. We all know about Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, but the fifth member always remained a mystery.

Strange incidents led Peter Wright to conclude that Sir Roger Hollis, director of MI5, must have been that fifth member and a spy for the Soviet Union. In the end the evidence was inconclusive and the investigation was directed to the annals of history.

When 'Spycatcher' was released in 1987, MI5 started a campaign to discredit him. Stella Rimington, then director of MI5, let it slip that Wright took files home to write his book, that he was 'quite clearly a man with an obsession, and was regarded by many as quite mad and certainly dangerous' [Source]. Her lame efforts only showed to the intelligence community how good and thus how right Wright must have been about Roger Hollis .

It's therefore curious that the same Stella Rimington later wrote an autobiography and several spy thrillers that also gave information about 'the inside of MI5'.

[Review] 'A Rising Man' by Abir Mukherjee

Abir Mukherjee’s debut whodunnit, 'A Rising Man' features former Scotland Yard detective Captain Sam Wyndham, a First World War survivor with painful memories who arrives in Calcutta in 1919 to join the local police force.
[Buy the book here]
Before he has had a chance to settle into his new surroundings, job and home, he is tasked with solving the gruesome murder of Alexander MacAuley, a senior British official. His lifeless body was discovered in a dark and muddy alley outside a brothel, with his throat slit and a message of revolt in his mouth. Then there's a botched train robbery. Are these troublesome events connected?

Wyndham and his assistant Indian Sergeant 'Surrender-not' Banerjee go on a frantic search for the killer. His superiors are adamant that terrorists were to blame for the murder, but Wyndham has his doubts. When Wyndham bravely manages to capture the long-sought terrorist Sen (think: Gandhi), everybody seems only too willing to put the blame on Sen.

The writing of Mukherjee is assured and he can certainly put a smile on your face with his mischievous sense of humour. The plot is rich in detail, lightly clued and the narrative is very good. You'll like the characters and I'm uncertain as to what the title, 'A Rising Man' was actually supposed to mean. Yes, Sam Wyndham was wounded physically and mentally in the trenches of the battlefields in Flanders in the First World War en he seems to be getting a second chance in 1919's India. But his assistant Indian Sergeant 'Surrender-not' also seems a candidate for the 'man on the rise'.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by 'A Rising Man' and will certainly get hold of the second, 'A Necessary Evil' and the third, 'Smoke and Ashes'.

E.S. Thomson knows the pain of fleshing out a character

[Guest post by Magnus Linklater, previously published in The Times]

The heroine of Elaine Thomson’s crime novel 'Beloved Poison' has a strawberry mark on her face. It is as nothing to the afflictions of the author herself. While she was writing, eczema covered her face and body. Her hair fell out and she had to wear a wig. The drugs she took to counteract the disease turned her skin red and it began to flake off. If ever a writer felt at one with her character, it was Elaine Thomson.
"It was unmeasurably horrible," she admits, as she sits in her Edinburgh flat, thinking back to the two years she spent writing her book, which is set in Victorian London. "It was the pain as much as the sight of it. It was on my face that it was particularly awful, because that is what people look at when they want to speak to you, and when they did so, they would slightly recoil. They wouldn’t realise they were doing it, but I could see when they were looking at my face they were seeing the thing on it, not the person."

She understands the isolation that people with some sort of facial blemish feel. They are looked at, but rarely seen, she says.

"You ask anyone with a disfigurement to their face, and they feel quite lonely and isolated, so I gave [my heroine] all those things. I thought it would add a bit of depth to the character."

Today Elaine Thomson is clear of her eczema. A lifelong sufferer, she realised that the steroid creams she had been using to treat it had become part of the problem. “After a while you become addicted to them,” she said. "If you’re not careful, the rash gets worse and worse, and when you give up the steroid creams your whole skin melts off. It’s called red skin syndrome and not a lot of people know about it. It’s hideous and debilitating and people feel very depressed, almost suicidal, because of the pain and the ugliness."

The cure, she realised, was to give up the steroids and let the body cure itself, which it did.

Meanwhile, she has ploughed her experiences into a book suffused with grim details about the primitive way that medicine was administered in Victorian hospitals, before anaesthetics such as chloroform or modern ideas about hygiene.

"I was a little bit against doctors I have to say, so filling the book with evil doctors who don’t listen to what you say was on my mind a little bit," she joked.

It was not the only battle she has had to fight. Two previous books, 'Bleakly Hall' and 'A Proper Education for Girls', were published under her married name of Elaine di Rollo. Though widely praised these books failed to sell in sufficient quantities and, in her own words, she 'fell off the radar'. Publishers took one look at her previous sales, and turned her down. She decided to turn to crime fiction. She wrote 'Beloved Poison' as Elaine di Rollo, but when it, too, was rejected she changed to her maiden name, Thomson, and immediately found three publishers who were keen to take it. She now writes under the name E.S. Thomson, and has a four-book contract, all crime novels set in the 19th century.

With a PhD in the social history of medicine from Edinburgh University, E.S. Thomson has studied the role of women doctors in medicine as they struggled to be accepted. But it was the 1850s that intrigued her.

"If you move back a bit, just before anaesthetics, just before chloroform, before the telegraph, and with the railways only just starting, it’s like a different world," she says. "I felt I could describe the indescribable, they were such terrible times, before you got slum clearance, sewage works or public health. Places like Glasgow, London and Manchester were on the very brink of survival, almost falling into their own mess."

'Beloved Poison)' is set in a crumbling infirmary, with stinking wards and cramped corridors, where doctors do amputations without anaesthetics and a "blood box” is kicked around to catch the patient’s blood as it pours off the operating table. “I was fairly graphic about it because I do feel that as a historian you should know about that. It should not be prettified in a Hollywood sort of way."

Alternative etymology: Zek and KZ

If you have watched 'Jack Reacher', starred by Tom Cruise (as Jack Reacher) and Rosamund Pike (as Helen Rodin), you couldn't have missed the villain who choose to call himself 'The Zek', once an inmate in a Russian prison camp in Siberia.

That would have been The Gulag, the Soviet forced labour camp system, that was a mirror-image of the concentration camps or Konzentrationslagers in Nazi Germany. The Gulag institution was officially closed in 1960, which means that 'The Zek' might be a survivor of these forced labour camps.
Both Jack Reacher and Helen Rodin immediately knew that 'zek' meant 'prisoner' in Russian.

An explanation.

You should have read the 'The Gulag Archipelago', a three-volume book written by Russian ex-prisoner, writer and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), to really understand the horrors and the hardship that prisoners in the Gulag had to endure.

Russian prisoners were put to work as forced labourers and their first major project was the digging of the White Sea–Baltic Canal, that connected the White Sea (in the Arctic Ocean) with the Baltic Sea. The entire canal was constructed in just twenty months, between 1931 and 1933, almost entirely by manual labor. Beginning and ending with a labor force of some 125,000, possibly as much as 240,000 laborers died.
At first, prisoners, put to work there, were called kanaloarmeyets (каналоармеец), meaning something like 'member of the canal army', an analogy of krasnoarmeyets (красноармеец), meaning 'Red Army man' or 'member of the Red Army'. Later zaklyuchyonny (заключённый), meaning 'prisoner' or 'incarcerated', was added to their job title

Understandably, zaklyuchyonny kanaloarmeyets was usually abbreviated to 'з/к' in official paperwork and pronounced as 'zeka', which gradually transformed into 'zek'.

For the very same reason, Konzentrationslager in Nazi Germany was shortened to KZ-lager.

[Review] 'Death Knocks Twice' by Robert Thorogood

Robert Thorogood career can be called meteoric. That is, if you can imagine that a meteor can defy gravity and shoot upwards into the universe. Thorogood wrote scrips, but became used to getting negative replies. His luck turned in 2011, when 'Death in Paradise', based on his scripts, was first broadcasted to much acclaim. What followed was a contract to write thrillers based on Richard Poole, the detective who was like a fish out of the water.
[Buy the book here]
'Death Knocks Twice' is the third thriller in the series to be published. The story revolves around a coffee plantation, where the body a man was discovered in a locked shed. He appears to have committed suicide. As most of the episodes of 'Death in Paradise' are locked-room-mysteries, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Poole and his team inevitably come to the conclusion that the man must have been murdered, but how could the killer have escaped?.

Robert Thorogood's writing has been compared to that of Agatha Christie, the Grande Dame of thrillers. So, how good is 'Death Knocks Twice'? Not so good, I'm afraid. While reading I had the distinct feeling that Thorogood changed his mind halfway as to who the killer would be. The plot is so jumbled that he needed some 60 pages to let DI Richard Poole explain the murder. In essence, the story could have been so much more elegant.

And, as other reviewers have mentioned, the book is filled with Richard Poole saying 'What's that?' (and some similar words). The frequent use of those words became very irritating and led me to believe that there are two possibilities: the first is that Poole is gradually becoming deaf, while the second is that Thorogood padded his word count because he felt that the manuscript would lack substance.

But most of all, I missed the fun, the quirky sense of humour that was so prevalent in the first two books. It seemed as if Thorogood now feels that writing has become a tedious job.

Agatha Christie and Honeysuckle Weeks

On December 3, 1926, the then 36-year-old Agatha Christie left her home in Sunningdale and drove her car towards Surrey. The next morning the vehicle was found abandoned with a fur coat and her driving license left inside.
Her disappearance sparked an extensive manhunt, with over 1,000 police officers and 15,000 volunteers searching for the author, as well as newspaper adverts urging any members of the public with information to come forward.

Was Christie abducted? Was she lost, wandering through the countryside? Or was she murdered? The prime suspect at the time was her husband Colonel Archibald Christie, who had recently informed his wife that he wanted to divorce her because he had fallen in love with the far younger Nancy Neele.

Eleven days after she disappeared, Christie was discovered in the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate where she had registered under the name of Theresa Neele of Cape Town, using the surname of her husband's lover. She later claimed that she had suffered from amnesia.

What really happened will always remain a mystery, but we can assume that Agatha Christie would have been very depressed after learning of her husband infidelity. She might even have contemplated suicide. In her bittersweet semi-autobiographical novel 'Unfinished Portrait' (1934) her alter ego, Celia, made a suicide attempt. "She admitted that it had been very wicked of her to try," Christie wrote.

Then, almost 90 years later, on July 25, 2016, the then (also) 36-year-old actress Honeysuckle Weeks disappeared. She was last seen driving her car 14 miles away from Chichester where she lived. Sussex Police said they were concerned for her welfare as it was unlike her not to get in touch. She had recently told family and friends she was feeling anxious.
The actress was described as around 1.62 meter in height with cropped gingery blond hair. She was last seen wearing a blue anorak and faded blue jeans.

On July 29, Honeysuckle Weeks was found 'safe and sound' after a relative, living in London, contacted the police.

So, why did Honeysuckle Weeks emulate Agatha Christie? Shortly after her disappearance a neighbour hinted that the anxiety could have been exacerbated by the actress and husband Lorne’s regular vicious rows. She disappeared during a stay as a voluntary patient at a care centre near her home in West Sussex. Stressful family issues led her to walking away from problems, she later explained.

"I had to have counselling", she confessed openly two years later. "And I am still having it. It was not a good time for me, but unless you talk about it, you are only repressing yourself again, aren’t you, and that cannot be healthy. I don’t mind you mentioning that time. It was part of me, and, well, there we are."
Was there ever a Nancy Neele in the life of her husband ‎Lorne Stormonth-Darling?

More about Honeysuckle Weeks can be found here

Honeysuckle Weeks on 'Foyle's War'

'Foyle’s War', the absorbing detective drama starring Michael Kitchen as a Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) battling crime on the home front during World War II. But he had to share the limelight with his female driver Samantha Stewart.
Honeysuckle Weeks was the actress who played Sam and she gave her thoughts on some aspects of the series.

She started off the show as quite a young person, and I’ve tried to keep that youthful essence as the show has progressed over the last seven years; partly because that is part of her appeal as a character, but also because I instinctively feel that people living during that time had a greater degree of innocence. The war has its effects on her of course, especially in her relationships with men, but it’s her spirit of ploughing on and making do and grace under fire that shines through more than world-weariness, I would say. She brings relief from some of the plot’s darker aspects by being resolutely cheerful, which is great fun to play. During the first season one could say she has more pluck than sense, but as the series progresses she gradually becomes less of a spanner in the works and more of a cog in the engine, so to speak. She has a stoical attitude to adversity and puts the idea of ‘duty’ before self, and this I think informs all the characters in 'Foyle’s War', a selfless attitude which perhaps we’d do better to hold onto today!

My favorite episode is probably 'Among the Few,' which is largely to do with doctors in a hospital that specializes in treating burns victims. It sounds grim, but in fact it’s an incredibly uplifting episode because of the moving relationships that are built up between doctor or nurse and patient, and the bravery of the men who struggle on through life even though their bodies and faces are destroyed. It’s about the heartache of the sweethearts who have to come to terms with the disfigurement of their pilots, and the carousing spirit of the staff who try to improve the lot of their heroic wards. In short, it’s an episode that I think champions all that is best in the human spirit. Oh... and of course, there’s a gripping murder case with lots of explosions and spitfire aerodynamics on the side. It’s also exquisitely shot. [Source here]

The first episode of 'Foyle's War' was aired in 2002. The series was canceled after the fifth season (2008), but was revived in 2010 to run for another three years. A total of 28 episodes were created by screenwriter and author Anthony Horowitz.

Will there ever by another unexpected revival of 'Foyle's War'? Anthony Horowitz said "It had to come to an end sometime. We went from 1940 all the way through to 1947 – and I told countless true stories about the war. I felt that there were no more true stories to tell about that period, I’d sort of covered pretty much every area."
He's wrong of course, because 1947 was essentially the start of the Cold War and that tense period could produce some very interesting scripts.

Since Michael Kitchen will turn 70 in 2018, he will probably not be particularly interested to participate in another revival. That said, we could contemplate a structure like 'Morse' morphing into 'Lewis' and 'Lewis' changing into 'Endeavour'.

So, 'Foyle's War' could become 'Stewart's Peace' with Honeysuckle Weeks in the starring role. She confessed to me that the prospect was 'most cockle warming'.

More about Honeysuckle Weeks can be found here

[Review] 'The Blood' by ES Thomson

These days, the Thames is a relatively clean, if somewhat murky and muddy, river slowly meandering towards the North Sea. In the early Victorian Era, the Thames was an open sewer, stinking and polluted. Bodies, both animal and human, were regularly dumped in its waters. The London fog was at times so think that it invited people to whisper and candle light wasn't able to penetrate the darkness.

Moored on the Thames was 'The Blood', a hospital ship avant la lettre. Like the river itself, 'The Blood' is a place for dying, not for healing.
[Buy the book here]
'The Blood' is the third adventure of the intrepid couple, Jem Flockhart, apothecary, and Will Quartermain, architect. They are summoned to 'The Blood' by an old friend, John Aberlady. But, just as they arrive, Aberlady jumps to his death, driven by fear and poison. Why ask for help and then die at that precise moment?

Corpses start to turn up at an alarming rate. The deaths seem somehow related, but it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to finally discover the solution.

Eliane Thomson gives us a real vivid sense of what life on the waterfront of the Thames was in those days. The closer one lived to the river, the cheaper the rates of 'services rendered' would become. Living on the divide of water and land was living on the edge. The Victorian Era, with all its prejudices of women in medical professions, was not a glamourous one. It was a time of invention and progress, but not many benefited from these. Some even fell victim to them.

I wish I could somehow convey the sense of urgency that slithers though the novel. 'The Blood' is a mystery you need to read.

[Review] 'The Chinese Birdcage' by Heleen Mees

'The Chinese Birdcage' is a thought-provoking book. The real content is powerfully described in the subtitle of the book. 'How China's Rise Almost Toppled the West' is the undertone in the entire story. Until a few decades ago, China's economy was mainly focused on agriculture and heavy industry.

When, in the 80s, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping hinted that showing entrepreneurial spirit and thus also making profit was no longer prohibited, China quickly became one large factory for all kinds of goods that the West found necessary. At one point the assortment of the large American retail store behemoth Walmart consisted of 80% Chinese goods.
[Buy the book here]
In normal circumstances, this turbulent economic growth would lead to inflation. More and more factories were producing more and more products and more workers were needed for the production. But China had an inexhaustible amount of cheap laborers who moved into the city from the countryside to find a better life. Moreover, the Chinese currency was kept artificially low. The money that flowed into China was reinvested in US bonds. Nowadays, China is the largest donor of the debt-ridden US economy. Should China stop, then America will come to a sudden standstill.

Western companies couldn't possibly compete with the influx of cheap Chinese products. We bought ever more Chinese manufactured goods, which was to the detriment of Western producers. In order to (re)stimulate the economy, interest rates were reduced, leading to a housing bubble. That bubble eventually broke the back of the financial sector.

It might seem we have arrived in somewhat calmer waters, but that is an illusion. Read 'The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers' by Paul Kennedy and you will understand that the power and wealth of America is faltering. China is on the verge of (again) taking that leading position.

'The Chinese Birdcage' paints a gloomy prediction of a future. Read it and be prepared.

Alternative etymology: Witch

Etymologists are at a loss to explain the origins of the word 'witch'. Old English 'wicce' is thought to originally mean 'female magician' or 'sorceress'. If 'wicce' is a female sorcerer, what is a male one called, you may ask. Well, such a person is called a 'wicca'. Both originate from the verb 'wiccian', wth the meaning of 'to practice witchcraft'.
The word 'wiccian' is of uncertain origin, but let us see if we can discover words in some adjoining languages. In modern Dutch we find wicht which now has the meaning of 'young female', but further back in time it simply meant 'person'. In the same language we also find booswicht, which combines both boos ('evil') and wicht ('person'). It therefore has somewhat more darker meaning as 'evil person' and it is both male and female. But in Dutch we also encounter gewicht ('weight') as a noun of the verb wegen 'to weigh'. Also evenwicht is translated into English as 'balance' or 'balanced weight'.

The Dutch have a proverb that says na veel wikken en wegen, that means something like 'after much deliberation' or 'to weigh the pros and cons'. The word wikken is thought to be related to wichelen ('dowsing') and wichelroede ('dowsing rod'). These words are supposedly connected to the Old English wigle 'divination'. But we run again into problems here, because the true origin of these words are also uncertain.

But the Dutch verb wikken is also reminiscent of wiegen ('to cradle'). Those words are connected to English 'wiggle', meaning 'to rock' or 'to move from side to side'.

If one can imagine a witch as being a 'wise woman' who dabbled in herbal medicine, we can argue that she had to weigh her ingredients or weigh the pros and cons of which medicine would help the patient. But these 'wise women' also served as midwives, which could explain the word 'wiggle'. So, would it be possible that both the words 'witch', 'weighing' and 'wiggling' can be traced back to the same source?

[Review] 'Dark Asylum' by E. S. Thomson

After 'Beloved Poison', 'Dark Asylum' is the second thriller by E.S. Thomson featuring the male/female apothecary Jem Flockhart and her faithful companion Will Quartermain. Both are drawn to 'Angel Meadow', an asylum that is a truly grim place even by the standards of 1850s London.
[Buy the book here]
Jem Flockhart is on the scene when a body is found: the resident physician to the insane, Dr. Rutherford, has been murdered within the asylum's walls. But that's not all. His ears were cut off, his lips and eyes stitched closed. Yes, Rutherford was an arrogant and unpopular member of staff, but his postmortem stitches raise the question who's mad enough to perform such a gruesome act. Was it one of the patients or one of Rutherford's own colleagues?

As is so often the case, the reasons for the murder lie hidden in the past. Jem and Will must delve deep (sometimes even physically) to uncover the truth. The vulnerabilities and inner strengths of both leading characters were perfectly described. I especially liked the unspoken love and respect both had for each other.

Not since reading Lisa Appignanesi's 'Mad, Bad and Sad' I came upon a story that gave such an illuminating insight in the early days of treatment of mental illnesses. We are witness to the last traces of phrenology (the theory that thought that measurements of a skull might predict or prove madness or a criminal mind), primitive brain surgery and discussions amongst the physicians on the speculative techniques to manage or possibly cure mental illness and the patients.

The story itself is devilishly clever. It reminds us that souls can be lost and won. And those lost souls may reside in the twilight or eternal darkness. Because of the vivid descriptions I recommend that 'Dark Asylum' should only be sold with a warning that your mental health may be in mortal danger while reading it.

Obviously E.S. Thomson's 'Dark Asylum' is highly recommended.

Update [10th April 2018]: The first two novels, 'Beloved poison' and 'Dark Asylum' have now been optioned by the television production company behind the primetime hit, 'The Durrells'. A proud Elaine Thomson said: "Sid Gentle Productions have optioned them and are working on getting a writer to adapt them for the screen. Then it will be put to the BBC and ITV, and I believe Netflix are interested."

Who will be the lucky actress to play a believable Jem Flockhart? I've sent Sid Gentle Production a suggestion: Honeysuckle Weeks, who played Sam Stewart in 'Foyle's War'.

[Review] 'A Proper Education for Girls' by Elaine di Rollo

'A Proper Education for Girls' is the electrifying debut of Elaine di Rollo and, if you didn't know that nugget of information, you could certainly be fooled into thinking she was already an accomplished writer when this novel was published. Not so.
[Buy the book here]
The novel alternates between Victorian England and Imperial India. Lilian and Alice Talbot are twins, outwardly different, but inwardly very alike. Their father is an avid collector of all things strange and unusual. As the ever growing collection is steadily invading the huge mansion, the largely unattended plants in the immense hot house display the same behaviour.

Following a scandal, Lilian is married off to a dreary missionary and effectively carted off to faraway India. Alice is left behind to attend to the daunting task of photographing the entire collection. What follows is an entertaining struggle of two intelligent young woman who are constantly scheming to reunite again.

'A Proper Education for Girls' is an unusual novel that superbly combines the tragic and the comic. I am sure Elain di Rollo was smiling all the way to the final page of her manuscript. Like I did when I was reading the novel.

If we take the title of the book as a question, then the answer to 'A Proper Education for Girls' is simply: the freedom to live your own life.

'A Proper Education for Girls' was followed by 'Bleakly Hall'. Elaine di Rollo is now writing under her own name E.S. Thomson and recently published the highly acclaimed 'Beloved Poison'. For a review see here.

[Review] 'Bleakly Hall' by Elaine di Rollo

Bleakly Hall is a crumbling, rumbling, mildewed hydropathic institution, where aging, gouty residents try to regain their once lost health via its supposedly curative waters. They drink the foul smelling and tasting water, they bath and shower in the hope to cure their sometimes vague ailments.
[Buy the book here]
The story of 'Bleakly Hall' alternates between the horrors of the trenches and the casualties of the First World War, and its aftermath when several of the survivors meet in Bleakly Hall. Roberta Montgomery ('Monty') is a nurse who worked in hospitals near the front line and drove an ambulance with Ada to rescue wounded soldiers.

Monty takes a poorly paid job at Bleakly Hall and appears to have a score to settle with Captain Foxley, Ada misses her wartime sense of purpose, the Blackwood brothers must reinvigorate or reinvent Bleakly Hall for a new era and Captain Foxley has his own particular ways of keeping his ghosts at bay. Can the story be classified as a mystery? Not really, but everyone has their own secrets to live with.

Other reviews tried to make sense of the novel by calling it a tragicomedy or creatively describing the story as 'swung so acrobatically between lightly carbonated comedy and pitch-black horror'. They are all wrong, but I admit that I was puzzled too at first. I felt a bit like the Sorting Hat in the novels of Harry Potter that had a hard time deciding in which House it would put Harry: 'Difficult. Very difficult'. But then, suddenly, I understood.

The residents of Bleakly Hall were all suffering physically and mentally from their harrowing experiences at the front. The main characters clearly exhibit the telltale signs of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), such as mood swings, trouble sleeping, forgetting (inability to recall), repression, depression, irritability, sudden outbursts of anger and difficulty in concentrating. Everybody has its own personal ways of dealing with their ghosts of the past.

Elaine di Rollo has managed to write an engrossing story. I imagine the immensely moving and intensely tragic tale of 'Bleakly Hall' can produce a secret tear or two from readers. Buy it and read it!

Elaine di Rollo is now writing under her own name E.S. Thomson and recently published 'Beloved Poison'. For a review see here.

[Review] 'Beloved Poison' by E. S. Thomson

What happens if you situate a mystery in the grime and desolation of a crumbling hospital in the early Victorian time? What happens is that you get a dark, blooding and foreboding atmosphere in which the protagonist, Jem Flockhart, a male/female apothecary tries to uncover the truth about six tiny mildewed coffins that were found in a largely abandoned church. Are they part of some arcane ritual or do they signify something even more sinister?
[Buy the book here]
Assisted by junior architect William Quartermain, who is sent to survey the emptying of the over-stocked burial grounds of London's St. Saviour's Infirmary that itself awaits demolition, Flockhart quickly discovers that these tiny coffins with their macabre contents are the prelude to murder.

Flockhart is masked by a disfiguring birthmark around the eyes. A protagonist with a disfigurement or injury is a trick of the trade that is used by many writers, including by myself. But Elaine Thomson uses it expertly. The books itself weaves an intricate web of suspicions and suspense. It paints a disturbing picture of the soot and grime of Victorian London.

When we need hospitalization today, we are welcomed into a pristine environment with learned and friendly staff. In the olden days hospitals were merely a place to die if your injuries became infected. Antibiotics weren't available in the 1840's and STD's, like syphilis, were spreading like wildfire through Victorian London.

Elaine Thomson (1968) is a Scottish academic with a PhD in the history of medicine, which clearly shows on each and every page. 'Beloved Poison' is one of the very few books I want to read anew in the future. This is a tale you will remember for a long, long time. I am already eagerly awaiting the publication of part two of the series, titled 'Dark Asylum'.

Highly Recommended.

Update [10th April 2018]: The first two novels, 'Beloved poison' and 'Dark Asylum' have now been optioned by the television production company behind the primetime hit, 'The Durrells'. A proud Elaine Thomson said: "Sid Gentle Productions have optioned them and are working on getting a writer to adapt them for the screen. Then it will be put to the BBC and ITV, and I believe Netflix are interested."

Who will be the lucky actress to play a believable Jem Flockhart? I've sent Sid Gentle Production a suggestion: Honeysuckle Weeks, who played Sam Stewart in 'Foyle's War'.

Alternative etymology: Ghetto

The etymology of the word ghetto has long been debated. Several solutions have been offered. The very first use of the word has been traced back to 1516 to the Jewish area of Venice. There, residents will proudly tell you that ghèto meant 'foundry'. The problem is that it seems strange to name an area after one foundry and not 'foundries, because there must have been more than one.

Other suggestions are that it originates from the Yiddish gehektes ('enclosed'), from the Italian borghetto ('little town') or from the Old French guect ('guard'). All these suggestions eventually fail, mostly because of phonetics.
Southern Germany isn't far removed from northern Italy. There, we can find the term Jüdische Gass(e) or 'Jewish Street'. Yiddish gas means ‘street’. In the German language one often finds the switch from 'ss' to English to 't' (strasse to 'street', wasser to 'water', scheisse to 'shit', and more). Gasse therefore also is rather similar to English 'gate' and Dutch gat ('hole', 'opening'). The trail seems to turn cold here, as the Etymology Dictionary claims that it is of 'of unknown origin'.

But in Dutch language we find several words that describe a steeg ('alley'). In the southernmost province of Limburg a steeg is called a gats. That changes to gas in the city of Nijmegen, and finally to steiger in Enkhuizen in the north. Both steeg ('alley') and steiger ('jetty') are related to stijgen or 'to rise up'.

In English we discover that 'jetty' ('pier') also once had the meaning of 'a passage between two houses' in central and northern England.
And there we have it: the word ghetto simply means '(a series of small) alleys' in the sense of a medina quarter (Arabic city), a distinct city section found in a number of North African and Maltese medieval cities. A medina is typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets.

During my research for this article I found a text by Anatoly Liberman that seemed to have traveled much the same route as I did.

Whisky kills bacteria in ice

Italian researchers studied 60 samples of ice from domestic, restaurant or industrial producers. They found 52 different strains of bacteria, including Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus, Bacillus and Acinetobacter, across the 60 samples of ice, some of which were 'agents of human infection' indicating environmental contamination[1].
The researchers then took samples of contaminated ice and, to simulate a bar environment, used this ice to serve a range of drinks, including vodka, whisky, peach tea, tonic water and cola.

In the case of each drink, they found that the population of bacteria in the sample was reduced and cited the levels of alcohol, the drink’s pH and the amount of carbon dioxide in each serve as reasons for the reduction.

However, their results also showed that the ice sample served with whisky saw the greatest reduction in bacteria – none of the bacterial strains on the ice cubes survived after they were added to the whisky. The researchers noted that this was likely to be because whisky is somewhat more acidic than vodka. They speculated that the more acidic a drink is, the less likely bacteria are able to survive.

The question remains however why in the world would you add ice to your whisky or any other alcoholic drink.

[1] Settanni en al: Presence of pathogenic bacteria in ice cubes and evaluation of their survival in different systems in Annals of Microbiology - 2017