by Catriona Mills

The 21st-Century Couple

Posted 5958 days ago in by Catriona

Technically, Nick and I are spending quality time together, watching the Melbourne Comedy Gala.

In fact, I’m keeping one eye on the television (which has just shown me an advertisement for The Shield—I had no idea that was still going—and a show that, apparently, “just makes courtroom drama look so good“ called Conviction, which I’ve never heard of) while trying to complete my collection of fancy, absurdly named shoes on Packrat.

Nick, on the other hand, is browsing the iTunes store on his iPhone on the opposite sofa, and keeping an eye out for comedians that he likes.

Mind, we did bond over an Arj Barker skit about buying a new bed. I do love a comedian who can use the word “quagmire” in a skit.

There’s nothing particularly weird about this; this is how we spend many of our evenings.

My mother is constantly surprised by Nick’s tendency to say “Ooh, I’ve just read something really interesting; I“ll send you the link.”

But there’s something appealing to me about the online aspect of the relationship. It’s more permanent, in a way, than phone calls (and useful, should one of us dispute what was originally said).

Plus, there’s no separating Nick from his iPhone right now.

And I only need five more shoes.

Strange Conversations: Part Two

Posted 5958 days ago in by Catriona

I’m taking a brief break from Green Wing season two to record the following conversation:

NICK: So I’ve done a bit of design for the site.
ME: But I’ve never heard of it before.
NICK: Well, I’m telling you now.
ME: You live a secret life on the Internet, don’t you?
NICK: You must love my air of mystery.

Things That Have Made Me Happy Recently, in No Particular Order

Posted 5958 days ago in by Catriona

1. The weather.

Much as I love living in Brisbane, this is largely in spite of the weather, which is frankly rather like suffering a feverish cold for nine months of the year.

But these cold, crisp nights and warm days are lovely: the best part of Brisbane is its beautiful mild winters.

2. The fact that last night’s Robin Hood did not, in the end, throw out the entire premise of the episode.

Mind you, it was still completely daft.

3. The hope that at some point in the future I’ll be able to use the sentence “Join me again next week on this episode of ‘Let’s make no fucking sense’ when I will be waxing an owl” in everyday conversation.

4. The new teaser trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I must admit, though, that this is tinged with a certain degree of wistfulness, since my own years of working in a university have included far more hours of marking and far fewer instances of grappling with Nazis than these movies led me to believe would be the case.

I suppose it’s because I’m not an archaeologist.

5. Reorganising the study, so that one can walk all the way into it and, even more miraculous, actually access all the bookshelves.

On the other hand, the downside of the reorganisation is that I got bored before I had quite finished putting everything back. So there is that.

6. Successfully creating a rhinoceros in Packrat.

Really, success is measured by how low you set your goals in the first place.

However, I did have to sacrifice my kangaroo to do it, and now am unable to find another camel, which is apparently a constituent ingredient of the kangaroo—something that I suspect even Darwin didn’t know.

7. A rather nice 2005 Western Australian Chardonnay clearskin that I found in a local bottleshop.

8. The smug feeling that comes from having made a reasonable dint in my marking.

9. A sudden predilection for painting my toenails a shiny pink.

10. The up-coming season of Doctor Who and my state of ignorance about the plotlines.

11. The fact that new Doctor Who means a new year of Doctor Who nights, the highlight of my social calendar.

12. James Marsters’s appearances in Torchwood.

13. An unusual number of lovely dinners with people I don’t otherwise spend enough time with.

14. Re-starting work on the third of the set of braided rugs for the hallway, and the hope that this means that the rugs might even be finished before we move out of this house (at some unspecified point of time in the future).

What will I do if I move to a house with no hallway?

15. My new pillow.

Strange Conversations

Posted 5960 days ago in by Catriona

Nick and I seem to have been having the oddest conversations over the past few days. Of course, the sudden cold snap last night meant I didn’t sleep well, so perhaps that’s why they all seem to head in strange directions.

We’ve just had the following conversation, for example:

NICK: Fancy a cup of coffee?
ME: I’ve just been reading about the Zimbardo Experiment. I knew about the Milgram Experiment, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across the Zimbardo one. Did you know they were at school together?
NICK: Was it a particularly strict Victorian boarding school?
ME: This was in the 1960s, these experiments, so I doubt it.
NICK: Perhaps they travelled through time?

I think somebody is getting a little too excited about the upcoming season of Doctor Who.

And again, this morning:

ME: Honey, I’ve just noticed that, um, there appears to be a bucket and mop in the bedroom.
NICK: You’ve only just noticed?
ME: Yes.
NICK: Well, then, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

And the quintessential conversation, held yesterday on the way to the shops:

ME: That’s an ugly Mercedes.
NICK: Which one?
ME: That orange one. Or, no—I suppose you’d call it a warm yellow.
NICK: I’d call it cadmium yellow.
ME: Isn’t cadmium yellow like that? (Pointing to a banana-yellow building) No, I suppose that’s a cool yellow.
NICK: Cadmium yellow’s like that car.
ME: Well, my paints come in cool yellow and warm yellow, so I’m calling that car warm yellow.
NICK: Cadmium yellow is a warm yellow.
ME: Then why are we having this conversation?

The eternal question.

Nick Has A New Gadget

Posted 5961 days ago in by Catriona

Which means he will be curiously absent for the next few days.

Apparently, the real benefit of this new gadget is that he’ll be able to surf the Internet from anywhere in the house.

I don’t think he’s quite grasped that I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing. True, I have a laptop, while he’s restricted to his desktop iMistress. But I do at least refrain from surfing the Internet while we’re actually watching television or otherwise spending time together. Nick, on the other hand, has been known to dash off to check his e-mail if I get up to make a cup of tea or nip to the bathroom.

Still, such are the sacrifices one makes when one moves in with a geek.

Serial Story Telling

Posted 5961 days ago in by Catriona

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for a serial, especially if the characters attract me from the outset. Then I want to spend more time with them, and serials are the most effective way of doing that.

(Re-reading works as well, if you’re that way inclined: I am. I’m a voracious re-reader—and re-watcher—where Nick is not. He will re-read—and I have induced him to re-watch by, unpleasant as it sounds, essentially getting a little sulky if I’m not able to watch things more than once each—but he prefers to move on to new fiction and leave the old material behind. I can’t do that. Partly, I suspect, I have a poor memory. But mostly, I suspect, I just like to get back into a particular fictional world. One of my ideas of a personal hell is being told I’m not allowed to re-read Pride and Prejudice any more.)

But really enjoying something that comes in serial form makes re-reading something of a shadowy pleasure. Because with serial story telling, you can revisit the same world and the same characters without having to re-explore the same plot.

This is part of the reason why I prefer television to movies, speaking broadly. (On that note, I seem to be using the construct “part of the reason” or “partly” a lot—either I’m a complex individual, or I just want to think I am.)

Of course, serial story telling has its disadvantages, whether you’re talking books or television.

One of these is a tendency to drag on. For this reason, I’ve never liked soap operas (well, for this reason and for the fact that they’re, to my mind, absurdly overblown. I’ve read and enjoyed my fair share of Victorian melodrama and sensation fiction, but the modern version leaves me cold.) Let things drag on too long and you’re bound to have to replace some of the actors, which always irritates me.

(The worst example of this, I think, is the initially charming Nicholas Lyndhurst comedy Goodnight, Sweetheart, about the man who had the ability to travel between contemporary London and the London of the Blitz. When they recast both his wife and the woman he fancied in the 1940s, the whole tone of the show changed, and not for the better.)

I suspect this is why I’ve always had a soft spot for the sort of television shows that maintain their setting and focus, but don’t emphasise the melodrama of personal relationships, like Law and Order at its peak—ah, Jerry Orbach. How we miss you—and the original template of The Bill, which is now a show well past its prime of episodes such as “Burnside Knew My Father.”

The other major problem I have with serial story telling is the tendency to either go broadly off the rails at some point—alas, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer still remains my benchmark for this. I loved the opening three seasons, thought the next two had some fine moments, and frankly disliked most of the last two seasons—or to get cut off in their prime—and, sticking with the Joss Whedon theme, Firefly is a good example of this.

Any good work of fiction will make me wish that it hadn’t ended, which is where a tendency to re-read comes in handy. A really well-written piece won’t make me wish it had never ended, not if it’s beautifully constructed, but it will make me wish that I hadn’t read or watched it quite so quickly.

But, somehow, this is worse with serial stories, because they induce in you a sense that they will keep going, so the inevitable end becomes harder to cope with. (Television shows are still the best example of this, because their end can be so abrupt and unexpected. Really well-plotted television will bring a season to some sort of ending, but that doesn’t always make up for the abrupt loss of an overall story arc. Can you tell that I’m still bitter that David Milch wasn’t allowed a fourth season of Deadwood?)

But—not to make a mockery of this entire post—there’s a disadvantage to serial story telling that rests entirely with me, not with the form; I’m just not good at dealing with delayed gratification when it comes to stories.

In order to balance a desire for serial story telling and a desire for more-or-less immediate satisfaction, I bless two inventions in particular: trade paperback reprints of comic-book series and DVDs.

With the exception of Fables, I don’t read any comics in their monthly instalments: I find the cliffhangers too frustrating. (Perhaps, at age 31, I should have just got over this, but I suspect that my tendency to respond emotionally to texts is part of what makes me successful at the kind of work I do.)

And while I watch live television and enjoy plenty of programmes that I have no desire to own on DVD, there’s a certain satisfaction to having an entire season of something to work through at my leisure; I would never have survived watching Deadwood or Dexter live to air.

So while I’m glad that Jane Austen didn’t write serials, I’m also glad that studios and (especially in the U. S.) cable companies are starting to put money into writing and producing high-quality television, so I can have at least twelve or thirteen hours of fun, instead of just two.

I'm Becoming a Romantic in My Old Age

Posted 5962 days ago in by Catriona

I’ve never actually thought of myself as a romantic. Apart from a period spent wallowing in Sweet Valley High novels that is probably best left unremembered now, I wasn’t overly interested in love stories as a teenager.

But I find that these days I’m more interested in a well-constructed romantic plot line, and more likely to get attached to stories that do this well.

(This excludes romance novels generally, although I do have an embarrassingly large collection of Georgette Heyer novels. I can’t actually remember why I started reading Heyer; I think it was a reaction to reading Lois McMaster Bujold, although I gave up on her after reading the two-novel anthology Cordelia’s Honour, from which I took the lesson that one never goes shopping with Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. But I do have almost all of Heyer’s Regency romances; I read them while I was completing my M.Phil. on Lady Caroline Lamb’s novels—it was a way of pretending I was researching while I was just lying around reading. They’re variable in quality, but generally fun. But that’s not the sort of thing I“m talking about here.)

Basically, I’ve become a sucker for a happy ending.

And I’ve developed a strangely conservative streak. I’ve never been particularly interested in marriage for myself—apparently, you’re not a real girl if you haven’t been planning your wedding from age 11, but such is life—and I’m not married now; Nick, apparently, fancies living an alternative lifestyle—or at least about as alternative as you get when you’re white, middle-class, and straight—so here we are.

But I want my favourite characters to get married. I don’t know if it’s exactly conservatism, or if I just want to see them safely fettered so I don’t have to worry about the ups and downs of their relationships any more, but I’m a sucker for a book or television wedding.

Some of this stems from early reading: Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying without the “Reader, I married him” endings. But it’s getting more pronounced.

Partly, I think Fables is to blame for this. Of the 70-odd issues I’ve read to date—I haven’t read the most recent one yet—the two story arcs that really stand out for me from a continually outstanding series are the Boy-Blue-focused Homelands and the Flycatcher-centric The Good Prince, both of which explore the diasporic aspect of the world building and showcase Bill Willingham’s ability to find and exploit obscure source material.

But what sucked me in to begin with was the relationship between Bigby Wolf and Snow White. It didn’t help, of course, that the third trade ended on a cliffhanger for this relationship. I discovered Fables when I was given the first three trades for my 30th birthday so, when I read the three arcs back to back a couple of days later, I was left wondering about where it was going and spent the next fortnight—in between frantic, last-minute Christmas shopping—searching Brisbane’s comic-book stores for the next three trades.

One of those trades was Homelands, which had nothing to do with the Bigby-Snow relationship, but a large part of my impulse was the desire to get to some sort of happy ending.

Maybe romantics develop naturally from people like me, who were lucky enough to find their life partners early in life and live happily ever after (minus the small pinpricks of wondering why one’s beloved insists on leaving the electric kettle on the bench instead of putting it back on the rest). I don’t know.

But I do know that tragic love stories don’t satisfy me these days. I’d rather read a beautifully written tragic story than a prosaic or poor happy one. But these days, what I want for my leisure reading is a beautifully written happy ending.

Reasons Why I Hate My Local Post Office

Posted 5964 days ago in by Catriona

The closest post office is something of a thorn in our sides.

Partly, this is because the owner seems to run it on a part-time basis. The first time we had to collect a parcel from there, we looked carefully at the collection ticket, which mentioned a 10 a.m. opening for a Saturday, and arrived almost on time. But the sign on the door said it opened at 11 a.m. And the owner himself didn’t turn up until almost noon.

When we taxed him, politely, with the discrepancy between the ticket and the door sign, he mentioned he’d only just bought the place and didn’t want to pay to have all the tickets reprinted.

If I’d known that was an option, I wouldn’t have bothered taking all those takeaway menus home when I worked at the Peking Village, and correcting the solitary typo in front of the television for three evenings. It would have been much easier to just correct people when they came to pay.

Partly, the irritation comes from the fact that we can’t actually figure out the post office’s system. Last time we had a problem with the arrival of a parcel, I rang to ask why some turned up on my doorstep and some had to be collected. The woman spoke a lot about couriers, registered mail, and parcels too big to fit into the letterbox, which I already knew about, but couldn’t explain why my mother’s inexplicable gollywog tea-cosy arrived on my doorstep even though it was a large box sent through the regular post.

I also blame the post office, perhaps unfairly, for the loss of my poor ex-Corolla; if they hadn’t been insisting on a signature for a Nintendo DS game small enough to fit in the mailbox, then my poor car wouldn’t have been parked in the driveway when the Commodore came through the fence.

But today was the last straw, when the owner completely failed to find a parcel that I’d been sent a ticket for. I have no idea why that happens, but it did involve spending twenty minutes waiting in a post office roughly the size of a shoebox, trying to get out of the way of people searching for pre-paid envelopes and occasionally interrupting the man behind the counter to correct his mispronunciation of the name of the (alleged) parcel.

Of course, I say “the last straw,” but, really, what can I do? He can be as lax, as random, and as unprepared as he likes, and we have no way of removing our service—unless we arrange for everything to be sent registered mail.

So we’re stuck with the local post office and its frustrating business practices. I’ll just make sure that I don’t park the car in the driveway before going to pick up any parcels, just in case the bad post-office karma continues.

Conversations With My Father

Posted 5964 days ago in by Catriona

It’s my mother’s birthday at the end of the week, so I rang my father to remind him (an annual daughterly duty, shared with my sister) and to ask him about what I’d bought.

Unfortunately, I’d gone so far out of my way to find obscure items that I couldn’t pronounce the relevant terms and he couldn’t remember if they were familiar, so that was a bit of a wash-out.

Then we had the following conversation:

DAD (jocularly): Well, thanks for your advice, not that it was much help.
ME: Well, my main advice was good, which was to ask my sister—she’s much better at this stuff. I can help if you want to know about good contemporary fantasy fiction.
DAD: I don’t want to know!
ME: No, I know; I’m just saying I could help. But I don’t really read much detective fiction.
DAD: I don’t know where we went wrong.
ME: Yes, imagine have a highly educated, stable daughter who doesn’t read detective fiction. It’s a tragedy!
DAD: Well, that’s the word I would have used.

There are just too many ways to disappoint your parents. I can’t keep track.

Multiple Editions

Posted 5966 days ago in by Catriona

I often worry slightly that I own too many books—and then worry about the fact that I worry about owning books, when they’re really only material objects on one plane of existence (the plane of existence, unfortunately, that requires bookshelves and wall space).

Part of my problem is that I’m fascinated by textuality, by textual scholarship, by bibliographies and reference texts—including one, rather embarrassingly, called Who’s Who in Enid Blyton—and by the textual development of stories.

This fascination is integral to my ability to perform the kind of textual criticism on which my work centres, but it also means that I end up owning multiple copies of certain novels.

This afternoon, I moved a bookshelf from the study to the spare room, as part of the ongoing process of opening up the study and making it a more congenial workspace. In the process, I came across such a wide range of multiple editions that I somewhat horrified myself, and ended up getting Nick—slightly melancholic himself, being unable to defeat a boss demon in Diablo—to keep a list for me. (Not, as it turned out, the best idea: I ended up slightly hysterical at the thought of my profligacy, while Nick eyed his vast collection of Doctor Who Target novelisations and sighed.)

But here’s a brief list, anyway.

William Beckford’s Vathek.
I own four copies of this work: an Oxford World’s Classic; a Penguin, complete with additional Beckford stories; another Penguin, in a volume called Three Gothic Novels (which is also the reason why I own two copies of Horace Walpole’s The Castle Of Otranto, and far too many copies of Frankenstein); and a gorgeous Broadview edition of Vathek, with The Episode of Vathek.

The problem is that I can’t remember if there even were alternate editions of Vathek or whether I simply own four copies of an identical text, which would be less justifiable.

They do all have different textual apparatuses (except, perhaps, for the two Penguins) and I did need the novel as literary context for the last chapter of my M.Phil. But did I need four copies?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I also own four copies of this, including the Broadview and the Norton. At least in this case, there are two alternate texts—1818 and 1831—and this was the work on which I produced my first major piece of criticism, my Honours thesis, all those years ago.

But I don’t think that’s the reason why I keep buying it—it’s just such a fascinating, complex, tragic novel, and so thoroughly shocked and surprised me when I first read it that I can’t help but buy any edition that might have new footnotes.

(On that note, I can offer in my own defense the fact that I have not replaced all my old Penguins with the new Penguins, even though the new ones have entirely fresh critical apparatuses by scholars who aren’t all died-in-the-wool Leavisites. I think that’s fairly restrained.)

I also own at least three copies of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—I realised while Nick was making the list that there might be another copy somewhere, and indeed the entire list-making process was punctuated by me saying “Did I say three copies of that book? I’ve just found another one.” It would only have been two, however, if I hadn’t had to buy a recent Penguin when I last taught Gothic Lit., so that the students and I would literally be on the same page.

I’m not even going to mention how many copies of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women I own—but, to balance that, I don’t own a single copy of any of the film versions.

Nick’s face fell at the last Lifeline BookFest when he asked what I’d bought and I pulled out another translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. But that one was H. C. Cary’s translation from the early nineteenth century, and I really did need it to balance my translations by Mark Musa and Dorothy L. Sayers. I also used Cary as my translation for my M.Phil, but that’s not much of an excuse, since I submitted that four years ago.

I discovered two copies of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss today, as well—and, Victorian scholar though I may be, I haven’t even read the book. Yet.

Ditto Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Cervantes’ Don Quixote—two copies of each—although I swear I am going to read the latter one day. After I have, I may even get around to reading Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, of which I thankfully only have one copy.

I don’t think I need to justify owning three copies of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, do I? Or two copies of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights?

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, on the other hand—I’m not sure I want to confess this, but I don’t actually like it very much. Or, rather, I don’t like Jane very much. She’s so dreary. Still, it’s worth it for the sake of Rochester.

I’m not apologising for my two copies of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, because that’s a great book. I’m a little uncomfortable with my TV tie-in edition, now, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it—it’s got Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw on the cover. I’m not that strong-willed.

I probably don’t need two copies of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, though. Or three copies of Northanger Abbey. Or two copies of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde; one isn’t even a critical edition, and the texts are identical, so I can’t begin to justify that. And I can’t remember why I own four copies of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk—although the texts do vary.

I can justify my two different versions of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, though. I bought a cheap-and-nasty copy—one of those awful 1960s hardbacks, with the heavy black line drawings picked out in one or two colours, usually purple or red, and a plasticky cover—at a BookFest some years ago, just to have the stories.

(Although, in retrospect, I’m not sure why—I rarely re-read my Andersen, because the stories are so depressing, and often cruelly arbitrary. A little like Wilde’s fairy tales, but without Wilde’s language.)

Then, I came to write the second chapter of my Ph.D., and I realised I needed a different translation of the tales to make my argument—these are the tales with the half-naked princess illustration, by the way.

I couldn’t isolate the exact translation that Eliza Winstanley had used as the basis for her adaptations, so I chose the most contemporaneous; Henry W. Dulcken, who published his translations in 1864-1866.

(Actually, his translations are extremely complex, in how they navigate between Andersen’s casual taking-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain and Dulcken’s middle-class, English, mid-nineteenth-century audience’s distaste for seeing the name “God” in a fairy tale—Kirsten Malmkjaer’s work on this aspect of his translations is fascinating.)

So I bought a copy of Dulcken’s translation, and I thought I’d get rid of my old, plasticky book.

But when I took it off the shelf, I saw that it was Mrs E. Lucas’s translations, which I knew from Viggo Hjornager Pedersen’s Ugly Ducklings? was much later but still a nineteenth-century translation. And my resolve to remove it from my shelves entirely disappeared.

I can’t believe that we live in a world where it’s wrong to want to own multiple nineteenth-century translations of a Danish writer’s work because the differences in the translations tell us so much about the market for which they were produced.

And, anyway, I’ve never complained about Nick’s Doctor Who novelisations.


Posted 5967 days ago in by Catriona

For some reason, I’ve made myself thoroughly melancholic recently—which is ironic, really, because I’m compulsively unable to spell “melancholic” and usually default to “meloncholic”—which I assume is the technical term for something like Midori.

I’m not actually a melancholic person; I have no reason to be.

I suspect this originates in my post-submission exhaustion.

However, I probably haven’t helped it along by watching Green Wing, reading Five Little Pigs, writing depressing blog posts, and listening compulsively to Nick Cave, Elvis Costello’s Spike—“Veronica” and “Let Him Dangle” are fabulous songs, guaranteed to make me want to weep—and The Crow soundtrack.

So I really only have myself to blame.

What I suspect I need is to put on some cheerful music—which means not letting Nick have a choice of CDs—and actually finish cleaning out the study. Who knows, I may find more books that I’d completely forgotten.

Agatha Christie

Posted 5967 days ago in by Catriona

For someone who explicitly said they wanted to blog about reading, I really haven’t posted much about reading. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time watching television, recently: I do like good television. (More so than movies, actually—I’m a sucker for serial story-telling, hence my thesis on serial fiction of the mid-Victorian period.)

But lately I’ve been on an Agatha Christie bender. Or a re-bender, I suppose, since I’ve read most of them before. (Oddly, I recently pulled my copy of Crooked House off the shelf and realised, unusually for me, that I couldn’t remember where and when I’d bought it, and that I’d never actually read it. It’s very good, by the way.)

So I’ve just finished Death on the Nile (1937) and moved on to Five Little Pigs (1942); this latter, according to Wikipedia, was also published as Murder in Retrospect, which I have to say is the daftest title for a murder mystery ever.

These two were both adapted in the BBC’s series of Poirot mysteries in 2003-2004, along with Sad Cypress (1940)—a lovely book—and The Hollow (1946)—a strangely disappointing book, I felt, because it turned on the charisma of the murdered man, and I thought he was a prat. The problem’s with the reader there, I feel.

My disappointment in The Hollow aside, I felt this was an exceptional bunch of adaptations. Of course, Poirot adaptations have traditionally been treated more accurately than their Marple cousins; I have no idea why, since there’s no discernible difference, to me, in the quality of Christie’s plotting between the two detectives. But these four were unusually good.

The newspaper reviewers at the time picked Sad Cypress as the best of the bunch, and it was good. But when I mentioned this to my sister, she disagreed in favour of Five Little Pigs. To her, the tragedy of the story—the fact that these two vital, fascinating, clever, creative people were dead sixteen years before the novel even started, so that the solution of the mystery could only benefit the second generation—made it a far more gripping plot.

I would agree with this, to an extent. I still like a happy ending, although I’m not daft enough to think I could get one out of this book. But part of the reason why I gave up watching Cold Case was because I couldn’t deal with the emphasis on the victim; the crimes were significantly harder to deal with in this than in, say, Law and Order. Even though the Wikipedia page says that the actual murder in Cold Case is often omitted “due to the heinousness of the underlying crime which is included with the murder,” when “the crime is usually rape or sexual assault of an innocent child or woman,” I gave up after the racially motivated Depression-Era rape and murder of a young black woman—that episode was so horrific I couldn’t keep watching.

Five Little Pigs works in a similar way, for me. Most of Agatha Christie’s work centres on the idea of protecting the innocent; she emphasises in more than one work that the English judicial system has never hanged an innocent person, as in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, where the conviction is overturned, and in Ordeal by Innocence, in which the convicted man dies in prison but escapes hanging.

Five Little Pigs falls into the latter category, avoiding direct criticism of the English judicial system by having the convicted murderess die of an illness in prison.

The idea that the English judicial system has never hanged an innocent person is one that I can’t entirely support—Derek Bentley? Edith Thompson? Paul Hanratty?—and I’m not sure that, given her emphasis in other books, Christie was actively making a point about the irreversibility of capital punishment. But that’s what the book suggests to me.

I’ve never supported the death penalty in any shape or form, for any crime. It’s such a core belief for me, that I’m not going to set out my arguments here; people will either agree with me or not, and I’m not to be moved on this issue.

For me, it was the story of the execution of Derek Bentley that devastated me—I am, in fact listening to Let Him Dangle as I write this. I could not, and still can not, comprehend how any judicial system that favoured an irreversible method of punishment could carry out that sentence.

But for at least two of the Queens of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it was the execution of Edith Thompson that seems to have caused the most concern. Christie cites Thompson on more than one occasion, and Dorothy L. Sayers’s co-written text The Documents in the Case—with Robert Eustace—also evokes the Thompson/Bywaters affair.

Sayers is a more complicated case. She doesn’t oppose the death penalty; in at least one novel, she advocates suicide over public ignominy and execution—and references the possibility in another novel—but Lord Peter Wimsey struggles with the reality of the death penalty. This is brought home to the reader most effectively in Busman’s Honeymoon, a book that broke my heart when I first read it, many years after reading the other Wimsey novels.

But even there, the objection is less to the execution—the murderer has confessed, and is undoubtedly guilty—as to the fact that Wimsey can’t receive absolution from the man that he, and he alone—the police being stymied—brought to the noose. Wimsey is deeply affected by the fact that he ends people’s lives, but less from a belief in any flaw in the judicial system than out of a realisation that he pursues detection as a hobby, rather than as a profession. Still, the doubt is there, an integral part of Sayers’s detective.

Five Little Pigs is unique, as far as I know, in Christie’s oeuvre, since the presumed-innocent character in Ordeal by Innocence was, in fact, guilty. Like any other murder mystery, Five Little Pigs provides the satisfaction of finding out who the murderer is, but it’s a melancholic book, not simply because the revelation of the murderer is anti-climactic and because the victims are attractive and charming.

For me, the devastating fact of this novel is that an innocent woman—while not hanged—dies for a crime she did not commit. The texts that provide Poirot with such vital information for the revelation of the real murderer—the letters that a dying Caroline Crale writes to her sister and to her daughter—remind me of an incident from several years ago.

As a postgraduate student, my sister worked at a nineteenth-century prison that had become a tourist attraction, and arranged for my mother and me to take a night tour, complete with candlelight.

The only time I’ve ever felt distinctly claustrophobic, including many years as a child spent touring limestone caves, was on that tour, when we were enclosed, in the dark, in the cell occupied by convicts on the night before their execution.

The main story for this tour was a famous bushranger, but a secondary story was that of a nineteenth-century baby farmer, executed for killing her charges, who spent the night before her execution sewing a drawstring into her skirt, so that the executioners couldn’t see her petticoats when the trapdoor was released. To me, the idea that this woman spent her last night thinking of her modesty is devastating.

When I re-read Five Little Pigs, I think of that story.

When our tour guide told this anecdote, the tour group laughed.


Posted 5968 days ago in by Catriona

My new hobby is repeatedly checking the viewer logs to this blog.

I like to see who’s reading.

And I like to see how people come across the Circulating Library, which means I’m particularly pleased by the Google searches that lead to this site.

A lot of them are searches for “circulating library,” but the readers don’t stay long; I assume they’re slightly disillusioned Victorian scholars.

One search was for “Eliza Winstanley,” which makes me think that I should talk a little more about my research and the fascinating woman who emerged over three years of work.

A number of searchers are Googling “shallow bookshelves”; I wonder if my father-in-law—who made my beautiful, book-swallowing, shallow bookcases—should consider taking on commissions?

Another searcher Googled “Marple: Ordeal By Innocence does not match the book”; I think they were disappointed by “If Only His Body Had Been Entirely Composed of Bees,” because they didn’t stay to read the rest of the site.

But my absolute favourite hit?

“Overcoming clumsiness.”

Now that’s how I want to be remembered on the Internet.

Why Must You Hurt Me, Torchwood?

Posted 5969 days ago in by Catriona

I looked forward to the first season of Torchwood, very much.

A Doctor Who spin-off? Set in lovely Cardiff? With Captain Jack Harkness? Absolutely count me in.

But then it just wasn’t very good. Not in the first season, anyway.

Or perhaps it would be fairer to say it was inconsistent.

One episode—“Captain Jack Harkness”—was sublime, and several others were extremely good, particularly “Countrycide,” although I also liked “Random Shoes” and “They Keep Killing Suzie.”

But others were slightly disappointing. It never hit the absolute low point that Doctor Who reached with Fear Her. (Thankfully, “Fear Her” was a one-off low, but oh my goodness it was a low.) But it also rarely reached the heights of “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances” or “Blink” (yes, showing my Steven Moffat bias again). And nothing ever affected me like the Doctor’s flashback to Gallifrey in “The Sound of Drums,” when I actually teared up.

But then this season of Torchwood started, and I got excited all over again.

Because this is good. And it’s consistent. It’s frightening, and funny, and almost feels more like the original Doctor Who that I know and love—in a completely unquantifiable way that I’m going to leave deliberately vague—than the new Doctor Who does.

And Captain Jack Harkness—other prime-time shows have high-achieving, action-hero protagonists. None that I can think of have high-achieving, action-hero protagonists quite like Jack—and his relationship with Ianto is only part of why I think he’s significant.

But, damn, the show’s depressing.

And it’s starting to wear me down.

I like what they’re doing, the way they grapple with the idea that dealing with aliens on a planet with no space programme—at least not as we Doctor Who fans understand a space programme—is bound to end badly more often than not, because people are blinkered. They don’t want to believe what they see in Torchwood‘s Cardiff, and most of the time they don’t have to, because the aliens are the exception.

But, perhaps we could save the victim of the week just once or twice?

I hope I’m not an ostrich but I don’t want to be a pessimist, either.

Just every now and again, I’d like a happy ending.

And that goes for the makers of Green Wing as well.

Really Lazy

Posted 5969 days ago in by Catriona

I’ve been unusually lazy today. Well, perhaps not unusually lazy—but definitely actively lazy.

This week has been a series of petty annoyances . . . the air conditioning not working in the car, housekeeping tasks piling up, lack of parking spaces, forty pieces of first-year assessment to be marked in a week, lack of sleep, rain coming down just as you’re heading to a lecture while wearing a white top, unexpectedly becoming unable to distinguish between an adjective and an adverb right in the middle of a lecture.

These little pinpricks are actually something that I enjoy, in retrospect; it’s the slowly developing to-do lists of life that make me realise (briefly and ephemerally) that I’m actually a grown-up. Oddly, the fact that I live in my own home, am a wage-earning adult, actually get to choose furniture, and have the ability to control my own television-watching experience doesn’t actually bring my maturity home to me, as much as the little irritations.

But the end result is laziness.

The final two weeks of the Ph.D. were so fraught, and the whole experience so exhilarating but exhausting—I feel like I need a holiday. And the mid-semester break coming up doesn’t count—I’ve just finished my first years’ marking and the second years have submitted their first assignment.

So, in the absence of a reasonable holiday period, I’ve spent the day sitting on the sofa (the uncomfortable sofa, for reasons I can’t actually explain) and watching the entire second season of Green Wing.

But this is where the problem comes in. I don’t want to neglect the blog, because I enjoy it and I don’t want to get to the stage where I think “Oh, well—I don’t have to update regularly.”

But I don’t want to blog about Green Wing.

Because I’m obsessed.

I get these obsessions occasionally. I thought—one upon a time, when I made myself stop reading the Narnia series for a while, because I was getting a little funny about them—that they were just part of the exaggerated emotional states in which one spends one’s adolescence. Essentially, I thought I’d grow out of them.

But apparently I haven’t.

They don’t completely overtake my life—they’re leisure-time obsessions. So now I just lean into them.

The last one was Fables. And that shouldn’t be in past tense. I’m still obsessed with Fables, but it’s calmed—although that may be an optimistic claim, because I did become a little worried when one monthly issue was delayed by six weeks.

Before that, it would probably have been Deadwood, which was accidental—I bought it for my brother for Christmas, thinking he’d like the swearing and violence, and then he dared me into watching it.

Green Wing is the latest—and it, too, will settle down over time.

Anything that I develop an obsession with (and it’s not a new obsession every week) stays with me—they remain something that I enjoy watching and re-watching over the years.

Okay, except for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I’m not sure where that came from, all those years ago, but I really did enjoy it once.


But I’m not writing about these obsessions while they’re still in the early stages. After all, you need to keep the crazy at least slightly under wraps.

Once I’ve finished watching season two, I might be able to explain why the show delights me so much.

For now, I’m just going with the flow.



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