Reading Ghosts from the Library

For a few years now, I’ve been happily devouring Tony Medawar’s anthology series Bodies from the Library, which presents lost and forgotten, previously unpublished, or never-anthologized stories and radio plays by well-known Golden Age mystery writers. So I was excited to discover that Medawar has branched out, with a new anthology called Ghosts from the Library, featuring more lost works from Golden Age masters of mystery — only these stories are supernatural! My two favorite genres, combined!

GhostsFromTheLibrary

Much like the recent Agatha Christie collection The Last Seance (which I reviewed here), the stories in Ghosts from the Library are a mix of truly supernatural tales, and mysteries that only appear supernatural until solved. There are also a few mysteries with naturalistic solutions, but that retain the suggestion of “true” supernatural phenomena, a variation that I don’t recall from the Christie collection.

As always, Medawar adds some notes about the author and the story after each piece, which I find helpful when I’m not familiar with the writer in question, and interesting even if I am.

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Sister Johanna’s Story

I’m sharing two stories this week, as we lead up to Christmas Day. The first one is another Christmas-season tale by Egyptologist, world traveler, and author of both crime and supernatural fiction, Amelia Edwards. You may recall that last year I featured her ghostly crime story, “The Four-Fifteen Express.”

Woodcarver of obermmergau jpg Blog

This year’s story is set in the village of St. Ulrich (or Urtijëi), in the Grödner Thal (called today Val Gardena, or Gröden), located in the Dolomite Alps region of Northern Italy. Gröden is known even today for its woodworking, both statuary and wooden toys. In fact, Amelia Edwards herself referred to St. Ulrich as “the capitol of Toyland” in her book Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (1873).

Sister Johanna’s Story” was also published in 1873, obviously inspired by Edwards’ travels through the region. Woodworking features prominently in this narrative of an artist blinded to what’s happening around him by his passion for his work.

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Classic Crime: A Man Built in a Wall

The last time I posted to my Classic Crime series, it was to share a relatively unknown Edgar Allan Poe murder mystery. Today, I’m sharing a tale that might be one of the inspirations for one of my favorite Poe stories.

Joel Headley (1813 - 1897)
Joel Headley (1813 – 1897) Source: Wikimedia

“The Cask of Amontillado,” first published in 1846, has inspired countless readings and presentations. The one I like best is Vincent Price’s recital from An Evening with Vincent Price (1970). I also recently discovered this interpretation by Lou Reed, featuring Steve Buscemi (Fortunato) and Willem Dafoe (Montresor), which is worth a listen. It probably doesn’t make as much sense if you don’t already know the story, but I doubt that’s an issue with most people who come across it.

I’d never given much thought to where Poe might have gotten the idea — he’s Poe, after all; but, then, I stumbled on a reference to Joel Headley‘s anecdote, “A Man Built in a Wall,” from his travelogue Letters from Italy, and its possible influence on “Cask.” In 1843, Headley wrote of viewing a skeleton immured in the wall of the Church of San Lorenzo, in the town of San Giovanni. The skeleton had been discovered during renovations of the church, and left in place.

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Classic Crime: Thou Art the Man

LitHub’s This Week in Literary History for the week of April 17-23, 2022 commemorated the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in Graham’s Magazine April 1841, thereby launching the modern detective story.

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, engraving by Thomas Welch and Adam Walter, circa 1840s. Source: Wikimedia

One might take issue with the statement that Poe “invented” the detective story: E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1819 Mademoiselle de Scuderi certainly counts as a detective story, in my mind; and you can trace demonstrations of Holmesian-style ratiocination all the way back to at least the 1557 story cycle Peregrinaggio (you can find my retelling of the specific tale I’m thinking of here). But it is true that Poe’s Auguste Dupin and the adoring narrator-friend of Dupin’s cases defined the framework that gave us Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the entire genre of ratiocination-style tales as we know it today.

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Classic Crime: A Ripper of Yesteryear

To be fair, this isn’t really a “crime story,” it’s a narrative that leads up to a crime. But it’s an excellent read, with some striking imagery, and I like it. That’s all the reason I need….

Santiago de Compostela desde atrio Hospital Real acuarela por Mariano Pedrero (detail)

Originally published in 1890, Emilia Pardo Bazán’s “Un destripador de antaño” (“A Ripper of Yesteryear“) tells of the tragic intersection between the lives of a young orphaned peasant girl and a mysterious apothecary. It’s set in the author’s native Galicia, in and around the historic city of Santiago de Compostela, the ending point of the famous pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. The story’s introduction implies that it may be inspired by an old Galician folktale:

The legend of “The Ripper,” the half-sage, half-sorcerer assassin, is a very old one in my homeland. I heard it at a tender age, whispered or chanted in frightful refrains,… I will tell it to you. Enter valiantly with me into the shadowy regions of the soul.

It’s also seems related to a certain Andean folklegend, which I won’t mention here, for fear of spoilers. But if you’re interested, you’ll find a pointer in the footnotes of my translation.
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A Christmas Crime from Mary Fortune

Winter Tales season is just about here, so it’s time to wrap up Classic Crime for 2021. What better way to finish up than with a Christmas Crime?

I’ve had “Christmas Eve, Long Ago” on my Winter Tales list for several years, and have always skipped it, because it’s not a ghost story. This year, with this new crime series, I’ve finally got a chance to share it!

Father Christmas in Australia

It’s Christmas Eve, Australia; Edward Woolston and his wife Soo have just sold their property, and plan to move back to England. Full of the spirit of the holiday, Woolston invites a man he just met to stop by for a drink and a cigar to celebrate the Woolston’s last Christmas in Australia. But “goodwill towards all” isn’t a sentiment that everyone follows, even during this special season.

You can read “Christmas Eve, Long Ago” here.

This story first appeared in The Portland Guardian (Portland, Victoria, Australia, that is) on Christmas Day, 1879, under the byline “Waif Wander”. The author’s real name was Mary Fortune (1833-1911), an Irish-born Australian writer known primarily for her crime fiction; she was one of the earliest women detective writers in the world. Her series The Dectective’s Album, narrated by detective Mark Sinclair, ran for forty years in the Australian Journal, from 1868 to 1908. During her career, the name Waif Wander was so well known that both a racehorse and a greyhound were named in her honor!

Sadly, Ms. Fortune died ill and in obscurity in 1911. I think she has been somewhat rediscovered, at least in Australia, and I do plan to check out some of her other crime and detective fiction for the Classic Crime series. But in the meantime, enjoy this Christmas tale!


Part of the Classic Crime Series.

Featured Image: Christmas in Australia, Frederick Grosse, engraver (1865). Source: State Library Victoria.
Father Christmas in Australia, from Illustrated Australian News, Christmas 1882. Source: State Library Victoria.

Classic Crime: Talma Gordon

Today: the second Lizzie Borden-inspired crime tale, and of the earliest (possibly the first) published mysteries by a black author. “Talma Gordon” appeared in the October 1900 issue of Colored American Magazine, an early literary and cultural journal for African-American readers. The author of “Talma Gordon,” Pauline Hopkins, was also the magazine’s editor, and one of its most profilic contributors.

Pauline Hopkins
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930). Source: coloredamerican.org

I wrote about Pauline Hopkins for my Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic series, so I’ll quote what I said about “Talma Gordon” there:

Lovely golden-haired Talma Gordon is accused of the grisly murder of her wealthy father Jonathan Gordon, her stepmother, and her infant half-brother. During the investigation it comes out that Talma did not get along with her stepmother, that her father had forbidden Talma’s marriage to struggling artist Edward Turner — and that Gordon had been planning to leave the bulk of his wealth to his son, with only a small annuity to each of the two daughters of his first wife. Talma is acquitted legally, but not necessarily in the court of public opinion. What really happened?

You can read “Talma Gordon” here.

If you’ve read Hopkins’ fiction before, you’ll recognize the themes in “Talma Gordon.” On the plus side, it’s a crisp and engaging crime tale, and if there had been an American equivalent of The Strand Magazine at the time, “Talma Gordon” would have been right at home. On the other hand, I do have to give it a point off for a Deux ex machina ending, and some aspects of the story haven’t aged well—because some of the cultural attitudes of the time are, thankfully, no longer acceptable.

All in all, if you’re looking for a unique take on the Lizzie Borden story, as well as an interesting piece of literary and African-American history, do check out “Talma Gordon.” I hope you enjoy it!

Classic Crime: The Long Arm

Today’s Classic Crime is one I’ve shared before, but it’s a story I really like, by an author I admire. “The Long Arm,” by Mary Wilkins Freeman, is the first of two women-authored murder mysteries I plan to present that were probably inspired by the infamous Lizzie Borden case.

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
Mary Wilkins Freeman Source: Wikimedia

Sarah Fairbanks is an unmarried schoolteacher who’s been engaged to her beau for five years. But for some reason, her father disapproves of the relationship. Sarah argues loudly with him about her fiancé one night when she is home for summer vacation. The next morning, she finds her father in his bed — murdered. Suspicion falls quickly on Sarah, and soon she’s arrested.

At the trial, Sarah is acquitted (like Lizzie Borden was), but she is shunned by the community, which still suspects her guilt. So to clear her own name, Sarah decides to investigate the murder herself. Can she find the murderer and prove her innocence?

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Classic Crime: Blue Murder

Today’s Classic Crime tale is by Wilbur Daniel Steele, a once highly regarded, but now sadly forgotten American author. It’s a lovely, atmospheric tale of death and sibling rivalry, called “Blue Murder.”

Wilbur Daniel Steele
Wilbur Daniel Steele (1886-1970).
Source: Wikimedia.

The Bluedge brothers all live and work within the valley called Mill Crossing. The oldest, Jim, runs the farm; Frank runs the store, and Camden is a blacksmith. The three were once rivals for the woman who is now Jim’s wife, Blossom. As the story begins, Frank, Blossom, and Camden are waiting for Jim to come home with his latest purchase: a stud horse from Wyoming, with the ominous name of Blue Murder. The horse, apparently, came suspiciously cheap. Rumor says the horse lives up to his name. Could it be that the rumors are true?

“Blue Murder” was one of Tony Hillerman’s selections for his Best American Mystery Stories of the Century anthology, and it’s a great tale. I like how the complete solution doesn’t come until the very last line of the story.

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Classic Crime: Little Louise Roque

Today’s Classic Crime is a striking, disturbing story by Guy de Maupassant, one of the great masters of the short story form.

Guy de Maupassant (1850 - 1893)
Guy de Maupassant (1850 – 1893)
Source: Wikimedia

In “Little Louise Roque,” the body of a young village girl is found in the woods, violated and murdered. With a cool and disinterested eye, Maupassant describes the reactions, actions, and thought processes of the people affected: the girl’s mother, the postman who discovered the body, the mayor, the magistrate — and the murderer. It’s a dark and unsettling story, but also quite powerful. And memorable, too.

I first encountered this novelette in the Boris Karloff-edited collection, And the Darkness Falls, and it’s stayed with me since that reading. I’m sharing the same translation, from a collection of Maupassant translations credited to “Albert M.C. McMaster, A.E. Henderson, Mme. Quesada, and Others.” The story was first published in December 1885, and later became the title story of Maupassant’s eleventh collection, La petite Roque (1886).

You can read “Little Louise Roque” here.

I hope you find it as memorable as I did.


Part of the Classic Crime series.

Featured image: The Brook in the Woods by Worthington Whittredge (ca. 1885-86). Source: metmuseum.org