Book Review: Five Red Herrings

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers (1931)

In short:

  • I don’t care what happens to these people.[1]
  • This isn’t a novel it’s a cross between a railroad time schedule and a crossword puzzle.
  • That isn’t Lord Peter Wimsey–he’s a generic wealthy, privileged member of the upper class who is given unreasonable amounts of access and information by local legal authorities.

Rating: 1-1/2 stars


Warning, past here there be spoilers.

It is difficult to know where to start with “what bothered me” about this book. Instead of just not caring what happened to these people (which might result in me simply not finishing the book) I came to be actively annoyed and resentful of the characters and thus, of course, the author.

First, when last the reader encountered Lord Peter Wimsey (Strong Poison) he had just had what seemed, to readers of the time, a life altering experience. He had finely met a woman (Harriet Vane) he could truly love, proved to the world (and more importantly the English justice system) that she was not guilty of having poisoned her ex-lover, and had his marriage proposal to her turned down. The reader might deduce that a wise man would give Miss Vane some time to recover emotionally from her recent travails and an even wiser man might be endeavouring to solve the problem of removing the shadow of King Cophetua from his sudden attraction to Vane. A few sentences from Sayers would have sufficed to suggest to those who had read the most recently published to Wimsey’s exploits that he has retreated to the artistic colony on Galloway in order to recover from recent events. In fact that ploy (man removing himself from his recent haunts to avoid the pain of love lost) was an extremely common one in British fiction at the time. Alternatively Sayers could have indicated in the text that the events of this book preceded those in Strong Poison.

Second, Wimsey was not a character created new for this book. The reader has had a chance to learn how he entertains himself, what things he finds interesting, what people he likes to be around and what he does with his time when he isn’t solving mysteries. The Wimsey in this book is hardly recognizable as the same man. I prefer to believe that the person styling himself “Wimsey” is actually a young male relative who shares the same first name and enjoys being taken for his more famous kinsman.

Third, the Bunter of this book is not the Bunter of the previous Wimsey books. Nor is he well used. Much of the story surrounds issues of alibis and no one is better situated to confirm (or explode) an alibi than a domestic servant. Yet, with a few exceptions, Bunter’s “way with” female servants is not employed. Further, Bunter’s numerous skills with photography and chemical analyses are not well used either. I prefer to believe that “Lord Peter” has calls to his servant “Bunter” rather his real name as part of the masquerade.

Fourth, I very much dislike the use of the ploy in which the murderer when faced with what the police say is evidence just rolls over and tells the entire story. This is a way for the author to avoid the issue of whether the charges (or the evidence) would have stood up in a court of law. In one of the early Dalgliesh novels P. D. James’ detective is left, near the end of the book, sure that a particular character had committed a crime although he never presses charges. That character later writes to him: They [referring to his superiors] wouldn’t believe you but you were right[2]. Dalgliesh’s thoughts when he read the letter?

She was wrong, he thought. They hadn’t disbelieved him, they had just demanded, reasonably enough, that he find some proof. He had none, either at the time or later, although he had pursued the case as it it were a personal vendetta, hating himself and her. And she had admitted nothing; not for one moment had she been in any danger of panicking. (297-8)

Fifth, the class relationships/privilege that underlie and intertwine with the plot of the book make the “murderer told all” ploy both necessary and extremely unlikely.

  • It was necessary because throughout the novel the police treat members of the gentry with kid gloves. A murder was committed and a very limited number of people (given the theory of the crime) could have done the deed. The police have reason to believe that the murder accidentally took an object from the scene of the crime. Yet at no point are the only individuals that the police consider likely suspects asked to go to the police station, their homes are not searched and (more important to the theory of the crime) neither is their painting equipment searched. I think that Sayer’s herself was aware of that problem and that was one of the reasons that she waited so long to share with the reader what object Wimsey realized was missing even though he shares that information with the police.
  • It was extremely unlikely because the accused man was a member of a class used to being treated with kid gloves by the police. His first response would probably have been to contact the family solicitor. And the family solicitor would have pointed out that there was a perfectly reasonable alternative explanation of the crime.

Sixth, a good lawyer could make a very reasonable case that Lord Peter Wimsey was, if not the actual murderer, an accessory to the crime.

  1. Wimsy had opportunity to remove the missing tube of paint himself from the scene of the crime. Neither the Sergeant nor the Constable were with him as he searched the deceased’s effects. The solicitor might suggest to the police that Wimsey had in fact killed Campbell and now realized that he had a chance to muddy the waters by throwing suspicion on others. Since the police at the scene did not search Wimsey before he left there is no way to prove that he did not exit the premises with the tube of paint in his pocket. He would have no worry that Bunter (or faux-Bunter) would report any smears of white paint that were later left in his pocket.
  2. Wimsey had an opportunity, during his first visit to Ferguson’s place to plant Campbell’s tube of paint in Ferguson’s kit.
  3. We have only Wimsey’s word for it that he cannot paint well. For someone who “doesn’t paint” he knows a lot about painting. And he did, after all, chose to spend his vacation among painters.
  4. How many “lucky breaks” are we to accept in order for Ferguson to have made it to Glasgow in the way Wimsey “proved.” Given how extremely important the creation of his alibi was how likely was it that he wouldn’t notice that his watch had stopped? How likely was it when Ferguson on his bicycle missed the train that a car would have driven by at just the right moment so that he could hold onto the back and make it, with his bike, to the next station in time to catch the train? How likely is it that the driver of the car would have not noticed that he was trailing a bike behind him? How likely was it that not a single person would have noticed the car trailing a bike behind it? How likely was it that a man who had never been involved in crime would have been so successful at forging his train ticket and how likely that the forgery was flawed “just enough” to be noticeable when Wimsey needed it to be noticed?

If Ferguson had just stayed silent I doubt the police would have pressed charges. As for all the details Ferguson supposedly supplied? Well, we only have Sayers’ word for them don’t we?

Me, I have an alternative theory of the crime. Campbell was about to expose the faux “Lord Peter,” they struggled and “Lord Peter” accidentally killed him (much as Ferguson supposedly did.) “Wimsey” and the faux “Bunter” work together to stage Campbell’s accident but when “Wimsey” realized that the police would probably work out that Campbell had died hours before the apparent accident he began to remove and plant evidence that will muddy the investigation. After “Wimsey” and “Bunter” have checked out all the alibis of the six suspects they work together to incriminate Ferguson. The careful reader with notice that “Bunter” is for the most part absent from the later portion of the story as he worked in the background to lay down all the clues for the police to follow.
Why didn’t Ferguson fight harder? Chief Inspector Parker mentioned to his wife (the sister of the real Lord Peter) that her brother was involved in investigating a crime in Galloway. Lady Mary knowing where her brother actually is informs her rather stodgy elder brother. The faux Lord Peter is the black sheep in the family and they are used to paying people off to cover up for his various escapades. Ferguson is offered a very substantial “gift” in return to agreeing to claim guilt. A few words to the wise and the judge in Scotland was happy to lead the jury to return a sentence of manslaughter with a recommendation of mercy. And faux “Wimsey” and faux “Bunter” are on their way to the colonies on the next available ship.


[1] The eight deadly words in any book review. As per Wikipedia: “The phrase was coined by Dorothy J. Heydt in a June 11, 1991, Usenet posting to rec.arts.sf-lovers in reference to The Copper Crown, a novel by Patricia Kennealy-Morrison:

[2] James, P. Shroud for a nightingale. London: Sphere, 1977.

100 Years ago today: Living before antibiotics and vaccines

100 years ago today the following story ran on the front page of The Logan Republican (Logan, Cache County, Utah).

SECOND DEATH IN LINDBLOM FAMILY

   Once again the sympathy of the community is forcibly drawn to the bereaved and suffering at the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Lindblom North Main, Logan. Members of the family were recently stricken with scarlet fever and Thursday marked the second death within one week. The first to succumb was a little three year old girl, and on Thursday John Joseph, a five year old boy, passed away and was burled according to quarantine regulations yesterday afternoon. It is understood that other members of the family are suffering from the dread disease, but are not dangerously ill. Friends and neighbors have done all in their power to assist the afflicted family, but the nature of the malady has prevented the performance of many a charitable act.

One hundred years ago public health officials in the United States knew about germs and even knew how many diseases were transmitted. Unfortunately that didn\’t mean they could cure those diseases. Once an outbreak began there was little they could do other than educate the public as to hygienic measures that could be taken, warn them as to the symptoms to look for, cancel large public gatherings and implement quarantines. Diphtheria killed less frequently than it had in previous decades because of the development of an antitoxin but vaccines had yet to be developed. Antibiotics had yet to be discovered. Health officials kept a careful eye on the number and severity of cases as one can read in this article in The Washington Herald November 30 1911, p. 12:

HEALTH OFFICERS ASK CO-OPERATION / Several New Cases of Diphtheria Reported

With the announcement that fourteen new cases of diphtheria were reported to the office during the past week, the health department, in its weekly bulletin, which was issued yesterday afternoon, urges the of the people of the District in fighting the disease. At present there are thirty-two such cases recorded on the books of the offices.
   \”The number of reported cases and the prevalence of the disease is altogether higher than it ought to be,\” reads the report. \”Diphtheria is a preventable disease, and as such should be prevented. It is far better to prevent disease than to treat it, either at home or in hospitals. During the prevalence of diphtheria a simple sore throat should be considered suspicious and a physician called at once and a culture taken. The wise thing Is to take no chances. Treatment with antitoxin should not be delayed in positive cases, and it should given in doubtful or suspicious cases.

Officials would try to limit the spread of these diseases by preventing the likelihood of those most vulnerable vulnerable of coming in contact with others who carried the germs. Often, as reported in The Virginia Gazette, (Williamsburg, VA November 30 1911, p. 1) schools were closed to limit the spread of infectious diseases:

THE SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED / Several Cases of Contagion

   In order to prevent a probable epidemic of diphtheria, the Williamsburg school board last Friday morning decided to close the public schools until next Monday. The disease has gradually spread over the Peninsula and reached here a few weeks ago. On account of it schools in Charles City and other places had to close for a few weeks. In only one county were any deaths thus far.[sic] Antitoxin has saved many little lives….every precaution has been taken to prevent contagion, and strict quarantine is maintained where the disease exists.

We live in a post vaccination-antibiotic world. Most of us who live in what is often referred to as the \”industrialized\” world and were born in the last half century have never experienced the type of quick moving, virulent and deadly epidemics that used to sweep through communities every several years. Most of us have no memories of schools being canceled and swimming pools closed for fear of the dangers associated with crowds.

And we forget that much of the world still lives with the fear of measles, cholera, malaria, typhoid and other diseases most of our doctors have never seen.

100 Years ago Today: Women literally fighting for rights

The right to vote, the right to sit on juries, the right to practice many professions, indeed the right to engage in all aspects of public life were not just given to the ladies when they asked for them nicely. In fact those rights were not handed over after women demanded them. In fact they were not ceded to women until women had demonstrated that they were willing to fight for them. Yes, I know that in the end men voted to give women the vote but that was only after a long battle. Even today the political, social and economic forces in our society are predominantly male and the governments of countries that do grant the franchise to women seem to have no qualms at all in dealing with countries that do not allow women the right to vote. Or sit on juries. Or to work in the same professions as men. Or to drive. In some of the countries that most limit the civil rights of women are considered to be the closest allies of the United States.

I wonder, was it that experience of having to fight simply to be accorded the same basic rights as others in society that sensitized many of the women of the suffragette era to issues of animal cruelty? The women of 1911 weren\’t just handing out pamphlets and giving speeches in order to stop the cruel treatment of animals — they were on the front lines of the fight putting themselves into harm\’s way for the stop the mistreatment they saw going on all around them.

For example, consider this story on the front page of the New York Tribune of November 29 1911:

ARMED, SHE HUNTS HUNTERS / Mrs. E. W. Murray Drives Men from Country Place

Mrs. Evelyn Wentworth Murray, of New York, who is an energetic member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Anímals, and has caused numerous arrests in New York City and Somerset County among teamsters, helped her watchman chase three hunters from her country place today. She said the men deliberately shot at her her Italian watchman, Jack de Luci, when the latter attempted to drive them off her estate….Mrs. Murray gave chase to the men with a .38-calibre revolver as they fled across the fields….Mrs. Murray was followed by de Luci, who carried a pair of revolvers, and fired an automatic shotgun at the men.

Mrs. Murphy wasn\’t the only woman who was willing to risk her own life to protect animals as one can read in this article on page 12 of the New York Evening World of November 24 1911:

WOMAN FOUGHT MOB OF 2,000 TO ARREST DRIVER / Miss Campbell Tells How She Held to Horse While Crowd Struggled

   Miss Catherine Campbell, Secretary of the Bide-a-Wee Home, today told how she battled for an hour yesterday afternoon in front of her home….with a crowd of 2,000 persons, because she insisted upon arresting an eighteen-year-old driver for kicking his horse in the stomach.
   The crowd turned unexpected against the valiant woman and tried to take her prisoner away from her. She was dragged a block clinging to the horse\’s bridle. the animal was knocked down three times by the struggling mob, each time limping to his feet, with Miss Campbell still cling to his head.

Our foremothers did not, for the most part, life quiet sheltered lives in those \”halcyon\” days before women had the vote. It was only a few months since the Mayor of New York had stopped the practice of paying male teachers more (substantially more) than female teachers with the same qualifications. Of course the United States of 1911 was a dangerous place for many people. African-Americans were given little protection by and from officers of the law. There were few laws labor laws and safety regulations in work places were either non-existent or seldom enforced. \”Eugenic laws\” were becoming more and more popular and domestic violence was routine.

The \”good old days\” were not so good for many people. And things got better because individuals were willing to fight to make things change.

100 years ago today: We remember the wrong names

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

Down near the bottom of the front page of The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA) of November 27 1911 there is a small headline: WILL BE HANGED TO-DAY / White Man Must Pay Penalty for Murder of Negroes. The focus of the short article that follows is not the nature of the crime but the historic nature of the punishment:

There was a follow-up article on the front page of the same newspaper the next day:

Indeed this was an historic occasion. A white man had not only be found guilty of murdering an African-American he had been given the most severe penalty possible for doing so. But there is something very wrong that it is his name that was recorded in these newspapers not the names of women he killed. That is why I have redacted the murderer\’s name from these articles.

This story was picked by the Associated Press and the article varied from paper to paper across the United States by headline and length. For example, the headline near the bottom of the second page of the November 30 1911 edition of the Hopkinsville Kentuckian was Unusual and the accompanying article was simply:

NAME REDACTED, a white man, was hanged at St. Mary\’s, Georgia, for the murder of a negro woman and her daughter.

In The Titusville Herald (Titusville, PA) the piece ran on page 8: WILL HANG TODAY

For the murder of a negro woman and her daughter near Kingsland; Ga., NAME REDACTED, a white man, will be hanged here tomorrow. This is believed to be the first time in the history [sic] that a white man has been executed for killing a negro.

If the name of the first white man in that area of the United States executed for killing an African-American was of historic interest surely the names of the two women he murdered — the first African-Americans in that area of the United States whose murders were treated with the same degree of severity as were murders of white women — deserved to be recorded.

Even The Appeal, an African-American newspaper, did not include the names of the two women when it picked up the Associated Press story. Which leads me to suspect that the story was sent out without their names. But the name of their murderer was not only put out on the wires, it was mentioned in major newspapers because his death marked an historic first. His name and his story have become part of the tourist industry of the town where he was hanged because he was also an historic last. He was the last man hanged at that jail. So his story is repeated and even dramatized for the tourist trade.

The name of the murderer was in all the newspapers I read. A little bit of digging turned up the name of the man who arrested him. I know the name of the (white) woman who had taught one of the murdered women to read and write. I know that that murdered woman was proud she was literate and proud of the hard work that she did to earn a living. I know that she made a habit of writing her name on the dollar bills she received when she was paid. I know that it was the possession of money with her name written on it that led to her murderer being caught. I know that family members of the white woman who taught her sat on the jury that heard the case. I know that the older woman was walking home with her daughter when she was attacked by a white man who intended (at the very least) to steal all her money. Perhaps she feared that even greater harm would be done to her daughter. I know that the older woman fought her attacker and I know that he murdered her and her daughter and then took the money from their corpses.

But I do not know the name of the mother or the daughter. I don\’t know how old either were. I know only that one white man took away their lives and that their place is history has almost been wiped out by the disinterest of those who record these kinds of things.

One hundred years ago today the State of Georgia enacted official revenge for the murder of two black women. It is their names that should be remembered not that of the man who murdered them.

Re: Reading Atwood

Over the last few weeks Kit Whitfield has published a series of, deconstructions and analyses of famous novels using the first sentences as each as hir point of departure. I recommend these posts to anyone who wants to read excellent and jargon free literary analyses.

As a fan of Kit Whitfield both as a writer and as a literary critic I began scanning my own shelves for books I would love to see hir analyze. Margaret Atwood\’s The Handmaid\’s Tale immediately caught my eye. I had been a science fiction fan from the time I was in grade school and so when I learned that Atwood had written a book set in a patriarchal dystopic near future I looked forward to reading it with some excitement. By the time I finished my excitement had morphed into annoyance which was shared with many other fans of science fiction. Much of that annoyance could be organized under three headings: genre blinkers, genre blindfolds and genre insecurity.

  1. Genre blinkers
  2. I (and many other science fiction fans) complained that Atwood had made critical errors in her world building — errors that she would not have made if only she had first read some number of \”classics\” in the field.[1]. Some of our complaints boiled down to \”if the group X is going to overthrow the duly elected government of the United States, that will not be the way they go about it.\” Which translated to \”since that is not the method used in the classics then it is wrong.\” An interesting claim since it amounted to a prescriptive narrowing of imagination.

    Many of those \”that isn\’t the way it would happen\” complaints have been answered by recent \”real world\” developments. A number of Atwood\’s critics said that if anything like the events in the back story of the book happened in the United States people would immediately fill the streets and that there would be open rebellion against those attempting to overthrown the Constitution. Given the laws passed and regulations enacted in the United States since the terrorist attacks in 2001, the increasing paramilitarization of the police, the encroachments on the first, fourth, fifth and eighth Amendments to the Constitution, the increasing requirements to carry and produce government issued identification cards, and the frank and open way that legislators are working to restrict voting–the claim that Americans would not be willing to stand passively by as their democratic rights are stripped away carries far less weight than it once did.

    Atwood was also criticized as being \”unrealistic\”[2] because of the ease with which the powers that be in her book were able to strip away women\’s rights. Not only would the women be in the streets protesting any such attempts, so her critics argued, most men would be out in the streets with them. That is another argument that falls flat given events in the United States in the last two decades. Not only is it harder to get access to abortion (or even birth control) in much of the United States now than it was when The Handmaid\’s Tale was first published in recent years laws have been proposed that would make the rights of any woman secondary to rights of anything alive (or for that matter dead) in her uterus.

    As I wrote in my August 1 2011 post I owe Margaret Atwood two apologies

    Now, as I read my morning papers, I see bill after bill being passed into law in various American states that could have been included in the backstory Atwood provided for the dystopian America. Now, as I read my morning paper, I read about legal efforts to claw back from women the rights they have recently won. Now, as I read my morning paper, I read about official efforts to disenfranchise portions of the American population. Now, as I read my morning papers, I read about legal efforts to further entrench Christianity (and only certain flavours of Christianity at that) into American law.

    In short, every day as I read my morning papers I realize that I should not read The Handmaid\’s Tale as a non-science fiction writer\’s attempt to write within an established genre but as chilling and insightful examination of the American political/social psyche.

  3. Genre blindfolds
  4. Among some readers a new idea badly presented has far more worth than an old idea presented brilliantly. However many of these same readers only recognize as \”new\” something that happens to / is felt by a \”classic\” science fiction character. If every book ever written about life on Mars had a white, male narrative voice reflecting white male experiences then for the some readers writing a book about life on Mars with a female or black narrative voice would not constitute writing something \”new.\” Just because a \”thing\” is new doesn\’t mean that its introduction will in any way change society or the ways in which human beings interact. Setting Romeo and Juliet on Mars instead of in Verona doesn\’t make the story any newer.

     

  5. Genre insecurity
  6. Atwood is one of those writers who has written books that those who love both literature and science fiction quite happily categorize as both yet who dislikes having her work described as science fiction, arguing that her dystopian novels…are not science fiction but speculations about the future. (The New York Times Sept. 21 2009). This, not surprisingly makes science fiction fans feel insecure for it sounds as if she is belittling the entire genre as having little worth. However I think if you read her statement carefully what she is saying is not \”see those books in the science fiction section of the library–none of them is great and none of them is a piece of literature.\” Perhaps what she is really saying is \”see all the absolutely marvelous, well-written, thoughtful books? Don\’t put them in the science fiction section where they will be lost to most readers. Liberate them. Place them out on literature shelves next to the works of Austen, Eliot and James.\”

    Atwood seems to me, to be saying that to put her book in the science fiction section is like putting Crime and Punishment into the same section of the bookstore as The League of Frightened Men. Depending on one\’s mood one might prefer to read the latter than the former but it helps direct the reader to find the right book and give some intimations as to how to read each book if they are shelved in different sections.

    Writers as well as readers suffer from genre insecurity. Readers who love \”classic\” science fiction fear that if good writers refuse to have their works categorized as science fiction then few good writers will attempt to write in the field. Good writers fear that some readers will not even pick up a book if it is labeled science fiction. They also fear that if people pick up their books thinking \”this is a piece of science fiction\” then the reader will not apply the same careful analytical skills that they use when reading other books.

If Atwood feared that some of her readers would make a category error when reading The Handmaid\’s Tale if they considered the book primarily as a piece of science fiction then I must confess that in my case her fear was accurate. I read the book years ago very consciously as a piece of science fiction. Yesterday I picked it up again, looked at the opening sentence and wondered what Kit Whitfield would make of it. Then I read the second sentence. And then the third. What a strange experience it was for me. This was a book I knew well and yet reading it now was a new experience. I set aside everything I (thought I) knew about how patriarchies should work, I set aside everything I knew about how dystopias should could into being. I finally read the book that Atwood wrote and it was a thing of wonder.
 
Rating: 5 stars


[1] Of course, there was something less than unanimity as to exactly which books and short stories those classics were.&#8617

[2] In science fiction the charge \”unrealistic\” can mean \’this isn\’t the way in which the physical universe actually works\’ or \’actual sentient beings do not respond in these ways to these circumstances.\’ However if a particular exception to scientific realism/truth/accuracy has deep roots in genre writing then it gets a pass. And since science fiction writers generally wrote from a narrow range of real world experiences readers had long since learn to accept as \”realistic\” behaviour and attitudes that would be considered highly unrealistic/believable in other cultures, classes or social groups. Readers who were women, African-Americans and members of the working class had simply come to learn that however people acted in the real world this is how they functioned in the world of science fiction. Which may explain why so many readers who belonged to those groups disliked science fiction as genre and read little of it. &#8617

Batman and the case of the missing women

As I reshelved books earlier today I was thinking of Deconstruction: The Bechdel Test an article by Ana Mardoll which had been posted recently on The Slacktiverse.

I am always in a constant struggle to keep books from taking over my desk, the floor of my library, the window sill of my library, the side table by my bed, the space next to my plate at the kitchen table and every other surface in the house which will hold a book. Yes, I pull books off the shelf to check quotes, to compare writing styles, to verify when something was published, to nail down a reference. But surely I don\’t pull enough books off the shelves to explain why sometimes it is difficult to pick one\’s way from the door to the chair and why every single book I needed to look at today was already off the shelf and in some unmarked pile. Approximately once a week I make a reshelving sweep through the house. By the next morning books will apparently have left the bookcases of their own accord to scatter themselves at random throughout my home.

I considered the book on top of the next \’to be shelved\’ pile in the light of that article. Batman in the forties. \”Of course,\” I said to myself, \”there is virtually no chance that an early Batman cartoon would pass the Bechdel test.\” Then my talent at procrastination academic rigour kicked in and I sat down to verify whether the early Batman comics did indeed \’fail\’ the Bechdel test.

I turned to page 10 and the first comic included in the collection–Case of the Chemical Syndicate, originally published in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. So, the first Batman (btw, he is referred to as The Batman throughout) fails the Bechdel test by the first criterion. Not only does it not have two women it doesn\’t even have one woman. Not even a silent woman standing somewhere in the back of a scene.

\”Well,\” I say to myself attempting to put off any more work to maintain academic rigour, \”one shouldn\’t make broad generalizations from a sample of one. I really need to reread more of these early comics.\”

So I moved on to Batman\’s official Origin story, first published in Detective Comics #33 in November 1939. As I turned to that story I noticed, with some excitement, that I could see not one but three drawings of a women. Strike that–they are drawings of the same woman. Bruce Wayne\’s mother (not given a name–she is described only as Thomas Wayne\’s wife) is first drawn standing terrified by her husband\’s side as the family is accosted by a gun wielding criminal. Two frames later she is drawn holding her injured husband and she has actual lines Thomas! You\’ve killed him. Help! Police….help!. In the next frame the young Bruce Wayne is shown looking at the dead bodies of both his parents.

An improvement over the first comic since there was at least one woman. Or at most one woman. And she does get to speak. And be immediately killed. And she isn\’t given a name.

Sigh. On to the next comic in the collection–the origin story of Robin-the Boy Wonder originally published April 1940 in Detective Comics #38. And right there on the first page of the story I see a woman. In a trapeze perfomer\’s outfit (bra and short shorts) standing silent in the background. On the second page she gets a line of dialogue Nicely done, John and in the next frame she gets another as John (Grayson) cries Mary and Mary (Grayson) screams John! as they both plunge to their deaths.

Reading on I finally find a scene with two women in it. Of course it is a gambling den, neither of the women has lines and but at least they (and the lone woman in one of the frames on the next page, provide some relief from an otherwise completely male world.

I could go on but it is actually too depressing and distressing to do so. The real problem here is not that most of the leading characters are male nor is that most of the name characters are male. The problem is that the Batman comics is set in a world that is so overwhelmingly male that it is easy to identify and count the number of women drawn in each of these early stories.

So, the early Batman comics don\’t just fail the Bechdel test, they fail it spectacularly. They fail it in a way that signals to their readers not only that women don\’t have interesting stories to tell, or that women aren\’t good at crime fighting—it signals that women simply aren\’t…..

100 years ago today: What\'s in a name?

We can tell much about a society by examining the words that they use (and don\’t use) and how they use them. For example, consider, this short headline on the front page of the November 24 1911 evening edition of The World (New York): THREE YEARS FOR AUTOIST GUILTY OF MANSLAUGHTER.

First, the word \”driver\” usually means \”the person who drives that means of transport most common in society.\” Thus in this article WOMAN FOUGHT MOB OF 2,000 TO ARREST DRIVER on page 12 of the same edition of The World the driver the woman fought to arrest a man who was kicking the horse drawing his cart. Today the word \”driver\” will generally be understood to mean \”person who drives a car.\” If the vehicle in question is not an automobile then that fact will be clearly indicated in the text. (\”The driver of the tractor was not injured in the crash.\”)

In the America of 1911 automobiles were by no means rare but were still not the most common means of transportation for most people. If the headline had read THREE YEARS FOR DRIVER GUILTY OF MANSLAUGHTER it would not be clear to the reader of the time what type of vehicle had been involved in the accident. Because the word \”driver\” left ambiguity as to the type of vehicle involved writers used a number of words, such as autoist and automobilist.

Reading the newspapers of 1911 one soon realizes not only that automobiles were comparatively new and uncommon things but also they were viewed with alarm and concern by much of the population. Often the wording of the article implied/suggested either intentionalilty on the part of the automobile or that these machines were inherently difficult to control and therefore always dangerous. Often people are identified as being in the vehicle or riding it but there is no indication as to who (if anyone) was actually driving it.

  • FIRE CHIEF HURLED FROM HIS SPEEDING AUTO BY COLLISION / On Way to Blaze Langdon of Brooklyn and Chauffeur Are Tossed Over Fence (The Evening World November 24 1911 p. 3)
  • \”While returning from visiting a patient the automobile in which Dr. Claggett and Lew Ferguson were riding became unmanageable and the two were violently thrown out when the machine turned turtle\” AUTO TURNS, TWO ARE HURT (The Norfolk Weekly News Journal July 28 1911, page 1)
  • \”According to bystanders the automobile, coming along Third street and trying to turn north into Broadway, did not turn sharply enough and ran into the car, which was going along Broadway.\” WOMEN INJURED IN AUTOMOBILE CRASH / Mother and Daughter Thrown From Machine That Collides With Streetcar (The San Francisco Call April 7 1911, p. 11)

Second, let\’s think about the word \”manslaughter.\” As I wrote in my post yesterday (Questions of Personhood) even after gaining the vote, women still were not able to exercise the same rights and privileges of citizenship as did enfranchised men. Language was used in ingenious and slippery ways by those trying to find reasons why not to allow women to do (or not do) various things.

It had long been accepted that the \”people\” whose rights were protected in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution were both men and women. Legal figures did not argue that the 4th amendment\’s protection of \”The right of the people to be secure in their persons\” did not extend to women. When the law said that \”no man shall kill\” or \”no man should steal\” or \”no man should speed\” or \”no person shall kill\” or \”no persons shall steal\” or \”no person shall speed\” then it was understood that those restrictions extended to women.

However, when the law said \”all persons may\” or \”all men may\” then prevailing social/legal opinion as to whether women had the same rights as men depended on whether that action was one traditionally accepted as appropriate for women. A good example of this was the shocked responses to Mrs. Craig Biddle\’s decision to smoke in public. The problem wasn\’t that a person was smoking in public since men were allowed to do so. The problem was that a woman was exercising a privilege that had traditionally been enjoyed only by men. As I wrote in an earlier post, When Smoking is a Civil Right, attempts were made to restrict only the rights of women to smoke in public while continuing to allow men to do so.

In 1911 the exact meaning of the word \”man\” in legal documents seemed to vary on the basis of whether the right, privilege or protection undermined or supported the status quo. There were still many who wished to accord some of the rights and privileges accorded to \”men\” only to male human beings. And if you read the news in 2011 you will find that there are still many people attempting to do the same.

100 years ago today: Questions of personhood

Winning full rights in society isn\’t a matter of battlefield set pieces–it is like taking a city one street and one house at a time.

One might think that the women of California having earlier in the year won the right to vote would have then been automatically accorded all the rights and privileges enjoyed by those who had already been enfranchised. This was not the case. Watching women who had already won the right to vote then have to separately struggle for the right to do things such serve on a jury highlights the degree to which women had not been treated as second class citizens because they didn\’t have the right to vote but rather had been denied the right to vote because it served the powers that be to treat them as second class citizens.

Case in point–the article JURY SERVICE ONLY FOR MEN, DECLARES WEBB / Attorney General Gives Informal Opinion on Present Law of California on the front page of The San Francisco Call November 23 1911:

Jury service is not a political right, he [Webb] said. \”It is a duty incident to citizenship. It is in the nature of a burden which may by law be cast upon all or certain citizens. It is a judicial service, the performance of which is enjoined by law upon some citizens and which other citizens are debarred from performing because they do not possess the qualification which the law prescribed for those by whom this service shall be performed.

Webb was being disingenuous at best. Serving on a jury is not only a duty it is a right. First, if only a specific subgroup of society is able to serve on juries then only their perspective on the law will be reflected. Second, if women are barred from sitting on juries it will have a substantial impact on their ability to function as lawyers and judges. Third, if women are barred from juries it will have a substantial impact on their ability to run for and win any political position that involves the courts or the law. Even were it true that individual women were statistically more likely to suffer from particular impediments that would stand in the way of serving as jurors there was already in place a way of examining all jurors before selecting them to hear a case. Just as some men were found unfit (in general or for the purposes of a particular case) to be jurors so could unfit women be dismissed from jury duty.

The Supreme Court of the United States had ruled unconstitutional state laws that debarred men from sitting on juries on the basis of their race and yet specifically allowed that citizens of all races could be debarred from juries on the basis of their gender. Given the wording of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

and the words of the ruling in U.S. Supreme Court Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1879)

The very fact that colored people are singled out and expressly denied by a statute all right to participate in the administration of the law as jurors because of their color, though they are citizens and may be in other respects fully qualified, is practically a brand upon them affixed by the law, an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing to individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure to all others.

Reading the opinions in that (and similar) cases one is forced to conclude that the court did not consider women to be, in truth persons.

In the words of Burnita Shelton Matthew, from \”The Woman Juror\” WOMEN LAWYERS\’ JOURNAL Vol. 15, No. 2 (January 1927)

Since the adoption of woman suffrage, women have arrived, so to speak, and are demanding the why and wherefore of their exclusion from jury service. Evidently they are not satisfied with the reasoning of the great English jurist, Sir William Blackstone. He held that the common law requires jurors to be free and trustworthy \”human beings,\” and that while the term \”human beings\” means man and women, the female is, however, excluded on account of the defect of sex. If it be, as Blackstone says, a \”defect of sex\” that bars women from the jury box, the women claim that the defect lies in the masculine, not the feminine ranks. Anyway, in these modern days, women always take what Blackstone said with a grain of salt. They remember that when expounding the common law – a law which actually bristled with injustices to womankind, and which even permitted a man to beat his wife, Blackstone remarked that under it, a female is \”so great a favorite.\”

As women are dissatisfied with Blackstone’s reasoning, so they are dissatisfied with the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court. That court has decided that a state can not bar colored men from jury service because the debarment would brand them as an inferior class of citizens, and deprive them of the equal protection of the law which is guaranteed by the National Constitution. Since the Constitution guarantees that protection to persons and not merely to negroes, that doctrine should apply to women as well. However, with the curious ability which judges of the male persuasion have manifested to regard women as persons at one time, and not as persons at another, the court in this case said that certain restrictions might legally be put upon jury service – such as limiting it to males!

I will write more about court cases that specifically address that question the personhood of women in a future post.

100 years ago today: Protesters attempt to occupy the House of Commons

Next time someone describes those involved in the various Occupy movements as dirty hippies you could always reply \”No they are acting like English ladies in Edwardian times.\” On November 21 1911 women had attempted to force their way onto the floor of the House of Commons in London to protest the government\’s refusal to pledge support for a bill that would give women the right to vote. Forced back onto the streets many of the women had thrown stones, smashed windows and then physically resisted the police attempting to arrest them. From the November 22 1911 edition of The Marion Daily Mirror (Marion, Ohio. page 1) REAL WAR SAY SUFFRAGETTES / Jail Sentences no Deterrent to Women Wanting Ballot / WON\’T SHRINK FROM STRUGGLE

    Black eyes and scratched faces were numerous among the prisoners and several declared that their entire bodies were masses of bruises. They charge that the police were under orders to handle them as brutally as possible, short of inflicting serious injury, by way of discouraging them. To this end, they assert the officers struck them in the faces, pinched them, twisted their arms, ripped off garments and in some instances treated them with actual indecency.
    The leaders say these methods will not deter them for an instant from continuing their campaign until suffrage is granted them. They will also do their utmost to create disorder in jail as outside of it. They will refuse to work, the prison attendants will be resisted, there will be hunger strikes, the prison furniture will be smashed and every method resorted to to force the government to surrender.
    In last night\’s encounter scores of policemen were hurt. A number were stabbed with hat pins. Some had their eyes blackened, their noses bruised or teeth knocked out by brass knuckles in women\’s hands.

One hundred years ago \”respectable\” English ladies were willing to endure harsh treatment and jail sentences just for the right to vote. Today many women (and men) seem unwilling to even make the walk to the ballot box in order to prevent women from having their very right to life taken away from them.

The business of blaming the victim

Some of my best book finds have been at a particular type of library sale. When professors (or the bookish well off) die their adult children sometime pack up all the books and give them to a nearby library. A few years ago several libraries within driving distance had sales that consisted entirely of books they had received this way. Many of the books were in wonderful condition and they differed in subject (and even language) from those one found at the usual library sale.

At many of these sales you bought large paper bags when you entered (usually $5.00 each) and you could walk out with as many books as you could pack into them. After you packed all the books you had found into the bags there was almost always room to add a pamphlet or small book. Since those were afterthoughts (or rather, they were \”why waste any space in the bag\” thoughts) I didn\’t always look over them very carefully until I got home.

One of those little \”extra\” pamphlet/books was Heal Thyself: An explanation of the real cause and cure of disease by Edward Bach. This particular copy was printed in England and from the condition of the spine I doubt anyone had ever actually read it. When I checked the copyright page I noticed that although it was first published in 1931 the particular copy I had was printed in 1991. This caught my interest–although there been a lot of changes in medicine in those sixty years there seemed to have been no edits or additions to the original text and quick check on Amazon indicates that it is still in print.

So, who is this Edward Bach and what is his book about?

Edward Bach was a homeopath who didn\’t believe in the \”germ theory\” and did believe that illness arose from disharmony between the personality and the Soul [1](50). Bach concocted remedies from flowers on the basis of his psychic and intuitive relationships with plants. Nelsons Homeopathic Pharmacy (the largest manufacturer of homeopathic remedies in the UK) use Bach\’s \”mother tinctures\” to produce the Bach flower remedies that they still sell. On January 28 2009 Nelsons announced Nelsons, the UK’s largest manufacturer of natural healthcare products, is proud to have been selected by Duchy Originals to manufacture the new Duchy Herbals range of natural herbal tinctures, which have been launched this month – the key post-Christmas cold and flu season. Duchy Originals is the Price of Wales\’ organic food company. According to its own website Duchy Originals embodies HRH The Prince of Wales\’s commitment to what he calls a \’virtuous circle\’ of providing natural, high-quality organic and premium products, while helping to protect and sustain the countryside and wildlife.

I will leave aside for another day my discussion of the scientifically questionable value of any of these homeopathic \”remedies\” and instead will focus one of the beliefs of Bach (and of some others within the alternative medicine community) that both makes it impossible to test their products in any scientific manner and which also causes deep and often lasting emotional as well physical harm to many of their clients.

Bach was a victim blamer. If you read his magnum opus it is clear that he believed that the person who was sick was themself responsible for the illness and that no cure could be effected until they first \”healed themselves.\” That means that Bach\’s claims that his nostrums were effective were unfalsifiable. If the remedy didn\’t work it was the fault of the patient not the medicine:

Let it be briefly stated that disease, though apparently so cruel, is in itself beneficent and for our good and, if rightly interpreted, it will guide us to our essential faults….Suffering is a corrective to point out a lesson which by other means w have failed to grasp… (8)

We can now see how any type of illness from which we many suffer will guide us to the discover of the the fault which lies behind our affliction. (17)

Thus we see that our conquest of disease will mainly depending on the following…secondly, the knowledge that the basic cause of disease is due to disharmony between the personality and the Soul; thirdly, our willinghness and ability to discover the fault which is causing such a conflict. (50)

Victim blaming is at the very heart of Bach\’s theories about illness. Indeed, without such victim blaming his theories would collapse under the weight of the scientific evidence against them. So, those who depend on such remedies instead of conventional medicine suffer great emotional distress even if their physical problems are quite minor.


[1]Bach, Edward. Heal Thyself: An Explanation of the Real Cause and Cure of Disease. Saffron Walden: C.W. Daniel, 1931. &#8617