Arsenic And Old Cake

October 29, 2013

On October 28, 1922, a man named William Wrey Sterrett died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia. He seems to have been the quiet type in life; an accountant for Price Waterhouse, he lived an uneventful life with his wife, Martha Campbell Sterrett, in Devon, Pennsylvania. The couple had been married for eight years and had no children. Nor, apparently, did they have an extensive social life: the friends dredged up by newspaper reporters all had kind words to say about him but most of them centered around how unassuming he was. “A home type,” several friends told the Chester County Daily Local News. In an article printed on October 31, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted more anonymous friends as having “nothing but praise for the dead accountant … while not a person of the kind that made idle boasts, he was always willing to enter into discussions of various sorts, and his advice was generally regarded as good.”

Apart from these modified raptures, the only other distinctive pieces of information about “the dead accountant” were that he and his wife had just bought a new house and that they also liked to go antiquing on the weekends. So far, so unremarkable — until Thursday, October 26, 1922. That afternoon, Mrs. Sterrett picked up the mail at the Devon post office and discovered that she had received a package “about the size of a pound candy box” (according to the October 29th Daily Local News), addressed with a typewritten label to Mrs. W.W. Sterrett. It had no return address but had been postmarked in Philadelphia. The postmistress, Mrs. (or Miss — the papers differ) Gillies, turned out to be happy to share Mrs. Sterrett’s reaction with newspaper reporters. Under the subheading “NERVOUS AT POST OFFICE,” we learn that Mrs. Sterrett, speaking in an “excited manner” speculated on the contents of the box and said that she would hurry home at once to see what it contained. However, “the box remained unopened until the arrival of Mr. Sterrett on a later train, and when the box was uncovered it was found to contain a piece of brown cake known as `devil’s food’ and it was covered with a pink icing. Mr. Sterrett partook freely of the cake, but Mrs. Sterrett, it is said, did not eat as much.” (Newspaper accounts of the cake would differ: according to The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, both publishing on October 29th, the cake was golden and, as the NYT stated, “had the appearance of having been cut from a large wedding cake.” Later, the Inquirer occasionally referred to the cake as having been devil’s food. One thing was certain: the Sterretts had between them eaten every crumb of it).

“What’s In The Box?”

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The apparent difficulty of genre classification

December 9, 2008

Or: The utility of occasionally judging books by their covers

My nearest local library recently closed for an 18-month renovation project, leaving me with a sudden distressing lack of access to fiction I hadn’t already read. (Not that I’m averse to rereading books, since my policy is not to buy it if I don’t want to read it more than once, but sometimes I do want something new.) The solution was obvious: place an Amazon order.

I was quite pleased with my Amazon order. I ended up with books from 3 new fantasy/sci-fi/speculative fiction series, all of which turned out to be good. Two of them had similar themes: a female main character mediating between members of different supernatural races. This would seem to put them definitively in the fantasy category, urban fantasy if you want to be even more specific. One series, the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, has three books so far that all follow a murder mystery storyline, which the main character ends up needing to solve for the werewolf, vampire, and fae communities respectively. The other series, the Negotiator Trilogy by CE Murphy, is more like Law & Order meets the supernatural realm, because the main character is a lawyer with a strong tie to the police detective who inevitably ends up investigating all the crimes involving the gargoyles, vampires, and so forth that the lawyer is trying to negotiate with.

But this post is not actually meant to be a book review. This post is meant to be a rant. Because what did purchasing these books from Amazon cause to happen? It caused me to get an Amazon ad in my email telling me that based on my purchasing habits, they think it is clear that I would enjoy the following titles on the vampire romance theme. Their algorithm tells them that I am now a woman who reads vampire romances. And I object.

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Early American Feminists, Real and Fictional

October 15, 2008

This has been one of those weird and inadvertantly synchronous weeks, where the same topic keeps cropping up in completely different and unrelated ways. Since I find early American feminism and the suffrage movement interesting, I decided to share.

First, on Monday, I heard a teaser for an NPR story that I made a mental note to go back and listen to later online. I just did, and it was the fascinating story of Victoria Claflin Woodhull, “The First Woman to Run for President – in 1872.” Woodhull turns out to have been quite a controversial figure, stating in speeches her opinion that marriage was akin to slavery and advocating her right to practice “free love,” meaning that she should have the freedom to both love and change her mind. (She had been sold into marriage very early in life to an alcoholic, so she had some strong views on the matter.) She didn’t sit well with many of the suffragists of middle class, “more serious” backgrounds, but she was quite sincere in her beliefs and did become the presidential nominee for the Equal Rights Party. (Frederick Douglass was nominated as her vice-president, but without being asked. He declined to even acknowledge the nomination.) In the end, her name didn’t even appear on the ballot.

This tied in eerily well with the mystery series I recently rediscovered at the library and had just checked out two more books in, the Seneca Falls series by Miriam Grace Monfredo.* The series begins during the events surrounding the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 and then continues on through the Civil War. The main character, Glynis Tryon, is the librarian for the town of Seneca Falls, NY, and a very independent, staunchly unmarried woman. While the mysteries she keeps getting somewhat reluctantly embroiled in are obviously fictional, as are many of her friends and relatives, the reader still encounters quite a bit of historical fact as well.

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Vampire Detectives of the Page

February 26, 2008

Like sonetka, I too have been thinking about vampires. In part this is due to the recent resurgence of immortality on TV, (namely CBS’s Moonlight,) but I’ve actually had vampires, and more specifically vampire detectives, in my life since high school, so I’m going to backtrack and look at this weird theme from the beginning, starting where sonetka left off, in books.

My first encounter with the combination of vampire and detective fiction came through my high school enjoyment of Mercedes Lackey‘s books. Her Valdemar series is gaining something of the never-ending quality of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, but, also like McCaffrey, she has been prolific in other series as well. One of those other series was the Diana Tregarde Investigations set. There were only three books in the series, Children of the Night, Burning Water, and Jinx High, due to, I kid you not, unbalanced fans threatening Lackey for revealing the truth of occult police work (and a bunch of other stuff.)

In any case, Lackey’s main character, Diana Tregarde, is a Guardian, who guards the force, fights evil, etc., etc. She must solve occult-based mysteries to save the world, which makes for some weird and wacky plots, but with some good fantasy/horror suspension of disbelief, everything makes sense within the context of the book. They’re fast-paced, like any good adventure mystery, and not nearly as cheesy as they sound initially. But what does Diana do to pay the bills when she’s not out fighting monsters? She writes romance novels. And who does she meet in the first book, who helps her gain insight into the dark side of the occult world, and also happens to be tall, dark, devastatingly handsome, and averse to sunlight? A vampire boyfriend, of course. Sound familiar? The vampire boyfriend turned out to be one of the more interesting side characters, but given that the next two mysteries took place out of town, he mostly became relegated to phone conversations and textual references, and then the series ended and we heard of him no more. Alas.

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The Hardboiled Roots of Modern Mysteries

January 16, 2008

I’ve always liked mysteries. Maybe it’s genetic. My parents and I pass around the latest volumes of various mystery series and devour them like candy. One of the longest-standing series that my dad has been following is the Spenser series by Robert Parker, and there are a lot of them around the house, just waiting to be picked up. In my post-graduate school period of unemployment, I read quite a few, and it’s clear that Spenser is one of the few remaining hardboiled detectives.

As the Wikipedia article defines them, hardboiled detectives have the following characteristics:

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