Some Random Book Notes

July 10, 2010

This month, in addition to the regular BookPage Whodunit column, I will be reviewing the new Bill Bryson book, At Home. Building on the raging success of A Brief History of Nearly Everything, At Home takes rather a more close-up look at history, as revealed through the rooms of his Victorian parsonage in rural Norfolk, England. As is often the case with Bryson’s books, the subject matter takes him far afield of the original premise, and the book is the better for it. I am only about a third of the way through it as of this writing, and I have already learned much about word derivations (did you know that the word “vicar” stems from the same root as “vicarious”? Thus a vicar is a kind of stand-in for a rector.), the offspring of English parsons (the Bronte sisters, Lewis Carroll, Cecil Rhodes, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, to name but a few), and a smattering of 19th century British history, most of which eluded me in school. The challenge will be to write a comprehensive review in the print edition of BookPage, and keep it to 300-400 words. I may wind up doing something I have not done thus far, and craft a longer and more comprehensive review of the book here in Mysterious Orientations. Stay tuned!

In other news, I just finished Ransom Riggs’ The Sherlock Holmes Handbook (subtitled The Methods and Mysteries of the World’s Greatest Detective). I might have glossed over it but for the fact that I had seen the recent Holmes movie on the flight back from Japan, so once again I was strongly in the mood for a dose of the first super-sleuth and his earnest sidekick.

Many scholarly works have dissected and minutely examined every printed word of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, begging the question “Why yet another book on Sherlock Holmes?” The answer is, Riggs attacks it from a slightly different perspective, as a “how to” manual for those who aspire to emulate Holmes and his methodology. In chapters such as “How to Locate a Secret Chamber”, “How to Stage a Dramatic Entrance”, “How to Sniff Out a Hoax”, and “How to Fake Your Own Death”, the author quotes liberally from Holmes various adventures, showing once again that crime-solving is nothing if not “elementary, my dear Watson.”

As Holmes notes in A Study in Scarlet, “There is a strong family resemblance among misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can’t unravel the thousand and first.”

In the Appendix, Riggs devotes several pages to the life and times of Sir Arthur (whose epitaph reads “Steel True, Blade Straight, Arthur Conan Doyle, Knight, Patriot, Physician, & Man of Letters), and a short compendium of the wit and wisdom of Sherlock Holmes (“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent”, and the oft-quoted, and misquoted, “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”)

Definitely a must for all Sherlockophiles!