Monthly Archives: March 2019

The Black Cat, No. 6, March 1896

Welcome to the March issue of The Black Cat and the Black Cat Project!

Only five stories in this issue, but one of them is a whopper!

Stories

“Eleanor Stevens’ Will” by Isabel Scott Stone

A curious newspaper ad in the personals section brings together a group of Eleanor Stevens’ rejected suitors. Miss Stevens wasn’t one of those eccentrics; no, she was smart, charming, beautiful, rich, and very self-possessed. No one is really surprised that she died mysteriously abroad, but they do find it odd that she might have included spurned suitors in her will. Of course, things aren’t what they seem and the ending of this story offers up the smallest bit of a zinger.

The only other writing credit I find by Ms. Scott is a book called The Little Crusaders which presumable about the Children’s Crusade.

“To Let” by Alice Turner Curtis

It’s a “very attractive modern house with a history.” The (presumably) first owners of the house die mysteriously, leaving behind a tale and ghosts. This was a chilling story, perfect for the beginning of spring. I rather liked its open-ended quality. The initial deaths are never explained and it ends with “The house it still to let.” My favorite of the month.

Alice Turner Curtis went on to write dozens of historical fiction books with little girl protagonists.

“Of Course—Of Course Not” by Harry M. Peck

There seems to be a whole genre of short story around this time about handsome, successful young men who are afraid to approach the woman they are interested in. This one begins with Neil Richards bemoaning his fate to his aged dog. A further complicating factor? His best friend is intending to propose to the young lady he’s interested in. …And then she shows up seeking advice from him about that situation. Luckily, this is a magazine of light fiction.

“The Marchburn Mystery” by A. Maurice Low

This was the prominent story of the issue, running a full twenty pages. A few issues back, “The Missing Link” by James Buckham gave us a mystery whose resolution relied on a photograph. “The Marchburn Mystery” relies on a telephone call. Unfortunately, there is a lot of investigation that goes nowhere. That’s realistic, but a little boring.

There is a A. Maurice Low who was a journalist and author, but his works seem very political and serious. I wonder it this is the same fellow.

“Their Colonial Villa” by Charles Barnard

Young Mrs. Arburton really wishes that she and her husband could have two houses in town: one at the top of the bluffs where all the fashionable people live (including her parents) and one at the bottom of the bluffs so that her husband can easily come home from lunch. Mr. Arburton really wants to please his wife, but also doesn’t want to go into debt forever. He comes up with a fanciful solution, which I guessed early in the story while Mrs. Arburton remained confused.

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Lovely art in this full-page article for Sponge Crépon.

Want to read for yourself?
Here’s the link to Issue No. 6, March 1896

Or find out
More about the Black Cat Project

Review ~ The Man from the Train

The Man from the Train cover

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James & Rachel McCarthy James

Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Jewelry and valuables were left in plain sight, bodies were piled together, faces covered with cloth. Some of these cases, like the infamous Villasca, Iowa, murders, received national attention. But few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station.

When celebrated baseball statistician and true crime expert Bill James first learned about these horrors, he began to investigate others that might fit the same pattern. Applying the same know-how he brings to his legendary baseball analysis, he empirically determined which crimes were committed by the same person. Then after sifting through thousands of local newspapers, court transcripts, and public records, he and his daughter Rachel made an astonishing discovery: they learned the true identity of this monstrous criminal. In turn, they uncovered one of the deadliest serial killers in America. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
So, one of the things I like doing, as research for my historical fiction, is reading old  newspapers. In a 1915 issue of the Omaha Bee I came across a sensational story about an axe murder that had taken place in Omaha. I haven’t quite followed that story to its conclusion—they were still looking for the culprit months later—but I found it to be a compelling case, maybe something for later fiction. After all, axe murders are the things of Hollywood slasher movies, right?

Boy, was I wrong…

While researching another project, I was also looking at small towns in Iowa near railroad tracks. Which led me to the Villisca, IA axe murders in 1912. Oddly, I had never heard of Villisca. I wanted to know more. Among the shallow investigations of the murders was a full-length book about them: The Man from the Train.

What Worked
It turns out there were several spates of axe murders throughout the early 1900s. Villisca was particularly noticed: the whole family, plus a couple of neighbor girls who stayed over, were brutally murdered with the blunt side of an axe. The victims’ faces were covered. The house was found with all the shades drawn, mirrors covered, and locked up tight. Nothing was taken. The house was not far away from the railroad tracks. The things is, when Bill James started looking into this crime, he found that there were other instances of axe murders that occurred that had similar staging. There was a pattern. It was likely that the same man was responsible.

The Man from the Train is a feat of research. At some point in the process, James hired his daughter to help wade through the sources. The string of murders reached back much further in time than expected and led to a possible suspect, who was never caught. That’s only half the story though. How did the Man from the Train get away with this for so long? And what happened in the communities in the wake of such murders? The answers to those questions are often disheartening.

What Didn’t Work
James made a very specific choice on how he presented information. He sort of started with a cluster of information and then works backward and forward from it. In general, I liked this decision. It does give the book a mystery/thriller feel. But I feel like things could have been cleaned up and an reiterated more efficiently. There are a lot of names, places, and dates to keep up with. Maps would have been a big help since we’re dealing with actions over time.

James spends a lot of time trying to convince the readers of his theory. On one hand, a reason that the Man from the Train wasn’t caught was due to what James calls irrational skepticism. Police decided to focus on hastily found suspects instead of looking for patterns or even seeing patterns when presented with them. On the other hand, today’s reader lives in a post-profiling world. The notion that a killer might have a signature pattern is wildly accepted. James didn’t have to convince me. The pattern is there; I’ll buy that acre of land. Continuing with the hard sell was tedious.

Lastly, the tone was occasionally uneven. There were some fourth-wall-breaking comments that were unnecessary.

Overall
Man, history. The more I learn about history, the more I see how much things haven’t changed. There have always been serial killers. There have always been the want for tidy closed cases, especially when murder is involved. The Man from the Train wasn’t an easy read for a few reasons, but the detective work behind it is admirable and the story really is an interesting one.

There was one mistake within the book that I caught: David Abbott (the whole reason I was reading a 1915 newspaper in the first place) wasn’t from Oklahoma, he was from Omaha. I’m going to assume that since Abbott was only mentioned in passing, it was a mistake that isn’t indicative of others unseen.

Publishing info: Scribner, 2017
My Copy: hardback, Tempe Public Library
Genre:
nonfiction, crime


All the Details: 2019 Nonfiction Reading Challenge

It’s Monday! What Are You… (3/25/19)

…Reading?

I might finally be back on the reading wagon. I finished The Man From the Train over the weekend and should have a review of that tomorrow.
Tesla: Man Out of Time
This week, I’m starting on Tesla Man Out of Time by Magaret Cheney. Because I always need to read another Tesla biography. This one caught my eye by presenting, at least in its first chapter, a narrative tone while not being fictional. If that makes any sense.

I also have a bunch of short stories to catch up on.

It's Monday! What Are You ReadingIt’s Monday! What Are You Reading, hosted by Book Date!

…Watching?

Doing a Bourne movie watch-through. I haven’t seen the last one yet. Good gracious, this trailer is cheesy.

…Doing?

Been playing too much EverQuest 2. The game launched a new time-locked expansion server last weekend and Eric and I decided to play on it. This is my main character, Reesa, in her home. She’s a bard, hence the musical notes floating around her.

Deal Me In, Week 12 ~ “White Goddess”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“White Goddess” by Margaret St. Clair

Card picked: 4
Found at: More Stories Not for the Nervous

It was somehow less nerve-wracking to think of her as a young woman in disguise than an old woman who moved and spoke like somebody in her twenties.

Carson is a small-time con man and thief. His modus operandi is flattering little old ladies into getting them to take him home for tea-and-cakes and then stealing their silverware. But Miss Smith is not quite what she seems. And the baubles, that Carson wouldn’t even be able to pawn, might eventually be his prison.

I haven’t quite gotten my thumb on what these stories-not-for-the-nervous are supposed to be. Mysteries? Horror? Hard-boiled crime? So far, they’ve been all of the above. I’m not familiar with Margaret  St. Clair. Apparently, she is a pioneer of science fiction, which would explain why this little dark fantasy story was originally published under the pseudonym, Idris Seabright.

Viva Las Vegas!

Despite my affinity for the song*, few of the lyrics to “Viva Las Vegas” apply to my recent trip to Sin City.

I gambled, not at all.  Of the thousand pretty women, I only saw a few fairly attractive faux show girls working their “Pictures with a Show Girl” schtick on the Strip. The neon flashing and the one-armed bandits crashing have even been mostly replaced with LED screens and push buttons. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a “swinging” time, it just means that  Doc Pomus &  Mort Shuman didn’t take into account going to Las Vegas to see magic.

Continue reading

Magic Monday, 3/11/19

I like Mondays. I also like magic. I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

The magic world lost one of its great performers and mentors this past weekend. Johnny Thompson was known as a fabulous comedy magician and a generous collaborator. If you’re not familiar with his act, you’ve undoubtedly seen his influence on performers such as Penn & Teller, Piff the Magic Dragon, Mac King, and many others through his “in the booth” involvement with the show Penn & Teller: Fool Us. Here’s his signature act The Great Tomsoni & Co. (& Co. being his wife Pamela Hayes).

It’s Monday, What am I…

…Reading?

Reading? What’s that?

To be fair, I spent the first part of last week in Las Vegas and am otherwise speeding through a rewrite/third draft of the book I’m working on. But here’s what I might read this week:

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 7: I've Been Waiting for a Squirrel Like You

Plus, short stories!

It's Monday! What Are You ReadingIt’s Monday! What Are You Reading, hosted by Book Date!

…Doing?

As I mentioned above, I’m working through a rewrite/third daft of what was known as Jane Anderson Mystery (#1?), but now has a title: Deal with the Devil. I plan to have that finished by Friday. Granted, I haven’t entirely finished writing the book in the first place. (That won’t be finished by Friday.) I decided at the end of February, I wanted to solidify some shifts in plot before heading into the climax.

I’ll probably write up something about my trip to Las Vegas this week as well. Most things are taking a backseat to my getting writing work done, which is as it should be, but often isn’t.

Otherwise, ultimate frisbee (if we don’t get rained out) and some EverQuest 2.

What *Was* I Doing?

#DealMeIn2019 Week 10 ~ “Evil Opposite”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Evil Opposite” by Naomi Kritzer

Card picked: 6
Found at: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September-October 2017

There is a theory that each choice, each chance, each throw of a die creates a separate parallel universe; that there are infinite universes layered like filo dough in baklava or stacked like an unsteady pile of papers on a desk.

The Story
The “what if” of this story is, what if you could peek at your other layers. Our unnamed narrator, a handy physics post-grad, builds a device posited by his graduate advisor and is able to see other versions of himself in those other universes. In some he’s still a Ph.D. student studying physics, or mathematics, or political science, or business, or law. In some he’s single, in some he’s still with his ex-fiance, in some he’s living in a different state as a new father. In some, he’s murdered his annoying Ph.D. program nemesis Shane…

Playing the alternate lives game is always fun. What if I had pursued an MFA instead of diving into writing? What if I had taken that anatomy class instead of physiology and never met Eric? What is I took the ROTC scholarship and ended up at Creighton? Would I have ended up at as a Bluejays fan??? Okay, maybe the alternate lives game isn’t always fun.

The Author
This is the second story I’ve read by Naomi Kritzer (I believe). The first was the excellent Hugo award-winning “Cat Pictures Please”. I really enjoy her style and I should really read more of her work.