Recent Reading

I’ve been enjoying Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mystery series for many years, since it began with Edwin of the Iron Shoes back in 1977. When I noticed that Muller had published the first in a new series, written with her husband Bill Pronzini, I bought a copy and quickly misplaced it in my fear-inspiring collection of unread books (so many books, so little time). When I learned that two more books have come out in the series, I found The Bughouse Affair on my mystery shelf and read it.

“Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services,” has been in business in San Francisco for The Bughouse Affairthree years when The Bughouse Affair opens in 1894. Sabina Carpenter is a former Pinkerton investigator, widowed when her husband was killed on a case. John Quincannon is a former Secret Service Agent. Their partnership is strictly business, although Quincannon would like something more to develop (and perhaps it will, in time).

While an Englishman who claims to be Sherlock Holmes meddles in their investigations, Sabina and John find that their separate cases, involving burglars, pickpockets, and murder, are actually related. But the real charm of the book for me is the detailed and very believable description of life and business in the San Francisco of 1894. If you enjoy the setting, you will enjoy the book.

Also set in the late nineteenth century, but not fiction at all, is Evan Schwartz’ Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story. As the subtitle suggests, this is less straight biography than a portrait of the society and political events that influenced Baum. I picked the book up because, although I Finding Ozam a life-long Oz fan, I knew little about it’s creator. I learned that Baum dabbled in a variety of business ventures, most of them less than successful, lived in a number of places, and married the daughter of a well-known crusading feminist. I also learned a great deal about the life and times of the period.

I found some of Schwartz’ conclusions a bit far-fetched (he did not convince me that the massacre at Wounded Knee was reflected somewhere in The Wizard of Oz), but the book was definitely entertaining. I have a couple of anthologies containing the first ten Oz books on my shelf (Schwartz shows little interest in Baum’s career post-Wizard) and I may just reread them one of these days.

Howard Blum’s American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century is the story of the terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Time building in 1910. Like many “crime of the century” events, this one has been largely forgotten. I’d never heard of it, and when I mentioned it recently to a friend who grew up in L.A., she didn’t know about it, either.

American LightningBlum’s narration mostly follows the efforts of William Burns, known in his day as “the American Sherlock Holmes,” to identify and track down the bombers, but he also brings in D.W. Griffith, who finds inspiration in the case as the movie industry moves from New York to Hollywood, and the attorney Clarence Darrow, who was involved in the defense of the accused bombers. Griffith’s involvement seemed a bit tenuous to me, but I enjoyed the descriptions of the early movie business.

American Lightning gives an interesting picture of the U.S. (and Los Angeles in particular) a century ago, and reminds us that terrorism is nothing new.

Hell on Wheels: Ruth’s Decision

I don’t think I’ve written about Hell on Wheels this season, although I’ve been watching faithfully. Last night’s episode, Thirteen Steps, revolved around Ruth Cole, the Church Lady. If you haven’t watched but plan to, you may want to leave now. There will be spoilers.

Ruth Cole

Two episodes ago, in Return to Hell, Ruth shot Sydney Snow, who had come back to town after setting the church on fire and killing (although not intentionally) Ezra Dutton, the boy Ruth had taken in. The fact that Snow was facing off with Bohannon at the time had nothing to do with Ruth’s action. She simply wanted to kill the man who had killed her child.

In last week’s episode, Bloody Kansas, Snow died, despite the best efforts of Bohannon, Durant (who once attended medical school, studying ophthalmology, but never graduated), Eva, and Louise, leaving Ruth open to a murder charge. (The only reason anyone wanted to save Snow’s life, mind you, was to protect Ruth.)

This week, in Thirteen Steps (the number of stairs to the gallows), no one wanted Ruth to hang but Ruth. Bohannon swore that she had saved his life by shooting Snow, but she would have none of it. Governor Campbell was willing, even eager, to grant her a pardon, but, following the letter of the law, only if she would formally accept it. She refused, saying that pardons are for cowards. Bohannon even tried to drag her out of her cell and put her on a train to New York, but she refused that, too. The people of Cheyenne, gathered in the street in front of the jail, holding candles while the hangman rebuilt the gallows that Bohannon had pushed over, could not shake her resolve.

Ruth gave no reason beyond the fact that she was guilty of murder, that she had shot Snow simply because she wanted to kill him.

So many small things made this a fascinating and multi-layered hour of television. Bohannon and Ruth talking in the jail most of the night, he telling her about a botched hanging he had once witnessed, she telling him about the time she slipped in a mud puddle that was really a deposit of horse droppings, the two of them sharing a genuine laugh over her embarrassment—how may times have we seen Cullen Bohannon laugh?

Louise catching Campbell dancing, alone in his room, and telling her that back East, after a hard decision, he would take his wife dancing.

The grave and courteous professional hangman, assuring Ruth that he would be with her, explaining exactly what would happen, patiently rebuilding the gallows Bohannon had pushed down. The hangman’s strange assistant, a little boy wearing the same uniform of black coat and top hat.

The writers on Hell on Wheels don’t pull their punches. There was no last minute reprieve, no miraculous rescue, no sudden change of heart, only Bohannon, who had stormed off, unwilling to be a party to it all, reappearing at the last minute so that Ruth, by now terrified, could see him there before the hood dropped over her head, and we heard the trap door open beneath her feet.

At the end of Thirteen Steps, perhaps moved by Ruth’s insistence that “the brave choice is always family,” Bohannon, who has buried Ruth next to Ezra, tells Durant “I quit,” and heads for Fort Smith, Naomi and baby William.

One more episode this season, and then a final season, another fourteen episodes split between 2015 and 2016 (oh, the waiting!). Will Bohannon find his family? Will the railroad cross the mountains? Stay tuned.

(Kasha Kropinski and Anson Mount discuss the episode and their characters on the AMC Hell on Wheels web site.)

Summer TV and History

Remember when the TV season ran from late September through sometime in May, and the summer was populated with reruns and variety shows? These days summer TV is still full of reruns, as well as countless “reality shows,” but the cable networks have thrown the old calendar aside and put some of their best (scripted!) shows on in the summer. I often say I don’t care for violence, but apparently it’s only twenty-first century violence that bothers me. Dress the offenders up in costume and send them back in time, throw in some beautiful scenery, and I’m there for all the blood and guts.

One of my favorites, Hell on Wheels, began its 2014 season this weekend, catching us up with most of most of its established characters and adding some new ones. Protagonist Cullen Bohannon is still trapped in the Mormon fort, digging a well under the supervision of his long-time nemesis the Swede (who pointed out once again, in his assumed identity as Bishop Dutson, that the “late” Thor Gundersen was actually Norwegian). The opener saw the birth of Cullen’s son and his new determination to take Naomi and the baby with him when he leaves.

Meanwhile in Cheyenne, Durant manages to sink an entire train in a frozen river, auction off his land to raise money, and get himself thrown out of the hotel by an angry Maggie Palmer. General Grant, about to be elected President, has sent a new watchdog to make Durant’s life miserable. Eva is doing laundry for the brothel, determined not to go back to whoring (“But that’s what you’re good at,” says Mickey McGinnes, now the mayor of Cheyenne—and still running the brothel), and mourning the loss of Elam.

That’s right, there was no sign of Elam, not even in the opening credits, but I’m hoping he’ll be back. Maybe he’s been hanging with Joseph Black Moon’s folks since he had that run in with the bear. It would be nice to see Joseph back again, too.

Hell on Wheels 2014

Another period show I’ve been enjoying this summer is The Musketeers, a rousing swashbuckler from BBCAmerica, featuring swords, guns, and four very attractive men. I haven’t read Dumas in several decades (my tolerance for long, involved nineteenth century epic novels is not what it once was), so I can’t even guess whether any of the story lines have been taken from the original novel. But I had no trouble recognizing the characters. Athos, the mature, responsible aristocrat, is younger than I always imagined him (he was my favorite), but carries the part well. Aramis is the devil-may-care swordsman with the heart of a romantic, and Porthos is the mixed race (as was Dumas himself) child of the streets. And D’Artagnan, of course, remains the idealistic young countryman, determined to earn a commission in the King’s Musketeers. The most recognizable actor, to Americans anyway, is Peter Capaldi, spot-on as Cardinal Richelieu. If a second season is planned, they may have to recast or eliminate the Cardinal, as Capaldi has moved on to become the new Doctor Who. The Musketeers was filmed somewhere near Prague, with scenery doing a remarkable job of passing for early seventeenth century France, from the underside of Paris to the glories of the palaces and churches.

The Musketeers

Vikings, perhaps the most violent of all, is over for 2014 but will be back in 2015. This season ended with a blood bath, leaving Ragnar, a simple farmer when the series began, as the apparent king. My favorite Viking, though, is still Lagertha, shield maiden, Ragnar’s former wife, now an earl in her own right.

Many of my friends are excited about Outlander, just starting this week. I’m afraid I’ll have to wait for the DVDs on that one, as I don’t subscribe to Showtime. That might just give me time to read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. I know I have the first one, right over there on one of the To Be Read shelves . . .

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