Monday, December 31, 2012

A most remarkable year

One of the nicest things for me last year was to see the positive (and almost immediate) response my book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace, received.

It takes a while for reviews to appear (especially the academic ones), so there will be some more in 2013, and the odds are that they won't all be upbeat.

Still, considering it's only been out for four months, I'm quite pleased with the crop of comments and reviews this book has attracted. (See below.)

For more information and updates, see the book-related blog, 'like' the book on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.

And, by all means of course, do buy the book.

OK, on with the (2012) comments...

'A fascinating analysis of one woman's domestic disaster, the power of the press and public opinion. Loved it!' -- Jenni Murray, host of BBC Radio 4's "Woman's Hour" (for my interview on 'Woman's Hour' see here.)

'Sometimes life is better than fiction. Is there any novelist who could have got this extraordinary story so perfectly right, inventing it: the violence at the heart of it, the suspense, the succession of revelations, the passions so raw and inchoate that they have a mythic force? And then there's the grand sweep of the narrative, beginning in the bleak poverty of an obscure cottage in the Forest of Dean, acted out finally on the national stage. [...] John Carter Wood's book about the Pace trial works because of his sober and scrupulous assembly of the evidence, quoting the words that were spoken and written at the time so we can feel the textures of the material for ourselves – the found poetry of precise reportage.' -- Tessa Hadley, in The Guardian (26 October 2012)

'A fascinating  real-life murder story.' -- Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, on Twitter.

'Just for once, my crime book of the year isn’t a novel, but a factual account. In 1928, a quarryman called Harry Pace died of arsenic poisoning and his wife, Beatrice, was tried for his murder. John Carter Wood’s account of the case and trial has it all: suspense; surprise; and a searing account of one woman’s life, marriage, and journey from poverty and obscurity to celebrity and notoriety. Wood is brave enough to allow much of an incredible story to tell itself through newspaper accounts, letters and Beatrice’s private papers, and the book is all the richer for it. And because it’s a true story, he has no choice but to include some of the more incredible plot elements that a novelist might lose courage with! A fascinating snapshot of interwar England, brilliantly brought to life.' -- Nicola Upson, Faber website

'This book will be an invaluable aid to those interested in the history of criminal justice and British society in the 1920s.' -- June Purvis, in the Times Higher Education (22 November 2012)

A 'splendid piece of historical detective work...immaculately researched, fluently written and utterly compelling'. -- Dominic Sandbrook, Literary Review (Dec 2012-Jan 2013)

'John Carter Wood writes with verve and elegance, weaving insights into the broader social ramifications of this trial without losing the thread courtroom drama that makes the book such a compelling read. He has also done much original research, clearing up questions that previous accounts left unanswered and providing dozens of illustrations, some of which have come from previously-inaccessible private archives. The result is a vivid portrayal not just of one woman's fate, but of a society in transition. Highly recommended!' -- Andrew Hammel, review

'This is history as murder-mystery. John Carter Wood tells a spellbinding story of murder, using the trials of the accused (Beatrice Pace) to reflect the nature of celebrity culture, the legal system, and gender relations in 1920s Britain. The fundamental question remains: did Beatrice Pace kill her husband? You will have to read the book to find out!' -- Joanna Bourke, Professor of History, Birkbeck College [book jacket blurb]

'The trial of Beatrice Pace was one of the most sensational news stories in inter-war Britain. In this thoroughly researched and clearly-argued study, John Carter Wood is not solely concerned with the usual question of whether or not Mrs Pace was guilty. Rather he also focuses on the period's celebrity culture, the role of the press, the development of public interest and the police. In so doing, he has produced a model for modern social and cultural historians.' -- Clive Emsley, Professor Emeritus, Open University [book jacket blurb]

"Bienen und Böller, leuchtende Propeller"

New year greetings from one of our house bands, Erdmöbel, with 'Erster Erster' (i.e., 1.1., also known as January 1st):

And, while we're at it, 'frohes neues Jahr' from both of us as well.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bruce Sterling on 'prepper graveyards', death and a 'poetic priest-warrior gangster chieftain'

At the Well, Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky engage in this year's version of their now-traditional 'State of the World conversation/rantfest'.

It's a lengthy conversation (to which more than the two named hosts contribute), but, as in previous years, I find it one of the more readable contributions to the inevitable round of year-end musings.

Sterling, for example, cites a few of the groups that he sees as having had -- all in all -- a good year. You might be surprised (given other verdicts) to find that he includes the Tea Party among these.

I'm not sure that he's right, but I find his reasoning worth considering:

It's always "the worse, the better" with these Trotsky-style fanatics. Every failure, rejection and common-sense setback galvanizes them to new extremes of faith-based ideological weirdness. As someone who hangs out in Europe, I'm used to bizarre political movements, but the Tea Party is truly impressively strange by anybody's standards. Acidheads have had more coherent thinking than these Creationist Randite gold-bar-eating pro-coal zillionaire market fundie people. They lost the American election, but winning one and governing a superpower never seemed to be on their agenda. That hasn't discouraged them, though. They've got ladder notches and fallback positions all the way to the prepper graveyard.

Sterling, who lives in Belgrade, also raises some thoughtful points about what he sees as the differences between 'civil society' and 'social capital':

The Balkans has always been pretty low on "civil society," because most political decisions are made in smoke-filled rooms by angry drunk guys. But in terms of "social capital" they're quite keen on looking after one another. The populace is very polite and considerate, by American standards. Hold-ups, muggings, drive-bys, gang rapes, maniacal outbursts by guys with automatic weapons, they're all practically unheard-of.

The feeling on the streets of Belgrade is vastly calmer and cozier than, say, Los Angeles. By the standards of Belgrade, you'd think that LA was a para-militarized civil war zone, even though LA has got "civil society" like nobody's business.

He also makes some interesting points about death:

I lost a favorite uncle this holiday season. He was elderly and frail, and he had a good life -- a remarkably jolly character, really, the life of many a party -- so it's not a tragic loss, but I find that the grief touches everything I see.

Grief is a worldview all its own. Grief gives reality a lunar glow. It's healthy to be placed in touch with the tragic side of life, the losses that make life's value so clear. It's like winter daylight.

My uncle wouldn't want me to be all upset about his passing, and to tell the truth I'm not "upset," but I am diminished. Changes in the state of the world are marked by absences as well as by novelties. The year 2013 will be the first year of my life that does not contain my uncle.

It'll be different.

Finally, in the course of the discussion, someone brings up the idea of art as a (socially) transformative activity; Sterling admits admiring the 'very bohemian approach' and 'cool notion' of the artist as this 'the mental-liberationist Greek trickster figure who steals most of his material', but he sees it nevertheless as limiting, which inspires some thoughts on Montenegrin literature:

That's why I enjoy art such as Petar Njegos' epic of early Montenegrin literature, "The Mountain Wreath."

Here we've got this very intelligent and determined hillbilly aristocrat, a poetic priest-warrior gangster chieftain, out of a half-forgotten province of the Ottoman Empire. His people are pre-literate; he's one of the first to read and write his own language.

This poem, the "Mountain Wreath," is mostly about tribal patriarchs flying into a righteous rage and cutting each other's heads off. It's very like the Iliad in that way; it's full of noble perorations that are mostly along the line of, "Rascal, you've done something unbearable for years now, and I was constrained to get involved in this awful mess you've created; but this time it's personal. So, prepare yourself: I'm taking your head, your pistols, your horses and all your women, and I may even burn your farm." In the context of this artwork, it's certainly the right thing to do. It's the definitive thing to do; it's how you know you're alive.

Then you compare that artwork -- written by an aristocrat, an authority figure in deadly moral earnest -- to this kind of ontological-trickster writing, this kind of "What is Reality, Mr Njegos," postmodern gendankenexperiment, of which me and my sci-fi colleagues are so enduringly fond... Well, keen as I am to write that stuff, it can seem like pretty thin soup.'


Brian Aldiss once told me that science fiction was full of guys who would write about Martians without ever visiting Indonesia. But visiting Indonesia is one thing -- if you actually *hang out* within Indonesia, you *become* Indonesian. You don't visit it, or steal it, you are it.

You have to get past the stark fact that Njegos is an Ottoman Christian-sect hillbilly on horseback who knocks people down with spiked clubs and cuts their heads off as trophies. He is, but he's also a great poet. Njegos even has a wry sense of humor; it's just not what Americans would consider "wry" or even "humor." When you understand his jokes, when you know they're genuinely funny, that's a bigger mental yoga-stretch than we're supposed to allow ourselves within the USA; it makes a "galaxy far far away" look like a Hollywood backlot in Southern California. Which is what it is, pretty much.

Friday, December 21, 2012


So I read via Esquire that today's Republican Party is not in good shape, as is apparent by the position of John Boehner, House leader:

Last night, he couldn't get the votes to pass a truly horrid plutocrat's wet dream. He couldn't get the votes to gut Obamacare or Wall Street reform. He couldn't get the votes to throw children off food stamps and he couldn't get the votes to throw the elderly off meals-on-wheels. He couldn't get the votes for a simple, vicious stunt.  He couldn't  get the votes because he couldn't budge enough Republicans to support a tax increase in the upper .01 percent of taxpayers. He couldn't do it because he had nothing with which to threaten people who look on governing the country as though they are running an evening-drive talk-radio program in Bugtussle. He couldn't do it because he is a Republican pretending to be a fanatic who went hat in hand to a bunch of fanatics pretending to be Republicans.

Which sounds accurate enough to me, but then I'm partial to hearing gloom and doom predictions for the American right wing, so I tend to doubt my own satisfaction on this score.

But then I hear something similar (if less...expressive) from a member of said right wing:

Persuading a majority of Republicans to cast a politically treacherous vote to allow higher taxes could have enhanced his leverage with Obama in future talks to rein in the national debt, Republicans said. But failure could imperil his hold on power, said Craig Shirley, a Republican consultant who wrote a biography of former president Ronald Reagan.

“If this was a parliamentary system, tonight’s dissent on Plan B would be seen as a vote of no confidence in Boehner,” Shirley said. “The national GOP is now simply a collection of warring tribal factions.”

Well I have to say that the prospect of that particular Somalia-on-the-Potomac sounds like fun.

Though I can't see that shooting the fiscal Niagara is going to be that pleasant, either for the US or the rest of us.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Merry, merry

With Christmas not too far away, I hope that yours proves much happier than one that occurred in a cottage in Fetter Hill, Gloucestershire eighty-four years ago.

It featured moments like this one: 

After a pause, he took a straight razor from the cupboard and told his family to ‘clear out’ or else he would kill them.  

Yes. Not exactly festive.

Still: it might make an interesting gift for the fan of historical mysteries in your life.

And remember: in German, 'Gift' means 'poison'....

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Speaking the unspeakable

'Unspeakable violence' is a well worn phrase, and, clearly, there is an extent to which certain violent acts prove to be difficult, if not impossible, to entirely put into words.

However, while never capable of complete expression, there are some moments when violence becomes, if you will, 'speakable': when words allow certain aspects of it to be driven home with a particular emotional intensity.

I found, today, in looking through various kinds of press coverage of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, that the two comments that made the horror of this particular incident of horrendous violence most speakable were not those deliberately aiming at the highest degree of pathos but rather those that seemed most matter of fact or spontaneous.

Both were in the same article, at the Washington Post.

First, the comments from the state medical examiner, H. Wayne Carver II:

Carver described the children’s injuries, which he said ranged from at least two to 11 bullet wounds apiece.

He had performed seven of the autopsies himself. A reporter asked what the children had been wearing.

“They’re wearing cute kid stuff,” Carver said. “I mean, they’re first-graders.”

Second, though more significantly in some ways, I was struck by the comment of Rabbi Shaul Praver, whose congregation included one of the first grade victims:

“His little body could not endure so many bullets like that.”

Reconsider that, just a bit longer: 'His little body could not endure so many bullets like that.'

I wish, in some way, that I could un-read those words, as they have been echoing in my brain all day.

But, to my mind, there is something in Rabbi Praver's words that prove that the unspeakable can indeed be spoken.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Some kind words in the Literary Review

For those of you interested in such things, there is a very nice review of my new book in the current Literary Review (Dec-Jan).

It is described, for example, as an 'immaculately researched, fluently written and utterly compelling book'.


There's more where that came from at this post on the review at the book blog for The Most Remarkable Woman in England.

And I have also created a summary of comments so far on the book.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Charlie Brooker on bleached gargoyles, Anders Breivik and rectangular fireflies

I'm not a parent, but I did spend a lot of time squinting at what by today's standards are tiny television screens from a distance imposed by my mother to ensure that I didn't 'ruin' my eyes.

Hence, there is a lot to enjoy about Charlie Brooker's column today:

Call me a paranoid parent, but I stopped leaving the TV on the rolling news channel by default round about then because I didn't like the way Savile stared at my baby son, as though he was going to lean through the screen and eat him. The boy himself wasn't bothered, but then he doesn't fear the same things as you or me. A few weeks ago, he saw Anders Breivik on the screen and found the sight of him hilarious. A convicted mass murderer is literally the funniest thing my son has ever seen.

And, man, is Balok ever scary.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Perilous Albion

Christopher Walken reveals a number of fears in this Guardian interview.

One of them, rather surprisingly, is Britain:

"I don't like flying at the best of times," he says. "And as I get older, I like it less and less. I don't much like driving either. I prefer to be driven. And, when I'm in London, I don't even like walking on the street. I can never get used to looking the right way when I cross the street. When we're over there, I always say to my wife, 'Stay in the hotel. Don't go out there. It's too dangerous.'"
The rest of the interview is worthwhile.

I didn't realise, for example, that Walken's father was a German baker.

And I'm thankful for the reminder of his great moves in the 'Weapon of Choice' video. The man has grace.