The Problem With Hotel Sized Diamonds

There seems to me to be an inverse relationship between the amount of money and the amount of taste someone has; that is, the richer they are, the less stylish they are. This seems to be more apparent in those who have come into money later in life, rather than having been born wealthy (although the late Marquess of Bath was always the exception to that particular rule). A prime example of this is Trump Towers. The décor does nothing more than remind me of the good old days when gold plated taps and black satin sheets were must-haves for any third rate lothario worth his medallion.

Which brings me on to one of my favourite F Scott Fitzgerald short stories, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. It’s basically a mountain sized diamond, in the vicinity of which people live and, as one would expect, the surroundings are on the luxurious side. Why wouldn’t they be, if you could basically pay for everything with lumps chipped off the old block, for want of a better expression? In 2016, an 83 carat rough diamond sold for roughly $63 million, so a decent sized chip could probably buy you most of Real Madrid; and probably also Barcelona if you wanted. I am, of course, assuming that the diamond is gem quality; if it isn’t, it’s probably still worth a fair sum if the chips are sold for industrial usage but perhaps not $63 million.

So there you are, sitting on a fortune and wondering how to decorate your living accommodation – conveniently built as much into the house as possible, to stop people nicking your treasure – without looking like you’d just covered everything in rhinestones and gold plate. As Dolly Parton is often quoted as saying, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap”. I simply can’t understand how people can live with so much bling, although I’d be tempted to have a cut diamond chandelier in each room, rather than a crystal one. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I had that amount of money at my disposal – die of shock most likely. What about you?

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A Crooked Man

Does anyone actually remember that Jay Gatsby actually made his money by being a criminal? At the time of the novel’s setting (1922), the insurance bond market was still in its infancy and I think it’s fair to say that it was poorly understood by most people, even those within the financial industry. As a result, it was a ripe market for manipulation and fraud, and this was how Jay Gatsby made his fortune.

Interestingly, though, it’s possible to argue that the fraudulent bonds were only one aspect of Gatsby’s criminal career. It has to be borne in mind that the novel is set in 1922, in the middle of the Prohibition era; yet all the way through Gatsby are references to alcohol, cocktails and getting drunk. Where are they getting the booze from? Nowhere legit, that’s for certain. If Jay Gatsby has criminal contacts through his fraudulent bond dealings, there is every possibility that he knows a bootlegger or two.

In fact, everything about Jay Gatsby is fraudulent. Nick Carraway notes how Gatsby is careful with his words, as if he has to think about everything – because he is. If he were really what he said he was, he would be much easier going and probably more articulate. It’s his wardrobe that really gives him away – Tom Buchanan immediately spots that he’s not an “Oxford man” by dint of Gatsby’s pink suit. Old money, the officer class from the First World War who were given scholarships at Oxford, would never wear a pink suit.

When comparing his lifestyle with that of Tom and Daisy Buchanan – who are “old money”, if you like – it’s easy to see why Tom is unimpressed with Gatsby’s flamboyance. He can tell that something’s not quite right, even though Tom is still able to get hold of whisky at the apartment he uses for his liaisons with Myrtle. Tom clearly sees through the illusion that Gatsby has so carefully constructed; he’s a fraud and that’s all there is to it. However, I may just be reading something into the story that isn’t there. The whole point, after all, is to set Gatsby up against Buchanan with Daisy as the fulcrum; we can read all sorts of “old money/new money” battles into it that we like. I think, though, that remembering how Jay Gatsby got his money gives the reader a whole new insight into the rivalry between the two men.

The Murder That Inspired the Great Gatsby

Most people remember The Great Gatsby as being a novel about parties and adultery; few remember that there are two deaths in the novel, one an accident and one a murder. Although it is likely that F Scott Fitzgerald took inspiration from a variety of sources, the 1922 Hall-Mills murder case was certainly something that he would have followed and does appear to have left its mark on the story. So what’s it all about?

By modern standards, the murders of Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall were not really out of the ordinary; but in 1922, they created a media circus which was not repeated until the death of the Lindbergh baby in 1930. Edward Hall was an episcopal priest and Eleanor Mills a member of his choir – both were married to other people and conducting an illicit relationship. However, their deaths appeared to have an element of ritual; the bodies were laid out on their backs, with both sets of feet pointing towards a crab-apple tree; Mr Hall’s face was covered by a hat; torn love letters between the pair were scattered around the corpses and Mr Hall’s calling card was at his feet. Both had been shot and Mrs Mills’ throat had also been cut and her tongue cut out. Clearly, this was not a random murder.

The only witness was Jane Gibson, a pig farmer on whose land the bodies were found. Unfortunately, Ms Gibson had severe mental health issues and it appears that her testimony varied, depending on whom she was telling; this led the Court to doubt her credibility and the media even went so far as to call her “crazy”. There were three main suspects: Mr Hall’s wife and her two brothers, Henry and William Stevens; William would today have been placed on the autistic spectrum and Henry was a former exhibition marksman. However, he had an alibi. Nobody was ever convicted of the killings and officially the case remains unsolved, although modern historians who have looked at what evidence remains do suggest that the Stevens brothers were the guilty parties.

So, what does this have to do with the Great Gatsby? Well, there is a suggestion that the Hall-Mills murders inspired Fitzgerald in writing Jay Gatsby’s ultimate demise, especially when reading through the final chapters. Mr Gatz, Jay’s father, explains how he heard of the murder in the papers, which was what happened to Mr Hall’s brother in law. Of course, this cannot be conclusively proven, but given the amount of press and publicity covering the murders at the time, it’s possible that there’s something in the story.

The Third Horseman Rides Again

I’ve just finished The Plague by Albert Camus which, I have to admit, has surprised me. I had always thought that Camus wrote difficult existentialist books, bleak and dismal – but this is actually incredibly readable and really very enjoyable. It’s also quite realistic, depicting a town in Algeria where a virulent strain of bubonic and pneumonic plague has taken hold.

If you’ve ever seen the series Containment (either the original Belgian version, called Cordon, or the US remake) you will immediately understand the plot of the novel. Here it starts with rats, dying in their thousands, and then the first people die of a strange looking viral illness. It takes the doctor, Rieux, some time to persuade his colleagues and public health officials that it is, in fact, bubonic plague, but once the disease is formally identified – and the body count starts to rise – the town is placed under a cordon sanitaire to prevent the disease from spreading. The bulk of the novel is how the occupants of the town survive in the face of virulent disease and what, to all intents and purposes, are siege conditions.

It’s this human element that makes the book interesting. While there are some quite graphic descriptions of the disease in the early parts of the book – do we really need to know about lancing buboes? – by the time we are halfway through, we have a central collection of characters who are all trying to survive as best they can. We can feel their exhaustion and sympathise with their despair or desire to find a way to escape, no matter what. At times, I found myself asking how I would cope in that situation and the simple answer is that I don’t know. A lot would depend on whether I was alone or with members of my family, and if anyone I knew were sick. It’s something nobody can predict unless they were in that situation and it’s not a situation you would wish anyone to be in.

That said, I was very impressed with how easy the book was to read. There is a little existentialist philosophy and a fair bit of grimness, but given the plot, that’s hardly surprising. I’d definitely read it again.

Social Media As A Means To Inadequacy

I’ve been unfriended on Facebook again. It happens periodically and often for reasons I never find out, but given that I don’t have a great many friends to start with, I notice. I don’t let it bother me though; there are always reasons and frankly, I don’t let social media govern my life anymore.

I think I read somewhere that the average person has 300 friends on Facebook and roughly 200 followers on Twitter. I believe figures are similar for Instagram and Tumblr, but as I’ve never used those, I can’t comment. I recently deleted my Twitter account (and don’t miss it) but at its maximum I had 50 followers. On Facebook, I have 45 friends and at least two thirds of those are people I’m related to. Followers come, followers go; some block, some just never follow back; some keep turning up like bad pennies no matter how many times you hit the “ignore” button. And if you don’t have many followers, like me, it’s very easy to read things into this that simply aren’t there.

For example, I was recently unfollowed by someone I’d always considered quite a good friend. We’d met in real life, and knew each other really well. I’ve no idea why she’s chosen to unfriend me, but I’m certain there are reasons behind it which will become clear in the fullness of time. It would be very easy to view this as a personal slight, but I don’t. It may just be that I don’t view social media as that important any more. It’s a method I use to keep in touch with people on a regular basis that is cheaper than the phone, quicker than a letter and often more entertaining when animal photos are involved.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of measuring one’s popularity by the number of “likes” or “retweets” one gets on social media; but that’s not a true measure of popularity at all. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into myself, and it’s been a cause of great pain and upset in the past. It’s really important to remember that there is more to life than social media. In fact, there’s an entire world that doesn’t involve a computer screen. Revolutionary I know, but I’ll share one nugget of wisdom with you – since I’ve stopped measuring my life by social media, I feel a whole lot less inadequate.

The Fate of Madame Carbanal

I seem to have acquired over the years a wonderful variety of short story collections over three main genres – detective and crime fiction, science fiction and horror. This is a little known short story from a collection of vampire stories called Dracula’s Brood, which is a fabulous selection of stories that I’ve never even heard of before, even if some of the authors are well known.

Set in rural late 19th century France, where strict Catholicism lives alongside country superstition, a sedate middle aged bachelor goes to Paris and returns with a wife. Striaght away it is clear that the wife, Madame Carbanal, immediately doesn’t fit into village life; she attends Mass but doesn’t know her way round the prayer book; she is calm and placid where the villagers are fiery and passionate; and, of course, she is English. Matters are not helped by M. Carbanal’s housekeeper, who was also his mistress, greeting the newlyweds with a bouquet of poisonous flowers. Anyway, after considering all the evidence, clearly Madame Carbanal must be a vampire, so the villagers rise up and kill her, led by the tarot-reading and highly superstitious gravedigger and the housekeeper.

This story, though, is particularly scary because I had read of a real-life incident that was remarkably similar. In late Victorian era rural Ireland, a man murdered his wife because he had become convinced that she was a fairy changeling. A report of this story can be found on the Virtual Victorian website (by Essie Fox, a wonderful novelist) but don’t blame me if you get side tracked by all the other fantastic things she has on there. To a modern mind, though, it does seem strange that people used to be so superstitious and would genuinely believe that difference clearly meant something evil and wicked – and preferably removed from the vicinity. I would like to think that these days things would be different, but I have to admit, recent genocides in Eastern Europe, Africa, Syria and now Myanmar do make me wonder.

Serial Writing

One of the things I have noticed reading The Hound of the Baskervilles recently is how obvious it is that Conan Doyle wrote it for serial publication. Many of the chapters have cliffhanger endings – none more notably than the famous quote “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” – and all of the chapters are quite short, as if the reader’s attention span was on the limited side. I’m not sure how many items were published in each edition of The Strand Magazine, so it may have been necessary for writers to ensure that their work stood out and encourage readers to buy the next issue and find out what happened.

Serial publication was a common method used during the Victorian era, when many novels were published in three volumes and were often expensive. By printing instalments in magazines, authors could reach a much wider audience, who did not need to spend a great deal of money on literature. Given that there was no such thing as television or radio, many evenings were spent in reading aloud stories and articles from magazines and newspapers; it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that different members of the family read different stories out to each other. It’s what I would do.

Some authors, such as Charles Dickens, had the means to publish their own work serially, as Dickens owned and ran the magazines All The Year Round and Household Words, which also published the works of his friends Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins. However, the majority of other authors were not so lucky and had to fight for publication in an extremely competitive world, so their stories had to be exciting and end in a way that left the editors demanding the next instalment.

Obviously, with the advent of cinema and television, serial writing turned into another form of drama; soap operas and weekly thrillers all required audiences to return to find out what happens next. Cheaper books and fewer fiction magazines also led to serial publication dying a death. Stephen King tried to revitalise it with the initial publication of The Green Mile, but it didn’t work out too well, and the novel sold better in a one volume edition. As far as I’m aware, nobody else has tried it since.

The techniques of serial writing are always useful; if it keeps readers turning the pages and interested in your story, it can’t be a bad thing. Just try not to include the footprints of a gigantic hound.

You’ve Seen the Film, Now Read the Dratted Book!

There’s another version of Murder on the Orient Express doing the rounds as I write this – it’s been out a while and if it’s not yet out on DVD it soon will be – and I’ve just got round to reading The Hound of the Baskervilles after having seen at least three different film versions. Although I’m fairly sure I’ve commented before (if not on here then on social media) about Hollywood seemingly running out of ideas and filming the same things over and over, I do wonder if it’s possible to enjoy a novel if you’ve only ever seen the films.

I’ve been quite lucky in one sense, because I had read both Hound of the Baskervilles and Murder on the Orient Express before I remember seeing the films (thanks to my gran being a classic crime lover) but as both of these have been filmed numerous times I expect that I am very much in the minority. When I did see the films, I saw what have become classic versions – Peter Cushing as Holmes and Peter Ustinov as Poirot – so again, I was very lucky. (I felt even luckier when I saw the Basil Rathbone version of Hound of the Baskervilles – he’s still my favourite Holmes).

Even now, if I find out that a novel is being filmed (or has been filmed) I try and read the book first. I’ve put off seeing films for years so that I can get the book read – I couldn’t watch A Passage to India for years because I did the book at A level and simply couldn’t face puzzling out what happened at the Malabar Caves. Great Expectations was another one it took me years to get round to, but that was because I wanted to throttle Pip every time he appeared on screen.

However, there is a glaring exception to this general rule of thumb, and that is John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps. I’ve now seen three different versions of this (Robert Donat, Kenneth Moore and Rupert Penry-Jones) and still haven’t got round to reading the book. I’m not sure now whether I want to; there are such differences between each of the movies that if it doesn’t appear in the book I will probably feel a bit let down – and the book isn’t the thickest.

So my question remains unanswered. If you’ve seen a film – especially one that’s a remake of an earlier version – can you enjoy the book afterwards?

Gothic but not Gothic – Again

A bit of a variation on this theme actually. When I previously wrote about Alias Grace, I considered it to be a novel that covered many Gothic themes but without being considered a Gothic novel. This time I’m swapping things around and looking at a novel which many consider to be Gothic but which I don’t believe is actually Gothic at all. That novel is Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It is very easy to see why many people consider this to be a Gothic novel. It does have certain – shall we say – spooky elements; the bleak and desolate moors, a large spectral hound and a family curse. However, there are important elements missing which I think are quite crucial to a Gothic novel; these are the large house which itself plays a role in the plot, and a damsel in distress, which in turn necessitates a brave hero to defeat the villain.

In Conan Doyle’s hands, everything changes. Baskerville Hall, although mentioned and described, plays little role in the plot with most of the action taking place on or around the moors. There is no damsel in distress – the family curse affects Sir Henry Baskerville who, by modern standards, may be a bit of a drip was at the time probably quite an average young man and by no means considered sickly or pathetic. The hero of the piece is, of course, Holmes, but he is hardly a Gothic hero by any means.

I think it’s the moorland setting that allows it to be compared with (say) Wuthering Heights, which is a Gothic classic, or the “spectral” hound which definitely adds a spooky feel. Unfortunately, since Holmes is involved, there is a much less supernatural explanation to both the dog and the family curse, depleting any further Gothic element that the novel may have had.

Perhaps this is why, much as I love Holmes and much as I love Gothics, this doesn’t seem to fit right. It’s been part of my Gothic Book Group for a while, but unlike some of the other books we’ve looked at, I’ve really struggled to write about this one. It’s taken me some time to come to terms with the fact that actually, it’s not a Gothic at all – it’s just a very good book.

Mummies Are More Fun in Egypt

A pleasant afternoon was spent a while ago watching a classic Hammer horror film – The Mummy’s Shroud, made in 1967. To my mind, it’s testament of how times have changed; when it was made, it would have been at least a 15 certificate and certainly not shown on telly before the watershed. These days, it’s barely a PG and on the telly at one o’clock in the afternoon. The offspring, although not quite a teenager, deemed it to be completely not scary, and I have to agree.

One thing, though; in comparing The Mummy’s Shroud with its predecessor, The Mummy (which starred Christopher Lee but is essentially the same story if truth be told), keeping the action in Egypt was a smart move. For one thing, it makes the murder investigation seem a little more plausible. The bulk of the action is set in 1920, at a time when Egyptology was still very fashionable but before the great Egyptian craze that was sparked by Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun. It’s a fairly standard plot, yet another variation on the curse of the Pharaoh (i.e. death and destruction fall on all who desecrate the sacred tombs) but with the variation of the curse actually being embroidered on the late Pharaoh’s shroud.

However, unlike the earlier movie, The Mummy’s Shroud is set in a town just outside of Cairo – near enough to the sea for boat passage to England to be available, but near enough the desert for lost tombs to be a feasible possibility and within searching distance. It’s also noticeable that at no point in the movie do pyramids feature (and I was careful to check the scenery as well) and there is a wonderful cosmopolitan atmosphere, a mix of Arabs and westerners mingling next to the relics in the museum. And I don’t just mean the cleaner.

I really think that keeping the action in Egypt is a great thing for this film; the inability of the characters to return to England (at the police’s insistence) adds to the sense of claustrophobia which is increased by the tomb and the villainous fortune teller. In places, it’s genuinely creepy but it’s soon mitigated by being really quite daft. It’s a great film, with a suitably villainous hero and a reasonably justifiable villain. It’s just a shame that the original story didn’t really merit the sequels it spawned.