MURDER BETWEEN THE LINES E.J. Wagner ( A version of this article appeared in the fall issue of Mystery Readers Journal)
Frankly,the shiny, hard slick ones that can be picked up anywhere don t excite me very much. I like them mature. I nurse a serious fondness for the crinkles of experience. And I have no objection to a bit of slackness in the spine or softening in the middle.
If they exude a slight aroma of old tobacco or brandy that ‘s fine with me. I positively appreciate deep lines.
And what s written between them.
I dig old books.
I ‘m a crime historian; researching ,writing and lecturing about old crimes is my job. That makes old books my necessary and loved accomplices. Mostly I m enamored of antiquarian medical books, law books, and cookery books as they abound with subtle hints of ancient criminal events. Especially cookery books. It was common in the past for readers to write in the margins and between the lines of their books, to enclose notes between the leaves. Officially known as marginalia, and traditionally frowned on by parents and librarians, these often provide me with signs of the sinister. For instance, in an 19th century book on cooking I find a note that water hemlock looks remarkably like parsnips, but smells like very much like carrots. (The note is written , of course,in a delicate, ornate hand) It is tucked cozily next to a recipe for parsnip and carrot soup. The directions say to cook the vegetables in broth until soft ,to puree the soup, and then pass it through a sieve lined with cloth. Finish by dusting with grated nutmeg.
Was this written by a careful, good cook, or a clever homicidal one? A few pages later, a note in the same hand appears in the margin . It is for a tea to cure croup. It includes hollyhock blossoms, sassafras, and 4 grams of lobelia. The directions say to administer a large spoon every fifteen minutes until the symptoms abate . Considering that lobelia, also known in the vernacular as “puke weed ” and “vomit wort” is toxic at that dose, I figure that the symptoms abated pretty quickly. Old medical books frequently close with a section entitled “llustrative cases” . These are often a wonderful source of macabre anecdotes, and as they are annotated, easy to trace back to the original source and authenticate.
In C.M Tidy s 1882 text on Medical Jurisprudence, for instance, there is a tale from the Annals d Hygiene,1847, of a mother who was accused of pouring melted pewter, (tin 3 parts, lead 7 parts,melting point, 350 F) into the right ear of her “idiot son” while he slept. Amazingly, the child recovered. The fate of the mother was not stated, giving us latitude to imagine. Where does one find such historical riches? The internet, it s true, has a lot of offerings, but that seems to me sort of like cheating. Anyway, it spoils the fun of a hunt. Antiquarian book shops and plain old “used book stores” are rapidly disappearing , to my great sorrow. In the past I spent many happy dust covered hours in “Good Times Book Shop” in Port Jefferson Long Island, and the many shops on Charing Cross in London. But there are still a few left, and there are book fairs where the old time dealers gather. I always ask for reader ‘s copies, as I am a not a collector but a researcher. Reader ‘s copies are a lot cheaper and more apt to have interesting marginalia. Some “bookies” work out of their homes, where books are often stacked on every reachable surface.One of my most intriguing finds was stored under the dealer s bed-he ‘d run out of space elsewhere. There between the dealer’ s bedroom slippers and the mother of all dust mice, I discovered ” The Champion Text on Embalming” published in 1900. Along with fascinating information on the techniques of the funerary arts in the 19th century, it contained a compelling photograph . Labeled “Injecting the arterial system through the radial artery” , the picture shows a corpse flanked by two suspended articulated skeletons -and a few professorial looking bearded men. The deceased, who also sports a beard, is modestly covered by a sheet up to his neck. His face is as peaceful as that of a chap having a manicure.
Seated by the body,apparently injecting the embalming fluid, is a woman, elegantly attired in a mutton sleeved embroidered dress, accessorized by a pearl necklace. A wide brimmed, light colored hat adorned with flowers and leaves perches on her head-.(A dove may be involved in the hat-the photo isn’t clear enough to be sure) A large light colored cloth carefully covers her lap, evidently to prevent staining. Who says women didn t have professional opportunities in the Victorian age?
With such treasures available, is it any wonder I am dedicated to searching for them-reading between the lines, finding murder in the margins?
EJ Wagner is the author of the Edgar winning “The Science of Sherlock Holmes”Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen, The Lancet, and Smithsonian Magazine among others. She frequently consults for television on criminal history.
Web site: http://www.ejwagner-crimehistorian.com/ -