Archive for the ‘Beating the Corpse’ Category

“Yes” to the Wise Woman of Ys” !

May 24, 2016

The Wise Woman of Ys

Had great fun recently reading “The Wise Woman of Ys” by R.A. Forde. An engaging  British forensic psychologist who writes historical novels on the side, his everyday name is “Robert”.

RobertFrod

 

Below is  a chat I had with him. EJW

EJ:  How is Ys pronounced, and how do we know?

Robert: We don’t know exactly how it was pronounced in the fifth century, but the tale is known today in France, where it is pronounced “eece”, to rhyme with “fleece”. Originally it would have been a Breton word, and probably written “Ker-Is”. “Ker” is a Breton word simply meaning “town”. It is related to the Welsh “Caer”, which occurs in place names like Caernarvon and Caerphilly. Breton and Welsh are so closely related that speakers of the two languages can often understand each other quite well. This goes back to the period of the events related in “Wise-Woman” and “the Dream of Macsen”. During this time Britain was subject to invasions by the Saxons and Irish, and many British people (who spoke a language similar to Welsh) emigrated to the north-west corner of France, hence the name Brittany. It was known locally as “Armorica”, which roughly means “the land facing the sea”. The area was considerably depopulated at that time, following a popular uprising in which many people had been killed or enslaved. The Roman authorities were quite keen to have somebody settle there, in order to defend it. Many towns in present day Brittany and Normandy have names of British origin. Quite a few others have names which originated as the names of Roman army units.

WiseWoman

EJ: What first piqued your interest in legends of this period?

 Robert: Many years ago as a teenager I read an account of the legend of Ys, which is quite widely known in France, especially Brittany. The legend comes from the same period as the legends around King Arthur in Britain (the fifth century, shortly after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire). It was about 20 years before I began to write the story.

EJ: How do you research background? Do you rely on primary

documents?

And if so –how do you get access?

Robert: I read a great deal of history. This includes not just political history, wars, kings, etc, but also social history. For example, I have a book on the practice of medicine in the ancient world, and another about wild plants and their medicinal uses. Both of these came in useful when writing “Wise-Woman”. I have had to buy a lot of books!

 There are some books which reproduce original documents. Where the originals themselves exist they are preserved in museums, of course. Most of them are written in Latin, but the published versions provide a translation. Since I studied Latin to the age of 17 in school I have been able to check on some of the translations, some of which are 19th century and a bit too free for my taste. The period of “Wise-Woman” is not well recorded by contemporary writers, but there are some contemporary records, mostly written by monks. British writers sometimes forget that there are continental sources; for example, I found useful material in “The History of the Franks” by the monk Gregory of Tours. 

A very useful thing which I did was to draw a timeline on a very large sheet of paper, so that each time I read something which might be useful and had a known or strongly suspected date I entered it on the timeline. This meant that I gradually drew up a picture of the historical events, including things like battles and plagues, which I could work into my story. I think it is important to do this, even if you end up not using most of the material, because it creates the illusion of a complete world. Your characters have a cultural background, to which they make reference on occasions, and don’t just exist in isolation. A supremely effective example of this is Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”. He created a history, culture, and even invented languages. Most of what he did doesn’t actually appear in the story, or not in any detail, but it creates an atmosphere of credibility.

 I collected far more information than I needed for “Wise-Woman”, but I used quite a bit of that in my second book, “The Dream of Macsen”, even though it was set about 100 years earlier. Much of the historical and cultural information was still applicable. I think it’s very important not to shoehorn in all the information you’ve collected, as it becomes pretty stodgy, but if you carry on writing in the same genre it will probably all come in useful in the end.

EJ: I know you are a skilled singer of folk songs-do you find they provide insight in to this era?

Robert:  Not really. Some British folk songs do have roots far back in history, although most are actually more recent. However, although the origins of some songs go back a long way, they are not a description of anything very useful to historical fiction writers. It is more that there are scraps, references or traces of ancient legends.

EJ: How much of your literary work is fiction, and how much do you consider accurate history?

Robert: I think that depends on the story. “Wise-Woman” was based on a legend, not on history. I tried to make it realistic by providing an historical background which was as accurate as I could make it, but the events which actually happen to the central characters are invented. With “The Dream of Macsen” it was slightly different, because the characters were actual historical characters about whom something is known. We do not have the full picture, but we certainly know about some historical events in the lives of those characters, and I tried not to change anything. Inevitably, where only the main events are known, one has to fill in the details, but I tried not to contradict the known history.

EJ: You have written these books from a woman’s point of view.

Why?  Was this a deliberate choice?

Robert: It was forced on to me by circumstances, really. In “Wise-Woman” the central character is female. Without wishing to give too much of the plot away, there were reasons why I did not want to write it from her point of view. However, I wanted to write it from the point of view of someone who was close to her, a close friend or companion. No one could have occupied that position in those days without being another woman (or girl, as the story starts when they are quite young).

In “The Dream of Macsen” the character of Macsen is male, but again there were plot related reasons why I couldn’t write it from his point of view. I decided to adopt the point of view of his wife, Helena, as he was thought to have been married to a highborn British woman, although a Spaniard himself. After “Wise-Woman” I suppose it came more easily too.

EJ:   There’s serious conflict and violence in your stories. You are a forensic psychologist  as well as an author, and spend a good  of time in the courtroom. Do you see the present criminal justice system in the UK as having gradually evolved from ancient practices?

Robert: I think it might be more accurate to say that it evolved in a series of fits and starts. There was nothing gradual about Magna Carta, for example. It was pretty much a case of the barons mounting a rebellion and telling King John to sign it or else. It did, and still does, provide for some curbs on the power of the state. But as late as the 18th century there was still no right to a defence lawyer, and no prosecution service. Criminal cases were brought by private individuals, who were rewarded by the court in the event of a conviction. Unsurprisingly, the system was riddled with corruption, and there is little doubt that many innocent people were condemned on the basis of trumped up charges. The system also changed because of public feeling in many cases. For example, the death penalty was available for several hundred offences in the early 19th century. Public feeling grew against the imposition of a death penalty for minor offences, with the result that blatantly guilty people were being acquitted by juries who refused to send them to the gallows for, say, a minor theft. The government was left with little option but to wipe a lot of capital offences off the statute book. They had also lost the American colonies (!) as a place to send convicted felons, but fortunately discovered Australia just in time to start sending them there. Even so, there was a growing movement against cruel and unusual punishment. One of my favourite stories from this period is about a woman who stole from a shop in order to buy food for her children (there being no public welfare at that time). The jury convicted her and a fine was imposed, which she would have been unable to pay. She would probably have been transported to Australia in lieu of payment, but the jury passed the hat round and paid her fine, effecting her immediate release!

EJ:  How did you decide to publish on Kindle?

Robert: I became aware of the Kindle self-publishing scheme because I saw it mentioned when visiting the Amazon website. I had got back the rights to “Wise-Woman” after its original publication in print, so I was able to reissue it myself. Then I began to wonder about some other books. “Macsen” had not been published in print, so I followed up with that.

EJ:   What are your plans for future books?

Robert: After “Macsen” I decided to branch out into a different genre. I have always been a keen science fiction reader, and for a while was attached to the British military in West Berlin. I began to formulate some ideas for a science-fiction/horror story set in the North of England. This resulted in a third novel which has now been published on Kindle as “The Devil’s Issue”. This is set in the early 1990s and is therefore quite different from the earlier books.I haven’t given up on historical books, and I still love that Romano-British period, so it is quite likely that more will follow.

 

The books may be viewed on  R.A. Forde’s Amazon author’s page: http://www.amazon.com/author/raforde

 EJ Wagner, as usual,PursuingVerity05

Sunday at the Morgue 1985

February 22, 2016

SOSH Dissection Table WoodenI’m often asked how I  became involved studying forensic history. This explains a bit. (This is graphic-if you are squeamish maybe you had best skip)

 

Sunday at the Morgue – March 1985

E.J. Wagner

I’m dropped off at the Medical Examiner’s Office at 8 AM

I’m to help out in exchange for a refresher course on sudden death in suburbia.

In the locker room, I’m outfitted with plastic apron and gloves.

A battered table holds a collection of phone books, a container of orange juice and a box labeled “ Pro Tex Mor” Adult Shroud Kit-.

A memo on the door advises on precautions against infectious diseases.

The walls of the grandly named “autopsy suite” are muddy beige cinder block. The linoleum floor, which has a drain in the middle, is slightly cracked. Fluorescent fixtures cast a greenish glow. Windows of frosted glass allow a shimmer of natural light.

There are three autopsy tables.

Each is equipped with a scale, a garbage pail, sink, and a small platform holding instruments: scissors, forceps, a full tang butcher knife. Deli-style containers stand open. Each table has a Stryker saw plugged into an outlet under it.

On the wall are blackboards on which I am asked to note the weight of major organs, as the numbers are dictated.

First up is a barrel chested man in his fifties, supine under the flowered sheet brought in with his body. His face is purple, his hand, with matching discoloration, rests on his chest.

A radio plays Frank Sinatra standards. The morgue attendants, wearing green scrubs, (one sporting a baseball cap) whistle along with

“Fairy Tales Can Come True, It Can Happen To You” …

A battered desk stands in the corner of the room. A sign over it reads “ Send Help”

The Deputy Chief Medical Examiner shambles in sporting a Brooklyn College sweat shirt and jeans.. He wears glasses, a droopy moustache, and carries a fishing tackle box. This holds an assortment of tacks, needles, scissors,. The morgue guys call him “Doc”.

The man with the flowered sheet is maneuvered onto an autopsy table.

A former cop, with history of hypertension and heavy smoking, he was found at the bottom of a flight of stairs in his home, wearing only his shorts. His wife put the sheet over him while waiting for the police.

There is some discussion about the possibility of the widow wanting the sheet returned. This seems improbable to me, but Doc tells me a story about a man who committed suicide with a carving knife, which his wife demanded back. We speculate a bit about her not wanting to break up a carving set just before Thanksgiving.

The flowered sheet is bagged and put aside.

The Y incision is followed by the moan of the electrical saw working its way through the exposed sternum. Coaxed from its home, the breast bone is placed under the corpse. The morgue guy, laboring at this, says“ Did you see that flick about the crazy cannibal shrink? Watched it last night. Made me sick. Hate gross movies “

Doc says the movie was dumb.

“ Did we take vitreous from this guy?” he asks.

The dead man’s heart is large, typical of long-standing hypertension, Doc says, drawing blood from it. Excess fluid is removed from the body with a large soup ladle. Doc’s arm is deep in the incision. When he withdraws it his gloves are covered with blood, and blood is smeared on his upper arm.

The ventricle of the heart is measured with a small baby blue ruler.

The lungs are enlarged and laced with black webbing, the ghosts of many cigarettes. After the major organs are weighed, and I inscribe their weight, they are placed on the small platform adjacent to the autopsy table, where they are sliced like bread loaves. The deli containers fill up.

(I am amazed to find that my hand is steady).

As Doc cuts, he holds tissue between his thumb and forefinger, and slices vertically between them. His gloved fingers, slippery with blood, are 1/8 inch from the blade.

He uses a large yellow sponge to wash the face of the corpse and to wipe down the table.

Its a jarring contrast between the physical effort involved hefting the stiff body, sawing at it, and the delicate, precise movements used to section organs, scrape bones, sever nerves.

Water circulates continually around the corpse, and its hair floats.

A pair of forceps, lying in the water, pointing towards the cadaver’s head, trembles with the current.

The bladder is opened, and urine runs into the drain. The ME slits the stomach, recites the contents;

“ Carrots, potatoes, green beans, meat-

Deep in the dead man’s thick iron gray hair is a wound. It was hidden, but Doc’s fingers find it. He incises the scalp, which, loosened, slips over the face, masking it.

The saw bites into the cranium, and the smell of powdered bone floats through the room.

When the bony lid is removed, an injury to the brain on the side opposite of the wound is revealed .The black, jelly-like mass of a subdural hematoma strips easily from the surface. This injury was recent.

“Classic contre coup” Doc says, naming the result of the brain smacking against the hard skull in reaction to a blow.

The photographer is deaf, but Doc is adept at charades to explain which views he wants.

The sheet is removed from a second gurney disclosing the body of a seventy-two year old woman who had been lying dead in her comfortably heated home for over twelve days, swelling slowly.

The smell is an eye-stinging gaseous miasma.

The hands and feet are partially mummified due to the dry heat. The belly is green, monstrously pregnant with gases and percolating bacteria. The toothless mouth gapes. The open eyes are sunken. The facial skin has slipped, resulting in a series of ripples along the border of her face just below her hairline. The skin on her cheekbones appears taut, unnaturally without lines.

Except for the swollen belly, the cadaver is tiny, shriveled, the hands dark and rigid.

When the morgue guys puncture the green abdomen, sluice its cavity with water, and arrange its pale, malodorous organs neatly beside it, its appearance becomes less distressing.

Frank sings “ Who Could Ask For Anything More?”

When I leave the office it is late afternoon. My husband, waiting outside in the parking lot, is very hungry.

I am both pleased and appalled to discover that I am too.A version of this appeared in Mystery Reader International

 

a version of this appeared in Mystery Readers Internationals

Murder Between the Lines

November 22, 2014

SOSH Mr. Turkey Boston HandwritingMURDER 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?

The End

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/
Blog: https://ejdissectingroom.wordpress.com/

GAGA General Assessment Of Governing Ability

October 29, 2012

Dear Candidates:

Thank you for taking part in testing GAGA- a new standardized exam for prospective government officials

This innovative process will eliminate the needlessly hostile television debates.

Remember, there are no right or wrong answers. This is merely an exploration of your knowledge and positions. Here are a few sample questions:

1. Economics: A woman of 28 has just received a graduate degree in education. Her husband, same age, had recently graduated law school.Their combined debt for education is $200,000. They have not yet found full time employment, and are working at several part time jobs which have no health benefits. to pay bills. Their birth control has failed, and the woman is pregnant.

Please explain, in 500 words or less,hoe de-funding Planned Parenthood will aid their  economic situation.

2, You have changed your position on major issues 7 times in as many years.Explain, in 250 words or less, how this demonstrates your reliability.

3. Planning  and Strategy:

You must plan a 12 hour car trip for yourself, five children, a spouse, and an Irish Setter.

Choose your arrangements

a. Rent U haul for luggage,have family and dog ride inside/

b. rent van, have family and luggage inside.

c. Place dog in crate, tie crate to roof of vehicle.

For extra credit,explain your choice.

E.J. Wagner as usual pursuing verity.

Pursuing Verity

The Amazing Powers of Sherlock Holmes and Mr Romney

October 6, 2012

Watson frequently remarked on the amazing histrionic abilities of Sherlock Holmes.-who could hide in plain sight,  and disguise himself so cleverly that he fooled his close friend. In our own time, we must gasp in admiration at the similar abilities of Mitt Romney, one of  the  great  character actors of our time. He has appeared as a moderate, a liberal, an arch conservative, a protector of women’s rights, and an anti choice proponent.
He has played all these roles in only a few years, wearing the same hair style, and with only a modicum of makeup.
Holmes, I recall, had to make use of beeswax.

Political life may suffer, but the theater has a new star.

EJ Wagner

Pursuing Verity

Sherlock Holmes and the Surge of Moriarty

January 30, 2012

The primary race on this side of the pond has us all riveted, watching so many race to achieve the nadir of politics. If  someone with more stature were in the running—we might see something like this.

The dramatic surge in the polls of Professor James Moriarty has stunned political pundits. Best known as “Sherlock Holmes’ Nemesis,” Moriarty has kept an extraordinarily low profile since his confrontational meeting with the Great Detective at Reichenbach Falls. Press reports of the professor’s death, however, have proved to be unfounded, and his resurrected primary campaign continues to gather steam.

He has agreed to be interviewed, providing that his crowds of supporters are allowed in abundant attendance.

EJDissecting room: Professor, we are astounded by both your longevity and your stamina. It has been suggested that they are due to a medical procedure similar to that described by Conan Doyle in “The Adventure of the Creeping Man?” Would you like to comment?

Professor: No—but I will. My longevity is purely due to a potent mixture of genes and genius. The “Creeping Man” story is merely a canard promulgated by a cabal of effeminate elites and their media mob.  I am appalled that you would begin an interview with a topic like that.

(cheers and applause from the crowd)

EJ: Sherlock Holmes, the eminent consulting detective, seems critical of your candidacy, and has been quoted as calling you “The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every devilry, the controlling brain of the underworld” and even “the Napoleon of crime.” He points out you were to compelled to resign from a previous position because of “dark rumors.”  How do you respond?

Professor: No one’s perfect. It is an issue that I confront every time it comes up, and I confront it exactly the same way every time it comes up, and people seem to be satisfied with it. I remind you, Holmes also said of me, “He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order . . . and is admirable in management . . .”

(cheers and applause from crowd)

EJ: In that case, if you win, would you appoint Mr. Holmes to head a crime-fighting agency?

Professor: Holmes is not nearly conservative enough and is much too inflexible. I remind you he’s one of the few public figures who has never lunched with Donald Trump. And one never sees Holmes in church. I am not perfect, but I’m right with God.

EJ: Professor, although you have asked publicly for courteous debate, you have called one of your opponents a “pompous, posturing pustule,” another “a sanctimonious, self-righteous slug,” and a third a “vacuous vacillating vapidity.” Don’t you think issuing  such aggressive remarks might be described as hypocritical?

Professor: Not all—Actually, I was merely indulging my penchant for understatement. Any suggestion of hypocrisy is a sign of gutter politics and the destructive, negative nature of much of the news media.

(Cheers and applause from crowd)

EJ: Professor, It has been reported that you forced your canine companion to travel tied to the top of your carriage. Is this true? If it is, what were you thinking?

Professor: “Baskerville,″ as he’s called, enjoys riding up there when he’s not roaming across the moor. He’s half hound, half mastiff, and drools phosphorus. We have to stop at gas stations all the time to clean it up. He’s in an air-tight crate of my design. It has a windshield.

EJ: If the crate is air-tight, how can he breathe?

Professor: That’s precisely the sort of gotcha question typical of a hostile rapacious press busily promoting class envy.

(Cheers and applause)

EJ: What do you consider the biggest obstacles to world peace?

Professor: Excessive education, contraception, and rampant health care.

EJ: Thank you, professor.

As always, pursuing verity,

E. J. Wagner

Pursuing Verity

Discarding Publlc Records

August 23, 2011

Sherlock Holmes kept detailed records of ancient crimes to help him investigate new ones. In that spirit, centuries of cases tried at the Old Bailey in London are online, available to both the simply curious and the serious historian.

In contrast, here in the U. S., in the name of cost cutting, the National Archive and Records Administration plans to toss the baby out with the bathwater, by discarding old legal documents without regard to the future, and with little public discussion.

As It is impossible to predict exactly what may be vital information in the future, the destruction of legal records merits our attention.  Click here – http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/ispla/ – to examine a petition addressing this issue

As always, pursuing verity,

E. J. Wagner

Pursuing Verity