Monday, October 17, 2016

Very English Horrors

The Black Country (2013) by Alex Grecian: Enjoyable mystery set in England's coal country in 1890. The characters are engaging, though the central mystery will be familiar to anyone who has read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008) by Kate Summerscale. Grecian adds a second mystery to the mix, albeit one linked to the first. Apparently not finding the generally well-portrayed oddities of the coal-mining town and its superstitions to be diverting enough, he also throws in several sections set at the horrifying Andersonville POW camp run with murderous efficiency by the Confederacy in one of those historical foreshadowings of the Holocaust. 

Just to lighten things up, Grecian adds a lot of low-level comedy to the relationship of the two Scotland Yard detectives sent to the coal town. He even throws in a lovable, mentally handicapped giant. And a scar-faced mystery man. And an abandoned baby magpie which first one detective and then the giant try to nurse back to health. And village superstitions attached to a mythical monster called Rawhead and Bloody Bones. And a mysterious disease sweeping the village. And a cinematic climax, first above and then below the ground in the village as it is wracked by subsidence caused by over-mining. 

We even get a final few lines that will remind the reader of either the forced comedy that seemed to end every 1960's and 1970's American TV drama no matter how dire the preceding events -- or the parodic endings of every episode of Police Squad (a.k.a. the TV show that the Naked Gun movie series continued). It's a diverting novel, though the setting seems under-served by the novel's pedestrian yet over-stuffed ambitions. Lightly recommended.


The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World (2006) by Steven Berlin Johnson: Engaging, sweeping examination of England's last major cholera outbreak in London's Broad Street neighbourhood near Soho in 1854, and how two men ensured that England would never suffer from a cholera outbreak again. Medical Doctor John Snow and Anglican curate Henry Whitehead, both of whom lived near the outbreak, would form a somewhat unlikely Dynamic Duo whose detective work and scientific acumen would convince the medical and civil authorities of London that cholera was a disease spread by contaminated water and not, as then-standard wisdom had it, by 'miasmic' gases.

Much of the book is marvelous and humane, explaining the rise of cholera to being one of the world's great killers over the course of the last 200 years. Along the way, The Ghost Map also delves into the development of epidemiology, safe sewer and water-supply systems, and the toxic Social Darwinism that helped blind Victorian England to the true cause of cholera in its cities. The book also offers a tour through London's underground economy of night-soil men and cat-meat men and coster-mongers and 'pure' collectors (pure was a euphemism for dog shit), and their roles in keeping the 'above-ground' world running.

You'll also visit the horrifying cess-pits and cesspools and streets of 1854 London. You'll discover why alcohol, tea, and coffee were all integral to the urbanization of the world. But mostly you'll deal with these two heroes of science and rationality, Snow and Whitehead, as they individually and then dually seek an answer to the Broad Street Outbreak. 

Only in the last 20 pages or so does Johnson waver, as he suddenly takes the book so wide as to attempt to convince the reader that the world will be a better, more environmentally friendly place when everyone lives in cities (not suburbs -- cities proper). It feels like the beginning of a different book, one whose enthusiasm for urban living and disdain for rural living comes gushing straight out of its author and onto the page. All it really lacks is the line, "Since the beginning of time, man has longed to evacuate the countryside!".

But other than the writer's book-derailing, evangelical rant about the Great Goodness of Cities, The Ghost Map is terrific, informative, sad, and hopeful. Lift your glass of clean drinking water to Snow and Whitehead, who defeated an invisible enemy 30 years before humanity could reliably find cholera under a microscope. Highly recommended.

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