5 Fascinating Mysteries for Skeptical Pessimists

Being a rational skeptic by nature, I’m not the easiest target for those peddling mysteries. Any mystery that can feasibly be a hoax by a single person or a small group of people (e.g. crop circles), I assume was a fake.  Any mystery that  could be accounted for by a person misidentifying his or her mushrooms (e.g. out-of-body experiences and maybe the odd alien abduction), I assume is a case of hallucination. Any innocuous naturally occurring phenomena (e.g. the Taos Hum), I assume is just a matter of the limits of our current understanding. So, most of the time I dismiss “mysteries” as pranks that succeeded or natural phenomena that occur under rare “perfect storm” conditions resulting in phenomena we don’t yet understand.

That said, I’m sucker for intrigue, and there are some astounding mysteries out there.

5.) The Fate of Raoul Wallenberg

The Facts: Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat assigned to Budapest, Hungary during the Second World War. He’s credited with saving thousands of lives during the Holocaust by issuing protective passports from his neutral homeland that kept the bearers from being deported to extermination camps. In January of 1945, Wallenberg sought to make contact with the Soviets, who were mopping up the fascist forces in and around Budapest, in order to facilitate a smooth aftermath of the Battle of Budapest. He succeeded, but got more than he bargained for when the Red Army arrested him and he was shipped to Moscow to serve time in the notorious Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons.

The Soviets claimed that they had no knowledge of Wallenberg. They suggested that he’d probably been killed trying to get to Debrecen to meet with the Red Army General who commanded forces in the area. (Debrecen is a city in Eastern Hungary, near the Ukraine, and was the HQ of Soviet military forces fighting in Hungary at the time.)

Then, when prisoners from various other countries started being released in exchanges, they reported having been in contact with Wallenberg (often through a tap code that has been used the world over to circumvent rules preventing prisoners from talking.)

In the fifties, after Stalin died, the Soviets finally admitted that they’d had Wallenberg but that he died in 1947 of natural causes. (The claim that the young (early to mid 30’s), healthy, and vigorous man having a heart attack strained credulity for people ranging from those who’d conversed with him in prison to Soviet officials during the Gorbachev Era (i.e. the late 1980’s) who’d began to come clean about the matter. The Soviets had been lying through their teeth for decades and so “we don’t know any more than that” wasn’t a convincing answer even though it’s possible that it was true by that time.) At any rate, even up into the early 1960’s there were credible claims of prisoners who stated that they’d been in the Gulag with Wallenberg, and into the 1970’s there were less credible claims.

The Questions:  1.) Why’d they take Wallenberg in the first place? He wasn’t particularly high up in the diplomatic corps, nor had he had a career that would have exposed him to a treasure trove of government secrets. Furthermore, while one wouldn’t think of him as a high value target, he was a public relations nightmare waiting to happen because he’d saved so many lives (eventually the United States and a number of other countries made him an honorary citizen and he came to be considered one of the great heroes of the Holocaust.) In short, on the face of it, he seems like a high risk / low reward prisoner. 2.) When did he die? Was it 1947, as the Soviets claimed? Was it 1962, or thereabouts, as prisoners had claimed? Or might it have been even later? 3.) How’d he die? Was it really natural causes? (It would have been hard to believe in the late 40’s when he was a 35 year old man who’d been imprisoned only a couple years and not in a labor gulag, but: a.) it can’t be ruled out, and b.) it’s quite possible if he died many years or decades later under forced labor camp conditions.) Was he poisoned at Lubyanka, or simply shot dead?

The Most Credible Solution: As for why the Soviets took him, Wallenberg was in contact with people from many varied countries and segments of society, including Americans and even moderate / sympathetic members of the Arrow Cross Party (Hungary’s fascist party that was installed into power by the Nazis,) anyone who could be of help in saving lives was worth building relations with. Furthermore, Wallenberg was from a prominent Swedish family with its hands in many commercial pies internationally. All one really has to understand is that to Stalin and his henchmen, anybody who talked with Soviet enemies was an enemy spy.

So why did they “disappear” him? This is a case in which wishful thinking and naivete was probably fatal. The Swedish diplomat, Staffan Söderblom, became convinced that Wallenberg had been killed inside Hungary while moving through the dangerous war zone, and, crucially, he told his Soviet counterpart as much. What evidence made him think this — besides Soviet disinformation — probably just that it would make his life much easier. I don’t mean to suggest Söderblom wished Wallenberg dead, but as a diplomat concerned with high level issues like trade agreements and security assurances, having relations hung up on the fate of one man was a pain in the diplomat’s keister. Söderblom did eventually accept the evidence and start doing his job, but by that time the damage was done. The Soviets believed they could keep Wallenberg without the public relations nightmare of being seen imprisoning an international hero because the Swedes didn’t seem to want him back very badly, and Stalin’s regime became invested in a lie that became progressively more costly come clean about.

I recently read Ingrid Carlberg’s biography of Wallenberg, she reports that the consensus view of the investigative group that took up the case during the Glasnost years was that Wallenberg likely did die in the summer of 1947, though no one believes for a moment that it was of natural causes.

 

4.) MH-370

The Facts: In March of 2014 a flight (Malaysian Airlines 370) took off from Kuala Lumpur, heading generally northeast toward its destination of Beijing. At some point over the Gulf of Thailand, near its transition into Vietnamese airspace, the pilot made final contact with air traffic control and then the plane disappeared (transponder turned off — though the plane does periodically appear on military radar it doesn’t induce a response.)

While the search begins  in the Gulf of Thailand and into the South China Sea, a private company that has satellite monitoring of jet engines, says it has data that shows the plane was in the South Indian Ocean. For the geographically-impaired, that means MH-370 was going south way down to the west of Australia. As the system that monitors engines wasn’t designed for locating said craft, the last known location is imprecise. The weather in that part of the Indian Ocean is notoriously rough. The plane still has not been recovered over four years later, though pieces from the wings have turned up in the Indian Ocean, verifying that it was going the wrong direction.

The fact that there wasn’t a huge and readily visible debris field limits the ways that the jet could have gone into the water. Experts are divided into those who think the pilot must have made a controlled landing on the water and then let the plane sink (Note: this wouldn’t be like Capt. Sullenberger landing on the Hudson as the waves would have been as high as a few meters) and those who think the plane may have gone in nearly vertically as it plummeted out of the sky, the fuel tanks having run dry, and the engines powerless.

The Questions: 1.) Was it done on purpose or was it the result of an accident? [Spoiler Alert: While there remain many disagreements among experts on specific details of the crash, all the experts seem to agree that the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had to have been an active participant in creating this tragedy.] If we assume that the overwhelming evidence pointing to the pilot’s participation (presumably in a suicide + mass murder), there remains a gripping mystery. Why go to all that trouble to make the plane disappear? There are a few cases of pilot suicide with mass murder, but in those cases the pilot just flew the plane into the Earth. Shah took hours flying, going to great lengths to make certain the plane would be as hard to find as he could make it. If he actually landed on the water, that would have been six or so hours flying — ostensibly with the crew and passengers incapacitated by depressurization. Angry suicidal psychopaths don’t seem likely to care whether the murder instrument is found or not. If he was the unusual suicidal person who wanted to create a mystery, he must have known that the very activities he took to make the plane hard to find would make him look guilty. (i.e. If he thought that making it look like an accident by not allowing the black box to be found would make his loved ones look fondly upon him, he must have realized the chain of actions needed to achieve that lost flight would look like a willing hand was in control. i.e. catch-22.) 

The Most Credible Solution: The Australian 60 Minutes did a fascinating Special Edition on MH-370 just recently. They layout many of the reasons that the pilot must have been involved. There was an early thought that the pilot might have been making an emergency course correction due to a breakdown when he lost consciousness along with the passengers and crew (due to depressurization) and then the plane just flew until it ran out of gas on that random heading. However, it became clear that the pilot made specific course corrections long after the transponder went silent. Why the pilot made sure the plane would be as hard as possible to find is hard to explain.

 

3.) Frank Olson: Murdered or Psychedelic Trip Gone Wrong?

The Facts: Frank Olson was a scientist and biological weapons expert who nominally worked for the Army at Fort Detrick, MD, but who’d been assigned to work for the CIA on a program that would become infamous: MK Ultra. MK Ultra was an umbrella project for many programs involving behavioral modification and mind control. Among the most disturbing element of MK Ultra involved unwittingly dosing people with LSD (a hallucinogenic substance) in order to see how they would behave (and whether such behavior was exploitable for the CIA’s purposes.)  On November 19 of 1953, Frank Olson was surreptitiously dosed with LSD by Sidney Gottlieb — the head of MK Ultra and Olson’s CIA boss. Nine days later, Olson jumped out of a 13th floor hotel window in New York City.

The official claim was that Olson committed suicide while experiencing a severe psychotic breakdown. (“Suicide” may or may not have meant that Olson desired to end his life. It could have been an accident owing to his loss of touch with reality. In other words, the CIA claimed that Olson jumped out the window under his own propulsion, whether he did that because he wanted to die or because he thought he could fly is anyone’s guess.)

Olson’s family, notably his son Eric, claims that Frank Olson was increasingly despondent — presumably unnerved by the amoral world he’d been caught up in since being assigned the CIA job on MK Ultra —  but that he was by no means on the verge of a complete psychotic breakdown. Eric Olson believes his father was physically defenestrated.

The Questions: 1.) Was Frank Olson murdered? 2.) If so, was he physically forced out the window or was he loaded up on hallucinogens and driven to madness via Scarecrow (i.e. the Batman villain) tactics?

The Most Credible Solution: Most of the books and documentaries come down on the side of Olson having been murdered, but that’s not to say that there is an overwhelming case for murder. This is part of what makes this type of mystery interesting to me (this also applies to the Wallenberg case.) Once one strays from the path of virtuous behavior — as both Stalin and Sidney Gottlieb did — no one is going to believe in accidents anymore — even if that’s really what happened.

 

2.) S.S. Ourang Medan

The Story: In 1947 or 1948 (sources vary), a distress call was received from a merchant vessel, S.S. Ourang Medan, near the Straits of Malacca (between Malaysia and Indonesia.) The radio operator claimed that the Captain and some (possibly all. he couldn’t say) of the crew was dead. The message ended with “I die” and then radio silence. Another vessel responded to find that the entire crew was all dead, stiff as if frozen and littered around the decks as if each man died where he’d stood.  As the assisting craft prepared for an investigation, they were forced to flee because an intense fire flared up at ship’s stern. The Ourang Medan burned and then sank.

The Questions: What killed the crew? Was it an accident, perhaps resulting from the leakage of a hazardous chemical cargo, or was there something more nefarious afoot?

The Most Credible Solution: Fascinatingly, the most credible solution to this mystery may be that S.S. Ourang Medan never existed (the photo above isn’t the Ourang Medan, and, in fact, the ship didn’t appear by that name in the registry.) The whole event may have been some kind of urban legend or sophisticated hoax. This may be a bit of an unsatisfying solution, and it seems to violate my principle of not taking interest in mysteries that could be (and, thus probably are, hoaxes.) However, I still find this one interesting because the story was repeated so many times with the exact same details, and by credible sources. That’s pretty impressive if it was a hoax, and leaves open the possibility that it wasn’t a hoax at all. If it’s not a hoax, the most credible solution would be that the ship carried a lethal and flammable chemical until it experienced  a leak.

 

1.) Dyatlov Pass Incident

The Facts: In January of 1959, nine experienced hikers set out on a trek in the Ural Mountains. When they didn’t return when they were supposed to in early February, a search party was dispatched. Because these were knowledgeable outdoors-people and they’d left a route-plan, it didn’t take long to find their tent (as shown) and soon thereafter they started to find the first of the trekkers’ corpses. Though it took more than two months of searching to find the last four.

That’s when it got weird. They found the corpses on the order of a  mile down slope, and all of them were without their boots and were inadequately dressed. Their boots and outerwear were all in the tent, along with the makings of the fire that someone had been setting up to keep them warm for the night. The first several bodies they found showed no sign of physical injury and seem clear cases of death by hypothermia. Among the bodies found later there were a some blunt force trauma injuries and a few strange physical anomalies (e.g. one corpse was found missing a tongue.) There were a whole host of  bizarre features that added to the mystery. For example, one of the individuals was found wearing two watches.

As I’ve mentioned, these were experienced hikers. Some were on the hike in part to obtain the highest level grade for outdoors skills available in the Soviet Union. These young people weren’t like Christopher McCandless (subject of Krakauer’s Into the Wild) who went into the wilderness by himself with inadequate knowledge of survival in harsh conditions and got himself killed. They were also, by all accounts, teetotalers, and, therefore, wouldn’t have gotten drunk and stupid.

The Questions: What drove nine experienced campers out of their tent and to their death by hypothermia in the darkness? And, oh yeah, if your theory could explain all the other weird stuff, such as one person wearing two watches, one person missing her tongue, and a couple people looking like they’d been battered with baseball bats, that would be great.

The Most Credible Solution: There are a truly vast range of theories out their from credible sounding avalanches to unlikely assaults by demon dwarfs. Adding to the range of conspiracy theories is that this took place during Soviet times. During Stalin’s days, these kids wouldn’t have been allowed to trek into the wilderness like this at all, but even with the easing of prohibitions under his successors, it remained believable that these college students saw something they weren’t supposed to see and paid for it with their lives.

That said, Donnie Eichar in his book Dead Mountain, paints a compelling and science-based argument that the culprit was naturally occurring infra-sound that resulted from wind blowing around the rounded mountain top. Said sonic phenomena has been known to make people spontaneously nauseous and prone to panic attacks. Incidentally, the curious missing tongue might simply have been due to the fact that the girl’s face ended up partially in flowing water (and it took a couple months to find her so bacteria had time to do its thing.) The blunt force trauma was all found among the latter recovered bodies who took so long to find because they’d fallen down a ravine (hence the bruising.) The watches may have been as simple as someone saying, “Here, hold my watch,” to someone who was getting ready to do some other task, so that person put on the second watch to free up his hands. Or it could have been a mindless action under panic-induced duress.

BOOK REVIEW: Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass IncidentDead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The Dyatlov Incident is one of the most fascinating mysteries of the 20th century. In 1959, a crew of nine seasoned hikers headed into the Siberian wilderness in late January for an intense but vigorous trek. When they didn’t return in early February as planned (and after a bit of prodding from family members) a search was conducted, and what the searchers found was so bizarre that it would be fodder for conspiracy theorists and readers of tales of the weird for decades. It wasn’t so much what killed the hikers, almost all of them died of hypothermia — though three of the members had severe blunt force trauma injuries that contributed in varying degree to the speed of their deaths.

Instead, it was that the bodies were found on the order of a mile from their tent, none of them was wearing boots or adequate attire. There were also a range of smaller anomalies, such as one individual wearing two watches, several of the team having shredded clothing, one of the hikers missing her tongue, and some of the hiker’s clothing testing positive for radioactivity. Lest one attribute the hiker’s strange and fatal behavior to drink or other mind and mood altering substances, the hikers were known teetotalers, and the little medicinal alcohol they had was all accounted for by the search party (who admittedly drank it.) So the question wasn’t what killed them, but what drove these skilled, sober, and well-led hikers out of the comfort of their tent improperly attired in the middle of the night on the night of February 1, 1959, and what explanation could account for this range of bizzarities?

I won’t get into Eichar’s well-developed and scientifically supported theory to avoid spoilers, but it’s fascinating to consider the range of theories that people came up with over the course of the investigation (and subsequent years) to explain the odd incident. The explanations run the gamut from the otherworldly (i.e. Siberian Demon Dwarves) to a range of theories that were less provocative but which also lacked explanatory power or were inconsistent with known data (e.g. avalanche or high winds literally blowing them off the mountain.) Of course, another fact played heavily into people’s conspiracy building and that was that this was the height of the Cold War Soviet Union. While life had eased a bit since the demise of Stalin (such a trek would have been prohibited under his rule) it was still an authoritarian state, plus the memory of Stalin was fresh. This led to the most widely accepted theories involving the hikers being killed because they saw a covert weapons test or stumbled into an area where the KGB was getting up to some shenanigans. (As a sign of the times, it seems that there was some attempt to thwart the investigation and /or limit the interest in the case from low-level party apparatchiks who probably assumed shadowy elements of the government were involved [though there seems to be no evidence that they were.]) Another theory proposed that the hikers were killed by a group of escapees from the Gulags that were numerous in that part of the country. (Of course, that assumes that the poorly fed and clothed prisoners would have survived the freezing temperatures better than the fit and relatively well-equipped college students.) As evidence mounted, however, it suggested outsider involvement less-and-less. For example, the side of the tent was cut open, but rudimentary forensic investigation readily proved that it must have been cut from the inside and not from the outside by a KGB agent, Gulag prisoner, local tribesman, or a Siberian dwarf claw.

The book intersperses accounts of the happenings in 1959 with chapters that describe the author’s trips to Russia to investigate, including his visit to “Dead Mountain” and the “Dyatlov Pass” in 2012. (The former name predates the Incident and has to do with the fact that the mountain is devoid of vegetation. The latter name, i.e. “Dyatlov,” is the last name of the leader of the group of hikers.) The penultimate chapter describes Eichar’s conclusion about what caused the mysterious incident and his visits to experts that lent it credence. The last chapter offers a retelling of events that takes into account both the evidence and scientific speculation about the cause of the hikers’ panicked flight from the safety of their tent into a desolate landscape on a sub-freezing night.

There are graphics throughout, mostly black and white photos from the cameras of the hikers, which were recovered and became part of the case file. Other than the photos, there is a graphic or two to help explain the theory put forth by Eichar and others. (It should be noted that there was a group of Russians simultaneously considering the same possibility.)

I was enthralled by this book and couldn’t put it down. The mystery was fascinating and the hypothesized solution was at least as much so.

I’d highly recommend this book to readers of nonfiction, though much of it has the taut structure of fiction.

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POEM: Land’s End

Land ends in a wall of fog.

If you were told it was the

end of the universe, you

could not prove otherwise.

It glides up to the cliffside.

Stealing sight. Silent theft.

Ears ring. Seeking sounds.

Mind searches sensation.

Senses wet cotton dulled.

Solitude sweeps over one.

What would happen if one

stuck one’s arm inside the

fog? Would it expand into

infinity?  Or disintegrate

into a lawless zone free of

 mathematical certainty?

BOOK REVIEW: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #4)The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is the second collection of short stories and the fourth book overall in the canon of Sherlock Holmes. It includes eleven adventures of the great detective as narrated by his partner, Dr. John Watson.

Below, I’ll describe the premise of each of the stories:

 

“Silver Blaze” A race horse goes missing and its trainer is found dead. The eponymous race horse is favored to win an upcoming race, so Holmes faces a race against time to see that the horse can compete.

 

“The Yellow Face” A man begins to suspect the wife that he’s never had cause to doubt before. Only he doesn’t know exactly what he suspects her of, but it seems to revolve around visits to a nearby cottage that has been recently occupied by an unknown and mysterious resident. Note: this is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories both because it displays the humanity of the character in that his initial guess proves wrong, and in it shows how the author was ahead of his time in his worldview.

 

“The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” When an out-of-work clerk, recently hired by prestigious firm, is given an offer of much more money but finds himself doing only busy work, he gets suspicious and calls on Sherlock Holmes.

 

“The ‘Gloria Scott’” Holmes is visiting a college friend when the friend’s father is visited by a gruff ex-sailor. When the family patriarch uncharacteristically bends over backwards to make the sailor happy, it’s unclear why. When the old man dies upon reading a letter, the mystery becomes all the more intriguing.

 

“The Musgrave Ritual” A butler is fired for digging around in the family papers, despite the fact that the document he’s discovered with is nothing more than a series of cute questions constituting an old family ritual.

 

“The Reigate Puzzle” Burglaries in the countryside culminate in the murder of a coachman. The family that employed the coachman is neighbor to a close friend of Watson.

 

“The Crooked Man” A couple who’ve been married for thirty years without any known incidents of domestic unrest get in a raucous fight, and the man–a career military officer–ends up dead. The wife is the only suspect.

 

“The Resident Patient” A benefactor agrees to fully fund a new doctor’s practice provided that he is allowed to live on-site as a resident patient. The mystery begins when the resident patient begins to be inexplicably nervous.

 

“The Greek Interpreter” An interpreter is kidnapped and forced to translate a mysterious conversation between his kidnappers and a disheveled Greek man. Despite handsome compensation and threats of what will happen if he should tell anyone of the job, the interpreter feels obliged to get to the bottom of the imprisoned Greek man’s case by hiring Holmes.

 

“The Naval Treaty” A member of the Foreign Service has a crucial treaty stolen while he goes to check on the service of his tardy coffee. The loss of the treaty spells professional death for the young man unless Holmes can solve the case. The commissionaire and his wife are initially the sole suspects.

 

“The Final Problem” Perhaps the best known story of the collection, it was intended to be the end of Sherlock Holmes. The story involves an uncharacteristically shaken Holmes, his arch-nemesis, and a trip to Reichenbach Falls.

 

This collection includes some essential Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as some classic Holmsian cases and quotes. For 19th century literature, it’s highly readable. Definitely a must read for fans of Sherlock Holmes.

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DAILY PHOTO: Little, Inexplicable Doors to Neverwhere

Taken in Hungary in December 2016

Taken in Hungary in December 2016

 

Kochi (Cochin), India

Kochi (Cochin), India

 

Kochi, India

Kochi, India

 

Whenever I come across a little, unlabeled door in a place where it seems to have no business being, I can’t help but take a picture. I’ve got quite a collection of such pics, of which I present a sample.

 

Maybe I watched “The Matrix” too many times, but I can’t help but wonder.

BOOK REVIEW: Quarantine in the Grand Hotel by Jenő Rejtő

Quarantine In The Grand HotelQuarantine In The Grand Hotel by Jenő Rejtő

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[Note: This book is published by Corvina Books, which is a Hungarian publisher that—among other things—specializes in translations of Hungarian literature (into mostly English and German.) I bought the book on a recent trip to Budapest. I mention these two facts because this seems to be an expensive and / or difficult to acquire work outside of Hungary. A cursory Amazon search brought up copies only at an exorbitant rate. In Hungary I paid 2500 forint (about $9 USD at the time), which I would consider on the high side of what the book is worth. It’s a good book, but it’s a 160-page pulp-fiction paperback novel written about 80 years ago.]

Quarantine in the Grand Hotel is a murder mystery set on a fictional resort in Indonesia (or thereabouts.) However, it’s not your typical dour mystery. It’s as much of a satirical humor novel as it is a mystery. I was hooked with the first paragraph, which reads, “When Maud returned to her room, she saw a man emerge from her wardrobe. Dressed in pyjamas and wearing a bright green lampshade on his head, the stranger beamed a friendly smile at her.” From that point, I had to know who the man in the pyjamas is and how he got there, and that information doesn’t come immediately or without false leads.

The premise is that the resort is quarantined and a murder takes place there (actually two murders.) It’s not a creative premise. The hotel setting allows the author to bring together an international cast of characters (suspects) some of whom would believably have secrets or be leading double lives. Where the creativity comes in is both in the humor, and in the skilled reveals. Rejtő used cliff-hanger chapter closings to good effect. He also plants false information, e.g. in the form of false confessions designed to protect loved ones that may or may not have actually committed a crime.

Rejtő (who wrote under the nom de plume “P. Howard”) was a Hungarian journalist and author. He wrote this and most of his books in the 1930s. He died in a forced labor camp in axis-controlled Soviet territory during World War II. He’d displeased the Hungarian Arrow Cross Militia (i.e. the Hungarian fascists) and was sent to a labor camp at the front.

I’d recommend this book for those who like light, humorous novels. If you’re a hardcore mystery fan, it might seem a little silly and ham-handed. If you are looking for a novel that offers insight into Hungarian literature, I don’t think this one is for you. The setting is not Hungarian, the major characters are not Hungarian, and I would hazard to say that most people wouldn’t know that this translation wasn’t written by a British, or other English-language country, author.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

The Coroner's Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1)The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The Coroner’s Lunch uses a popular and intriguing technique of setting a crime novel in an unconventional landscape. Like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels (most famously Gorky Park), James Church’s Inspector O novels (e.g. A Corpse in the Koryo), or Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichirō samurai detective novels, Cotterill’s book places a protagonist staunchly devoted to the truth into a sea of ideologues who value appearances more than facts and who will do anything to maintain their precarious grasp on power.

This approach appeals for a couple of reasons. First, it maintains a line of tension in terms of the world against the protagonist on top of whatever other plot conflicts may exist (criminal against investigator.) It also allows us to recognize the virtues that we find appealing amid a people that we think are a world apart.

While crime fiction is plot driven, this particular variant requires strong character development. We must have a lead character that stands out against the bleak landscape of the authoritarian regime that employs him. However, at the same time, the character mustn’t stand out by being bold and defiant in the manner we might expect of a crime novel set in New York City. Such a character is unbelievable amid totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, North Korea, feudal Japan, or—in Cotterill’s case—Laos, circa 1975. We can’t believe such a character wouldn’t be killed by leaders who have people summarily executed on a regular basis. So the character must be clever, adroit at manipulating the system, and a quiet anti-ideologue.

Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun largely fits the mold, but is a little more irreverent than usual. The old doctor is drafted into being Laos’ national coroner because most of the educated class has fled the country–this despite the fact that Paiboun’s medical expertise is not in forensics. The ultimate source of his bold demeanor is that he is an old man, and he figures that there’s not much that they can do to him. If he were to be executed he wouldn’t lose much longevity over his natural lifespan, and if they sent him to camp, it wouldn’t be as foreboding as the places he has once been. Additionally, he has a highly placed friend, and—beyond that–they can’t replace him in short order. Making Paiboun disappear as Communist regimes were known to do is not an option. Still Siri is clever and does know how to ride the line without tipping across it.

The plot revolves around two crimes. The first is the death of the wife of a high-ranking Party official. The second is the discovery of three Vietnamese government agents in a lake in rural Laos. Both of these cases are high-profile and create incentives to keep truth from coming out.

One element of Cotterill’s novel that is outside the mold for this type of book involves supernatural activities. It seems that–like The Sixth Sense’s Macualay Culkin—Dr. Paiboun sees dead people. Perhaps this device was added to set the novel apart from others in the aforementioned class. For me, this approach seemed superfluous and disadvantageous. Siri’s “gift” kind of detracts from his strength of character because it’s not so much his brilliant mind that is solving murders as the victims giving him hints.

I will say that this supernatural element is introduced in a great way and that it could have been used throughout the novel to a much better effect. When the dead people first visit him, it’s in the form of a dream. At first we don’t know whether his subconscious worked out the solution or whether there is something supernatural going on. However, the author adds a manipulation of the material world so that we know this is supposed to have really happened and later this becomes abundantly clear. I think it would have been better to maintain the ambiguity. People reach solutions to difficult problems through sleep all the time, but we don’t live in a world in which the physical is manipulated supernaturally. Not that there is anything wrong with supernatural fiction (I read a lot of it.) However, crime fiction works best in a realistic world, as does historical fiction. This novel straddles those two genres, and throwing in supernatural events muddles the setting a bit.

Overall, I thought the book was well-written and the main character was humorous and intriguing. If you liked the kind of books I mentioned in the first paragraph, I believe you’ll like adding this to the mix.

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BOOK REVIEW: Regarding Ducks and Universes by Neve Maslakovic

Regarding Ducks and UniversesRegarding Ducks and Universes by Neve Maslakovic

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As one might guess from the title, this is a lighthearted–dare I say whimsical–science fiction novel set around parallel universes. The light tone works to discourage one from being too much of a stickler about logical consistency and scientific validity. Parallel universes can raise almost as many troubling questions as time travel; but when the tone is comedic, it’s easy to set the these concerns aside and take it as a simple plot device. This isn’t to suggest that Maslakovic neglects the issues altogether. She is, after all, an engineer by training. Having the universes split a relatively short time in the past is likely an attempt to deal with the fact that the two universes are extremely similar, but recognizably different (a cliché among sci-fi parallel universes.) But she does avoid getting bogged down in the minutiae of consistency. There may be some happenings that leave one a bit befuddled, given there is obviously different decisions and behaviors occurring in the alternative universes, so events in one universe shouldn’t be a predictor of events in the other.

The backdrop is that a technical writer and aspiring novelist, Felix Sayers, finds out that he has an “alter.” In Sayer’s world, there are two San Franciscos. He is from what’s considered the original Universe, A, and there’s an alternative Universe B that one can cross over to if one is willing to follow a number of rules–mostly set in place to prohibit interacting with one’s alter. Everyone born before the schism of the two universes has an alternative version of themselves in the alternate universe unless that person has passed away. Like identical twins, “alters” look alike, but because of chains of different decisions and experiences, they may lead considerably different lives. Felix thought he was alter-less, but when he finds out about a discrepancy in his birthdate, he realizes he does.

Felix decides to go to Universe B, to spy on and possibly interrogate his alter—in contravention of the rules. Specifically, Felix of A wants to know if Felix B is working on a novel, and, if so, if the alter is ahead of him. He doesn’t want his to be relegated to writing the novel by “the other Felix Sayers.”

As the story progresses, the novel crosses genres again, adding a mystery component. When Felix crosses over, he draws much more attention than he wants or expects. This includes several failed (and sometimes comedic) attempts on his life. Felix immediately suspects one person, but it wouldn’t be much of a mystery if the initial suspect turned out to be the villain. Actually, it’s not much of a murder mystery because there are few characters who we can believe would be credibly wicked.

However, there’s still the mysterious question of whether Felix engaged in an activity that resulted in the split. Of course, there’s a scientist who creates the conditions in which the schism can happen, but Felix nonetheless worries whether he “caused” the split through some inadvertent act as an infant. This may not be so much a critique as it is insight into what makes the lead likable, if hapless. Incidentally, this is where the duck comes in.

If you like light sci-fi, this is a good read. It’s not side-splitting like Douglas Adams, but it’s laid back and has a dry sense of humor.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cabinet of Curiosities by Preston & Child

The Cabinet of Curiosities (Pendergast, #3)The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Cabinet of Curiosities features many of the hallmarks of a Preston and Child novel. First, the lead is FBI Agent Pendergast. Special Agent Pendergast has three things that no FBI Special Agent in the history of the FBI has ever had: 1.) a fortune, 2.) the ability to pick and choose both his assignments and the jurisdiction he works in, and 3.) about 200 vacation days a year to learn things like ikebana and to read random scholarly publications in disparate fields such that he is an expert on the known Universe.

Regardless of the incredulity his character may inspire, Pendergast is a fascinating character. He has a New Orleans accent and an almost albino complexion, which intrigues–and puts him outside the New York / Chicago/ LA nexus in which cop fiction frequently gets stuck. (Don’t worry; the NYPD quota is still met.) Furthermore, his encyclopedic knowledge of everything allows him to constantly get the better of any and all unlikable characters in the book—and, in these books, you are either likable or loathable. It also features other Preston & Child familiars, including Nora Kelly and William Smithback Jr.

Second, it features the supernatural, preternatural, or at least the appearance of the aforementioned. This is all part of a dark and mysterious tone they have down to an art. This goes back to their first book Relic.

Third, one of the likable characters gets killed off.

The title, Cabinet of Curiosities, refers to collections of natural anomalies that were all the rage in the 19th century, and which served as mini museums of natural history. These cabinets (sometimes also called “wonder rooms”) might feature genuine exhibits, fakes, or some combinations thereof.

The novel begins with Agent Pendergast seeking Nora Kelly’s expertise to assist him in investigating a 19th century mass murder. The remains of the deceased were found in a building that’s being torn down to put up a high-rise, but it used to be the basement of a cabinet of curiosities.

We don’t get any clue as to why an active duty FBI agent would take an interest in 19th century murders until late in the book. [Of course, we never find out why Pendergast is allowed to investigate it.] I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether the ultimate explanation makes any sense or not. Needless to say, the murder and mayhem come to the present day over the course of the novel.

While I might sound down on both this book and the series, I’ve read seven of the books jointly authored by Preston and Child (and one or two from each as solo authors.) It’s, therefore, unreasonable to say that I dislike their work. However, I will say that I didn’t like this one as much as some others (e.g. Relic and Still Life with Crows.) I’m not entirely certain whether this one was just not as good, or whether I’ve become a bit jaded from over exposure to their formula. (Maybe doing so many book reviews of late has made me over analytical, and commercial fiction—like popular movies—are easy pickin’s for criticism.)

That said, I have three major criticisms of this book:

First, there’s a critical happening that requires someone so brilliant (yet unknown and working solo) that they could invented a technology in the 19th century that modern scientists couldn’t even fathom duplicating. This is sort of a common theme in some steampunk works (e.g. the Will Smith Wild, Wild West movie). However, steampunk creates its own world, distinct from the world as we know it. I can buy some kinds of “lost knowledge” lines, such as the idea that some plant-based medicinal compounds have been lost due to deforestation and loss of the experience of native peoples (this was the premise in Preston’s solo work, The Codex). However, in Cabinet of Curiosities there is a scientific discovery critical to this novel which is of a complex nature. It’s impossible to believe that it could be done by someone without modern equipment or access to the vast scientific literature of the intervening century.

Second, while I don’t want to sound like someone who poo-poos cross-genre novels, there’s a problem with this book not knowing whether it’s a mystery/thriller or supernatural/horror. In general, I love cross-genre work. However, a thriller needs some sort of realism to pull us in and mysteries call for some sort of rules or the game. If anything can happen (or if we don’t know the rules of what can happen) it’s a bit unsatisfying to try to noodle out whodunit.

Third, the reveal of the villain seems a bit forced. It’s not quite Scooby-Doo because they create several despicable characters to choose from—and not just one grumpy old man who you know is going to be the guy. However, it seems a little like they rolled dice to determine which detestable character would be the villain. In retrospect one can find foreshadowing, but no more for the actual villain then for the others one might suspect.

If you’re willing to suspend a truckload of credulity this is a good read for beaches, airports, and trains. The authors know how to pique your interest and build tension. It’s not their smartest book, but it’s a fast and fun read.

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Why I’m a Slacker Lately: or, Mysterious India

What's this India I hear so much about?

What’s this India I hear so much about?

I haven’t been writing, editing, or conducting research much as of late. This has probably gone unnoticed in the vastness of the cyberspace, but in the spirit of blogging I thought I’d answer a question that no one asked. I recently learned that my wife and I will probably be moving to Bangalore, India later in the year. This has kept me physically occupied with home repair and boxing up the house. In my non-labor moments, my mental faculties are largely devoted to understanding the country in which I will be living. I’ve never been there before.

India is a harder nut to crack than one might think. Yes, there is the obvious. At 1.2 billion people, it has the world’s second largest population and is screaming up on China for number one. It’s the seventh largest country by land area. It’s the birthplace of that most excellent yoga that keeps all the twisty people twisty. It’s home of tandoori chicken and naan bread, both of which I love.

However, that’s all superficial. I must sadly admit that–until recently–my in-depth knowledge has come from three sources:

1.) The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

2.) A junior high school field trip to see the film Gandhi, which I had been under the impression was six hours long, but, according to Wikipedia, is only a little over three hours long. I guess that, just as kids think everyone is taller, a kid’s perception of Oscar-winning motion picture run times is greatly distorted.

3.) A ton of reading about the Indo-Pakistani rift and its strategic implications as a graduate student studying International Affairs with a focus on Strategic Studies.

With respect to number 3, the amount of study of this region was not commensurate with the fact that the Indo-Pakistani border region is generally voted “Most Likely Point of Origin for Global Nuclear Winter.” I’m not suggesting that the relationship between India and Pakistan is any more dysfunctional, unstable, or rooted in irrationality than other relationships between nuclear powers. However, the adjacency of the two countries is a problem from the perspective of strategic stability.  When alarms went off in the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. back in the day, there was at least a little time to evaluate and communicate. Being next-door neighbors makes the Indo-Pakistani conflict particularly troubling. That said, they’ve had some pretty big strain tests on their relationship without blowing up the world, so that’s a positive sign.

So why does this country, which should be so front and center in the global consciousness, remain so mysterious? One way we know countries is by those grand competitions through which nations–friends and enemies alike–interact.   In this domain, India really hides its light under a bushel. India has won 26 Olympic medals in 23 games, this is fewer than either Kenya or Jamaica–and both of those countries did it in fewer games. Yesterday, in a post about a book by Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian, Imre Kertész, I may have mentioned that Hungarians have won 12 Nobel Prizes–that’s more than India by a large margin.  Now, while India has had its problems, it’s 100 times more populous than Hungary, and has a history of publishing scientific literature in English (an undeniable advantage in this domain.) Depending upon which country Rudyard Kipling is counted toward, India has either eight or nine Nobel Prize wins. Of course, it would be ridiculous to think that India doesn’t have the human capital to excel in such domains.  While I realize it may not be a representative sample, I think almost every Indian I’ve met in person has had an advanced degree and has been smart as a whip. So it’s certainly NOT true that this is a country that undervalues education.  With a third of the world’s population, statistically speaking, they must be home to physical and mental specimens of humanity that are as impressive as any, but somehow either the will or ability to convert that human capital into winners on the global stage is missing.

I do know a little more about India. It’s the birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as a bunch of other religions. As a martial artist, I’ve heard that  many believe most Asian fighting systems could trace their origins back to India. I don’t know how much truth there is to this belief. Martial arts always evolve into optimization with the local conditions and culture, and, therefore, a lack of superficial similarities doesn’t discount the possibility of such a connection. One of the origin myths the Indo-centric martial arts is the story that Bodhidharma brought a fighting style to China that would be the stepping off point for most of the myriad Asian martial arts. The current consensus among historians seems to be that this part of the Bodhidharma story is not true (See: Meir Shahar’s The Shaolin Monastery.) However, that being said, there is an odd but clear connection between this most pacifistic of world religions, Buddhism, and some of the world’s most kick-ass martial arts. Whether one is talking about China’s Shaolin monks or Japan’s legendary warrior-monk Benkei, it’s clear that some exceptional martial arts have developed in tandem with the spread of Buddhism. Of course, even this just creates more questions, namely: Why should a pacifist religion have legendary fighters sprouting up anywhere near it?

I’m looking forward to getting to know more about India than that it’s huge and its Chicken Vindaloo is scrumptious. It’s a country with a long and intriguing history. I want to see its jungles, its deserts, its mountains, and its beaches. I want to visit its temples and learn from its sages. I’m eager to see its vivid colors and smell [at least some] of its pungent scents. At some point I expect to have some awesome posts about my time there, and hopefully some bold pictures as well. In the mean time, please forgive my slacking.