Sunday, February 15, 2009

Review: The Gentle Axe, R. N. Morris

Penguin Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-14-311326-3 (pbk.). 305 pages.

The Gentle Axe is historical crime fiction set in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1866. It's roots, though, are a year and a half earlier in another book by a different author, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Morris has taken Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate, as his central character. Also coming over from Crime and Punishment are Nikodim Fromich, the chief of police, Zamyotov, the head clerk, and Ilya Petrovitch Salytov, the hostile, aggressive, police lieutenant.

The beginning is a pretty effective hook. It is winter and an old woman looking for wood in a park finds a large man dead and hanging from a birch tree. Nearby, nearly covered in snow, is a suitcase containing a dead dwarf who apparently suffered a fatal head wound from the bloody axe in the belt of the hanged man. Zoya, the old woman, loots the bodies, finding a substantial amount of money which she takes home to her surrogate daughter Lilya. Though a prostitute, Lilya has a better sense of right an wrong than Zoya and sends an anonymous note to the police telling them where to find the bodies.

Petrovich is not convinced that this is the murder-suicide it appears to be and is determined to find the truth despite the opposition of his superiors.

This is the first book I've finished in 2009 and I'm happy that the year began with such a good read. The Gentle Axe is well paced and intricately plotted without dragging or becoming convoluted to the point of distraction. The reader expects a lot from a book that opens with a dead dwarf in a suitcase in the snow and Morris keeps the story moving and the reader's interest with the introduction of additional plot lines that begin to weave together. Petrovich is a marvelous character and Morris has done well in staying true to Dostoevsky's portrayal but developing his distinct personality and investigative techniques.

St. Petersburg itself becomes a character as well. Morris does a remarkable job describing the evirons of the city in vivid detail. The degraded living conditions of the poorer elements of St. Petersburg might remind you of the writings of Charles Dickens.

The Gentle Axe is an excellent read presenting interesting historical detail, well drawn characters, and a compelling mystery. I recommend it highly.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Promoting Mysteries in a Virtual World

UPDATE: Since I published this post on Mysteries in Second Life, I have dropped out of SL active participation and Infoisland is gone. The Alliance presence is down to a single building in which I've never seen anyone on my infrequent pass-throughs. One of the problems I have with SL are the technical requirements. I just don't have a computer robust enough. Another problem is that I just plain lost faith in the educational potential of SL. Today, if you go through university sites, it's highly unlikely you'll see another visitor.

In 2006, the Alliance Library System began to explore library services in the 3D virtual world of Second Life. It has since grown in a major endeavor called Infoisland and involves librarians worldwide. In addition to the librarians, other entities are exploring the educational possibilities of Second Life., for example, has a very well developed presence there as you can see from the Elucian Islands website.

And this brings me to the subject of this post. I'm a Second Life Librarian and manager of Mystery Manor, an area created to promote the mystery/crime/thriller genres. I confess that I haven't been very diligent with the promotion. Our only activity has been a monthly book discussion series called Waiting for the Other Gumshoe to Drop. But the crime fiction I've been reading and the blogs and discussions I've been following have inspired me to find ways to take the knowledge I've gained and give visitors something that will entertain and educate.

I thought it might be interesting for my readers if I gave a brief tour of my little bit of Second Life. Farther on I will show you several book & library oriented sites.

In Second Life you are represented by an avatar. There is almost no limit to the style of avatar you choose but I'm fairly conservative. If you compare the avatar to my profile photograph you'll see a resemblance, except for the hair. I'm bald in Second Life because I haven't found hair I like.

Mystery Manor has been a Gothic castle and a British style cottage but most recently I have taken a different approach. Rather than using a structure like a building, I put together a hedge maze with a gazebo in the middle. I think the openness will make the space more versatile. There was an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. named The Gazebo in the Maze Affair and that gave me the idea. On the right is a front view which shows a poster for our next book discussion. This year we are choosing books with international settings and are reading the first of Helene Tursten's Inspector Huss series. When an avatar clicks on the poster they get a note card with details.

It is possible to use voice chat in Second Life but many discussions, including ours, are conducted by typing comments. It takes a bit of getting used to since related comments generally do not occur sequentially but it has the advantage that the text is recorded and you can always scroll back. When I lead a discussion I have my discussion points in a note card from which I copy and then paste into the chat window.

There are interesting creative possibilities with books in Second Life. You can publish a virtual book with pages that turn. It is a bit awkward to read but does provide the visual appeal of combining images with text and people can take a copy with them. In the images below you will see my first efforts. I thought I would put something together on cats in mysteries. I did my composition using Open Office Presentation (like PowerPoint). Flickr allows you to filter a search by Creative Commons license and I found several photos which I used, with attribution, in the two books. The one on the left is a picture book of what I thought were mysterious looking cats. On the right is a book that contains text with more images from Flickr. It is open to a page crediting Clea Simon for helping me with a history of cats in mysteries.

Another technology I'm using is linking from Second Life to Google Docs. People have written scripts that can be embedded into an object that will open a browser window to a web site or a bibliography in a Google Doc. The advantage here is that someone in second life will always link to the most recent version of a document which wouldn't be the case with a text file provided from within Second Life. To supplement our discussion of Detective Inspector Huss I am writing resource guide to Scandinavian crime fiction.

I would like to create exhibits that includes books, posters, and links to outside resources and and locate them within the maze. Suggestions for themes would be appreciated.

Elsewhere in Second Life - Some Library and Book Sites

There are too many book and library sites in Second Life to show. Below are images of several of the places I have landmarked.

The Alliance Virtual library and the virtual reference desk on Info Island

The Library of Illumination Island
Left - A room featuring Beatrix Potter books, Louis Wain's cats, C.M. Coolidge dogs
Right - Display of illuminated manuscripts

Left - Second Edition Books and Publishers, a project to explore books and book arts in a virtual world
Right - Book Island, a site dedicated to books and book publishing

And finally for my friends in the U.K., Second Life has a Guild of U.K. Writers that is a base for writers with their roots in the U.K. They also accept those with a love for the literature or the land. Guild HQ are left and center. On the bottom is the nearby Bookstacks pub. Notice the cat playing with a book on the right.
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