Friday Flotsam: Illness, History, and Poirot

1. I’m not sure, but I think I got a touch of food poisoning yesterday. This resulted in one of the more miserable night’s I’ve experienced in recent memory as I was repeatedly up and, ah, clearing the pipes at both ends, so to speak. While I no longer feel like my internal organs are trying to lead a revolution, it’s left me extremely tired, weak, and with a nasty headache. I ended up going back to bed and sleeping for a few hours in the middle of the day. Hopefully the worst is over, though.

2. There is a definite style to the bulk of non-fiction books today, at least the one’s I’ve read/listened to. Since they’re most often written by journalists rather than by subject matter experts, you get a few common threads: they’re heavy in anecdote, especially speculative anecdotes (that is, trying to imagine a scene as it would be portrayed in a novel). They have a ton of material, but the material is filtered through a definite narrative that is never examined. And most have a basic boomer-progressive point of view, or more rarely boomer-conservative. Usually they’re subtitled “the untold story of such and such”

To put it another way, they are highly researched, engagingly written, and never show the slightest trace of original thought.

3. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every such book. David McCullough comes to mind as a genuine historian who tries to get into the mindset of the time period. Just a trend I’ve noticed.

4. On the way home from Maine, we listened to a good chunk of a book on the husband and wife codebreaking team of William and Elizabeth Friedman, which covered basically all the above. That said, the story is interesting enough that I would still recommend it. The mini-kingdom of ‘Riverbank Laboratories’, a private research community ruled by a somewhat mad millionaire bringing together a bunch of oddballs and misfits to conduct a wide variety of research is worth the price of admission alone.

5. Incidentally, the Zimmerman telegram comes up in the course of the story. I’ve read that Zimmerman himself apparently vouched for the thing, but even so that has to be one of the most suspiciously stupid pieces of diplomatic correspondence in human history. You send a message to a country that is currently in a civil war (again), inviting it to attack the larger, wealthier, more advanced neighbor that has already inflicted a crushing defeat upon it once. And if the message is intercepted, it’s almost certain to bring the said larger, wealthier, and unassailable nation into the war against you.

Perhaps the German high command simply wasn’t paying attention to the state of Mexico at the time? But then why even make the offer? Shouldn’t the state department for a major nation have the sense to gain at least a cursory understanding of the state of affairs before risking such a throw?

As I say, it sounds like the thing was genuine, but wow.

6. Also listened to the Poirot novel One, Two, Buckle-My-Shoe. That’s one of the ones that I didn’t really enjoy the first time I read it, but it improved on a second reading (the murder is kind of overly-complex this time around, with at least one too many factors going around, but as often happens Dame Agatha pulls off the trick of making you look at the whole thing the wrong way for most of the book). It’s one of her more politically-minded novels, centering around a conservative financier who stands in the way of socialist agitators. Only, as Dame Agatha was herself more of a conservative, it presents the situation in a much different tone than you might expect, with the progressive idealists coming across as naively dangerous and the financier being presented as a generally decent, likable old man whom even his socialist adversaries can’t dislike too much. Though in the end the story doesn’t break down on such simple lines.

Meanwhile, Poirot himself stands for a different perspective altogether. He’s more or less on the conservative side as far as it goes, but his priorities don’t involve the fate of nations at all. Poirot, it might be said, is the chivalrous side: he is conscious of his particular duty and will not sway from it. Like how he tells one of the socialists, who is going on about the need for violent reform and is confused as to why Poirot makes such an issue of a mere murdered dentist, “It matters to me. That is the difference between us.”

7. That’s one of the things that stands out to me about Poirot, and Miss Marple really; they’re both very ‘Catholic’ characters (though only Poirot is actually Catholic: Miss Marple is Anglican). Their priorities are all personal and immediate, with social questions relegated to a secondary or tertiary matter and informed by the personal. This makes them conspicuous in their point of view among the other, more modern characters, and is one of the reasons I find the books rewarding even apart from the mysteries.

One thought on “Friday Flotsam: Illness, History, and Poirot

  1. Yeah, when we were swapping Christie quotes a while back, “I am not concerned with nations, Monsieur…” was a pretty good one we both forgot. (Here’s another, from The Labours of Hercules:

    “Is he then an unhappy man?”

    Poirot said:

    “So unhappy that he has forgotten what happiness means. So unhappy that he does not know he is unhappy.”

    The nun said softly:

    “Ah, a rich man…”)
    * * * * *
    To back up a bit, it’s interesting what you mention about modern popular non-fiction mostly being written by fluent amateurs. Strange to think that our generation should be at once so much more reverential towards experts than those who came before, and so much less conversant with their actual thoughts and words. I suppose it explains a good deal, but still…

    (And I wouldn’t be too harsh on the German Imperial High Command. They were convinced, perhaps rightly, that unrestricted submarine warfare was their only chance to win the war, and that meant that the Americans – who had been muttering dangerously about the rights of neutrals ever since the Lusitania, and who could certainly decide the war the other way if they came in against the Central Powers – had to be distracted somehow. Yes, the Zimmermann tactic was a rotten choice, but it could be argued that they didn’t have any really good ones.)

    Liked by 1 person

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