Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Black Box

They say that writers should read a lot. I've always been a prolific reader until the brain fog of fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis slowed me down. My current neck problems of severe pain when my head is in certain positions make it even harder to read now. Still, I usually have several books going at once.

Sanford Quest
Project Gutenberg
Lately I've been reading books from the Project Gutenberg. There's a lot of free ebooks there and I like reading some of the old mysteries from the early 20th century for fun. Sometime you stumble on a really good book and others... not so much.

Today, I'm about halfway through The Black Box, by E. Phillips Oppenheim, written in 1915. When I started it I didn't expect much. I just wanted something simple to read that would entertain me. I'm about halfway through it at the moment and I'm about ready to chuck it. I've read old novels in the past but nothing by Mr. Oppenheim. I can't say I'll read anything else by him but to be fair, this is quite an educational experience.

Let me say first, it is long and seems to get longer but it is easy to read. This particular story is about a criminologist named, rather appropriately, Sanford Quest. He solves crimes. He has an assistant, Laura, and during the course of the first few chapters, gets a second assistant, Lenora, who was involved with a criminal and was initially suspected as a criminal herself. Of course, Mr. Quest just knew she wasn't and since he seems to have a fondness for her, he keeps her as the new assistant.

There are a lot of amazing inventions in this thing. Mr. Quest has a "wireless", which most of you may know was an early type of two-way radio. However, his wireless also has a pocket version and live video capability by means of mirrors. Amazing stuff. And just a bit silly. Well, I am reading from the future and Mr. Oppenheim, while his novel invention is mildly interesting, such technology was only fantasy at that time. He writes about it as if it were quite mystical, and he carries it around in his pocket. Despite it being his own invention, Mr. Quest has supplied the local police with this invention so he can contact them at a moments notice, as well as his assistants.

The story is filled with what was probably excitement in 1915 but which today sounds pretty goofy. Criminals who repeatedly escape, mysterious hands that appear to people and leave things, hidden compartments, cupboards, and alcoves, hidden stairs and tunnels. Mr. Quest is able to break out of jail simply by having his assistant come visit, exchange clothes with him and take his place. Oh... did I mention he can also hypnotize anyone? This comes in handy in his escape as the guard must be hypnotized to allow him escape. Of course, Mr. Quest is then pursued but he manages to get the proof to prove his innocence... but the real criminal still eludes capture.

The criminals seem to be quite adept at this. They escape on their way to jail, from locked garages, when they are surrounded, and other assorted traps. They travel all over New York, managed to get passage to England, where they escape Scotland Yard, travel to a desert country, then to the American west. I haven't got quite there yet. I'm not sure I'll make it. I'm rather exhausted from all this globetrotting.

Let me finish by saying that it was a simpler time. People were far less well traveled and the average reader had little to no scientific knowledge. The criminal element was dealt with quickly and rather summarily. So, I can see the appeal for a very naive population at the turn of the century. Intelligent they may have been but they were lacking all the advances yet to come that would turn society on its head. World war, with all it's advances in medicine and technology was still ahead. They were not exposed yet to the excessive violent criminal element waiting in the wings just a few decades away that would bring criminal activity to the front pages of papers around the world. The horrors of radical islam were no where to be found.

So, campy, corney, goofy.. yes it is and it probably reflects the average male reading material since Mr. O made a fortune writing the stuff. I don't see very many woman of this time reading it but I must say, despite a sexist remarks, Mr. O's heroins are a much more independent than one would expect from this era. They run around doing investigations and operating wireless technology and honestly, they're not swooning all over. Of course, if you read a couple of his online bios you'll see that rumor has it he was quite the ladies man anyway. I suspect he was attracted to the type.

Do I recommend this? As research only. Unless you like this kind of thing. I can't say it hasn't been fun or interesting, but only from an academic perspective.

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