Tuesday, April 13, 2010

To be or not to be, how was it done?

Kaye: One unusual murder method is at least as old as Shakespeare. The King, Hamlet's father, was killed by Claudius by pouring poison in his ear while he slept.

Here's a bit of the fascinating history behind this murder method. The eustachian tube, connecting the ear and the throat had just been discribed by Bartolommeo Eustachio. The plot of Hamlet, which was probably borrowed from an older 12th-century play called "Historia Danica" written by a guy named Saxo Grammaticus. (So, did he invent grammar? One has to wonder.) In Saxo's play, the king is stabbed, no ear poisoning taking place here.

Eustachio published his findings in a piece called "De Auditus Organis." (Methinks these people were over fond of Latin. Thank goodness Will wrote in English.) According to an article in the NY Times from July 22, 1982, by John Noble Wilford, the ancient Greeks knew about the eustachian tube, but Bart published a detailed description about forty years before "Hamlet" premiered in 1601, or thereabouts. The buzz about the tube may have still been fresh. I suspect news flashes not only traveled more slowly in those days, but stuck around longer, too.

As an aside, a contemporary of Bart's, Gabriele Falloppio, discovered another tube at around the same time.

But the ear to throat connection is only part of the story. What did Claudius pour into the King's ear anyway? "… juice of cursed hebenon in a vial…" it says in "Hamlet." Dr. Gwynne B. Evans, a professor of English at Harvard University and textual editor of the Riverside edition of Shakespeare's works, says this stuff was mentioned by Pliny, who said it would "injure the understanding."

In the two printings of the play, nearly twenty years apart, the poison is spelled "hebena" and "hebenon," (or, as I also found it, hebona and hebonon--I don't have access to the originals) leaving doubt not only as to what the stuff was, but how it was supposed to be spelled. (I'm so grateful I live in the age of, more or less, standardized spelling. People back then didn't even spell their own names consistently.) Wiki says it could be either yew or ebony (guaiac). Ebony was sometimes spelled hebony, so that makes sense. The trouble is, it's not very poisonous. Yew is much more so. Something derived from henbane is another possibility. No matter what it was, Will might have borrowed the whole concoction from a guy named Thomas Kidd, another playwright of the time.

KD: I vote for henbane. According to Wikipedia, the "hen" probably originally meant death, not chickens. (Who woulda thought it?)

Also, henbane is a major ingredient in witches flying ointment, a hallucinogenic mix supposedly used by witches.
Flying ointment

And maybe it was just a hallucinogen? Maybe Hamlet's father wasn't dead, he wasn't a ghost, he was just on a "trip" where he thought he was dead...the possibilities are endless, aren't they?

Kaye: During Will's lifetime, a French doctor, Ambrosie Parex, was suspected of killing his own king, Francis II, by giving him an ear infection. All these happenings must have swirled around in genius Will's fertile brain until "Hamlet" spilled out. We're lucky it did!

Other links used:
New Light on Murder of Hamlet's Father

Was Pouring Poison in Ear Common?

What Poison Killed King Hamlet?


Monday, April 5, 2010

Is Your Sleuth A Slut?


K D: I think the double standard is alive and well in mystery literature. Guys fall into bed readily (they're 'studs') while girls are practically celibate (they're not 'sluts'). Before I read too much into this, though, it might be the authors making sure we can identify and admire our protagonists. Would you follow a woman protag who hopped into and out of bed? Maybe not.

For example, I think Janet Evanovich's "bounty hunter with an attitude" doesn't get into bed with Joe Morelli till the fourth book in the series. Not exactly a hop into bed type of girl.

Can you think of some female protags that moved a little faster?

Kaye: Definitely. Lisa Scottoline's character Cate Fante, in *Dirty Blonde.* (This blog is probably a BIG spoiler for two of Lisa's books, by the way.) I was a little shocked when I got into this book, then a little titillated, then a lot fascinated. The main character is a judge who has a sexual hangup. She picks up strangers in bars, has sex with them, then goes back to her lawyerly, orderly life. Well, not all that orderly, since she has murder to deal with. Ms. Scottoline's Natalie Greco, in *Daddy's Girl,* also has a secret life, but, if I remember correctly, her secret is a secret even from herself.

K D: But did they get punished for it? You know, the plots of my least-favorite operas: "Guys Can't Share." Woman sleeps with more than one guy, woman winds up dead. That plot. I hate it.

Kaye: Scottoline pulls these off beautifully. I don't think her characters are punished for their promiscuity. They're well written so that the characters are sympathetic and the reader is rooting for them. The author takes care to establish that they've become the way they are through no fault of their own. I highly recommend both books, by the way. Even with these spoilers, I think they'd still be fun reads.

K D: Well, I do like Cleo Coyle's book , Murder Most Frothy. Clare and her daughter are spending the summer in East Hamptom, working for a rich friend who is setting up a high-end coffee shop in town. Clare is concerned that her daughter (age about 20, I think) is having a summer fling and will get hurt. Then Clare finds herself considering her own possibilities for a short-term romance. Is summer fun okay, or must morality rule even at the beach? It's one of the few books shows a little balance, in my opinion.
Click here for info on the book.

Kaye: I admit I haven't read any of hers, but I intend to remedy that!

K D: I enjoy murder mysteries that include some sensual pleasures. Chocolate. Quebecois food. Pleasant sex. Why not? I think that word Slut should be banished from the vocabulary. How about Wanton Woman instead?

Kaye: One of Laurell K. Hamilton's characters can fit the Wanton Woman image. (Although I might bring back Slut here.) Her fantasy heroine, Anita Blake, started out proper enough, torn between a vampire and a werewolf. According to my daughter, whose reads this genre more than I do, Anita held off until book 6 (*The Killing Dance*) when she slept with one of them. Then by book 10 (*Narcissus in Chains*), Anita, had become, in essence, a different character, sleeping around with abandon. Her fans were not happy about the switch. Her later books are considered erotica and she has lost fans along the way. So, in this case, the writer didn't get away with it, even if the character did.

OPEN QUESTION: Do any readers of this blog have experience in other genres where the gender difference plays a greater or lesser role in bed-hopping? I know romance has greatly evolved since I was reading it. I would imagine science fiction would not have as much of a difference?