What I Am Reading: An Open Letter to Alan Bradley

Jan 22 2014 Published by under What I'm Reading

Dearest Mr. Bradley:

I love Flavia de Luce. I first wrote about this almost 3 years ago when I discovered the 10-year-old chemist and binge-read the first novels. I was 10 or 11 when I got my first chemistry set, and I remember the thrill of heating stuff with my bunsen burner, especially if it gave off a horrific odor. I ran out of sulfur quickly.

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I have pre-ordered each of these books, letting them download to my iPad to delight me once again. The latest volume, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, once again left me wanting more. This despite the fact that the book wrapped up some long-running plot questions.

The action begins on the railroad spur to Buckshaw, the family manor. The body of Flavia's mother arrives by train, with her coffin draped by the Union Jack and Churchill in attendance. Finally, we get confirmation that her mother did not go off mountain climbing and die in some madcap heiress scheme. No, she was working for the British government's war effort in the far east. Of course, being Flavia's mother, her death was no accident either. She leaves the name of her murderer written in invisible ink which, I am delighted to tell you, was probably her own urine. Yup, something to make this nephrologist very happy.

I will not reveal any other important murder information here. Suffice it to say there is more than one body and plenty of suspects.

After the main action resolves, Flavia finds out that she is being sent to Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Canada, the same school where her mother was "finished." This is not the usual finishing school; the chemistry department may be run by a murderer, and it has acquired the latest spectrophotometer for its students. Those facts make Flavia a willing traveler to the other side of the pond.

Unlike earlier de Luce books, this one does not include the title of the next tome in the ending material. Many loose ends wrapped up with this title; does this mean the end of Flavia's adventures? I sincerely hope not. I want to go to Canada with her! Or at least visit Buckshaw when she goes home on break! More chemistry! More poison! More death!

Please don't take Flavia away yet!

Of course, we do have a Flavia de Luce TV series in the works for 2015. I hope the producers do it justice (they seem to have a good track record at least).

What I really want are more books, to see Flavia grow up and achieve and put away more murderers. Please, Mr. Bradley, make it happen!



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What I Am Reading: Yes, Another Historical Mystery

Mar 11 2013 Published by under What I'm Reading

Amazon knows me well. The Midwife's Tale popped up in my suggestions last week on a day of  particular ennui as I looked for a diversion. Thanks to one-click ordering and my iPad, the book was being consumed in about 1 minute.

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As you might guess, the tale features a twice-widowed midwife, Lady Bridget Hodgson, who lives in York during the English Civil War. When a friend is sentenced to burn for killing her own husband (treason against the natural order!), Bridget investigates the murder; finding the real killer is the only way to overturn the conviction. Of course, she has to do this task in between deliveries while being female. Bridget's two marriages have left her wealthy, and a midwife learns a lot about people as she goes about the town of York. Elite men within the city, both those loyal to King Charles and those who favor Cromwell, give her more time and counsel than they might with other women. She could be useful.

I figured out the killer about the same time as Lady Hodgson and her collaborators, a club-footed nephew with a sword in his cane and her new maid who can pick a lock in nothing flat. The clues were scattered in the text, but so were red herrings that kept me guessing, even though the conclusion was completely plausible. I consider this the sign of a great mystery plot.

My favorite part actually came after the text in the author's note:

This book has its origin in the serendipitous discovery of a will written in 1683, for it was there I first met a York midwife named Bridget Hodgson, who provided a model for the fictional midwife in The Midwife’s Tale. These two Bridget Hodgsons have much in common: they were both wealthy gentlewomen; both lived in the parish of St. Helen’s, Stonegate; and both practiced midwifery. What attracted me to Bridget in the first place was that in her will, she defined herself by her profession, “midwife,” rather than her martial status, “widow.” I have read hundreds, if not thousands, of wills, and she is the only woman I found who did this. The historical Bridget also seems to have had a strength of character not often visible in the historical record, as she named her daughter and at least four of her godchildren after herself (Bridget Swain, Bridget Ascough, Bridget Morris, Bridget Wilberfoss).

Thomas, Samuel (2013-01-08). The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery (Kindle Locations 4261-4268). Minotaur Books. Kindle Edition.

Given the quality of this debut novel, I sincerely hope Samuel Thomas brings us more, with or without Lady Hodgson. If you like historical mysteries and strong women who prevail against the attitudes of their eras, this book will delight you.

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What I Am Reading: Her Royal Spyness

Nov 18 2012 Published by under What I'm Reading

Airports and airplanes provide ample opportunities to get lost in a good read. Last week I caught up with another mystery series, Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen. The series stars Lady Georgianna Rannoch, 35th or so in line for the British throne. Her father lost all his investments in the 1929 stock market crash, then shot himself, leaving her older brother with substantial debts to pay along with a title and a drafty castle. They have royal genes , but no cash. Her insufferable sister-in-law wants her to do her duty and marry, but the "acceptable" princes are not acceptable. Georgie's mother, a famous stage actress and the daughter of a metropolitan police officer in London, flits through the series with a series of rich and interesting men. As Hitler rises to power, her choice of a German industrialist looks ill-advised.

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Book Six of Her Royal Spyness

The series gets its name from Georgie's tendency to stumble into intrigue and murder. At times she is asked to take on espionage tasks by her royal relatives; the queen has many concerns about the woman with whom the Prince of Wales consorts, a Wallis Simpson who is not only currently married, but already once divorced! She sends our heroine into country homes and foreign countries to keep tabs on Prince David. Of course, Georgie falls in love along the way with a gorgeous Irish peer, Darcy O'Mara, whose family also finds itself nobility-rich but income-poor. He shows up in unexpected places as a more traditional spy, earning his income the hard way.

The sixth book in the series finds our heroine longing to escape the dreary Scottish Castle Rannoch, always cold in winter but even more so when her sister-in-law's relatives show up. She takes a position as a hostess for a house party in a tiny story-book English town, the same one where her mother has escaped with Noel Coward to write a play for her return to the stage. Of course, the hostess happens to be Darcy O'Mara's aunt, so he shows up as well to add some sexy spice to the proceedings. As she arrives, people start dying. The deaths seem to be accidental and unconnected, but a death-each-day in a small town hardly seems possible. Needless to say, murder is in the air along with carols, wassail, and a costume ball.

Following Georgie as she tries to earn a living without any real skills while keeping up her royal image during the Depression is just plain fun. You can almost feel the bubbles from the champagne as she tries to solve crimes, ride to the hounds and make a life she wants. While of the same period, this is not The King's Speech; Her Royal Spyness is a lot more fun!

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What I Am Reading: Tana French Edition

Aug 28 2012 Published by under What I'm Reading

Every year my spouse picks out a box of brand new hardbacks for me for Christmas. Some are hits, and some are misses. One past hit was In the Woods, Tana French's debut novel. It helps that her books mix murder mystery and police procedural with deep character studies. Each so far has been told from the viewpoint of a detective who figured in the prior book.

I am now half-way through her fourth novel, Broken Harbor. However, it is the third book, Faithful Place, that I read during my travels last week that really hit home.

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Like her other novels, the action occurs in Dublin. An undercover cop, Frank Mackey, gets drawn back into the impoverished neighborhood where he grew up in a family with an abusive alcoholic father. He has not set foot there since an aborted elopement 22 years earlier, but the discovery of the suitcase of his first love brings him home.

The plot takes place within Frank's thoughts and memories. His family had five children, and the eldest of the bunch learned to protect the younger ones, keeping them fed and clothed and away from their father's wrath. Domestic violence is a problem that should stay within the home per the police of the day, and his mother refuses to divorce because of her sacred marital vows. Frank also reminds us along the way that all contraception was illegal in Ireland at that time.

The children, especially the oldest ones, dreamed of escaping this neighborhood and this life.

Frank has left this all behind, but his reminiscences drove home how important giving women control over reproduction can be in fighting abject poverty. Without so many children, daily life becomes easier. Without so many children, leaving an abusive spouse becomes feasible.

I hit this point in the book about the time Todd Akin revealed his utter lack of biological knowledge and dismal view of women's rights. The effect of his statements and this prose proved chilling.

If you love great mysteries, start reading Tana French's books NOW. If you enjoy psychological studies and police procedurals,  start reading these books NOW. The latest volume has already destroyed my productivity for the last 2 days; I invite the world to join me in a wonderful read!

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Merely Delivering Information?

Jul 08 2011 Published by under Learning

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The summer issue of Harvard Business Review includes an interesting piece synthesizing several books about higher education. Justin Fox argues that academia is overdue for change in Disrupting Higher Ed. He opens with the following:

Last summer my family moved from Manhattan to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thanks to a lucky break in the rental market, we ended up with part of a house in a lovely, leafy neighborhood near the Harvard campus. Many of our neighbors are Harvard professors. They’re lovely (not leafy) folks. Smart, friendly, funny. Did I mention smart?

They’re also among the most privileged people I’ve ever met. Privileged not because they inherited large sums of money or lounge around eating bonbons. Privileged because they work in rewarding, stimulating jobs—with lots of opportunity for variety and personal initiative—and seemingly don’t ever have to worry about losing them.

A few paragraphs later, after discussing the last decade's disruption in the media, the fallacy sets in:

Higher education, like the media, is in the business of delivering information.

Uh, no. Even in BA/BS level courses, the idea is not to merely read and remember stuff; most faculty want undergrads to integrate the facts into understanding. The information delivered should be used, ultimately, to generate new knowledge: new interpretations of history, new pieces of art, new search engines, and new science break-throughs. The purpose of higher education is knowledge, including its communication, generation, and preservation. As students mover higher up the system, through the masters and doctoral levels, the emphasis on communication of knowledge lessens. Especially for the PhD student, the emphasis becomes research, taking what is known and integrating it in new ways, perhaps with new facts.

Higher education is like making the information, then delivering and editorializing on it, ultimately hoping that someone will make more new information with it all.

As a medical school faculty member, I have to communicate certain facts to the students; if they do not learn how to calculate the anion gap, they cannot use it at the bedside. However, what they really need to know is what the anion gap means,what it tells them about the patient's pathophysiology. I want them to understand the systems of the body, to appreciate the interactions of all of these systems, and to juggle this level of complexity when they see the patient. These latter skills do not happen in the lecture hall; they occur at the bedside. While some of this complex consideration of everything can be simulated (in really expensive, high-tech teaching halls), nothing compares to actually using new information in the care of a patient.

Students learn by grappling with knowledge, fighting with the facts and figures for mastery. Some students learn visually, others by reading, and others by hearing. Often, providing ways to manipulate and understand new knowledge in multiple ways can help students grasp stuff faster. The online world makes this easier, by letting those of us who do teach post videos, songs, and other non-traditional materials that students can use. However, I do not see anyway a student could get a meaningful degree just by learning facts online.

I have participated in some online learning myself through webinars with interactive discussions, both in real-time and via asynchronous message boards. For short courses it works pretty well, and interactivity can be generated. I was forced to use the facts I read between sessions and to support my actions with my teacher and my peers. Learning can be done via new technologies. I don't know that I would have wanted to do an entire degree program via that format; it took far more effort on everyone's part than gathering a bunch of students in a classroom. As an extrovert, I also gain energy with people. I like the social aspects of education, even the camaraderie of a class learning with a bad teacher!

I agree that we in academia are privileged. I make less than my counterparts in private practice, but I have a stimulating, rewarding job. I can justify a lot of wide-ranging interests as part of my profession, including readings on adult learning, social media, and even creative non-fiction writing. I would not give up that aspect of my career! Of course, my job security comes not from that part of my job, but from my clinical skills. In the current era of funding cuts, having MD behind my name provides far more salary guarantee than tenure, even in the Ivory Tower!

Fox presents recent books demonstrating the "disruption" that is occurring outside the Ivy League. One book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, he describes as an "entertaining, informative history of higher education as seen through the joint lens of Harvard and BYU-Idaho." It sounds like a great read, but it won't be available until July 26 (and not yet in an eReader format for pre-order; hello, disruptive technology?).

How do you see higher education in this online media age? Disrupted or supplemented? Do you think we professors and instructors are merely in the business of delivering information?


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What I Am Reading: Flavia de Luce

Apr 29 2011 Published by under What I'm Reading

The year is 1950, and you are a 10 year-old girl who lives in the great house of the village. Your favorite spot is a Victorian chemistry lab, assembled by an eccentric ancestor, and you are the only person who enters there. You do things like distill poison ivy to irritate (literally) your vain oldest sister. You have a passion for logic, science, and poison. You keep finding dead people.

Your name is Flavia de Luce.

Flavia stars in three novels by Alan Bradley, a former electrical engineer who worked in television. The whole family has its oddities. The mother and heiress of Buckshaw, the family estate, died climbing in the Himalayas during Flavia's infancy. She left no will, leaving the family in uncertain financial status. The father's only remaining passion, stamps, occupies him. The two oldest girls are more conventional. The elder de Luce, Ophelia (aka Feely), plays piano and enjoys watching her reflection. Daphne (or Daffy), in the middle loves to read and plans to write novels.

Flavia's character can seem very modern. She has claimed her mother's bicycle and named it Gladys. She and the bike cruise the countryside, having adventures and solving mysteries, like the dead folks that keep turning up when Flavia hangs about. Flavia can also be wise beyond her years.

The latest novel, A Red Herring Without Mustard, came out in April. Here she talks about her chemistry lab, hidden in a wing of the Buckshaw that only she enters:

Stepping through the door into my laboratory was like gaining sanctuary in a quiet church: The rows of bottled chemicals were my stained-glass windows, the chemical bench my altar. Chemistry has more gods than Mount Olympus, and here in my solitude I could pray in peace to the greatest of them: Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (who, when he found a young assistant in a linen draper's shop surreptitiously reading a chemistry text which she kept hidden under the counter, promptly dumped his fiancee and married the girl); William Perkin (who had found a way of making purple dye for the robes of emperors without using the spit of mollusks); and Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who probably discovered oxygen, and - more thrilling even than that - hydrogen cyanide, my personal pick as the last word in poisons.

Solving the murder in this case involves a peculiar fishy odor, which brings out the chemist in Flavia:

Propylamine (which had been discovered by the great French chemist Jean-Baptiste Dumas) is the third of the series of alcohol radicals - which might sound like boring stuff indeed, until your consider this: When you take one of the alcohols and heat it with ammonia, a remarkable transformation takes place. It's like a game of atomic musical chairs in which the hydrogen that helps form the ammonia has one or more of its chairs (atoms, actually) taken by the radicals of the alcohol. Depending upon when and where the music stops, a number of new products, called amines, may be formed.

With a bit of patience and a Bunsen burner, some truly foul odors can be generated in the laboratory. In 1889, for instance, the entire city of Freiburg, in Germany, had to be evacuated when chemists let a bit of thioacetone escape. It was said that people even miles away were sickened by the odor, and that horses fainted in the streets.

How I wish I had been there to see it!

Obviously, I love this precocious girl. She can be sweet, especially when she ponders her missing mother. She has a mean streak, though, and will use all of her skills to get revenge, especially on her conniving sisters.

I will end with one last passage from the latest book:

Thinking and prayer are much the same thing anyway, when you stop to think about it - if that makes any sense. Prayer goes up and thought comes down - or so it seems. As far as I can tell, that's the only difference.

I thought about this as I walked across the fields to Buckshaw. Thinking about Brookie Harewood - and who killed him, and why - was really just another way of praying for his soul, wasn't it?

If this was true, I had just established a direct link between Christian charity and criminal investigation. I could hardly wait to tell the vicar!

Guess we should add theologian to Flavia's accomplishments.

Book four's publication is set for November 1.

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What I Am Reading: Chimera Version

Mar 15 2011 Published by under [Medicine&Pharma], [Science in Society]

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One of the joys of my blogging life is getting to read books before they are officially published. This year, the Science Online swag bag included Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, a book that kept me occupied for a few days. Science? Check. Medicine? Check. Murder mystery? Check.

Holly Tucker, a faculty member of Vanderbilt University,  weaves a number of historical and political intrigues into a story of medical experimentation that results in murder.

The saga proceeds in the 1600s. French and British physicians and scientists race to learn new facts about anatomy and physiology. Great rewards awaited the first to publish (gee, does that sound familiar?), and governments (royalty) began to fund academies to help assure the place of their investigators in the race for knowledge. Within France, where the murder in question occurs, political clashes between a private academy begun by Henri-Louis de Montmor and that funded through the crown, as well as the Parisian medical establishment versus other schools within the country, complicate the interpretation and dissemination of experimental data (once again, sound familiar?).

The primary character, Jean-Baptiste Denis, longs to make his mark in Parisian society, despite being an upstart of lesser birth trained outside of the Parisian school. He becomes convinced that transfusion will provide transport for his social goals, and begins experiments with dog-to-dog blood transfers. These procedures are described in excruciating detail -  after all, there was no anesthesia, so dogs were muzzled and tied to tables for the procedure. Anticoagulation was unknown, so blood had to be transferred directly from one dog to the other without storage, and the transfer took place through small metal stems and quills. The donor dog underwent cut-down to access an artery, and that dog's blood pressure drove the blood into the recipient's vein, also accessed via a cut-down. Going from a large dog to a small one seemed to work better, and the small dog often seemed "livelier" after the procedure. The donor dog? Not so much.

He then wanted to proceed to animal-to-human transfusion. This proposition scared folks, not because of the issue of transfusion reactions not yet described; no, people were terrified that they could become physical chimeras. Receive the blood of a calf, and you might wake up with the face of a cow. The artwork in the book shows these amazing chimera images!

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Denis eventually found "volunteers" for his experiments, the first a desperately ill 16-year-old boy who the barber-surgeons had bled more than 20 times. For his donor, he chose a sheep. What could be more helpful than the blood of the lamb, the symbol of Jesus' sacrifice? The boy felt better the next day, apparently cured of his two month fevers. Denis then persuaded a butcher, perhaps the one who provided the lamb, to undergo the procedure. He also did well and took the lamb home for supper.

Denis immediately reported his success, and then decided to go for the big-time. Antoine Mauroy, once a valet, now roamed the streets of Paris raving, an infamous mad man. Denis planned to transfuse the blood of a calf into Mauroy to attempt to heal his illness. The transfusion reportedly quiets his troubled soul, and he returns to his wife, Perrine, a calmer, saner husband. After a few weeks, she returns to Denis requesting another treatment because Mauroy's ravings have returned. Denis obliges, and a few weeks later, Antoine is dead.

I love mysteries, and I love biomedical science, so the book resonated with me. My favorite parts were some of the anecdotes illustrating various points, especially those that involved kidney disorders. I am, after all, a nephrologist.

Animals and their parts were common folk remedies of the time. Below follows a cure for kidney stones:

In the month of May distill Cow-dung, then take two live Hares, and strangle them in their blood, then take the one of them, and put it into an earthen vessel of a pot, and cover it well with mortar made of horse dung and hay, and bake it in an oven with household bread and let it still in an oven two or three days, until the hare be baked or dried to powder; then beat it well and keep it for your use. The other Hare you must flew, and then take out the guts only; then distill all the rest, and keep this water; then take at the new and full of the moon, or any other time, three mornings together as much of this powder as will lie on six pence, with two spoonfuls of each water; and it will break any stone in the kidneys.

Now that makes remembering to take a once-a-day pill seem easy.

I also loved learning that urine can be used as invisible ink!

Blood Work provides an interesting trip into the history of medicine and its scientific roots. The book becomes available on March 21.

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Long Time, No Post

Oct 27 2010 Published by under What I'm Reading

OK, so it's only been 4 days. Not an unforgivable lapse in the blogosphere, nor an eternity by anyone's standards but my own.

I have often said that no trip goes unpunished, and last week's jaunt has been followed by the inpatient service. This alone keeps me running around town like a crazy woman, but I am still trying to catch up my laundry. Oh, and we have house guests this weekend.

I finally got those two manuscripts reviewed and off of my desk this morning. My daughter dropped by and we got her website with online portfolio organized to her satisfaction (click here to see her award-winning National Organ Donor Awareness Campaign).

Guilty of Blog Delay

But the real villain in this plot is a dead guy, Steig Larsson. On my way home last Saturday, I downloaded The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yes, I may be the last person in the world to start these books. Why I haven't picked one up before now is unclear. Only pure exhaustion allowed me to put it down last night, a mere 13% before its ending.

[Note: When reading ebooks on my Kindle, I no longer keep track of pages; instead, the percent read neatly ticks up on the bottom of the screen. It's a new way to read.]

My plan is to finish the book tonight come hell or high water so my life can resume, including this blog.

Wish me luck. Of course, if I finish too early, I will just download the next book in the series. At least there are only 3.

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Deadly Quiet Evening at Home

Aug 28 2010 Published by under [Etc], [Science in Society]

Last night, while Scientopia's service inexplicably suspended itself, I used to opportunity to relax a bit. I finished yet-another-murder-mystery and then watched a classic Miss Marple with my Hubby.

An Evening with the Dead

My evening with the dead put me in the mood to fully appreciate an article in the September issue of Scientific American, by Arpad A. Vass.

"Dust to Dust" explores "The brief, eventful afterlife of a human corpse." Decomposition can be divided into four stages: Fresh, Bloat, Active Decay, and Dry. Vass reviews the occurrences of each stage, information used to find bodies and estimate the time of death.

Vass works at the body farm, a laboratory of decomposition at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Donated bodies are allowed to decompose under a variety of conditions and studied. Vass' most groundbreaking (no pun intended) work involves the volatile chemicals released at various stages. Certain groupings of these compounds can provide a signature for a decomposing human body. Chemicals include freons, aromatic hydrocarbons, sulfur compounds, and carbon tetrachloride. While cadaver dogs can be attracted to these scents, the Vass lab has created a handheld device (code name: Labrador) that can sense this cocktail of death odors. This device can help police and others searching for remains.

Yes, Arpad Vass is the world's expert on decomposition odor analysis.

Really, the article is fascinating (and no scratch-n-sniffs are included), especially in this era of forensic science television. For those of us who love a good (fictional) murder, it is a special treat.

And it is guaranteed to make almost everyone feel like their job is positively glamorous!

Image courtesy of PhotoXpress.

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What I'm Reading: Gaslight Mysteries

Aug 15 2010 Published by under [Etc], What I'm Reading

Every December my spouse prowls local bookstores for holiday gifts. On Christmas morning, I never know if I will open one huge box or many small packages, but I know I will get books.

My  hubster looks for new mystery series for me. This past year I received 6 of the 12 Gaslight Mysteries by Victoria Thompson; the other 6 now reside on my Kindle, and all have been read in order. Over a period of 6 weeks. Yes, I loved them.

The protagonists of the series include Sarah Brandt, a midwife in New York City in 1896 who rejected her wealthy Knickerbocker family and supports herself with her profession following the death of her idealistic physician husband. While delivering a baby, she encounters an Irish detective, Frank Malloy, in the first book. The victim turns out to be from a wealthy family, and Sarah's "interference" in the investigation proves indispensable in solving the crime. Malloy has issues of his own; the police force has been rocked by Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to introduce professionalism and remove the bribes and corruption that have characterized the force. "Uncle Teddy," as Sarah calls him, has also brought Jews and Italians onto the force amid controversy.

Of course, as a former romance novelist, Thompson allows the "rich girl" and "completely unsuitable boy" to be attracted to each other. Malloy's wife has died in childbirth, so he has a negative reaction to the midwife, even as he is tempted to sneak a peak at her ankles. Then Sarah visits his home where she learns that his son survived the delivery that killed his wife. She eventually figures out that the child is deaf, not retarded, and helps the detective find schooling for him, as well as a surgeon who can repair the little tyke's club foot. Over the course of the dozen books and multiple crimes, the pair become more attracted and involved. Remember, this is 1896- no bodice-ripping in these books, although I keep hoping!

The crimes in the first books were not challenging for a modern (warped?) reader, but puzzling out the killer has been more difficult with each mystery. The development of Coney Island, various immigrant neighborhoods, Victorian fascination with the occult, and the eugenics movement have figured into the cases. The latest volume, Murder on Lexington Avenue, features the debate between signing or solely lip-reading for deaf communication.

The Gaslight Mysteries provide perfect escapism for the beach or airport- not great literature, but great fun.

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