Friday, 20 January 2017

The Murders of Mrs Austin and Mrs Beale by Jill McGown

published 1991
Murders of Mrs Austin 2
And the jogging suit. Oh, God, the jogging suit. Everything else he possessed was sitting in the washing machine, soaking wet. He’d missed the jogging suit, which was just as well, really. If only he’d missed a sweater and jeans. But no, he had to come back looking as though he was on holiday. He’d seen the look that passed between Lloyd and the doctor. It wasn’t his fault. The colour drained from his face again, but he fought it this time….

Murders of Mrs Austin

Steve had been given accommodation, he had been fed, he had been looked after better than Beale’s mother would have been. He just hadn’t been able to leave. Not that Beale had actually said so, or locked him in or anything.

Beale was introducing him to his solicitor, a thinly handsome fortyish West Indian in an expensive grey suit. Steve frowned. ‘ I don’t get it,’ he said.

Beale sighed. ‘ Steve, if I had let you go last night just after I’d told you about Mrs Austin, what would you have done?’

‘Run,’ said Steve, with feeling.
commentary: Jill McGown truly was one of the greats in crime fiction at the end of the 20th century, and I can’t imagine why she isn’t better known and better-remember – she died in 2007. Her books are intricate and very clever, they have great, believable characters, and wonderful crime plots with excellent clues.

This one sounds as though it is going to be a cozy, with perhaps Mrs A and Mrs B being competing bakers at the WI. Well far from it – as ever McGown’s quiet market towns have all kinds of things going on in them, and the relationships are weird and compelling, and often rather exotic amid banal-seeming trappings. She had a great understanding of human motives and drives.

The opening section is slightly off, because of course we know from the title who the victims are, so it is slightly odd that there is a tension about who died and where and when. But once you get going this plot is a complete pageturner with a most satisfying ending.

She’s a glancing, witty writer - I love lines like this:
[The two heavies] on either side of Steve tensed up. Beale wasn’t happy, and they knew that. You’d swear they were almost human, thought Steve.
‘I shouldn’t by rights be doing this,’ he said, leading the way. ‘But none of the directors has come in this morning.’ No, thought Mickey. There’s a good reason for that [violent deaths], as you are about to find out.
But rather like judging a talent contest, everyone’s second choice won.
As well as the excellent plot, the book contained many fascinating glimpses of its publication date of 1991. A character has a Filofax, and that is worth commenting on. Access to the block of flats is important:
It was odd, talking to a camera and having a wall answer. Lloyd rather wished he had been around in the days of hansom cabs and Sherlock Holmes. He could have called the Great Detective in, and gone to the south of France with Judy while he sorted it all out. ‘Come up,’ said Beale, and the door buzzed, and clicked. The Great Detective would have had his work cut out getting into the bloody building, never mind sorting out what had gone on there.
Lloyd and his colleague and lover Judy are one of the least-annoying couples in crime fiction.

Looking at the lawyer in his expensive suit – Bill Selnes of Mysteries and More is my go-to guy when it comes to lawyers’ clothing and general gents’ nattiness (and various other Clothes in Books areas too, such as practicality and cold-weather gear). I will be interested to hear his verdict on the outfit above.

There’s a couple of other Jill McGown books on the blog – I’m enjoying slowly going through them all.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis

published 2017

Anne Bronte 2

Anne looked at Charlotte trying to turn Heger into the Duke of Zamorna, Branwell imagining he was Northangerland seducing Mrs Robinson, and even at Byron believing the only true love was impossible, taboo and antisocial, and she realised that bad love was a story people got stuck in…

Anne realized the stories she’d been told would make her miserable, if she let them. So she chose to write a different story about love, a story that would help her get past the unhappiness of Thorp Green, and fall back in love with life.

Anne Bronte 3

commentary: I loved Samantha Ellis’s previous book, How to be a Heroine, as you can tell from my fan letter blogpost. I said then
Samantha Ellis likes the same heroines, and books, that Clothes in Books does.
--- which says it all really, doesn’t it? I must have given away half a dozen copies of the book, it was my goto birthday present that year, and all the recipients loved it too.

I also went to see her play, How to Date a Feminist, in London last year – it was a joy: funny and clever and an amazing 2-person production.

So I was delighted to get a review copy of this book, which is about Anne Bronte, the youngest and least-known of the sisters. I was sure I would love it (and I was right) but I realized I was putting off reading it: the reason was that I KNEW I would end up wanting to read Anne Bronte’s books, and probably other works by and about the sisters, and I don’t have time. Well, I’ll just have to find time.

Once I started on Take Courage I finished it in 24 hours, loving every minute. I then watched a recent BBC TV film about the Brontes, To Walk Invisible, which rather split audiences, but which I loved too. (That’s a still from it below.)

Anne Bronte

Anne Bronte is the least famous and often seen as the least talented of the Brontes. But anyone who takes her seriously and looks clearly at the family story can’t but be impressed and grabbed by her. Like many people, I loved Emily and Wuthering Heights first, then took up Charlotte and her (excellent) novels, and then later realized just how interesting Anne was too.

Although people talked of her as poor dear Anne, she was a lot braver and more grounded than her sisters. And her books have been unfairly overshadowed – they are more raw and (as Ellis argues) more feminist than her sisters’ works. And always, once you start looking at the facts of their lives, you find out more, and question your assumptions, and start thinking about them again.

Ellis is definitely a character in her book – she tells the story of her interest in Anne and her researches, and tells a little about her own life as she does so. As with How to be a Heroine, she makes the book readable and entertaining, but also serious and properly researched and footnoted.

She does a great job of looking at the decline and disaster that was Branwell Bronte’s life. And her final description of Anne’s death at the age of 29 had me in floods of tears.

My conclusion is simple: Anyone with any interest in the Brontes should read this book.

Jane Eyre (and her wedding outfit) provided an early entry on the blog. Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is a great read. And Antonia Forest’s YA novel Peter’s Room – about some young people who copy the Bronte’s fantasy play – is a wonderful book, and a great favourite here on the blog.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Tuesday Nighters: First Use of Some GA tropes

As it’s the first month of a new year, the Tuesday Night bloggers, a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each, we have chosen ‘firsts’, a nice wide-ranging topic.

As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.

And Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is collecting the links this month.

In previous weeks I have looked at the first Dr Fell book by John Dickson Carr, and the first mystery from American crime writer Mary McMullen.

This week I am doing something quite different, and will have to ask readers to bear with me till the connection becomes apparent. I was reading a piece of serious classical literature from a great German writer, and then started comparing it with a masterpiece of crime fiction…

Marquise of O by Kleist

translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves

published 1808

Marquise of O

[The home of the Marquise of O is under attack by Russian soldiers]

The Marquise found herself, with her two children, in the outer precincts of the castle where fierce fighting was already in progress… Just as she was trying to escape through the back door, she had the misfortune to encounter a troop of enemy riflemen, who as soon as they saw her suddenly fell silent, slung their guns over their shoulders and, with obscene gestures, seized her and carried her off… Dragging her into the innermost courtyard they began to assault her in the most shameful way, and she was just about to sink to the ground when a Russian officer, hearing her piercing screams, appeared on the scene and with furious blows of his sword drove the dogs back from the prey for which they lusted. 

To the Marquise he seemed an angel sent from heaven. He addressed the lady politely in French, offered her his arm and led her into the other wing of the palace where, having already been stricken speechless by her ordeal, she now collapsed in a dead faint. Then – the officer instructed the Marquise’s frightened servants, who presently arrived, to send for a doctor; he assured them that she would soon recover, replaced his hat and returned to the fighting.

Marquise of O Kleist
commentary: He was Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist, but seems to be everywhere referred to just as Kleist. He came from the German nobility, was born in 1777 and committed suicide in 1811.
This novella is probably his most famous work, and it is endlessly fascinating because it is quite clear and comprehensible, but leaves you with more questions than you might guess. It tells a funny but thought-provoking story, is completely of its time, but still has some very modern features.

The first point is that most of the characters are going to be astounded during most of its length that the Marquise, a virtuous & highly respectable widow, has ended up pregnant with no idea who the father is or how it happened. Her family have little faith in her, and her father actually throws her out of his house, and tries to take her children away from her. She constantly maintains her innocence, but nobody believes her. A doctor and midwife are both consulted, and like an excellent lower-class chorus make their down-to-earth comments:
[The midwife] spoke of warm-blooded youth and the wiles of the world: young widows always believed themselves to have been living on desert islands- her ladyship could rest assured that the gay corsair who had come ashore in the dark would come to light in due course. On hearing these words the Marquise fainted.
The reader, however – purely because of the selection of facts by the writer – knows that the guilty party can only be the gallant Russian officer above, Count F. He is desperate to put right his offence against her – he is in love with her and wants to marry her. 

When the whole situation comes out into the open (after the Marquise, of all things, has advertised for the father in a newspaper…) the family is greatly relieved: now the couple can marry and respectability will be restored. (To be fair – it does seem as though the young people do love each other, there is no element of a forced marriage.) But now the Marquise says No, she rejects the Count. In the end they marry in name only, in order to protect the unborn child. And then he starts courting her, and eventually wins her round, and they live happily ever after.

But the more you think about it, the more questions come up, and the story has been the subject of endless speculation, with many different interpretations put on the situations. There are Freudian readings, feminist readings, incest-based readings; critics put every possible motive and element of innocence and guilt on various characters.

The story flashes along, very readable and told in a mocking but good-natured way. There are almost no details of anyone’s lives, only the most sketchy picture of anyone (I notice these things, because of the blog purpose). Virtually the only identifiable item mentioned is the hat above.

And this brings me to the connection with Golden Age fiction. As I say, any reader will very quickly realize who must be responsible for the impregnation. And then they will page back to find the exact description of what happened.
She now collapsed in a dead faint. Then – the officer instructed the Marquise’s frightened servants, who presently arrived, to send for a doctor; he assured that she would soon recover, replaced his hat and returned to the fighting.
The secret is in that dash - , covering everything. And then one more clue: why did he have to replace his hat, when did it come off?

And what this reminds ME of is some of Agatha Christie’s most famous lines
I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone... 

I did what little had to be done.
I won’t give the title of the book, but any Christie fan will know exactly what I mean.

So as well as the many many other ideas people have about this 50-page story, I’m going to add another: that it was a first attempt at a proper mystery with clues and an attempt to mislead – and then turns into the first reverse mystery, where the readers know more than the innocent dupes in the story. And, there is also a ‘false’ solution (featuring Leopardo the groom), put forward by the Marquise’s mother to try to get to the truth.

So an early form of ‘crime’ story. But also a very interesting female character – we barely see the thoughts of any of the people in the story. And many people speculate as to whether the Marquise really knew what was going on, had pretended to be unconscious. Kleist himself commented on this in a way that makes it clear that is NOT what he intended – but he did it in an ironic manner, satirizing the commenters:
What a shameless farce! All she did was shut her eyes’
Which some of the anti-Marquise party insist on seeing as an admission, but was plainly meant as the opposite.

The mystery is what exactly she thinks about it all, and why she refuses him. What she says is that it was his changing from an angel to a devil that she hated.

But think of the Marquise’s situation: once she realizes the Count F is a possibility she is caught in a horrible vicious circle: EITHER he is a very bad man, but then he can save her through marriage, OR he is the angel she always thought him, but then what? Does she give him another’s child? It is a dilemma and a half, and a shame we never get to know her thoughts…

The story is set in Italy, but Kleist says it is ‘based on a true incident. The setting of which has been transposed from the north to the south.’ There are a number of similar folk tales and anecdotes in world literature – but none with such memorable characters, who live on in your mind long after you finish the stories. Quite an achievement when by usual literary standards they are just ciphers, or pieces on a chessboard…

I looked at plenty of pictures of Marquises of the era – as no details are given of her appearance, and the historical setting of the tale is unclear, I felt free to make my own decisions and chose this one, she looked right to me. It’s the Marquise de Becdelievre by Alexander Roslin from the athenaeum site.

The photograph is a still from an Eric Rohmer film of the story. (I think the story would make a wonderful opera.)

Monday, 16 January 2017

Sweet Revenge by Jane Fallon

published 2017

Sweet Revenge

I decide it’s time to step things up a gear and so, on Saturday morning (still on my ‘course of massages’. You’d really think I’d be relaxed enough by now), Myra meets me in Oxford Street and we do something I haven’t done in at least seven years. We buy nice clothes. Actually, strictly speaking, that’s not true. I’ve bought the occasional pretty outfit but I’ve always gone for the big and shapeless variety. I have pitched a small but decorative marquee over myself and called it dressing up. Today my new thirteen-stone-something self is looking for clothes that fit. That flatter….

I buy a cute gingham summer dress with a fitted top and no sleeves (no sleeves!) and an A-line skirt, some cut-off cargo pants and a couple of tops that actually fit me…

On Tuesday morning I blow-dry my hair and put on the gingham dress. I have to wear it with trainers because I’m still determined to walk everywhere but, actually the combination looks quite cute, even if I say so myself.

commentary: I read Jane Fallon’s Strictly Between Us a year ago, and really enjoyed it, so was happy to get a review copy of her new book. This one too was very readable and entertaining, and went down like ice-cream.

These are the opening lines:
I want to make my husband fall back in love with me. 

Let me explain. This isn't an exercise in 1950s wifeydom. I haven't been reading articles in old women's magazines. 'Twenty ways to keep your man'. 
That couldn't be further from the truth. 
I want him to fall back in love with me so that when I tell him to get the hell out of my life he'll care. He won't just think, 'Oh good'. 

I want it to hurt.

Narrator Paula has found out that Robert – a successful actor – is having an affair with his co-star. And she is angry, and looking for revenge. She has an elaborate plan, which includes a makeover for herself – and also making a friend of the femme fatale actress, Saskia. She will soon involve the cheated other husband Josh in her plots. From reading the previous Fallon book, I guessed there would be some twists and surprises, and perhaps changes of viewpoint, along the way, and that maybe everything wouldn’t be exactly as it seemed. That was certainly the case, and although there are only so many variations on the theme, Fallon uses them cleverly.

Along the way there is a very funny and convincing picture of modern life – of London teenagers, of the drama of A Levels, and of the give-and-take of a longstanding marriage, with many witty remarks and recognizable moments.

Sweet Revenge 2
David Essex in his heyday
Fallon is also very funny about the long-running TV drama Robert is in (not supposed to call it a soap…), Farmer Giles, sounding something like The Archers transferred to television. He plays an antique dealer, whose favourite outfit is
a cross between Lovejoy and the Davids Dickenson and Essex. I could just imagine the first costume meeting. What do antiques dealers wear on TV? Dapper but eccentric with a hint of whimsy. That’ll do. No point in trying to be original.

And there is also the question of his big scene in
a set that looks like a back alley where someone might be murdered and not discovered for days (where this is meant to be in our sleepy fictional village is unclear. Everyone stopped caring about the geography years ago).
I very much like the way she can switch your sympathies among the characters – there aren’t outright baddies and goodies, and nobody is too pure of heart. Her characters resemble real people with their faults and kindnesses.

Sweet Revenge didn’t make me gasp and laugh out loud quite as much as the previous one, but I’m certainly up for reading more Fallon, and intend to investigate her back catalogue.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

published 2017



Miss Treadway

[Iolanthe, an actress, and Anna, her dresser, are in her West End theatre dressing room between performances.]

‘Look out into the darkness,’ Iolanthe had told her. ‘Look out into the darkness and you’ll see them.’…

‘What are they thinking about?’ Anna asked.

‘All the stuff that’s going wrong. The stuff they can’t fix. What they’re always thinking about.’

Anna paused in the action of pinning Iolanthe’s hair and caught her eye in the mirror. The older woman was sitting in her underwear, quite still and unselfconscious as if Anna were a lover or a sister.

Anna moved Lanny’s hand to hold a roll of curls while she picked through a bowl of oddments for more hairpins. ‘It must be very strange,’ she said. ‘Everyone looking and seeing something different. As if you were a funhouse mirror.’

commentary: The first thing to say about this book is that it has a very misleading title. Miss T and the F of S sounds like one of those novels. You know, the ones with titles like that. And then the description of the plot makes it sound as though it will be a crime novel – but it isn’t that either. To be perfectly honest, it seems like an act of complete madness on the part of writer/publisher to give it this so very twee title. But that’s their business.

The book is set in 1965 in London.

The actress, Iolanthe Green, goes missing soon after the conversation above. Her dresser, Anna, decides that the police aren’t doing enough about it, and sets off on her own investigation. She meets a young black man, Aloysius, and gets involved with the Cypriot family who live downstairs from her. She also has several encounters with the policeman investigating the case, Barnaby Hayes. The reader is given the thoughts and backstories of her entourage, and also of Barnaby’s wife Orla. I found this to be a problem: too much information, too many characters, too many unfinished stories. And I found the policeman particularly unlikeable, and rather dim.

The thing is, I really wanted to like the book: I had high hopes, and the first third was good – intriguing and nicely put together, and Emmerson is a very good writer. But then it started going wrong: it didn’t hold my interest, and I was restless with all the details and stories leading to nothing.

The 1960s research felt very carefully inserted (and occasionally wrong – you didn’t cross the road with a green man in 1965, and the Beatles song hadn’t been released) but not real enough.

This is the policeman talking:
‘The thing about truth, Miss Treadway, is that it’s not always the friend of narrative. My job is to figure out your friend, Miss Green, and to construct a likely narrative that will help us to determine if she left of her own free will or was taken. And there are two ways I can go about this. I can invent plausible narratives and try and hold them up against the fact until I find one that fits. Or I can listen to all the facts – with no particular narrative in mind – and then assemble the known knowns in such a way that they reveal the basic truth of the matter.’
Now, this is nicely written and has a certain rhythm and conviction about it (there’s quite a lot more of this speech). But - nobody talked like that in the 1960s, certainly not an Irish policeman in Soho, because the word (or concept of) ‘narrative’ simply was not used like that. It is also not remotely in line with the way Hayes talks in the rest of the book, nor with the plot of the book, nor with what actually happens in the investigation, nor with the outcomes.

I think Emmerson needs a really good editor. The ending of this book is abrupt and annoying, and is ‘about’ two different characters who have been absent from 99.9% of the action. I am guessing this means there is going to be a series, or at least a sequel. Maybe they will be better.

And I should say – many early reviewers absolutely loved this book, and I can understand that others would not at all share my impatience with it.

The picture is Laura Knight’s The Dressing Room.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Book of 1959: The Man Who Grew Tomatoes by Gladys Mitchell

published 1959

Tomatoes 1959

[Dame Beatrice] went up to her room, presumably to dress for dinner, but, having put on her dark fur coat and matching toque so she did not, in Laura Gavin’s partly-idiomatic expression, ‘stand out against the sky-line’, she slipped downstairs by way of the servants’ staircase at the far end of the long gallery and left the house with a secrecy which went unmarked except by Ethel, who had conceived a strange, protective affection for her elderly inquisitor.

‘And I’ll not give you away,’ muttered Ethel, ‘seeing you be about your lawful occasions.’

‘And what are you muttering about? Saying your prayers?’  demanded a housemaid, who, more intelligent than Ethel, grudged that lover of tomatoes her superior position in the household.

‘P’raps,’ said Ethel, ‘and p’raps not.’

commentary: This is my 1959 book for the Crimes of the Century meme over at Rich Westwood’s Past Offences blog.

The crime queens Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie produced books in that year, and particular favourites of mine too, but I have already featured Singing in the Shrouds and Cat Among the Pigeons on the blog. So I looked to see what Gladys Mitchell had done, and came across this title, which I had never heard of. (I feel you would remember it if you had read it.) It is quite hard to get hold of, but I stuck with it, found one and read it, and was very glad I had. Gladys Mitchell and Dame Beatrice Bradley had both dialled down the eccentricities this time, and it was an enjoyable and entertaining read. (The eccentricities, surrealism and endless pointless tangents are occasionally beguiling, but other times I find them too much). In fact for the first quarter or so if you read it blind you wouldn’t guess it was a Mitchell story – and you can’t say that about many of her books.

Hugh Camber has inherited the family estate, after the unexpected deaths of his cousins, a father and son. When he moves to the big house he finds the servants are all in the process of fleeing, and the village is semi-hostile. Anonymous letters appear, and he also has to fight off the encroaching moves of another family member – the widowed Mrs Hal and her delicate son. When it all gets too much for him he sensibly calls in Mrs Bradley.

The action mostly takes place in Norfolk, with some dashing off to Scotland, and Mitchell manages to make the rurals’ dialect forms endearing – unlike Ngaio Marsh who somehow never brings off her West Country yokels. ‘That’ seems to be an all-purpose word in the local talk:
‘Oh sir! That happen.’
‘I know. Where is Mrs Hal?’
‘That put the drawing-room to rights. I only do it this morning, Mr Camber, but it seems that isn’t satisfied.’

The business of the tomatoes is all-pervading, as you would guess from the title. It seems possible that Mitchell found out an interesting fact or possibility about tomatoes and built the whole book round it – normally at this point I’d be grumping that she should have made it a short story, not a full-length entry, but I reckon she just about gets away with it.

My favourite part of the book has nothing to do with tomatoes or (really) the murder. Mrs B is investigating a former boyfriend of the heroine, who explains that he had proposed to Catherine Tolley at a Ball in the Assembly Rooms in Norwich during the Festival of Britain in 1951. He explains his role in the many different local Festival celebrations -‘hoped I’d be Parson Woodforde in the pageant but a better man got it’ - and discusses the choirs: ‘Interesting Magnificat and a really beautiful Nunc Dimittis.’

And then we get this:
‘I cannot imagine,’ said Dame Beatrice, gazing with mild benevolence at Maitland, ‘why Miss Tolley did not wish to marry you.’
--which I choose to understand as a straight comment, no irony. The Man Who Grew Tomatoes is very funny in a quiet, witty way.

As a book of 1959: it is full of class-consciousness, some very odd views on heredity, and a hero who drinks an awful lot of whiskey before driving to the station.

The passage above could scarcely be more 1959 – the maids, the servants’ staircase, dressing for dinner, and wearing a fur coat so you won’t be noticeable.

Mitchell sometimes is very good on clothes, but in this particular book they scarcely feature – a missed opportunity, I felt, with the awful Mrs Hal. We get her Dresden-china make-up and 5-inch high heels, and I’d love to know what she wore inbetween.

Anyway, happy to find this splendid fur coat picture, which I felt had a look of Mrs Bradley. It’s of Florence Julia Bach, an American painter and sculptor, and comes from the Smithsonian.

There are plenty more Mitchell books on the blog – click on the label below.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Michael Lewis and the Birth of Online Commenting


The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

published 2016

Undoing Project 1

The story this book tells is quite extraordinary – a look at huge changes and developments at the point where psychology and economics intersect, and also a story of academic life and of a unique friendship. Many people first came across Daniel Kahneman when his book Thinking Fast and Slow hit the bestseller lists a few years ago: his theories of how we make decisions and judge probabilities, and how and why we nearly always get it wrong, made for fascinating reading.

The Undoing Project tells  how Kahneman worked with Amos Tversky on these theories.

Undoing Project 3Tversky and Kahneman in 1974

Michael Lewis has an unequalled ability to tell a true story - it doesn’t seem to matter what the subject matter is, he can make sense of it and spell it out so anyone can understand with a little effort. He writes non-fiction, and three of his books have been turned into films. All were Oscar-nominated, and two won Oscars (including Sandra Bullock's for The Blind Side). He is a very clever man and a very good writer.

His past topics have included Wall St, Silicon Valley, American football, baseball statistics, and the economic crash. The statistics book was Moneyball – a phrase that has now entered the language for a form of gaming the system by NOT trusting experts and intuition.

And it was via that book – and a gently critical review - that Lewis came upon the work of Tversky and Kahneman and decided to write about them. The Undoing Project explains all that, but also starts with a very long section about college basketball – I had to trust him that he was going somewhere, but he did manage to make even this subject interesting(ish). After that the book becomes close to unputdownable, and I cannot think of any other author who could have written so well both about the academic content, and about the unusual friendship between the two men. So The Undoing Project is highly recommended – it is educational, exciting, and touching, and you will feel a better and cleverer person for having read it.

And now I am going to write about a completely different aspect of the author.

I have mentioned before how I am not very good at knowing famous people (Carla Lane, here) and Michael Lewis, the celebrated and highly successful best-selling author, is another example.

More than 15 years ago (when he was already a bestseller for Liars’ Poker) he wrote regularly for Slate magazine in the USA, where I also worked. He wrote a hilarious series of reports on the Microsoft trial, and then I think lost interest. The readers of Slate (which was at that time owned by Microsoft) were all convinced that he had been stopped from writing the pieces, because Bill Gates/Microsoft didn’t like them. This wasn’t true at all (and would have been fairly unimaginable to anyone who knew Slate and MS and their general climates at the time) but it was simply stated and accepted as fact: the readers weren’t having it. It was a minor point, but I found it quite interesting. If you couldn’t tell the truth on a statement of fact, and be believed, well, what did the future hold?

Undoing Project 2Michael Lewis

Lewis then wrote a series of dispatches from Paris, where he had gone to live with his family. They were amusing entertaining pieces (since collected in a book called Home Game) – he wrote about his family in a way that would be very familiar now, but was much less common then.

And this is where I came in. Part of my job at Slate was to look at the way the readers responded to the writers. This wasn’t a big deal, no-one thought this was very important, but I found it endlessly interesting. Online commenting was, relatively, a very new thing, and I wrote about it for Slate every week. I also chose particularly good comments to feature in the magazine, and I wrote about responses to individual articles at the end of those articles. Most people at Slate didn’t take reader comments seriously at all – they didn’t see it as a force for good or bad, or a source of information, or useful audience research.

And Michael Lewis’s articles posed a problem. I don’t believe he ever looked at the online comments himself, though perhaps looked at my filtered version.

His (fairly) regular column attracted a group of regular readers and commentators, who formed a circle and held pretty much a week-long conversation: it would become much more active just after Lewis’ piece was posted, but carried on all the time. And the discussion was fascinating and hilarious – they would use his words as a starting point and then move on to all kinds of related areas.

But the commentators would make quite personal remarks about Lewis, his wife and his family. It is hard to remember now, but actually this was a new and very strange thing. When his wife gave birth to a baby his piece talked about them all. And some of his regular commenters started being rude about his children’s names. They said they were awful names, and these children would grow up as idiots, that they would be teased, and that Lewis and his wife (whose own name was criticized: ‘what do you expect with a name like that?’) were seriously to blame for giving them such ridiculous names.

Now, as I said, I don’t think Lewis knew or cared – he probably had other things on his mind with a new baby in the house – but I was bothered, and I thought for a long time as to whether these were acceptable comments to make. Criticism of the writer was fair game on the whole – but little children who had done nothing but have a writer for a father?

Given the way the world, and particularly the online world, has developed since then, this probably sounds like ridiculous overthinking. But it was a serious matter. In the end free speech won out, but I didn’t highlight or draw any attention to the posts. But it was a sign of things to come.

On another occasion Michael Lewis and his family made a trip to Rome, and he wrote a funny piece about his problems with a rented apartment then. Next thing I know, the landlord of the vacation rental is coming into the online comments to take issue with the Lewis version, and to defend himself and offer a different point of view. He was quite cross and temperamental, and made multiple posts. I had some email contact with the landlord to try to calm him down.

These two incidents were my epiphany: when I realized just how strange and new and different online commenting was, and that it wasn’t going to go away, or ever be controlled. I spent some time trying to make this point to others, but I wasn’t very persuasive and no-one could quite see it.

Some time over the next few years, everyone realized it, each person had their own epiphany,and would quite often then explain it to me…

Picture of Kahneman and Tversky in 1974, taken by Tversky’s wife Barbara. Picture of Michael Lewis from his website, taken by his wife, Tabitha (perfectly-good-name) Soren.