Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cook, Coyne and the Collected Mysteries of Julian Symons

The Fate of Katherine Carr
Thomas H. Cook, one of the best mystery writers working in the US, has gone metaphysical, and metafictional, on us. Doing both at the same time strikes me as a kind of hedging the bet, a way of meaning two opposite things at once, which is to say, meaning nothing. The novel is set as a story told on a tour of the Amazon by a travel writer whose young son had been murdered some years before, the perpetrator never caught. Working as a small town newspaperman specializing in personality profiles, he tries to write a profile of a retired detective who had worked on his son's disappearance and murder. The detective tries to interest the journalist in the story of a disappearance, judged suicide, some years before of a young woman, Katherine Carr, a minor poet emerging into the world after some years nursing an invalid grandfather. She was savagely attacked and left for dead. She became truly reclusive, and eventually disappeared, last seen near the river. She left behind a poem and a short story. The detective parcels out the story in stages. The journalist gets caught up in the story because another subject, a young/old victim of progeria, who is interested in mysteries, is fascinated with it.

The story is divided into alternating sections, written in the first person by the author herself bu labeled the past, and discussions between two mysterious men, labeled as the present, about recruiting Katherine for a mysterious sacrifice. The gist is that they presented proof of guilt and the identity of the man who attacked her. Katherine's sacrifice is some sort of supernatural exaltation that turns her into an avenger of crimes left unpunished.

Unnaturally enough, there is the appearance of a number of mysterious women. And the mysterious disappearance of a local man. The progeria patient dies. The journalist criticizes the sentimentality of the story and the scansion of the poem. There is a great deal of angst over the dead son. Is that all? Of course not, the story leaps out of the past sections into the framing story on the Amazon tour, turns everything upside down, and leaves us wondering if the journalist told us the truth.

The thing about Cook's angsting characters (and he is fond of them,) is that Cook's wonderfully heated style is just right. It balances reflection on the past, the pervasive sense of times lost with human interactions in the character's present and mature attempts at self control. In particular, Cook knows that you don't sprint the marathon. Cook's novels are generally shorter than the commercially driven impulse to give the reader the most words for his money. Few if any go past three hundred pages. The simple decision to keep it shorter takes much of the wear from the prose. (It's very similar to Robert B. Parker containing his cutesiness by shorter novels than most.) Most of his books since Evidence of Blood approach the essence of the mystery genre, the unravelling of social order, by putting the tear in some other time or place. The cure of time repairs to some degree, the function of the detective or the police, but the ravages of time simultaneously undoes. The gravity of crime is never lost in a sentimental certitude that Sherlock or Sipowicz with set things right, that Happy Lie that tends to reduce the crime novel to mere genre.

PS Ian Rankin, are you reading?

Why Evolution Is True
Wonderfully well done presentation of the evidence. It is interesting that such a competent scientist and thinker is reluctant to talk much about evolutionary psychology. Indeed much of what he says can be construed as fundamentally quite negative, precisely because most of his book is extremely clear. But his discussion there is not.

The same is true of his discussion of sexual selection. It is striking that Coyne admits that there is very little experimental evidence for sexual selection for traits exemplifying fitness. And he forthrightly admits that there is evidence that quirks of evolution produce sensory bias. Again, the unusual lack of clarity is symptomatic of an argument not well founded on fact and logical deduction, but ideologically driven. It would be interesting to see discussions of sex and evolution include the fungi, which as I understand it have multiple sexes in some species. There is a conspicuous lack of "kin selection," which is a staple amongst evolutionary psychologists/sociobiologists.

In a widely variant population, upon which natural selection has been acting weakly (because it is expanding into an empty environment post mass extinction?) sex between too geneticaly different organisms would be less successful. Response to some sort of marker of genetic similarity would increase likelihood of reproductive success. To put it another way, natural selection would develop sexual selection to maintain species boundaries. The emergence of the sexual selection mechanism would be contingent upon mutation and genetic drift and would not itself be "perfect" but the usual good enough tinkering created by natural selection (instead of a designer.) This is not fundamentally different from the usual position. But it is not phrased in terms of male competition for choosy females, a formulation that is useful primarily for confounding conservative notions about human nature with biology.

The Collected Mysteries of Julian Symons
are not on sale, nor are they announced. What the hell is going on? He was one of the best myster writers England ever produced. This is just wrong!

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