Monday, September 29, 2014

Shakespeare’s King John

We just returned from the Stratford Festival where my wife Susan and I took in an excellent production of King John. It was this season’s sleeper being overshadowed by King Lear, Midsummer’s Nights Dream and Antony and Cleopatra.

King John (played by Tom McCamus) is not one of the Bard’s more favored plays, though I read in its day it was quite popular and Jane Austin preferred it over Hamlet.

We are not so familiar with the great lines from King John, such as:

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity, Commodity, the bias of the world.

Here I and sorrows sit;

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale, Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.

The star of the show is Philip, Shakespeare’s most likable bastard. The Bastard (played by Graham Abbey) has more lines than the title character. When we are introduced to Philip, he is a bit of a verbose madcap with a quick wit and honest about his position.

Madam, I was not old Sir Robert's son:
Sir Robert might have eat his part in me 
 Upon Good Friday, and ne'er broke his fast.

The Bastard has no illusions that he is ambitious and will suffer excommunication to flourish.

Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
When gold and silver becks me to come on.

Philip reveals fighting nobility towards the end of the play when he attempts to inspire King John to action.

Let not the world see fear, and sad distrust.
Govern the motion of a kingly eye:
Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;
Threaten the threatener, and outface the brow 
 Of bragging horror: so shall inferior eyes, 
 That borrow their behaviours from the great, 
 Grow great by your example, and put on
The dauntless spirit of resolution.     

There are two strong women in the play; Elinor, King John’s mother who wishes her son to remain king, and Constance, John’s widowed sister-in-law from his old brother. Constance has a young son, Arthur, who she wishes to see king. The two woman verbally jab at one another.

There's a good mother, boy, that blots thy father.
There's a good grandam, boy, that would blot thee.


Constance (played by Seana McKenna) is the more intriguing of the two. She is left alone in a man’s world to fight for the future of her child’s life and her own.

When Austria and the King of France renege on their promise to go to war with England to put Constance’s son Arthur on the throne, she rails against Austria:

 What a fool art thou,A ramping fool, to brag and stamp and swear
Upon my party! Thou cold-blooded slave,
Hast thou not spoke like thunder on my side,
Been sworn my soldier, bidding me depend
Upon thy stars, thy fortune and thy strength,
And dost thou now fall over to my foes?
Thou wear a lion's hide! doff it for shame,
And hang a calf's-skin on those recreant limbs.

Pressure from Rome persuades France to war with England, but the French are defeated and Arthur is taken prisoner. Constance is overly distraught.

Death, death; O amiable lovely death!
Thou odouriferous stench! sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows
And ring these fingers with thy household worms
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust
And be a carrion monster like thyself:

Fearing he may lose the crown, King John relates to Hubert that he will not feel safe unless Arthur is dead. There is an absolutely heartbreaking scene when Hubert prepares the hot irons to put out the eyes of young Arthur (played by Noah Jalava).

I will not struggle, I will stand stone-still.
For heaven sake, Hubert, let me not be bound!
Nay, hear me, Hubert, drive these men away,
 And I will sit as quiet as a lamb:

Or, Hubert, if you will, cut out my tongue,
So I may keep mine eyes: O, spare mine eyes.
Though to no use but still to look on you!

As with many of Shakespeare’s history plays, the subject of what makes a ruler is closely examined. It is a play of political intrigue and political convenience set among human drama; ambition, pain and death.

Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!

Stephen Gaspar's books are available on Amazon

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Victoria Day

I love holidays! It is nice to have an extra day away from work to rest and enjoy the day. It is important to remember why we have a day off to break the workweek routine. Take for example Monday, May 19. Why are some of us here in Canada having the day off? 
Queen Victoria was queen of Great Britain from 1837 to 1901—the longest reign of any other British monarch in history.
Back in 1897, Queen Victoria (whose birthday we celebrate here in Canada in the month of May) celebrated her Diamond Jubilee—60 years on the throne.

 1897 just happens to be the year that The Canadian Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is set, and I felt I had to mention the event in the chapter entitled The Weeping Madonna. An earlier chapter has Holmes and Watson in the service of none other than Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier. In The Weeping Madonna, Holmes and Watson pay a visit to Laurier after he has returned from England where he attended the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Prime Minister Laurier describes London:
"A great city," he declared. "But not as I pictured it. I went expecting to see a typically British city and found it full of strange faces from around the world. Assembled there were the troops of the colonies dressed in their native garb. They seemed so out of place in all that Englishness. The entire town did not seem itself. It was scrubbed clean and the streets were choked with traffic. Crowds stood atop unsightly and shaky scaffolds and people hung out of windows. The Jubilee was scheduled for June 22nd, and the day before I was knighted by the Queen. The morning of the Jubilee was overcast as the procession lined up along the Victoria Embankment. Fifty thousand service men lined along both sides of the six-mile route, and, as a bugle sounded at eight o'clock, the sun shone through the clouds as if by Royal command, and the procession began. The Colonial Procession was magnificent, premiers accompanied by their troops and bands from all over the world. There were the Zaptiehs of Cypress, the Dyaks of Borneo, bearded, turbaned Sikhs, pigtailed Chinese from Hong Kong, Maltese, Singhalese, and Malays. Men from the islands, deserts, and jungles. We filed up the length of the Mall in just under an hour and into a cleared square before the gates of Buckingham Palace, and filed down the length of Constitution Hill. We stopped before the entrance to St. Paul's and we premiers stepped down from our carriages and sat under a vast canopied pavilion where we observed the approach of the Royal Procession. The Queen arrived to the deafening cheers of the crowd. There was a short ceremony followed by the blast of the big guns and the procession moved on again.
    "I must confess, gentlemen, the entire experience was the proudest time in my life. To think that a Canadian of French decent offered the  principles of freedom in the parliament of Great Britain.”

The Canadian Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is available on Amazon.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Shakespeare: The Elderly and Madness

The use of madness in Shakespeare’s plays is not uncommon. There seems plenty of mental illness in Hamlet. The Melancholy Dane seems at first to feign madness, then does some pretty crazy things. Ophelia goes mad and commits suicide.

Shakespeare had some memorable quotes on madness.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.

Love is merely a madness.

In Titus Andronicus an elderly Roman general who spent his entire life in service of his country finds himself and his family persecuted through the vengeful manipulation of others. Pushed to a point beyond human endurance, Titus seems to go mad. It is difficult to tell whether Titus is indeed mad or only pretending to be so he may exact revenge against those who perpetrated terrible crimes on him and his daughter. In the final scenes Titus does things that most would consider to be the actions of a madman. Perhaps he is indeed mad, driven to it by intolerable cruelties.
The Canadian Mental Health Association states: It is estimated that the prevalence of mental health problems in adults over 65 years ranges from 17 to 30 percent. This report identifies services and supports needed for older adults at risk/or living with mental health conditions.
CMHA states on their website:
The consequences of loss, sorrow and grief as a result of life events affect many older adults, causing ongoing negative mental health consequences. Anxiety, depression and perhaps substance abuse are just some of the mental health problems that arise as people navigate these transitions in later life.
In King Lear we see an elderly king aware that age is creeping up on him, so he decides to divide up his kingdom but still wishes to be king. It doesn’t help the situation that two of his three daughters are scheming, selfish ... women. 
You see how full of changes his age is, says one.

'Tis the infirmity of his age, says the other.

When Lear is not shown the due respect of his age and position by his daughter, he begins to doubt who he is.

Doth any here know me? This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus?

He strikes his own head and says:
O Lear, Lear, Lear!
Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in,

When his other daughter treats him just as unkindly, Lear says:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

Lear himself suspects he may be losing his faculties.

O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven;
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!

Perhaps the turning point in King Lear is when the king stands in the middle of the heath during a terrible storm and he rails at the elements.

Blow, winds ...! rage! blow!
...You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head!

It is heart-wrenching to see Lear sink deeper into madness. He does not get his revenge like Titus. Lear’s tale is one of extreme tragedy, for as Macbeth said: 
And that which should accompany old age,    
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,    
I must not look to have

I look forward to seeing this season's Stratford Festival production of King Lear staring Colm Feore.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Sherlock Holmes in Toronto

The city of Toronto has certainly received some bad press in the past year, much of it being directed at Mayor Rob Ford who has taken a leave to seek help for his drug addition.

Toronto has long ceased to be the bastion of 19th century Victorian morality that earned it the nickname, Toronto the Good.

In my book, The Canadian Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, there is a chapter in which Holmes and Watson visit Toronto. Here is the beginning of the chapter entitled The Murder of John Steward. In it we see a more fledgling Toronto of 1897 with horse drawn carriages and high button boots. In other words; this isn't Rob Ford's Toronto,

The Murder of John Steward

On a beautiful September day Sherlock Holmes and I reached the city of Toronto, Ontario, where we were forced to stay overnight to catch a train the following day. Toronto is a thriving, growing city situated on the northwest corner of Lake Ontario. This fine metropolis of two hundred thousand began, as most Canadian cities, as a trading post dating back to the French regime. It was a remarkably peaceful community, but it had seen its share of conflict from the War of 1812 to the 1837 Rebellion. Toronto's strategic central location not only made it an excellent export centre to the east and west but also to the United States. The exports from Toronto were not limited to North America. In Britain we had long appreciated the Canadian pork that reached our dinner tables. Toronto was home to the largest pork-packing companies in the Empire and earned the city the distinctive name of Hogtown.

Numerous smoke stacks bespoke the city's busy industrial centre, and Toronto boasted more churches than any city I had ever seen. They were beautiful churches that reflected the city's strong Protestant influence: St. Michael's Cathedral, a Gothic structure built in 1848, and St. James Cathedral built in 1853, which had a ninety-seven_metre steeple, the tallest in Canada.

Toronto was a Tory town, settled by Loyalists who fled from the American Revolution to the north in order to remain loyal to the Crown.

On September the 22nd, Holmes and I had spent the day seeing the sights of Toronto and had stopped at a restaurant on Queen Street. No sooner had we stepped out upon the pavement and we were crossing the street, when I heard the terrified whinny of a horse. We turned in time to see the horse rear up, which was to start a chain of events that would result in my friend's crippling and in setting me off on a case without him at my side. The horse was part of a team that had been pulling a heavy wagon carrying a load of beer barrels with the name Labatt's printed on them.

The driver of the beer wagon had been arguing with the driver of another beer wagon, this one Carling, who was approaching in the opposite direction. It seemed neither driver would give the other the right of way, and an argument ensued. I do not know what had caused the horse to rear, but as the animal struggled and jerked, several barrels from the Labatt's wagon came loose and crashed to the ground. A smaller cart attempting to bypass the two feuding beer drivers turned suddenly to avoid the rolling barrels and cut off a young woman who had been coming along quickly riding a bicycle. She in turn lost control of her vehicle and headed straight for us. Sherlock Holmes, whom I might add is quite fast on his feet and possesses catlike agility, attempted to stay clear of the woman's path. Do what he would, darting this way and that, he could not avoid her as she seemed to follow his every move. Both woman and bicycle crashed into my friend. All three struck the ground, and I heard Holmes cry out in pain.   

"My dear fellow, are you hurt?" I asked, as I attempted to dig him out from under the bicycle and driver. All were now a tangled mess.

"I believe my ankle is broken," I heard Holmes reply through clenched teeth.

"Oh sir! Oh sir, I am so sorry! It was an accident, please believe me! I did not mean to run into you! Oh sir, please forgive me!"

Bending over to aid my friend, we both looked up to see the young woman cyclist standing before us, wringing her hands and pleading her innocence in a sincere and frantic voice. She was perhaps twenty years of age, of average height, and strongly built from much exercise. Indeed there was nothing delicate or demure about her. Her eyes were close and intense. She had a wide nose with marks on either side near the top, a full lipped mouth, ruddy cheeks, and chestnut hair under a tan cap. She was dressed in a practical, but plain riding apparel that matched her cap.

"Do you think you can stand, old fellow?" I asked Holmes.

"I believe so. If you would be so good to lend me a hand."

"Of course."

"Here sir, let me," said the young woman intrusively. "I'm strong, lean on me."

"Thank you," said Holmes, much perturbed. "Perhaps you best see to your vehicle."

She bent down and picked up her Massey Harris bicycle. "There seems to be no damage here," she commented giving the machine a cursory look.

"How fortunate," uttered Holmes dryly. "Watson, I would appreciate if we could return to our rooms at the hotel."

"Yes, of course, Holmes. I need to get a look at that ankle."

I hailed a cab and we drove off with the young woman proclaiming her regrets and apologies. Upon reaching our hotel I examined Holmes's ankle and found it was not broken. He had, however, sustained a nasty sprain that would not allow him to travel for several days. My diagnosis was difficult for my companion to accept, for there was nothing he loathed so much as to be forced to lounge around in a strange place with nothing to occupy his extraordinary mind. I found him absolutely miserable, and it did not help his mood when he received a visitor the following day. Answering a knock at the door I found the young woman cyclist from the previous day.

"Why, hello," I greeted her, quite surprised.

"Hello Dr. Watson, I never got the chance to tell you my name yesterday. I am Irene O'Brian. I came to see if Mr. Sherlock Holmes is doing well."

"He is better, thank you," I told her and updated her on Holmes's medical condition.

She appeared a bit relieved. "I cannot tell you, Doctor, how sorry I am about what happened."

"I'm certain you are, Miss O'Brian, but it was an accident."

"Still, litigation has sometimes followed accidents."

"I do not think you have anything to fear in that area, young lady. Tell me, how did you find us?"

"When you and Mr. Holmes drove off, I simply followed you to this hotel. At the front desk I inquired after the man with the injured ankle, and they gave me your names and room number."

"Yes, of course. Please come in."

She entered dressed in the same tan riding outfit I'd seen her in before, and I noted how well it suited her. Not that she lacked any femininity, but I could hardly picture her in a dainty hat or bonnet with feathers and satin ribbons or dressed in a bustle back with heavy lace trim. Even her voice and tone carried a certain sturdy strength. I found Irene O'Brian a simple and practical young lady, and her appearance did not lead one to believe otherwise. She carried a canvas bag that I could see contained several books and I showed her into the room where Holmes was convalescing. Upon seeing her, Holmes let out a moan of despair.

"Look who has come to see you, Holmes, our friend Miss Irene O'Brian."

"Mr. Holmes, let me just say again how sorry I - "

"Yes, Miss O'Brian, of that I'm sure. Thank you for stopping by, but, as you see, I am recovering nicely, so if you .... " Holmes began motioning to the door but the woman only moved closer.

"Oh, think nothing of it, Mr. Holmes," she replied, and pulling up a chair she sat by Holmes's side. "I could not live with myself if I did not come to see you. After all I was partly responsible for your accident."


"Well yes, don't you agree? At any rate I am so happy that it is not a serious injury and has caused you no inconvenience."

"Well, it has delayed our journey home," I remarked.

"To England?" she asked. "I thought you were British. What is it you do there?" she asked Holmes directly.

He was a trifle taken back by her forward manner, so I volunteered: "Mr. Holmes is a consulting detective."

"A detective!" she exclaimed eagerly. "Why, I have heard of you Mr. Holmes!"

"Have you?"

"Why yes, I have. I used to think you were the figment of some writer's vivid imagination. After all, how could a man possibly find clues from such obscure little things in those strange and obtuse stories?"

"Obtuse?!" I protested.

"Really, Miss O'Brian, you find the stories too fantastic to believe?" Holmes asked, smirking.

"Not to cast any doubt on your abilities, Mr. Holmes, but I must imagine it is some kind of trick, or merely an exaggeration."

"Watson, I am feeling a bit tired. Would you kindly show Miss O'Brian out?"

"I mean really, Mr. Holmes, drawing conclusions from people you meet without knowing them. What deductions can you draw regarding myself?"

"Truly, Miss O'Brian, now is not the time."

"Please, Mr. Holmes, I shan’t leave until I get a glimpse of your true ability."

"If I must," Holmes replied, impatiently. He quickly looked the woman up and down then announced, "You are a young lady of some means. You are strong minded, determined, resourceful and intelligent. You are currently studying law and are neither married nor engaged. You do not fall in the category of what society deems a proper young lady, you use a typewriter a good deal, and own a dog. You are also near-sighted, wear glasses but do not like to wear them, for if you did, I may not be sitting here in this condition."

Irene O'Brian's look was one of happiness rather than astonishment or surprise. "Oh, Mr. Holmes, you simply must tell me how you did that!"

"No, Miss O'Brian, I do not. Watson, if you please."

I rose and escorted the young woman out to the sitting room, where she swore she would not leave until I revealed to her how Sherlock Holmes made his deductions. I had little choice but to comply.

"The books in your bag are law books, and where it is not totally unheard of women entering law, in this day and age it takes a special kind of woman--intelligent and unconventional. That you can attend law school and have your own bicycle proves you are a woman of some means and resourcefulness. Those lines on your sleeves above your wrists where you rest them on the table, and the spatulate finger-end speak plainly that you do a good deal of typing. You wear no wedding or engagement ring. Those short hairs on your skirt show where a dog sat on your lap today. Those marks show on either side of your nose where glasses usually rest, but you are not wearing them now or during the accident yesterday. Hence the double deduction that you wear glasses but do not like to wear them."

I escorted her to the door where she turned and asked:

"What of Mr. Holmes's deduction that I am strong-minded and determined?" she asked.

"Perhaps a lucky guess, Miss O'Brian," I replied as I closed the door on her.

The next day was Sunday, a remarkable day in Toronto where it appeared the entire city closed for the day. Practically nothing could be purchased, and it was fortunate for Holmes and me that we had a good supply of tobacco and an excellent Canadian rye whiskey in our rooms. Miss O'Brian came back for another visit, but knowing Holmes's feelings toward her, I made up an excuse and sent her on her way.

The next day we were roused by a very loud voice and pounding at our door. When I opened it, Miss Irene O'Brian practically exploded into the room in a highly excited state.

"Oh, Dr. Watson, thank heavens!" she exclaimed and actually grabbed the lapels of my coat. "Dr. Watson I must see Mr. Holmes at once! It is a matter of utmost importance!" Before I could say another word, she rushed past me and burst into Holmes's room, from where I heard him cry out in shock and surprise. I quickly entered the room and found my poor friend upon the couch with his injured ankle resting upon a cushion. He was cringing back, attempting to keep away from the frantic young woman who pressed in on him as she spoke and gesticulated wildly.

"Watson!" Holmes called out. "This woman is obviously insane! Please remove her at once!"

I endeavoured to pull Miss O'Brian from his presence--no easy task--as she continued to talk frantically and fought to hold her position. Suddenly Holmes shouted.

"Watson, wait! Miss O'Brian, would you kindly repeat that. Did you say murder?"

I released my hold on her, and she attempted to regain some semblance of composure.

"Yes Mr. Holmes, I said murder!" she exclaimed, breathlessly.

Holmes motioned for her to sit. I pulled up a chair for Miss O'Brian so she might explain herself comfortably.

"An elderly gentleman named John Steward. He was stabbed in the street yesterday. The police have arrested a suspect running from the scene of the crime, a young man by the name of Robert Alloway. But the man is innocent, I swear it!"

"What makes you say that, Miss O'Brian?"

"Because I know Robert Alloway and have known him for many years. I know in my heart he could not harm anyone!"

"I am afraid heartfelt sentiments mean very little to the police, Miss O'Brian," said I.

"I have discovered that on my own, Doctor," she declared haughtily. "For I have been to the authorities and proclaimed Mr. Alloway's innocence, but they refused to listen."

"It has been my experience, Miss O'Brian, that most law enforcement agencies, whether they are in England, on the continent, or here in Canada, once they have arrested a suspect, they have no hinge or loop to hang a doubt on," said Holmes.

"What does that mean, Mr. Holmes?"

"It means the police do not appreciate being told they are mistaken," answered Holmes. "Even if I wished to aid you in your quest to free your friend, I am quite incapacitated, as you well know."

"But a young man is being unjustly incarcerated, while his life and reputation hang in the balance. And if you, Sherlock Holmes will not help investigate this matter, then Dr. Watson and I will do it alone!"

"I beg your pardon?" I asked, not certain I had heard her correctly.

"That would be the best and only alternative," said Holmes approvingly. "Since I am here, laid by the heels, the two of you can be my arms and legs and eyes and ears. Find out what you can. Watson, you alone will report your findings. Now off you go, the two of you. Remember Watson, he who has begun is half done. Goodbye and good luck."
The Canadian Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and all of Stephen Gaspar's books can be found on Amazon

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day

This being Earth Day puts in mind Second Coming, the ecological disaster/post-apocalyptic novel.

Second Coming is the story of redemption and atonement of three people acting on instinct and faith risking their lives to save a child from the clutches of an evil empire in a world gone mad.  Second Comingis our world, yet somewhat alien with strange customs and filled with bizarre creatures.

The Old World has passed away. The New World teeters on the edge of existence. The Earth has rebelled against mankind for all the ecological havoc it has wreaked on the world, and human beings are thrust into a primitive culture. Fossil fuels are exhausted, traditional governments have collapsed and plagues have wiped out three quarters of the world’s population.

Second Coming is available on Kindle!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Shakespeare and Suicide

Rereading William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra brought to mind how many suicides the Bard wrote in his tragedies. There are about a dozen suicides in Shakespeare’s writings that are portrayed out or talked about.

On the subject of suicide, the Canadian Mental Health Association says this:

"Experts in the field suggest that a suicidal person is feeling so much pain that they can see no other option. They feel that they are a burden to others, and in desperation see death as a way to escape their overwhelming pain and anguish. The suicidal state of mind has been described as constricted, filled with a sense of self-hatred, rejection, and hopelessness."

Some of Shakespeare’s characters are historical, thereby their suicides are a historical fact.

Antony and Cleopatra, two famous lovers in history took their own lives to escape being captured alive and put on display in Rome. Antony had just suffered a major military defeat and hearing Cleopatra was dead fell on his sword. Cleopatra killed herself after witnessing the death of Antony.

Neither, it seemed, believed life was worth living and suicide was an honorable option.

Taking your own life was a very Roman thing to do. In Julius Caesar both Brutus and Cassius fell on their sword after being defeated by Antony and Octavian’s forces. It was probably a more viable for Brutus who heard his wife, Portia, had killed herself swallowing fire.

Lady Macbeth took her own life (though we do not witness it) presumably because she could not live with the fact that she, along with her husband, murdered King Duncan.

Shakespeare’s most famous couple, Romeo and Juliette are young people in love.

The Canadian Mental Health Association says this about youth and suicide:

"Adolescence is a time of dramatic change. The journey from child to adult can be complex and challenging. Young people often feel tremendous pressure to succeed at school, at home and in social groups. At the same time, they may lack the life experience that lets them know that difficult situations will not last forever. Mental health problems commonly associated with adults, such as depression, also affect young people. Any one of these factors, or a combination, may become such a source of pain that they seek relief in suicide."

Romeo and Juliette are like a young Antony and Cleopatra. They do not wish to live without the other.

It is not a coincidence that these are classified as tragedies. Suicide is a tragedy. There is no honor in it. In some of these cases these characters take their own lives when they cannot get their own way. It is a selfish act. It is like a child playing with others who, when they can’t get their own way, takes their ball and goes home.

None of these characters had the character to live on despite pain and hardship and loss. They may have not loved wisely, but too well; however, they should have loved their own lives more.

Life is not always easy. To live on, to endure says a lot about who we are.

Stephen Gaspar's books are available on Amazon

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Lenten Mystery

The season of Lent has begun and we turn our thoughts to Christ. It is a time of reflection and we take steps to renew ourselves. It is a time of the year when I think of The Case of the Empty Tomb which was published some years ago.

The Case of the Empty Tomb is a homage to the old style detective stories of Chandler and Hammett. Tribune Claudius Maximus is the detective looking into the disappearance of a recently crucified Jew who's body is missing from its resting place.

Maximus has been exiled from Rome to Jerusalem by Caesar, and Maximus believes the best way to get back into the emperor's good graces is to solve this case.

 Getting answers is not easy. The Jews aren't talking and even his own people are reluctant to give the tribune any help. The more opposition Maximus encounters the more he is determined to get answers.

Here is a recent review for The Case of the Empty Tomb.

If you like Lindsey Davis or John Maddox Roberts books, you will like this Stephen Gaspar book.
The Case of the Empty Tomb is a worthy member of the rapidly expanding Roman Mystery genre.
The book has nice pacing and unfolds evenly. What a case for our introduction to Tribune Claudius Maximus. A now very famous corpse is missing and a disgraced son of Rome must find it quickly, and perhaps he will be allowed to return home if he can solve the case and survive the political world of Tiberian Jerusalem.

I would very much like to read more adventures of Claudius Maximus.

Books by Stephen Gaspar are available on Amazon

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Coriolanus - Shakespeare’s Gen. Patton

Watching the Royal Theater Live production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston reminded me of two things; the first was just how good a play this underrated tragedy truly is, and second, how much Caius Martius Coriolanus reminded me of General George S. Patton as portrayed by George C. Scott in the 1970 movie.

Both men are military men who are most comfortable at war. Both are unbending and apolitical

Both men held themselves and others to a higher standard, and both spoke their minds. When Patton believed one of his men a coward, not only did he tell the soldier so, but he slapped him for it. Both Coriolanus and Patton respected their adversaries, and both were accused of being overly proud.

I do not believe Coriolanus was overly proud. On a number of occasions he did not want to hear his accomplishments extolled.

"Pray now, no more...
I have done as you have done –
that’s what I can... for my country."

When his war wounds are mentioned:

"Scratches with briers,
Scars to move laughter only."

One of my favorite parts of Patton is the opening scene when Gen. Patton delivers a speech to inspire his men. This speech is based on the one Patton gave prior to D-Day. Patton uses coarse language, the kind of talk that the average dough boy could understand and appreciate.

When I heard Tom Hiddleston give Coriolanus’ brief battle speech in act I, scene VI, it reminded me of the Crispen Day speech Hiddleston did in Henry V. But the Coriolanus speech (like Patton’s) is not as grand as the Crispen Day speech, which centered around ‘band of brothers’. Coriolanus’ speech, on the other hand, emphasizes individualism, and every man finding courage in himself. He delivers the speech before his men covered in the blood of their enemies.

"If any such be here...
that love this painting
Wherein you see me smeared; if any fear
Lesser his person than an ill report;
If any think brave death outweighs bad life
And that his country’s dearer than himself:
Let him alone... follow Martius"

Both stories of these two men have a tragic ending. Neither die in a great battle as they would have preferred, but die rather unexpectedly. Both Patton and Coriolanus possessed shortcomings their world was not willing to accept. Both had too much nobility that their world could not tolerate. Patton and Coriolanus were great men, and their greatness was their undoing.

Stephen Gaspar's books are available on Amazon  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sherlock Holmes Illustration

Here is a Sherlock Holmes illustration sent to me by Josh Reilly. Here is the message he sent with it.

I am an artist currently involved in a classic Sherlock Holmes T-shirt design contest. We contestants are each given seven days to try to drum up votes for our individual design. We are encouraged to use all things social media; since I have a very limited number of Facebook friends, I thought appealing to the true die-hard Sherlock fans might be my best shot at getting some votes. The more attention the contest gets, the better for all the artists involved.  The end result may be something your interested in; there are quite a few good design allready. Hopefully I can strike a cord with people that know the literary material well. Please pass this on to any other Sherlock fans you may know, and thank you for any help you can give. The link below will take you to my contest page, it is free to sign up to judge and only takes a few minutes.
Best regards,
Josh Reilly

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Shakespeare’s villains - Richard III

Surely William Shakespeare has created some of the most memorable villains in English literature. Those who are familiar with the Bard’s work know all his evil heavies such as Iago, Aaron the Moor, Tamora, Lady Macbeth and Edmund.

While rereading Richard III it was easy to see why the Duke of Glouster also makes the list of famous villains. Richard has some iconic lines;

Now is the winter of our discontent...

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Off with his head!

So wise, so young, they say, do never live long.

In Richard III the title character even tells us who he is.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

But then I sigh, and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends, stol'n out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

Richard will do anything to be king. He has his own brother and two young nephews murdered, he lies and deceives, he plans and plots

But Shakespeare knew Richard was evil before this play. Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy chronicled the politically charged War of the Roses, the struggle for the English throne between the Lancaster and York families. In Henry VI part 3 we see the three York brothers as the stage is set for Richard III. At the end of Henry VI part 3, the Duke of Glouster’s character is portrayed in language as rich as any found in Richard III.

Just prior to Richard killing him, the deposed King Henry VI says to Richard:

And thus I prophesy, that many a thousand,
Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,
And many an old man's sigh and many a widow's,
And many an orphan's water-standing eye— 
Men for their sons, wives for their husbands,
And orphans for their parents timeless death—
Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born.
The owl shriek'd at thy birth,—an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time; 
Dogs howl'd, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook'd her on the chimney's top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
Thy mother felt more than a mother's pain,
And, yet brought forth less than a mother's hope,

To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou camest to bite the world:

As Richard looks down at Henry's body he says:

The midwife wonder'd and the women cried
'O, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!'
And so I was; which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog. 
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word 'love,' which graybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another 
And not in me: I am myself alone.

Somewhere along the way Richard has lost and forsaken his humanity.

I, that have neither pity, love, nor fear

This is what makes Richard III such a great villain. He is quite comfortable and adept at murder an deceit. But Richard is more than an inhuman monster. He is a political animal, a ruthless chess play. His intelligence and manipulation make Richard the Hannibal Lecter of his day. He is cold and calculating with just enough charm to fool you. Richard can mimic human traits, indeed, it is as if he has studied human nature and knows how to manipulate people, but he is not human. He is a misanthrope. He hates people for having the human qualities that he lacks. Richard fascinates us, but we should also fear him, for none of us are safe from his machinations.

Stephen Gaspar's books are available on Amazon.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the Klondike

I have been watching the Klondike miniseries on the Discovery Channel with great interest. As the two friends, Bill and Byron head for the Klondike, they scale the snow-covered Chilkoot Trail, get a boat at Lake Bennett and brave the rough water at Five Finger Rapids before arriving in Dawson City.

Watching the show I remembered all these events, but happening to my characters, Charles Westerbrook and Patrick Flynn, in my Sherlock Holmes adventure Cold-Hearted Murder.

I decided to post part of Cold-Hearted Murder on my blog. The following excerpt occurs halfway through the story recounting what had taken place in the Klondike that led to the murders in London. Here we are introduced to not only a main character, Injun Joe Payne, but we see a glimpse of the great Yukon Territory as well.


12. The Sourdoughs
In the northwest corner of the great North American continent is a land much like the one God gave to Cain. It is a land as inhospitable as one is likely to find on this earth, and for many years was shunned by most human beings. It is an unforgiving land... bleak, isolated and unavailing. In the summer months veritable hordes of mosquitoes infest the bogs and swamps, while in the winter ice and snow cover the mountains and valleys, and the cold creeps in like a thing alive to prey upon the weak, and chill the bones of the warmest-blooded creature. It is a remote wilderness not fit for civilized men in their right mind, and to reach it from the outside world is not an easy task even for the toughest and resolute of men. Yet, strangely enough in the latter half of the nineteenth century men and women and even children swarmed there in droves, though many of them lived to regret it.

In this great wilderness is a mighty river, stretching some two thousand miles across the rugged landscape. It is fed by a myriad of unnamed streams and creeks. These creeks and streams feed other tributaries that proceed into the mighty river as it winds its way flowing forever westward, where it invariably empties into the Bearing Sea. The river flows– as it has always flowed– bringing the meltwaters of the mountains to the sea to fulfill its destiny, and as the river flows it carries along sand and gravel and other minerals, one heavier than the others, and deposits it in various spots along its course. This soft, yellow mineral is different from the rest and has been deemed precious by men who have sought it for thousands of years. For some men, there has always been an attraction to it. The metal possesses an alluring quality that tugs at the minds of men to the point of obsession, and some men, once afflicted with the fever it generates, are apt to spend their entire lives in pursuit of it. The good Lord must have a sense of humour indeed to have put so much of it in this awful and unforgiving land.

By 1867, the year Russia sold Alaska to the Americans, and the year of Confederation in Canada, men were already drawn to the north country prowling the rivers and creeks in search of this precious metal. For the most part these men were restless souls whose dreams were filled with memories of the strike in California of `49, the silver mines of Colorado, and the Caribou trail of `62. These men were more or less misfits of society, men who shunned cities and towns and farms, and developed their own code of ethics and conduct. They were driven men with singleness of purpose, and who desired no other life than prospecting. They lived for one thing, and in the summer of 1896 they received what they had always waited for– the cry of GOLD!!

It was a word that spread like wildfire through the hills. A gold-strike of such unheard-of quality that it conjured up fantastic dreams in some, disbelief in others. And where was this strike located? Who was it that discovered it? The strike was made in the most unlikely of places by the most unlikely of men. The gold was found on a small nondescript creek whose valley was deemed too wide by experts to contain any gold, and found by a man named George Carmack, who was not all that interested in finding gold. He and his two native companions were directed to Rabbit Creek by a seasoned prospector, Robert Henderson, who stated the area looked promising. Because of its high yield, Rabbit Creek would later be renamed Bonanza, but other strikes would later be made in the Klondike that would prove to be even larger than that one.

Along the creeks came a pair of men who could not have been much different from one another, but it was their differences that made them good partners. Russian Mike was a mountain of a man standing just over six and a half feet tall, with a dark bushy beard and a barrel chest. He was born Mikolav Riskin a descendant of an Alaskan Russian of noble ancestry who married an Indian woman. Mike had rejected his Indian heritage, and so grew up doing what other whitemen did in Alaska, and so at a young age he decided to learn all he could from other prospectors who searched for the elusive metal. Russian Mike, in his thick gum boots and frayed mackinaw, had roamed the banks of the Yukon River from St. Michael to Forty Mile and beyond, but had yet to find any gold. At the time of the gold strike on Rabbit Creek, Russian Mike was working a worthless claim near Forty Mile, a small mining town in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Hearing of the strike on Rabbit Creek, Russian Mike packed all his belongings– which amounted to a rucksack, a gold-pan, a short-stemmed shovel, and a tin of sourdough starter– and left his claim and headed for the Klondike River. On the way he crossed paths with a man named Joseph Payne, or Injun Joe, as he was known in the north.

Though he could not claim to have any native blood in his veins, Joseph Payne believed he should have been born an Indian. He could hunt, and trap anything on four legs. He was not too tall, and he dressed like any whiteman in the bush would– thick woollen pants and shirt, heavy durable boots that went half way up his calf, big brim slouch hat, and heavy coat. The only native garb he kept on his person was the small leather medicine bag that hung about his neck by a leather cord. In the small pouch he kept small mementos from meaningful times of his life. He preferred living in the bush and his origins were a mystery and the cause of much speculation around Forty Mile. His place of birth was not even known to himself. Joseph Payne’s earliest memories were of living in Western Canada where he leaned to ride a horse, hunt buffalo on the plains, and trap and trade with the natives who welcomed him into their camps and regarded him as an honest man. He was there when the red-coated North West Mounted Police arrived in the west in 1874, and he remained with them on the plains for a short time lending his services as a scout and interpreter to the natives. With the approach of civilization he ventured into the north country, past Edmonton, heading further and further into the wilderness, until he reached the Yukon Territory. There in the rugged wilds, Payne lived alongside the natives, who recognized and appreciated his abilities, and sometimes he would wander away by himself living off the earth where most men would have perished.

By chance he made the acquaintance of Russian Mike and the two became fast friends. When their paths crossed in the summer of `96 and Russian Mike proposed the two of them throw in together, and Joseph Payne immediately accepted. They were an amazing pair; the large verbose Russian and the smaller Canadian who was frugal with his words, and would not waste one when a gesture would suffice. And whereas Mike was ready with a broad smile or a hearty laugh, the Canadian was ever practical and solemn. Some say Injun Joe first learned to pan gold in the Caribou, while others say that Russian Mike taught him everything he knew about gold. It mattered little though, since most everything Joe Payne attempted he performed well with a meticulousness to detail that bespoke of pride in one’s work.

In the summer of 1896 Russian Mike was thirty-three years old, while Injun Joe was forty-nine. Despite his age Joe could outwork almost any man, even the big Russian. Payne was considered a tough old man for he looked older than he was. The lifestyle that bred incredible strength and endurance also showed in his face that was brown and leathery from constant exposure to the extreme elements. If left to his own Joe would have preferred to live off the land as he had always done, but he stayed with the large prospector because he liked the man and felt a sense of loyalty to him, and would stay with Mike until he gave Joe cause to leave.

They walked along the great river until they came to a juncture of two rivers, the Yukon River and a smaller one the local natives called Thron-diuck or Thunder River. The white men called it Klondike.

Coming to another juncture where the river met a creek, Russian Mike paused and sniffed the air. Injun Joe watched the man for some moments. Finally Russian Mike proclaimed: "This way!" They continued walking along the creek, stopping occasionally to scoop up a pan from the banks. Towards evening the Russian half-breed stooped over and panned again. Standing up he examined the yield. He turned to his new partner and said: "We will camp here."

Their claim was on a tiny stream called Muskrat Creek, and both men were entitled to fifty feet along the banks of the stream. The partners lived in a tent set upon a height of ground by the creek hemmed in by might pine trees. It was a humble dwelling but both were simple men who needed little. They had panned the area and found it promising. For the remainder of the year the two men worked their claim.

During the long winter months the two men huddled inside the small cabin they built to replace their tent, and it was here that Russian Mike imbued Injun Joe with the code of the prospectors. Once a man struck gold, it was his duty to inform others of the strike, Mike told Joe. If a man was hungry, he was fed, if he needed lodgings he was given a place to sleep. So removed from any type of law and order the old-time miners developed their own sense of justice in the way of miner’s meetings where grievances were heard and decided upon, and judgement was dispensed swiftly and with impunity. This was the kind of justice Joseph Payne was used to and could appreciate. He felt it right that men should decide their own affairs. Though he did respect the red-coated mounted policemen, Payne did not necessarily believe they were needed here in the Yukon.

During the winter months, when the snow and ice covered everything, the two men were not deterred from working their claim. Shafts had to be dug down through the permafrost to the bedrock. This was done by burning wood on the ground to thaw it. Once it was thawed, the dirt could be scraped off and piled onto a dump, and the process was repeated. In the spring the dirt on the dump was shovelled onto a dumpbox where bars on the grizzly kept out the bigger chunks of gravel. The smaller pieces fell through to the sluice where water from the creek helped carry the dirt down the sluicebox over riffles that caught the heavier pieces of gold.

During the long winter months their lives were not idle. Whenever the beans and bacon ran out Injun Joe hunted and trapped in the woods for their food. Russian Mike could cook whatever Joe brought to the cabin and thus the men shared a well-balanced relationship. When it came to eating, Joe preferred pemmican, an ancient Indian food that was simply pounded meat mixed with bone marrow. The mixture was stored in an animal skin that could last for a year. Joe was also fond of bannock bread which he cooked on a stick over the fire. As fond as he was of bannock, Joe Payne preferred his partner’s sourdough bread.

From Alaska, Russian Mike had brought, along with some other miner essentials, a small crock container holding one of his most precious possessions, sourdough starter. It had been given to him by an old-timer who had gotten his from another miner in Alaska, which could trace back its origins to California. This fermented starter was used in the north country in place of yeast to make bread rise. Miners such as Russian Mike would carry the sourdough starter from one claim to another and these old-time prospectors came to be known as ‘Sourdoughs’. Mike was very particular about his sourdough starter. It had a special spot above the cabin’s stove, and on very cold nights Mike was known to take the sourdough crock to bed with him to keep it warm.

In the spring of 1897 the partners were working the dump, shovelling the dirt into the dumpbox and down the sluice, when they were approached by three strangers. They were an unsavoury-looking trio, and despite what Russian Mike had said about welcoming strangers, he was uneasy at their approach. With a keen insight and perception Injun Joe picked up on this immediately and kept a tight hold on the shovel he was using. The strangers tried to appear friendly enough, but their manner betrayed them. The leader, a dark-haired, dark-eyed man casually mentioned that he and his companions had staked out this claim over a year ago and it belonged to them. Russian Mike, in his brusque way, told them that there were no markers when he and Injun Joe had come here, and he had no intention of giving up or sharing this claim with the newcomers. The scene turned ugly and threats were bandied about. Injun Joe said nothing during this exchange, even when the leader of the newcomers pulled a knife threateningly.

Cold-Hearted Murder is available on Amazon