Thursday, August 25, 2016

J.S. Fletcher’s “The Middle of Things”

Viner (whose first name we never do learn) is a young gentleman of leisure who lives with his aunt in a comfortable house in the Bayswater. They have at least two daily rituals – after dinner, he reads a murder mystery aloud to his aunt. When they’re finished and she retires, he takes a short walk before returning home and going to bed.

One evening, the reading finished, he chides his aunt as to her preference for mystery stories he considers wildly improbably. She counters with real-life examples of situations – disappearances and murders – that were even wilder than those in the stories they read. He smiles knowingly, she retires to bed, and he goes on his walk.

And runs smack into exactly one of those wildly improbable murders he has been admonishing his aunt about. He sees a young man run running from the alley behind his row house, and then he finds what the young man is running from – a body. A neighbor has been stabbed to death and apparently robbed. The police investigate, and the next day the young man is arrested trying to pawn one of the dead man’s rings. Yet what seems like an open-and-shut case turns out to be something else, something as wildly improbable as one of the aunt’s stories – long-ago disappearances, a possible impersonation, a young woman who may or may not be an heiress, and a considerable amount of general skullduggery.

This is The Middle of Things by J.S. Fletcher (1863-1935), originally published in 1922 (when automobiles were still called motorcars). Fletcher was one of the best-known writers during mystery’s Golden Age (roughly 1920-1950), and this mystery novel helps explain why – numerous twists and turns, witnesses suddenly turning up, and the reader left guessing until almost the very end.

J.S. Fletcher
The son of a clergyman, Fletcher was raised by his grandmother on a farm in Yorkshire. He became a journalist and extremely prolific author of some 237 works. He first published poetry, and eventually began writing mysteries. Amazon Kindle has Fletcher’s The Complete Works (15 mystery novels) for $2.99.

Viner teams up with the dead man’s lawyer to investigate what the police won’t. He’s convinced that the man charged with the crime didn’t do it; as it turns out, Viner attended school with him (and an old school boy would never commit a murder). Viner and the lawyer travel to the middle of England and track down witnesses and evidence. And they begin to uncover a nefarious plot.

A product of its era, The Middle of Things is still a highly entertaining story.


Photograph: London alley at night via Spitalsfield Life.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Every house has a story

The swish of the fabric of long skirts
and high-collared white blouses
the only sounds of a summer’s day

She feels the slight moisture
beading on her forehead
as she directs the maid in her dusting

She walks to the door, fanning herself
and looks out to the street
with its uninterrupted noonday quiet

She hears the faint clang:
the blacksmith hammering the anvil
a few blocks away in town

She waits, not sure if the waiting
will have its reward, but waiting
nonetheless for a whistled tune,

a throat cleared, the occasional song

Different kinds of commitment

A considerable part of my career involved speechwriting. I got into it the way most speechwriters get into it – I fell into it accidentally.

I was working on a big communications issue for my company, and an executive needed a speech on the topic. So I was asked to write it. It helped that I had taken speech courses in high school and college.

Most communications people don’t like speechwriting. It’s an often thankless task of dealing with (large) executive egos and someone else always getting, and taking, credit for your work.

I changed companies, and almost immediately fell accidentally into speechwriting again. I was supposed to be in a general PR job, but the division where I was located had an executive who was on some national United Way committees. My boss was an advertising guy and hated writing speeches, so I found myself writing a lot – and I mean a lot – of speeches.

From there I was moved into the corporate speechwriting group. It was then I decided I was a speechwriter, and it was then where my disciplined speechwriting started. I was writing a lot of speeches and papers for executives. I began to read a lot of speeches by other people. I started to read poetry. I subscribed to professional newsletters and joined a professional association. I attended speechwriting seminars and conferences. I went to used book stores and found old collections of speeches and speech textbooks. I taught myself that the speech doesn’t end when the speech is over – and there’s a lot more mileage to be gained.

That was called commitment. I did it to do my job, and to do my job well. I also did it for self-esteem – to prove to myself and others that I could be among the best speechwriters in the business.

That commitment took considerable discipline, and specifically self-discipline. The commitment to holiness requires something similar but even more profound and life-changing, because there is a different goal as the purpose.

“We need to work at ensuring that our commitment to holiness,” says Jerry Bridges in The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness “is a commitment to God, not to our own self-esteem.” And he points out that we worry more about putting off sinful habits rather than putting on Christ-like virtues, because we confuse commitment to God with a commitment to self-esteem.

My commitment to speechwriting was like that – putting on knowledge, understanding, and experience. But I also had to unlearn some of my journalism training, at least for speeches. I had to unlearn writing for the eye.

A commitment to holiness is like that, too – but putting on Christ-like virtues is critically important. It’s not about self-esteem. It’s directed away from ourselves and toward God.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges. To see what others had to say on this chapter, “The Discipline of Commitment,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by Circe Denyer via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.