Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Art of Detection

A Novel Of Suspense
Laurie R King

A whodunnit by an author who is new to me, The Art of Detection, is set in San Francisco in 2004 and 1924. The book is from the middle of a series featuring SF police detective Kate Martinelli.

King cleverly intertwines a "lost" Sherlock Holmes short story, purportedly written by Arthur Conan Doyle while visiting San Fransisco in the '20s into the story of the murder, in 2004, of a collector of Sherlockia and member of a Sherlock Holmes themed dinner club. The Sherlock Holmes story, prominently featured in the liner notes, is what drew me to this book. It is also a major clue to the 2004 murder.

King has written another series of books, set in the 1920s which are centered around a character, Mary Russell, who is apprenticed in the art of detection to the retired Sherlock Holmes, who is living the life of a beekeeper in Sussex. This is actually where Doyle leaves Holmes after unsuccessfully killing Holmes in a battle with his nemesis, Professor Moriarity, at Reichenbach Falls in The Adventure of the Final Problem.

His fans would not let Doyle stop writing Holmes stories and Doyle was forced to bring the character back to life, rather like Mr. Spock in the movie Search for Spock. This begs the irrelevant question, is Spock Sherlock Holmes?

Appropriately, the novel and the short story both deal with issues of homosexuality, gays in the military and same sex marriage. What else is there to write about in San Francisco in 2004? Fortunately, King did not choose to make Sherlock Holmes gay in her "lost" story. The gay issues are dealt with in a tasteful an inoffensive way.

King has done her Sherlock Holmes research and there is much Holmes and Doyle trivia to be gleaned in The Art of Detection. Did you know that Doyle never had Holmes say "Elementary my dear Watson" or smoke a calabash pipe?

There are two fictional murders to solve in The Art of Detection, separated by 80 years. Who committed them? Don't ask don't tell.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Naming Nature

The Clash Between Instinct and Science
Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Whatever editor though up that dumb subtitle should be sent back to the mail room for reeducation. There is no clash in this book between science and instinct. Instinct is not even mentioned. What there is, is an interesting discussion of the way that esoteric systems of classifying the plants and animals of the world, used in the in he academic pursuit of biology, have become far removed from the way we, regular people, recognize them.

Yoon, a biology graduate student turned science journalist, calls this ordinary view of the natural world the "umwelt" (oom-velt) which is a German word for the way we, or the different ways other creatures, perceive the world. A creature's umvelt depends on what kind of senses that creature has, where it lives in the world, what it looks for to eat and what eats it. A dog's unwelt, for instance, has a lot to do with how things smell and prominently features squirrels and the postman. In our case, how we think about the world is another major factor.

Naming Nature contains an entertaining history of the study of taxonomy, starting with Carolus Linnaeus, known to his friends as Carl. Linnaeus devised the system, familiar from high school, of dividing life into domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. He established the tradition of naming species with two Latin names, the binomial system. Linnaeus' system is an artificial construct which helps us to comprehend the relationships between different plants and animals. Yoon makes the mistake of equating Linnaeus' taxonomy with the taxonomies of any and all cultures, saying that we all organize nature in our minds in the same way, even though she, herself, gives several examples of cultures that classify animals in bizarrely different ways. Her argument for the universality of Linnaeus is weak. It's also beside the point.

As she proceeds with the history of taxonomy Yoons point becomes clear. Just as physics has wandered far from the common sense of Isaac Newton into the far out realms of relativity and quantum mechanics, taxonomy has found, through statistical analysis, DNA matching and cladistics, all of which Yoon talks about in some detail without any MEGLO (My Eyes Glaze Over) effect, that some of the common sense relationships we believe in, among plants and animals, don't really exits. She quite proudly announces the demise of fish as a teaser at the beginning of the book. Her later explanation of this, having to do with the lungfish having characteristics similar to a cow, seems a bit off the wall, but no matter. That salmon I had for dinner was not a fish. I believe her.

Yoon calls for a revival of the umwelt in our daily lives. Don't let those snooty scientists tell you that nature is a strange place inaccessible to ordinary mortals. Go out there with your Peterson's Field Guides and revel in it before it's too late. Good advice. I think I'll shut off my computer now and go outside.

Ed Note: I went back and corrected the spelling of "umvelt." See the comments below.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

26th Book Review Blog Carnival

This week the 26th edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival is hosted by Pizza's Book Discussion. Come in and have a slice while you browse.

If you ever wrote a book review on your blog you can submit the post to an upcoming carnival at our page at I'm always looking for host blogs, too. Email me at the address in the sidebar if you are interested in hosting a carnival.