Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Mystery and Adventure in the Old British Empire

Two of my favorite mystery book series are Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody/Emerson novels and Anne Perry's Inspector Pitt/Charlotte Pitt stories. Both are set in the Victorian era. Both revolve around an eccentric husband-and-wife detective duo who are aided by a second, younger couple. The two stories are steeped in the details of Victorian life in England and abroad. Both have sinister, terrible villians, and heroes who are not always entirely heroic.

The Amelia and Emerson books are the more action-oriented of the two series. They're wonderfully old-fashioned adventures revolving around the tough, intelligent, strong-willed Amelia, a fictional female archeologist whose adventures begin when she inherits a fortune and visits Egypt in the 1880s with her friend and companion, the delicate but sensible Evelyn. They meet the Emerson brothers there, the hot-tempered Radcliffe (who goes by his last name) and the sweet and gentle Walter. After adventures involving mummies and spurned lovers, they marry the brothers - Evelyn and Walter move to Evelyn's family home in England, while Emerson and Amelia dedicate themselves to excavation, even after the birth of their only child, Ramses.

The books are sprawling Indiana Jones-esque adventures that encompass the end of the Victorian era, the Ragtime era, and World War I. (I'm afraid to contemplate how Emerson is going to react when King Tut's tomb is discovered by someone other than him...) Long-time readers have witnessed Ramses grow from a talkative, precocious kid to a strapping young man with a wife and children of his own, and the additions of three adopted children to the Emerson clan. Even with all the changes, the books never lose sight of what made them popular in the first place - action, adventure, romance, daring escapes, fantastic discoveries of Egyptian antiquities, impossible disguises, wild chases across the desert, "monsters" who turn out to be not-so monstrous, evil villians, and daring heroics.

Rising above it all (with the aid of her steel-shafted parasol) is Amelia herself. She remains indomiable and undeniably human no matter what the situation, whether she faces Master Criminals, amnesia, lost cities, or World Wars. My favorite Amelia books are the "Master Criminal" stories The Mummy's Curse, The Lion in the Valley, and The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog. The "Master Criminal" was just what the name implies, the head of a ring of antiquities thieves. Despite his nasty habit of dying every three or four novels, he always seemed to come back with a wilder plot than ever...and, at one point, had the hots for Amelia. As much as I've enjoyed the World War I-set novels, it's just not the same since Amelia reformed Sethos and he joined the Secret Service and we found out a rather interesting secret about his and Emerson's relationship. Another favorite is The Last Camel Died at Noon, in which Amelia, Emerson, and Ramses discover a fabulous lost city in the desert.

The Inspector Thomas/Charlotte books don't get quite as wild, perhaps because they're set primarily in England and, despite being around even longer than the Amelia/Emerson series, remain in the Victoria era. What they lack in outrageous villains, action-filled plots, and exotic settings, they make up with more realistic stories, wonderful characters, and a genuine feel for everyday life in London and the surrounding areas during the Victorian era. And instead of one "Master Criminal," we have a whole gang of them. The thorn in the side of Inspector Thomas and Charlotte Pitt is "The Inner Circle," a sinister secret society of men who are supposedly doing good...while actually furthering their own lust for power.

Unlike the wealthy, eccentric Emersons, the Pitts live a respectable lower-middle-class life in nice, normal Bloomsbury. Until the most recent books, Inspector Pitt was an officer with (later the head of) the Bow Street office of the London police. Pitt questions the men in tough back streets and formal offices of London, while his former society wife Charlotte, her sister Emily, and their Great-Aunt Vespasia handle their wives, sisters, and lovers in fancy, frilly Victorian drawing rooms and tea parlors. Charlotte's loyal and perky maid Gracie takes on the servants who attend to England's elite and the ragamuffins in the slums and Thomas' equally loyal but somewhat predjuced partner Tellman makes the rounds of thugs, small-time grifters, and other society oddities.

I haven't been reading the Inspector Thomas/Charlotte books as long as the Amelia/Emerson series. My grandmother sent me the newest tale of the Pitts, Seven Dials, a few months ago, and I loved it so much I sought the rest of the series and several audio books. I'm currently reading Southhampton Row, and have also enjoyed Belgrade Square, Farrier's Lane, and Cardington Cresent, and have heard the books-on-tape for Half-Moon Street and Traitor's Gate. While the stories lack the adventure and romance of the Amelia/Emerson series, the mysteries are often far more involving, and it's not without cool characters. Aunt Vespasia, a strong, regal elderly woman who frequently aids Inspector Thomas and Charlotte, is by far my favorite. The Inner Circle is far more serious and sinister than Sethos and his minions, and not likely to be reformed anytime soon. Indeed, they recently flexed their muscles by having Inspector Thomas removed from the police and reassigned to the early version of England's Secret Service. Vespasia, Emily, Gracie, and Charlotte are still around to meddle and poke in London's drawing rooms and slums, though.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Memories, of the Way We Were...and Are...

I was reading my friend Linda Young's nostalgia essays about growing up in Rhode Island, and I realized that there are still neigborhoods like the ones she mentioned. The last time I visited my parents' house, I arrived to find my brother Keefe and a gaggle of neighborhood kids of both sexes playing a game of touch football. The houses are 60s tracts and the "suprette" is a WaWa, but kids do some of the same things their parents probably did in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The older kids walk the sidewalks with no fear, chatting and bike riding, sometimes trying to imitate their favorite "x-treme" rider in the empty lot in the back of WaWa. Middle-schoolers practice their skateboarding on the big parking lot next to WaWa. The younger ones play in their backyards, the ones my brother's age in the street. "Play Dates" are practically unknown, and many mothers work during school hours (like mine) in order to spend afternoon with their children. There's even little old ladies, like Miss Ida next door to my parents, who give out food for the kids and whom everyone knows.

Alas, although animals on a leash are sometimes seen playing with the kids, most are kept in yards - all of Cape May County has a terrible feral animal problem, and North Cape May's is worst than most.

Produce Place is closer to the suprette. It's a deli (with prices better than Acme's), but it also sells fancy sodas like Stewart's and Welch's Grape and Canada Dry Cream Soda that WaWa doesn't carry, and cheap candy (not for a penny, alas, but still pretty cheap!). It's also next door to the Rainbow Ice Cream Palace and Minature Golf, a favorite stop for Keefe and I in the summer (they don't stay open in the winter - shame, because I'd love to get a Breyers cherry vanilla cup during a blizzard! ; 0 ). Kids who are old enough go hang out at the Bayshore Mall or the Bayshore 8 or take the bus or beg a friend to drive them to the Hamilton Mall. The big Acme is NCM's A&P (there was an A&P in Cape May Courthouse, but it became a Super Fresh ages ago).

I envy Linda's trips to downtown Providence! I always wished for a downtown like that as a child, with real stores that carried real, useful merchandise. Dellas General Store in Cape May was not unlike a smaller version of a big, fancy department store once. They still carry different merchandise...but overpriced, just like everything else in Cape May now. We never had anything like Shepard's, and any Woolworth's vanished by the time I was a very small child. The only movie theater on Cape Island was (and is) the Beach Theater, now the Beach 4.

To me, big-time shopping meant a trip to the K-Mart in Rio Grande, the very one I went to today, in fact. When I was little, K-Mart was part of a big shopping mall that included a Deb Shop (Rose loved that store - I found it dull), a record store, several children's clothing stores (I remember the gorgeous frilly dresses Monkeys' had!), Thrift Drug, an arcade, a pizzaria, and a movie theater. My whole family used to go see movies together at Rick's Theater, most memorably "The Adams' Family" and "Beauty and the Beast." The whole, full theater, including my family, stood and applauded at the end of the latter - the first standing ovation I ever saw outside of TV.

Thrift Drug was the first to go, followed by the record store when CDs came in. The arcade, probably devestated by the home video game market, went next. The Deb Shop, being next to the K-Mart, was one of the last hold-outs, but Monkeys' vanished quickly. Rick's and the pizza parlor both held on as well, Rick's reduced to second-runs and B-pics, the pizza parlor continuing as a favorite place for birthday parties. Sadly, unlike your downtown Providence, there were no second chances for the Rio Mall. By the mid-90s, even Rick's was barely holding on, and the disappearance of the Deb Shop was the last straw. I hated having to run through there when Mom would come up to K-Mart. It was so bleak, especially since I remembered it as you recall the Outlet and Woolworth's, stuffed with Christmas decorations and busy shoppers. Rose and I even had our first visits with Santa at the Rio Mall, near what's now Save-a-Lot.

It was all gone by the turn of the millenium. The arrival of the Bayshore 8 sounded the death knell for Rick's. While K-Mart, the former Thrift Drug and Super Fresh buildings (now a Save-a-Lot cheap grocery store and empty, respectively), and a few small shops remain, the area of the mall that housed Rick's, the pizza parlor, the Deb Shop, and Monkeys' was demolished. They have yet to try a "real" indoor mall of that stripe in this area again. Even the new mall apparently being planned for across from K-Mart is a strip mall. (Ironically, Mom said that this plot of land was once a drive-in movie theater - she mentioned having seen the James Bond film "Live and Let Die" there.)

We don't get the kind of snow in this part of New Jersey that you guys get in New England. Last winter was downright amazing! I do have my own, somewhat similar snow memories - my sisters and I getting up early and listening to the radio for school closed reports, Mom insisting on breakfast first, going outside and running around the yard. With three (and later, four) of us, there were plenty of people for snowball fights and building snowmen and snow forts. When Daddy would come back from the dock, he'd chuck a couple of snowballs at us (he grew up in New York state and loves snow) and take all of us, even Mom, sledding on the West Cape May Bridge. There's an area of the bridge that borders a plot of farmland that remains in use as the local sledding hill to this day. It's bordered by a line of thick bushes and trees that keep vigorous sledders out of the Cape May Canal. Dad would drive us home, and while we took our wet things off, Mom would make us all hot chocolate, and we'd settle down and play games or watch a movie or (later) play video games.

I grew up around history, too, but of a different kind. My parents' tales were of growing up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Mom was moved from suburb to suburb (which she continues to have a healthy disdain for) and spoke of being the only kid with a working mother, her beloved kitchen playset, wrestling and playing sports with her brothers, and how she would fight her mother's efforts to make her dress like a "lady"...though she speaks longingly today of the muffs and lace dresses and fancy hats she had. My favorite picture of Mom is one when she was my age, taken in a Cape May boutique. Her hair is pure blonde Farah Fawcett fly-away, her shirt is so tight I'm surprised she can breathe, and she sports sunglasses and a tough, too-cool-for-words attitude. This is far from the warm, down-to-earth brunette I know today. Daddy's tales were of being a hoodlum and (accidentally) burning barns with his buddies and running to Cape May at 16.
Workin' Nine to Five...

I want so badly to have a nine-to-five job that's nine-to-five year-round. I want to have 40 hours in June and January. I want to have office parties and coffee breaks and my own little office, or at least cubicle. I finally did something to try to make my dream a reality today. I went to a job interview at the Current Newspapers of Cape May and Atlantic Counties in Egg Harbor. They're interested in finding someone to proofread and summarize and type items for their community calendar. They're still taking applicants, but the interview seemed to go well despite my stammering and nervousness. I hope something will come of it. I like my co-workers and my job at the Acme, but it's hardly what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Monday, November 03, 2003

80s Revival

Is everybody between the age of 20 and 35 feeling just a little old lately, or is it me? And it isn't just Perfect Strangers' recent Nick-at-Nite run, either. For one thing, my brother just entered fifth grade. I remember the first time I held him on my lap, when he was a newborn in the Burdette Tomilin Memorial Hospital! My teenage sister just moved out of my parents' house. I remember playing Barbies and stuffed animals and Legos with her when she was 6 and I was 12. My other sister now lives with her boyfriend and works long hours in a Cherry Hill restaraunt. I remember when we were the only kids in the family, and Mom was single, and the only men in our lives were Bert, Ernie, and Ken dolls.

I walked through the toy section at K-Mart today and was immediately transported more than a decade back. I saw Strawberry Shortcake rag dolls that smelled like fruit (although she doesn't sport a cute swiss-dotted dress anymore, and she doesn't smell quite as good). I saw huge stuffed Care Bears. I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and He-Man action figures I was tempted to buy my brother...and myself. It amuses me that my brother's two favorite shows are "Yu-Gi-Oh!" and "Transformers Armada." After all, didn't kids in the 80s revel in such complicated, Japanese Anime (or anime-inspired) adventures as "Robotech," "Voltron," "Spartacus," and "The Mysterious City of Gold?" And "Transformers" is one of the great 80s adventure 'toon, a dramatic, sometimes muddled tale of technology run amok.

It's strange, how some pop culture icons never really go away. Take Barbie. There's a whole eisle in K-Mart devoted to Barbie and similar fashion dolls - and Barbie's been around for 50 years. If you told me 10 years ago that half the toys I loved as a child would be making comebacks by 2003, I would have laughed and gone back to reading Sue Grafton. I can only imagine how my parents and older friends felt in the 80s, when 50s and 60s shows and toys started to make the rounds. I remember playing "The Lone Ranger" and "Superman" with my sisters in our backyard or at the beach.