Library School

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

by Alexander McCall Smith


Smith, A. M. (2009). Tea time for the traditionally built. New York: Pantheon.


This is the latest in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I must confess that it is the first I have read although this author and this series have been on my “to read” list for years. I am glad I finally got around to it and will be going back and reading the earlier ones as soon as I can procure them.

The action takes place in Botswana with Mma Precious Ramotswe running the detective agency and narrating the story. She has an assistant, Mma Makutsi who helps with the agency and in this story has some problems of her own. Mma Makutsi is engaged to a well off furniture store owner, Phuti Radiphuti, but a rival, Violet Sephotho, is trying to steal him away.

Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe gets a large case, as Rra Molofololo, owner of the local football team (soccer to Americans) the Kalahari Swoops, engages her to find out why the team is suddenly losing games. The answer is simple yet one easily overlooked by a busy, self important owner.

In the end the cases have a happy solution (I’m not going to spoil if for you—read the book), but Mma Ramotswe does lose her old small white van (we’ll have to see if she is able to get it back).

A wonderful series, quick and easy for busy folks and folks who want some relaxing reading. If you haven’t already, read one of the books in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. They are stand alone books so you can pick up any one, but having read the latest I am going to try to read the beginning ones.


The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

Christie, A. (1962). The pale horse. London: Collins.

This is a wonderful mystery featuring Mark Easterbrook. He is not a detective and doesn’t even claim to be an amateur detective.  He is an author who stumbles upon a strange sequence of events and decides he must look into it because in the beginning the police cannot.  

A dying woman confesses to a priest and he writes down a list of names – all of whom died. The priest is coshed in the head before he can tell anyone anything. A pharmacist insists that he saw a man following the priest, but the man he describes in a polio victim in a wheel chair.  People mention strange goings on at a place called The Pale Horse. It is a former pub now a home to 3 older women with a reputation as witches and mediums. One claims she can cause people to die by somehow thinking the suggestion to them and letting their body’s natural desire for death take over.

Mark Easterbrook and his friend Ginger and the police detectives do some undercover work and uncover the ring of people who are offering to get rid of someone for a price. The process is covered in layers of deception and ritual, but how it is actually done and by whom is much simpler and down to earth.

A wonderful read, different from the more popular Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries, but quite enjoyable.

Poisons and Poisoners: with Historical Accounts of Some Famous Mysteries in Ancient and Modern Times

By C. J. S. Thomson (Charles John Samuel)


Thompson, C. J. S.(1993 [1931]). Poisons and poisoners: With historical accounts of some famous mysteries in ancient and modern times. New York: Barnes & Noble.

This is an older work (1931) which was reprinted in the 1990s for a good reason. Thompson’s historical overview of poisons and poisoners is excellent. It covers the ancient world up through the 20th century in well laid out chapters. The earlier chapters discuss early plant and animal poisons used by tribes (think poison arrows) and early civilizations across the globe.

He points out that people discovered that if they shot someone with an arrow that had been previously pulled from a body, it had a more lethal effect (the arrows weren’t cleaned after being pulled from a body and helped add disease and infection to the wound). Soon folks started deliberately dipping arrows in blood and feces to make them more potent. Others used plant and animal toxins to coat their weapons.

Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, especially Italy, became a hot bed of poisoners as people discovered ways of eliminating the competition through nefarious ways. Italy led the way, but the techniques and formulas for effective poisons soon spread.

In the 19th and 20th centuries Thompson gives examples of famous poison cases. Many times the poisoner had some sort of medical training which enabled them to procure and administer poisons. Also, poisons were easily obtainable for supposedly innocent purposes. Fly paper was sold with arsenic. If one soaked the paper (as one did in using it), one would get a highly toxic arsenical solution.  

This is an enjoyable jaunt through the history of poisons with the types and uses explained. In addition, some of the more memorable of famous poison cases (usually the more modern ones are from Britain) are laid out for the reader’s enlightenment.

Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB

By Alex Goldfarb with Marina Litvinenko

Goldfarb, A. &. (2007). Death of a dissident: The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the return of the KGB. New York: Free Press.


This is an amazing tale told by Goldfarb and the widow of Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko, Marina Litvinenko. Sasha was a KGB operative working to crack down on organized crime. When the Soviet Union (USSR) dissolved, he then ended up working for the FSB (what the KGB became) doing similar work.

He ended up being sent into Chechnya and saw firsthand the destruction wrecked by the Russian army. Sasha started to question what was going on within the FSB. At this time Yeltsin was struggling to hold on to and encourage democracy in Russia and to seek someone to take over as president who would continue the liberal changes and encourage the fledgling democracy.

One thing led to another and Vladimir Putin was suggested as head of the FSB. Putin had been a KGB member for years. Sasha and some others started to investigate corruption within the FSB, but when they brought it to the attention of the top staff, including Putin, they were basically told to forget it or face the consequences. Sasha didn’t stop. He went public with his allegations that he and other FSB officers were ordered to kill Boris Berezovsky (high powered oligarch who was supporting democracy) and Mikhail Trepashkin, and ended up in prison. Later he was able to flee with his wife and son and ended up in London. From there he worked with a group of expatriates to try and open the western worlds eyes to what was going on in Russian politics and what Putin was doing.

A number of things led to the second Chechen war (which like the Iraq war for Bush helped him get into and stay in office as president). One in particular was a series of bombings of Moscow apartments. Sasha and the others were able to find evidence that the FSB themselves was most likely responsible for the bombings. Suddenly, people associated with the investigation into the bombings and those who were activating for peace in Chechnya started to be assassinated. Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya was a journalist at Novaya Gazeta and was assassinated in 2006 (shot while carrying groceries in her apartment elevator). Yuri Petrovich Schekochihin, a Duma member and journalist, was poisoned in 2003. Mikhail Ivanovich Trepashkin was a former FSB officer and lawyer and was arrested in 2003. In May 2006 Amnesty International  reported that Trepashkin was being denied medical treatment. He suffers from asthma and was sent to the hospital for treatment but then forcibly removed by prison wardens. Finally in 2007 USA Today  reported that Trepashkin was finally released from prison in Nizhny Tagil to Yekaterinburg, Russia. Trepashkin also reported that he and others were asked in 2002 to kill Litvinenko and Berezovsky. Trepashkin warned them about the hit squad and upon release from prison, stated that it was the Kremlin that had Litvinenko killed.

Litvinenko was poisoned on November 1 2006 and died November 23rd. At first doctors thought he just had a case of food poisoning. Then they thought it was Thallium poisoning. Actually it was Polonium-210 a radioactive substance that is highly lethal in very, very small doses that killed Litvinenko. This is a substance that only a very small number of places can manufacture. In fact, 97% of the world’s Polonium-210 comes from Russia. The trails all lead to Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun as the ones who brought the Polonium-210 out of Russian and to London to kill Litvinenko. It is possible that there was a third man as well.

This book is quite an eye opener into Russian politics and politics in general. It is also a lesson on why wars are started and why, when groups on both sides want peace, wars continue. Power over media, power over police, control of all secret services, power over regional governance, can all lead down a very dangerous road. The masses of citizens of the world need to start to look at what is going on and Goldfarb’s book provides an amazing inside view of only one time period in one government—but it is a very powerful view.

Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son: The Story of the Yorkshire Ripper

by Gordon Burn

Burn, G. (1984). Somebody’s husband, somebody’s son: The story of the Yorkshire Ripper. New York: Viking.

Burn does a fantastic job tackling a difficult subject. Peter Sutcliffe AKA The Yorkshire Ripper terrorized the citizens of Yorkshire, especially the West Riding area, for years. He killed 13 of the 20 women he brutally attacked. Women were terrified of going out at night for fear that they would be his next victim. Burn does a wonderful balancing act of giving a fair view of the background, childhood and life of The Ripper without bringing insult to his victims and without portraying only the killer side of Sutcliffe. Burn was able to do this through the generosity of Peter’s father and siblings and the brave generosity of some of Peter’s victims. All agreed to speak with Burn and did not attach any strings to their contribution. In return, we get a wonderful, as unbiased as possible look at someone who was loved, feared, and hated.

Peter was by many accounts the nicest and most generous of the Sutcliffe boys. He was always polite and dressed well. He was willing to help out, drive people around, drive himself around to visit elderly relatives during holidays, etc. When he worked as a lorry driver, he was always willing to take whatever load was needed. When waiting for the vehicle to be loaded, rather than complain like other workers, he would spend the time washing and polishing his cab. However, he was also very odd. He would make frequent trips to a wax museum where he spent his time staring at the morbid representations of male and female body parts at various stages of disease (usually STD). He would drive through red light districts and look for women alone. Those who were soliciting, he would pretend to be interested and then when they got out to “do the deed” Peter would come up behind them and hit them in the head with a hammer. Then he would stab them multiple times with a knife or screwdriver. Later he also strangled one or two. He claimed later he was hearing voices to clean up the streets and get rid of prostitutes, but not all of his victims were prostitutes. Some were simply women walking alone at night. He admitted that he killed some who were not prostitutes and he knew they weren’t at the time.

The Yorkshire Ripper was active in the 1970s but Peter Sutcliffe  is now being considered for release. He is currently in Broadmoor  mental hospital which is where many of Britain’s notorious criminals have ended up. First Sutcliffe must prove he is sane and then that he is no longer a threat to society. Originally he was sentenced to a minimum of 35 years. He is now 63 years old and needs considerable care—it has been decades since he has done simple things like handle money. Sutcliffe’s  claim is that he killed his victims because of his paranoid schizophrenia. Now, treatment has been positive for him and thus the claim that he is no longer a threat. It will definitely be interesting to see what the British justice system and psychiatric review board do with this case.

Nineteen Seventy Four

by David Peace

Peace, D. (1999). Nineteen seventy four. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Yorkshire is in northern England and includes the counties of South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, and the East Riding of Yorkshire. West Yorkshire is sometimes referred to as the West Riding. Leeds, Bradford, and Sheffield are some of the cities and towns and Bingley, Keighley, Castleford and Wakefield are smaller areas in West Yorkshire. The landscape is one of moors and hills that end in coastal cliffs.

This is the area that was home to the Yorkshire Ripper in the 1970s. Like Jack the Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper (later identified as Peter Sutcliffe) targeted mainly prostitutes or women he thought were prostitutes. David Peace’s first novel, Nineteen Seventy Four, is a fictional work about the time and area of the Yorkshire Ripper. Peace is from Ossett, West Yorkshire and thus is quite intimate with the area and time period. In this book he recreates the era of the Yorkshire Ripper. We follow the narrator/ protagonist, Edward Dunford, as he takes a job as a North of England Crime Correspondent for a local paper. A young girl is missing and although a search is made, it is presumed she is dead. Then her horribly mutilated and tortured body is found. Edward tries to link her murder with the disappearance of other young girls but is thwarted by the local police, wealthy real estate owners/ contractors, and his own paper.

There is nothing pleasant about this book at all. It is crude and vulgar, using short, choppy sentences and half sentences along with dialog and copious amounts of cursing. This is the feel of the ugly side of Yorkshire in the 1970s. Peace does an excellent job of recreating the odd relationship the police had with the public. The police were notorious for doing things THEIR way regardless of law. Both possible suspects and general witnesses were intimidated by the police. Edward has numerous run-ins and is repeatedly beaten, threatened, and tortured by authority figures. All the while he tracks down the people behind the serial murders and opens the reader’s eyes to a brutal universe.

This is an excellent, if not pretty, read and is followed by Peace’s other works in this series, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty, and Nineteen Eighty Three.

The Island of Lost Maps: True story of cartographic crime

by Miles Harvey

Harvey, M. (2000). The island of lost maps: True story of cartographic crime. New York: Random House.

The Island of Lost Maps is a wonderful journey and exploration into cartographic history, library rare books librarians, and the deeds of one Gilbert Bland—notorious map thief.  Harvey takes us on a personal journey with him as he tracks down Bland and tries to reconstruct the actions of this “unremarkable” man who stole hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of dollars worth of rare maps from libraries across the country.

He had gotten into trouble with the law before, but was basically let off the hook if he agreed to join the army (during the Vietnam War), which he did. After Vietnam he went into business for himself but that was failing. Apparently Bland then stumbled upon the idea of going into rare book rooms and cutting valuable maps out of valuable rare books and then selling the maps to other map dealers or collectors.

This story is not just a recount of a criminal’s activities, but a personal journey of the author’s as he tracks down not just Bland but people in the field of cartography and associated with libraries, maps or FBI involved in the case. It is an eye opening book into the world of rare book rooms of libraries and the librarians who work there; into the world of map dealers and collectors; and into the history of maps and mapmaking itself.

A wonderful tour de force.

« Previous PageNext Page »