What I'm Reading
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (1929). The movie follows the book very closely--and is a pleasure to read. There are a lot of people that love to parody Hammett's hard boiled detective style, but until you actually read this book, you don't realize how clever a piece of work it is. Okay, I admit, when I first read the description of Joel Cairo, I had no problem visualizing Peter Lorre in all his greasy and creepy mannerisms in the film.
I've finished the seventh book in the Harry Potter series--and enjoyed it immensely. Those who insisted on seeing it as some dark, demonic, anti-Christian work will be startled by how it ends--when Harry must sacrifice himself to save others. While Rowling was clearly trying to end it in a way that would discourage anyone from demanding more books in the series, it wasn't completely foreclosing the possibility--unlike killing off Sherlock Holmes. Can Harry Potter, Junior Auror be out of the question? I don't think so!
Robert L. Mack, ed., Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Oxford University Press, 2007) is something that you might not expect--a critical edition of The String of Pearls: A Romance, first published in 1846-7 in The People's Periodical and Family Library, a British serial. (The ironic combination of Family Library and this truly gruesome work is a reminder that popular tastes being somewhat degraded isn't new.) This is where Sweeney Todd first makes his appearance--and yes, he is completely fiction--there is no real incident behind this gruesome story.
A number of different authors are reputed to have written various parts of this serial--and it shows. The People's Periodical was one of the aptly named "penny dreadfuls" of the time, purveying various lurid tales for the emerging market of lowbrow tastes. The early chapters are really not very well written--but by about chapter five or six, the writing has actually improved quite substantially. It is more readable than some of its Victorian counterparts, and not quite as hopelessly self-conscious in its moralizing as say, Vanity Fair.
I didn't see the movie. The notion of making a musical around murder and... inappropriate cooking ingredients is about as appealing to me as a musical like Springtime for Hitler. I ended up reading this book partly because my wife wouldn't let me have Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and partly because I like to understand the Victorian period. Now, you may be thinking that this book must have been pretty shocking when it appeared--but the Victorian period confronted the problem of cannibalism surprisingly often, because of the problems of shipwrecks. Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex discusses how often this problem came up in the nineteenth century. That there wasn't much need for cannibalism in London did nothing to reduce the public fascination with how people deal with the discovery that lunch isn't FDA approved.