CRAIG CONLEY (Prof. Oddfellow) is recognized by Encarta as “America’s most creative and diligent scholar of letters, words and punctuation.” He has been called a “language fanatic” by Page Six gossip columnist Cindy Adams, a “cult hero” by Publisher’s Weekly, and “a true Renaissance man of the modern era, diving headfirst into comprehensive, open-minded study of realms obscured or merely obscure” by Clint Marsh. An eccentric scholar, Conley’s ideas are often decades ahead of their time. He invented the concept of the “virtual pet” in 1980, fifteen years before the debut of the popular “Tamagotchi” in Japan. His virtual pet, actually a rare flower, still thrives and has reached an incomprehensible size. Conley’s website is OneLetterWords.com.
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A Turkish Delight of musings on languages, deflations of metaphysics, vauntings of arcana, and great visual humor.

Today — July 25, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Rex Stout:

***

"No." He meant every word of it.

***

[Arbitrary non-round-number percentages dept.]

At least 91.2 per cent of the district attorneys in the State of New York think they would make fine tenants of the governor's mansion in Albany.

***

"You're at liberty to tell me to go climb a tree if you find the question ticklish. I might add that I would be at liberty to climb a pole instead of a tree."

***

Archie has found some rocks that might yield evidence, but he's lecturing himself about how impractical it will be to home in on it...

***

Good for you, I thought, you've made one hell of a discovery and now you're a geologist. All you have to do now is put every damn rock under the glass, and along about Labor Day you'll be ready to report. Ignoring my sarcasm, I went on looking.

***

"If Wolfe had intercepted me to tell me to type for him a summary of the headway made during the week, it wouldn't have delayed me more than ten seconds. I could merely have stepped into the office for a blank sheet of paper and handed it to him--or, if he wanted it in triplicate, three sheets."

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July 22, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Edgar Box:
***
"Mrs. Veering had changed from calm rational matron to Niobe, weeping over her children, if that's the one who wept over her children."
***

From Too Many Clients, by Rex Stout:

***

"It went on for minutes, and all he said was 'No' nine times. When he hung up I said, 'Just a yes man.'"

***

From Close Quarters, by Michael Gilber:

***

"Mrs. Judd?" he suggested, without apparent reflection.

"I was coming to her," said the Dean reluctantly. Rather in the manner of one who dis-cupboards a tiresome skeleton.

***

The arrangement of the south side of the Close was particularly gratifying to an orderly mind. Big house, little house, big house, little house. Canon, minor canon, canon, minor canon. Like a huge ecclesiastical sandwich with alternate layers of jam and cream.

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July 20, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Leo Bruce:
He was on mutual boring terms with most of the town.

***

Young barmen were employed to assist her.... She called them all Fred, ignoring any hopes they might voice of keeping their own names. [This predates the Pythons and "Bruce," btw.]

***

"'Mr Raydell,' I said, 'you will please remove that beast at once and never bring it into my bar again. I'm surprised at you doing such a thing.' 'It's only an ocelet,' he said. 'Only an ocelot--that's quite enough, I should think,' I told him. 'If you don't take it away immediately I shall call the police. I won't have ocelets in my bar!' 'There's only one,' said Mr Raydell. 'I don't care if there is one or fifty,' I told him. 'It's the principle of the thing.'"

***

"What would you say to ocelot attacking you in a bar in England?" he asked stertorously.

"I shouldn't speak to it," said Carolus."

***

"That of course makes nonsense." [I didn't know you could make nonsense, the way you can make sense!]

***

"At a club called the Surly Tapster."

"The boisterous individual with the bald head and monstrous moustache who had greeted us so heartily on our arrival had become a sagging and weary man. Even the moustache looked lifeless."

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July 16, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Edgar Box:
***

I have a theory that I think best shortly after I wake up in the morning. Since no very remarkable idea has ever come to me at any time, to prove or disprove my theory, I can happily believe that this is so and my usual plodding seems almost inspired to me in these hours between waking and the clutter and confusion of lunchtime.

***

"An armed camp," I murmured to myself, in Bold Roman.

[More of his typographical whimsy--among other things--can be found in the attachments.]

***

[Someone Should Write a Book dept.]

I decided that it was time someone wrote a handbook for adulterers.

[Cf. the film Guide for the Married Man]

***

"First, Lee's death... then the will, that dreadful will." She shut her eyes a moment as though trying to forget a million dollars... since this is not easily done, she opened them again.

***

I told her that the next few days would have to be lived through, the sort of reassurance which irritates me but seems to do other people good, especially those who do not listen to what you say.

***

"'For who would fardels bear....'" boomed Miss Pruitt, recognizing my allusion to him whom they call "the bard" in political circles. She fardeled on for a moment or two; then, her soliloquy done, "It's possible you're right," she said.

***

After an hour of this, everyone shifted positions, as often happens with a group in civilized society: a spontaneous rearrangement of the elements to distribute the boredom more democratically.

***



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July 14, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Rex Stout:
***

"I turned and marched out, chin up, with my ego patting me on the back."

***

"You mean--she--they--it--we"

"That's one way of putting it."

***

"No, thank you. Beer likes me, but I don't like it."

***

I have never seen a balder man, and his hairless freckled dome had a peculiar attraction. It was covered with tiny drops of sweat, and nothing ever happened to them. He didn't touch them with a handkerchief, they didn't get larger or merge or trickle, and they didn't dwindle. They just stood pat. There was nothing repulsive about them, but after ten minutes or so the suspense was quite a strain.

***

If I had actually seen the last of Nero Wolfe, it was a damn sad day for me, there were no two ways about that, and if I got a lump in my throat and somebody walked in I would just as soon show him the lump as not. But what if it was Wolfe himself who walked in? That was the trouble. Damned if I was going to work up a fancy lump and then have him suddenly appear and start crabbing about something.

***

“You thought it would be funny to have a talk with Rackham, and it may be all right this time, but some day something that you think is funny [ . . .]”

Only after he had gone did it occur to me that that wouldn’t prove it wasn’t funny.

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July 11, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Robert Goldsborough:

***

[Maledicta dept.]

"He strung a series of expletives together, none of which can be used on vanity license plates in any state."

***

"I'm afraid that you and Nero Wolfe are really going to have to pull a rabbit, or at least a hamster, out of a hat this time to construct a halfway-believable murder scenario."

***

"Afternoon." A deep voice stretched it to four or five syllabes, rather than the conventional three. [...]

"Afternoon," I countered, making no attempt to elongate the word. I know my limitations.

***

Entering, I found myself in a reception area manned by a strawberry blonde with a well-shaped nose who was busy driving an electric typewriter.

***

"I'd sure as hell like to scoop the argyle socks off those arrogant bastards who run the fat, self-satisfied daily over in the next county."

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July 9, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Stage Fright, by Gillian Linscott:

***

The Crispin is a small theatre wedged apologetically into a side street near Charing Cross station.

***

His eyebrows had that little lift to them that makes a person look clever even if he isn't.

***

[The American-born wife of an English aristocrat talks about storming out of the dining room when fed up with her husband.]

"The trouble was, I was so blazing mad I'd forgotten that when the hostess walks out all the other women get up and walk out with her. And would you believe that's just what they did, right in the middle of dessert? There I was, out on the terrace..., and eleven English ladies in formal dress trailed after me, wondering what they were supposed to do next."

[Later on, it's explained that the aristocrat is baffled as to how to react when an airplane carrying his wife and her presumed lover crash-lands on his property--because there's no social "precedent" for how one behaves in that particular situation.]

***

with a dazed look on his face, like Hamlet who's just been told that soliloquies are out of fashion

***

["I'm not sure your metaphor really works, but I like it anyway" dept.]

If London has a Bohemia I suppose Bloomsbury is it, but at eleven o'clock on a November night, with a few street lamps and bare plane trees, it looked as carefree as a frozen dishcloth.

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July 6, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Ellery Queen:

***

"DeWitt Alistair" sounded like a made-up name in a third-rate play played by a fourth-rate company. But it happened to be Alistair's legal moniker, which he used only when the mark needed a particular kind of softening up. As it had turned out, he would have been better advised to use something that sounded as if it came out of Pilgrim's Progress, like John Repentance or Reuben Disappointment.

***

From Old Scores, by Aaron Elkins:

[The story hinges on a questionable painting that was allegedly discovered in a junk shop in Paris. How do you one-up a junk shop in Paris, humorwise--and twice over? Like this!]

"Where'd he find this one, at a garage sale in Toulouse?"

***

["Talking to the chopped liver" dept.]

He was at this moment devoting his attention to the /pâté de campagne/... grumbling in an undertone to himself, or maybe to the pâté, as he spread it on a slice of bread. Listening to Lorenzo for too long affected different people different ways, and talking to the chopped liver didn't really seem that extraodinary.

***

"Why has he kept them a secret?"

He paused to eye us all, one by one. No one offered an answer. We knew a rhetorical question when we heard one.

***

[So that's what those are for!]

We found him standing before the canvas just the way he had last night: his big head thrown back, his hands behind him, clasping his elbows. He was wearing a scruffy, yellowish brown tweed jacket with leather elbow patches (to protect against all that elbow-clasping?)....

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July 3, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Murder at Midyears, by Marion Mainwaring.

***

[Department of Non-Words]

Miss Gaw let out an explosive sound which was suppressed before it took shape as a word.

***

[Department of Decontextualized Mittens]

A red angora mitten lay on the seat.

[The story also includes a gratuitous reference to English muffins.]

***

[from a bit where someone is reading out a proof for correction]

"Capital he is somewhat like a salamander comma and lives in the flame of love...."

***

a square short man with a florid face, sleek as a platitude

***

the knobbed and begargoyled chair he had offered

***

"They must return it to me at once," replied Younghusband, glaring at Sampson, who seemed to have become for him a convenient symbol of They.

[Btw, Younghusband's first name is Noah, and he's upwards of ninety years old.]

***

"She was like nothing so much as a thick, comfortable Christmas candle."

[My math could be wrong, but I have a feeling that--apart from candles in the wind--it's rare to see someone compared to a candle.]

***

"The sociologists call it... 'cementing college-community relations.'"

"Why do they always 'cement' relations?" sighed Miss Dixon fastidiously.

Mitchell explained [Rhetorical Questions Answered dept.], "Why, it's a figure of speech, Miss Dixon. 'Relations' is an abstract noun, whereas--"

Jill interrupted quickly. "I've always wanted to see a Sociological Relation. I picture it as a sort of giant jellyfish."

"Don't tell the police that," said Mary Gaw, "or they'll start hunting for it."

 

[and a little later in the same scene]

"The police bureau must be the repository of many secrets.... Can anyone tell me why secrets are invariably kept in repositories?"

"One of my favorite words, 'repositories,'" Cohn said sentimentally.

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June 30, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Death of a Cozy Writer, by G. M. Malliet:

***

Jim had decided to give the customers what they wanted. What they wanted, apparently, were striped red velour seat coverings and antique farm implements suspended from the ceiling. The place now looked like a cross between a Victorian brothel and a cowshed.

***

"I have no money, you know that. At least, not the sort needed to buy someone off. I doubt I could buy off a poodle."

***

[Author Shows Off Her Erudition in a De Facto Footnote dept.:]

"She got off scot free for that [crime committed in Scotland]."
"Please, no puns, Sergeant. Even though, as I understand it, scot free has nothing to do with Scotsmen."

***

[The funniest character in this book, which is set in England, is an American who tries too hard to talk like a Brit. As far as I know, "fish and chips" is *not* British slang for "baloney" (i.e., nonsense), but this American named Jeffrey Spencer, quoted below, thinks otherwise.]

"Baloney. Or as you might say, fish and chips."

***

[And here's what the protagonist has to say about Jeffrey:]

"I imagine he came here to search for his roots. With a name like Spencer he's bound to climb up several wrong branches of the family tree."

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June 28, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Catriona McPherson:
There comes a point when cheerfulness shades into inanity and young Jamesie had found it and set up his stall there.
***
From Jon L. Breen's "The House of the Shrill Whispers":

If we were characters in a novel instead of characters in a short story, I'd discourse with you at appropriate length about the foolishness and absurdity of characters in fiction pretendin' they're real.

***

From Ellery Queen's The Finishing Stroke:

It turned out a huge sprawl of a house, of incredible spread, coming to a giant peak--a two-story-and-attic so broad it looked sat upon.... The whole monster was thickly nested in shrubs, an Ancient Mariner of a house with a Galway beard.

***

[Doing the Math dept.]

"I conclude a [romantic] triangle."

"I'm not helping you with your math, Mr. Queen."

***

["We'll take that as a compliment" dept.]

"December twenty-fifth through the night of January fifth--Christmas through what's officially known as Twelfth Night--that makes a holiday party of twelve days, Ellen."

"What of it?"

"Look around. Twelve people in the party. Doesn't that strike you as interesting?"

"Not in the least," Ellen retorted. "What a peculiar mind you have."

***

Chapter V.... In Which a Summerhouse Sets the Scene for a Winter's Tale....

***

She looked as if she were tryinig to get off her horse and remain in the saddle at the same time.

***

["Using up all the e's" dept.]

Mrs. Brown eeked every time she laid eyes on him.

***

"Aha!" Ellery said. "And oho!"

***

[Exotic Mild Oaths dept.]

"I'll be double-dyed in Danbury."

***

"A whale of a red herring, you might say."

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June 26, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Leo Bruce's Death of Cold:

He found the bathing-hut attendant a middle-aged man wearing a blue jersey from which a thin and sinewy neck protruded to blossom into a rather startling face. This was pale, or seemed so in contrast to a sudden crimson nose....

***

She'd have taken her bathing-dress off altogether and walked about like a statue if I'd have let her.

***

"We've had instructions from the highest quarters that no further investigation is necessary or in the public interest."
"That's fine. But, you see, there are no highest quarters for me.... Highest quarters have always seemed to me rather silly."

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June 22, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery:

***

his dark vandyke pointed accusingly at the floor

[And, describing a different character within the same paragraph:]

buried in a study as deep and brown as his beard

[Who knew that brown studies showed different *degrees* of brownness!]

***

"Khalkis... said, in these exact words: 'Before you leave remind me to call Barrett's and order some new ties like the one I'm wearing'.... The verbal italicization is mine."

[I.e., the verbal italicization is Ellery's--Ellery the character, that is, not Ellery the author(s).]

***

"The best possibility is Mrs. Sloane, although it's true that there doesn't seem to be any reason why she should inform against her own husband--"
"An acute parenthesis," drawled Ellery.

***

Ellery proved himself a philosopher and went to sleep.

[I think, in the context, this means he was able to remain "philosophical" about a setback and not let it keep him up... but I like the (un?)intentional auxiliary suggestion that dozing off is typical of what philosophers do.]

***

She took a deep breath, and the smoke dribbled out of her lovely mouth like punctuation marks as she talked.

***

This was serious, and the old man's nose lengthened and his jaw snapped in a manner that boded ill for the sergeant.

[I didn't realize that becoming dissatisfied with an employee's conduct could make the nose grow! I thought it was only lying that did that!]

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June 20, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From a Charlotte and Aaron Elkins novel:

He charged off looking for Donny like a bull hunting for a china shop.

***

(Who Needs Context? dept.):

"Cosmic forces would have to take a back seat to coffee and pancakes."

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June 16, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From The Widening Stain by Morris Bishop:

***

"Put it under Education and you can't go wrong." Miss Gorham smiled to herself. That was the sort of little joke she enjoyed. The best little jokes are plain statements of fact.

***

"They weren't talking very loud. But I did hear one thing. She called him a papoose."
"A what?"
"A papoose. You know, Indian baby."
"But that doesn't make sense!"
"I didn't say it made sense. I said she called him a papoose."

***

[Department of Anthropomorphized Clocks]

As the two stepped out through the wide French windows, the great clock of the Library cleared its throat, struck ten mournful strokes, and sighed.

***

"[Golf] is an introspective game. In any other game.... one extroverts, to the good of one's soul."

[First time I've seen "extrovert" as a verb!]

***

She put on her luncheon face and strolled to the Union.

***

[Magic Words Dept.]

"'Hickory, dickory, dock' is in limerick form, and is probably very ancient. It suggests in its wording an old gypsy spell, which begins: 'Ekkeri, akai-ri, you kair-an.' And that suggests the numerals in Sanskrit, and also the very ancient Anglo-Cymric score, by means of which the shepherds still count their sheep."

***

"It had the right rhyme-scheme, a a b b a, but lines three and four were the same length as lines one, two, and five. I had to tell her it was an improper limerick."

***

As [the operatic singer] questioned whether or not she should wake the hotly burning lover.... her voice assumed a thrilling, penetrating quality that would have roused anyone else, though he were dozing in the lobby.

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June 14, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Ellery Queen:
The lobby was jammed, and a peacock's tail of eyes regarded him with curiosity.

***

Flapdoodle, with onions on the side.

***

He was christened Aubrey, as in C. Aubrey Smith, rest his stiff-upper soul.

***

"I wonder what the blonde's got up her sleeve."
"I'm glad somebody has something up something," Ellery said.

***

When he spoke his voice was resonant, his diction perfect, his accent Harvard--somewhere between beginning-senior and postgraduate consistency; such a voice must have behind it entire walls of morocco-bound volumes.... In the midst of his performance, [he] gave her a broad wink which detracted not, by the shadow of a subjunctive, from it.

***

The Inspector... gave him half a grin, the left half.

***

"Where do you want to check me next?"
"Walt's room."
"We searched it like Maxwell J. House looking for the last drop."

***

[Blank "map" dept.]

The old man's face was a sight to behold. For just as all the combined rays of the spectrum reflect to the eye the color white, so all the Inspector's emotions--stupefaction, self-castigation, professional chagrin, anger at subordinates and half a dozen others--produced an expression of total blankness.

***

[Elusive Expletives dept.]

He stumped into his study, stubbed his toe, groped for a curse word....

***

Ellery arrghed and clapped the book shut. That's what you get when you do bird-dogging for analogies! They strike close enough to make a noise, but then they go ricocheting off into the irrelevant.

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June 12, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Aaron Elkins:
Jacques wouldn't know 'devious' if it walked up to him and said bonjour.
***

He was wearing a shapeless, colorless canvas fisherman's hat, a decrepit old windbreaker, worn cotton jeans, and old tennis shoes. His stubby, metal-stemmed pipe, unlit, was clenched in his teeth, the bowl upside down. He was, Gideon thought, working at looking like an archaeologist. What he looked like was Monsieur Hulot.

***

"There's an old story.... Skolnick borrows a kettle from Mandlebaum, and when he brings it back, Mandlebaum says, 'Look, there's a big hole in this kettle; how am I supposed to use it anymore? You got to give me another one.' Skolnick says no he won't, so they argue about it, and finally they agree to go in front of the rabbi to settle it. You know this story?"
"Does a horse in a bathtub come into it?"
"No, that's a different story."

***
From Marion Boyd Havighurst:
Only the silence of printed words fell about my ears.
***
A novel by Carolyn Wells opens with this oath:
"Well, by the Great Catamaran!"
***
From Anthony Berkeley:
"He's absolutely genuine, nearly always says just what he thinks, and is the only man I've ever met called Philip who isn't a prig."
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June 8, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

Catriona McPherson tidbits:

"And it's marvellous of darling Hugh to embrace his horizons expanding into such lightness and ..." Here Pearl lost hold of the metaphor and let it float away.

***

“All we need is the right French mistress and we shall be fine. Absolutely fine.” But she did not sound absolutely fine, or even one good French mistress short of it. [Btw, "French mistress" here is to be taken, not in the ooh-la-la sense, but in the schoolteaching sense.]

***

"The plot doesn't exactly thicken but it far from dilutes, wouldn't you say?"

"It curdles," I said.

***

"But I like things not to make sense, Alec dear, as you know. For then there is something to catch hold of and straighten out about them." We smoked in silence for a while, each hoping to catch hold of a loose end immediately, each failing to do so.

***

"Elf-f-f-f is the rather silly nickname of Edward Lionel Frederick Forrester-Franklin." [I note that he has somehow ended up with a surplus "f."]

***

"Marigold did some Lady Bracknelling about, seeing what she thought of Fleur as a daughter-in-law."

***

There was a short silence, whose source and whose journey I could not fathom.

***

“Well there’s the Haunted Ram, of course.”
“A public house?” I asked.
“A ram,” she corrected. “Haunted.”
[...]
Fifteen minutes later, I came reeling out into the uncertain sunshine with my wee map in my hand and my head swirling with phantasms too many to number; Moffat most certainly was a place where the dead seemed to go about their business unimpeded by their change of state and with no thoughts of lying down quietly and mouldering.
[...]
Bruce and Wallace and even Malcolm had paused at Moffat on their travels . . . imbuing the hills and fields with the sort of vanquished hopes and tragic disappointment which inevitably end up as grey ladies and headless pipers.

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June 4, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

Tidbits from No Man's Street, by Beverley Nichols:

***

"I have Retired, with a capital R. And I have said Farewell. With a capital F."

 ***

She laughed on an ascending scale; it was a coloratura laugh, but there was real gaiety in it.

 ***

"I've had Dr. Liversedge round here this morning..."

"The Liversedge?"

"You and your 'the's.' Yes. The Liversedge. A walking encyclopaedia of music."

***

[Blank Map dept.]

It should be called Number Nothing, No Man's Street, Nowhere.

***

Only one feature surprised him--the exceptional length of the doctor's arms. When he let them fall to his side, they seemed to stretch nearly to his knees. They disturbed Mr. Green; there was something almost--what was the word?--almost simian about them. He had a momentary vision of the doctor in a jungle, swinging through dark branches in search of forbidden fruit. No sooner had the fancy entered his mind than he dismissed it. It was pleasanter, and possibly more sensible, to imagine that the arms had grown with the music, stretching year by year as they reached out for greater beauty.

***

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June 2, 2017 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Murder By Request, by Beverley Nichols:
***
"I can hardly believe that you came down to this place merely to take off a bit of weight."

"Quite."

"You and your 'quites'! I always think that 'quite' is the most aggravating word in the language."

"Quite."

***

The joke was that ever since the business of the "Z" Waller had found himself using Z's all over the place. "Wizard"... "Puzzled"... "Maze."

***

It would have been pleasing to produce an epigram about the vital relevance of irrelevancy, but he resisted the temptation.

***

If Mr. Green had not had his filet steak, our story might have slowed down, might even have meandered to an inconclusive semicolon.

***

Moral problems, he decided, were best tackled out of doors.

***

"I have a certain proprietary affection for my mind, such as it is."

***

[I've encountered this before, in a Leo Bruce novel--the treatment of four-letter words as, instead, one-letter words.]

"I've heard some language in my life, seeing as I've served behind the bar in the old days, and what I don't know about the B's and the F's isn't worth knowing."

***

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