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, a “monk for the modern age” by George Parker, 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.

March 17, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Men at Work, by Honor Tracy:

***

"Letters, Mr. B. Two on 'em," said a strange gusty voice that seemed to whistle up from nowhere and have nothing to do with a throat.

***

"I tell you, give us a novel. We are all of us longing for a novel." He sounded, as the Pilkington brothers [literary agents] always did, as if a novel were a cake or a pudding.

***

He listened to himself with pleasure as he uttered these lofty words, thinking they went very well with the chandelier and the velvet curtains.

***

In his absence Dr. Frosch had lit a cigar of ominous length and was eager for conversation.

***

"You never going to keep your big mouth shut?" Iris inquired, more in the manner of a Greek chorus than as one expecting a reply.

***

Delilah refused to accept them on the grounds of their being stale. In her view a telegram once opened, like a bottle of champagne, lost all its fizz.

***

It had always been a matter or pride and joy with him that he was attached to so vigorous and pioneering an organization; but there were times he could have wished himself in some fusty old-world setup where the primary aim was education rather than luring away of students from rival establishments.

***

[Bonus: The protagonist's eccentric, quasi-illiterate mother-in-law gently describes him as "crazy," with "his head full of ink where the brains ought to be."]

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March 13, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Death's Savage Passion, by Orania Papazoglou:

[For those keeping score: This mystery novel from the 1980s about romance writers moving into the "romantic suspense" field has to be the "shop-talkiest" work of fiction I've ever read. It wasn't a bad thing--it was educational and didn't really bog down the story.]

***

Her bright yellow bathrobe flapped [flapped!] over her bare feet, making her look like a particularly exuberant monk.

***

"Fans"--she shook her head resentfully--"are the only problem with the Russian Tea Room."

I didn't tell her she'd have less trouble with fans if she stopped sending her heroines to dinner in her favorite restaurants.

***

["Are You a House Name?" dept.]

"The way Verna was going, she was turning into a house name."

***

In a suite full of paper, there are paper rustles, paper sighs, paper complaints. Paper shudders and snaps in the ghost breezes, the ghost drafts. Writers' offices, literary agents' offices, publishing houses all sound like haunted mansions after dark.

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March 10, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Murder Underground, by Mavis Doriel Hay

***

Mr. Slocomb's mouth was drawn into the lines of inverted V, and his eyebrows tended to repeat the same figure.

***

[Pathetic Fallacy ostentatiously avoided!]

The telephone bell rang; not with any significant note as it does in the best regulated murder mysteries, but with its usual ear-splitting insistent din.

[But there is a nod to telephone anthropomorphization later in the book.]

The telephone shrilly demanded the inspector's attention.

***

"I'm sure Peter's quite capable of painting a smile [on my portrait], if a smile is asked for, even if it isn't there"....

"But it might be someone else's smile, and that wouldn't be at all the same thing."

***

He was constantly devising new systems of classification for his cuttings, and as he never completed one before abandoning it in favour of another, the precious strips of paper were grouped in a disorderly medley of systems.

***

"But why should Phemia keep making wills in that undisciplined way?" enquired Mr. Pongleton severely.

***

Mrs. Daymer presented her card, which Mrs. Birtle read carefully and then turned over, as if she expected to find something really interesting on the back.

***

"The rain was torrentential!"

[Spoken by a chronic malapropper. Then, later in the conversation...]

"Did I tell you what a day it was?"

"Yes; torrentential rain!" put in Gerry quickly, longing to try the word.

***

"But just why was it so important?" asked Mr. Grange, who was one of those people who always manage to know less than others, although constantly asking questions.

***

"I should not have thought Bob Thurlow's experience in the underground would give him much knowledge of gardening," Mrs. Daymer remarked coldly.

"Most gardeners know a sight too much," Cissie assured her. "They're always telling you you're wrong. It'd be a jolly good thing to have one who didn't know."

***

[Bonus newspaper names: The Daily Chat, the Evening Snatch, and the Sunday Smatter.]

[There are ads for mysterious and presumably fake products called Smarmi and Bullo behind the train on the cover. (The artwork comes from an actual vintage poster, and as far as I can see in the thumbnail of that on the back cover, the fake ads were part of that as well.)]

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March 6, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From "The Theft of Nothing At All," by Edward D. Hoch:

[Professional thief Nick Velvet charges five-figure fees to steal things, but he will only steal things that "have no value." In other words, all the usual valuables and treasures are off-limits according to his rule, so clients hire him to take things that have no intrinsic value but which, in one way or another, provide the key to carrying off some highly lucrative shenanigans. It turns out to be a pretty easy rule to satisfy, because even something as simple as a literal key might qualify, though the setups are generally more indirect and creative than just, say, stealing a key to a locker that contains valuables or negotiable secret documents or the like. Then, in some of the stories, Nick has a frenemy called the White Queen--a rival thief who accomplishes, as her business cards state, "Impossible Things Before Breakfast" (she pulls her capers, some of which involve trompe-l'oeil substitutions, in the early morning, and then celebrates with a hearty repast).

[But I especially wanted to mention the story in the subject line, wherein Nick is hired to steal "nothing." Initially, the idea is just that he is being paid *not* to steal anything on a particular day, to guarantee that an opposing faction will not hire him *to* steal a set of sealed cans that are used by the state lottery and are vulnerable on that day. But it gets more interesting, because instead of stealing the cans, Nick (working for both sides now) merely disables them by opening them, which accomplishes the same purpose.]

***

"I paid you not to steal anything today!"

[....]

"I did exactly what you hired me to do. I stole nothing."

"But you opened those cans--"

"And took nothing from them. Oh, yes, I took one thing from them. By opening them I removed the vacuum from each can. I stole a vacuum, Trotter, and as any dictionary will tell you, a vacuum is a space entirely devoid of matter. A vacuum is nothing at all, and that's what I stole by opening those cans--nothing at all!"

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March 3, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Excellent Intentions, by Richard Hull:

***

"I suppose that Cargate's tone and manner ruffled me and that therefore I was critical." Macpherson ran his hand through his grey hair so that it certainly looked literally ruffled.

***

"You don't do such a thing, for fear, as they said on the margins of the Victorian penny reds, of 'damaging the cement.' I always like that phrase."

***

"Does that make a difference? I only just want to know"....Had the rest of the jury been aware of it, he went through life saying that he 'only just wanted to know.'"

***

"I second that." The remark came from a man who...acted on the principle that it helped to reach a decision rapidly if every proposition was immediately seconded....He made an invariable practice of seconding everything--occasionally absent-mindedly seconding the opposition to something whose proposal he had already attempted to secure.

***

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February 28, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From A Picture of Murder, by T. E. Kinsey:

***

"No one ever said ghosts had access to the Land Registry."

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February 25, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From The Santa Klaus Murder, by Mavis Doriel Hay:

***

Nurse Bryan flaunted naturally; she would probably have flaunted whilst walking in her sleep.

***

"All that shutter business is just a blind!" [This is then revealed to have been an unintentional pun.]

***

[Bonus: This is one of those novels in which the chapters have titles, and chapter 14 is called "A Pair of Eyebrows."]

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February 21, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Death on the Cherwell, by Mavis Doriel Hay:

***

"And don't squeak so; they'll think I'm keeping guinea-pigs in my room."

***

"Will you please stop saying 'eek,'" requested Jacob, with a hint of testiness. "You're going to use up all the e's."]

***

"Did you motor down?" Gwyneth asked Basil politely.

"We did—but I thought it was always called 'up?'" [Misordered punctuation sic]

"Well, of course, you come up, if you come to college, but when you motor from London on a visit I think you motor down."

"Very subtle! But of course, Oxford thought is subtle."

Gwyneth laughed uncertainly, fearing that Basil was a high-brow being obscurely witty.

***

[Imaginary Sister for the Sake of a Joke dept.]

"My sister...married a Talbot."

[The Talbot is apparently a model of automobile, and the speaker subsequently admits that he invented the sister for the sake of the joke. I've done that myself! "My sister is so economical that when she goes out in the cold, she comes back with one rosy cheek."]

***

The whole academic world seemed to be changing its nature, putting on wigs and false eyebrows and taking part in a melodrama.

***

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February 18, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Past Imperfect, by Julian Fellowes:

***

[How to Be Your Own Ghost]

London is a haunted city for me now and I am the ghost that haunts it.

[Btw, that's the first sentence of the book--not bad!]

***

His vagueness was more akin to Mr. Pastry.

[That sent me to Wikipedia! I'll spare you the trip: 'The series, with the theme tune "Pop Goes The Weasel", had episodes lasting 25 minutes in which Hearne assumed the character of "Mr Pastry" – an old man with a walrus moustache, dressed in a black suit or raincoat and with a trademark bowler hat. Each week, the bumbling old man would have adventures, partly slapstick, partly comic dance, with two young friends. Jon Pertwee also starred in the show in a variety of roles.']

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February 14, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Less, by Andrew Sean Greer:

***

Listen: you might hear anxiety ticking, ticking, ticking away as he stares at that clock, which unfortunately is not ticking itself. It stopped fifteen years ago.

***

New York is a city of eight million people, approximately seven million of whom will be furious when they hear you were in town and didn't meet them for an expensive dinner...[it goes on in that vein]....but only five actually available to meet you.

***

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February 11, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From A Lady's Guide to Gossip and Murder, by Dianne Freeman:

***

"Ladies," he said with a tip of his straw boater. "I was hoping to find you here. Well, actually I was only hoping to find you, cousin Frances."

He paused, but as I drew breath to speak, he continued. "Not that I didn't want to find you, Lady Fiona, just that I wasn't actively seeking you, you understand? Good to find you all the same. Rather like looking for a book you'd mislaid somewhere and stumbling across another that turns out to be equally diverting."

***

"Couldn't believe my luck in receiving this invitation. Thought I was definitely persona non-something or other."

***

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February 7, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From The Footprints on the Ceiling, by Clayton Rawson:

***

Merlini, with all that pink lemonade running in his veins and the circus performers swinging from every branch of his family tree, reverts to type every spring.

***

Miss Verrill produced half a smile. It was nice, what there was of it.

***

These two uncanny examples of modern black magic are the last word in something or other.

***

[Anthropomorphized Clocks dept.]

The alarm did its level best and almost failed. I heard the last tired ring just as it gave up.

***

I...put my complete profane vocabulary into one blistering and very satisfying paragraph. I tacked a neat row of exclamation points on the end....

***

Merlini wears no theatrical opera cape, curling mustachios, or pointed Vandyke, but somehow you feel that those hallmarks of the conjurer are there in spirit.... [His voice] propels you along an apparently sound but quite illogical path of thought, and then, with no warning, springs a trap door that leaves you standing on the sheer edge of an impossibility.

***

"Commercialism rears it sordid head. Probably to introduce a new breakfast cereal called Ghost-Toasties, with testimonials from famous haunts."

***

"It's screwy! It's a painting by Dali. The surrealism murder. Footprints on the ceiling! Bah! Limp watches and six-legged mutton chops! Murder in Wonderland!"

***

"The crystal gazer who thinks the vision is an external reality is only a magician playing tricks on himself."

***

"Found them kicking about down there." Merlini nodded in the direction of the other house. I hadn't known that articles locked in a safe could be described as kicking about but I let it pass.

***

In the early history of man the professions of medicine and of magic once merged in that common ancestor, the witch doctor. Both physician and magician have inherited from him a common trait, the poker face.

***

Ira Brooke came through [the door] smiling expansively, for no reason that I could see, like a Y.M.C.A. secretary with a new swimming pool.

***

[Doing the Clam Math dept.]

"You know very well that a clam is twice as informative as any of those gentlemen up until chapter twenty."

***

"Now I wonder what he's bumped into?"

Merlini seemed to be genuinely puzzled and not very pleased about it.

"Serves you right," I said. "Are you trying to get a corner on mysterious phone calls? I've a good notion to make one myself, just to keep you guessing."

***

Medium materializes medium--a new high in something or other.

***

Gavigan beamed at him indulgently and waved his hand as if he were presenting the Metropolitan Museum with two new wings, fully stocked.

***

You could have dropped half a dozen pins slowly, one after the other, onto an Oriental rug and heard every one of them land.

***

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February 4, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Death at Broadcasting House, by Val Gielgud and Holt Marvell:

***

"Unless it's another Mystery of the Yellow Room, and Spears did it, disguised as a microphone!"

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January 28, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From The Corpse Wore Pasties, by Jonny Porkpie:

***

"Sure, she was dead now, but who wasn't? Well, me, for one, and that's why I could spend all my time obsessing."

***

The character she was playing when I walked in the door of the Gilded Heel was, I have to admit, my least favorite of her personae--an over-the-hill borscht-belt comedian named Allan Schmuck.

***

"Have another," she said, and got up to pour me a whiskey. It was slightly better than my usual brand, but I drank it anyway.

***

"I had just a bitch of a time shaking the guy who was tailing me. I had to pull a reverse Hammett with a half-Houdini and a Cincinnati twist."

"You're making that up."

"I am making that up. Actually, I just jumped on the F train as the doors were closing."

***

[The two cops who rescue the protagonist from imminent murder at a burlesque show] came barreling through the crowd like two very short trucks, knocking over glasses, bottles, and a bachelorette or two.

***

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January 24, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From The Mouse in the Mountain, by Norbert Davis:

***

"I can speak your lingo on account I used to be a waiter in double New York."

"Where?" Doan asked.

"New York, New York."

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January 21, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Cork in Bottle, by Macdonald Hastings:

***

[Pathetic Fallacy with Telephones dept.]

As he reflected, one of the telephones on the desk gave a fretful tinkle.

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January 17, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From "The Diary of Death," by Marten Cumberland:

***

"Time turns our most outlandish paradoxes into truisms." [I guess that's sort of like Hegel's dialectic?]

***

Lady Goombridge's resolute voice boomed out, and dispersed the [other voices] as a motor-horn scatters a flock of roadside chickens.

***

"The night is such a wonderful time to dream [said Silk], but one should never sleep whilst one dreams. How we waste those wonderful hours of silence and moonlight in vulgar sleep!"

Adam Steele laughed loudly.

"Silk wants a 'Moonlight Saving Bill,'" he suggested.

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January 14, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Strange Embrace, by Lawrence Block:

***

There were two doors at the far end of the living room. He walked to one, knocked carefully, and finally eased it open. He saw a small closet, containing an overcoat and a pair of galoshes. He wondered why he had knocked and thought how strange it would have been if the galoshes had answered him.

***

"If you know as much about them as you know about the James girl, they could all be orangutans and you wouldn't know the difference."

***

It was absolutely incredible how obvious everything became once it was obvious.

***

To be perfectly accurate, Johnny thought, you could only say that Haig turned purple. Literally. His face was the color of grape juice.

***

[But getting back to anthropomorphized telephones... We have two in this book!]

He dialed the girl's number again, listened to the phone ring its brains out, and replaced the receiver.

The telephone on the bedside table was ringing industriously and unpleasantly.

***

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January 10, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From Kill Now, Pay Later by Robert Terrall:

***

[Anthropomorphized Mustaches dept.]

He was thin and dapper, with an ebbing hair-line and a narrow, nervous mustache which seemed to have landed on his upper lip by accident.

***

I followed her through an open arch and sat on a couch facing the blank eye of a television set.

***

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January 7, 2020 (permalink)


Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

unearths some literary gems.

From The D.A. Takes a Chance, by Erle Stanley Gardner:

***

"His tongue is hinged in the middle and clacks at both ends."

[Apparently, a tongue with a metaphorical hinge more often than not implies a two-faced nature; but some use it to mean simply somebody who talks too much. ESG clearly means it in the latter sense, and he takes it to the next level by making both ends of the tongue free to move! Incidentally, I note that this runs the hinge left to right, rather than front to back, as the "talking out both sides of the mouth" hinge would run.]

***

"Fit as a fiddle. And why do you suppose people say that? What's fit about a fiddle? When you take one out of its case you have to putter around with it, tinkering and tuning. Why should people think it's fit?"

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Original Content Copyright © 2020 by Craig Conley. All rights reserved.