This blog is moving–and so is Ophelia’s murder investigation

portrait of the author
C. C. Mambretti

Hi, thanks for your interest in my bizarre commentaries on all things mysterious. I am being forced to transition this blog to WordPress from QuickBlogCast, which is an obscure way of saying that I’m entangled in my hosting service’s software problems. Within the week I will (I hope) be up and running either as

blog.thejurorinvestigates.com

or simply

thejurorinvestigates.com.

In the meantime, I invite you to visit Amazon Kindle to take a look at my latest novel, SNOW GHOST, the best, most-outrageous thing I’ve written so far.

I hope you will be patient and continue to follow my investigation into Ophelia’s murder. My next novel (in progress) is OPHELIA’S GHOST. In a few month’s I’ll visit Elsinore Castle in Denmark to research the scene of the crime!

C. C. Mambretti (ccm@ccmambretti.com)

Ophelia’s Murder

Ophelia

by

Arthur Rimbaud

Translated by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C.C. Mambretti)

I.

Like a grand lily

on calm, black water

beneath sleeping stars,

floats white Ophelia,

floats very slowly,

couched in her long veils. . . .

—In distant woods sounds the hallelujah of a hunter’s horn!

 

More than a thousand years, sad Ophelia

—white phantom—voyaged on the long, black flood.

More than a thousand years, her sweet madness

babbled her romance, on the night breezes.

 

Now wind smacks her breast, betrays her to view

in a garland of veils that languidly

rocks on the water. Shivering willows

weep on her shoulder. O’er her grand, dreaming

forehead water reeds reverently bow.

 

Water-lilies wilt, sighing around her.

From time to time she seems to arise

like a small, fluttering wing escaping from

the nest-like alder bush where she’s sleeping.

—From the golden stars falls a mysterious chant. . . .

II.

O, pale Ophelia, lovely as snow! Yes,

child, you perished, swept away on the flood.

—The winds that descend Norway’s grand mountains

carry a message: freedom is bitter.

 

Whirling your grand hair, their breath portended

to your dreams strange bruits. Your heart heard chants of

nature in the trees’ moans and the nights’ sighs.

 

The insane sea’s voice—a vast death-rattle—

broke your inner child, so humane, so sweet.

Then one April morn, a fine, pale rider—

poor, handsome madman—lay mute in your lap.

 

Heaven! Liberty! Love! O, poor mad girl!

You melted to him like the snow to fire.

Your words were strangled by your grand visions

—And the terror of Infinity turned

your blue eyes to stone. . . .

III.

—And the Poet says

that you sought only

the light of stars, night,

the flowers you plucked;

and that on the waters

he has seen white

Ophelia floating,

couched in her long veils

like a grand lily.

 

Notes:

The French original is written in pentameter with a four-line-stanza ABAB rhyme scheme. I have taken liberties with the form in order to preserve both meaning and connotation.

Stanza 1: The hunter’s horn—an image of death and possibly even intentional killing—foreshadows the appearance of a man on horseback in stanza 6.

Stanza 2: One thousand years before the writing of the poem would have been the ninth century C.E. (A. D.), roughly the era in which the story of Hamlet and Ophelia is set. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was not the first such story. Shakespeare drew on sources that included the twelfth-century Saxo Grammaticus, a compilation of Scandinavian histories, and Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, both of which would also have been available to Rimbaud. In this poem Rimbaud clearly refers to Scandinavian sources as well as to Shakespeare, as shown by his reference in stanza 5 to Norway rather than to Shakespeare’s setting, Denmark.

Stanza 7: Rimbaud’s French refers to this figure as the “un beau cavalier pâle,” which I have translated as “a fine, pale rider.” The English word “cavalier” is derived from the French word, which means “horseman” or “horse rider.” Because the English word has connotations of a dashing, handsome aristocrat or courtier, I have chosen to translate it literally as “rider,” since the phrase “cavalier pâle” clearly alludes to the Biblical “Pale Rider” of the Apocalypse (Revelations 6:8): “Behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death. . . .”

Stanza 7: Rimbaud’s original French phrase is “s’assit muet à tes genoux,” for which the literal translation is “sat on your knee.” The idea of a horseman sitting on frail Ophelia’s knees (or lap) is ludicrous. So instead I relied upon the passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, scene ii, in which Hamlet banters obscenely with Ophelia and suggests he would like to “lie between” her legs and then moderates the suggestion: “I mean, my head upon your lap.”

Stanza 8: “[Y]ou melted to him like a snow to fire” emphasizes her purity succumbing to passion, that is, the triumph of the profane over the sacred in their relationship.

Stanza 8: Rimbaud’s French describes Ophelia’s eyes as “effara ton oeil bleu.” Among the English translations of effara is “astonished,” and the etymology of that word is the Early English word “astonied” from “turned to stone,” as in the effect Medusa had on those who looked upon her face.

For my discussion of the fate of Shakespeare’s Ophelia see: blog.thejurorinvestigates.com/2013/01/10/the-coroner-rules-on-hamletrsquos-opheliamdashaccident-suicide-or-murder.aspx

References:

When this blog was posted on 11/18/13 the French original was available at:

http://athena.unige.ch/athena/ophelia/rimb_oph.html

See also: Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters, translated by Wallace Fowlie, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rimbaud

Alone on Halloween? Read Guy de Maupassant’s “Terror”

 

But unlike the reader in the “poem,” if you’re tapped on the shoulder, run!

In 1876 Guy de Maupassant, best known for his short stories (and short life), wrote a poem for the “Republic of Letters,” under the pseudonym of Guy de Valmont. Like the poems of Poe, which inspired “Terror,” its lines are long, the language ornate. Try as I might, I was unable in verse to capture the mood of de Maupassant’s tribute to the poet of Halloween, so I have translated it as a prose poem.

Terror

trans. by C. C. Mambretti

Author of CHALK GHOST and SNOW GHOST (coming soon)

Into the night I read—on and on I read—read one poet, only one—until, at the instant the clock struck midnight, I was overcome with dread. Shaken, I gasped for breath, knowing only that some nameless horror hovered in the air.

Then I sensed a figure standing behind me, a brash figure; it snickered—a ghastly laugh. I sensed, yet I heard nothing. To feel it bend over to kiss my hair; to feel its hand poised to tap my shoulder, was torture. Worse, I feared that if it so much as brushed against me, I would die.

Still, it leaned over me, still oh so close.

And I? No move made I to save myself, not even to turn my head away. My thoughts whirled, like birds by tempests battered. The sweat of death frosted my limbs. In my chamber no noise was heard but my clicking teeth.

No noise until . . .

A thunderous crack! Wild. Horrific—and a howl more terror-filled than had ever issued from a living breast.

Stiff, I fell back, back, back . . . .

I wonder where he fell. Into the pit with the pendulum, do you suppose? Or into the dank tarn into which the House of Usher sank—the original house-eating sinkhole.

Here’s why your parents always told you never to stay up too late reading:

CHALK GHOST, a novella, is available on Amazon Kindle for a pittance: $0.99.

Colette’s Chéri, trans. by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C. C. Mambretti

Update and second installment: Blogging is an  awkward way to distribute a story, but I haven’t quite figured out how to post my in-progress work. If you read the first installment, scroll down to the boldface sentence, which marks the beginning of the second installment. (I made a few wording changes in the first installment, as well.)

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the pearly-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his pearly-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball. “And how! Me, I’m above all conventions. I find it idiotic that a man can accept from a woman one pearl on a tie clip, or two on buttons, and he is considered dishonored if she gives him fifty.”

“Forty-nine.”

“Forty-nine, I know the number. Tell me that it doesn’t become me. Tell me that I’m ugly.”

He bent over the recumbent woman with a provocative grin that displayed his tiny, white teeth and the lining of his lips.

Léa sat up on the bed. “No, I don’t say that. First, because you would never believe that. Even so, you ought not to grin and crinkle your nose like that. You’ll be very happy when you get three permanent wrinkles at the corners of your nose, n’est-ce pas?

Immediately he ceased grinning, smoothed the skin of his forehead, and bowed his head like an old coquette. They regarded each other with an air of hostility, she leaning back amid her lace lingerie, he sitting sidesaddle, Amazon-like, on the bed. He thought, She’s well to tell me about the wrinkles I’ll get. She thought, Why is it ugly when he smiles like that, he who is beauty in essence?

“It’s because you have the air of evil when you smile cheerfully. . . . You never smile wickedly or in mockery. But a cheerful smile makes you ugly. You are often ugly.”

“That’s not true!” cried Chéri, irritated. The anger knitted his eyebrows, filled his wide eyes with the light of insolence, weaponized his eyelashes, and he half-opened his disdainful, chaste mouth.

Léa smiled to see him, whom she loved, revolt, then submit, badly enchained, incapable of freeing himself. She put a hand on the young head, which impatiently shook off the yoke. She murmured as if calming an animal. “There, there. What is it? What is it now?”

He fell on the beautiful, large shoulder, burying his forehead, his nose, in the familiar spot, and closed his eyes and sought his protégé fee for the long afternoons, but Lea repulsed him.

“None of that, Chéri. You lunch today at the house of our national harpy, and it is twenty minutes till noon.”

“No? I’m lunching at the house of my patroness? You, too?”

Léa slid lazily back into bed. “Not me. I’m on vacation. I’ll go to take coffee at two-thirty—or tea at six o’clock—or a cigarette at seven forty-five. . . . Don’t let it disturb you; she’ll see enough of me. . . . And, besides, she didn’t invite me.”

Chéri, who stood sulking, lit up with malice. “I know—I know why. We have it good, don’t we, and we have the lovely Marie-Laure and her poison-child.”

Léa’s big, blue eyes wandered, then focused. “Ah! Yes, Charming, the little one. Less than his mother, but charming. . . .So, the necklace is at an end.”

“Sad,” sighed Chéri as he unclasped it. ”It would fit in well with my trash.”

Léa rose from her couch. “What trash?”

“Mine,” said Chéri with comic importance. “The baubles that will be the trinkets for my wedding.” He leapt, recovered his feet after a perfect entrechat-six, thrust open the door on a whim and disappeared shouting, “My bath, Rose! As deep as possible. I lunch at the house of my patroness!”

There it is, Léa mused. A soak in the bathroom, eight bath towels, and razor shavings in the bowl. If only I had two bathrooms. . . .”

But she reminded herself of the other times when it had become necessary to remodel the boudoir, remove a wardrobe, and concluded as in the other times, I must be patient. I’ll wait until Chéri’s wedding.

She lay back down and noticed that earlier Chéri had thrown his socks on the mantle, his smalls on the writing table, looped his tie over the bust of Léa. She smiled in spite of herself at the heated masculine disarray and half-closed her great, tranquil, bright-blue eyes, which still retained all their chestnut lashes. At forty-nine years, Leonie Vallon called Léa de Lonval, was ending a career as a well-to do courtesan, a good woman whose life had been blessed with nothing but flattering catastrophes and noble regrets. She concealed the date of her birth, but she gladly confessed, because of her voluptuous condescension toward Chéri, that she had attained an age at which she was entitled to a few indulgences. She loved order, clean linens, mature wines, intelligent cuisine.

As a young blonde she had not accepted adulation; as a mature, rich, demi-monde she had not accepted annoying flattery, and her friends would forever recall how, on the Day of Coach Races around 1895, she had responded to a Gil Blas copyeditor who had called her a “sweet artiste,” “Artiste? Oh, really, my friend, my lovers are too indiscreet!”

Her contemporary rivals were jealous of her imperturbable health; the younger ones, whose bosoms and behinds required enhancement from 1912 fashions, laughed at Léa’s ample bosom. But both sets of women equally envied her Chéri. “Oh, my God,” Léa said, “the affair is nothing.” They can have him. I’m not attached to him, and he goes his own way.

In truth, she was telling a boastful half-truth about their liaison: sometimes, having a penchant for sincerity, she had called it an adoption. “The trinkets,” Léa repeated, “it isn’t possible. It isn’t humane to give a young girl to Chéri. Why throw a bitch to the dog? People don’t know what Chéri is.”

She told the pearls of the necklace like a rosary, as it lay on the bed. Lately she had begun to take it off at night because Chéri, who so loved the lovely pearls that he always caressed them in the morning, would notice each time how Lea’s neck—thicke
r—was losing its whiteness and the skin and muscles their tautness. She hooked the clasp at the back of her neck without the latch and took it to the mirror over the console by the head of the bed.

Technorati Tags:

Colette’s Chéri, trans. by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C. C. Mambretti)

I’ve had too much of sex crimes, sadism, and injustice. Over the next few months, I’m translating Colette’s Chéri, a 1920 novella about the love of an older woman for a much younger man.

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the enamel-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his enamel-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball.

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the enamel-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his enamel-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball. “And how! Me, I’m above all conventions. I find it idiotic that a man can accept from a woman one pearl on a tie clip, or two on buttons, and he is considered dishonored if she gives him fifty.”

“Forty-nine.”

“Forty-nine, I know the number. Tell me that it doesn’t become me. Tell me that I’m ugly.”

He bent over the recumbent woman with a provocative grin that displayed his tiny, white teeth and the lining of his lips.

Léa sat up on the bed. “No, I don’t say that. First, because you would never believe that. Even so, you ought not to grin and crinkle your nose like that. You’ll be very happy when you get three permanent wrinkles at the corners of your nose, n’est-ce pas?

Immediately he ceased grinning, smoothed the skin of his forehead, and bowed his head like an old coquette. They regarded each other with an air of hostility, she leaning back amid her lace lingerie, he sitting sidesaddle, Amazon-like, on the bed. He thought, She’s well to tell me about the wrinkles I’ll get. She thought, Why is it ugly when he smiles like that, he who is beauty in essence?

“It’s because you have the air of evil when you smile cheerfully. . . . You never smile wickedly or in mockery. But a cheerful smile makes you ugly. You are often ugly.”

“That’s not true!” cried Chéri, irritated. The anger knitted his eyebrows, filled his wide eyes with the light of insolence, weaponized his eyelashes, and he half-opened his disdainful, chaste mouth.

Léa smiled to see him, whom she loved, revolt, then submit, badly enchained, incapable of freeing himself. She put a hand on the young head, which impatiently shook off the yoke. She murmured as if calming an animal. “There, there. What is it? What is it now?”

He fell on the beautiful, large shoulder, burying his forehead, his nose, in the familiar spot, and closed his eyes and sought his protégé fee for the long afternoons, but Lea repulsed him.

“None of that, Cheri. You lunch today at the house of our national harpy, and it is twenty minutes till noon.”

“No? I’m lunching at the house of my patroness? You, too?”

Léa slid lazily back into bed. “Not me. I’m on vacation. I’ll go to take coffee at two-thirty—or tea at six o’clock—or a cigarette at seven forty-five. . . . Don’t let it disturb you; she’ll see enough of me. . . . And, besides, she didn’t invite me.”

Syria: History Repeating Itself All Over Again

Why did most of my generation of Baby Boomers oppose the War In Vietnam? (You had to have been born before 1955 to know the answer). Because:

1. We were the ones who were sent to die in Vietnam

2. Soldiers were drafted against their will (did you know Mohammed Ali was a conscientious objector on the basis of his peace-loving religion, Islam, and went to prison rather than go to war?)

3. The immediate interests of American security were not involved (ultimately a case would be made that Communism would dominate Asia if we did not act, but at the time no one could foresee this.)

4. There was no declaration of war, as required by the Constitution

Why do I oppose intervention in Syria?

1. There will be no declaration of war nor even a presentation of proof that the intervention is in American interests.

2. While there is no now draft, our military is still bleeding (literally) from the unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the sequester has cut funds to the military; veterans are being denied promised benefits, and any intervention (including simply firing missiles into Syria) can easily expand into air strikes that place jet crews at risk of death). After that “mission-creep” will begin. There will be boots on the ground.

3. The Millennial generation are the ones who will suffer: they will pay the financial costs and the costs in casualties.

4.  IT IS TOO LATE. Punishment of Assad has no purpose. Even if we destroy their complete supply of weapons of mass destruction, they won’t stop. They have no reason to stop. In fact, they will be incented to continue with their atrocities and expand their war to Lebanon and even perhaps to Turkey.

5. Like Vietnam and unlike the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world community opposes this action. Even NATO (which includes Turkey) does not sanction it.

6. I fear that both parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, will use the military’s ongoing involvement in Syria as an excuse to raise the debt ceiling and approve the continuing resolution (that’s what they use to justify not having an approved, balanced federal budget.)

Where is this generation’s Phil Ochs? “Cops of the World”

Like the War in Vietnam, I’m convinced this is all about money—not about punishing a tyrant for his despicable behavior. If you want to know why America is getting ready to do this, do what Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein to do: follow the money. The Pentagon is bloated with excess weapons that they’ve bought from their industrial cronies. They’re having to abandon billions of dollars worth or weapons, equipment, and buildings in Afghanistan.

While Americans are focused on Syria, millions of people will be signed up for Obamacare coops with federal subsidies. Even if the law is defunded or repealed in 2014 or later, there will be no way out of this entitlement. That’s a lot of money.

Politicians of both parties face the prospect of being removed from Congress in 2014 and need to wrap themselves in the flag and in the banner of humanitarianism.

Assad claims American intervention will lead to a region-wide war. The region is already at war. This intervention will do nothing but give the Russians and the Iranians an opportunity to expand their activities throughout the Middle East. The Suez Canal may be closed, greatly diminishing the flow of oil to Europe at a time when their economy is on the brink of recovery. With America diverted from North Africa and the Horn of Africa, Islamists will be free to renew their efforts to take control. The war is already spreading to central Africa.

 

Hamlet Scene by Scene

My post on the “coroner’s” verdict in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has attracted so many visitors that I’ve decided to create a Facebook group on the interpretation of the play. I invite you to join me at Hamlet, scene by scene.

I hope Shakespeare lovers, students struggling with Shakespeare, actors seeking to understand the play deeply, producers and directors, and others to join the group and join in the discussion.

I have a Ph.D. in English Renaissance literature, but it wasn’t until I gave up academe and turned to pulp fiction that I finally understood what Shakespeare was doing when he wrote the play.

Yes, I’ve read the scholarly criticism and pondered the arguments about the play’s “meaning.”

Even so I guess it takes a writer struggling with writing problems to see the very clear and simple meaning of Hamlet.

Hamlet’s meaning is found in the plot as surely as my mysteries’ meaning lies in the plot—and the characters, of course. But if you don’t understand the plot of Hamlet, you can’t understand the character, Hamlet, either.

The play is a murder mystery. I write murder mysteries. I invite you to hear what this mystery writer has to say about the greatest mystery writer of all time, William Shakespeare.

Technorati Tags:

First Female Detective: Kate Warne

Nothing is known about Kate Warne’s origins, other than what Allan Pinkerton of Chicago’s Pinkerton Detective Agency wrote about her. According to Pinkerton, in 1856 Kate Warne showed up on the agency’s doorstep and asked Pinkerton for a job as a detective. She offered no qualifications, gave him no references, and told him nothing about herself except that she was from New York and wished to be addressed as “Mrs.”

I’ve always wondered what secrets Kate had locked in her heart on that day in 1856, and I always wanted to write about her. Last year, Mystery Writers of America gave me an opportunity to achieve my dream: I wrote a short story about her, “The Very Private Detective,” which was selected for inclusion in the MWA 2013 anthology, THE MYSTERY BOX.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago is the reason private detectives are called “Private Eyes” now. Pinkerton’s logo was “The Eye that Never Sleeps.” Frank Morn’s The Eye that Never Sleeps is an authoritative history of the agency, a book I reviewed in 1982 for Chicago History Magazine, because of my interest in Kate Warne.

 

If it wasn’t an Elvis impersonator, it had to be a Republican

Yes, I am a conspiracy theorist, and why not? Most of the evil in the world is the result of groups of people banding together to do a lot of harm to everybody else. When it’s a party (like the Communist Party) or an evil nation (name your favorite), no one calls it a conspiracy, but it is.

On the other hand, the Justice Department seems to think evil is done only by lone lunatics. For instance, the feds insist the Tsarnaev brothers acted entirely in isolation, and they insist the ricin-laced letters were the work of a lone lunatic from Mississippi. Of course, they may be right this time, but I find it very odd that first they arrested an Elvis impersonator (as if his profession were indictment enough) and now, according to Reuters, they suspect a former Republican candidate for the Mississippi state legislature.

I can’t help but recall that in 2001 the FBI was also certain the anthrax letters were the work of a lone lunatic, too—a lunatic they never managed to track down.

A few days after 9/11, the National Enquirer’s headquarters in Florida received the first of the anthrax-tainted letters. Media and investigators at first speculated the letter-writer had acquired the anthrax powder they contained from anthrax-infected soil. Later it was proven that the strain of anthrax had come from a lab in Ames, Iowa (known as the “Ames strain”). No connection was made to terrorism until contaminated threatening letters were sent to politicians in D.C. and news media in New York. Even though the letters included references to the 9/11 attack, authorities believed the letters to be the work of a lone, domestic terrorist.

During this period I subscribed to a forensic linguistics mailing list, among whose members was the FBI profiler in the case of the Unabomber, James R. Fitzgerald. Academics on the mailing list pointed out to him many clues to the authorship of the letters, including evidence the letters were authored by one person but handwritten by another.

The FBI never accepted the theory that the letters were the work of more than one person, nor did they ever take seriously the idea that there was foreign involvement in the incident. Once the strain was identified as the Ames strain, the investigation focused exclusively on individuals (not a group) who could have had access to Ames-strain anthrax.

At first, the FBI suspected a bio-weapons expert named Steven Hatfill (later exonerated). In 2005 a Maryland bio-weapons researcher for the Army, Bruce Ivins, came under suspicion. Ivins committed suicide in 2008. To this day no real proof of his guilt has been found.

The linguistic evidence of a conspiracy that I learned from the forensic linguistics mailing list still intrigues me. The linguists were divided on the issue of whether the author was a native speaker of English or of Arabic. Some suggested it might be a native Arabic speaker from Great Britain. However, one aspect of the letters contravened the idea of an Arabic speaker: the “signature line.” Each letter ended with “Allah is Great.” (All the letters were printed in caps and small caps.) An Arab would have used the phrase as a salutation.

The one thing on which all the linguists agreed was that the handwriting suggested the writer had copied from a text written by someone else. In other words, they found indications that the author of the text and the preparer of the envelopes and letters were different people. In addition, the moderator of the list, Dr. Margaret van Naerssen, proposed that the letters could have been traced from a dark original onto an overlying sheet of paper. The envelopes, however, showed signs of simply having been “eyeballed.”

Two additional aspects of the handwriting jumped out at me, as a textual critic (my Ph.D. is in textual criticism, literature’s version of forensic linguistics): the use of printed caps and small caps instead of caps and lowercase characters and the date at the top of each letter: 09-11-01. First, highly educated people, such as suspects Stephen Hatfill and Bruce Ivin,s would have printed like a child (caps and lowercase) in order to suggest a semiliterate writer. Second, the dates were a dead giveaway that in fact the author was literate: the six-numeral format with dashes rather than slashes is a digital format, suggesting the author was computer-literate, possibly a programmer who was used to typing dates in that format. If Dr. van Naerssen was right about the copyist, then perhaps the letters’ originals were printouts of caps and lowercase letters from a mechanical device.

I decided to emerge from my lurker status on the mailing list to contact Dr. van Nearssen with my ideas. She gave me James Fitzgerald’s email address at the FBI Academy, and I wrote to him. I told him I thought the letters’ originals might have been communicated from overseas to the U.S. via a handheld teletype device. In 2001 such mobile devices were widely available. The military used TTY devices, and the public could buy them at army surplus stores. Here’s how they worked: a walkie-talkie-sized device was attached to a telephone handset with an acoustical coupler that transmitted audible signals, rather like a telegraph. The recipient device produced a printout of caps and lowercase letters on adding-machine-like strips of paper. If the text of the letters had been input into such a device line-by-line, the first line would have been “Allah is Great.” But like tickertape, the last line input would have printed out first: the date, 09-11-01. That would explain both the use of caps and lowercase and the misplaced salutation.

FBI agent Fitzgerald was very kind; he didn’t call me a kook. But, then, neither did he rush off to follow the clue I gave him. As time passes, though, I become more convinced I’m right: an overseas mastermind used TTY technology to send the text of the anthrax letters to someone here, who then traced the printouts and copied the addresses onto the envelopes. That foreign someone could have been an Iraqi.

There’s no foundation for the FBI’s claim that the “Amerithrax” letters were the work of a lone, American terrorist. The letters themselves point to more than one person, and the anthrax could have come from almost anywhere. In the 1980s the non-profit American Type Culture Collection and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control sent biological samples of American anthrax to Iraq, among other countries, for medical research. (In retrospect, this was incredibly stupid, wasn’t it?) Frankly, I think this was a case of the FBI looking for its keys under a random streetlight, because it’s easier to see at that spot than in the dark parking lot where the keys were lost.