Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Wicked Company

It's the 1760s and Baron d'Holbach is hosting a very lively salon where philosophers meet. He's also busy writing for the Encyclopédie that his close friend Denis Diderot is editing and trying to get published. Which is not as easy as it sounds because the Encyclopédie is very much influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and that brings it into conflict with the law.

A Wicked Company by Philipp Blom follows d'Holbach and Diderot through their life and introduces the reader to their views, to their work and last but not least to their friends and enemies (sometimes one and the same person). The list reads like a who is who of the Enlightenment: Voltaire, Rousseau, the Comte de Buffon, Spinoza, David Hume and many others. And because they may have been high-minded philosophers in writing, but had their fault and weaknesses in life like everyone else, there is a lot of material to create a vivid picture of all these people.

It's a delightful book that makes you feel like a part of the circle around d'Holbach. I always enjoy reading an author's work much more when I know something about them as a person and A Wicked Company is very good at teaching you about both author and work. It cannot be a complete introduction to all those philosophers and it doesn't try to be. But what it did was make me want to read more - now I've met all those people, I want to know what they themselves had to say.

19th book for the Library Challenge
Reviews 2013

Monday, September 16, 2013

Cthulhu Weimar: Crime and Punishment

last time

Time: May 1921
Place: Berlin

Cast of Characters:
Doctor Karl A. Schwarz - physician who works at the Krankenhaus Moabit and who has a surgery on the side in Berlin Wedding (a district known for being a stronghold of the Communist Party and for being populated almost exclusively by working class people)
Gero Thalmann - a student from a middle-class family who plans to become an architect. Meanwhile, he's involved with the Communists and has taken an interest in the pressing social issues of the time. He has been living in Berlin for about a year.

Monday, 30. May 1921

After a few weeks of absence, Gero has come round to Dr. Schwarz's surgery again and has offered to help out, as much as he can without any medical training. Schwarz has accepted the offer, although he's still not completely clear on why Gero actually wants to spend his free time there.
On Gero's first day, a wounded man makes his way into the surgery and Gero recognises Max Hillman, a fellow student, who seems more than embarrassed to be here, so he keeps silent. Gero also knows that Max' parents frown upon their son's charitable activities (rumour says he's helping out in a soup kitchen) and ending up hurt in Wedding is not exactly the thing they expect from their son.

Schwarz examines Max and finds that he has been shot and will probably die if they cannot get him to a hospital as quickly as possible. They drive Max to the Krankenhaus Moabit and there, Schwarz removes a bullet from the wound that looks decidedly weird, with strange markings on it and made from silver. In the morning, when Max is conscious again, he tells them reluctantly that he has been helping an organisation that gives out food to the poor. But they have also been transporting crates that they were forbidden to open. Max has no idea what's in those crates or even what organisation he exactly works for. He only says that the attackers were after the crates and did not hesitate to kill Max' five companions. He suggests that Gero goes to the Nasses Dreieck and ask for Franz if he wants to pretend joining the organisation as well. And he sheepishly admits that he has probably dropped his ID card somewhere in the street.

click for some crime

While Schwarz is working, Gero goes back to Wedding to look at the place of the attack. He finds a piece of metal with etchings, a key and broken lock and some drag marks. He pockets the metal piece and key and follows the marks into one of Berlin's many dark backyards. Someone is watching him from their window and Gero knocks on the door. The woman, after some sweet-talking and outright bribery with food, admits to having seen it all. The bodies of those killed in the attack were driven away on a pickup. She also says that the leader of the attackers had a flamethrower and used it to burn the crates. With her help, Gero makes a drawing of the leader.

Schwarz and Gero decide to drive out to Tegel where Max' parents live because they fear that the attackers will pay them a visit. Since they can hardly ring the doorbell with such a warning, they keep an eye on the house. After a while, they notice a pickup parked around the corner. The house has gone completely dark. They go to investigate and almost run into Max' parents who are forced out of their house at gunpoint by three men. A second later, the men surely would have seen them and so Gero decides to use the chance to surprise them and attacks. He hits one of the men over the head with the butt of his revolver. Schwarz jumps the men still standing in the doorway but fails to pull the gun from his hands. Gero's first opponent is unconscious and the second man points his gun at him. More out of reflex than with the intention of killing anyone, Gero pulls the trigger and the man collapses. Schwarz has thrown himself forward to take cover at the sound of the gunshot and his opponent goes down with him. Gero holds the man at bay while Schwarz quickly binds him.

Shaking with fear, Gero suggests that they run, but Schwarz refuses and so they wait for the police who aren't long to arrive. The police arrest them, much to Schwarz' indignation. The Hillmanns are in no condition to say much and react pretty much hysterical when Schwarz oder Gero come near them.
The story they tell during their interrogation has some fairly big holes and the inspector isn't very inclined to believe them. With the help of Dr. Kühnbach, Schwarz' attorney, bail will be set in the morning, but there is a good chance that Gero at least will not come out of this so easily, even though he is technically still a minor.

In the early morning, they have a visitor in their cell. Gero had just had a serious attack of claustrophobia and neither of them has been getting much sleep. The visitor, Herr Reuschner, introduces himself as a member of the organisation responsible for the attack on Max and his companions: the Society of Leopold. He tells them that Max is, without his knowledge, working for the Nazis and that the Society of Leopold is willing to do anything to stop them. And he would like to enlist Schwarz and Gero for that fight, at least for a while. They are free to refuse this offer and face the consequences of the evening. Or they can accept, work for the Society of Leopold as undercover agents until they have managed to get their hands on one of those crates. After that, thy are free to leave, with a substantial bonus (Reuschner suggests a sudden leap up the career ladder, all neatly arranged by the Society).

Reuschner leaves them to think about it. Neither Schwarz nor Gero have great love for the Society and the way it works, ruthlessly killing anyone who stands in their way. Even if it is for what they call the greater good. So they agree to take Reuschner up on his offer but also agree that they will use any chance they get to sabotage the work of the Society. In the morning, they are set free and meet with Reuschner again. He asks them to join the Nazis and, like Max, tells them to go to the Nasses Dreieck and ask for Franz.


what happens next

Well. That promises to be interesting. The Society of Leopold actually is one of the good guys in the Call of Cthulhu universe. But Schwarz in particular has a very bad impression of them and so we might well end up helping the bad guys in this campaign. Which sounds brilliant. Much better than having everything neatly in black and white.