More on Sensory History and sound in novels

The other week I mentioned the field of sensory history, and the work of Mark Smith. This week I found another of his articles in the Journal of Social History in 2007, in which he argues for an increase in the theorizing in this new field. He writes: “Sensory history currently ventures in two directions, one offering an appropriate historicization of the senses, the other positing a usable but ahistorical past.” He goes on to argue that there is a need to “… distinguish between sensory production (something that can, at least theoretically, be replicated in the present) and sensory consumption (something that is hostage to the context in which it was produced”, and that the failure to do so “betrays the promise of sensory history.” He continues: “In short, we must be careful always to historicize the senses.” Further into the article he defines sensory history: “Sensory history, in short, stresses the role of the senses – including explicit treatments of sight and vision – in shaping peoples’ experience of the past, shows how they understood their worlds and why, and is (or at least should be) very care not to assume that the senses are some sort of ‘natural’ endowment, unchangeable and constant.” This is a great article about a very interesting field. If you are interested in sensory history, I recommend this one, along with the recommendation from the earlier blog. More on this field in some future post(s).


Connected to this topic: the other night I started reading a new mystery novel –  Ake Edwardson’s “Death Angels”.  As I read, (and in that I had been reading Smith’s article about sensory history earlier in the day), I started noticing how Edwardson uses references to sound (and music) in his book. Most good books use sensory images to capture the settings, the context, of the story. But my attention was heightened last night from reading Smith, and by the slightly skewed way in which Edwardson uses sound images in this book.  For example, on page 1: “He heard a whir like when time freezes and the world stops before your eyes.” Then, a few sentences later: “I hear a car, but it’s going the other direction.” At the start of chapter 2, he writes: “As Steve MacDonald walked east on St. John’s Hill [in London], the sounds from the Clapham Junction station were everywhere but he hardly heard them. The bigger and faster the trains get, he thought, the more they lull you with their silence.”  (I can just imagine Mark Smith reading this line, and historicizing the social experience of the sound of trains in England.)

Clapham Junction

The main character in the novel, Eric Winter, is a Swedish homicide inspector. At one point he is in the room where a murder was committed, and Edwardson writes:

“He closed his eyes and felt the blood dissolve in the sun’s heat, heard the wall murmur about what it had witnessed less than twelve hours before. As the murmurs turned to shrieks, Winter put his hands over his ears, crossed the room and opened the door to the hallway. He closed it again and heard the roar in the room, and it struck him that the same ear-splitting silence had reigned while the crime was being committed.”

And again, on page 27: “The muffled sounds of winter followed them into police headquarters and lingered in their clothing as they rode the elevator to the fourth floor of the homicide division.”

Trains show up again, on page 43: “MacDonald heard another train in the distance. The strident sound gradually filled up the house.”

And here are some more examples I found last night: On pate 149: “Crossing the quiet intersection, he heard the low rumble of traffic on Cromwell Road to the left.  Just a stone’s throw farther and you could actually stand still and listen to the birds sing.”

Page 145: [One of the characters is sitting in his car]: “He put on a tape and turned up the volume until it was just short of unbearable. The traffic flowed soundlessly outside the window.”

And one last one, from page 133: “The railyard sounds disappeared, as though the fact that the window had been open just a crack was what had made them audible. An open window evokes silence, Bergenhem thought. It’s like the new highspeed trains. The faster they go, the less you hear. Finally you don’t notice them until they’re about to run you down.”

Have I just missed sound images in other books?  Or does this one have an inordinate number of them? I guess I will have to go back and re-read books to find out.  I will keep you posted.


[One other tidbit about this novel: Edwardson’s character Erik Winter is a fan of ‘out’ jazz.  At various points in the book he is listening to, or thinking of, music by Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. Seldom does one encounter such a soundtrack in a murder mystery (or in any novel besides those by Thomas Pynchon). But the appearance of this music in this novel reminded me that a number of police characters are music fans: e.g, John Rebus in Rankin’s novels, Allan Banks in Peter Robinson’s series, Lucas Davenport in John Sandford’s “Prey” series. Music figures centrally in their lives, both as they work and as they relax.]

Here is a suggestion: as you read in your daily life, take a moment to see how authors use sound (sound effects?) in their books.  If you find something interesting, let me know and we can add it to future posts, as a thread in this blog.


One final bit:  Last weekend, the 23rd Havelock Country Jamboree arrived in a very small town east of the small town in which I live. And of course, like most outdoors events, the stage was LOUD! (I assume it was loud, although I was not there!) The photographer for The Peterborough Examiner, Clifford Skarstedt, took some great photos at the festival. Specifically, he took two shots of a mother and an infant. You can view the photos here. (Scroll along to images #4 and # 5 – so cute!) Yay to Ms. Brown for protecting her baby’s hearing!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s