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Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Facts and Fiction: Grammar Vampires and True Crime

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed

By Karen Elizabeth Gordon. Pantheon Books, 1984, 1993.

 Wild, wacky, inventive grammar guide continues to educate and amuse

The opportunity to review the new edition (1993) of Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed turned out to be invaluable. I recommend it often in the editing and grammar classes that I present for my professional organizations and local writers’ centre, but I had almost forgotten how clever, yet practical, this grammar book is. Reacquainting myself with it was a treat.

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire

Gordon does a marvellous job of showing rather than telling, illustrating grammar with wacky sentences that showcase each point and rule. Appropriate parts of speech and details are in italics, so the reader can easily tell what each sentence is doing in terms of a given grammar rule. Unlike the dry or simplistic “Dick and Jane” voice of most standard grammar guides and courses, her material is fanciful and often complex, both in introductory text and in actual examples. In some instances she doesn’t even quote a formal rule, but talks about usage in such lively, unusual ways that the reader can’t help but absorb useful information.

Gordon’s approach is to play what she calls a “dangerous game … smuggling the injunctions of grammar into your cognizance through a ménage of revolving lunatics kidnapped into this book.” Those “lunatics” are present throughout the book in the form of line drawings that enliven almost every page.

Among my favourite passages is the opening of the Preface, which explains why Gordon revisited and updated her first edition:

“It is in high spirits that this opulent, rapturous, vamped-up grammar drama leaps into your lap. Thanks to readers of its older sister, this one had to happen … Howling, exploding, crackling, flickering with new life-forms, and drunk on fresh blood … this deluxe edition reminds us on every page that words, too, have hoofs and wings to transport us far and deep. …  I crawled beneath the lines of the previous version and found what had been left unsaid because of questions I hadn’t asked.”

In addition to being lively, unique and inventive, The Transitive Vampire is also —thank goodness — refreshingly free of typos and errors, as one would expect (but does not always find nowadays) of a grammar guide. I did notice one missing period in a group of examples, one instance of “past” that should be “passed” and one place where I would have used a comma to introduce a phrase, but that’s why new editions exist — to fix such pesky little details.

Gordon calls grammar the “sine qua non of language, placing its demons in the light of sense, sentencing them to the plight of prose.” And don’t we all have our demons when trying to untangle our prose (and poetry), as well as that of our colleagues and clients?

Even if all you need is a refresher on a specific point or you thought there was something missing from the first edition, you’ll never look at or think of words and grammar the same way after encountering the newer The Transitive Vampire!

Gordon’s other books are: The New Well-Tempered Sentence; The Ravenous Muse; The Red Shoes and Other Tattered Tales; The Disheveled Dictionary; Paris Out of Hand: A Wayward Guide; Out of the Loud Hound of Darkness; and Torn Wings and Faux Pas.


Blood Royal, A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris

By Eric Jager. Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Book Group, 2014.

Medieval true-crime story is both enthralling and disappointing

 As a serious fan — my husband would say addict — of British mystery books and an almost equally intrigued reader of historical novels, I was delighted to tackle reviewing Blood Royal by Eric Jager. After all, it’s “[a] true tale of crime and detection in medieval Paris,” and I was in the midst of a Philippa Gregory novel set close to the same period — Blood Royal ends as Joan of Arc’s time in the spotlight begins. I felt well steeped in the history of French and British life in the 1300s–1400s and eager to learn about the era from a factual basis to complement all I was reading from a fictional angle.

The story focuses on the 1407 assassination of Louis, Duke of Orleans, who was the brother of King Charles VI of France. Jager, a professor of English at the University of California Los Angeles who teaches medieval literature, opens the introduction with a description of “an unusual parchment scroll” discovered in the 1660s that details the investigation into the assassination. Jager sees the scroll as the precursor to contemporary detective work and early detective stories, such as the works of Edgar Allan Poe. I would have liked to know more about how he came upon the scroll, but that detail doesn’t surface anywhere.

Blood Royal comes through on most counts, though: It is well written and delightfully free of typos — a rarity nowadays, even in books from mainstream publishers. The research appears to be impeccable, although I kept wondering about that scroll — it seemed to cry out to be fictional after all, like the supposed rediscovered stories by Dr. Watson that make up so many Sherlock Holmes pastiches and homages. Including a photo of the scroll added reassurance, as did Jager’s background as the author of other non-fiction works.

Jager’s solid research becomes a distraction because there are so very many footnotes — dozens in every chapter and more than 100 in one. That might not bother someone who habitually reads non-fiction or academic works, but it did intrude on my concentration.

Blood Royal starts with a brief description of the assassination of Louis and then sets the stage for the brutal event. The majority of the book is about Paris — and France and England in general — in medieval times and provides in-depth perspectives on what life was like in those days.

Blood Royal falls a bit short on two levels: It promises to illuminate the sleuthing processes used by Tignonville, the detective investigating the royal assassination, and does so … but the discussion of his investigation is less than half — maybe not even a third — of the book, while the hype suggests it will be the majority.

The book also fails to bring Tignonville himself to life. I finished it feeling as if he were almost as fictional a character as those in the Gregory and Harrod-Eagles historical novels I’ve been reading. This is probably because there is so little dialogue in his voice, even though he is positioned as the main character of the book and the events.

Jager’s previous books are: The Tempter’s Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature; The Book of the Heart; and The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France. Although I’m not usually a big reader of non-fiction, I plan to check these out, because I found Blood Royal well worth reading.



Previous “Facts and Fiction” post: Artful Flight

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3 Comments on “Facts and Fiction: Grammar Vampires and True Crime”

  • Sue Archer


    Thanks for the thorough reviews, Ruth. I’ve heard a lot about The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, but I haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet. It sounds like I should be moving that one up the list! I love it when traditionally dry topics are presented in creative and unusual ways. If only there were more of those types of books out there…

  • Paul Buckingham


    The Deluxe Transitive Vampire sounds like a lot of fun! I like that it’s so rich in examples, apparently. Would you recommend any of Gordon’s other books? (The Bach fan in me was drawn to The New Well-Tempered Sentence when I read that title.)

    • I’ve enjoyed all of Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s books and think they’re all worth having. Of course, you could always read a library copy before investing hard-earned dollars in buying a copy.

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