Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades

Was it Nabokov who once ridiculed the thought of reading works of fiction to discover new things about history and culture, advocating instead a purely aesthetic view of literature as something that is all about the play of images and words? Well, reading the late Oakley Hall’s Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades just confirmed my antipathy to such an outlook. Going through it confirmed my longstanding love for stories to learn about specific times and places. Hall particularly gives an insightful but enjoyable look at life in the U.S. West Coast when the nation’s imperial ambitions was still at its infancy.

Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades is a historical thriller set in the late 19th Century San Francisco. The American journalist, satirist, and short fiction writer Ambrose Bierce and his young protege are the lead characters. It reminds me of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories especially since like Holmes’ Dr. Watson, Bierce’s sidekick is the one doing the narration. But while Holmes usually solved crimes committed by petty criminals and eccentric villains, Bierce and his partner is going against San Francisco’s Railway monopoly with ties to the underworld and corrupt government and police officials.

Apart from Bierce’s critical journalistic and satirical pieces, which earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce,” he also wrote short stories based on his experiences in the American Civil War. In 1913, he traveled south to observe the Mexican revolution – a topic of another novel by Carlos Fuentes titled The Old Gringo. It was there, while traveling with Pancho Villa’s peasant army, that Bierce disappeared without a trace.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, this is my first introduction to the writings of the late Oakley Hall. I bought the book because the title reminded me of Pushkin and (obviously) because it was a sale. After this, his novel Warlock, now considered a modern classic, is something I very much want to read in the near future. I never came across any of Bierce’s own prose except for some entries from his The Devil’s Dictionary which serve as epigraphs to each chapter of Hall’s historical thriller. Here are some of Bierce’s dictionary entries that Hall used in his mystery novel:

HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another—the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.

MISS, n. The title with which we brand unmarried women to indicate that they are in the market.

INTIMACY, n. A relation into which fools are providentially drawn for their mutual destruction.

These two, perhaps until I read the entire dictionary, are my favorites:

CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder.

This observation isn’t particular to Marx:

LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.

And this has become outdated with the rise of the Internet:

INK, n. A villainous compound of tannogallate of iron, gum-arabic and water, chiefly used to facilitate the infection of idiocy and promote intellectual crime. ■



  1. Hi Karlo! If possible, would you be so kind to send me a particular line from Nabokov that implied such jeering towards these works of fiction?

    Congratulations on your experience with Bierce. =)

  2. Hi Ms. Mira! =)

    Thanks. Nabokov did imply something like it but I can’t figure out if it’s in the conclusion of his Lectures on Literature or Lectures on Russian Literature as I haven’t read both yet. His view is one way of looking at literature but I’m sure it’s not the only way:

    “In this course I have tried to reveal the mechanism of those wonderful toys — literary masterpieces. I have tried to make of you good readers who read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations. I have tried to teach you to read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art…”

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