America’s First Russian Roulette Victims

RR5Texan winters are unpredictable. Rain turns the state into a soggy mess one day then blazing sun bakes it hard the next. This changeability is especially pronounced in the state capital of Austin.

If you don’t like the weather,’ say seasoned Austinites, ‘just wait five minutes.’

On Saturday 8 January 1938 they had their usual dose of fickle climate. The sun shone intermittently through the day but by late afternoon grey skies ruled and a chill wind chased commuters out of the downtown business district into the suburbs. In an upscale part of town a young man called Thomas H Markley jnr celebrated his twenty-first birthday with a gang of college friends outside his parents’ house.

He had a case of beer and a revolver to keep him warm.

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An Introduction to Russian Roulette

RR1You are shown into a large room. You’re nervous. Your heart races, your palms are sweating lightly. Your chair sits facing a long table. Behind the table a panel of faces look at you coldly. One gets up and stands next to you.

We are going to play Russian Roulette,’ he says.

Is he crazy? Do they expect you to risk your life for a job? You look at the panel. They are serious. You look at the speaker. He forms his fingers into the shape of a gun.

This,’ he says, ‘is a six chamber revolver.’

He puts his finger to your temple.

It has one bullet in it.’

He jerks his finger.

Click. No bullet in that chamber. I’m going to pull the trigger again. Before I do that, do you want me to spin the cylinder of the revolver? You have three seconds to answer.

The panel are looking at you intensely, analysing your reaction. Welcome to the favourite situation of high powered job interviewers. Answering complex questions under pressure. Can you give the right answer?

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The Man Who Invented Russian Roulette

SURDEZScattered farm houses with roofs the colour of dark chocolate cling to sloping daffodil meadows at the foot of the Jura mountains. Cows amble through pastures with clanking brass bells around their necks.

Pure picture postcard to outsiders, this tranquil part of Switzerland is home to a town German-speakers know as Biel. Francophones prefer to call it Bienne.

Georges Arthur Surdez was born here in 1900 to a French-speaking middle class family with its fair share of demons.

Surdez shared the family home with an elder brother and three elder sisters. An adult brother and sister were making new lives for themselves in America. They had been gone so long that the smart toys they sent Surdez at Christmas stirred no memories.

His father Eugene was a watchmaker, and mother Marie happy to devote her life to her children. Like many outwardly respectable families, a maggot wriggled inside the apple.

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