Archive for the 'detective fiction' Category

August favourites #8: Sherlock Holmes

August 8, 2018

Sherlock Holmes has become a legend over the years; I think Conan Doyle was sharp enough to realise in his own real, and Holmes’ imaginary lifetime. Obviously we know that the great popularity of the stories in Victorian and Edwardian England was sufficient for the writer to bring his hero back from his supposed watery grave in the Reichenbach falls, but I think the friendship, companionship and partnership between Holmes and Watson goes even deeper than the sleuthing. In his imaginary retirement bee-keeping on the Sussex Downs, Holmes’ reputation endures, and he goes on to serve his country in the immediate run-up to the Great War, in the very last story (chronologically speaking), which has a far chillier atmosphere than crime-laden Victorian London. Holmes’ final patriotic act as the shadows darken over Europe is the outwitting of the German master-spy Von Bork in the story His Last Bow, which I think is a real masterpiece.

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August favourites #7: detective fiction

August 7, 2018

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I’ll come to my hero Sherlock Holmes in a few days’ time: he’s in a class of his own. And although I have a soft spot for the melancholy Czech detective Lieutenant Boruvka, created by one of my favourite writers, Josef Skvorecky, my award has to go to a writer who paid the greatest tribute possible to Holmes in his creation of the monk William of Baskerville, who puts his observational powers to work, assisted by his young novice Adso of Melk, against a background of monastical murder and the inquisition in the early fourteenth century. I’m referring to Umberto Eco’s masterpiece, The Name of the Rose, which, as well as being a marvellous detective story, is also full of history and philosophy and relgion, as well as a poignant consideration of the nature of human love. In a way, the plot centres around a curious question: did Jesus ever laugh? It’s one of my top three novels of the twentieth century.

Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes

February 11, 2018

Back in the mid-1980s, in my first real teaching post, I shared with my inspirational head of department a love of Sherlock Holmes, and so when the dramatisations of the stories produced by Granada TV and starring the great Jeremy Brett were televised, we had a field day, dissecting each episode in the staffroom the morning after.

I have had the entire collection on DVD for a long time now, and every now and then have a short binge, re-visiting episodes I’d forgotten, and recently did this again; Brett is still stunningly good – none of your cucumber-patches for me! – as are the productions. And they are the real Holmes canon, even if some of the stories are just a little embroidered for television. Given that they fitted quite easily into thirty-minute radio adaptations in my childhood, that is inevitable.

The TV versions are leisurely, often involving lengthy and complex flashbacks to set the scene for the story, generally remaining pretty close to the originals – embroidery is not alteration – and the production values were sumptuous, often with expensive location filming for the stories not actually set in the heart of Victorian London.

What is so good about Jeremy Brett as Holmes? He looks distant, austere, emotionally cold, as Holmes is in the stories, and therefore is an excellent foil for the more human (and humane) Watson. Costume, and the Baker Street setting, which seems pretty convincing to me, adds to the effect. And when Holmes is in one of his many disguises, the visual medium of television is able to surprise as well as to convince. Brett’s voice is cut-glass dry, mannered, and suitably distant, his intonation demonstrating curiosity but not empathy, his dry laugh indicating not shared humour but superiority. He is a master of the look, and his mannered, sometimes florid, sometimes abrupt gestures work well: everything contributes to the overall effect.

When I did some reading up on the series and on Brett, I was not surprised to discover how seriously he took the role, completely immersing himself in it, and pondering for ages how, exactly, to portray the character in each episode. Here was an actor not just performing a role as his career and bread-and-butter called for, but someone genuinely in love with the character, eliding his personality with the role. Sadly it is perhaps true that Brett’s own mental and physical illnesses actually helped him in developing the perfect portrayal of Conan Doyle’s most famous character – Holmes was not a man of healthy habits as you know – and it is a great loss that he died before being able to complete the canon. Nevertheless he left versions of forty-one of the sixty stories and novels, which isn’t bad, and this breadth of achievement also helps make him, for this reader and viewer at least, the archetypal and only Sherlock Holmes.

Nothing new under the sun…

November 20, 2017

When are our tastes in literature shaped and formed?

I wrote recently about the phenomenon of older men reading less fiction, and the other day found myself discussing with my daughter the fact that I was not really that interested in much of what was being written now, or indeed films that were being released now, whereas in my student days I had been an avid reader of fiction and an avid film-goer. And we got on to thinking about how early on in life our tastes seem to be shaped and formed. It was interesting to find someone of a different generation in broad agreement with me, and I pondered things further…

I first met Sherlock Holmes, in print and on the wireless, at age seven. I’ve liked detective fiction – or a certain range of it – ever since; I’ve written else where in this blog about my enjoyment of Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Ellis Peters, Josef Skvorecky and others, too, no doubt.

I also first came across science fiction in my younger years, in the junior section of Stamford Public Library when I found the Lost Planet series, by Angus MacVicar. The premise was bonkers, as I recall, visiting a planet that had an orbit somewhat resembling that of a comet so that eventually it would be unreachable from earth, but the notion that there could be life elsewhere, and reachable from earth, stuck with me. As a student I became aware of science fiction with a political and social message, read lots and ended up researching and writing both an MA dissertation and an MPhil thesis on it. And I still keep an eye on what’s being written now, though I read very little of it.

About ten or fifteen years ago, there was a major shift in my reading habits as I began to explore all kinds of travel writing, and you don’t have to look very far in this blog to see how often I’ve written about it. I though this might be an example of a new direction in my reading, until I recall the voraciousness with which I tracked down and read every single book in the Young Traveller series in the local library. Again, a simple and repetitive premise which appeals to younger readers: a family travels – using some vague and largely irrelevant excuse – to a country, meets and converses with people, experiences local customs and food, visits important tourist attractions, all suitably sanitised for a readership of children.

I’ve always read a lot of fiction from other countries, mainly European, but do cast my net more widely. And I remembered friends at boarding school who pointed me at writers like Sartre and Günter Grass, and realised that here was yet another shaping of my literary tastes. Obviously when at university studying French Literature, my outlook broadened further.

So I have found myself wondering – is there anything I’ve acquired a taste for more recently, as in, since my student days of forty years ago? If there is, when I remember, I’ll let you know. But until then, I’m struck by just how much the tastes and interests of one’s life are laid down at a pretty early stage…

Sherlock Holmes… again

November 16, 2017

I’ve been a Holmes fan for as long as I can remember, and one of my first Christmas book token (remember those, anyone?) purchases as a child was a paperback of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; that, couple with a long-running BBC Radio series at roughly the same time, hooked me for life. And occasionally at Christmas, along comes a book which mines the Holmes canon to make a little money along the way; this is one of them from a few years ago, and a re-read has prompted these thoughts…

I supposed because Sherlock Holmes is now in the public domain, anyone can have a go at putting something together to make a little money: this is one of those books. It draws together snippets and details under various headings, making connections between various stories, but there’s nothing new here, it’s just a re-hash, with some poor illustrations. It’s an American effort, and this shows in places: quite often Americans give themselves away through their lack of understanding of London, Victorian England, English law or British history; when they attempt to write stories in the Holmes vein, their command of our language can be alarmingly inaccurate…

And yet, the edition par excellence of the stories and novels is an American one, the marvellous three-volume edition published by Norton, which I was lucky enough to receive a few Christmases ago – The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie S Klinger. Pretty much everything is clarified in these hefty, beautifully produced tomes. Americans do produce high-quality books.

There are some useful books about Holmes which I’ve come across in my time: I can recommend, for detailed information and context, Christopher Redmond‘s Sherlock Holmes Handbook, and for a wealth of visual detail, Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die, compiled by Alex Werner. And while we are on good and useful resources, I can’t speak highly enough of the marvellous Naxos recordings of the entire canon by David Timson; for me the only screen Holmes was Jeremy Brett in the extraordinarily careful and detailed Granada TV productions of some thirty years ago (no Benedict Cumberbatch for me, thank you!). Pastiches? the two novels by Anthony Horowitz are actually very good, with only the themes of the stories and the higher level of violence giving away that they are not from Conan Doyle‘s pen.

In the end, the lasting greatness of the novels and stories of the canon is that they are very much a product of their time – the Victorian era, for which it is easy to be nostalgic because it wasn’t that long ago and so has a certain semi-familiarity, if you like; Arthur Conan Doyle, who tired of, tried to kill off and ultimately had to resurrect his hero; and the magazine culture of the time, too: a new story every month – a bit like the radio series which hooked me as a boy…

On recommendations

July 30, 2017

Do you ever get the feeling you don’t have enough time to read? Surely not…

I found myself reflecting on this because I realised how few of friends’/acquaintances’ suggestions and recommendations of books I should read I actually follow through, and also realised it hadn’t always been like this. So a brief check through my reading journal (which I’ll write about tomorrow) showed that, since the start of last year I’ve read two books recommended by my wife, two recommended by friends (and one of these books I didn’t really enjoy) and one recommended by my mother (we often swap travel writing, which we both enjoy) – out of a total of almost a hundred books read. Any other choices have been books waiting on my shelves, books suggested by others I’ve read, or have been suggested by book reviews in the press.

Back in my school and student days, when I suppose I was beginning to read seriously, friends and colleagues recommended books all the time and I devoured their suggestions; we swapped books all the time and discussed them, often at length; at university we studied them. And one of the inevitable results of that has been the development of ever more refined (picky?) personal tastes and preferences: in my sixties, I know what I like, and I’m far more reluctant to stray out of familiar paths… That initial, enthusiastic swapping, talking and recommending fostered and encouraged the growth of my own likes and dislikes: no logic, rhyme or reason to it, and it’s what got me to where I am today: why else did I reject the study of history at school, and classics at university, and go on to read English and French Literature, later on specialising in twentieth century literature and science fiction?

I suppose this is inevitable, and we could say much the same about musical tastes, choices about travelling, even work: we get to know ourselves, or construct ourselves perhaps, and settle into …ruts.

If you’ve read a few of my posts you’ll know the mix: some fiction, usually European, often translated, some science fiction, detective fiction, a lot of travel writing, some history. There’s a lot that’s missing, and that I see other bloggers who I follow, writing about – women’s writing, poetry, modern British or American fiction for starters. Pressed for an answer as to why I don’t read very much of those kinds of writing, the simple answer is ‘I don’t have the time’; it’s not an answer I’m that happy with, and there’s a stick-in-the-mud there somewhere. The only new genre I’ve taken on board in the last twenty years is travel writing, and that has been a marvellous discovery, thought-provoking and enriching.

My friends don’t recommend boring stuff; quite often a recommendation is a response to my talking about something I’ve read recently or an interest that we share, and yet it’s only occasionally that I’ll actually take up a suggestion. I have so many books I know I’ll never get around to re-reading (which helps with the occasional clear-out), so many books waiting to read, and increasingly there are books I know I would like to read but will never get around to, so I don’t bother buying them…

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael

July 12, 2017

I’ve long been partial to these mediaeval tales, and a recent trip to a charity shop brought me a good deal closer to completing my collection, with three more novels. I like detective stories, I’m interested in mediaeval history and monasticism and have grown to love Shrewsbury and Shropshire over the years. Also, in the Abbey church today is Wilfred Owen’s monument. So, what’s not to like, as they say?

Ellis Peters (a pseudonym) was well-versed in place and time, as well as the daily life of Benedictine monasteries; though I don’t go looking for errors, I have not yet come across any. And, in the genre of the detective story, she does extremely well.

To begin with, her hero (?) Brother Cadfael, is no ordinary monk, called to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, and knowing nothing else: his was a mature vocation, after adventures in the Crusades, full experience of worldly life which we gradually learn about through the cycle of novels. Eventually we learn of his loves in the East, and that he has a son. As the abbey’s herbalist, he needs to be out and about collecting what he needs to make his remedies, and this allows him to pursue his investigations. He’s a very sharp observer, and his past gives him a broad knowledge and understanding of human behaviour that many of his fellow monks lack.

The formula for successful detective stories often requires a sidekick – a Watson to every Holmes. Ellis Peters develops, over the course of the novels, an interesting tweak: once the old Shropshire sheriff is succeeded by his deputy, a true friendship and effective working relationship develops between the religious and the secular, as Cadfael and Hugh Berengar work together to unravel a range of mysteries.

Obviously crime is a key element of such fiction, but the kinds of crime are not the same through the whole genre: in mediaeval times murder, revenge, theft and concealed identity dominate; financial and sexual crime, blackmail and the like, which are more prevalent in recent times, are pretty much absent. And in an age where the rule of law is not firmly established in the same way it is now, it is much easier for criminals to flee and escape justice completely: the relative lawlessness and foreign jurisdiction of Wales are literally on the doorstep; the English crown and government is by no means secure in the mid-twelfth century, either… Like Holmes, who can be his own moral compass as a consulting detective and allow someone to avoid the strict penalty of the law if he feels it justified, so Cadfael too chooses at times not to reveal facts others have not managed to notice; his moral judgements are between himself and his confessor.

Atmosphere and continuity are further aspects of success in the genre: consider Conan Doyle’s masterly evocation of Victorian London, the largest metropolis on the planet at the time, ultra-modern, at the heart of a huge world empire and yet concealing much darkness, poverty and evil, or Raymond Chandler’s wealthy, sexy and sleazy California or Colin Dexter’s Oxford. Peters’ evocation of a mediaeval city, its religious and secular sides and its hinterland, is masterly, convincing and detailed; it builds up through the series of twenty-one books, and is often supplemented by carefully-drawn maps. We come to know the abbey in detail; the personnel change, as they would over a period of about ten years covered by all the stories; relationships and interactions develop over time just as does that between Holmes and Watson over the fifty-six stories of that canon.

Compared with other detectives and other times, I often feel there is not a lot of actual detection in these stories – the sciences that would support this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are obviously undeveloped – although a sense of mystery is sustained, solution of the mystery follows in the usual way by not letting the reader in on everything that the detective has observed or deduced until the very end, and often all is cleared up through a forced confession by the guilty party. The pace is leisurely, couleur locale is paramount, the characters are interesting: Ellis Peters is a full member of the club of master detective story writers. Easy and enjoyable reading.

My A-Z of reading: F is for Film

October 27, 2016

Novels get made into films. Sometimes we like the film version of a book we know well, sometimes it’s awful. But how much thought do you give to the transformation that takes place? The two media are so radically different. The printed text relies on verbal description to create place, setting, atmosphere: a film can do this in seconds, perhaps much more effectively, with added music and sound effects. A novel can take us deep inside a character’s mind and thoughts: how do you do this in a film? And what difference does any of this make, anyway?

I’ll start with Jane Austen. Her novels have been filmed numerous times, for the cinema, and as series for television. And here we find another difference: a film has a relatively fixed time duration – let’s say from an hour and a half to two and a half hours. A TV series could easily be twice as long. What is left in, and what is cut? Again, how does this affect the story – when does it cease to be the Jane Austen novel we know and love, and become something else? Film can do the settings, the houses, the costumes and the looks and interaction between the characters, but what about the thoughts, what about the irony, the subtle authorial interventions? These are lost. Some may be hinted at or suggested through refashioning dialogue, but… And what about the invented moments, Colin Firth‘s famous wet and clinging shirt in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, or the kiss at the end of Persuasion. These things may look good on screen, but are they not also doing violence to the original? No, a film is always a version of the original…

I have always liked the film of The Name of the Rose. Sean Connery works as William of Baskerville. The locations and the use of light create a very effective sense of atmosphere; the library is superb and the apocalyptic ending is marvellously done. And yet, only after watching it is it possible to grasp how much of Eco’s superb novel is missing: the stunning erudition, the theology, Adso’s reflections. The film is faithful to the original, but only so far. Similarly, Gunter Grass’ pre-war Danzig is superbly recreated, both visually and atmospherically by Volker Schlondorf in his film of The Tin Drum: the subtly growing Nazi menace creeps up on everyone, and we are not spared the horrors, but the film is only half the novel. It doesn’t matter whether you feel that it’s the better half, my point is, it’s hardly Grass’ novel!

There are more film and TV versions of Sherlock Holmes than you can shake a stick at. Some are passable, some truly dire, some hardly Holmes at all, but I’m of the generation that was captivated by Jeremy Brett’s mannered performances in the 1980s for Granada TV. Fantastic attention to period detail, some re-arrangement of plots for dramatic effect, but fidelity to Conan Doyle’s original is perhaps easier to achieve when we’re (only) dealing with short, detective stories.

I have singularly failed to watch Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in the film of To Kill A Mockingbird. We set out to watch it in class one day, but found the opening so crass, so clumsy and so unconvincing after our reading of the novel that the class virtually booed it off-screen: I stopped the video after about fifteen minutes and we gave up… It was instructive to watch and compare the two versions of Lord of the Flies: the aged black and white version made with non-actors that was so faithful to the original yet so ineffective twenty years after it was made, and the horrendous ‘updated’ US version with swearing, rewritten plot and so many other pointless alterations bore almost no resemblance to the original.

Perhaps the most successful – or do I mean accurate? – film version of a novel that I can recall is Richard Burton’s last role as O’Brien in 1984, and John Hurt’s superb performance as Winston. Orwell’s vision of London is visualised stunningly effectively, apart from the smells, of course, which Orwell himself was only able to describe in the original. Fear, paranoia, menace all loom out of the screen; even excerpts from Goldstein’s book – often skimmed by reluctant readers – are read into the film. Brilliant; closest to being a film of the novel rather than a version of it. Unless you know better?

The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories Part 1

July 14, 2016

51L5bqa127L._AC_US160_It’s beginning to make me cross, now: you would expect that someone who’s not English, not British, who doesn’t speak British English, who’s not familiar with nineteenth century English history, and who wanted to write a story set in Victorian London would at least pass a draft of it to someone who was more familiar with those places and times and say, “Please would you read this for me and tell me if I’ve made any glaring errors?” So, why the hell don’t they? Why does so much downright tosh end up in print?

Rant over; let’s take a slightly more considered look at this volume, which is by no means as awful as the last one I reviewed the other week. By and large, a lot more attention is paid in these stories to accuracy in the Victorian language register, as well as details of the setting being more carefully considered, and so the whole is rather more convincing. We also do see Holmes engaged in a decent amount of detective work. This book is, however, also marred by small but annoying proof-reading errors. There’s more sense of real interplay between Holmes and Watson, although still a number of writers seem to think Watson is Holmes’ assistant, in the sense of office-boy or runaround, which jars a lot. Occasionally I did find myself thinking, “How did an editor let this through?”

But there are some yarns that are very good, convincing throughout, in Conan Doyle’s original vein. About half of them are good reads, and I’ll mention specifically The Song of the Mudlark, The Tale of the Forty Thieves, The Strange Missive of Germaine Wilkes, The Aspen Papers, The King of Diamonds, and The Seventh Stain: this last one is probably the best in the collection. And here’s the crux of things, which I’ve slowly arrived at in my reading of the pastiches: it’s not enough just to really enjoy the original stories: you need to be able to do several things well. First and foremost, you need a decent plot, the one thing that Conan Doyle doesn’t give you. There needs to be a decent (and appropriate) crime or mystery – something sensational, twentieth-century therefore out-of-place won’t do. Plenty of types of crime don’t appear in the original stories, which were written for a family magazine. Holmes needs to investigate the scene of the crime properly, find clues, make deductions, come up with a theory which he doesn’t fully share with his readers, and finally solve the problem in a convincing and satisfying manner: no sudden deus ex machina will do.

Conan Doyle gives a writer the rest, if s/he will but take a little care: there’s a ready-made, long-standing detective and colleague and their relationship, which a writer can develop and extend quite effectively if they understand it; there’s a setting – Victorian London – which works perfectly well if you can reproduce it accurately, and goodness knows, there’s enough information out there to help – and there’s a more general narrative style and structure for the genre, which most detective stories seem to use…

A writer who has actually read the stories of the canon should know that London does not have ‘tenements’, nor houses with thatched roofs in the city centre, that Jews in nineteenth century would not have spoken Hebrew together (!), that ‘bars’ were not open at all hours of the night… I could go on, but there really is no excuse for this sort of ineptitude, or for an editor letting it through. People may write such tosh out of a supposed love of the original stories, but I’m disappointed when I end up reading it. If you think I’m too much of a purist, too bad: like many Holmes fans, I grew up from an early age with the originals, and have always wanted more, but they do have to be (nearly) as good! I’m really not sure whether I’ll be bothering with the other three books in this series…

The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures

June 27, 2016

51J94Jk8rVL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve recently started reading some of the many stories featuring Holmes and Watson written by imitators of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I can see the attraction: the original stories are largely good reading, and once you’ve got to the end of them, you crave more, and there aren’t any – unless someone else writes them.

That’s where the problem seems to start: there are plenty of would-be Conan Doyles, who think they can dash off a story, using his ready-made characters; all you need is a suitable mystery. And then, everything goes wrong. For starters, writing in Conan Doyle mode, and late 19th/ early 20th century idiom isn’t that easy: few manage to get the subtleties of the language right, let alone the complex social mores and behaviours of those times. And then, creating a mystery, which becomes a detective story, sowing subtle clues and showing the great detective at work, stringing your reader along with just not quite enough information to allow them to solve it themselves, isn’t so straightforward, either.

I have to say, this collection is pretty dire and I would urge Holmes fans to avoid it; there are only a couple of stories worth your eyeball time, really. I realise some might say I’m just a disgruntled purist nit-picking, but, for a start, the book’s production levels are poor: idiotic uncorrected spelling and punctuation errors abound. Shoddy editing and poor proof-reading have let too many glaring anachronisms through – when does Holmes ever refer to Watson’s ‘service pistol‘? Did any country actually have a broadcast wireless service during the First World War?

Some of the stories are shamelessly derivative of stories in the canon; many are glaringly obviously in their twentieth century language and social interactions, so amateurish in their failure to sustain Victorian manners, mores, behaviour and speech in a supposedly Victorian context, that the Holmes and Watson carefully created by Conan Doyle stick out like the proverbial sore thumbs.

The ideas behind the cases are often interesting, and quite convincing, though the stories themselves can be full of gaping holes. The major difficulty most of the writers are faced with, and fail to overcome, is not one I would have expected, though, and that is, to construct the detection process convincingly enough. When you think about the stories in the canon, what Conan Doyle does is very clever: clues are sown as Holmes investigates; we just don’t get all of them, or are misled slightly. We do see Holmes do actual investigating and detection work, and some of the conclusions he reaches are hinted at. We realise that there is a thinking process going on. But many of these writers don’t manage to do any of that, so you end up with a crime, a visit by Holmes, him solving it and the criminal being caught, and then Holmes explaining absolutely everything to us…

I’ll mention the decent ones: a very good yarn by Michael Moorcock the SF writer, The Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger, and Barrie Roberts’ The Mystery of the Addleton Curse, which links in nicely with the contemporary work of the Curies into radioactivity; Michael Doyle’s further development of The Musgrave Ritual, one of only two stories in the canon narrated by Holmes, and The Adventure of the Bulgarian Diplomat by Zakaria Erzinclioglu isn’t bad either. Avoid the rest; you have been warned.

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