Archive for the 'detective fiction' Category

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

March 3, 2019

51qthu117qL._AC_US218_I’m a little under the weather at the moment and when I’m poorly, I crave ‘easy’ reading, so I’ve revisited an old favourite. Some of my readers will be aware of my penchant for detective fiction, particularly Sherlock Holmes; as I re-read The Big Sleep, one of the things I was trying to do was work out how Philip Marlowe is different.

He’s very observant, which comes across in the little details in his descriptions of people and places; he’s very laconic, and his humour reminds me a little of Mark Twain. The plot develops – or unravels – slowly, jigsaw-style; nothing is clear from the start either to us or to Marlowe. The story is effortlessly readable, casual, atmospheric: the 1920s/30s California setting permeates Chandler’s stories as completely and easily as Victorian London does those of Conan Doyle. The reader has the feeling of detecting along with Marlowe, unlike the way we feel excluded from Holmes’ thoughts and deductions and are eventually presented with a solution.

Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, the Philip Marlowe ones are full of stereotypes: the women, the hoods, the cops: can the genre do without these? The story which gradually develops in the novel is far better presented than in the famous film: here, there is room for the detail, atmosphere and leisurely pace whereas for me the film showcases the actors and not a lot else.

So, what is the difference? Marlowe is a loner, whereas Holmes has Watson as his narrator, his sidekick and his foil. This does make a major difference: Watson can and does choose what to tell us and what to leave out, and of course – in Conan Doyle’s fictional invention – he is not party to Holmes’ thoughts and reasonings and can therefore only share with the reader what Holmes deigns to tell him; the entire plot structure and narrative method is different. Marlowe is a loner, narrating in the first person, obviously, so along with the immediacy of this narrative style, we are automatically as in the dark as Marlowe is (or as enlightened). We have to share his reasonings and his hunches, the red herrings and the mistakes, or there is obviously no story.

Holmes does go out looking for clues and examining crime scenes; he’s not averse to getting his hands dirty, or to danger, though we don’t always know a lot about this unless he takes Watson along with him. Marlowe is constantly out there, on the ground: we perhaps have the impression that Holmes’ approach is more cerebral, as he sits for days smoking and thinking. Holmes interacts with others, but comes across as rather remote, distant; again, Marlowe has to appear more engaged with others because of the first-person narrative.

Violence and menace never seems very far away in immediately post-Prohibition California; in Victorian London it is always presented as something rather surprising or shocking – Conan Doyle is thinking of his genteel Victorian readership and how not to shock them too much. Both authors operate under the restraints of their times: thus, there can be no sexual crime in the Sherlock Holmes stories, other than blackmail linked to a ‘past’ or attempts to coerce marriage, and while sexual misdeeds and even homosexuality are rife in Chandler’s stories, presentation is always sufficiently vague so as not to shock or offend too much, disapproval often hinted at.

I’m at a disadvantage here – and perhaps my readers may help me out – in that I’m not au fait with the latest wave of crime and detective fiction, so cannot make any more recent comparisons. From what I do know, Chandler seems rather out on a limb with his solitary shamus, and yet he has made the style work, completely differently but no less effectively, according to this reader at least…

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Good intentions

January 2, 2019

A fellow blogger posted a list of books she intends to read in 2019: I was both impressed and challenged. Why could I not plan my reading like this? I have had epic fails in the past. Upon retiring, I though to myself right, let’s have a serious year reading Shakespeare, another studying history, another on science fiction… none of which have come to pass so far.

A little more thinking had me realising that at this stage in my life I’m more of a re-reader than a reader, with the proportion of new books gradually shrinking. And yet, my plans to re-read many old favourites have also come to naught: I would pile up the books I was itching to revisit, maybe tackle a couple of them and then six months later put the pile away back on the shelves, having been side-tracked by something else and the moment having passed.

So, either I lack discipline, or else (I say, to console myself) I follow my instincts and my nose, one thing leading on to another, a bit like the word association exercise allegedly beloved of psychoanalysts. Occasionally one of these strands works itself out completely and I find myself utterly at a loss for what to turn to next, as often the unread pile does not tempt me. At such moments I turn briefly to magazines.

Having said all that, I do have some good intentions for the coming year. I want to re-read all of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories, I want to re-read Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, my collection of Raymond Chandler novels and stories… all of that after I’ve finished re-reading Philip K Dick. And to be fair to myself, I have stuck to that one pretty well so far. Also on the list is to revisit Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, for a more considered take on it after a second read.

If I have time, I will also revisit some of Norman Davies’ history books. I also intend to pursue a relatively new interest, reading up on art history: I will try and finish E H Gombrich’s The Story of Art which I began several months ago when I was poorly, and I shall also look out something on the history of church architecture, which has always interested me.

Then there is always the pending pile, by the bed. At the end of this year, should I remember, I will update you on how badly I did….

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.

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?

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