Archive for the 'detective fiction' Category

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.

Robert Lee Hall: Exit Sherlock Holmes

June 21, 2016

51d0C5nHaNL._AC_US160_I’m an incurable Holmes addict. Now that I know the canon thoroughly, I’ve begun to explore the imitators, and there have been plenty of writers who took Conan Doyle’s heroes and wrote stories of their own, extending the characters and the stories with varying degrees of success; I’ve reviewed several in this blog at different times, including Anthony Horowitz’s two novels, and the collection of stories about the rivals of Sherlock Holmes that dates from the 1970s.

Horowitz’s Moriarty takes as its premise the idea that the arch-villain did not perish in the confrontation with Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls; so did this earlier novel. Although Conan Doyle did not originally intend either man to survive the fall, public pressure caused him to resurrect our hero after a number of years, by inventing a semi-plausible escape from death and an account of the intervening years, and if Holmes could have escaped death then surely so might his rival. And, whereas Horowitz focuses on Moriarty alone, to the exclusion of Holmes and Watson (and the great deception of some expectant readers) Robert Lee Hall brings us Holmes, but with a difference.

I’d never have come across this novel or known of its existence if I hadn’t been on holiday; it’s one of those books you come across in a holiday cottage, left for those holidaymakers without their own reading matter (or who’ve finished it all, like yours truly).

Apeing Conan Doyle’s style is difficult for a non-Victorian writer, as we find with Horowitz’s The House of Silk; Lee Hall begins well, quite convincingly, but pretty soon, after he’s got his plot under way, he lets go of careful attention to the style, and it rapidly becomes sub-par twentieth-century prose.

Watson, aware only that Moriarty is on the loose again and that Holmes must vanish because he is in imminent peril, finds himself investigating Holmes’ mysterious past and discovers that Holmes is not really who he seems to be, and that he has deceived Watson many times over the years of their friendship; it’s an attempt at a meta-narrative of Holmes’ life and career, and, lest I spoil the plot for anyone minded to try and track down a copy to read, I shan’t say too much other than mention a link to a writer contemporary of Conan Doyle’s, namely HG Wells, and a sideways glance to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

I’m glad I read it; it was compulsive, kept me engaged to the very end even as I kept finding faults and flaws in the style and language; it was a very interesting tangent to take on Holmes and Watson and their relationship, and, in the end, I could only wish that it had been rather better written.

There is the canon – the sacred texts from the real Watson via Conan Doyle; there are the rivals in similar vein, and there are the imitators. With all that, I think I have a few more years of fun and entertainment to come…

On maths and science

April 6, 2016

51F6wH7UHeL._AA160_ 51h6BFLBjiL._AA160_ 51PtUSpds0L._AA160_ 51r2u2D8-tL._AA160_I wouldn’t want any of my readers who is a mathematician or scientist (and I hope there are some of you!) to get the impression that these are subjects I am indifferent to, even though my knowledge is pretty scant: I do have O-Level Maths, and was one of the very first students to study what was called ‘modern maths’ in the sixties, and I also have what was quaintly known as ‘General Science’ O-Level (ie very basic).

Some of the most interesting conversations I used to have as a teacher were with science and maths-teaching colleagues; I am still proud of my abilities in mental arithmetic and calculation, and I’ve always found playing with numbers in my head fascinating, along with other connections I’ve been able to make between what I learned in school, and later life. As far as science goes, I’ve had a lifelong interest in astronomy – my primary school best friend and I used to fantasise about whether we could get to be the first men to land on the moon! – and my enjoyment of detective fiction means I’ve always liked reading about forensic science. However, I do have to admit that an awful lot of mathematical and scientific knowledge does give me a serious headache after not very long: my brain just doesn’t seem to be wired that way… I did actually get to the end of Stephen Hawking‘s A Brief History of Time, but please don’t ask me what it’s about.

Maths and science feature noticeably in my reading. I loved Norman Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth, a book for children that introduces one to the joys of playing with words and numbers, as Milo visits the cities of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis. And, as I thought about this post, I realised that I’ve liked science fiction ever since I was a small boy, perhaps beginning with the Lost Planet series by Angus MacVicar, and never looking back since. But I must then confess that it’s never really been the ‘hard science’ variety that’s gripped me, much more the speculative kind.

Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein plays with what scientists were exploring in her day, and she couples it with a powerful story and incisive reflection on the morality of what scientists can get up to, reflections which perhaps we would do well to remember nowadays. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should…

I found the fictionalised travels of the eighteenth century polymath Alexander von Humboldt, in Daniel Kehlmann‘s novel Measuring the World so interesting that I then went on to seek out and enjoy (an edited version of ) Humboldt’s travel journals. And Primo Levi, a chemist who survived Auschwitz, though not much of life after Auschwitz, wrote a fascinating fictionalised autobiography called The Periodic Table; each chapter is named after an element, the last is carbon, and the ending of the book is both witty (in the best sense of that word) and masterly.

I like reading popular science from time to time, because it’s accessible; I’ve enjoyed Steve Jones‘ takes on Darwin and evolution, The Descent of Men and Almost Like A Whale, and have also found what I’ve read about science and medicine in the Islamic world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’ very interesting. In the end, there’s plenty of approachable material out there for the non-scientists like me; if only there was the time…

Farewell, Umberto

February 20, 2016

Umberto Eco was the sort of person who made me feel proud to be a human being, if you can understand what I mean. Like all of us, he had a brain, and powers of reason. And unlike many humans, he used them.

If people know who he was, they probably immediately think, oh yes: The Name of the Rose. It is a lovely novel, one of may all-time favourites, and I say lovely advisedly, for it is so many things: a wonderful detective story which pays tribute to another of my heroes, Sherlock Holmes, a disquisition on mediaeval history, theology, the religious life, human nature – in short, a work which allows Eco the mediaevalist to shine at his best. And Baudolino, his other mediaeval novel which explores the search for Prester John, does the same. His other novels are less impressive, though I have intentions of returning to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I remember as quite autobiographical.

Eco described himself as a philosopher who wrote novels at the weekends. I’ve only dipped into his other work. Some of it, especially more abstruse stuff on semiotics and meaning, has given me a headache and left me none the wiser: I haven’t the tools to access it. Other writings, on languages and translation, I have found fascinating and thought-provoking. And his writings about art, culture and literature, in such books as On Beauty, On Ugliness, The Infinity of Lists and especially The Book of Legendary Lands are works of beauty and great erudition.

So, he was a man of learning, a man who valued learning and knowledge for its own sake, who revelled in it and in sharing it with others. For me, this is one of the greatest things a person can aspire to. When I learned yesterday of the passing of Harper Lee, I was saddened. Opening the paper this morning, I was without words for a long time.

The staircase (continued): Plot

January 23, 2016

Plot is story. A series of events is introduced, developed and played out; there is often suspense and tension to keep the reader engaged and involved. There is a denouement – full or partial according to when the novel was written – Victorians liked to tidy everything up, modern writers are not so bothered, or are even deliberately bloody-minded, and go for open endings.

It’s useful to think about what drives our first reading, especially if you are one of those readers like me, who comes back again and again to his favourite books. First time round, plot draws us along: what happens next? How will it end? And such questions shape our initial response, at least. Was it a good story? Did we like the way it ended? Think about – as I suggested in the last post – the way we sometimes disagree with the way a writer ends her/his novel, based on our interpretation as we read, usually of characters. And if we feel the ending is wrong, surely the next thing we must ask ourselves is, OK, so why did the author choose to end it like that?

Re-readers will know what’s coming next. Usually we will retain at least an outline of the plot in our memories, and will be able to recall how the story ends. This means that we are not so plot-driven second, or nth time round, and can have a different focus to our reading, indeed we can deliberately choose a specific focus if we want to or need to (for study purposes perhaps). We will pay more attention to other details, perhaps notice many small things that we glossed over on that first, plot-driven reading.

The Sherlock Holmes stories come to mind here. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read them over the past fifty years. Usually, I don’t recall the ending until I’m well into a story, so that the pleasure is not ruined by knowing who did it straight away.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, when we consider a vast novel like War and Peace, of Vassily Grossman‘s twentieth century masterpiece, Life and Fate. Real and fictitious events interwoven unfold against a huge canvas; many different plot strands are interconnected, and it’s often hard to keep track of all the threads; sometimes we are given lists of characters in an appendix so we can refer to them when we get confused. Then we are glad when a particular, or a favourite strand re-emerges after having disappeared for some time, and continuity is re-established.

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

November 24, 2015

51WZ6k3-NzL._AA115_As I’ve re-read and listened to the stories, I’ve come to realise that the setting –Victorian London – is far more important than I’d realised, or given Conan Doyle credit for: the sense of pride in the largest city in the world, at the heart of the Empire, with its wealth and its grittiness and its underworld. The crimes are always mentionable, the details never dwelt upon, in the way such things are today…

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes – the second time such an enterprise has been undertaken – is three magnificently produced volumes, which I was given for Christmas a decade ago. Two volumes contain all the short stories in the canon, and the third volume the longer tales. The annotation is copious, detailed, and as all decent annotation is, on the page alongside the stories rather than tucked away at the back of the book, so that any and every note you want to read is instantly accessible. And the annotation is probably needed now, to enable new generations of readers to make sense of all the small details, places that have disappeared, and other minutiae that Conan Doyle has his characters refer to. There are photographs and line drawings from the time, maps and diagrams, and a chronology of the times so that one can situate world events, too, although it’s only when we approach the First World War that Holmes and Watson seem to be involved in the periphery of actual events. There are also many pages of references to scholarly articles on each of the stories that have been published in various magazines devoted to Holmes, over the years, and also web links, which are well worth exploring.

The two characters are still at the heart of the stories for me, and I still marvel at the way Conan Doyle developed the formula which so many other have since followed and copied: you need the two characters for their interaction, and, as I mentioned above, the sense of place provides a pretty secure anchor, whilst the chaos of crime unfolds and is then (usually) resolved. Colin Dexter put Morse and Lewis in Oxford, and for me, that combination also worked well, as does Ellis Peters‘ pairing of monk and sheriff in the Brother Cadfael series, with its Shrewsbury setting.

If you want a treat from someone in the festive season, then the three volumes of the Annotated Homes are a great idea. The only downside is that they are quite seriously weighty and so do not provide for a portable reading copy: you need a sofa to enjoy them, really. The best easily portable set remains the old (and only available second-hand) two-volume hardback set from John Murray which is what I take on holiday…


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