Archive for the 'detective fiction' Category

The phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes

April 5, 2020

Having been under the weather recently (nothing sinister!) I returned, as I frequently do in such circumstances, to Sherlock Holmes, but this time not to the stories themselves, but to the small collection of books about Holmes that I’ve acquired over the years, and they got me thinking. Is Holmes the only invented, fictional character who has gradually, over the years, built up such a ‘real’ existence? By real existence, I’m referring to the fact that people actually write to him with their problems, asking for help, despite the fact that, even fictionally, he ‘died’ a century ago. And that tourist seek out the mythical 221b Baker Street address, which apparently never existed. Enormous amounts of ‘research’ has been done, attempting to establish when and where each of the cases took place, to iron out supposed discrepancies which are due to Conan Doyle’s carelessness, and so on… even the belief in Santa Claus doesn’t go quite this far! And I have to confess to having been marked for life when at the age of seven I first heard Carleton Hobbs as Holmes on the BBC Home Service, and bought my first collection of stories with a Christmas book token (remember those?).

There are a lot of cracking good yarns in the canon of four novels and fifty-six short stories, and Conan Doyle was careful to weave the cases into the Victorian and Edwardian England setting; novelists have been attempting to convince us of the veracity of their fictions ever since Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I wrote about quite recently.

E J Wagner’s The Science of Sherlock Holmes is a very interesting and quite detailed account of the history and development of forensic science and medicine in the nineteenth century, closely linked to the stories; there are fascinating chapters on insects, decay of corpses, poisons, fingerprints and disguise, among other topics, and it’s certainly a useful book to have along side the complete works.

71YSYrG8pbL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Probably the most useful of books is Christopher Redmond’s Sherlock Holmes Handbook: its very name implies utility. There are brief summaries of all the novels and stories, with links and connections between them, and some analysis, all very helpful reference if, like me, no matter how often you’ve read the stories, small details elude you. There’s an extremely helpful collation of all the ‘biographical’ details about Holmes and Watson which are dotted throughout the canon. There’s also a biography of Conan Doyle if you need one, and a useful chapter on the publishing history.

Most useful are the excellent sections on Victorian context and background, again collating all sorts of useful stuff from throughout the canon, as well as material on crime and punishment and the legal system in England in the nineteenth century. Likewise, the analysis of the history of the detective story genre, its conventions and structure are very good. It’s an American production, so there is the occasional solecism about a detail of life in England, but I’ll excuse those. One thing I took away from re-reading this book was the possibly even greater popularity of the stories in the USA, given the nature of the links and connections between the two nations when the stories were first published.

Somewhere I acquired a copy of Michael Hardwick’s The Complete Guide to Sherlock Holmes. It’s a curious book: he provides a ‘summary’ of all the stories, with often very lengthy extracts, interspersed with commentary and biographical details about Conan Doyle. He is deliberately careful not to give away story endings… this struck me as weird, given that presumably only an enthusiast would want this book, and they would have read the stories anyway… The biographical information about Conn Doyle was interesting, but it’s not an essential book by any means.

A Sherlock Holmes Compendium, edited by Peter Haining, is another curiosity, definitely not essential to my library. The most interesting thing in it is an often referred-to essay by Ronald Knox on the stories, where he light-heartedly analyses and mocks all sorts of discrepancies between the stories and theories about them.

The Sherlock Holmes Handbook, by Ransom Riggs, is a lightweight and superficial book that looks nice. It purports to offer explanations of various of Holmes’ detective skills but is vague and random (!) with material not always linked to Holmes or particular tales. It’s also stylistically annoying, full of American contractions and solecisms. Can be avoided.

81om2J72RtL._AC_UY218_ML3_    The final book on my list was compiled by Alex Werner for the Museum of London: Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die. It’s really good and detailed and sumptuously illustrated, too. The complexities of Conan Doyle and his creation are both explored: London is portrayed in detail, both the place and how people lived, with many links to real people from the Holmes era. There’s a wonderful selection of photos from those times, too, as well as illustrations from artists who painted the city. I learned that Conan Doyle was never a Londoner, and that a third of the stories are not set there but in the outer suburbs, so that the picture of London is actually quite an idiosyncratic one.

It’s an excellent contextual companion to the stories, a very full, detailed and atmospheric portrait of a place and an era supported by an impressive amount of research. It’s an early 21st-century vision of Holmes, Conan Doyle and Victorian/Edwardian London, which demonstrates that each generation re-views, re-writes and re-creates the past in a slightly different guise, for its own particular purposes.

81nn3WfQ72L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I have two editions of the canon, both of which I would recommend to any serious enthusiast: now only available second hand are the two volumes published by John Murray many years ago, the Complete Long Stories and Complete Short Stories. They are nice hardbacks, and manageable. The other is the sumptuous and weighty Norton edition on some fifteen years ago in three volumes, edited by Leslie S Klinger, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which, as the title suggests, supports the canon with all the extra information and detail a person might want while they are reading, and like all good quality American books, they are beautifully produced. I cannot end this lengthy post without also recommending very highly indeed the audio recordings on the Naxos label of the entire canon by David Timpson: they are superb for listening to in the car.

The Name of the Rose – TV series

December 14, 2019

Well, I finally watched the last episode of the internationally-produced series of The Name of the Rose. I’m glad I made the effort to stick with it – I nearly gave up after two episodes – and yet it was a very flawed production.

What worked? We did get a very detailed picture of the awfulness of the Inquisition and how it worked, and the casting and acting of Bernardo Gui the Inquisitor was superb. I was chilled a couple of years ago when I toured the Palais des Papes in Avignon, and there high up on the wall in one of the huge rooms was inscribed ‘the Inquisitor Bernardo Gui used to sit here’. Generally the casting and acting was good: I wasn’t too enamoured of the young Adso of Melk, but William of Baskerville excellently played, far surpassing Sean Connery’s effort in the earlier film of the novel.

More attention was paid to the scope of the original novel, which of course is rather more easily done in an eight-part series than in a feature-length film.

And yet… The set of the abbey itself I found rather cheap and tacky. Much of the earlier film was shot in an around a well-known, real abbey (Kloster Eberbach) in Germany; this studio set failed to convince, and the library was particularly poor, I felt.

The screenplay was a very unbalanced version of the novel. And for such an intricate and carefully composed text as The Name of the Rose, I think that really matters. What spoiled things most for me was the way that, gratuitously, the Adso story was expanded, and the ‘romance’ with the heretic girl was developed in completely unconvincing ways, with the novice heading out into the countryside for secret assignments with her. Eco’s version in the novel is much briefer, and far more convincing as an integral part of the story and of Adso’s life: it’s a brief, one-off sexual encounter where he is seduced and experiences the pleasures of the flesh as a youth. That experience clearly marks his life; the girl is burnt as a witch and there is also a cruel message in that for him. The earlier film remains true to the novel; in the TV series there is a very long rigmarole involving another woman stalking the Inquisitor, and rescuing the seductress, and yet Adso just leaves her then… what? I’m afraid the producers just wanted there to be more female interest that Eco had not provided, so they invented it – badly.

Similarly, the labyrinth that is the library in the novel is an integral part of the plot and the detective work, as well as a metaphor; this was very much sidelined and then rushed through in the final hectic episode. And the whole matter of the nature of the mysterious book that monks would kill for is also sidelined, whereas it’s at the core of some of the key theological arguments that run through the book: did Christ ever laugh? Is laughter a necessary part of human existence? Again, a rushed and nodding gesture in the final episode only. I also felt that the detective work by William and Adso was rather underplayed, only allowed to intrude occasionally rather than developing in any connected way. Why did the producers think Eco named his protagonist William of Baskerville, for goodness’ sake?

Even the title of the novel itself, which Eco links into the scholasticism of the mediaeval era in which he sets the novel, is glossed over almost incomprehensibly in the final seconds of the series: you’d miss the allusion were you not familiar with the novel. And finally, the framing of the entire novel by the aged Adso as he nears the end of his earthly life is lost, given up, when that shift in the closing pages of the novel is so powerful in drawing all the strands of such a complex story together.

It’s a little trite to say that perhaps some stories cannot successfully be filmed, but, after two very different and imperfect versions, perhaps this has to be the verdict on Eco’s finest novel, and for me, one of the best ones of the last century.

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

Gilbert Sinoué: Le Livre de Saphir

April 1, 2019

81gEuxNWzxL._AC_UL436_This is quite a fascinating and gripping mystery, set in Spain in the final years of the Reconquista, shortly before the fall of the last Moorish stronghold of Granada. It’s set around the search for the Sapphire Book, hidden somewhere by one of its last guardians; it purportedly contains proof of the existence of God. There is a whole set of cryptic clues which send the searchers on journeys all across the country. The searchers are three, one from each of the faiths of the book: an ageing rabbi, a middle-aged sheikh and a young monk, who each have been entrusted with a partial version of the clues: Sinoué is setting up his trio for dialogues about God, faith, religion and their three differing interpretations.

So, at one level it feels like a Dan Brown kind of thriller, but there’s rather more to this Egyptian-born writer’s novel than that. The focus is on the similarities and connections between the religions, which even the three adepts are not always aware of. Their quest is complicated when they are joined by a female who is a plant from the Inquisition who have gained knowledge of the quest and through subterfuge have obtained some of the clues: she is a clever and learned woman, confidant of the Queen, but is playing a dangerous game: as well as being in constant danger of giving herself away or being uncovered, she is tailed by the Inquisition and also a rival group linked to the Queen…

An atmosphere of sadness permeates the story as we know the Moors are about to be driven from Spain, and the Reconquista will shortly mean the expulsion or enforced conversion of Jews and Muslims. I was saddened by the suspicions between the three seekers, as well as the way trust gradually grew as they advanced in their journey, and came to realise how much more similar than different their faiths were; all of this makes the story so much more tragic, of course. At times the book felt worthy of a writer like Umberto Eco, and I did find echoes of his Baudalino occasionally.

The female agent improves the story as a foil to the men, and provides romantic interest as it is she and the monk who find their lives and fates entangled further than they expected. All are changed by their shared adventures: the monk becomes a killer and a lover, the treacherous woman comes to understand a purpose to her life and is disabused of her fanatical Christian opinions, and the Sheikh learns what forgiveness means.

I enjoyed the book for its atmosphere, for making me think, and for exploring the nature of faith. I was annoyed by one gross error which someone ought to have picked up: a reference to the work of Copernicus and his dangerous astronomical discoveries, when that learned monk would actually only have been 14 years old at the time the story takes place… and if I’ve whetted your interest, I’m sorry that the novel has not been translated into English.

P D James: Death Comes To Pemberley

March 31, 2019

41FmZ-a8YQL._AC_UL436_I remember attempting to watch the TV series and giving up in disgust; nevertheless a brand new copy of P D James’ novel for a £1 – in Poundland, of course! – tempted me and I took it as a holiday read. She doesn’t attempt to imitate Austen’s style, thank goodness, but her own dry and at times rather arch tone is reminiscent of Austen, especially in her clever summative opening chapter, which establishes continuity with the events and characters of Pride and Prejudice. She can construct an awkward conversation almost as well as Austen.

Of course, the novel is pure escapism, an opportunity to spend extended time with characters we have previously known and loved; however James does cast her net rather too wide and brings in a host of minor characters, servants and menials included, who are far too many to keep track of. There are some nice melodramatic and Gothic touches, reminding us fleetingly of Northanger Abbey, and she also managed quite skilfully to link the devious Wickham to events and characters in Persuasion. I did find references to ‘the Police’ in 1803 somewhat anachronistic, and I often felt James was being carried away by her strength in crafting twentieth century whodunnits. She does slip very easily into this mode, and even let her little-Englander prejudices slip out in apparently pro-Brexit comments by one of her characters. I don’t think I’m being too sensitive there…

The plot becomes slightly too wild as it progresses, and the courtroom melodrama and deus ex machina resolution is also a tad unsatisfactory. However, the post-trial denouement is undoubtedly gripping and cleverly worked, but then overdone, by squeezing in some of the characters from Emma. In the end I realise I am carping a little too much about what turned out to be miles better than the televised version, a pretty good yarn that isn’t Jane Austen and isn’t meant to be. Worth a read.

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…

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.

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