Posts Tagged ‘Conan Doyle’

Moriarty revisited

December 20, 2014

9781409109471*Spoiler alert* if you’ve not already read Moriarty, then I advise you to visit this, more carefully written, post: if you continue with this one, you may find out things you don’t yet want to know…

My former students will know my thoughts about re-reading books: I read Moriarty on the day it was published, and have now re-read it, a couple of months later. Here is my more considered reaction. You will know, from the ending of the novel, who actually tells the tale: there is clearly much obfuscation right from the very start, and this time I was trying to see when it was possible to see through it, and what our mysterious narrator was up to, up to what point he was in control of his machinations, as it were, and when he was out in the open and not in control.

The Reichenbach Falls episodes in The Final Problem and The Empty House are, quite rightly, called into question as stretching our credulity – Watson always was an unreliable narrator – but then, the ‘replacement’ version here is, ultimately, even less believable, I felt. Holmes’ survival was originally not intended, and had to be manufactured by Conan Doyle several years later to satisfy the demands of his readers and publisher; for his rival to deliberately calculate and engineer his survival? not really believable. It all depends on how clever one feels Moriarty really is, and, of course, then one falls into Conan Doyle’s original trap of thinking and imagining that all these people are real…

There are many more clues available and visible, now that you know what you are looking for, second time around. The basic premise of the novel is a turf war between London master criminal Moriarty (who is a Brit, and more genteel, even with a sense of ‘honour’) and an incomer from the US, Clarence Devereux, who is violent and ruthless. So we are caught up in trying to work out who is using Scotland Yard and who is using Sherlock Holmes to advance their power and influence. There are brutal killings, there is torture, there are bombings – all calculated to shock the Victorian era, except that the characters in this novel do not have that authentic Victorian aura which Conan Doyle could create because he was part of it and writing at that time. The vignettes of Victorian suburban home life are quite convincing, though, unlike the re-cycling of some of the characters from original Sherlock Holmes stories.

There is, inevitably, a melodramatic moment of revelation near the end, and all is revealed, much in the way that the denouements of the original Sherlock Holmes stories were engineered. Overall, I felt that Moriarty was still a decent yarn, with links to the master through characterisation, detection and action, and Horowitz has left himself the possibility of several further novels after this one, I would have thought.

Anthony Horowitz: Moriarty

October 24, 2014

9781409109471Sometimes I feel like a traitor, reading Sherlock Holmes stories that are not part of the official canon, but then Horowitz does have the imprimatur of the Conan Doyle estate. But do I need an excuse? First, a warning: if you intend to read this book, there may be details mentioned in this post that you don’t want to know, so read with caution…

First of all, I must confess to feeling a little deceived, in that Holmes is not really in this book, except for an additional short story at the end which is a sort of coda to the main story. There are gaps of time in the canon, a number of years which elapse after the Reichenbach falls episode in The Final Problem, and Holmes’ reappearance in The Empty House; perhaps I had naively imagined Horowitz treating us to some of Holmes’ adventures during that hiatus. Certainly there are lots of promising possibilities. And, as the narrator points out, the explanations offered by Watson for Holmes’ demise are distinctly dubious. Other writers have added stories, and I have written elsewhere about The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. But, after the excellent House of Silk, Horowitz has struck out in a different direction.

The Napoleon of crime, Professor Moriarty, is engaged in a struggle to the death with a rival and interloper from the United States who wants to annex his patch: nineteenth century turf wars. We are introduced to an interesting pairing trying to make sense of various events in London: a detective from Pinkerton’s agency in the US and a London police inspector, Athelney Jones, who appears in several of Conan Doyle’s original stories, and who strives to emulate Holmes’ detective methods, either with success or failure, depending on your perspective.

The writing is good, the yarn is a decent one. It’s very definitely a twenty-first century story – far more violence and gory description than Conan Doyle would have been allowed to inflict on a Victorian magazine audience. An American narrator shifts the focus, language and style somewhat. And, because Holmes is absent, I felt that there wasn’t that much real detective work going on – Athelney Jones is a devotee, certainly, but a poor imitation of the real thing. I got a real sense of how important Watson is to the original stories, from his absence, too.

It’s Horowitz’s second foray into the field and, ultimately, although I really enjoyed it, especially the several twists at the end, I like the House of Silk rather better as a supplementary yarn because Holmes and Watson are there, and Horowitz did extend and develop their characters well. Both stories are far more daring than anything Conan Doyle wrote, but The House of Silk felt rather more immediately plausible, and therefore convincing. I shall re-read it soon, to pick up on what I’m sure I overlooked as I was being swept along by the plot. Once I have prised it back from the clutches of my daughters, who have formed a disorderly queue to get their hands on it…

Agatha Christie: Miss Marple Short Stories

March 17, 2014

Recently we have been watching some of the Joan Hickson Miss Marple TV series, and I felt moved to read the Miss Marple Short Stories, and these prompted me to some more thinking about the detective story genre.

The short story genre works very well for the Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact, as I consider two of the longer stories to be rather flawed by their lengthy excursions to the United States, I think that the short stories are far superior. Raymond Chandler writes both novels and short stories equally well, though I prefer the more leisurely character and plot development in the novels. But for Miss Marple, I feel that the short story does not work at all well.

There is a lengthy series of stories where the same group of (varied) characters sit in a room; each of them recounts a mystery in which they were involved or came into contact with, and the others try to unravel it: it’s inevitably Miss Marple who comes up with the answer, at the end, and all the others are astonished by her powers of deduction…

There are then some (not very many) stories where there is a crime to solve; again, Miss Marple comes up with the solution very easily: no detective work, no visiting the scene of the crime, no investigation or consideration of clues is involved. She merely uses information imparted by others.

I find all this highly unsatisfactory. Clearly she has considerable powers of analysis: she thinks a lot, as does Sherlock Holmes,  but without the crime scenes, the interviews, the clues, the confrontations, the puzzling, there is nothing there. Solutions are not prepared for, led up to, clued…at all. It seems to me that we lose a great deal from the fact that Miss Marple is an isolated individual – there is no Watson to be puzzled, astounded, to recount the unfolding of the mystery. And yet, an assistant is not vital; Josef Skvorecky‘s depressed and gloomy Lieutenant Boruvka is very much a lone wolf, yet his mysteries intrigue, and involve the reader in the search for a solution.

So, eventually, it will be on to the long stories. which I am told are much better; there is, apparently, much more local colour and investigation, and these are the ones that have been filmed and which I have enjoyed watching. But I have realised that success in the genre is even more complicated, and harder to achieve than I originally thought.

A Study in Scarlet

February 21, 2014

My comfort reading continues with a re-read of the very first Sherlock Holmes story, one of the four long ones.

It needed to be a long story to introduce Holmes and Watson to each other and to their readers, and to begin to shape their relationship, which was to last (fictionally) for three decades. It has been observed that the story is flawed as a detective story in that there is no way that the reader can solve the mystery as s/he reads, since the killer is only introduced and named as Holmes reveals everything at the end. Is it possible that Conan Doyle was, even as he nursed and developed this relatively new genre,  already looking beyond the mere confines of detection and mystery-solving? Certainly the plot could have been developed and resolved in far fewer pages…

Holmes and Watson are introduced to each other, take up lodgings together in Baker Street, and their relationship begins to develop as Watson is drawn into the first of the crimes he is to chronicle. It’s a mere outline of characters, although the quirkiness of Holmes is already there, the violin, the moodiness, the suspicions of narcotic use. What Conan Doyle has to do first, and he does it admirably if you focus clearly, is to convince the reader of Holmes’ detective and deductive skills, and the soundness of his methods; these are contrasted with the clumsiness and ineptitude of the regular police force, which becomes a regular trope in the canon. Neither character is subtly drawn at this stage; Holmes is young and full of himself, and Watson lacks the gravitas and the compassion Conan Doyle gradually allows him to develop as time passes.

Already we are shown that justice is not a simple business, and that the due process of law is capable of being flawed as the murderer escapes the courts, but is submitted to a higher (God’s) judgement, a careful appeal to Victorian morality, which also allows a sense of fair play, and a concept which was to be used several times in the stories.

Structurally it’s odd, sharing with The Valley of Fear a lengthy excursion into the lawless areas of the Wild West of the United States, which no doubt brought a certain frisson to the bourgeois Victorian magazine reader. The long digression into the early history of the Mormons and their trek to Utah has been judged controversial, but surely pandered to Victorian moral strictures, with the accent on polygamy as well as violence.

It’s a good beginning to the stories; it leaves  readers intrigued and hoping for more, and they were not to be disappointed.

Ellis Peters: The Devil’s Novice

February 20, 2014

61o3TNR3byL._AA160_I was going to call this post ‘Comfort Reading’, as detective fiction is one of the kinds of reading I automatically turn to when I’m not feeling well; it’s an easy read, not too demanding, yet satisfying. I got to thinking about the Brother Cadfael series of mediaeval whodunnits, and read up on their author. My initial attraction to the books was their Shrewsbury setting.

If you’re not familiar with them, they are a series of twenty novels set in the Shrewsbury area in the mid-twelfth century, focused on an elderly monk as the detective, working in collaboration with the deputy sheriff of the town. The timing is interesting: less than a century after the Norman Conquest, so still plenty of resentment towards the invaders, a remote setting in the disputed borderlands between England and Wales, and at a time of civil war between Stephen and Matilda.

There’s a genre similarity, if you compare these stories with the archetype, ie Sherlock Holmes. There you have the late Victorian era, very settled rather than tumultuous, and the setting of the great metropolis, London being the largest and most important city on the planet at the time. Cadfael’s is a religious, Holmes’ a secular age.

There are also character similarities and differences: Cadfael is freelance, like Holmes, in the sense that he is a monk who is unofficially allowed by his superior to engage in detective work from time to time. He is a mature and wise monk who experienced life in the wide world before taking to the cloister, and he works with Hugh Berengar the deputy sheriff, a secular official, and less of a side-kick than Holmes’ Watson, who nevertheless has professional expertise as a doctor, which at times is useful. The Cadfael/ Berengar pairing feels more equal; the collaboration works; the Watson as author trick is unnecessary.

One of the keys to success in the genre does seem to be the accretive approach over time: as one reads the twenty novels, time passes, historical events unfold, develop and affect different stories in different ways; our knowledge of places develops too, as does our understanding of and sympathy with the characters. The same is obviously true of Holmes and Watson as we follow their developing friendship through a period of some twenty or thirty years, Watson’s marriages as well as their shared lives in Baker Street. And the same is true of the characters and places in Ed McBain‘s 87th Precinct mysteries.

There is a major difference, clearly: Conan Doyle set his stories and characters more or less in his own time, as did McBain, whereas Peters (real name Edith Pargeter) deliberately moved back in time eight and a half centuries. Her research seems very thorough and convincing; she is reckoned to be the originator of the genre of historical detective fiction, now imitated by dozens of writers. Did Umberto Eco and she have their inspirations almost simultaneously?

One thing which doesn’t change over time is crime: theft, greed, murder are pretty much the same through the ages; methods of killing may be a little more ‘advanced’ nowadays and science a little more helpful, but careful observation and reflection have always been needed to get to the bottom, and justice is not always done…

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

July 30, 2013

614zY60Y4oL._AA160_Having recently re-watched the film – effectively atmospheric and a pretty faithful rendering of the book, though inevitably cutting and oversimplifying the plot and changing some details for visual effectiveness – I decided to return to the novel. This was, I think, the fifth time I’ve read it, and it retains its place in my top three novels of the twentieth century.

One always notices different things with re-reads, and this time I tried hard to make my way through all the heresies and religious conflicts, with some success. I was aided by a wonderful little book called The Key to The Name of the Rose, which translates all the non-English parts of the text for the reader, as well as explaining various issues and personalities in more depth: it enabled me to read more carefully and closely, and I was surprised by what I’d missed in earlier readings (or perhaps forgotten…)

Eco is at his best in the mediaeval world he knows and loves (Baudolino is his next-best novel, I think) and he brings it vividly to life as he creates sympathy and understanding for most of his characters: we do come to see just how differently people saw and interpreted the world in the fourteenth century.

He successfully weaves at least three plots together: the political and religious issues involving the papacy and the empire, the quest for Aristotle‘s missing book On Comedy, and a series of murders in the monastery which involved either this missing book or some secret documents relating to a heretic and his followers. He clearly loves Sherlock Holmes, and his main character and his companion are obvious tributes to Conan Doyle‘s heroes.

The novel is also marvellously structured: old documents seen, transcribed and then lost; the tale told by the ageing Adso who was the teenage companion and assistant of William of Baskerville in the events of the story; his reflections on his past, his solitary life as a monk, his idea of love; how the story which fascinates us for five hundred pages was almost never written…

There’s an originality here – the mediaeval setting has, of course, been frequently copied since this novel was first published – the unashamed intellectualism interwoven with the plot, and the desire to have the reader reflect on things eternal even if s/he is an unbeliever, which make this a truly outstanding novel. And I still get a lump in my throat as I come to the end.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

June 8, 2013

I’ve been an avid Holmes fan since I was seven. I know that there were antecedents in the annals of detective fiction, as well as imitators, but I had never got round to reading any; I knew vaguely of the existence of three anthologies of stories edited by Hugh Greene, and recently I laid my hands on a copy.

Gripe about 1980s penny-pinching publishers: they used awful glue in mass-market paperbacks for several years; it dried hard and creamy-while and soon crumbled like cheap toffee, showering you with debris as you read and pages and whole sections became detached from the book. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve had to take apart completely and re-bind in order to read them. This was another: shame on you, Penguin Books.

There was an astonishing variety and range of stories here: some involved absolutely no detection at all; some involved individual sleuths, some the traditional pair of detective and side-kick; some had female detectives and foreshadowed Miss Marple; others involved criminals and other shady characters using the skills of detection to further their own interests… Some of the mysteries were worthy of the master, and sometimes I detected not quite plagiarism, but influence and imitation, particularly in the matter of plots.

If you are a Holmes fan, then I think you will enjoy reading these stories; Conan Doyle had rivals and imitators, some who were pretty good. Hugh Greene gives useful information about sources and potted biographies of the writers, too: clearly a labour of love.

Eye Candy again

April 12, 2013

Another of my favourite relaxation genres is detective fiction.  For me, Sherlock Holmes is the greatest, and I’ve read and re-read, and listened repeatedly – I think one of the good things about a well-crafted detective story is that over time sufficient of the plot should become vague enough in one’s mind to allow re-reading without the ending being too obvious too soon.

Along with Sherlock Holmes, I have developed a liking for Ellis Peters‘ Brother Cadfael novels over the years. They are well-crafted, and the setting is very convincing – possibly riding on the back of Eco‘s Name of the Rose? – mediaeval and monastic, with a hero with a past to make him interesting, and the Shropshire setting, which is an added attraction for me as I grow to know and appreciate the area. So, I recently re-read One Corpse Too Many. It’s one of the very early ones, so the characters are still developing and have a way to go before they become fully fledged and settled as they are later in the series. There’s rather less about the daily life in a mediaeval monastery and town than we get later on, too. Peters fascinates on several levels – she weaves in historical detail effectively and convincingly – though as I’m no expert on twelfth century England, I don’t know how accurate she is; she recognises that there are similarities and differences between human beings and their behaviours over the centuries, and she manages to make us care briefly about her characters.

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