Posts Tagged ‘detective fiction’

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…


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.

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…


My love of Czech literature

September 22, 2015

I first came across Svejk (or Schweik as he was known then in the bowdlerised translation then in print; Cecil Parrott‘s full and unexpurgated version came along rather later) in the sixth form at school and laughed myself silly over his antics, and Josef Lada‘s wonderful illustrations. Humorous writing, satire even, about the horrors of the Great War, was new to me and an eye-opener – it wasn’t long before I was to come across Joseph Heller‘s masterpiece Catch-22, the only novel I know that rivals Hasek’s.

My teenage years overlapped with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and its consequences, particularly for its literature, which I came gradually to know as a student, the bitter disillusionment and wholesale repression after the Prague Spring. Some writers emigrated, Milan Kundera to settle in Paris and write in French, and Josef Skvorecky to Canada. Others wrestled with censorship at home, or wrote for the ‘bottom drawer’.

I’ve enjoyed the fizzy lightness of Kundera, and Bohumil Hrabal – who can forget Closely Observed Trains, once you have seen the film? – I’ve tried Ivan Klima but didn’t really warm to him, but my all-time favourite has to be Josef Skvorecky.

Much of his fiction seems to be semi-autobiographical, covering his younger days as a teenager and jazz fan and would-be rebel in the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, through the character of the hero of a number of novels, Danny Smiricky. Danny and his friends, parents and peers populate many adventures, tinged with a love of jazz – forbidden as degenerate music during the war, of course, the teenager’s urge to try and get into bed with as many females as possible (which may perhaps make him a bit of a boy’s writer, though certainly not in any misogynistic way). Life becomes more serious in the post-war years, especially the first three, before Stalinism completely fixes its iron grip on the country. There are risks, dangers, difficulties in playing the music, chasing the girls and trying to be free. The Cowards, and The Republic of Whores deal with the immediate postwar years but my favourite is certainly The Engineer of Human Souls (Stalin’s description of what a writer should be) which has the author in exile in Canada, lecturing to high school students on American literature whilst reflecting on their incredible immaturity and naivete compared with his peers, remembering his younger days under the Nazi occupation, and the trial and tribulations of running an emigre publishing enterprise.

Skvorecky earned my adulation when I discovered he also wrote detective fiction, irresistible to someone reared on Sherlock Holmes. Three collections of short stories feature a melancholic, sometimes depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka, who has to solve a range of crimes, but whose life is further complicated by the fact that he lives in a totalitarian regime where certain people enjoy particular privileges or are untouchable. He also has a beautiful teenage daughter whom he loves, and who he knows will leave him one day. If you’re going to create a detective in the days when they are almost two-a-penny then you need an original take and an unusual character, and Skvorecky manages masterfully.

There are plenty of reasons why Czech literature of those times has a sad, even gloomy, introspective feel to it, but even under the heaviness of Nazi occupation and subsequent Stalinist rule – a grim half century – the irrepressible Czech spirit seems to shine through, and is probably my favourite of all the national literatures that I have to read in translation.

China Mieville: The City and the City

May 11, 2015

9780330534192I really enjoyed this novel when I first read it five years ago. It scrambled my brain then, and a re-read hoping to make things a bit clearer produced the same effect, as well as convincing me at the end that it really is brilliant.

It’s a detective story/ thriller with a science fiction twist to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything like Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine, for example. Mieville sets the story in a city, recognisably East European or Balkans post 1989, but with a difference: it’s two cities in two different countries, but which in some way overlap in places in time and space, occupying the same spaces whilst alongside each other. And if that isn’t clear, then perhaps you’ll understand why I say it scrambled my brain, and perhaps it will be clearer if you read it… or not. Contact via the interstices must not happen, and such breaches are ruthlessly dealt with.

At one level you find political allegories linking to our world and think of Palestine/ Israel, or Croatia/ Serbia perhaps, but only fleetingly. There are also hints that the confusion is the result of some alien presence many centuries ago – reminiscent of the chaos left behind in the Zone in the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, filmed as Stalker. Then I found myself reminded of Ursula LeGuin’s Hainish civilisation seeding planets across the galaxy.

A lone detective investigates a murder which is not what it seems, and involves the spaces between; he has a helpful Watson-type female companion in the first half of the story, but then the roles swap when the investigation takes him to the other country and he must play second fiddle to his detective chaperone from the other national crime squad.

It’s fast-paced, but the extra concepts make the plot more complex and add further twists and complications; out hero eventually ends up in breach of the rules, where he discovers that, even in the spaces in-between, things are not what they seem, and his life is changed for ever as a result. Not all the loose ends are tied up – they rarely are in a novel like this – but the sheer originality of the plot and the ideas blow you away. I’ve written about another of his novels, Embassytown, here, and he’s definitely on my watch list.

Ed McBain: Mischief

July 20, 2014

Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct mysteries have always been on my list of enjoyable detective stories: this one, however, disappointed, for the first time…

I’d collected a large number of these novels about thirty years ago, but foolishly got rid of them when I needed to have a clear-out: there’s a message there! I’ve been gradually re-acquiring some, and have realised that the earlier ones are much better; this one is a relatively late one, and not helped by the feeling that the author seems to have felt the need gratuitously to up the level of sex and bad language in order to keep up with the pack, whereas he has an interesting enough setting and group of characters to keep his readers hooked.

Continued character development always helps retain interest in a series of such stories, but there is none in this novel; they could be any detectives rather than the personalities that were built up in earlier novels, and McBain does have some interesting characters among his precinct detectives. The plots are bitty and rather haphazard; there are two main ones running in parallel, one gratuitously racist and in rather poor taste, I thought, and the other verging on the ridiculous; neither was properly clued or investigated, and one was left hanging at the end so that the character could perhaps be used again: I know Conan Doyle did this with Moriarty, but the Deaf Man had already been used once before…

I shall now be concentrating on the earlier books in the series as I trawl second-hand bookshops.

Agatha Christie: Miss Marple novels

July 8, 2014

I wrote about the Miss Marple short stories here; I wasn’t wonderfully impressed. I’ve been doing some lighter holiday reading these last few days and have worked my way through quite a few of the Miss Marple novels; they are a lot better, I think. Novel length allows more complexity of plot, and some character development, although I don’t feel the eponymous heroine has much depth.

There are some limitations to the setting – a small country village – which Christie extends by having her sleuth go away on holidays and be invited to stay with friends and acquaintances. Conan Doyle avoids this problem by setting his stories and characters almost exclusively in the largest city on the planet at the time of writing. This means that the range and number of crimes Holmes and Watson encounter is pretty plausible; a small village doesn’t allow the same scope. Some of the crimes Miss Marple solves do seem incredibly far-fetched. I know realism isn’t the only criterion we use in evaluating detective fiction; local colour and entertainment value are possibly equally important. Many of the plots do involve the reader in the sense that it’s possible to go some way to working out the mystery oneself; occasionally there is a very annoying deus ex machina which comes along near the end and spoils everything.

Miss Marple is an acute thinker and observer, as is Holmes (my touchstone, always) and her idea of character types, whereby she measures the actors in a mystery against ‘real life’ people in her village, I find quite illuminating, though it is probably over-rigid. I’ve enjoyed reading most of the mysteries, and am looking forward to seeing them on film, with the excellent Joan Hickson in the leading role; we are saving them up for the winter.

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…

%d bloggers like this: