Posts Tagged ‘detective stories’

Philip Pullman: The Ruby in the Smoke

April 4, 2022

     Philip Pullman has written a series of mystery/detective stories featuring a young woman – Sally Lockheart – as the heroine, set roughly in the Sherlockian/ Victorian London of the late nineteenth century; I’ve read some of them and had been intending to revisit them when my hand was forced, by the absence of my library during our recent house move. As with the His Dark Materials trilogy, there’s both the sense that the novel is written for a young adult readership, and also the feeling that Pullman writes for everyone and for all time, if I may put it like that; I certainly didn’t feel excluded.

We’re thrown in at the deep end, and Pullman quickly shows how he can create a sense of mystery, and speedily develop real characters with whom we can empathise. It’s a fast-paced yarn, that develops well – no surprises there, then, given the writer’s pedigree – and various political and social messages and moral lessons are also woven in as the plot progresses, linking in to behaviour and attitudes, but even more into the idea of trusting oneself and believing in oneself.

There is the sense of a debt to Conan Doyle, perhaps particularly in the way that children and young people assist the hero in her quest (in the vein of the famous Baker Street Irregulars), but here, while the hero of the story is female, the villain is a particularly vicious and nasty woman, too. There are echoes of The Sign of Four, too. Plenty of excitement, tension and suspense here, although there was a bit of a deus ex machina moment in the denouement which I found a trifle disappointing. Overall, though, a superb story which gripped me thoroughly, and I’ll be looking out for the rest of the series some time soon.

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.

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