Posts Tagged ‘Sherlock Holmes stories’

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…

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…

Travelling, audiobooks, librivox

July 20, 2015

I’m working up to getting this blog going again after a travelling break. When I’m driving, I like to listen to audiobooks, and they are quite expensive, so apart from must-haves like David Timson’s wonderful recordings of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and Anton Lesser’s superb performance of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I turn to the Librivox website to download my listening.

I’ve mentioned Librivox in passing before, but I’ll say a bit more about it for those of you who haven’t come across it, or visited the site, because my next few posts will be about some of the varied things I listened to on my travels.

Librivox is run from the US, by volunteers who record, check and upload recordings of texts which are out of copyright (in practice this seems to mean anything written before 1923). So everything is free, and there’s an incredible variety of stuff out there. Obviously, many of the classical works of literature which are out of copyright are there, but there are texts from all subject areas, and texts in quite a variety of languages, too. Incidentally, there now also exists a French website (www.litteratureaudio.com) dedicated to doing the same thing with out-of-copyright French language texts.

Nothing is perfect, even when it’s free, and there are things not to like about the site. Because it’s a volunteer organisation, anyone can offer to read and upload a text, and not everyone reads well, or engagingly. Some people may object to listening to English classics read with an American accent – and by far the majority of the volunteer readers are American. Some of the voices are monotonous. Some seem unable to pronounce correctly fairly basic English words. Some cannot be bothered to check the pronunciation of unfamiliar words… you can see, there are plenty of things which may annoy you. But, it’s free and you don’t have to listen. Recordings are, apparently, checked to ensure that they are audible and of reasonable quality. And the avowed aim of the site is to make audio versions of texts available. Some texts have been recorded multiple times, so if one doesn’t suit, another might – that was the case with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for me, for example.

On the other hand, some of the readers are absolutely wonderful, clear, expressive voices that really do bring texts to life – the recordings of Mark Twain’s novels and travelogues are a case in point for me, as are those of the travel writings of Isabella Bird.

All of the recordings carry a Librivox acknowledgement at the start of each chapter, I think as a way of dissuading various sharks from downloading the recordings and easily turning them into commercial recordings to foist on an unsuspecting public.

I’ve been listening to a wide range of different recordings over the last six or seven years or so; I have occasionally been disappointed, but far more often I have been very happy with what I’ve been able to listen to as I’ve been driving around…

E J Wagner: The Science of Sherlock Holmes

December 29, 2014

51EapR2dqkL._AA160_Regular readers, and ex-students of mine, will know I’m a Sherlock Holmes addict. So I was really happy to receive this book among my Christmas swag. The author is clearly a Holmes fiend too, as well as an expert on CSI and forensics: a good combination…

So the book is a nicely structured exploration of different aspects of the detective’s craft, focused through the lens of the Sherlock Holmes stories as a starting point. There are chapters on corpses, poisoning, disguises, forgery, fingerprinting… We see how crime scene investigation developed over time from its early days; we realise how much Conan Doyle knew, and also who he knew, and how close to the cutting edge of investigation at the time Holmes was. Details from real criminal investigations are interwoven with some of those from the Holmes stories.

The book is clearly aimed at the general reader, and it’s very readable, though certainly not trivial, and there is a copious bibliography for anyone who wants to take their knowledge deeper. There are suitable amounts of gory details and shock-horror from criminal deeds of the past to satisfy the average Sherlock Holmes fan. I really enjoyed the book, and thought it was a very good way to frame an introduction to the history of the science of crime investigation.

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.

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