Posts Tagged ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’

My A-Z of reading: F is for Film

October 27, 2016

Novels get made into films. Sometimes we like the film version of a book we know well, sometimes it’s awful. But how much thought do you give to the transformation that takes place? The two media are so radically different. The printed text relies on verbal description to create place, setting, atmosphere: a film can do this in seconds, perhaps much more effectively, with added music and sound effects. A novel can take us deep inside a character’s mind and thoughts: how do you do this in a film? And what difference does any of this make, anyway?

I’ll start with Jane Austen. Her novels have been filmed numerous times, for the cinema, and as series for television. And here we find another difference: a film has a relatively fixed time duration – let’s say from an hour and a half to two and a half hours. A TV series could easily be twice as long. What is left in, and what is cut? Again, how does this affect the story – when does it cease to be the Jane Austen novel we know and love, and become something else? Film can do the settings, the houses, the costumes and the looks and interaction between the characters, but what about the thoughts, what about the irony, the subtle authorial interventions? These are lost. Some may be hinted at or suggested through refashioning dialogue, but… And what about the invented moments, Colin Firth‘s famous wet and clinging shirt in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, or the kiss at the end of Persuasion. These things may look good on screen, but are they not also doing violence to the original? No, a film is always a version of the original…

I have always liked the film of The Name of the Rose. Sean Connery works as William of Baskerville. The locations and the use of light create a very effective sense of atmosphere; the library is superb and the apocalyptic ending is marvellously done. And yet, only after watching it is it possible to grasp how much of Eco’s superb novel is missing: the stunning erudition, the theology, Adso’s reflections. The film is faithful to the original, but only so far. Similarly, Gunter Grass’ pre-war Danzig is superbly recreated, both visually and atmospherically by Volker Schlondorf in his film of The Tin Drum: the subtly growing Nazi menace creeps up on everyone, and we are not spared the horrors, but the film is only half the novel. It doesn’t matter whether you feel that it’s the better half, my point is, it’s hardly Grass’ novel!

There are more film and TV versions of Sherlock Holmes than you can shake a stick at. Some are passable, some truly dire, some hardly Holmes at all, but I’m of the generation that was captivated by Jeremy Brett’s mannered performances in the 1980s for Granada TV. Fantastic attention to period detail, some re-arrangement of plots for dramatic effect, but fidelity to Conan Doyle’s original is perhaps easier to achieve when we’re (only) dealing with short, detective stories.

I have singularly failed to watch Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in the film of To Kill A Mockingbird. We set out to watch it in class one day, but found the opening so crass, so clumsy and so unconvincing after our reading of the novel that the class virtually booed it off-screen: I stopped the video after about fifteen minutes and we gave up… It was instructive to watch and compare the two versions of Lord of the Flies: the aged black and white version made with non-actors that was so faithful to the original yet so ineffective twenty years after it was made, and the horrendous ‘updated’ US version with swearing, rewritten plot and so many other pointless alterations bore almost no resemblance to the original.

Perhaps the most successful – or do I mean accurate? – film version of a novel that I can recall is Richard Burton’s last role as O’Brien in 1984, and John Hurt’s superb performance as Winston. Orwell’s vision of London is visualised stunningly effectively, apart from the smells, of course, which Orwell himself was only able to describe in the original. Fear, paranoia, menace all loom out of the screen; even excerpts from Goldstein’s book – often skimmed by reluctant readers – are read into the film. Brilliant; closest to being a film of the novel rather than a version of it. Unless you know better?


The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories Part 1

July 14, 2016

51L5bqa127L._AC_US160_It’s beginning to make me cross, now: you would expect that someone who’s not English, not British, who doesn’t speak British English, who’s not familiar with nineteenth century English history, and who wanted to write a story set in Victorian London would at least pass a draft of it to someone who was more familiar with those places and times and say, “Please would you read this for me and tell me if I’ve made any glaring errors?” So, why the hell don’t they? Why does so much downright tosh end up in print?

Rant over; let’s take a slightly more considered look at this volume, which is by no means as awful as the last one I reviewed the other week. By and large, a lot more attention is paid in these stories to accuracy in the Victorian language register, as well as details of the setting being more carefully considered, and so the whole is rather more convincing. We also do see Holmes engaged in a decent amount of detective work. This book is, however, also marred by small but annoying proof-reading errors. There’s more sense of real interplay between Holmes and Watson, although still a number of writers seem to think Watson is Holmes’ assistant, in the sense of office-boy or runaround, which jars a lot. Occasionally I did find myself thinking, “How did an editor let this through?”

But there are some yarns that are very good, convincing throughout, in Conan Doyle’s original vein. About half of them are good reads, and I’ll mention specifically The Song of the Mudlark, The Tale of the Forty Thieves, The Strange Missive of Germaine Wilkes, The Aspen Papers, The King of Diamonds, and The Seventh Stain: this last one is probably the best in the collection. And here’s the crux of things, which I’ve slowly arrived at in my reading of the pastiches: it’s not enough just to really enjoy the original stories: you need to be able to do several things well. First and foremost, you need a decent plot, the one thing that Conan Doyle doesn’t give you. There needs to be a decent (and appropriate) crime or mystery – something sensational, twentieth-century therefore out-of-place won’t do. Plenty of types of crime don’t appear in the original stories, which were written for a family magazine. Holmes needs to investigate the scene of the crime properly, find clues, make deductions, come up with a theory which he doesn’t fully share with his readers, and finally solve the problem in a convincing and satisfying manner: no sudden deus ex machina will do.

Conan Doyle gives a writer the rest, if s/he will but take a little care: there’s a ready-made, long-standing detective and colleague and their relationship, which a writer can develop and extend quite effectively if they understand it; there’s a setting – Victorian London – which works perfectly well if you can reproduce it accurately, and goodness knows, there’s enough information out there to help – and there’s a more general narrative style and structure for the genre, which most detective stories seem to use…

A writer who has actually read the stories of the canon should know that London does not have ‘tenements’, nor houses with thatched roofs in the city centre, that Jews in nineteenth century would not have spoken Hebrew together (!), that ‘bars’ were not open at all hours of the night… I could go on, but there really is no excuse for this sort of ineptitude, or for an editor letting it through. People may write such tosh out of a supposed love of the original stories, but I’m disappointed when I end up reading it. If you think I’m too much of a purist, too bad: like many Holmes fans, I grew up from an early age with the originals, and have always wanted more, but they do have to be (nearly) as good! I’m really not sure whether I’ll be bothering with the other three books in this series…

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.

The staircase (continued): Plot

January 23, 2016

Plot is story. A series of events is introduced, developed and played out; there is often suspense and tension to keep the reader engaged and involved. There is a denouement – full or partial according to when the novel was written – Victorians liked to tidy everything up, modern writers are not so bothered, or are even deliberately bloody-minded, and go for open endings.

It’s useful to think about what drives our first reading, especially if you are one of those readers like me, who comes back again and again to his favourite books. First time round, plot draws us along: what happens next? How will it end? And such questions shape our initial response, at least. Was it a good story? Did we like the way it ended? Think about – as I suggested in the last post – the way we sometimes disagree with the way a writer ends her/his novel, based on our interpretation as we read, usually of characters. And if we feel the ending is wrong, surely the next thing we must ask ourselves is, OK, so why did the author choose to end it like that?

Re-readers will know what’s coming next. Usually we will retain at least an outline of the plot in our memories, and will be able to recall how the story ends. This means that we are not so plot-driven second, or nth time round, and can have a different focus to our reading, indeed we can deliberately choose a specific focus if we want to or need to (for study purposes perhaps). We will pay more attention to other details, perhaps notice many small things that we glossed over on that first, plot-driven reading.

The Sherlock Holmes stories come to mind here. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read them over the past fifty years. Usually, I don’t recall the ending until I’m well into a story, so that the pleasure is not ruined by knowing who did it straight away.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, when we consider a vast novel like War and Peace, of Vassily Grossman‘s twentieth century masterpiece, Life and Fate. Real and fictitious events interwoven unfold against a huge canvas; many different plot strands are interconnected, and it’s often hard to keep track of all the threads; sometimes we are given lists of characters in an appendix so we can refer to them when we get confused. Then we are glad when a particular, or a favourite strand re-emerges after having disappeared for some time, and continuity is re-established.

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.

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…

Children’s Books

September 26, 2014

A recent challenge on Facebook asked me to name ten books that had stayed with me. Being advanced in years, that gave me a fair bit to reflect on: The Wind in the Willows made its way into the list. And then I posted it, and carried on thinking about how and what I read as a child…

I was a voracious reader; I read my sisters’ library books as well as my own (as a family we didn’t have the money to buy many books) and ran out of books to read in the children’s section of Stamford Public Library and was given a special dispensation to use the adult library at age 11.

The first book I remember I loved was Winnie the Pooh; then came Kenneth Grahame‘s classic, which I still love, and which, incidentally, is available as a marvellous free recording from the librivox website, and a serialisation of The Borrowers in a children’s comic I read at the time. I remember reading that aloud with my own daughter some 30 years later: the omnibus volume was so long that we only got halfway through: she was a reader of her own by then. I devoured all the books in the classrooms at school: I remember the adventures of a bear called Mary Plain, that continued through lots of books, ages before Paddington became a hit. And there came boys’ books, too: the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge: humorous adventures at boarding school years before I actually went to one. Biggles – how many books were there? – by Captain W E Johns, and then a curious discovery of a series of novels about the ‘Secret Planet‘ which must have been what kindled a life-long love of science fiction. There was also a many-volume series called ‘The Young Traveller in (supply name of country)’ which perhaps interested me in travel, another passion which has stayed with me throughout my life. Two children – a boy and a girl, of course – and their parents travelled through a country, visiting its interesting and historic places and learning about them, meeting the inhabitants and sampling the food; all good, wholesome fare for a child, and opening his eyes to the way that people and places could be different.

At some point Sherlock Holmes came along, too, in the form of a paperback for five shillings, bought with a Christmas book token (remember those?) from a relative: again, I never looked back, as many of my students, and my own children can testify.

When our own children came along and we read to and with them, I was astonished by the much wider range of books available, and the colourfulness, too: my childhood books had been full of words, black on white, and perhaps some monochrome photographs in a centre section if I were lucky. Books encouraged my fantasies and unleashed my imagination; books showed me other worlds and other ways to be; books made me think…

I realised how early the joy of words had come to me, how many of my lifelong pleasures had been triggered during my childhood days. I had the run of a library, and was encouraged to read as much as I wanted at school, and I loved it. Books are magic.

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.

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