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Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Mini reviews #2

Death of an Airman (1935) by Christopher St John Spring. Murder in an amateur flying club. I don't know why I love this novel so much. It's not massively well-written and the killer is easy to spot, but there is some sheer fun and benevolence in the writing that makes it one of my favourite of all golden age mysteries.

Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) by Agatha Christie. A marvellous outing for Hercule Poirot, who finds himself among archaeologists with more buried secrets than the civilisations they're uncovering. Suspend your disbelief -- especially when it comes to the solution -- and enjoy this mystery with the perfect balance of dark psychology and light fun.

The Python Project (1967) by Victor Canning. A predictably unworldly, testosterone-filled, forensically heterosexual secret service outing for P.I./semi-spy Rex Carver. Suspicious foreign officials abound. It's not my thing, but is the best of the series.

The Ice Princess (2003) by Camilla Läckberg. This debut novel from 'Sweden's Agatha Christie' took some markets by storm. I have no idea why because there's nothing very exciting about it, and I'm kind of irked on Agatha Christie's behalf.

Hardball (2009) by Sara Paretsky. Reliable Chicago atmosphere in the thirteenth V.I. Warshawski novel. This time, our hero has to dig into her father's past to solve a complicated, long-running mystery. If you like Paretsky, Hardball won't disappoint.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King

There’s a terrible vice I need to confess. It’s not quite as bad as judging a book by its cover, but in many ways, for me, at least, it’s worse. I’m a sucker for a pretty book and have the collecting bug. In addition, I’m a slow reader. Combined, these facts mean I tend to amass sometimes complete series of books before I get around to reading them. In short, if there is a set of books with covers that catch my eye, I’ll collect them incrementally from charity shops and, in the case of Alison and Busby books, The Works.

That’s how I amassed six or seven of Laurie R. King’s Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell books. To be honest, I avoided reading them for years because, while the books themselves are indisputably gorgeous, the idea of Holmes in retirement meeting, then marrying, a fifteen year-old American didn’t really appeal. That was virtually all I knew about this series, beyond the fact that it has a good following. I also knew, of course, that King is a well-regarded American novelist and the creator of Kate Martinelli.

Then two things happened at once. One: I had a huge clear-out, getting rid of nearly 900 books that I won’t need again (this is hard, and being an academic I can always tell myself that I might want to write about Insubstantial Thriller XYZ or might need to teach Dull Classic ABC). Still, several beautiful sets of books got the boot: the highest profile casualty was Ellis Peters. I finally got around to reading from my near-complete set of attractively presented Cadfaels. If I need to make a snap judgement, I turn to page 85 and if I don’t end up on page 86 it hasn’t worked for me. I tried three Cadfaels and didn’t get on with them, so out went most of those. Laurie R. King survived this cull automatically, though. Anything Sherlock Holmes related stays, however bad – because I probably will write about it one day. But the series was on my radar again.

The second thing that happened was this: I read an essay on King’s novels in Crime Fiction as World Literature, a great new Bloomsbury book. The essay, by Theo D’haen, described the first novel, The Beekeeper's Apprentice (1994) and its interesting set up. King introduces the novel as herself, saying – in the traditional way – that she received a box full of (conveniently uncounted, as there was no telling how long the series would run) manuscripts from a woman who claimed to know Sherlock Holmes.

Then there is a ‘prelude’ from this Mary Russell in which she states:
 I do not remember when I first realised that the flesh-and-blood Sherlock Holmes I knew so well was to the rest of the world merely a figment of an out-of-work medical doctor’s powerful imagination. What I do remember is how the realisation took my breath away […]
Watson’s stories, those feeble evocations of the compelling personality we both knew, have taken on a life of their own, and the living creature of Sherlock Holmes has become ethereal, dreamy. Fictional. […] And now, men and women are writing actual novels about Holmes, plucking him up and setting him down in bizarre situations, putting impossible words into his mouth, and obscuring the legend still further.
The very act of irreverence to Drs Doyle and Watson ironically reveals attention to the canon, its devices, and its characters, but also enough competence to avoid trying to emulate them.  All of this piqued my interest because it was very clear that King had done her research, and I thought I might as well give the first book a chance. So I did, and, while it hasn’t made a die-hard fan of me, I’m looking forward to reading more, and collecting the full set.

The story is this: in 1915, a young American woman, Mary Russell, is reading on the Sussex downs when she runs into an elderly – well, middle-aged – Sherlock Holmes. They immediately start banting like Benedick and Beatrice with very good A-levels and become friends.

It’s clear from the very beginning that Russell and Holmes are equals and I particularly like the way King doesn’t overstate Russell’s cleverness; she doesn’t chuck in obscure Latin references (well, hardly ever) or little demonstrations of superiority in the way that so many crime writers do when their hero is cleverer than they are. The characterisation is, like the character, assured and effortless, and we can’t help admiring and respecting Mary Russell. When she comes, three-quarters of the way through, to confess her dark and sordid secret, we are totally on her side.

I was also impressed with the handling of Holmes’s famous misogyny: King doesn’t milk it or paste over it as so many do. Instead, she shows him as a brilliant but flawed man who is mellowing with age.

Russell writes:

Looking back, I think that the largest barrier to our association was Holmes himself, that inborn part of him that spoke the language of social customs, and particularly that portion of his make-up that saw women as some tribe of foreign and not-entirely-trustworthy exotics.

He works with her, she decides, because he sees her as ‘a lad’ (note: not ‘a boy’); that is, as an apprentice rather than as a woman. The fear of women that he has expressed has been a product of his social upbringing – unlike Doyle’s Holmes, King’s is a gentleman amateur – and part of his absolute focus on his work. It hasn’t been, as it is in Sherlock, a disengagement with sexuality, but rather a total ignorance of half the human race.

Russell goes off to university, but comes back to visit Holmes, and they end up getting involved in a transatlantic criminal case in… Wales. Naturally. From this, they end up in London, donning disguises and nearly getting blown up. Then they travel to Jerusalem – I’m not entirely sure why – and back to London, and Sussex (to actually get blown up) and Oxford, and a random ladies’ toilet where Holmes makes a personal discovery. Mycroft is involved, Watson is involved, Mrs Hudson is involved, even the long-dead Moriarty is involved. There’s a war on but we don’t hear much about it.

As a plot summary, this sounds ridiculous and nonsensical, but King’s eminently readable style just about makes it work. At any rate, I found myself turning the pages at a steady rate and not really questioning anything, except the sojourn in Jerusalem. Most of it makes sense at the time. I did spot the villain, purely because there aren’t many characters, but that really isn’t the point.

This is one of those novels where plot and social commentary are hard to separate. The solution is just part of the great narrative message which is about the pursuit of gender equity. It has a 1990s Spice Girls-level feminism vibe about it, which is obviously philosophically limited but great fun to read. By the end, I was relieved that Holmes and Russell hadn’t yet tied the knot. I am at least now convinced that when they do marry (in Book 2, I think), it won’t be for conventional reasons, and while my Holmes would never behave in this manner, I don’t deny King hers.

All in all, I enjoyed The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. I think it could have been a bit shorter and a bit more streamlined, but in this book King achieves something rare. She does something original with an overused canon.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Strike: Episode 1 (BBC 1)

I have just caught up on tonight’s pilot episode of the new BBC 1 drama Strike, based on The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. Adapted by Ben Richards and directed by Michael Keillor, it offers entertainment in a workmanlike way; thrills without frills.

When I read The Cuckoo’s Calling, praised by reviewers and commentators as some glorious revolution in crime writing, I was disappointed. The book was perfectly enjoyable, and easy to read – whatever name she’s writing under, the author knows how to make you turn the pages – but it didn’t do anything new. Strike wasn’t a new detective at all but collection of clichés – divorced (or disengaged, I think), war-wounded, alcoholic, disillusioned, and grubby, but with an innate sense of justice. Never been done before, right? – and the narrative attitude to women struck me as shockingly old-school. Things do improve by the third and best book, Career of Evil. So I found it interesting that Strike’s beautiful title sequence is resolutely retro. With (to me, anyway) faint hints of Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars (neither of which I’ve seen beyond the title sequences), it’s as anti-Sherlock as it can be.

This opening episode introduces us to Strike, whom I’ve outlined above. He’s played by Tom Burke, who is, of course, younger and sexier than the books’ heavy, washed-out character. He gives a performance that is at once enigmatic and hypnotic: you want to find out more about the character, even as you want to un-pop his collar and switch off the bloody irritating background music. Burke's characterisation helps create a sense of bleak timelessness that defines the BBC Strike’s London. Everything is still a bit too clean for my liking, and a dull colour-filter, old-school café scenes, and gloomy line-delivery with mostly hidden echoes of RADA doesn’t really equal social commentary or relevance. But I like the way that London in this programme is – like the traditional-but-contemporary story – both in and out of time.

We also meet Robin Ellacott, Strike’s new secretary, played by Holliday Grainger, whom I actually pictured when reading the books. Grainger brings an emotional range to the role which I’m sure will come in very useful in future episodes. In this episode, she’s underused – I’m referring both to the character and to the actor – which is a shame. But I think the idea is for her to balance things out as they get darker and more fraught. At the moment, we’re still meeting Strike and learning about his world.

Strike is asked to investigate the death of a supermodel who fell to her death from her luxury apartment. Adapting to the complexities of the case is easier for him than dealing with his own disintegrated romance, the shadows of a rock-star father, and a frosty working friendship with Robin. The case leads him to meet glamorous people in clean settings and grubby people in dark settings. Every room has a colour theme: usually blue.

There is no memorable dialogue and when it tries to be memorable it’s just unfortunate. For instance:
When you start a new case, it’s like looking into an aquarium […] You put your face up against the glass […] and watch the fish…
There’s nothing really wrong with this line; it just feels like some script consultant spent ages reaching around for the perfect metaphor and settled on it. We see Strike, having showered, without his prosthetic leg in a scene that, apparently, shocked many tweeters. The BBC has already started issuing rather tasteless statements about the exciting special effects employed in creating this scene, and the whole thing has left me with a rather bitter taste – it’s not simply there to give us a rounded view of the detective and his struggles. Given the way this scene was built up, both in the press and in the episode, with allusive shots and verbal references, there’s an undeniable element, if not of voyeurism, then of ‘look how clever and edgy we’re being.’ The pilot ends with the discovery of an inevitable second corpse.

Edit: As an able-bodied person I don't have the authority to comment on this extensively, and certainly not to have the last word. Please see these tweets from Tina, a Twitter friend who had a different opinion on Strike's injury and its presentation:

Not a huge deal happens in this opening episode beyond a decent set-up, which ensures that most viewers will tune in tomorrow. I found it entertaining and watchable, but nothing to rave about. I think the idea is to replicate what Raymond Chandler achieved with his Philip Marlowe novels: presenting a run-down, noble man who is too good for the decade he lives and works in. It executes itself in a way that I imagine Daily Mail readers will consider bang up-to-date and hard-hitting. At the same time, it challenges nothing. I don’t doubt that Strike will be a huge success, and I think it’s pretty good. I’ll be sure to keep watching, but I’m not about to rush out to pre-order DVDs and Cormoran Strike T-shirts.

Tl;dr it 'strikes' a balance between okay and very good (see what I did there?!). I guess that means it's good.