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Thursday, 26 April 2018

Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes edited by Tom Ue and Jonathan Cranfield

This review also appears on the International Crime Fiction Association blog.

Intellect describes its series Fan Phenomena as being ‘prompted by a growing appetite for books that tap into the fascination we have with what constitutes an iconic or cultish phenomenon’. The series started in 2013 and has continued steadily, with topics including Star Trek (2013), The Lord of the Rings (2015), and Game of Thrones (2017), among others. Sherlock Holmes, who needs no introduction, is such an iconic figure in fandom and popular culture that it is no wonder the character himself has inspired a volume under the Fan Phenomena banner.

In Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes, editors Tom Ue and Jonathan Cranfield bring together thirteen chapters, consisting of eight chapters and five ‘Fan Appreciation’ interviews. Since ‘the figure of Holmes has been constantly refreshed and renewed, adapted […] to new cultural moments’ (6), the editors’ stated aim is to ‘attest […] to the popularity of the characters and fictional world that [Arthur] Conan Doyle created’ (5). It is such a vast aim that no 153-page book could fully do it justice, but Ue and Cranfield have succeeded in providing a comprehensive and attractive introduction to some of the key themes in Holmes fandom.

The volume is beautifully laid out and illustrated. Intellect Books are designed to appeal to students and well-informed enthusiasts as well as scholars and researchers, so it is not surprising that Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes is visually appealing. The front and back inside covers are filled with Sidney Paget’s illustration of Holmes and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, tumbling down the Reichenbach Falls. The pages are well-spaced and easy to read, with a variety of images, and each contribution is prefaced with what some would call a Conanical quotation: a remark from Conan Doyle’s original texts concerning Holmes.

Particularly strong are the opening and closing essays. Tom Ue’s ‘Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare’ (8-27) looks at ‘the numerous ways in which Shakespeare’s writing affected Conan Doyle in his creation and writing of Sherlock Holmes and his stories’, and Ue insists that ‘Conan Doyle’s reading of Shakespeare [lies] at the heart of his own writing’ (10). Both authors are authoritative voices in their respective historical contexts, but Ue points out a tradition of adaptation and allusion that positions the Holmes canon itself as a kind of fan fiction. Benjamin Poore, in closing the collection, offers a perspective on presentations of Moriarty on-screen in the twenty-first century (134-147).  From Moriarty’s creation in 1893, ‘as a narrative tool with which to kill of Holmes’, which Poore says ‘backfired spectacularly’ (135), the character and his relationship to Holmes have gripped the public imagination, with a significance both on and off the page that cannot be easily separated. As such, Poore argues, ‘Holmes and Moriarty’s activities suit the porous boundary-crossing tenor of the times, where the Internet has increased the ways in which we commingle reality and fiction’ (142).

While some of the interviews with authors veer into promotional, rather than informative, territory, it is fascinating to see the variety of approaches to often similar concepts: for example, two of the interviews are with co-authors of distinct ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ graphic novels (80-89; 100-108). The final interview is with Robert Ryan, author of Dead Man’s Land, a 2013 novel set during the First World War and featuring Dr Watson (124-133). The novel is not a conventional Holmesian pastiche, and Ryan is open about not being ‘a Holmesian’, although he admits that ‘nobody who writes crime thrillers […] can escape the long arm of Baker Street’ (128). Ryan’s perspective offers points of contrast to the others, and nicely rounds the overall tone of the volume. The interviews intersperse the essays, two of which are written by authors – Jonathan Barnes (110-117) and Shane Peacock (118-123) – outlining the process of writing new Holmes adventures. This creates something of a slant towards authors-talking-about-their work. Some other essays are written by fans, and some by academics, which creates a welcome sense of variety. The different contributors’ styles may not rest in easy harmony, but the result is a volume with something to suit most tastes.

Jonathan Cranfield’s ‘Sherlock Holmes: Fan Culture and Fan Letters’ (66-79) is a fascinating study of ‘the writing of [real] fan letters to [the fictional] Sherlock Holmes – which has occurred continuously from the 1890s until the present day’, exploring how early letters ‘herald the coming multiverse of Sherlockian fan phenomena’ (67). Cranfield attests that ‘early Sherlock Holmes fan culture […] established a basic pattern for the ways in which later phenomena [such as online fan fiction] would function’ (75), which, as with Ue’s contribution, establishes Conanical links and presages to twenty-first century Sherlockiana. However, the delights of this chapter bring to mind the book’s one notable omission. While several contributors mention fan fiction, which is hugely important in the world of Sherlockiana, and a burgeoning field of study in its own right, no contributor has chosen to focus on it. A chapter on fan fiction would have made this already exciting volume stronger still.

Sherlock Holmes is as important a populist figure today as he was in the late nineteenth century. Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes testifies to this significance, with real-life implications playing out in its contributors’ varied backgrounds. It is undoubtedly a useful resource as studies of fan fiction and of fan phenomena continue to gather momentum. Conan Doyle’s creation continues to provide fertile ground for individuals within and far beyond scholarship. As Holmes himself declares, in ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’, ‘What one man can create, another can discover.’ 

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Mini Reviews #16

Each of these texts is one I wanted to devote a whole post to, but, unfortunately, time and energy are not on my side.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963) by Ian Fleming. Probably the most palatable of the James Bond novels, but that's not saying much. The second in the Blofield trilogy, this has some genuinely exciting moments and excellent location-building but the whole vibe of these books is something I can't get behind.

The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt. Iconic as an inverted mystery story and as a campus novel, I think it's impossible to deny that The Secret History is a masterpiece.

'Old Boys, Old Girls' (2004) by Edward P. Jones. A short story published in The New Yorker, this is everything twenty-first century crime fiction should be. Powerful and evocative, it voices a perspective that mainstream - white - American fiction cannot emulate.

Gaudy Bauble (2017) by Isabel Waidner. I am obsessed with this avant-garde queer crime novella, published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. Nothing is defined in Socialist Britain in the year 201x: people, objects, events, and language all merge and blend and interact. In its extraordinary humour, the text reveals how far identity politics and crime fiction have yet to come.

Six Degrees of Assassination (2017) by M.J. Arlidge. This is a six-part political crime drama with an all-star cast, available for free on Audible. Arlidge's script is cliche-ridden but slick enough. The performances suffer from Extremely-Talented-Actors-Reading-A-Script-For-The-First-Time Syndrome.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Mini reviews #15

Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal (1907) by Roy Horniman. The inspiration for Kind Hearts and Coronets (one of the greatest films ever made) which inspired A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (one of the greatest musicals ever made), Israel Rank has a very different tone. I had heard that the book was anti-semitic, which is why I hadn't read it before, but the impression I got was that it exposes and pillories anti-semitism in Edwardian Britain. The 'wit' hasn't all travelled well, but it's better than I expected.

A Murder is Announced (1956, Goodyear Playhouse). Miss Marple's first ever screen outing! Here she is played by an unrepentantly-accented Gracie Fields, and the young Roger Moore makes an early appearance showcasing all the woodenness for which he would become famous. This is an adaptation of a relatively complex novel featuring three murders, and the whole thing runs for one hour including commercials. It shouldn't work, but is surprisingly enjoyable. A Murder is Announced is hard to view, but well worth it if you get a chance.

The Murder Wall (2012) by Mari Hannah. Hannah's debut thriller introduces DCI Kate Daniels, who is remarkable as one of the first high-profile lesbian detectives in fiction. However, Hannah has stated several times that the character's sexuality was never really supposed to be an issue. It is a gripping, intense read from the opening graphic rape scene right up to the end. Although some of the writing irks -- Detached exclamations! Exclamation marks! -- the handling of sensitive issues is chillingly effective.

Writing in an Age of Silence (2007) by Sara Paretsky. A powerful memoir from the creator of V.I. Warshawski. Paretsky explores her political and literary influences. I first read it before I'd read any of Paretsky's fiction and thoroughly enjoyed it then; revisiting, it's even more rewarding.

Mine (2018) by Susi Fox. Another debut thriller, this time by an Australian medical professional. Mine tells the story of a new mother who becomes convinced that her baby is not her baby. It is an extremely readable novel, although I found the conclusion unsettling.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Black Burying by Henry Carstairs

I enjoy Henry Carstairs’ mystery novels immensely, although I wouldn’t recommend them to many people. This is because, objectively, there’s not much to recommend them: they feel longer than they are, and are filled with rambling descriptions and internal dialogue. The investigations go round in circles, although the problems are generally very simple, and none of the characters are particularly interesting. Black Burying (1945) is Carstairs’ third novel to feature Lydford Long, and in this there is not even a dead body until the end of Chapter 15! An additional frustration is that several characters have similar names: Inspector Girdley, Sergeant Godfrey, Mr Gilchrist (who looks like Girdley), Sir Arnold Chevely, Mr Chatterton… I can’t imagine many people in the twenty-first century would bother with a book like this, and I can see why Carstairs remains out of print. However, there’s a certain wonderful escapism in spending time with Lydford Long.

Long (or Lyfdford, in the narrative) is a painfully shy man who wants nothing more in life than to be left alone and to sketch. His full-time job seems to be ‘amateur sleuth’ in that wherever he goes, someone dies and he sets around to solving each case without any prompting. In this book, he is helped by his some-time companion, a young boy called Phillip Bradley who puts some things together but mostly pops up to say ‘Gosh!’ And ‘Smashing!’, and by a dog called Spot. I laughed out loud when, in the second chapter, Lydford decided that he was bored so was going to see ‘his boy-friend’. My favourite thing about Lydford, though, is that he talks to himself. About 50% of the dialogue in Black Burying is Lydford working out the case with himself, alone.

Before summarising the plot, I’m going to quote the blurb because I find it loquacious:
Another absorbing mystery in which Lydford Long figures as investigator. When a party of people, of whom he chances to be one, goes for an autumn afternoon’s innocent picnic on the Downs, and one of the party disappears suddenly, completely and mysteriously, what then?
I bet this was written by the author. It just sounds so boring — and as if, midway through the sentence, he gave up. And there’s a sense throughout the novel that the author would rather not be writing a murder mystery. I know nothing about the author but, because he was writing during the war and everyone talks like an Edwardian, and because the obligatory meta-moments all reference Sherlock Holmes rather than anyone more modern, I’d guess he was elderly. The books stopped in the mid-1950s. The name Henry Carstairs sounds so much like a character in one of these novels that I presume it’s a pseudonym. Lydford is clearly a self-portrait because the workings of a shy mind are about the only thing in the book that are palpably authentic; also the author takes care to remind us that Lydford is tall and handsome, which is not uncommon when someone creates a fictional alter-ego on the sly.

So, Lydford is on holiday, staying in a country with people he doesn’t particularly like. Nearby are a little village and several nature walks. On one of this walks, another holiday-goer, Inspector Girdley, vanishes and several chapters later a body turns up. Without any prompting, for no apparent reason, and to nobody’s surprise, Lydford immediately sets about drawing diagrams and interviewing suspects in order to solve the mystery. Luckily for him, Philip, his ‘little invalid boy’ companion in a previous case (Drifting Death) is ‘spending his summer holiday, solitary, on an adjacent farm’, so Lydford and Philip happily pal up to solve the case.

While the set up is ridiculous and the writing is lazy — Carstairs is blatantly trying to fill space when he recounts a whole phone conversation over four pages that could be summarised in two lines (“Hallo! Is that Paget? Lydford here”, “Hello, this is Paget, who’s speaking please? Lydford, is that you?”, “Yes, it’s me,” and so on) — I was never bored reading. I don’t know why, exactly. Part of it is Lydford himself, who is such an excellent portrait of a shy man with a lot of unwanted attention on him. He is furious that solving the previous two cases in the series have given him a kind of notoriety, and he doesn’t like all the young women casting appreciative glances at him: he just wants to paint and sketch. He has no time for sex: ‘all girls were mysteries, and perhaps the only thing to do was to let it go at that.’ Yes, I really want to know about the author now.

Carstairs also turns some wonderful phrases when he wants to. At one point, he describes ‘a little man with darting eyes’ thus: ‘Everything about him was little except his obvious sense of grievance.’ Servants and locals do not get such sophisticated descriptions, however, and they speak in a painful-to-read vernacular. And I learnt some slang. ‘You have put your finger in the mustard!’ one character exclaims when another stumbles upon a hitherto-elusive truth.

There are eleven Lydford Long mysteries and so far I’ve read three. I have one more ready to read and will try to source the others, although I wouldn’t recommend these unless you’re a proper twentieth-century detective fiction geek.