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Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Mini reviews #17

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893) by Arthur Conan Doyle. This collection of short stories was supposed to provide the final word on the great detective – and, of course, it didn’t. For reasons we may never deduce, Arthur Conan Doyle brought back the character who got him paid-by-the-word less than a decade after killing him off. But Holmes dies here, in ‘The Final Problem’, which has an excellent concluding line. There are twelve stories in all, including ‘The Gloria Scott’, in which Holmes recounts his first case in his university days, and ‘The Greek Interpreter’, in which we meet his brother. Rereading in order, I was surprised to remember how socially functional the original Sherlock Holmes was. That charm that Basil Rathbone captured on-screen, so pointedly sublimated in later adaptations, is certainly there in the stories.

4.50 From Paddington (1957) by Agatha Christie.  The buoyant Elspeth McGillicuddy boards a train after a hard day shopping. As the 4.50 rushes past another train, she glances through the woman and sees, in the other train, a woman being strangled! When the police dismiss her as a lonely biddy, she calls on Miss Marple… This is Christie in her element, writing about a fantasy England and a changing world. Characters – from the grandiose patriarch who made his fortune in biscuits to the domestic helper with a triple first from Oxford – are quirkily realised and the plot is silly enough to class as genius.

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966) by Patricia Highsmith. Don’t read this as a ‘how-to’ guide, but do read this for the fascinating insights into Highsmith’s own creative routines. Very accessible and very humane.

Dark Corners (2014) by Ruth Rendell. Rendell’s final novel showcases her ambitions and her weaknesses, especially when she tries to be edgy. I wish she had set this novel in the 1960s, as that’s clearly where her imagination has strayed to and the use of ‘the Internet’ (with a very capital ‘I’) at the heart of the plot is slightly awkward. Had all the action taken place in the 1960s, I think this could have been as taut and compelling as vintage Rendell.

Bring Me Back (2018) by B.A. Paris. Paris has a knack of writing compulsively readable prose. You can sit down with her debut, Behind Closed Doors, and not look up until far into the night. She established a formula with that book and largely stuck to it in her second. This is her third and it’s different. For one thing, Paris is trying a male narrator for the first time (there are two narrators here, and a bit of a Gone Girl vibe), and for another the twist is supposed to be unexpected. One thing that made Behind Closed Doors so great is that you know the entire plot, everything that’s going to unfold, more or less from the off – and you know that the author knows that you know. The only person who doesn’t know is the narrator. And that’s compelling. Here, the twist comes right at the end. The problem is that twists are hard to pull off. I saw it coming as soon as the plot had been established, and found myself increasingly frustrated. I turned the pages quickly, but that was to escape some unfortunate writing. The kind of rookie errors I missed – despite their being there – in the first book, and noticed but forgave in the second. B.A. Paris has a genuinely talent but I really, really want her to take more than a year to produce each book, in order to do that talent justice.

Monday, 28 May 2018

The Bridge series 4 (SVT/DR)

The fourth series of The Bridge is finally airing on BBC 2, so I figured this would be a good time to review it. The other day, flicking through an old issue of my grandfather's Daily Telegraph, I noticed that even the Telegraph -- just a few years after the rest of the world -- has noticed that Scandi noir is
not an eternal phenomenon.  The journalist in question hints that maybe, just maybe, Nordic Noir is on the way out...

Of course, Scandi crime in the UK is so past its peak that Jo Nesbo is writing about Scotland and Kurt Wallander bowed out on Swedish and UK TV in 2013 and 2016 respectively. But many of us wanted, desperately, for the saga of Saga Noren to tie itself neatly together.  The final series took a while to surface, and it's very aware of its own nature as a conclusion, slightly after the fact. Dead characters resurface, backstories are interwoven with the case at hand in a way more obvious than ever before, and minor recurring characters are finally given their own narrative arcs.

When Bron/Broen began in 2011, at its heart was the clash of two geographically and philosophically linked countries, made manifest in the strained relationship of the two co-investigators, the autistic genius Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) from Sweden and the overly emotional Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) from Denmark. Bodnia left at the end of Series 2, and his annoyingly formulaic replacement, a drug-addicted cop with anger issues stemming from bereavement, Henrik Sabroe (Thure Lindhardt) ensured that Series 3 focussed more on a clash of personalities. Series 4 makes no pretence: the star of the show is Saga Noren. Nearly all the action takes place in Denmark, but this closing act is 100% her own.

You might remember that, at the end of Series 3, Saga was arrested for murdering her mother. She says, we know, and nobody else believes, that her mother committed suicide and made it look like Saga had killed her. At the beginning of Series 4, two years later, Saga is about to get out of prison, following a retrial at which her innocence was more or less proven. Of course, because this is The Bridge, something goes wrong at the last minute, and Saga ends up seeing a counsellor -- something that starts out amusing and ends up extraordinarily touching.

She also develops her relationship with Henrik and, in a heartbreaking scene, suggests that she might be in love with him. I want to add a note here: this is not like Sherlock or Dexter, both of which suggest that sociopathy can be 'cured' by the love of a good member of the opposite sex and the pursuit of nuclear bliss. It's much more sensitive, and much more grounded. And much, much more brutal. While Saga tries to help Henrik track down his missing-presumed dead daughters (just as he's grown to accept that they are not coming back), she also tries to learn the rules of social behaviour and cohabitation. It all culminates and in an absolutely perfect final scene, which contains precisely two words of ideally-crafted dialogue.

Meanwhile, there is a case. A serial-killer case which strikes close to home. Detectives in Denmark and Sweden are trying to find a link between disparate, apparently motiveless killings: an electrocution, a hanging, a poisoning, and so on. While the link is probably clearer to us than it is to them, it takes Saga Noren to communicate it. And, as usual, the variety of victims and locales provides a perfect excuse for a range of recognisable Danish and Swedish TV faces. Once the link emerges, so does another kind of link: to the Danish police force itself.

A big theme in this series is the construction of identity within familial and local community contexts. One subplot has a woman and her son fleeing an abusive husband, and running right into a cultish community and into the arms of an even more manipulative man. Another has two blue-eyed parents with a brown-eyed son. Everyone has noticed except, apparently, the father, and, of course, it's Saga Noren who actually voices the problem, as an aside in the middle of a routine enquiry. The big subplot is, of course, Henrik's on-off search for his long-lost daughters. For the first time, the cinematography emphasises just how long the bridge between the two countries actually is.

Taken as a whole, the series is cathartic. Every character -- whether they've been in the show from Day One or just for this series -- is given a conclusion, whether that's closure or rebirth. I think the pacing is bizarre. For example, the solution to the crimes under investigation is three-fold. Element one is revealed, thrilling chase included, at the beginning of episode 7 (of 8); element two comes out half way through episode 8; and the final element is crammed into the last five minutes. Meanwhile, we have languorous scenes involving Saga rifling through the paraphernalia of her childhood and learning how to let it go.

This is frustrating in the moment, but when this show does tension, it ladles it on so heavily that you lose yourself in the moment and forget any dissatisfaction. As I mentioned above, the series ends on such a perfect note that it's impossible not to give it one big, convoluted, utterly ridiculous thumbs-up.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Department of Dead Ends by Roy Vickers

Oxfam in Norwich has a nice selection of old Penguins, and my eye always goes directly to the green ones. You probably don’t need me to tell you that green = crime and mystery. One day, the array was not overly appealing – most of the books were Erle Stanley Gardners. Nothing against that, but I’ve got so many of those, most of which will probably remain unread, that I don’t need to acquire any more. By far the most interesting title on display was The Department of Dead Ends (1949) by Roy Vickers. Flicking through, I saw that it contained short stories, which are always nice to have, so I bought it.

Before reading, I made an effort not to check the blurb or the author bio – so as to come to the text without any baggage. This effort was slightly confounded, in the best possible way, by a surprise introduction from Ellery Queen.

Queen does a good job selling the volume as the next great thing (in 1955, when the Penguin edition was published) in detective fiction. Describing each story as its own ‘miraculously English’ twist on the ‘”inverted” detective story’, Queen insists that, after The Department of Dead Ends, the genre will never be the same again. The book and the author are so little-known that Queen’s prophesy clearly did not come to pass; however, the stories are extremely enjoyable.

As you might have guessed by now, each tale inverts the narrative of a typical crime story (and this is pre-Columbo, remember). So, we start with the identity of the murderer, witness the crime, and then view the gathering of evidence. There had already been a few stories like this of course – notably by R. Austin Freeman, Francis Iles, and Q. Patrick. After reading the first story, ‘The Rubber Trumpet’, I thought there was something interesting about it, setting it apart from the others. Put simply, it didn’t feel like fiction. That is to say, it was sensational and implausible enough, but there was something almost calculated in the telling. I realised that it was the focus on small details; the shape of a button or the exact and inelegant number of rubber trumpets bought from a certain shop on a certain day. It felt more like a well-written example of tasteless true-crime journalism.

This feeling grew and grew as I read through ‘The Lady Who Laughed’ and ‘The Man Who Murdered in Public’. The stories, even the oddly stiff-yet-imaginative dialogue evoked the kinds of fictionalised narratives you’d get in big books from the 1940s onwards: Sensational True Tales of Women Who Kill!!!While this may have been a new type of storytelling under the ‘crime fiction’ banner, as journalism it’s the kind of narrative that’s dominated from the Newgate Calendar to New York Timeop eds. About half-way through my reading, I checked Vickers’ bio and, sure enough, he’d started out as a journalist.

So Queen was right in a way: these stories do feel remarkably novel in the context of detective fiction. In another context, they fit an extremely old form, with just one twist – conscious fictionality. But that’s the nature of innovation. It comes one twist at a time.

Friday, 11 May 2018

No Man's Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

When I purchased No Man's Nightingale (2013) from a 3-for-£5 bin, I had no idea it was the final Inspector Wexford novel. I found myself in Great Yarmouth with a dead phone, three hours early for a rehearsal, so went out looking for something to read.  I have always avoided Inspector Wexford, partly by accident -- it just so happens that all the Rendells I've read have been standalones -- and very slightly by design. The character just sounds so boring to me; a happily-married middle-aged everyman policeman. The idea makes me think of Inspector Barnaby (the screen version), and although I've always hugely respected Rendell's ambitions as a writer, she never quite shed middle-class security, so I always figured that the Reg Wexford novels would highlight her weaknesses rather than her strengths.

Perhaps the final Wexford novel was not the best place to start. It features the man in retirement 'but still involved' in police work. I quite like that Rendell doesn't even try to get round the obstacle she's set herself; she just has Wexford roll up to crime scenes and everyone's fine with it. The police officers even come up with a job title for him: 'Crime Solutions Adviser (unpaid)', which is quite a nice bit of satire.

The crime in question is extraordinarily little-England. This is 2013, but the locals in Wexford's area are not comfortable with the idea of a 'lady vicar'. Rev. Sarah Hussein, who is a convert from Hinduism, upsets so many people by the very fact of her existence that Wexford is hardly surprised when she is found strangled in the vicarage. The police soon uncover a simmering pot of red herrings in the form of racial tensions, misogyny, and, perhaps inevitably, children with complicated parentage. Between investigating the case, Wexford dips in and out of Gibbons' Decline and Fall and reflects on how little has changed in the history of collapsing civilisations. It isn't just the occasional shoe-horned references to The Voice and 'the internet' that show Rendell's aspirations to remain up-to-date; there's also a shrewd alertness to political tensions in microcosm.

Despite the attempts to join the twenty-first century, Rendell is only in her element when she's describing universal and timeless human weakness -- when she's being Patricia Highsmith with a doily -- and that is not what she's doing here. Characters speak archaically ('sex and bodily functions and biology sort of stuff' says one worldly type. It reminded me of PD James's young people in the early 2000s promising to 'summon' one another 'on the telephone'). The internet may exist, nebulous and hardly used (Wexford doesn't understand Google, so that's that taken care of), but smartphones might never have been invented.

What endures is Rendell's canniness in nailing a character in just a few lines. There are some spectacular descriptions ('She was uncompromisingly fat and apparently happy to be so') and some acute ones ('She was a good worker, reliable, punctual and reasonably honest').

As always, the case ceases to matter so much as the character-observation and the grotesqueries of thought after a certain point. The book is not long, but I could have done with it being about 50 pages shorter. Some people say Rendell lost her touch at some point in the 1990s, but her touch stayed until the very end -- my response to No Man's Nightingale is pretty much the same as my response to her very final novel, Dark Corners. Obvious brilliance, with vaseline on the lens.

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.