Search This Blog

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.

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.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Way of All Flesh by Naomi Alderman

Audible subscribers, at least in the UK, get ‘free’ access to selected podcasts and serials. I didn’t know this until I was clearing out my spam folder, and came across some links. There are a few interesting things that we get for free and so far I’ve listened to three. This review is of a six-part drama: The Way of All Flesh (2017) by Naomi Alderman.

The story: Zombies have taken over and won the war against humans. The world is ending.  Nine human strangers seek refuge in a country house. Before long, one of them is murdered…  It soon becomes clear that one of the surviving eight is a murderer… but which one?

The Way of All Flesh is set in the Zombies, Run! universe (Google was my friend here). It turns out that Zombies, Run! (2012) is an iPhone and Android game developed by Naomi Alderman and Six to Start, which combines storytelling with running and other healthy stuff that’s not hugely on my radar. Wikipedia calls it ‘an immersive running game’, wherein players listen to the story — partly written by Margaret Atwood! — and their own music. I might give it a go, but I can’t imagine fleeing zombies to the strains of Ethel Merman and the Spice Girls.

The zombie craze was at its peak in 2012, and it’s still going today in a kind of appropriate dead-but-not-dead way. Two of my Netflix binges are iZombie, an absolutely ridiculous comic-book-inspired programme that’s just stumbled into its fourth series, and Santa Clarita Diet, which is one of the greatest shows ever made. iZombie has maintained its relevance in Series 4 by more or less ditching its police-procedural format (it began as a show about a zombie pathologist who solves the murders of the people whose brains she eats) and turning the whole thing into a not-so-subtle allegory on the topic of multiculturalism: it presents a world where humans and zombies appear to co-exist but persecution and propaganda surge behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Santa Clarita Diet, as the title suggests, satirises white-picket-fence aspirations and the American Dream.

The Way of All Flesh also has a kind of relevance-bid, in that it’s set in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war on zombies (or ‘zoms', in the parlance). Most crime fiction has a genre-referential moment, and in The Way of All Flesh it comes at the mid-way point, when the survivors reflect on Golden Age detective novels. The likes of Christie and Sayers, they agree, were popular in the aftermath of the First World War and the run-up to the Second, because they gave readers a sense of conclusion; of explaining death and disorder. In that scene, Alderman argues for her own story’s relevance in an increasingly unstable political climate.

The idea of a murder mystery set during the apocalypse has always appealed to me. I’ve always wanted to read one. I even attempted to write something vaguely along those lines as my Masters dissertation; a novella set on board the Titanic, in which the crime is explained while the ship is sinking and the passengers have to choose between staying to hear the truth and trying to escape without ever finding out (it divided the examiners). The issue here, though, is not a question of resolution — of whether the truth matters at the very end — but one of motive: why would anyone commit murder when everyone’s days are numbered?

The characters are all humorous archetypes — a journalist, a doctor, an academic, a TV celebrity — and there’s some enjoyable interaction. The egos clash nicely and, of course, hidden connections quickly emerge. However, I felt that the mystery story — which is, frankly weak — had very little to do with the zombie apocalypse. In fact, the question of why you’d kill someone during the end of the world, is quickly resolved: a strong desire for vengeance, and that is that. Vengeance could be a motive for murder in any time and any place. The setting seemed incidental. As the story progressed, I got the feeling that Alderman was not bringing her A-game. She is an absolutely brilliant author, incapable of writing anything bad. However, I got the impression that she wrote The Way of All Flesh quickly. Very quickly. It’s well-written, but I expected something … else. It’s three days since I stopped listening, and I’ve already forgotten all the character’s names. I’ve even forgotten which character died and which character killed them. And the acting is just dire. There is nothing to recommend the acting.

I don’t feel disappointed because this download was free. Based on the author and the idea, I am sure I would have paid for it (I mean, come on! Zombies! Murder mystery! Naomi Alderman!) and, had I done so, I would have been majorly irked. Each episode is 20 minutes long, so if you do choose to give it a go, it’s only 2 hours out of your life.