Posts Tagged ‘Sherlock Holmes’

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Detective fiction is a funny thing. The moment of most conflict and drama generally takes place outside the narrative, often before detective has been called in. The narrative arc is pretty formulaic: scenes are inspected, witnesses interviewed, discrepancies explored. And the conclusion is pretty predicable: the culprit is identified and society made safe from him or her. And they can become self-parodic: the body count in the various villages around Midsomer and Cabot Cove and St Mary’s Mead; the stereotypes of the detectives – the lonely genius of Holmes and Morse, the cantankerous Inspector Frost, the rebellious Luthor; the implausibility of the amateur sleuth.

But they are beloved!

And I love them.

They are the form of writing where the relationship between the reader and writer is at it’s most active and mutual. It is a dance, a tango; it is a battle of wits; it is a running joke. The reader is constantly building his own narratives, reconstructing the clues presented to him, re-evaluating the interviews. We judge and weigh up both the characters and the writer: we know that the early obvious suspect is a red herring with another 300 pages to read or another hour to watch.

And this book is a hymn to these classic, golden age cozy novels and their modern television counterparts – perhaps unsurprisingly as Horowitz has written for Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and written two new “official” Holmes novels as well as taken on Bond.

The novel is, as they say, a book in two parts: the first half is a presented as the ninth Atticus Pünd novel by Alan Conway – echoes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot abound in Pünd: dapper, clever, gentlemanly, foreign and a consultant to various police forces in 1950s England; the second part is a contemporary investigation by editor Susan Ryeland into the death of Conway himself and a search for the missing final chapters of his book.

Ryeland as a narrator is herself steeped in detective fiction and the novel is a delightful homage to and pastiche of the cozy detective novel – eschewing the darker notes that have grown with the growth of “nordic noir”.

Whilst well crafted and engagingly written, it is not a deep portrayal of character: Susan as a character and narrator was a little two-dimensional and her relationship with Andreas was not terribly fleshed out; the characters within the Atticus Pund novel had no more depth. In both parts, the characters felt like little more than chesspieces moved around and into place by the writer.

And there did seem to be an awful lot of summarising and of recapping of the information given in the previous couple of hundred pages which, ironically, could have been edited out quite happily. And the opening chapters which methodically showed every main character’s reaction to the first death in Conway’s novel felt somewhat formulaic and by-the-numbers.

Horowitz played with a range of different voices in the novel: Conway’s narrative voice in the Pünd novels, his true voice and his somewhat pretentious derivative literary voice; we hear snippets and extracts from these and from his sister and a rival would-be writer. It did come across as a little smug in parts, a little too self-consciously clever. Did he name his author Alan Conway after the conman who impersonated Stanley Kubrick? Did he rely on plant names for his characters in the same way that Susanna Ryeland, working for Charles Clover, derided Conway for doing? Invented interviews between Horowitz and an author who doesn’t exist promoting a book that Horowitz wrote himself…

It’s a great, fun read and a cosy winter’s treat, like an open fire and mulled wine. But it’s no literary masterpiece.

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Opening with a murderous rampage at a party held by a corrupt politician, once again, Sanderson plumbs the possibilities of his Mistborn universe in Scadriel extending the reach of the characters Waxillium Ladrian,  Wayne and Marasi, whom he had introduced in The Alloy Of Law. The feel of this novel is distinctly Industrial Revolutionary with the rising prominence of factories and unemployment. Marches on the streets of Elendel and proletarian disgruntlement. You almost expected a thinly disguised William Blake or Karl Marx to wander around a corner.

We are also reacquainted with some of the original characters and concepts again: the kandra get to take centrestage this time and we see a cameo from both TenSoon and the ascended Sazed, now known as Lord Harmony. It was an interesting exploration of a god’s role maintaining balance between Preservation and Ruin: his power and limitations.

The plot itself is simultaneously straightforward and byzantine and breaks away frim the suspiciously evil uncle. Elendel’s Lord Governor is the target of an assassination plot which utilises a range of both feruchemical and allomantic abilities. Speed, strength, healing and the coinshot skills of Wax himself. Added to that, we have the shape-shifting abilities of the kandra  and the novel has the potential to be a terrifyingly claustrophobic and intense one. No one is safe; anyone could be the killer in disguise. It would be tricky to follow for anyone not familiar with the Mistborn magic systems. Along the way, we encounter food shortages, industrial unrest and violence between different religious groups.

It doesn’t quite reach the potential which the premise has: Wax leaps into the mist just a little too often; there are a few too many shifts on point of view; just one or two too many info dumps about politics and history. The twist itself was – or perhaps twists were – relatively recognisable from half way through. It was good, but a little too heavy on action for my liking.

The original Alloy of Law was apparently written as an imaginative exercise by Sanderson after his stint on The Wheel Of Time and I think that that showed in the fun and playfulness of that first book which he hadn’t intended to publish. This time round, he seemed to be taking things more seriously and trying to invest more depth into his hero… we see Wax and Wayne haunted by their past actions is great, but some of the fun seemed diminished somehow. It’s still a good read… but the gusto of the Alloy of Law seems to be reduced. Wax continues in the archetypal role of crusading unconventional detective moving outside the limits of the law, in the model of Batman and Holmes – and Harry Dresden.

The next book, Bands Of Mourning, is out soon – apparently this month – and I’ll probably pick it up and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. Apparently,  the Lord Ruler’s bracers are discovered….

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Right,  firstly an apology in advance: this is my first post after changing phones and the larger screen of the Galaxy S6 and different spacing on the keyboard is enough to fox my little mind. And fingers. It doesn’t take much to fox either. So,  as I saw,  apologies for any typos… well,  more than usual!

Anyway,  onto Storm Front,  the first of the Dresden Files, which numerous people I know have been raving about,  and Jim Butcher’s debut novel.

The concept is no longer original – but it is fifteen years old now! Set in Chicago, Dresden is a wizard working as both a private investigator and a consultant for Karrin Murphy investigating crimes which touch on the supernatural world which lurks beneath our own. Chicago has its own drug and gang crime issues,  primarily in this novel headed by Gentleman Johnny Marconi, reminiscent of the mobs of Gotham City. The supernatural world is itself policed by Wardens and The White Council enforcing their own laws – which are far more important than ours,  hence the fact that they are Laws – and has its own rogue and dark elements. And vampires, fairies and demons and no doubt other creatures for future novels.

All of these elements become involved in a double murder in which two people have their hearts ripped out of their chests by dark magic.

There are all sorts of influences on Butcher which are pretty apparent: Batman is explicitly referenced but there’s a whole literary lineage going back to Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade and Philips Marlowe. Dresden is in that line of hardboiled detectives; however, Butcher is not a writer of the same calibre as Hammett, Chandler or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book. It had a cracking pace and was decently plotted. But the writing struck me as a tad juvenile in places, a little clichéd and familiar, and his treatment of women seemed perhaps a century out of date. Rarely did he let a description of a woman go without a sensual adverb or adjective slipping in. Women seemed to consist mainly of legs (generally shapely), lips  (usually full and plump), and breasts. The depiction of Bianca St Claire, the vampire madame whose employee had been one of the first victims in the book, was a case in point. Most writers whose vampires who transform tend to focus on teeth or eyes and the facial changes. Butcher lingered uncomfortably long on the changes in her breasts as she transformed into her true vampiric form.

The plotting was also a tad obvious: two apparently separate cases opened in the first chapter. A couple of potions were brewed about half way through. Not a subplot was left unintegral to the main plot; not a potion was brewed that was not required elsewhere.

Was it easy to anticipate who the antagonist Shadowman was? Pretty much so.

Now, that said, it was a decent quick read: 499 pages which you can whip through in a week. It was pretty fun and Dresden – struggling with the temptation of reverting to dark magics himself – has potential as a protagonist. At a personal level, I’ve had a really tough couple of weeks and this novel was a solid escape from that. I’ve also had trouble getting into the various things I’ve been reading recently (personally I blame Kate Atkinson: after reading Life After Life even this year’s Man Booker List haven’t gripped me like they usually do) and something with no pretensions to anything other than a fun genre fiction romp hit the spot well this week.

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Anthony Horowitz, for me as an English teacher is almost synonymous with his teenage spy Alex Rider. Although probably with fewer helicopters, assassins and explosions. And more writing. The series is a very boy friendly, speedily paced series of novels which are one out go-to series for reluctant boy-readers. So it was with some surprise and not a little interest that I discovered, on reading the afterword essay following The House Of Silk, that his career includes Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie and Foyle’s War.

Apparently, this is the first officially sanctioned new Holmes novel – sanctioned by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. And what is clear from reading it is that Horowitz knows his Holmes! Knows him well! So well he even includes a quiz at the end of his afterword. I got 6 / 10. Could do better. He also includes frequent references to other novels and short stories: The Red Headed League. The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. These are all explicit and fleeting, nothing which would put off a newcomer to Holmes but a pleasing nod to the canon for those readers familiar with it.

Horowitz’ tone and structure is also pretty authentic. I mean, I don’t profess to be a Holmes expert, but the familiarity of the opening scene – Holmes at 221b Baker Street astounding Watson with his deductions as we await a fateful knock at the door – takes you straight back to The Hound of The Baskervilles. Similarly, the length of time spent without Holmes, his disappearance from the narrative, the intertwining of two apparently unrelated plots, the time devoted to other characters giving their own stories in their own voices all felt delightfully familiar. In fact, if anything, characters seemed to be falling over themselves to tell their stories.

I usually don’t worry too much about spoilers but a Holmes novel does require a certain delicacy, I suppose. So let’s instead look at some of the ingredients Horowitz has added to his mix: an art dealer haunted by a vengeful figure from America; a corpse discovered in a hotel room; the Baker Street Irregulars and a charitable school; and, of course, the eponymous House of Silk. We also have the familiar cast: Lestrade, Mycroft and Mrs Hudson. And a mysterious nighttime assignation with an unnamed yet urbane criminal figure. As Horowitz’ sequel is named Moriarty, I think we can make certain assumptions!

These last few years have been golden ones for Holmes fans: BBC’s Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is a delight; Robert Downey Jr’s films are fun. Horowitz’ Holmes, though, does seem far closer to Jeremy Brett than his more modern counterparts. I have to say that, in my head, some of Holmes’ dialogue was read in Brett’s lugubrious tones. Stiller, calmer than the somewhat frenetic Messrs Cumberbatch and Downey. Maybe hearing Brett’s voice intone Holmes’ words is a tribute to Horowitz’ writing; maybe it just reveals how impressionable my mind was when, as a child, I saw Brett in The Hound of The Baskervilles.

So, returning to Horowitz, I thoroughly enjoyed this. It was, possibly, a little too self-conscious of its place as part of the canon and maybe a little too reverential. But perhaps that is the nature of all pastiches: without that reverence for the source material it would become a novel featuring Sherlock Holmes rather than a Sherlock Holmes novel.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes novels, it transpires that a lost Holmes short story has been discovered in Selkirk, Scotland, written to raise money for a bridge. See here for the full report.

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What was this book about?

Murder and a new detective in the Murder Squad of Scotland Yard.

What was the detective like as a character?

(Shrugs)

I didn’t think he was a very confident person in what he did but he was actually very good at it.

How would you compare him to other detectives?

Caring.

What attracted you to this book?

You told me it was like Ripper Street.

And was it?

Yes

When is the book set?

Just after The Ripper had stopped. 1886… 1889 isn’t it? 1886. And it focused on the new Murder Squad.

How explicit is the violence in the book?

The first murder isn’t; the second murder was from the victim’s point of view. What it felt like.

How does the book deal with the divisions between classes in Eighteenth Century society?

You what? It doesn’t. There isn’t a division. There only one upper class character – a doctor – and he gets his throat cut. Serves him right. He was going to murder one of the constables.

So how successfully does it recreate the seedy underbelly of society?

Fab! You could practically smell the pubs and see the foggywog.

So it was atmospheric, was it hunni?

Yes!

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What sort of reader would the book for?

As I’m not a big reader … as I find books hard to get into, I would recommend this book for anyone who likes a good story.

Interview terminated due to pressing medical appointment.