Monthly Archives: February 2012

Elementary (or not)

THE SIGN OF FOUR, by Arthur Conan Doyle, originally published in 1890; my edition, 1982

Bookshelf 3, shelf 4, book 34

I suppose it had to happen – Sherlock was inevitably going to put in an appearance, especially as I have noticed that the dice seem to select this area of bookshelves more than others (they’re not weighted – honest).

I was quite glad to get this particular Sherlock Holmes book, though, as I’d not re-read it in ages. It’s one of the ones I loved most and may even have been the one I read first – or was that Hound? Either is a rattling good tale and a great introduction to the world of 221b Baker Street.

The Sign of Four is the second Sherlock Holmes book, and like the earlier A Study in Scarlet, it’s a full novel and not a collection of short stories. And like that book, it is also divided into two halves, though not so crudely. Again, one is the crime and the pursuit, and the other is the background. But unlike Scarlet (at least, that is, for me), it’s a cracking read. And it still is.

One of the joys of coming back to this book is the delight I’ve been able to take in discovering all the best Sherlockian clichés developing and maturing with rapidity. Yes, the Baker Street Irregulars had appeared in Scarlet, but here they are again, more developed. 

Here’s Holmes’ cocaine habit – ‘a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?’ – and terrible attitude to women, reported by – as always – Dr Watson:

‘I would not tell them too much,’ said Holmes. ‘Women are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them.’
I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment. 

And here are some of his most famous – and frequently misquoted – statements:

‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’

Hansom cabs clatter along gas-lit streets through a deepening fog (but of course – and happily as I write this the fog outside my house is getting thicker and thicker), and through it all winds the river, scene of one of the great chases in detective fiction.

So what of the plot, what of the story of the governess, the mysterious Indian pearls, the summons at night and the strange and terrifying death of Bartholemew Sholto at Pondicherry Lodge, Upper Norwood? Well, on one level it’s sensationalist hooey, but it’s enormous fun and – and this is a big ‘and’, because it’s far from being generally true of the detective genre, even today – it hangs together and makes logical sense. And it’s exciting, and I’m not giving away any spoilers!

I’ve been thinking about why it works so well. One reason is that though it is sensationalist – the chase, the fabulous jewels, the Andaman Islander with his poison darts – it is also deeply atmospheric:

It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement…

Another reason why the Sherlock Holmes stories still appeal is that they are rooted in a real world; London’s streets and buildings are frequently named and some things are still recognisable to Londoners today – such as the way that you can look down on a foggy city from the ‘heights’ of South London, and see only hints of it, tall buildings poking through the murk. It all builds – the criminal and his Andaman accomplice are tracked along a route that can still be followed; Holmes, Watson and Miss Morston (the governess) are taken in a cab along roads down which you can still drive – and creates a real world, one which barely seems fictional. And this, I am convinced, is largely why the Sherlock Holmes stories have such an appeal, even now, well over a hundred years since they were written. That and the perennial reason of reader satisfaction at a problem ingeniously solved.

Incidentally, reading The Sign of Four and contrasting it with another book emphasised something which has been bothering me slightly during my dice-reading exercise: language and attitudes which are now offensive.

I have just put the other book, written in the 1940s, to one side because of this. I don’t think I’m being over-sensitive, and obviously it was once just about acceptable – in some sectors of society – to sprinkle around words which are now (and even were, sometimes, then) offensively racist in your work. Writers are creatures of their time, and their work inevitably reflects this, but it can make a book unreadable today. At first I was worried about this in The Sign of Four, with its partial setting during the Indian mutiny, and it wouldn’t be written in this way today. But it surprised me at the end. The Andaman Islander, having been referred to by Conan Doyle / Watson in terms which make him seem more of a monster than a human being, finds his defender in Jonathan Small, his companion: yes, he’s been problematic – killing someone probably counts as problematic – but ‘he was staunch and true, was poor Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate.’ The book I rejected, written fifty years later, would never have been so generous.

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Love your Leica (and I do)

LEICA: WITNESS TO A CENTURY by Alessandro Pasi, published in 2003 in Italy; English translation 2004.

Bookcase 8, shelf 3, book 17

Finally the dice select an illustrated book. I’m amazed it’s taken so long considering the huge number of illustrated books – art, history, natural history, practical titles – which I own. This is the first representative from the rather bloated photography section, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.

It’s also a relatively recent contribution to my library, doubtless owing to the fact that I only bought The Camera of my Dreams (a Leica M6) in 2000 – and, of course, it wasn’t published until 2003. But my purchase probably made me more receptive.

So what is it about Leicas that makes them, I’m almost certain, the only brand of camera to have a book like this – one spanning a century, commercially produced, not a marketing tool – devoted to them?

It has to come down to the sheer quality of the lenses and the cameras, plus the fact that they are quick and almost silent to use which has made them the camera of choice for many, many, many great photographers. And of course you only have to buy a Leica to take shots worthy of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Or Robert Capa. Or Mary Ellen Mark. Or Sebastiao Salgado. Or Elliott Erwitt (or any other Magnum photographers). 

Think of any great photograph of the last century, and the odds are that it was probably taken on a Leica. Marc Riboud’s photograph of a protesting girl holding up a flower against the guns of some US Soldiers? A Leica. Doisneau’s famous street scene? You guessed it.

Leicas were used to record the Spanish Civil War (think Robert Capa’s controvertial Death of a Rebublican Soldier), WW2 (on both sides – Leni Reifenstahl used one, as did Nazi propagandists), the fall of Berlin and the liberation of the concentration camps.

They were used to document everything from the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the plight of refugees in the former Yugoslavia to the development of the civil rights movement and a French family enjoying a Sunday picnic. And guess which camera Alberto Diaz Gutierrez (aka Korda) used to take his portrait of Che Guevara, immortalised on many a T-shirt and student wall?

Many of the most memorable images are included in this book, and there are some which may prove unfamiliar; as an Italian title, it does have a predilection for Italian photographers, but this is no distraction. In fact, it’s a plus – for me, anyway – because it brought me some unknown work among all those truly iconic shots. I actually bought the book because of a shot that was reproduced in the Guardian. 

It’s of two men in a cafe and is by Vanni Calanca , and beautifully illustrates the use of the Leica in ambient light…

But this book is more than just a collection of photographs, even though that would be good enough. It’s a history of the brand, if you like. There’s even a model ‘family tree’ and individual cameras are described (for all the techy photo nerds out there, of which there are many), with their changing functions highlighted. And the whole book is divided into historical phases from the earliest days of Ernst Leitz’s factory in Wetzlar through to the start of the twenty-first century.

All the photographic icons are set in their historical context, and wherever possible technical data is included. Korda’s Che was taken, for example, on an M2 with a 90mm telephoto lens. The shot was originally horizontal, but Korda realised that the vertical image had more impact, and was – essentially – just a better photograph.

One thing is missing from this book: the ‘Leica Freedom Train’.

Gradually, systematically, Ernst Leitz II (the head of the company in the 1930s) began moving lots of Jewish colleagues and friends out of Nazi Germany  after Hitler came to power, under the guise of sending them to work in overseas offices. After Kristallnacht these activities increased, but they had to stop in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and borders were closed. How did they manage to get away with this? Well, Leica was an internationally recognised brand which reflected well on Germany and that gave them some immunity, plus they were producing optical equipment for the army. Nazi Germany also needed funds, and Leicas continued to be in demand all over the world.

Despite being a jewel in the crown of the Reich, members of the family and staff were caught helping Jews and imprisoned – bribes, on one occasion, securing a release. The Leitz family wanted no publicity for their efforts after the war, though Elsie Kuhn-Leitz (EL II’s daughter, who also got into trouble attempting to improve conditions for slave labourers) was recognised for her work, and it is only recently – after the death of the last member of the family – that the whole business has been fully understood.

I must admit that the Leni Reifenstahl / propaganda photographs for Signal thing had made me feel vaguely uneasy about owning my Leica – probably daft, but there you go – but I’m glad I can be (even more) proud of it now. It really is a masterpiece, advance of digital or not, and this book reflects that.

P-P-P-Patrick Campbell

THE P-P-PENGUIN by Patrick Campbell, published as a collection in 1965; original journalism published between 1954 and 1965

Bookshelf 4, shelf 2, book 12

I used to search out Paddy Campbell’s books in second-hand bookshops, but this is one I inherited – which may explain its rather battered condition. I’ve since found another copy, but heaven only knows where it is…

For my money Patrick Campbell was one of the funniest writers in the English language, and one of the few people who could make me laugh so much that I’d become helpless. If I was unwise enough to be drinking tea at the time, it would come down my nose.

But I was intrigued when the dice gave me this. Some of the pieces in it are well over 50 years old.

Would I still find them funny?

Some people may remember Campbell as one of the team captains on the old TV show Call My Bluff – the tall, thin Irish one with the stammer. For me, growing up, he was the only reason why my parents tolerated the Sunday Times. 

It took me a while to find him as funny as they did, which isn’t surprising; he didn’t write for ten year olds. We weren’t alone in our admiration: one reviewer of the time described him as ‘the funniest displaced Dublin journalist at large in London so far.’

Campbell, born in 1913 to an eminent Irish lawyer and his wife (and into a noted legal family) showed no inclination whatsoever to follow in the family footsteps – probably just as well, given that their tendency to become involved in politics got them held up at least once by the IRA. Instead he ended up on the Irish Times under the eccentric editorship of Robert Smyllie:

‘I stumbled on the only job that required no degrees, no diplomas, no training and no specialised knowledge of any kind … journalism might have been designed for my special benefit.’

(Smyllie, incidentally, also recruited Flann O’Brien to the paper.) Campbell was at there for many years both before and after the War, which he spent in the Irish Marine Service. He then migrated to London, and wrote for other papers including the Sunday Times. As time wore on, he began to appear on television, where his characteristic stoop and even more characteristic stammer made him instantly recognisable. In 1968 – by then he’d inherited his father’s title and was officially the 3rd Baron Glenavy – he moved to a farmhouse near Grasse, which is where he died in November 1980.

The P-P-Penguin is one of many collections of his columns; apart from 35 Years on the Job, this is the one which covers the widest range in time. It is divided into broadly themed sections – the Quentin Blake illustrations are from the start of two of these – and within each section are between five and ten pieces. One of the longest sections – The Aesthete – deals with his cultural confusions, best summed up in the title of one: ‘Brünnhilde is Wotan’s Uncle’, in which he attempts to unravel Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Quoting Paddy Campbell is invidious, really. He wasn’t a man of one-liners, though his descriptions can be succinct – once he had to act as a sub for a sports reporter who had a win on the horses, passed out and been taken home ‘…the victim in equal parts of surprise, and nineteen bottles of stout.’ Instead each piece builds incident on incident and witty turn of phrase on witty turn of phrase until, in the best of them, you are almost hysterical.

For instance, there’s his alternative Christmas game, a substitute for endless, desperate, grim charades. This is ‘Mother, I’m back!’,  invented in extremis – ‘…if we want to act – and who doesn’t at two o-clock in the morning…’ – in which participants have to enter the room and greet their long-lost mother in suitably melodramatic style. Fine until the person playing Mother gets fed up… And what about his attempts to join the breadmaking revolution, or master military commands in alleged Irish? Excellent.

And my overall conclusion? Well, I still laughed wildly at some pieces, but others – no, not so much; they’re just a bit too dated, well-written or not. A newspaper column is an ephemeral thing – tomorrow’s chip wrapper – and some of these are straining a little. I think that 35 Years on the Job is a much better, more representative and balanced selection of his journalism – which is not surprising. After all, Campbell continued writing well after The P-P-Penguin was published, producing some of his funniest and most moving pieces then. If you can find that book, lurking in a second-hand bookshop or chez Abebooks, get it. Otherwise – well, yes, there are some good things here. But it’s not as consistent.

Detecting Cornwall

WYCLIFFE AND THE FOUR JACKS, by W J Burley, published in 1985 – and WYCLIFFE AND THE TANGLED WEB, also by Burley (but of course), published in1988

Bookshelf 15, shelf 4, books 10 and 11

It’s a bit like Cheddars – you can’t just eat up one detective story; you need more. Well, I do anyway, and the same applies to sequences of novels (heaven only knows what will happen if the dice select one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books). Oxfam may have been where I found these rather lovely yellow-jacketed Gollancz hardbacks to fuel my addiction.

So not one tiltle here, but two.

Why do we read detective fiction, I wonder? Why is it so very popular?

I think it partly appeals to our puzzle-solving instincts, and partly to our desire to see order come from chaos, and you can’t get more transgressive than murder.

But of course there’s more to a good detective novel than the solving of the crime. Otherwise reading one would be little different to completing a sudoku, only with extra blunt instruments.

Of course you need a stonkingly good plot. But you also need believable characters, sympathetic or not – and your main detective really does not need  to be alcoholic, addicted to drugs or a complete screwball – and you need an interesting setting. Often the best crime writers tend to explore a particular location over several books, and it’s best when it’s one which readers ‘think’ they know, but which the writer then reveals in all its actual grimness or hypocrisy. Think Morse’s Oxford or the Edinburgh of John Rebus.

In the case of the Wycliffe books, it’s Cornwall. 

That’s hardly surprising: Burley (1914-2002) was a complete Cornishman. But though he always sets the Wycliffe books in a recognisable area, he’s also at pains to distort it slightly so there’s no risk of any confusion between fiction or reality. A necessary precaution when you live in the community you’re writing about – especially if you write about nasty little murders and sins coming home to roost…

The first of the two, Four Jacks, is set in the Roseland peninsula. For me, this is one of the books which most conjures up Cornwall, partly because it’s set in the summer, and partly because the landscape is so lovingly described. And it’s a Cornish Cornwall despite the holiday setting – not the Cornwall of the visitors who basically form a backdrop to the action, walking around in the distance and taking, in the case of Tangled Web, boat trips on which they witness arguments. That particular book is set in a version of Mevagissey.

I must admit that I don’t know the Cornwall of the 1980s well enough to comment on how accurate Burley’s representation of it was, but I do know small communities – small rural communities – and they hardly change. Burley has, in many ways, got them sussed. And Wycliffe, Burley’s main detective, understands them too:

‘…he had been brought up in the narrow world of family feuds, squabbles over land, and the conflicting interests of landlord and tenant.’

(This is a world – Tangled Web – in which it seems perfectly reasonable to put an elderly aunt in the freezer when she dies at an inconvenient time. And I don’t find it exaggerated one bit.)

And then there are the ‘incomers’ like the unpleasant David Cleeve – he’s the focus of Jacks – though he is an extreme case: a famous writer with a dodgy past. For me, though Cleeve may be the focus of the book, the peripheral characters are where my interest lies: the Borlases, brother and sisters, whose niece is murdered by accident; Laura Wynn, the new-age protester against an archaeological dig… they can be major or minor, but they’re sketched in well. For instance, Jack Polmear, pub landlord, barely appears – but I’ve met a Jack Polmear or two, he’s so convincing.

Ultimately, however, the appeal of Burley’s books for me lies in the motivation behind the crimes. It’s never overly melodramatic, exaggerated or ridiculous. It’s often derived from mistaken assumptions and muddle, which strikes me as being realistic (though I may be operating under a muddled and mistaken assumption myself, of course). I think it is probably this aspect of his work which has led to comparisons with Simenon. That, and the fact that he’s not at all repetitious.

In many detective novels you can work out who did it well in advance, not because of any clues the author may have dropped – that’s acceptable, and part of the game – but because it’s always the weak young man or the person with the cast-iron alibi or the person who wasn’t even there. That’s not true of Burley’s Wycliffe books at all; yes, you can find clues and shout at Wycliffe ‘It’s a synonym for John!’ or ‘She’s lying!’, but there’s no preordained plot device.

What they do have is a good central detective (who was, I think, well played by Jack Shepherd in the 1990s TV series), an excellent supporting cast and a well-planned, atmospheric plot.

For those who also appreciate W J Burley, there’s a small website which celebrates his work – check it out. If you’re interested in the technical side of planning detective novel, there’s a page on there specifically looking at how he plotted out Wycliffe and the Tangled Web.