Category Archives: Fiction

Two old friends

Sometimes, when you go back and revisit something you once loved you are disappointed. But sometimes there’s no difference; you still like whatever it is. And sometimes you still like it, but find new things to enjoy, things you missed the first time round.

Now I know I said I’d be concentrating on non-fiction books, my true and deep love, but I have been tidying up lately (oh, surely not) and that has led me to some other rediscoveries. Hidden away on a top shelf, right at one end, as though I was ashamed of them.

When I was growing up, before I went to Uni, I loved science fiction. I scratted around dodgy second-hand bookshops in order to feed my habit and build up the world’s biggest collection of paperback novels by Philip K Dick. And Arthur C Clark, and Brian Aldiss, and and and…

Kraken WakesMost of these have, over the years, vanished, which is probably just as well, but there are a few survivors. I have no idea what inspired me to get a couple of them down, but I found myself reading books I’d not read for – oh – maybe 25 years. The first was John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes.

Wyndham is better known as the writer of Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, but I prefer this book. I’ve always had a fascination with the way a familiar landscape can be changed by the weather – snow, floods – and the last third of Wyndham’s dystopian novel is set in a world terribly altered by rising sea levels. These aren’t caused by people driving too many cars – the book was published in 1953 – but by submarine alien invaders melting the ice caps. Nonetheless, the vision of a flooded world is extraordinary. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There are three phases to the book, as the protagonists – a couple, and I’ll get onto that – experience the changing world. The first can basically be summed up as ‘what are those strange lights in the sky, plummeting into the sea?’ (anticipation, if you like). The second is the period of initial investigative attacks from below the sea – disappearing ships and raids on coastal communities, vividly described – and their consequences. And the third is the changed world, where sea levels have risen and society has (partly) broken down, but where the humans finally seem to be winning the battle.

It’s very well written. That was my first surprise; I think I remembered it as more ‘pulpy’, but I may have been remembering my reading as a whole rather than specific books. The second surprise was the almost complete lack of gender stereotyping. The protagonists are a married couple, Phyllis and Mike. They are both broadcast journalists, and – if anything – Phyllis is the better one, something openly acknowledged by Mike. Phyllis drives the story just as much as he does, maybe a little more. Perhaps this is a result of when it was written – the early 50s, with memories of the role of women in WW2 still very fresh. Perhaps, had it been written in 1963 instead, it would have been very different. Or perhaps John Wyndham was just a decent bloke.

AsimovThe other book I picked up was, in some ways, equally surprising.

I was a huge fan of Isaac Asimov: I always tended towards the ‘spaceships and robots’ type of SF, and I think this is why I hung on to some of his books. The Naked Sun is the second book involving his detective, Lije Bailey, solving a crime that involves (or appears to involve) a robot.

Asimov is now possibly most well known for coming up with the ‘three laws of robotics’: that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; that a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and  that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the other laws.  These are vital here, as they are in several of his other books: there are loopholes, loopholes which lead to murder…

The Naked Sun is set in the ‘Outer Worlds’. Earth is overpopulated, heavily polluted, with its crowds of inhabitants living in vast, teeming underground cities, fearing the outside to the point of agoraphobia. The colonised planets, on the other hand, are underpopulated and have no desire to be ‘contaminated’ (literally and metaphorically) by contact with Earth. They have the upper hand, and don’t need vast numbers of people because the work is done by vast numbers of robots (on Earth, robots are viewed with deep distrust).

The situation is at its most extreme on Solaria. Here people have very little contact with each other, to such an extent that being in someone’s actual presence can make people physically ill. They ‘view’ each other: a foretaste of Skype, only rather more sophisticated (The Naked Sun was written in 1958). But now they need help from the outside because someone has been killed. And so Bailey, an agoraphobic Earth detective, with previous experience of working alongside the ‘Spacers’, finds himself on another planet trying to work out how someone could be bludgeoned to death in a world where the merest degree of physical contact is next-to impossible.

The appeal of The Naked Sun lies mainly in its depiction of the alienated Solarian world (the equally distorted Earth is explored in its predecessor, The Caves of Steel), and not in the discovery of the murderer – that plot line, for me, is a little weak.  I don’t find it as engaging as The Kraken Wakes and it isn’t as well written; there is more stereotyping too, with mainly male protagonists and only two female characters, neither leading the action although one is a suspect. (Natch. And characters smoke, though not on Solaria; Bailey loves his pipe.)

But there is more to it than that. Earth and Solaria are similar but different; they both inhabit limiting extremes which will eventually lead to their destruction, an insight Bailey gains right at the end of the book. And, rather creepily,  modern readers can see something of Solaria here and now: in our growing presence in and dependence on the virtual world.

Science fiction, at its best, explores apparently exotic possibilities in a plausible way, and the predictive nature of these two books was what stunned me the most. In one, the consequences of a kind of global warming are foreshadowed; in another, the effects of living in a virtual world. It’s one thing to predict things when you are ‘closer’ to them, but these books are now around 60 years old. Maybe I should not have culled quite so much…

 

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What’s ‘hooray’ in Finnish – or Swedish, come to that?

MOOMINLAND MIDWINTER, by Tove Jansson, published in English translation in 1958, my (extremely tatty and yellowing) edition 1977

Bookcase 3, shelf 6, book 10

coverWhat are the odds of getting two appropriately wintry books in succession? I guess that’s the point about rolling the dice and picking a book – it is truly random. Actually, I think I’d have preferred Comet in Moominland when it comes to the stories of Moomintroll and his friends, but let’s not quibble: this is wonderful. And it’s frosty outside and we are thundering towards the solstice – “‘But that’s exactly why we burn up the great winter bonfire tonight,’ said Too-ticky. ‘You’ll get your sun back tomorrow.'” – and this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. For adults and children both; I’m as enchanted by it now as I was when I was six. There’s only one downside to Moominland Midwinter as far as I’m concerned: the almost complete absence of my hero and role model, Snufkin (aka Aragorn, in his Strider persona?).

I’m not sure why the Moomins and their friends have exerted such a strong pull on me over the years, as they have on many other people. They’re undeniably attractive to small children (and bigger ones, even if you do end up identifying with Snufkin, a wanderer and adventurer, rather than the cutely rotund and domesticated moomins). The stories are good, and the illustrations are absolutely wonderful.

wood

They’re atmospheric (here are people bringing torches to the midwinter fire), and the larger, more elaborate ones have a wealth of detail which used to fascinate me. Er, still does fascinate me. For me, they sit perfectly with the text, the ideal of children’s book illustration. A little, in fact, like Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations in the previous post.

But what of the plot? What of the story, the essence?

oooooWell, this book has been described, just a little pompously, as ‘having greater psychological depth’ than the earlier books in the series – I’m not so sure about that, though maybe once I stop laughing I’ll agree (I don’t have a lot of patience with over-academic analysis these days). Moominland Midwinter opens when Moomintroll wakes up when he should be hibernating, safely tucked up in bed with his tummy full of pine needles. No-one else is awake, and he is suddenly in a strange and alien land, where even the most familiar things are strangely different. The moominhouse is covered with snow, the sky is black and – when he goes exploring – the sea is frozen. He is terribly lonely, but gradually discovers that this different world has interesting inhabitants, notably Too-ticky, who has taken up residence in the family bathing-house

walk

which she shares with some invisible shrews and a mystery resident… and soon others come to the fore. Little My, for instance, an old friend, has also woken and crashes into him as she sledges downhill on a silver tray:

‘Little My!’ cried Moomintroll once again. ‘Oh, you can’t even guess… it’s been so strange, so lonely… Remember last summer when…?’
‘But now it’s winter,’ said Little My, and fished for the silver tray in the snow. ‘We took a good jump, didn’t we?’

fireGradually, through the coming of the Great Cold, the lighting of the Midwinter Fire and the arrival of many refugees from the consequences of the cold (who are welcomed, camp in the moominhouse and eat all the stored jam), Moomintroll becomes more and more at home in his winter world. But it’s not just about Moomintroll conquering his homesickness for the summer. There are many other little touches. There’s Salome the Little Creep, one of the refugees, who has taken up residence in a Merschaum tram, and her unrequited passion for the hideously sporty Hemulen (Moomintroll describes him to Too-ticky: ‘He’s going to live in an igloo, and at this moment he’s bathing in the river.’ ‘Oh, that kind of Hemulen,’ says Too-ticky, and we all know exactly what she means even though we may never have met a Hemulen). There’s Sorry-oo, the little dog in his hat and blanket who’d really like to be a wolf until he encounters the real thing; there’s the Squirrel with the Wonderful Tail, there’s the Groke… Hmm, maybe we’ll leave it at the Groke.

And above all, there’s winter:

cold...

Poor Tove Jansson, though (she was part of Finland’s Swedish-speaking community, by the way; hence the post’s title – knew I’d forgotten something!). There was a lot more to her and her work than the delightful family of small trolls she created, but they did tend to take over due to their immense popularity (her Summer Book is another wonderful read, and there isn’t a hint of a moomin). It’s difficult, though. Unless you are someone like Tolkien, who lived and breathed his world so completely, an incredibly popular character or range of characters is bound to assume greater importance than your other work, at least in your readers’ minds. And as a footnote I’d just like to raise another Tolkien comparison: the importance of the landscape and the natural world. Moominland is fully realised; the trees and – my goodness, they both have Lonely Mountains. Maybe it’s no coincidence that both Tolkien and Jansson were great lovers of the north… now, where’s the snow?

‘A happy voyage to you…’

MASTER AND COMMANDER, by Patrick O’Brian, originally pubished in 1969
(My copy is from the series published in the 1990s with the wonderful Gary Hunt covers – much better than models dressed up in costume, hrumpf)

Bookcase 3, shelf 7, book 24

It had to happen sooner or later. The dice would select a book lurking in a series, one which could not be explored or explained without reading others. Or they would pick a book which started a series, and I wouldn’t be able to stop reading. There are twenty-one books in Patrick O’Brian’s astonishing Aubrey / Maturin series (If you count the one left unfinished at the author’s death), and I’ve been zooming through them, the dice having happily given me the first, Master and Commander. (And no, it’s nothing like the film with Russell Crowe, thank heavens.)

So what is it about these books, set in a version of Nelson’s Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars? Why are they so addictive? And why do they excite such passionate attachment among their fans?

It may be heresy, but I have to say it: they’re not all perfect, far from it, but M&C is a stonking start. O’Brian sweeps you straight in. The language, even the punctuation – they could belong, sometimes, to the early nineteenth century, and it comes as no surprise that O’Brian adored Jane Austen and collected early editions of her books. You don’t have to understand the nautical vocabulary (I still have absolutely no idea what a ‘dog-pawl’ is and I’m not sure I want to know), but whether you do or not, it all helps to create an atmosphere which encourages readers to become absorbed in this particular world. And O’Brian was meticulous about the language he used, incidentally – it is authentic, substantiated in all the mountains of research and contemporary accounts in which he immersed himself. But that’s not it, though it’s a part of it.

It has to be the core relationship, the one between the comparatively straightforward and bluff Jack Aubrey RN and the considerably more enigmatic Stephen Maturin, and between them and various other characters who materialize and vanish and come back again, or who are relatively minor constants. You come to know these people: Killick the steward, Bonden the bosun, Mr Pullings – and you become involved. Will the delightful Pullings ever make captain, even though he has no ‘pull’ in the Admiralty? Will Killick stop grumbling? Who will get killed in the next engagement? Will Stephen’s spying activities mean he gets tortured again, and will he ever be able to break free from his attachment to – enough… As one reviewer noted, one key to the series’ success was that ‘times change, but people don’t.’ And the people are exceptionally well drawn, even if it is sometimes easy to forget that in all the excitement and the recreation of a vanished world.

Master and Commander is where Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin encounter each other for the first time; the former irritates the latter at a concert by beating time rather enthusiastically. A duel is averted when Jack is promoted and, in the consequent spirit of bonhomie, apologizes to Stephen. He then recruits the financially embarrassed  Stephen as his ship’s surgeon, and that is fortunate – fortunate for us as readers, because Stephen knows very little of the ways of Nelson’s Navy, and can be an ‘interpreter’ for the rest of us, especially in the very early books. He is experiencing things like the sudden uprush of activity when the watches change for he first time, and so are we; to a certain extent we see this world mainly through Stephen’s eyes. And of course O’Brian had no idea, when he delivered the manuscript for Master and Commander, that this would be the first in a series of over twenty books that would occupy the rest of his life and define his literary reputation.

He was already, though, a huge fan of the period and of Nelson, and it’s his knowledge of that, and his deep enthusiasm for it as well, which illuminates all of the books. Some of the action may seem exaggerated or unlikely, but there is scarcely a naval incident that isn’t based in some way on reality, and the subplots are thoroughly researched as well. The actions in which Aubrey’s ship, the Sophie, becomes involved are based on the experiences of Thomas Cochrane, and Cochrane is (largely) the model for Jack Aubrey. Maturin, it has been said, is more like the rather complex and troubled author. It’s a real achievement to take all that thorough-going research and knowledge and transform it into something as exciting and involving as Master and Commander – let alone the other books in the series.

It comes as quite a surprise now to realise how slow-burning the series was. Master and Commander wasn’t immediately picked up by a British publisher, for example, and the early reviews simply compared Jack Aubrey to Horatio Hornblower, usually to the former’s disadvantage. But slowly the word began to spread. O’Brian’s books picked up illustrious fans who weren’t afraid to sing their praises, and so the series grew into what it is today: something of a global phenomenon, if a somewhat select one. And one with something of a catching style for which I must apologize (no risk of duels, anyway)…

Dum di Dum di Dum, di Dum…

THE THIRD MAN and THE FALLEN IDOL, by Graham Greene, my edition 1978

Bookcase 3, shelf 5, book 17

I’m not a Graham Greene fan, really. There’s a limit to the amount of Catholic angst I can take without becoming impatient and advising the characters to stop moaning and make a nice cup of tea . Some do get through. Like this.

I must have bought this because The Third Man is probably my all-time favourite film ever. I’m not sure why I wanted the book because I can recite the script, sing the theme tune, see the images in my mind’s eye and stand around in darkened Vienna doorways with a kitten on my feet. OK, not the latter. I prefer to walk away from besotted men in wintry cemeteries while someone plays the zither.

But I found this fascinating, not so much for Graham Greene’s novella – really a basic film treatment – as for his introduction. And I quite enjoyed The Fallen Idol, the brief short story which accompanies it, an altogether a more finished piece of work (but forgive me for concentrating on TTM here). That’s because The Third Man was never really meant for publication. It was, as Greene says, ‘never intended to be read, but only to be seen’. Greene, asked by Alexander Korda to write a film for the director Carol Reed following their collaboration on The Fallen Idol, wrote a ‘story’ on which to base his script. And this is it. The raw material for one of those films which will last forever.

The seeds of the plot had been sown much earlier, a snippet of an idea Greene had jotted down ages before, a thought about someone who had just heard about the death of his friend – named Harry – and had then seen him on the street. Korda wanted a film about the occupation of Vienna after WW2, and the combination is cinema history. Or not quite – the differences between the film and the original story are what fascinate me. And how much better the film is for those differences, as Greene himself acknowledges.

The novella is narrated by Calloway, played – brilliantly – by Trevor Howard in the film. And Calloway’s voice is perfect; he makes an ideal narrator.

He tells the story of a down-at-heel writer, one Rollo Martins (Rollo? yikes), who is invited by his friend Harry Lime to come and do some unspecified work for him in war-ravaged Vienna. When Martins arrives, as in the film, he discovers that Lime has apparently been killed in a car accident, and that his funeral is taking place at that very moment… or is he really dead? Who was the mysterious ‘third man’ who carried the corpse away from the street? Why did Harry, apparently killed outright, nevertheless have final words for Martins and for his refugee girlfriend, Anna? And was it Lime that Martins saw for a fraction of a second in the dark, standing in a doorway with a kitten sitting on his feet?

The novella and the film do follow each other quite closely – of course, the book is a trial for the script, so that’s not surprising. The penicillin racket that Lime is running, his associates Kurtz and Dr Winckler, the chase through the sewers: they’re all here. The changes do come a s a shock if you know the film, though.

Both Martins and Lime are British here, something which had to change once Orson Welles had been cast as Harry Lime. As Lime’s childhood friend, Martins had to be American too, even if he had not been played – superlatively – by Joseph Cotten. Martins’ bafflement, and general good nature, do come through in both the book and in the film.

And thank heavens they were cast as they were; Wells is perfect, with a combination of sleaze and charm which perfectly suits the character as written here, as well as in the final script. And, even though Holley Martins is a silly name, and was quite intentionally so, it isn’t half as silly as Rollo Martins. That was wrong, even though it was supposed to be ‘absurd’. Just wrong (Greene admits it – and note who changed it: ‘Mr Joseph Cotten quite reasonably objected to the name Rollo…’).

There’s also confirmation in the introduction that Harry Lime’s famous lines about peace and creativity:

‘You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…’

were indeed written and inserted into the script by Welles. But there are lines that leap out of this novella / treatment / whatever it is, lines which made it into the final script, such as the iconic (if a line can be iconic) ‘I never knew Vienna before the War … with its Strauss music and its bogus easy charm…’. The surprise is that there are so few of them.

More modifications were made. Lime’s Rumanian associate is an American in the book; having cast Welles as Lime, it was felt that there couldn’t be another American baddie. Anna, Lime’s devastated girlfriend, is kidnapped by the Russians, rather than arrested. And who knew Lime was an ex-Catholic, whose final words might have been an act of contrition? (I suppose that was inevitable, really.)

And – no! – the ending is different.

Greene’s ending is wrong; it doesn’t work, and he says so in the introduction: ‘One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right.’ The ending of The Third Man is, after all, one of the most powerful and restrained in film (or I think so, anyway), and the one in the book would have trivialised everything that had gone before.

And as a final note, reality often matches fiction – and it does so here. Green says that he knew someone who had taken two friends to see the film when it was in the cinemas: ‘He was surprised to find them subdued and depressed by a picture he had enjoyed. They then told him that at the end of the War when they were with the Royal Air Force they had themselves sold penicillin in Vienna. The possible consequences of their act had never before occurred to them.’

Possibly not what Greene or Reed had in mind…

And now I’ll just walk off into the distance with autumn leaves rattling on the ground. Dum di dum di dum, di dum…

‘Somewhere a’ stories are real, a’ songs are true.’

THE WEE FREE MEN, by Terry Pratchett, published in 2004

Bookcase 3, shelf 8, book 16

Well, that’s a bit of a change from the last book!

Before anything else, a confession. Until a few years ago, I’d not read a word of Terry Pratchett. That was because I knew I wouldn’t like him, right?

Then all my books were in storage, and I was living in a friend’s house for six months.  I had to read the books already on the shelves or bankrupt myself, and I was ‘reduced’ to Pratchett. Within half an hour I knew I’d been making a terrible mistake for years, blinded by stupid prejudice and ridiculous assumptions about genre. His books are wonderful.

But, but, but – I’m still not a huge fan of the earlier books, and there are inevitably some weaker ones (Monstrous Regiment went to a charity shop). I prefer the later Pratchett, the angry Pratchett, the Pratchett of the Night Watch. I wondered what I would do if the dice gave me a Pratchett I didn’t particularly like – admit it, or loyally defend it with qualifications? Happily, they didn’t. I got this.

It’s ostensibly a children’s book, following on from his award-winning Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. But this is darker, fitting in more with the overall atmosphere of Discworld. It centres on Tiffany Aching:

a child who is something of an anomaly in her family, having a deep respect for learning (she reads the dictionary for pleasure) and being a witch in the making. In this she is most closely linked with her recently-deceased grandmother, a shepherd of outstanding ability and status. Tiffany sees things as they really are, not as they ought to be. So when she sees a horrifying monster in the river she knows it is real and reacts appropriately. That means using her sticky baby brother as bait (that’s the ruthless witchiness coming out) and whacking the river-sprite – who is similar to a classic British folk horror – with an iron frying pan. This not surprisingly attracts attention, but the watchers are surprising: some of Pratchett’s most wonderful creations, the Nac Mac Feegle, or the Wee Free Men.

Apart from uttering cries of ‘Crivens! or ‘Oh, waily, waily, waily!’, I’m not sure how to describe the NMF. Hm. They’re wonderful. They’re diminutive fairies, except they don’t have wings, they have tattoos; they don’t tend to do good things unless there’s no other option or they’ve been bribed by promises of Special Sheep Liniment; they’re not cute or twee, they’re Glaswegian. They were thrown out of Fairyland, possibly for being drunk and disorderly. The Feeglespotting poster above, by Paul Kidby – whose illustrations of Discworld I absolutely love – comes from The Art of Discworld, where Pratchett comments ‘The Wee Free Men was launched in Inverness, to see if I survived. I did.’

Let’s whip through a bit of plot. Tiffany’s sticky brother disappears; he’s been knidnapped by the Queen of the Elves in one of her repeated attempts to invade the Discworld; she also invades dreams. Pratchett’s elves are nothing like Tolkien’s; they are immensely dangerous, self-centred beyond belief and wickedly tricksy. Tiffany, aided by the NMF, advice from Miss Tick (itinerant teacher and witch), Miss Tick’s ‘familiar’ (a helpful toad – he’s yellow because he’s unwell, but the actual pun is avoided, thank heavens), and her own natural good sense, sets off to rescue him. Which… no, no plot spoilers… it’s not a long book; read it to find out what happens.

But that’s just the plot. For me the main themes are more to do with being true to yourself, dealing with bereavement and understanding the power of the land. The high chalk, Tiffany’s country, is almost another character, a perpetual presence which is powerfully described. Pratchett says that ‘there’s a lot of my past in some of the descriptions in the book’, and you can tell. Let’s hope that’s mainly confined to his wonderful descriptions of the landscape, and not to any personal acquaintance with any small, aggressive, smelly (Tiffany makes them bathe), kilted and armed pictsies [sic]…

‘Nae quin! Nae king! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled again!’

Wibble wobble

WOBBLE TO DEATH by Peter Lovesey, 1970; my rather battered edition, 1980.

Bookcase 3, shelf 6, book 27

Sometimes life just gets in the way, and so do self-imposed rules. The rules of this project dictate that I must read what the dice select.

Life, on the other hand, has ensured that I just haven’t had the time to give The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England my full attention. Actually, I probably never will, and it was never my area of archaeology, so why I’ve got this title baffles me. It’s time to overturn those self-imposed rules (I knew this would happen sooner or later, but I’ve been so good that making the decision was difficult) and roll those dice again.

Phew – detective fiction! Extremely tatty, pages-falling-away-from-the-binding-because-I’ve-read-it-so-often detective fiction. I love this book.

Actually, I love Peter Lovesey’s books. Some more than others, but I have been known to track them down in France, where classy detective fiction is properly valued  (I even found one on a station bookstall, and Un flic et des limiers (aka Bloodhounds) kept me thoroughly entertained during a boring journey). But the Inspector Cribb titles are my favourites, and that accounts for the shocking condition of this one. Some are, at last, being reissued, so it may be time for a replacement, but for ages it was only available – even through Abebooks – as a large-print edition. Shameful…

Ahem.

Wobble To Death is the first of the Sergeant Cribb books, and was originally published as the result of a competition.

Submitting it was cheeky, because the book itself is set in a competition – an six-day endurance walking contest in Victorian London (‘for cruelty, knuckle-fighting don’t compare with it’), in which a star contestant is knocked off.

It’s immaculately plotted, but that’s not what draws me back. It’s the context, I think: the meticulously researched world of London in 1879. Of course the quality of the writing and the tightness of the plot are essential, but the whole atmosphere of this book – and of the others involving Cribb – is something I find addictive.

The basic setting may seem unlikely (most of us only know of similar contests from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), but such races were not unusual, and Wobble to Death was inspired by Lovesey’s interest in the history of athletics.

But it’s everything else you want from a good who-done-it as well, not just the interesting result of thorough research and understanding. It grabs me right from the very start, from a cold November Monday midnight – the wobble starts at 1 a.m. – in Islington.

‘The 12.05 a.m. trundled out of Highbury and Islington station and along the line. Its rhythmic snorts were replaced by unmechanical sounds. Harsh, stomach-wrenching coughs echoed in the tunnel leading to the platform. Then the clatter of heavily shod boots and shoes. The unexpected influx of midnight passengers massed at the barrier, every one muffled to the eyebrows and topped with a cap or bowler. A ticket collector, scowling under his cheese-cutter, came out to draw back the grille. They filed through, out of the booking hall and into a dense fog.’

That unprepossessing collection are the Press, come to report on the contest. By Tuesday, one of the main contestants is dead. Accident, a consequence of the disgusting conditions in the Agricultural Halls? The result of doping (yes, it was happening over a century ago)? Deliberate interference? And when Sergeant Cribb – and his long-suffering assistant Constable Thackeray – are called in to investigate, a whole series of revelations expose a variety of deceptions. Oh, and a murderer. In the end…

I am glad I bent the rules. Normally I hesitate about re-reading detective fiction, but this – and Lovesey’s other books – doesn’t suffer if you can remember who did it. As it happened, I couldn’t – or not until the last few pages, anyway. Whether that matters or not is the mark of a truly good murder mystery.

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.