Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, November 27, 2010

More on Doyle: The Second Aesthetic Trap

My second post on the aesthetic traps people fall into that Doyle embodies won't be as long as the first, because I think it's something that most people at some level recognize anyhow, even if they don't phrase it the way I phrase it or to the extent I do. In fact, it was first suggested in a comment by my long time reader “anonymous” – and a very astute anonymous anonymous is, too.

Anyway, anonymous anonymously yet very astutely (okay, I'm done) pointed out that it was the movies that made Sherlock Holmes big. Well, yeah, sorta, although I want to develop this a bit, 'cause I think it's a bit bigger/more interesting here than, say, Tarzan or James Bond. (Full disclosure, not an admirer of Edgar Rice Burroughs although I think he had a wonderful imagination; I do respect Ian Fleming a great deal, though.) Your general populace's idea of Tarzan or James Bond is taken pretty much direct from the movies, so much so that a favorite technique of the geek is to sniff haughtily and remind said populace that they'd might be surprised to learn that Tarzan was an educated British Lord in the books, say, or that Bond pursued hedonism as a way to distract himself from his empty lifestyle. (Like this is some rarefied experience known only to the few, not the province of anyone who can cough up $7.95 for a paperback edition of TARZAN OF THE APES or CASINO ROYALE. Sorry, pet peeve.)

I don't think that's exactly the case with Holmes, for while there's certainly been many movie/tv versions of Holmes down over the years Holmes as a phenomena wasn't created by the movies, in the way that Bond certainly was and Tarzan kinda sorta was. The only thing I'm sure that Hollywood really bestowed upon the Holmes series was Watson as a dumbass – think back to Nigel Bruce and his constant sheepdog look – although especially in recent times that 'tradition' has been observed more in the breach as it were. (It never made much sense, anyway. Why would slick brilliant gentleman Basil Rathbone be hanging around with a guy who, um, ah, is a little slow, to be kind about it? What does he bring to the table? Other than comic relief?)

But they still make movies of Holmes, you know. There was that Xmas thing last year with Robert Downey Jr., and on streaming Netflix right now you can watch YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, although I'd really recommend that you don't. So what's the constant appeal, then?

My thought is that people aren't attracted to Holmes himself, per se, they're attracted to the world. They're attracted to that gaslight world of late-period Victorian England: top hats, canes, horse-drawn cabs, country manors, royalty getting into trouble, Jack the Ripper, mist-strewn streets, British Imperialism, etc.

Now the whys of that are a long complicated subject certainly outside the scope of this post (and hell, maybe of this blog). For now, let's just state that it exists. People are drawn to Holmes not really because they're drawn to Holmes, they're drawn to that world, in the way that people are drawn to the Wild West, or Shogunate era Japan, or whatever you want to cite. People are fans of an environment.

It explains a lot. Next time I'll finally talk about Doyle's work as a writer, but for now let's just suggest that it explains why Doyle has kept such a large fanbase, even though his work in the mystery field does not provide the reader with the presumed pleasures he or she would presumably want. It explains the persistence of Holmes in popular culture – the repeated movies (with versions of Holmes often at wild variance to what's in the work), the games, the cartoon characters, the pastiches, the clubs, etc. Holmes is best understood, I think, as an early, smaller version of something like “Star Trek” or the STAR WARS series – it's a consensus universe. Like these things you have people doing “scholarship” in Holmesiana, like these things you have a persistent cult fanbase, like these things you have ongoing contributions to the world., and so on.

This is mistaken for appreciation for Holmes as a character or Doyle's work as writing, and I understand why that is, but I think this is the best explanation of his continued persistence. It's really not about him at all. What makes Doyle interesting in this regard is (a) he was the first to experience this, I'd wager and (b) unlike, say, “Star Trek”, a created universe, Doyle's work is at least presumably based on actual reality – ie, there really was an England during that time. Seems a very simple point, but it's worth pondering – I'm ducking the question I raised up above as to why we focus on this era, but we obviously do, especially visually – there's something appealing to us, especially visually, about late-period Imperial Britain, and we derive pleasure from watching simulcra of it.

In that respect, yeah, Anonymous, you're right. It was the movies.

Other things I've been reading:

“Sapper” – THE THIRD ROUND (1924)

I'm beginning to think these Bulldog Drummond books are really built around “peaks”, as it were. I'm beginning to think Sapper had part of the story pretty much firmly in mind, went with it, and then basically vamped his way to fill out whatever needed filling out.

#1 had a great first 2/3, sort of died at the conclusion. #2 oddly went the other way, it took about a 1/3 to get going, but once it did it just romped like crazy, with a fantastic slam-bang conclusion.

#3 is more like #1. It has a wonderful start: an old doddering scientist type discovers a process for making artificial diamonds indistinguishable from the real ones, and foolishly tells this to the diamond masters of London, who of course promptly arrange for his death. The first two thirds of this are really great: Carl Peterson is in it again, is brought in believably and the coincidence is accounted for satisfactorily (The fact that he keeps bumping into Drummond becomes an actual plot point and characterization element.) And we for once get a serious glimpse into his psychology (this is the best portrayal of Peterson so far). The plot is ridiculous but absolutely believable in it's ridiculousness, if that makes any sense – I mean, do you really doubt that if someone actually developed something like this, he wouldn't be killed? There's a lot of very amenable back and forthing, as someone said somewhere Sapper knew how to tell a story and given that not a tremendous amount actually happens in THE THIRD ROUND, it's amazing how compulsive reading most of this is.

And then we hit the final third, where Sapper vamps. I won't give anything away, but despite the big slam bang conclusion not really being all that slam-bang, it suffers from two major devices that wouldn't fool a senile chimp on holiday, let alone a master villain.

So it falls apart at the end, as thrillers often do. I can't put this one at the level of the first two, mostly because it's curiously uneventful in a lot of ways and the one big event in it doesn't make any sense. But it's good, so far all of the Sappers have been well worth reading. Make allowances and you'll like this one too.

Neil Albert - THE JANUARY CORPSE (1991)

Routine PI novel that I picked up in a used bookstore because somebody somewhere recommended it. Not very good, with paint-by-numbers plotting you've seen a million times, me most recently in an episode of “Bones” I caught in the laundromat a ways back, and ham-and-eggs prose typical of millions of recently published popular novels (I don't know quite when the rot in popular literature set in, but it was certainly locked in place by 91, that's for sure.) The only real interesting thing about it, in fact, is that it has a twist ending.

A few words on twist endings. It might be enjoyable to do a whole post on these, one of these days, but one kind of twist ending you want to avoid is “writer introduces an edgy piece of information into the reader's world”. Why? Because yesterday's edgy is today's blasé, and this sort of thing dates very badly. Spoilers for a couple of novels follow, if you care about such things.



So, like, here. The setup is “PI looking for mysterious missing man.” The answer is “missing man has actually become woman” – ie, sex-change. Well, that's a twist! But nowadays it just seems cheesy, we're a lot more amorphous sexually, for better and worse, than we were in 1991, even.

Not that it's limited to relatively recent novels. Howard Browne's HALO IN BRASS, one of his Paul Pine novels, ends with the revelation that it's a lesbian affair we're talking about here. Again, that must've been really wild stuff in the mid-Fifties, when the book was written. Now? Not so much, eh?

Edgar Wallace – THE BLACK ABBOT (1926)

I've been reading more Wallace recently, and enjoying them. I got a list of recommended novels from an old Usenet post lurking out there somewhere – thank you old Usenet poster out there wherever you are, your words reverberate into eternity.

Anyway. Wallace is a good example of how popular fiction has degenerated, he was the closest thing to the James Patterson of his time but he remains very readable. He wrote a clean, straightforward prose line, he could build suspense with a relative modicum of horseplay (always a hard thing for writers of this era, they were sort of inventing the thriller genre as they were writing it and it wasn't always clear to them how best to string the reader along), and best of all his books – at least the ones I've read so far – are all very different. THE FOUR JUST MEN and THE COUNCIL OF JUSTICE are straight-up “race against time” thrillers with a political edge to them. JACK O'JUDGEMENT is a “crime syndicate taken down by a masked vigilante” sort of thing. And this is frankly a Gothic, complete with a forced marriage, unscrupulous blackguards, hidden treasure, ruined abbeys, and the ghost of the Black Abbot himself, now seen parading around. I shit you not. It's great, highly recommended if you have a taste for pulp literature of this era. I can understand why Wallace was the monster seller he was, his books are ridiculously readable, he could play the conventions of his era masterfully. But be warned, it is what it is, and it does have all of the faults inherent in that word “pulp”: it's feverishly melodramatic (although I pretty much consider that a feature, not a bug), it relies overmuch on coincidence, there's a bit of vamping here and there. It doesn't have Sapper's inventiveness or Buchan's fundamental seriousness. But it ain't bad, and Wallace deserves another look.

Edgar Wallace , THE CRIMSON CIRCLE (1922) – Like, say, here: this one is a “search for a Jack the Ripper” type, which is fairly routine except it has an absolute killer twist toward the end. (One of the few I think worth preserving, so I ain't tellin'.) I'm an old hand at such things and it caught me off guard (I had considered the possibility, but dismissed it as outlandish); I think those who are less jaded – including presumably his entire audience at the time – would've been/would be rocked completely by it.

Ib Melchior, CODE NAME: GRAND GUIGNOL (1987): Not very good WW2 thriller shows the defects of the simple-minded suggestion “write what you know” or the slightly more complicated “go out and experience life and then write about it”, because by all accounts Melchior did just that, he actually was an actor associated with the Grand Guignol theater troupe, and he actually had WW 2 experiences with the OSS, and yet his book is still awful, written at about the level of a Forties Superman comic (complete! With a lot! Of exclamations! What fearsome terror awaits those who would dare cross the forbidden threshold?! Would Marge and Stevey escape Lex Luthor's clutches?! Can Superman destroy the killer Robots of Alpha Centuri and bring back their leader to face justice?!). It seems a simple point, but the simple points are always those worth repeating – you gotta have talent too, y'know.

PD James , AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN (1972) – Most famous probably as one of the first female PI's – there were others, of course, the Honey West series in the Sixties, say, but this one is probably the first of the modern era. I think James is much better with women than men and Cordelia Gray is appealing as the lead, but this novel suffers from the same faults that James's works all tend to suffer, this odd artificial portentiousness which inflates the relatively grubby murders she chronicles with a gassy self-importance. I am not sure, honestly, that the classic mystery form (the pure whodunit) is capable of the kind of weight James wants to put on it: the obvious inspirations here are Marsh, Allingham, and Sayers, but at their utmost ultimate best they're really not much more than gifted social novelists – not that that's a bad thing, of course it isn't, but it ain't THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV either. It would be interesting to ponder why and how Hammett and Chandler avoided that trap. (It may have to do with them actually creating the form themselves; certainly later PI novelists have had much the same problem as Ms. James, although there are differences between the two genres that protect the PI writer, somewhat). The more insular worlds of Christie and Carr, the pure puzzle, start to look much better seen in that light. Anyway, there's one other James novel I'm curious about, INNOCENT BLOOD, and I'll check that out sometime here.

George MacDonald Fraser, FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS (1982): Most interesting I think as yet another example of Fraser experimenting within the formula of Flashman, here we see history as a force within Flashy's own life, as things he does in the 1840's West come back to haunt him in the 1876 West. Very ambitious novel is trying to tell a story of the American West in general, with the short period related here suggesting the actual sad briefness of the American West's heyday. Fraser is also trying to introduce real depth to Flashman, suggesting here a man who's become haunted by his earlier misdeeds. While I respect the intent, I'm not at all sure it works: for one thing Flashy as a character is something of a slender thread to hang this kind of tale on, and on more pragmatic grounds I'm not sure I buy him at the Battle of the Little Big Horn: I mean, Fraser tries, and does a pretty solid job of laying the groundwork (one of the best of the Forrest Gump style historical novelists – yeah, I guess you gotta call him that – because he always strives for plausibility, in his own oddball way), but it still feels kind of off. And maybe that's because I'm not sure I buy Flashman in the American West at all: the temptation must've been unbearable for Fraser, but the American West is the one historical moment of that century that's widely known, putting Flashman in there directly makes this a Western, which inherently calls to mind all of the other Westerns one has seen, and implicit comparisons are inevitably made.

I suppose that's my biggest problem with it, really: as ambitious and admirable as it is, in some ways, I just don't think it was a good idea. It's a cross-pollination that probably sounded better on paper; I would've been much more interested in Flashy at the Civil War. Still, by no means a bad book – there are no bad Flashman books, as far as I know.

Currently reading: THE BURNISHED BLADE, Lawrence Schoonover; DR. NIKOLAI, Guy Boothby