Abandoned Books

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

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, January 29, 2011


THE MYSTERY OF ORCIVAL (1867) – Emile Gaboriau

I want to show how to approach an older book properly, and I'll use this as my model, partly 'cause I've just finished it and it's great, partly because some of the great things about it directly relate to Doyle and some of the point I raised with him, partly because it's a good model to talk about how to approach books like these aesthetically.

Gaboriau is a forgotten author nowadays, but it wasn't always the case. He was once so famous that in A STUDY IN SCARLET Holmes feels like he needs to measure himself in part against Lecoq, Gaboriau's detective hero. He's dropped as a peer of Poe, for Chrissakes. And I ought to take the moment here to acknowledge that some of the things I laid at Doyle's feet last time I was wrong about. I implied that many of the shifts in tone in Doyle were there because basically he didn't care much for the mystery part of what he was writing, that wasn't where his action was. I still think that's at least partly true, but there's a much simpler explanation for it as well – one that ironically shines a much harsher light on Doyle.

He's simply copying Gaboriau. The structure of many of the Holmes stories, particularly the longer stories, apes the structure of things like ORCIVAL, where the detection is contained and then there's a flashback explaining what the hell happened. Sorry, Emile.

Doyle owes a hell of a lot to Gaboriau, in fact, which we'll touch on in a sec, but for now all I want to point is that this is an early detective novel, arguably the first one (it came out the year before the usual contender, Wilkie Collins's THE MOONSTONE). I think this endless chasing of who's first is ultimately counterproductive, aesthetic ideas tend to just be in the air, the detective novel is as good an example of it as any, but it IS interesting that I can go into my failing-Borders and buy a copy of Collins (actually his complete output, including now unreadable novels like ARMADALE) in classic additions, whereas Gaboriau is forgotten to all but the hardest-core mystery fans.


I picked this up free for my Kindle app on my personal computer. I remain convinced that right now the best function of ebooks is old titles like this. There's no financial incentive for most presses to reissue them, the print on demand or old stuff is pricey. Why not? (I do try to support places like House of Stratus who are reissuing in nice pb editions guys like Wallace, or R. Austin Freeman, or Orczy.) I didn't have overwhelming expectations for it, I had read in the past Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq, which I remember generally liking but not thinking was all that. That's a big book, though, with an entire second volume devoted to “why it happened”.

This is an extraordinary book on a number of levels. Without overdrumming the historical stuff to death, it ought to be said that ORCIVAL contains, at least in embryonic form, the following tropes which would reappear in mystery fiction for years to come:

a murder at a country house
a detective who is a genius, associated with the police but in some ways is not “of” the police. (Lecoq almost seems like a police organization within a police organization, he has his own men, investigates crimes his own way, has his own enemies, sees himself as a seperate force that can sometimes act autonomously, to the dictates of his conscience.
In very embryonic form a Watson, a helper who's the readers gateway into the world of the story.
The mystery novel used for social criticism.


a femme fatale
a noirish plot (second section of book) that feels transposed directly from, I kid you not, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE.
A concentration on police procedure, on the “how catch 'em?” question
A meditation on the difference between “law” and “justice” (a common theme of the crime novel)

And that's just off the top of my head. Now, mind, none of this makes the novel good – but it sure makes it interesting, and for this reason alone this book and author deserve to be rediscovered alongside Collins.

So we acknowledge the historical importance, but we put that aside. Does this book work as a novel? And amazingly, the answer is yes.

Doyle is an important comparison here. Reading ORCIVAL makes me regard the Holmes stories in an even darker light, Doyle quite evidently owes Gaboriau a hell of a lot, not just in plot structure but in characterization as well. Holmes now feels to me like a transposition of Lecoq with the personality removed.

But anyway. Compare the structure of ORCIVAL alongside SCARLET and we immediately see the structure pays off for Gaboriau in ways it just doesn't for Doyle. If there's a theme to the book, it's something like “things are not always what they seem” and the structure of the book is that of an onion, there is a concerted effort to peel things away, layer by layer, until we get at the truth. That's the plot as we the reader experience it: the plot as the viewpoint character understands it (ie, the story's timeline once all the pieces are known) is that of a circle: he fails to take an action, is sent on a nightmarish journey, and ends failing again to take the same action, although this time the figure who prevented him now aids him.

I'm talking elliptically because I don't want to spoil any of the pleasures of this very good book, but let's just say it is very cunningly plotted, and things that seem somewhat awkward at first have a reason for being where they are. It's also unified: the second section is told in flashback, but there's a reason for it to be told that way, and the audience still participates in the story even as the backstory is being told to them. Similarily the final layers of the onion do not fall away until the final pages, there are final motivational revelations in the concluding chapters of the book.

Lecoq is a genuine stab at a character, too, which already makes him more interesting than the jumble of neurotic tics which is Holmes. He's self-pitying at times, boastful, proud, quick to anger when certain sore subjects are brought up, capable of making mistakes and willing to fess up to them.

And there's some genuine suspense in the book. The section where Lecoq reconstructs the murder is as good as this kind of thing gets, the fact that it was written in 1866 is a revelation. The second section has a doom-laden, noirish atmosphere and while the ending is never in doubt, there's a twist there that I didn't really see coming and rather enjoyed. The third section, more police-procedural, even has it's moments, it leads up to a final confrontation in a rooming house that's very well orchestrated.

All in all, a great book even if it had all been done before, I think. The fact that it hadn't makes this a classic, well worth anyone's time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lawrence Schoover: THE BURNISHED BLADE

Lawrence Schoonover – THE BURNISHED BLADE (1948)

The next big push after Doyle will be a bunch of once-bestselling, now fairly forgotten authors of historical fiction. This was a genre that was once so associated with “bestseller” that when Chandler needed to create a bestselling writer for THE LONG GOODBYE he made him a historical fiction writer.

We'll be looking at Samuel Shellabarger (CAPTAIN FROM CASTILLE, PRINCE OF FOXES, LORD VANITY); Thomas Costain (probably THE BLACK ROSE)' Frank Yerby (THE GOLDEN HAWK, ODOR OF SANCTITY, either FOXES OF HARROW or JUDAS MY BROTHER, depends on what I can find); one of the big female writers of the era (either Kathleen Winsor's FOREVER AMBER or Anya Seton's DRAGONWYCK, probably DRAGONWYCK if I can find it inexpensively), and the most lionized of the bunch, Kenneth Roberts (NORTHWEST PASSAGE, ARUNDEL, RABBLE IN ARMS). I don't know if I'll do a whole big post on any of these just yet, I don't know if the subject allows for it, although Yerby is an interesting writer to look at and Roberts maybe, just by virtue of his success.

But anyway, Schoonover. If you read online reviews of this book (at Amazon, or wherever) you'll read a lot of indications that essentially it's bowdlerized, that the publication date indicates Schoonover couldn't be as, er, “frank” about the era as he might've wanted.

Eh. Yeah, there's no graphic sex scenes or disembowelment scenes, if that's what you mean, but I wouldn't exactly say the book wasn't, you know, “up to speed”, like all you crazy kids say nowadays. There's a graphic bit about the hero's parents being burned in a fire, an unstated, but very real bit where he gets laid by a slut, a reference to what we'd call now a serial killer (and the implication that he's also a pedophile), and the whole tone in general is sort of hand-me-down hardboiled, that is, it has a feel of light cynicism about it all (the tone taken toward nobility, religious authorities, etc.). I mean, given it's era and all, it doesn't feel to me especially cloistered.

The other criticism I've read of this book is that it's very pulpy, and there you might have something, although I think it's useful to step back and explain what you mean by it. It is very pulpily plotted, if that's what you mean, although if you say that you're relying on a very limited definition of “pulp” that not many people use anymore. That is, the classic pulp “plot” is “this happened, and then this, and then this, and then this” a string of beads continued until the somewhat arbitrary conclusion. (A lot of Burroughs, particularly the Tarzan books, are plotted this way.) .

There's no denying that this kind of rough-and-ready storytelling is a hallmark of “pulp plotting”, although you can just as easily find complete fully formed novels in the “pulp” world (just about all of the Gold Medal guys, for instance), as well as a lot string of beads plots in middlebrow books aiming for the big time (THE CARDINAL, say.)

It's not like it's restricted to pulp fiction and so hardly a characteristic of it. Maybe it'd just be better to call it “a rough form of plotting” and leave it like that.

The other big aspect to pulp writing, it seems to me, is that the incidents have to be evocative, they have to be sensational and capture the reader's interest straight out. Like Sax Rohmer, say. Even Rohmer's best books are full of nonsense – killer insects, killer fungus, mind control, evil black sabbaths in the pyramids at midnight, etc. This seems to me to be a primary aspect of pulp fiction, the constant attempt to keep the reader entertained. Such is not the case with Schoonover, this is a pretty tepid book for a'that, like a lot of historical romances it's a big tease, a lot “happens” but not a lot actually happens, the actual number of incidents in the damn thing is quite low, and while you might grab a copy thinking you're gonna get a lot of adventure, you're not. I hate to tell you this, but you're not.

So not recommended, although I have hopes that the movie version is better. Because they'd, like, put some exciting scenes in it.

Other things I've been reading:

Edgar Wallace – THE LAW OF THE FOUR JUST MEN (1921) – I like Wallace, and have been reading a fair amount of him lately, currently the Four Just Men series. The first remains the best, and is a genuine oddity, if it's anything it's sort of a philosophical story couched in thriller terms. It's a classic and highly recommended. THE COUNCIL OF THE JUST is not as good but is not bad, these guys become relatively straightforward vigilante heroes ala Sapper's THE BLACK GANG, albeit not as well told. I don't remember much about THE JUST MEN OF CORDOVA, except that it wasn't all that good and that Wallace obviously liked Spain.

And then there's this one – this is a collection of short stories, about half of them recast the remaining just men as amateur private detectives, with middling success (this is not a strong suit of Wallace's) and half of them in the older vigilante form (which work much better, with a lot of “biter bit” sort of payoffs). I think Wallace is actually better in other venues, but LAW is not bad, and worth reading for anyone with a tolerance for this sort of stuff.

Guy Boothby – A BID FOR FORTUNE (aka ENTER DR NIKOLA) (1895) – I really wanted to like this, as the setup – early decadent supervillain ala Fu Manchu, Victorian themes, wildness, globe hopping, is pretty much crack to me. He even has a pet cat he has unnatural relations with. (I kid.)

This is really almost outrageously bad, though, almost written at a rough draft level. Stuff that you would never countenance today – outrageous coincidences, longwinded digressions, a lack of payoff, a lack of suspense, convenient plotting, you name it – is countenanced here because, well, it's old, man, huh?

I find this fandom worship disconcerting and disheartening: I have a taste for this genre because I like it but looking to the past doesn't relieve you of your critical precepts, my friends, and if you excuse the manifold faults of FORTUNE because you just like the idea of this kind of stuff, then you're not a true admirer of the work, you're just a fetishist.

If the work can't stand up today it's not good. No amount of excuse-making will change that salient fact.

Doyle -- the books


Let's be brief, because as is often the case the time lag between the last post on him and this one is a bit much, and the inspiration is a little flagging.

Sherlock Holmes: I don't hate these stories, but I do think they're flawed and grossly overpraised. As my last two posts have pointed out (let's recap!) I think their reputation really rests on two fallacies: (a) their historical importance (too often conflated with quality), and my sense that what people really like about the Sherlock Holmes stories are not the stories themselves, but rather the consensus universe of “late Victorian England” that surrounds them.

Doyle is always acting against himself in these stories. They're presumptively mysteries but they're not, in essence. In essence they're romances, and have much more in common with THE PRISONER OF ZENDA than they do THE MOONSTONE, say. This is the secret why half of A STUDY IN SCARLET and THE SIGN OF THE FOUR are adventures that have only the most tenuous connection to the main plot; this is why Doyle gets rid of Holmes for about half of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, because he flat out could care less; this is why so many of the stories are structured with Holmes as the framing device around an actual story-story, the flashback (see, oh, “The Adventure of the Crooked Man”). This is why so many of the other “mysteries” are not really mysteries at all, but rather adventure tales, see say “A Scandal in Bohemia” or “The Final Problem”.

Again, that doesn't mean they're awful or the reader will find no pleasure in them I just think that this internal tension is detrimental to the work's effect as a whole. Stories should be what they are. When they are actually two completely disjointed things at the same time, that's a problem. Aesthetically.

There's “Complete” collections all over the place, most quite cheap – pick 'em up and decide for yourselves. For what it's worth, my absolute favorite Holmes stories are the first part of “A Study in Scarlet” (introduces the character, who seems quite fresh here) and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” (more for the setting, Victorian Xmas). And maybe “The Naval Treaty”, just because I like the joke at the heart of that one. The rest I can more or less take or leave; he's not a necessary author for me the way Chesterton is.

THE LOST WORLD and THE POISON BELT: I actually think, along with Doyle himself, that his real reputation rests here. Easily my favorite Doyle work – by far – is THE LOST WORLD.

For one thing it's more clearly what it's supposed to be, if that makes any sense: it's not a romance cut by mystery, or (as we'll see in a second) history, it's just a straight Haggard-like adventure to a, um, “Lost World”. Challenger is far more believable than Holmes, I think: a more straightforward Thoughtful Man of Action. Albeit comically portrayed – the point is he seems like a real person. (Holmes never has to me, sorry. Holmes is a slapdash collection of tics. Holmes is so much over the place that the definitive portrayal of him, Jeremy Brett in the BBC series, turns him into something like a quivering neurotic.) The ability to step away from the mystery plots that evidently bored him to tears allowed Doyle to do the stuff that he obviously really liked, which is adventure writing (some very nice setpieces in WORLD) and some really nice descriptions (there's a final sequence in LOST WORLD which is absolutely classic in this regard, and in fact in my humble opinion is the single best stretch of writing Doyle ever did.) POISON BELT is less known and less interesting, as it's an early “it's all coming to an end, man” armageddon tale, but is still worth a look for some truly evocative descriptions of London after the “apocalypse” (which isn't quite that, Doyle wussed out although there are problems with writing about the end of the world with a viewpoint character, I would suppose. They're usually bound togeter.

THE EXPLOITS OF BRIGADIER GERARD – This is fairly obscure historical fiction, short stories written from the French point of view during the Napoleonic Wars. Of course, as a loyal Brit Doyle couldn't ever really have a character be a completely believable Frenchman, which would in this context necessitate a hatred of the British. So it's kind of compromised from the outset. The other big thing about it is that it's obviously the major inspiration for Flashman, all well and good except Flashman is better because (horrors of horrors) Fraser was just a better writer than Doyle, and knew how to handle this kind of device much better. Plus, to be fair, the debut novel FLASHMAN appeared at a more fortuitous time, the anti-establishment Sixties.

THE WHITE COMPANY and SIR NIGEL – These were the novels that Doyle actually thought were his best. They are “young hero comes of age” kind of things, very long, and set in the Middle Ages. They have their moments, particularly Doyle's knack for description, although I think both books suffer from the same thing that Schoonover's BURNISHED BLADE suffered from, which is the “string of pearls” kind of plot, where the story is really just a succession of incidents in the narrative. These kind of books really lack internal narrative drive, you spend half your time looking up and around wondering exactly why you're reading the damn thing. Something of a minor classic, although I bet it's just the Doyle authorship more than anything being particularly good about the novels themselves. Well described, I guess, and you might actually learn a little history if you read these, but I know of another place you can learn about history. It's called “history books”. Don't tell nobody, no, it's a big secret.