Thursday, August 06, 2015

Mitch Cullin – ‘Mr Holmes’ / Anthony Horowitz – ‘Moriarty’

Having enjoyed Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk a few years ago, more or less as a guilty pleasure, I immediately resigned myself to Moriarty when it appeared in a Kindle Store sale recently, putting aside a book on Napoleon for one on the Napoleon of crime. It’s possible I may have resented Moriarty unfairly for this interruption, and also more than likely that it is not my kind of book: an action-packed thriller, with violence several notches above anything in Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, and stretched, too, over a longer distance than any of his Holmes novels. It doesn’t even have Sherlock Holmes in it, aside from the short story ‘The Three Monarchs’ included at the end. This story is excellent, a playful take on ‘The Six Napoleons’ (there he is again), with a murder and the theft of three jubilee souvenir statuettes of Queen Victoria from three neighbouring houses. Horowitz captures Dr Watson’s style to a T. In the main body of the novel, his narrator is Frederick Chase, ‘senior investigator with the Pinkerton Detective Agency in New York’, who is a surrogate Dr Watson to Athelney Jones’ Sherlock Holmes. Jones is a Scotland Yard detective, featured unflatteringly in The Sign of Four, who has become obsessed with Holmes’ methods, and is determined to redeem himself for his earlier dunderheadedness. They meet in Switzerland, and view what appears to be the body of Moriarty, ‘fished out of the Reichenbach Brook’. In a concealed pocket they find a note in code, arranging a rendezvous in London with Clarence Devereaux, a criminal mastermind who has encroached on Moriarty’s territory in London, importing brutal American methods and generally raising hell. This is the starting point of their joint effort to eradicate him. More than that, it would be unfair to say – which is a shame, because the virtues of the book lie in the clever plotting and deception. I liked what happened more than the way in which it happened, which is why it isn’t my kind of book.

Mitch Cullin, writing in 2005 (of 1947), seems to have Horowitz’s number. This is the kind of thing which comes through the letter box of the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes:
There would be requests for magazine or radio interviews, and there would be pleas for help (a lost pet, a stolen wedding ring, a missing child, an array of other hopeless trifles best left unanswered). Then there were the yet-to-be-published manuscripts: misleading and lurid fictions based on his past exploits, lofty explorations in criminology, galleys of mystery anthologies – along with flattering letters asking for an endorsement, a positive comment for a future dust jacket, or, possibly, an introduction to a text. (p. 7)
‘Misleading and lurid’ is a perfect description of Moriarty – though not necessarily a criticism, since it sets out to be both. Mr Holmes (or A Slight Trick of the Mind as it was called before it was made into a film) is an altogether more gentle and straightforward novel. At least, it is if ‘straightforward’ means not concealing things for dramatic effect. From the point of view of character, it is far more complex, and tries to imagine an old and declining Holmes, trying to stave off the effects of old age and coming to terms with the few things which, almost despite his efforts, he has come to hold dear. Chief of which is his apiary: as indicated in several of the short stories, Holmes retires to Sussex to keep bees. Partly this is to do with the royal jelly they produce, which he believes helps to keep him active and well; but as the inter-woven story ‘The Glass Armonicist’ unfolds, it emerges that there is also a sentimental reason, a bee which alighted on the glove of the woman in that case, a woman who fascinated him for no very discernible reason. But perhaps the reasons for these things are never overtly demonstrable, and Mr Holmes tussles with Holmes’ strict logic, and the people who circumvent this. It doesn’t make him lovable, exactly, and the strict logic is always there, but he does have feelings of comradeship for Watson, Mycroft (both now dead), and Roger Munro, the teenage son of his housekeeper, who tends his bees when he is away. This thin thread of human connection and affection is as necessary to him as his work, which takes in the apiary and the composition of specialist texts, such as The Whole Art of Detection*. The sub-plot involving a trip to Japan to find that other rejuvenating substance, prickly ash, works as an illustration of what happens when Holmes tries to engage with the world. He has kept up a correspondence with Mr Umezaki on the subject of prickly ash, the culmination of which is his visit, but it turns out that Umezaki has an ulterior motive, and has merely had the sense to dress up his plea for help in the guise of scientific interest. When Holmes tries to reach out, it doesn’t work. He doesn’t have the knack, so has to wait through a lifetime of rigour for those three or four moments when connections to other people occur, unprompted, uncontrived, unforced. That they all die is as brutal an authorial policy as anything in Moriarty, but the Holmes that remains is sustained by his interests, and receptive to the possibility of genuine connections, however rare they may be. He comforts Roger’s mother with this moving speech:
It seems – or rather – it’s that sometimes – sometimes things occur beyond our own understanding, my dear, and the unjust reality is that these events – being so illogical to us, devoid of whatever reason we might attach to them – are exactly what they are and, regrettably, nothing else – and I believe – I truly believe that that is the hardest notion for any of us to live with. (p. 240)
There is no higher reason for Roger’s death, caused by wasp stings as he defended Holmes’ apiary – except, of course, to allow Holmes to work out what happened, and Cullin to make that point. Here they are earlier on, in happier times, surrounded by phenomena which can, reassuringly, be defined:
        ‘Is this cliff only chalk?’
        ‘It is made of chalk, and it is made of sandstone.’
        Within the strata beneath the chalk was gault clay, greensand, and Wealden sands in successive order, explained Holmes as they continued downward; the clay beds and the thin layer of sandstones were covered with chalk, clay, and flint added throughout the aeons by countless storms. (pp. 112-3)

* The Whole Art of Detection seems to be an actual thing.

A glass armonica in action.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Patrick O’Brian — ‘Master and Commander’

My second go at this, having batted it away in its Kindle edition with some fool comment about the mechanism of character (eh?). Since then it has kept popping up in second hand shops, nagging at me that ebooks don’t hold the attention as well as the real thing, and that it deserved another attempt. And so it proved. There is plenty of good characterisation, most obviously with the hearty Jack Aubrey and the precise Stephen Maturin, but taking in too Captain and Molly Harte, and James Dillon. Chapter three is a whirlwind of unfamiliar sailing terms which drives you to a dictionary every few lines (why is there no glossary?), and to Google if that fails, but that diminishes to some extent in later chapters, and is, in any case, integral to the way the book works, because the ship herself is a character, and the navy another, both dragged out of history on to the page through a very specific vocabulary. Set in 1800, it finds the British navy at war with the Spanish and French, patrolling the Mediterranean, safeguarding the passage of trade ships and disrupting the activities (both trade and military) of the enemy. Jack Aubrey is given his first command, the Sophie, and invites Stephen Maturin aboard as surgeon. Maturin has nothing to lose at the time, and is a lost soul:
Stephen Maturin was not afraid of any vulgar betrayal, nor was he afraid for his skin, because he did not value it: but he had so suffered from the incalculable tensions, rancour and hatreds that arise from the failure of a rebellion that he could not bear any further disappointment, any further hostile, recriminatory confrontation, any fresh example of a friend grown cold, or worse. (p. 95)
Both Stephen and the Sophie’s lieutenant, James Dillon, were involved in the United Irishmen Rebellion, and it affects them in different ways. Stephen is relatively apolitical, for someone with such a history: he is interested in science, particularly zoology, and his passions tend to be in the realm of intellectual inquiry. By contrast, James is consumed by the rebellion’s failure, and frustrated that he can’t speak out about it. He and Stephen do discuss it, one night, but he regrets this: nothing can be right with the world while the injustice remains, and he seems to feel he has only belittled his intense loyalties by talking about them. His is a tough, brooding presence in the book, as professional as he is inscrutable. Jack can’t work him out at all and, having once gained his friendship, loses it at a stroke by sending him aboard a ship bound for America to root out two supposed Frenchmen on the run. From their descriptions, James realises they are Irishmen from his own organisation, and seethes with divided loyalty: he can’t betray them, but that doesn’t make foregoing his duty to the navy an easy thing to do. He longs for action as a way of coping with these emotions. Stephen observes all this and records in his diary:
when JA is in a rage with his superiors, irked by the subordination of the service, spurred on by his restless, uneasy temperament, or (as at present) lacerated by his mistress’ infidelity, he flies to violence as a relief — to action. JD, urged on by entirely different furies, does the same. The difference is that whereas I believe JA merely longs for the shattering noise, immense activity of mind and body, and the all-embracing sense of the present moment, I am very much afraid that JD wants more. (p. 303–4)
There are a few great set pieces of action, most spectacularly the taking of the Cacafuego, a Spanish ship with a crew which outnumbers the Sophie’s by 319 to 54 because, although the Sophie usually holds 90 crew, they have captured several ships recently, and 40 men are away returning them to Port Mahon, where their base is (there seems to be a thin line between piracy and warfare, because the men directly profit from the ships they capture, even referring to them as prizes). In a feat almost worthy of Douglas Fairbanks’ Black Pirate, the Sophie slips under the Cacafuego’s guns and gives her a succession of broadsides from a distance of six inches, before the fifty-three sailors board, leaving Stephen alone at the tiller. As for The Guardian’s claim that Patrick O’Brian is ‘Jane Austen at sea’ – that’s about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Intelligent and sensitive though it is, Master and Commander is really about rough and tumble, ambition, real men doing what they have to do, and the politics of life in the navy. Its focus on money and status, I guess, are a connection to Austen, but there are almost no women, and the only romance is between Jack and Molly Harte, which is decidedly short-term, as Stephen observes at one of her dinners:
Stephen felt the odd bareness on his knee that meant his napkin had glided to the floor; he dived after it, and in the hooded tent below he beheld four and twenty legs, six belonging to the table and eighteen to his temporary messmates. Miss Wade had kicked off her shoes: the woman opposite him had dropped a little screwed-up handkerchief: Colonel Pitt’s gleaming military boot lay pressed upon Mrs Harte’s right foot, and upon her left – quite a distance from the right – reposed Jack’s scarcely less massive buckled shoe. […] in time Mrs Harte rose and walked, limping slightly, into the drawing room (p. 272)

New words: holystones, antiscorbutic, roborative, hypnogogue, carotid, drabble-tail, pake, strake, futtock-shrouds, kelson, fid, top-maul, bilboes, orlop, specie, libeccio, patareroes, abaft, mizen, luff, tompion, loblolly, anamometer, stanchion, taffrail, genet, solomongundy, tramontana, xebec, cullions.

(There is more of the vocab in this Goodreads review, which also makes a good point about the desultory nature of the Sophie’s cruises.)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Wyndham Wallace — ‘Lee, Myself and I: Inside the Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood’

The strings are like veins swelling with blood — slowly at first, then increasingly uninhibited. A hint of horn and a tease of oboe offer brief flashes of bare skin, the melody floating over its surface. The song suddenly shifts up a key, and I gasp: it’s like we’ve reached the peak of a treacherous mountain, and now, below us, as clouds part, we’ve discovered at last hidden hillsides and dark, unknown forests. I’m entering Freudian territory. Man, I really am stoned. (p. 31)

This is a description of ‘Leather and Lace’ from Cowboy in Sweden — of Wyndham Wallace hearing it for the first time, and getting it right between the thighs. It’s the early ’90s. He’s been out to a Mark Eitzel show which finished abruptly when a heckler went too far causing Eitzel to storm off, and ended up, via a few games of pool, in a Camden flat inhabited by The Rockingbirds, hogging a joint and falling hard for Lee’s music. It’s some introduction, some description. Scenes of Wallace taking his first tentative steps in the music business from a privileged starting point which he sees as a disadvantage (how times change!) are woven in with his first meeting with Lee, five or six years later, in a hotel bar in New York. It doesn’t start well:
‘How the fuck old are you? Thirteen?’
I’m not even shit on his shoes. (p. 18)
Wallace is actually 27 by this point, and runs the UK arm of City Slang (or possibly is the UK arm of City Slang). Steve Shelley is in the process of re-releasing some of Lee’s records and has involved Wallace for UK promotion. Faxes have bleeped back and forth, and now the launch party has occasioned this meeting with his hero. It’s a bit tense, but he gets through it without alienating Lee too much.

The book is the story of how these unpromising beginnings lead to a real friendship. Lee is difficult, Wyndham indulgent; gradually trust starts to build. It’s also the story of a comeback: the discography at the back shows a prolific career losing momentum in the mid ’70s, skipping the ’80s entirely and never really getting its mojo back right until the end, with 2006’s Cake or Death. Though there are reminiscences of the glory days, the focus is necessarily on the nineties and noughties, some comeback concerts (particularly at Nick Cave’s Meltdown in 1999 — though Cave’s one appearance in the book is stand-off-ish in the extreme), and Lee’s cancer, of which he died in 2007. It’s a fine memoir, but it makes you thirst for a similarly meticulous account of the sixties and seventies. A project to get down some of Lee’s anecdotes while he can still tell them is mooted late on, but there’s a problem with that idea: ‘Lee rarely speaks about the music on his old records. He’ll talk until your smile muscles ache about all sorts of things, but not the contents of the albums he made.’ (p. 195). There are a few indications in the book that there was a depressive side to Lee – at least, that he was a man who needed his own space. That made me think of ‘Friendship Train’, and the line ‘when you’re blue I’ll lie and say you’re not feeling like yourself today’. When you’ve sung that, really, why elaborate?

Except that one of the chief pleasures of this book is hearing Lee speak. It doesn’t much matter what about, and in fact, it’s hard to find anything very concise or even to the point. It’s just nice to do. Here he is reminiscing about making someone else’s records (‘Bubba’ is his nick-name for Wyndham):
        ‘You know, we started making Duane Eddy records in 1957, in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s over forty years ago. Corky Casey’ – he relishes the sound of her name as it rolls off his tongue – ‘played rhythm on a lot of them. She didn’t play in the band in person, but Corky was always on the records. You know, what Corky Casey may have been is the first American rock lady guitarist in America. I haven’t found anybody who can say otherwise, and I’ve talked to several people about it. They say, “1957? That’s waaaay back there, isn’t it?” So if you know of anyone, Bubba – and I don’t mean your grandmother who played in a band – then I think you ought to tell me.’
        ‘I don’t think my grandmother ever played in a band,’ I laugh, surprised by the notion, since I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned her before. ‘She was more of a wannabe poet.’
        ‘Aha! I like the sound of her.’ (p. 96)
Miss you, Lee.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

P. G. Wodehouse — ‘Something Fresh’

        ‘What cheese would you recommend?’
        ‘The gentlemen are speaking well of the gorgonzola.’
        ‘All right, bring me some. You know, Adams, what I admire about Americans is their resource. Mr Peters tells me that, as a boy of eleven, he earned twenty dollars a week selling mint to saloon-keepers, as they call publicans over there. Why they wanted mint I cannot recollect. Mr Peters explained the reason to me, and it seemed highly plausible at the time, but I have forgotten it. Possibly for mint-sauce. It impressed me, Adams. Twenty dollars is four pounds. I never earned four pounds a week when I was a boy of eleven. In fact, I don’t think I ever earned four pounds a week. His story impressed me, Adams. Every man ought to have an earning capacity…. Tell me, Adams, have I eaten my cheese?’
        ‘Not yet, your lordship, I was about to send the waiter for it.’
        ‘Never mind. Tell him to bring the bill instead. I remember that I have an appointment. I must not be late.’
        ‘Shall I take the fork, your lordship?’
        ‘The fork?’
        ‘Your lordship has inadvertently put a fork in your coat-pocket.’
        Lord Emsworth felt in the pocket indicated, and, with the air of an inexpert conjuror whose trick has succeeded contrary to his expectations, produced a silver-plated fork. He regarded it with surprise, then he looked wonderingly at Adams.
        ‘Adams, I’m getting absent-minded. Have you ever noticed any traces of absent-mindedness in me before?’
        ‘Oh, no, your lordship.’ (pp. 43–4)
Once upon a time, I doted on Wodehouse, and particularly the Blandings stories. Their appeal is simple: it’s an idyll, a place it’s charming and relaxing to visit (Trollope’s Barsetshire has a similar attraction at times, though it’s obviously more extensive and less comic. But there are real points of crossover: both The Small House at Allington and Something Fresh feature breach of promise to marry as a theme). They turn on the character of the Clarence, Ninth Earl of Emsworth, who wants to be left alone by the world to potter around Blandings, enjoying the gardens, and looking in on the Empress, his prize pig, around whose condition (i.e. fatness) various labyrinthine plots are constructed. The recent BBC TV series got it all wrong by being madcap: Blandings is about calm. Of course things happen to intrude on that calm, generally to imperil the Empress’ girth when she’s about to be entered into a show, and then the Earl will be troubled, within his exceedingly narrow focus. But it’s a joy to observe that narrow focus, and a comfort to watch his ruffled feathers settle as the status quo is restored. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and the pieces aren’t all in place yet (there’s no pig, and no Lady Constance to keep Clarence on his toes), but on the other hand it has characters who feel things for each other, and a plot stacked high with farcical potential.

The plot turns on a scarab that the Earl unconsciously pockets: the pride of the collection of American millionaire Mr Peters, whose daughter Aline has unaccountably become engaged to Freddie, the Earl’s vacant youngest son. Mr Peters is furious when he discovers the loss, but can’t accuse Emsworth of the theft for fear of jeopardising his daughter’s marriage. Emsworth becomes convinced that the scarab was intended as a present, and gives it a prominent place in the museum at Blandings castle. Mr Peters lets it be known he’d give $5000 to get the scarab back, which causes a rush of people (well, three) to the castle to retrieve it. Two of them pretend to be domestic servants: Joan Valentine, an old school friend of Aline Peters, who once was the target of a stream of love letters and poems from Freddie, whom she impressed as a chorus girl; and Ashe Marson, a fitness fanatic and reluctant writer of the Gridley Quayle detective stories which Freddie, cooped up at the castle with no allowance, adores. Joan pretends to be Aline’s maid, and Ashe the valet of Mr Peters — who, I forgot to mention, is dyspeptic and on a diet he can’t stand, of nuts and greens. Then there is R. Jones, whom Freddie has paid £500 to get back the letters he wrote to Joan, lest she raise a breach of promise case and endanger his marriage to Aline. Joan didn’t keep the letters, and tells R. Jones so. He leaves, and is just in time to listen at the door when Aline arrives, and tells Joan about the reward for the scarab. This gives him an idea for squeezing more money out of Freddie.

There’s more, but that’s the gist. Most characters have two functions which dovetail nicely into a wall of confusion. Now you mention it, it doesn’t actually sound all that calm; but don’t forget that the Earl is 99% oblivious. Without the pig to focus his attention, his only real concern is being at Blandings:
The Earl of Emsworth was one of the world’s leading potterers, and Sunday morning was his favourite time for pottering. Since breakfast he had pottered about the garden, pottered round the stables, and pottered about the library. He now pottered into the museum. (p. 213)
Doesn’t that sound delightful?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Anthony Trollope – ‘The Small House at Allington’

Who does not know how terrible are those preparations for house-moving – how infinite in number are the articles which must be packed, how inexpressibly uncomfortable is the period of packing, and how poor and tawdry is the aspect of one’s belongings while they are thus in a state of dislocation? (p. 538)
Well, quite. S. and I moved earlier this year, to a house of our own, with an art room for her and a music room / library for me (hedging my bets), and while much of the house is tidy and functional, these two rooms are still Xanadus of boxes: all the things we couldn’t bear to part with, but aren’t strictly necessary. It’s ever so slightly tempting to lock them up and go digital. Mrs Dale and her two daughters, with whom Trollope sympathises above, don’t have that option, of course: it’s the 1860s, and they feel that their position as occupiers of the Small House at Allington is no longer tenable. They have lived there for many years, under the aegis of the squire, who lives next door at the Great House. His brother was Mrs Dale’s husband, and has left her a widow with a very small income. The squire, taking them under his wing in a practical sense, finds it impossible to show fondness (though it is not lacking) through his manner, so they always feel a little distant from him. When he tries to consolidate the family fortune, by marrying off the elder sister, Bell, to his nephew Bernard, they see it as a step outside his authority, and plan to leave the Small House for much plainer lodgings at nearby Guestwick. Whether they will go through with this or not gives some tension to the closing chapters of the book, alongside the greater question of whether Lily Dale will marry Johnny Eames. Certainly the book ends well, with these two gentle crescendos, and sets the reader up for more Barsetshire in the sixth and final book of the series.

While I did enjoy this book, and generally become more enamoured of Trollope the more I read, it didn’t quite live up to Framley Parsonage, which wove such a rich tapestry of old and new characters. The Small House feels more limited, though it’s unclear why this should be so: it takes in country, town, rich and… less rich. It contains a vicious and thoroughly enjoyable demolition job on the de Courcys, who move from respectable titled folk to in-fighting money-grubbing horror show without changing at all. There are scenes of clerk-dom at the Income Tax Office, which (say the notes) may draw on Trollope’s own time at the Post Office. There are comic scenes in a low rent guest house, and there is passionate, doomed love at Allington in two directions. There is a terrific scene showing how bored men get when women choose carpets. Money is everywhere, of course, but it’s not quite the actuating force it was in Framley Parsonage. Greed is more generalised; want, too. The lessons to be drawn are perhaps a little obvious: don’t run from the arms of the one you love into those of the daughter of an earl for whom you don’t care a jot. And – on the other side – don’t fall in love with a swell; don’t be a Cathy for the first dashing man who comes along, because he probably isn’t a Heathcliff.

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