Sherlock Holmes was Wrong, by Pierre Bayard

January 5, 2014 at 22:53 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Fiction, Literature, Mediocre Books, Mystery) (, , , )

HolmesWasWrong

6/10

6/10

Pierre Bayard needs three things to make this book a success: a compelling argument to back up his audacious title, a solid grounding in mystery literature in general and Arthur Conan Doyle in particular, and at least twenty five thousand words of really good stuff. Unfortunately for Bayard and for his readers, he has only the first two.

This book can be broadly divided into three sections. In the first, he explains why Holmes’ conclusions in The Hound of the Baskervilles are completely wrong. In the second, he offers an introduction to literary criticism and psychoanalysis, and explains why the prospect can even be considered. In the third, he suggests an alternate explanation.

“Faced with this patchwork narrative, only blind faith could impel a reader to accept without reservations…the account that has been imposed on us for more than a century…”

-Sherlock Holmes was Wrong

The first problem has its germ in this particular layout. Nowhere does the cover of this book suggest that it will be an academic text discussing the freudian reflexes of Doyle, or the ideas of characters and readers immigrating and emmigrating to and from the text. Bayard can be excused–grudgingly, of course–on the grounds that this second section is not interminably long, and that it is really quite interesting, and presented succinctly and with a certain style.

So much, then, for the first problem. The second problem lies in the fact that once this middle section is excluded, there remains only an essay of middling length to explain Holmes’ faults and the author’s theories. It might even be considered to Bayard’s credit that these theories so instantly hold water, and that it does not take pages of haranguing to prove the fictional detective’s mistakes. It does, however, mean that this book is really not very satisfying as a whole. It is a quick cover-to-cover read, and it is of course worth the small effort. Bayard might have done better to write a wider critique of Holmes as a character and a man: then the literary criticism would have formed a natural introduction, and the Baskerville episode could have formed one thrilling case study among several others.

The problem with that, of course, is that nobody would have read it. This book’s snappy title and salacious promises certainly do not leave one empty; but neither are they especially filling.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

December 22, 2013 at 18:44 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Mystery, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )

HoundOfTheBaskervilles

3/10

3/10

It was a little surprising (and honestly, disconcerting) to find that not only did Holmes’ eternal companion Watson provide the voice for this mystery, but also most of the legwork. The conceit of a narrative through a letter can be done well, but it can also be done poorly. In The Hound of the Baskervilles it certainly feels like laziness.

A second and deeper problem with this mystery is the straightforwardness of it all. The method and the killer are made plain halfway through, with the rest of the book merely a sweeping-up exercise: the setting of a trap, and the successful conclusion of all ventured by the intrepid detective. Characters are brought in as literary devices and plot shortcuts rather than as meaningful components of a whole, and once their part in the play is concluded they are swept away, never to be heard from again.

“‘The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.'”

-The Hound of the Baskervilles

Doyle’s writing is excellent, but readers might well be forgiven for imagining that writing in the persona of a rather self-satisfied and coddled English gentleman making reports and penning florid missives would not come with too great a difficulty to this author. This is a fun story to read, but is neither intellectually nor creatively stimulating. There are better mysteries out there, and there are better mysteries to be investigated by Sherlock Holmes. It is telling that the best part of this book, the most interesting part and by far the cleverest–is confined to banter between Sherlock and Watson as they try to guess the identity of a caller at the very beginning of the story. For all the iconic weight that the spectre of this hound has cast upon the body of English literature, once its tracks have been thoroughly traced by the reader its form cannot but come as a disappointment.

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Lord Darcy, by Randall Garrett

July 28, 2012 at 11:46 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Mystery) (, , , )

9/10

It might well be suspected that many of the readers who find their way to this forgotten compendium traced from the pages of Analog are attracted to Lord Darcy principally (or solely) because of the dazzling lure that is Garrett’s deeply intriguing setting. Followers of The Fourth Person will realise that this reviewer seldom discusses the plots or settings of any books, save in the most general terms, or when they are particularly fascinating. The universe in which Garrett chooses to write is based in an alternate timeline, but also in an alternate scienceline. The two chief conceits are the domination of the western hemisphere by the Plantaganet dynasty, and the replacement of science with magic. Successful (and unsuccessful) books have been written in alternate timelines; and of course magic is a common trope invoked by science fiction and fantasy writers (although the excellently thought out relationship between magic and science in Lord Darcy is of the best and finest sort, very much like Susanna Clarke‘s peerless debut novel).

“‘According to the chief sorcerer at the Weather Office, your lordship, it isn’t due to break up until five minutes after five o’clock in the morning.'”

-Lord Darcy

Randall Garrett, however, manages to astound readers from the very outset by combining two interesting and piquing scenarios in a deucedly bold and daring array. He then crowns his well-baited hook with his pièce de résistance, and writes a story that would have been quite appealing and readable even outside of his exotic settings. Popular alternate history writers like Harry Turtledove or Robert Harris tend to fall apart when they spend so much effort crafting intricate “what if” scenarios that they forget to tell a good story; when they drag on for entire fictional eras and epochs and leave only the outline of their conceit, without anything to remember it by.

Garrett is pleasingly subtle, and while readers might have cause to complain that they are left with an unsatisfactory level of closure as to the vile machinations of the wicked Casimir, or without adequate exposition of the centuries of Plantaganet rule, they will be unable to complain that they have been ill-entertained. His mysteries are fun, and make no pretentions of aspiring to serious literature.He presents instead droll and exciting mystery stories: last of which is a charming recasting–or tribute–or mockery (it is sometimes difficult to tell) of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

“‘If either of you moves,’ said Lord Darcy calmly, ‘I will shoot him through the brain. Get your hands off those blade hilts and don’t move otherwise.'”

-Lord Darcy

Brief and simple as they are, his stories are written with considerable skill and due attention, and the temptation to make every crime either a deus ex machina with magical means and magical solutions is well avoided. Indeed, he ought to be doubly commended for his meandering parallels between his magical forensics and realistic early twentieth century forensics: ne’er the twain meet, and often they diverge, but there is always some measure of nearness between his fiction and our fact. This is a book in which everything good about it is at a slight distance, as it were. Never is his reader treated (or consigned) to an over-near examination of his history, his magic, or the writer’s own slightly smug cleverness. It has been said that nothing can spoil a story like too much exposition, and Garrett bears this up magnificently, providing us with a peripheral glimpse of an amazing world, and whisking it away while leaving that rarest of things: a fully satisfied reader yearning for more.

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The Club of Queer Trades, by G.K. Chesterton

June 30, 2012 at 08:46 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Mystery) (, , , )

5/10

Every so often there comes a book whose premise is particularly fantastic, but for whatever reason scarcely lives up to its potential. Unfortunately, The Club of Queer Trades is as plain an example of such a book as ever there was. G.K. Chesterton has the mastery over the mundane and the metaphysical, the trivial and the grave, and over every kind of mystery. His voice is carefully developed and as solid as a rock, and if nothing else, this book does make for delightfully fun reading. After all, even if it fails on some fronts, it is hardly possible to conceive that Chesterton might write untidily.

The loosely-binding centre of this book is the idea that several more rogueish of the inhabitants of Edwardian London have taken it upon themselves to develop unusual means of earning their living, each peculiar to himself. The Sherlockian protagonist goes about calmly unravelling the maze of paradoxes and contradictions that these queer trades by their nature produce, much to the bamboozlement of his friend the narrator. A winsome trope, but one that Chesterton inverts at the end of his book, in a twist that has the unfortunate side-effect of doing significant damage to the preceding story.

“It’s true he didn’t want to talk about his house business in front of us; no man would. It’s true that he carries a sword-stick; any man might. It’s true he drew it in the shock of a street fight; any man would. But there’s nothing really dubious in all this.”

-The Club of Queer Trades

Quite besides that, although the brief mysteries are charmingly told and well laid-out, they are not nearly as clever as they perhaps have promised in the introduction. The eponymous trades are not quite as exotic or exciting as all that, and occasionally readers might well find themselves wishing that the red-herrings Chesterton lays out with all the dilligence of the veteran mystery writer, had in fact been the true slant of the puzzle.

This is a sweet and expertly-written collection, but from G.K. Chesterton more ought to be expected, and this book is well in the shadows of his others.

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The Man Who Knew Too Much, by G.K. Chesterton

May 23, 2012 at 22:34 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Mystery) (, , , )

8/10

Chesterton wears the persona of theologian to the literate everyman very well, and The Man Who Knew Too Much is a magnificent example of his unmatchable ability to walk the tightrope of Christian exposition above the frothy waters of eloquent skill, without making an ass of himself. This book is perhaps a perfect example of what a good piece of fiction written by a Christian ought to be like.

In spite of the ominous title, this is a glorified mystery story: or, more accurately, a compendium of a half dozen or so short mysteries. Each blends the trademark Chesterton tropes expertly, including the quasi-mystic and his man-of-the-world companion and friend, the constant suggestion of something diabolically sinister underlying all, the brooding edge of the supernatural, and an inimitable atmosphere of nineteenth century style and sophistication hanging like cigar smoke over the whole.

In fact, it is only as the final mystery in the volume begins to pick up pace that Chesterton seems almost to break out from behind the fourth wall and address the reader directly, in the only slightly uncomfortable moment in the book. The final mystery is just a little bit forced, and is plainly not the main issue in that particular story. Instead, the reader is cornered for a few brief speeches transplanted a little awkwardly from Chesterton’s mouth into the mouth of Horne Fisher.

“‘…to the schoolboy you add the sceptic, who is generally a sort of stunted schoolboy. You said just now that things might be done with religious mania. Have you ever heard of irreligious mania? I assure you it exists very violently, especially in men who like showing up magicians in India.'”

-The Man Who Knew Too Much

Readers familiar with Chesterton’s style will not find anything peculiar about this. “After all,” they will ask, “is that not something the fellow does time and time again?” And indeed, The Man Who Knew Too Much is replete with moments where the author unashamedly uses his characters as props in a parable, or a particular object lesson. The quote included to the left is one such instance. But in the final mystery of the set, the sermon overtakes the story, and is deucedly awkward, even for Chesterton.

This one hiccup aside, the book is a sheer delight. It is much lighter reading that The Man Who Was Thursday, and is as witty, charming, urbane and clever as any reader familiar with either the author or the genre might wish for.

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The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters, by Enid Blyton

May 3, 2012 at 01:39 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Mystery, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )

3/10

The Five Find-Outers series is a light-hearted and frequently outrageously funny and slapstick mystery romp. How disturbing, then, to find elements of real tragedy within the pages. In several volumes, the villain will typically mention some misfortune or woe that mitigates his or her crimes, but in Blyton’s world of upper-middle class postwar England, things are generally very simple. Greed and cruelty are the gateway drugs to lawbreaking and gaol; and honest hardworking folk live honest and superficially trouble-free lives.

“‘There’s something wrong I once did that I’m ashamed of now, see?'”

-The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters

The Spiteful Letters of the title are startling for their sheer venom, but more so for the sudden intrusion into the lives of relative innocents. Gladys, for instance, whose crime the eponymous letters trumpet is the crime of having a difficult upbringing. The focus on bigotry and blackmail, on shame and ostracism, marks a surprisingly adult turn in these mostly carefree books.

This is not to say that children’s books ought not have tragic adult themes in them. But it is the sudden change in direction–without either warning or explanation–that makes this book less fun to read than several of the others in the series. The plot is heavily recycled in the much later Five Find-Outers book, The Mystery of the Strange Messages, which takes the poison-pen theme in a much lighter and funnier direction. Some sentences are lifted verbatim from one book to the other, so that it is impossible not to wonder whether Blyton herself wished to revisit and rewrite this darker early mystery.

The Spiteful Letters is difficult to enjoy, although Blyton’s description of idyllic village life is warm and charming as usual. As the fourth book in the series, the group’s dynamic has settled down a little (with the election of Fatty as leader in the previous book) and many of the series’ teething problems have petered out. A transitional effort, then, with the formula of the series more or less settled, but with the tone still an uncertain quantity.

Related reviews:
The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage
The Mystery of Holly Lane
 

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N or M? by Agatha Christie

December 21, 2011 at 11:34 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Mystery) (, , , , )

8/10

Agatha Christie’s enormous library of mystery stories has left the world with several enduring classics. N or M? is not necessarily considered one of them, and its protagonists, Tommy and Tuppence, generally take back seat to her more famous detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple. Despite being one of the less-celebrated of her mysteries, this is undoubtedly one of the best.

There is something alluringly vulnerable about the middle-aged detective duo that is never found in Poirot; nor even in the clairvoyancy of the unflappable Miss Marple or the confidence of Superintendent Battle. They’re the heroes, and obviously heroes in books like this don’t die…but N or M? is introduced with such rare violence that it is very easy to believe that this is the ageing pair’s final puzzle. Most of Agatha Christie’s books have some kind of urgency or tension to them, but usually because a new victim is in danger, not necessarily the detective himself. Contrasted between the couple’s frank discussions about the dangers of their job, their forced optimism and their touching affection for each other, it is very easy for them to win a reader’s heart.

“Suggestive words? Yes, but capable of any number of harmless interpretations.
Unobtrusively she turned and again passed the two. Again words floated to her.
‘Smug, detestable English…'”

-N or M?

Besides the ominous feel of the book, this is a skillful mating of a wartime thriller in all its counter-espionage glory with a good old classic detective novel. There are aspects of the story that are rather easy to winkle out, and parts that demonstrate Christie’s genius: in other words, the mystery is there to be solved by any casual reader, but if a casual reader expects to figure out every twist to come, then he will be sorely disappointed.

The quiet seaside town (that might be Lyme Regis, or 1940s Newquay) is sketched immaculately, and the cast of characters ranges from the utterly believable to the endearingly caricatured to the implausibly colourful. In short, just what one ought to expect from Agatha Christie at her prime. This book should at least rank among her best works, and is a pleasure and a tense and thrilling mystery to read.

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The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage, by Enid Blyton

December 10, 2011 at 15:07 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Mystery) (, , , , , )

5/10

The Five Find-Outers mystery series was published and written over the course of some twenty years of Enid Blyton’s career, and so it makes a great deal of sense that they would differ so greatly from each other. The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage faces many of the problems of a debut book in a lengthy series, and it is unsurprising that some of the characters in this first installment are so different as to be unrecognisable from their later incarnations. And so it is that we find a pompous and generally idiotic Fatty, a cruel and abrasive Larry and a much more aggressive Goon than he later became.

The mystery itself is generally simple in its principle, if not in its details. Any reader (including young children) will correctly determine that the criminal is the meanest and most evil character introduced: every clue to the contrary must be a red herring, and the most sweet and selfless characters will surely be the most vigorously accused and also the most plainly innocent.

“‘Oh, a find-outer,’ said Bets. ‘I’d love to be that. I’m sure I would make a very good find-outer.’
‘No, you’re too little,’ said Pip. Bets looked ready to cry.”

-The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage

There are clues given throughout the book that a careful observer might notice, but although the culprit might be obvious his actual scheme is rather complex and difficult, and so the suspense of denouement is at least preserved in part. Oddly enough this chronologically first book is neither representative of the rest of the series, nor should it be recommended as a starting point. Although this is one of Blyton’s more satisfying and cleverer mysteries, the characters are still half-baked, and some of them are either a little duller or a little more unpleasant than they would eventually become.

The verdict is this: of the fifteen books in the series, about a third of them are outstanding, about a third are dully repetitive and unimaginative, and about a third are fun mysteries with apparent flaws. This book is a perfect representative of the last set, and therefore a fun read, but one to be ventured into once the reader is confident that the series is worth the effort.

Related reviews:
The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters
The Mystery of Holly Lane
 
 

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

October 15, 2011 at 16:06 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Mystery, Thriller) (, , , )

5/10

This book is chiefly a murder mystery, and can only really cling to the label of “Thriller” by its fingertips. It is a very stylish, sensual, alternative-culture murder mystery, with a very awkward mixture of some sort of postmodern approximation of romance, but despite the constant hints that there is something greater and more deadly involved, this book is really about tracking down clues and crossing off suspects. It unfortunately fits into that ever-so-frustrating subgenre of mystery stories: mysteries where the reader is not given the information to solve the crime until the characters solve it.

It is difficult at first to understand why exactly this unprepossessing little novel caused such a stir upon its release. Whodunnits are a dime a dozen, and although the author manages to drag in Nazis, the mafia and the good-old “puzzle from the dusty pages of history”, it seems that this is simply a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon, with neither staying power nor anything else unique about it.

“You’re not a person who encourages friendship…”

-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Strangely, the most interesting feature is Larsson’s seemingly-misplaced  and contextually bare warnings throughout the book about human trafficking and violence against women. This crusade does not only appear in the chapter headings, either; characters will all-but break the fourth wall and launch into diatribes, listing evidence and statistics exhaustively–and then return to their conversations. This is handled a little clumsily at first, but as Larsson begins to link it in with the main thrust of his story, it makes a little more sense. He is graphic and terrifying in quite a few of his examples, and there is plenty of material in this book that warrants skipping, but his one man crusade does gain altitude after a while, and turns a rather prosaic mystery-thriller into a thoughtful and provocative read.

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And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

October 9, 2011 at 01:53 (Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Mystery) (, , , )

9/10

Also published as Ten Little Indians (among other titles), the suspense in this book was magnified for me personally when I was told the wrong ending in advance. In spite of that, And Then There Were None is one of Christie’s more uncanny and otherworldly mysteries; the tension is masterfully built, and the extensive cast of characters are shepherded and presented in an orderly and clear manner. In developing her characters Christie focuses on Vera, the Judge and the Doctor just a little more and a little vigorously than on the rest of the ensemble, which gives the reader just one more clue to figuring out the plot, in addition to the “three clues” she rather vaingloriously parades at the very end.

Although the novel manner of the murder, the assembly of the guests and the motif of the children’s rhyme take centre stage, and despite the complexity of the plot, this is one of Christie’s few mysteries where the crime and its detection underlie a harder question: the nature of guilt and criminality, culpability and justice. Christie’s subversion of even odious characters like the multiple killer, the shameless Lombard, into dashing and heroic centrepieces is astonishing. Her success at recruiting the reader’s sympathy against the vigilante justice rather than on the side of rectitude is startling and impressive.

“Heavenly visitants, eh? No, I don’t believe in the supernatural. This business is human enough.”

-And Then There Were None

The first few chapters of this book are, in fact, the only seriously weak part of the whole. Christie stumbles noticeably in her introduction of such a large and detailed cast, which leads even an attentive reader to much page flapping and doublechecking for several chapters more; an even graver sin is a baffling weakness of dialogue that is extremely obvious in the first chapter or two, and which she never totally recovers from. Even when the pacing and excellent plot begin to seize the reader’s attention, the dialogue is a background problem throughout. For that reason it is impossible to rate this book as one of Agatha Christie’s absolute best, although it is definitely an imaginative and confident thriller and a corking good read by any standard.

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