Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Monday, December 28, 2009

Close to Holmes by Alistair Duncan - UPDATED

Subtitle: A Look at the Connections Between Historical London, Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

MX Publishing, 2009. ISBN 9781904312505. 206 pages.

UPDATE: I try not to republish posts but it occurred to me that I have a few photographs that supplement this review. Take a look at my Sherlock Holmes set on Flickr.

I didn't have Alistair's book on our visit to London earlier this year but marital harmony it is just as well. My wife doesn't share my interest in all things Holmsian and I have an idea how it would have worked out had I wanted to explore all the locations described by the author.

Duncan's book is not a walking tour but takes the approach of looking at locations in historical London important to both Sherlock Holmes and his creator, Author Conan Doyle (ACD) and why he might have chosen those locations for his stories. The author also provides an historical context for the locations such as construction history and events associated with those locations.

He rightly begins on Baker Street and the conflict over the famous address of 221b. In the 1930s Upper Baker Street and Baker Street were merged and 221 was assigned to Abby House. The Abby Bank at this location capitalized on the famous address and hosted a Sherlock Holmes Exhibition which included a recreation of 221b. The recreation was relocated to the Sherlock Holmes Public House. The Sherlock Holmes Museum is also located on Baker Street. It overcame the unavailability (Abby House refused to give it up) of the famous numbers by registering 221b as a company name allowing it to be displayed above the door without official recognition.

I have visited this museum and it is delightful. The staff is very liberal about photography and provide props for visitors to pose with while having their pictures taken. Scenes and characters from the stories are recreated with mannikins in several rooms. Visitors may be startled at how small the rooms are but this is histgorically more accurate than what we see in the movies, including the latest.

The author does his own detective work in analyzing locations based descriptions in the books. For example, ACD only referred to one actual hotel by name, The Langham Hotel. Doyle attended a dinner there at the end of which he received a commission to write The Sign of Four. The hotel is mentioned in The Sign of Four, A Scandal in Bohemia, and The Disappearance of Lady Francis Carfax. For other hotels, Duncan considers which hotels were on the street at the time, the direction by Holmes might have been walking and makes an informed speculation as to the actual location.

Alistair continues by looking at famous streets (Regent, Pall Mall, The Strand), eating establishments, theatres, railway stations, Covent Garden, hospitals and houses, all important to either or both ACD Sherlock Holmes.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn't have this book with me in London and thus blundered around unaware of the importance of locations. Actually, I have to confess, I was so agog at actually being in London that I didn't have Holmes in mind at all. Heresy, I know! This is embarassing to recount but when we arrived in Paddington Station on the Heathrow Express I didn't stop to think that this is the station mentioned most often in The Canon. Likewise, on the Victoria Embankment looking at the statue of Queen Boudicca (nifty statue by the way, I was ready to attack the Romans myself) while being crushed by Scandanavian and German school groups I didn't know that I was across the street from the building that housed New Scotland Yard until 1967. I'm equally embarassed to mention that I took the tube to Piccadilly Circus on my first night to go to the the Waterstones bookstore not noticing that I passed by the Criterion Theatre, a pivotal location for Holmes stories -- Watson met Stamford in the Criterion Bar which, of course led to meeting Sherlock Holmes. All this and more I discovered reading Alistair's book.

Alistair's book is a nice addition to a Sherlock Holmes reference library, one I will refer to as I read the stories, and one I plan to take with me on my next visit to London.

Bertram Fletcher Robinson: A Footnote to The Hound of the Baskervilles by Brian W. Pugh & Paul R. Spiring

MX Publishing Ltd., 2008. ISBN 9781904312406. 236 pages.

A professor I assist with research recently asked me if I could find more about Bertram Fletcher Robinson's contribution to the writing of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Alistair Duncan kindly directed me to this book. Since it wasn't available locally I decided that I needed a copy and, hurrah!, I received it for Christmas from my mother.

Pugh and Spiring have written an amazingly detailed accounting of BFR's life down to the rosters of sports teams. This book is interesting to me because of the complete picture it gives of the life of an educated Englishman. Some of the sports and education terminology can be a bit confusing to someone who didn't grow up in the same environment but the context made it possible to appreciate events recounted and the life and contributions of this interesting man.

Of course the main reason I made a Christmas request for this book is Robinson's connection with Arthur Conan Doyle (hereafter ACD) and his influence on The Hound of the Baskervilles and it did not disappoint in that area.

BFR and ACD were both in South Africa during the Second Boer War, ACD as a 'senior civil surgeon' and BFR as a correspondent for The Times. On 11 July 1900 ACD and BFR both departed South Africa on the steamship Briton. ACD wrote in his autobiography that it was on this trip that he cemented his friendship with BFR.

Two events important to Holmesians occured on this voyage. First, BFR asked Conan Doyle
..if it had occurred to him realized how easy it would be to implicate someone a man in a murder crime if you could obtain a finger-print of his in wax for reproduction in blood on a wall or some other obvious place near the scene of the crime.

Doyle offered Robinson fifty pounds for the idea which he subsequently used in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.

BFR also told ACD of a story set in Dartmoor that he intended to write and ACD was so taken with the idea that he asked if they could write it together. The authors point out that it isn't likely that the story idea had any resemblance to The Hound of the Baskervilles. BFR did go on to write two Dartmoor-based stories of his own.

Back in England, BFR dined with his friend and ex-editor Max Pemberton and the subject of phantom dogs came up. BFR described how people on the outskirts of Dartmoor swore that there was a huge retriever, coal black and with eyes that shone like fire. BFR described the discussion to Doyle and suggested that they write the story together.

ACD later wrote to his mother from Cromer where he was playing golf with BFR that Fletcher Robinson came here with me and we are going to do a small book together 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' -- a real creeper. As originally conceived, the book was not a Sherlock Holmes story but ACD later decided tha the story needed a powerful central figure and he had one at hand, Sherlock Holmes. Incorporating Holmes in the story also allowed ACD to get a higher rate per word than the publisher would be willing to pay without Holmes.

As it turned out, BFR did not actually write the story with ACD. The role he acknowledged was that of assistant plot producer. In a letter to BFR dictated by ACD to his secretary, ACD wrote:
It was your suggestion of a west county legend which first suggested the idea of this little tale to my mind. For this, and for the help which you gave me in its evolution, all thanks.

The authors also examine the controversy surrounding BFR's contribution with several publications (The Bookman in particular) asserting that The Hound of the Baskervilles was written entirely by BFR, that the character of Holmes is so unlike the Holmes of earlier stories that ACD couldn't have written it. It seems unlikely that ACD stole the story from BFR as the two continued to have a cordial relationship.

The Hound of the Baskervilles has gone on to become the most well-known and popular Holmes story and marked the return of Sherlock Holmes, though the story is set before Holmes' supposed death. It would not have come about without BFR's contribution and for this and the fingerprint in wax idea, Holmsians are indebted to Bertram Fletcher Robinson.

I am pleased to have added this book to my modest reference library.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sherlock Holmes -- The Movie

I am by no means a Sherlockian scholar but lately I have been immersing myself in Sherlock Holmes and I did get the three volume New Annotated Sherlock Holmes edited by Leslie Klinger for Christmas. Consequently, nothing would do but that I see the movie which I did on Boxing Day.

One line review: I enjoyed it, it was great fun, I wasn't offended, and I plan to see it again with my wife.

There are negative reviews that decry the deviation from The Canon (and, oddly, the earlier screen images of Holmes) but I'm with Leslie Klinger who says "Get a grip."

Yes, there is considerably more physical action than in the books; Holmes and Irene Adler have a relationship that continued after Scandal in Bohemia (apparently they had a favorite hotel room at the Grand Hotel); Watson is courting Mary Morstan though the Sign of the Four has not happened; Holmes is more a James Bond action hero than we expect.

But anyone who has read the stories will recognize the touches that characterize Holmes:
-- untidy habits
-- plucking at violin strings as he thinks
-- lethargy between cases
-- drug use (toughed upon very lightly)
-- skill at boxing
-- skill at single stick fighting
-- skill at baritsu
-- at least one direct quote Data! Data! Data! I can't make bricks without clay" he says to a Constable. (from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches). At least once Downy uses the famous Holmsian dictum that it is useless to speculate without sufficient data.
-- skill at observing
-- photo of Irene Adler in Holmes' room

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law work very well together as Holmes and Watson. There is humor and the comfortable bickering possible between fast friends. Like the Watson of the stories, movie Watson displays the same loyalty and courage. Eddie Marsan is spot on as Inspector Lestrade; he is much as I imagined him to be from the stories. I have read objections to Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler but I quite liked her and didn't have a problem with female character opposite the hero (as in Bond films).

If you can get past the re-imagining of Holmes and enjoy an action thriller then by all means see this movie. Personally, I will probably purchase it when it comes out on DVD and hope for a sequel next Christmas.

A few articles and reviews
The Screen Has Been Unfaithful to Holmes
My Precious Collection of Holmes Articles Inspired by the Movie
The Case of the Weird Sherlock Holmes Adaptations
The Brawling Supersleuth of 221B Baker Street Socks It to 'Em
The Burden of Holmes

Friday, December 18, 2009

Recent Articles on Sherlock Holmes, annotated

The Guy Richie/Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law Sherlock Holmes movie has has certainly done much to put The Great Detective back in public view and generate much analysis of Holmes past and present. I thought I would collect many of the the links that have appeared recently into one post.

Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes -- Faithful or Flawed? Holmes experts Leslie S. Klinger and Steven Rothman contributed to the article along with Guy Richie. Wired author Hugh Hart compares Downey's Hat, Pipe, Habits, Sanity, and Physique to Doyle's character.

Sherlock with a six-pack: Forget deerstalkers and piles, Guy Richie's Holmes is a ruthless, brawling superhero. Michael of the Mail Online examines Richie's rebooting of Doyle's iconic detective. Richie is quoted I know a lot of people will find our take on Holmes a bit of a travesty, but I am convinced this is the closest possible interpretation of what was in Conan Doyle’s mind.

Can I be complementary, my dear Watson? We celebrate flashy, insensitive Holmes, but it’s his sidekick’s common sense, bravery and friendship that we should admire Ben Macintire of the TimesOnline says that Dr Watson, MD, may be the most unfairly overshadowed character in English literature. Excellent contrast of Holmes and Watson.

Sherlock Holmes: The detective who wouldn't die. The sub-heading of this TimesOnline article by Simon Callow is: Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t bear the fame of his detective, but he couldn’t kill him off either. This is an excellent look at Holmes, the character, his development, what Doyle thought of Holmes, how our images has been shaped by such aspects as the names Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

Guy Ritchie casts off the deerstalker to reveal new Sherlock Holmes. The Times Online has certainly done its part to examine the new Sherlock Holmes movie in relation to the stories. Ben Hoyle looks at the past imagining of Holmes and the Holmes we will see in the movie.

Diagnosis - Hidden Clues. In this NY Times Magazine article, Dr. Lisa Sanders looks for clues to explain Holmes' more extreme characteristics.

The Real Sherlock Holmes Alex Knapp, in Heretical Ideas: A Journal of Unorthodox Ideas, believes that Judging by the photos and trailers, the upcoming Sherlock Holmes appears to be truer to the original stories than virtually any other adaptation. He discusses aspects of the film with examples from the canon stories and also says What is NOT true to Doyles’ Holmes is the popular TV and movie portrayals of him–which turned him into a classy, upper-class gentlemen.

Comparing Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes to Conan Doyle's Stories. Robert Davis writing in Paste Magazine has an excellent analysis of the movie backed up with quotes from the stories.

The London of Sherlock Holmes ... Mapped. This isn't an article but it is a fun contribution to the Sherlock Holmes madness the movie has generated. All the London locations mentioned in the stories are mapped. Interesting to look at the distribution.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition, 1978. ISBN 0-679-76658-8. 190 pages.

One Sentence Summary: Holmes and Watson aid Scotland Yard in the hunt for Jack the Ripper.

A skilled reviewer might be able to review this book without giving anything away but not me so count on the rest of this post containing major spoilers. If you intend to read The Last Sherlock Holmes Story and know nothing about it other that Holmes and Watson hunt The Ripper, stop now and go buy a copy. Amazon and Abe Books have lots of copies available. It is worth reading.

Ready to proceed?


You've been warned.

The first twist Dibdin hits us with is that Arthur Conan Doyle was, in fact, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories as they appeared in print. Watson provided his case notes for ACD to dramatize. However, as we later learn, all the stories that followed The Final Problem were entirely the creation of Conan Doyle.

The major revelation of this story, is that Sherlock Holmes was Jack the Ripper. This is what author Dibdin puts forth in this dark and disturbing contribution to the library of Holmes pastiches.

Holmes states that The Ripper is actually his old nemesis, Prof. Moriatry who, having grown bored masterminding his criminal enterprises, has turned to the high-risk activity of murder. He craves to possibility of capture.

Holmes has been appointed Acting Deputy Investigator in charge of the hunt and is now Lestrade's superior. Watson's world comes crashing one night during the search when he observes Holmes in the process of mutilating Mary Kelly while humming La donna e mobile.

He staggers home in shock. Could Holmes be the Ripper? Holmes leaves for the continent without seeing Watson again and Watson chooses not to report his suspicions.

Upon his return, Holmes seems his old self and apparently no longer addicted to cocaine. He reports that Morarty died during a struggle at the Reichenbach Falls. He and Watson resume their partnership, solving cases. Watson, however keeps close watch on Holmes. A new murder done in the style of Jack gives Watson some anxiety but he finds enough evidence that Holmes is innocent to rest easy.

Later, though, Holmes comes to Watson, completely distraught, saying that Moriatry isn't dead after all but back and after Holmes' life. After Holmes falls asleep in exhaustion, Watson visits one of his safe houses and discovers evidence of Holmes' guilt. He comes to terms with what he always knew, the evil that Holmes' had become, had to be destroyed.

Not wanting to ruin Holmes' reputation and the public's confidence in Holmes, Watson flees to the continent with him and nudging him to the Reichenbach Falls where he plans to kill him. Watson fails to kill Holmes and Holmes, completely deluded, accuses Watson of being Moriatry in disguise. Just before he kills Watson, he has a moment of clarity and kills himself by stepping off the edge of the falls.

Watson supplied Conan Doyle with case notes up to The Final Solution which was pure invention on the part of Watson. In a rather melancholy comment, Watson tells us that, when Conan Doyle began writing his own stories, that: By then Holmes had ceased to be remembered as a real figure, except by a small circle of acquaintances. He had become a fictional character.

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story is very much Watson's story and a sad story it is. Through his eyes we see the horror of the dawning recognition that his friend had gone insane. He puts his medical practice and marriage to Mary Morstan at risk to check on Holmes. In the end, he realizes that he must be the instrument of Holmes' death if the memory of his friend is to be preserved. His pain is compounded by his feelings of guilt: if he hadn't married he would have been available to Holmes in his time of need. He betrayed Holmes in his time of greatest need.

As I said at the beginning, this is a dark and disturbing contribution to the non-canonical stories Holmes stories. But like Nicholas Myer with The Seven Percent Solution, Dibdin is true to his sources. As Watson works through his analysis you see that he is identifying the most troublesome aspects of Holmes' character that could indicate his susceptibility to psychosis.

It was interesting reading Dibdin's book immediately following Myer's The Seven-Percent Solution. Both are excellent examples of how a skilled writer can a well known character and re-imagine that character. They went in different directions but both started with the idea that Holmes walked a thin edge between sanity and instability.

What are some the things we know about Holmes' character? We know that Holmes:
is addicted to cocaine
is arrogant and enjoys a feeling of superiority
he enjoys baffling the police
he demonstrates extreme mood swings
he hates being bored/craves stimulation
he enjoys The Game (the hunt, the investigation) and is interested only in cases that stimulate him

Could his need for stimulation lead him to the dark side?

Sign of the Four -- "What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them?

The Adventure of the Speckled Band -- "he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend toward the unusual, even the fantastic."

The Sign of the Four -- "...I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have had had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law, instead of exerting them in its defense."

Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans -- "It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal."

Here are several articles that discuss Holmes' possible mental disorder:

Diagnosis - Hidden Clues
Sherlock Holmes and Borderline Personality Disorder
Sherlock Holmes as Necessary Madman

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Sherlock Holmes Handbook, Ransom Riggs

The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: The Methods and Mysteries of the World's Greatest Detective. Quirk Productions, Inc. 2009. ISBN 978-1-59474-429-7. 221 pages.

From the Introduction:
Amidst the vast breadth of works written about Sherlock Holmes, the volume which you hold in your hands is unique. It seeks both the instruct the aspiring investigator in the ways of the master and to serve as an entree for the casual reader into the fascinating milieu, brilliant methods, and unorthodox habits of the world's most famous consulting detective.

Riggs' amusing and interesting book is written as if to instruct the reader in the essential knowledge needed to become a Victorian consulting detective. Examples from the Holmes canon illustrate how The Great Detective used these techniques in the course of his investigations.

Along with the forensic techniques such as analyzing footprints and bullet evidence, the author provides us with information not normally found in handbooks of detection. For example, without this book you might not otherwise know "How to Outwit a Criminal Mastermind," "How to Fake Your Own Death," and "How to Survive a Plunge over a Waterfall." And since he is using The Great Detective as his model, we also learn "How to Stage a Dramatic Entrance."

This is a fun book to include in your library of Sherlockian materials. It is as much instructive as it is amusing and might prove to be a nice introduction to Holmes for a reluctant reader.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Seven-Per-cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer

The Seven-Percent-Cent Solution being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. as edited by Nicolas Meyer. 1974.

It is 1891 and Sherlock Holmes' addiction to cocaine is destroying both his sanity and his life. In his drug saturated mind, Moriarty, a mild professor of mathematics and former tutor to Holmes and his brother Mycroft, has become the Napoleon of crime. Watson realizes that his friend is in desperate need of help when Moriarty approaches Watson threatening legal action against Holmes for persecuting him.

Watson goes to Mycroft and together they devise a plan to lure Sherlock to Vienna where Sigmund Freud may be able help him overcome his addiction. With a reluctant Moriatry leading the way, Holmes, Watson, and Toby the dog from The Sign of Four make their way across Europe to the home of Freud.

Freud is able to help Holmes break his physical dependence but his spirit is shattered. When Freud is asked to examine a woman who attempted suicide and is mute and traumatized, he invites Holmes and Watson along. The old Holmes emerges as he observes details about the woman and soon the game is afoot with the peace of Europe at stake.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a most enjoyable pastiche of Sherlock Holmes adventures. I wouldn't call it revisionist as much as a logical explanation of why Moriatry, The Napoleon of Crime, appears so little in the canon. Drawing on the theories of Holmsian scholars such as William S. Baring-Gould (Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A life of the world's first consulting detective) and Trevor Hall (Sherlock Holmes--Ten Literary Studies) Meyer convincingly explains the Moriatry matter as well as revealing why Holmes has such an antipathy toward women and what led him to become a consulting detective.

The character of Sigmund Freud is well chosen for this story. Freud was deeply concerned about cocaine addiction which makes pairing him with Holmes and Watson not at all a stretch. Holmes and Freud also find that medical diagnosis and detective investigation are quite similar in approach.

Holmians will appreciate Watson's introductory comments where he clears up a number of troubling matters. Stories like "The Lion's Main," "The Mazarin Stone," "The Creeping Man," and "The Three Gables" are of such poor quality because they are "forgeries by other hands than mine." Inconsistencies in "The Final Problem" and "The Adventure of the Empty House" are explained because they are "total fabrications" written to explain the events in and following The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.

The Seven Per-Cent Solution is a wonderful tribute to the Holmes stories that contributed to my enjoyment of the canon stories.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review - Billington: Victorian Executioner by Alison Bruce

The History Press, 2009. ISBN 978 0 7509 4774 9. 224 pages.

James Billington was fascinated with executions. At age 11, in an activity that today would have frightened the neighbors and seen him investigated and possibly incarcerated, he built a replica of a gallows in his backyard and practiced hanging dummies. In 1884, when he was 37, his fascination became reality when he performed his first hanging. He had not previously assisted in an execution which is a testament to his self-preparation. He then convinced the authorities to employ him as the official executioner for Yorkshire. In 1891, he became England's principle executioner. Between executions he was a barber. At the time of his death in 1901, he had hanged 151 men and women.

His sons Thomas, William, and John were also involved in executions though only William and John acted as executioners. Thomas assisted with the preparation of the condemned. With William officiating at 70 hangings and John at 14, the family total is 235. The last execution by a Billington was in 1905.

If you've read much Victorian literature, particularly crime fiction, you know of the threat of the gallows. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes said that he had handled over 500 cases of capital importance meaning that an execution that resulted from many of those cases could have been carried out by a Billington.

The author chose to present a cross-section of the executions handled by the Billingtons rather than feature only high profile cases. Fueled by alcohol, rage, desperation, and desire, women and children were too often the victims in the crimes. But there are also cases of incredibly callous taking of a life. There are the baby farmers Amelia Elizabeth Dyer, Amelia Sach, and Annie Walters, for example. A baby farmer took advantage of economic hardship in families by adopting children for payment. It seems more like what we call foster care today. They were to care for the child or place it with another family. Instead, some pocketed the money and murdered the babies.

James Billington handled the high-profile execution of Dr. Thomas Cream, who poisoned prostitutes in England and Canada. We think of Victorian England as stuffy and prudish but prostitution was widespread and Bruce describes just how widespread it was and how pathetic the lives of the prostitutes. The profile of Cream is fascinating, a sociopath and serial killer who couldn't help drawing attention to himself. There has been speculation that Cream might have been Jack the Ripper. Indeed, just as he was dropped he is reported to have said 'I'm Jack the ...'. Billington wanted to be known as "The Man who Hanged Jack the Ripper" and probably embellished the story in reports to further his reputation.

Alison's book is satisfying in several ways. Historically, she presents a side of Victorian England that might be unfamiliar to many of us. Putting the events into the context of the times, post-industrial revolution Britain, makes it more than a catalog of executions. Where Bruce goes into detail, we also see some of police procedures of the time. Investigations were better handled than I thought.

Perhaps more important to readers of crime fiction, Alison's shows the reader what happened after the trial. Unlike the present, there was no long delay between sentencing. The execution could not, by law, exceed one calendar month but the condemned was only guaranteed three clear Sundays. The Home Office - at the time responsible for the prison system - was very concerned that executions be properly handled, quickly and efficiently. And, by no means morbidly, Alison gives the reader a description of the procedures followed in conducting an execution.

Supplementing the test are illustrations (including trial sketches), appendices describing execution ropes, a newspaper account of the school for hangmen, and an index of executions. The author was also able to interview Nigel Preston, James Billington's great, great, grandson and William Billington's great grandson. His present day reflections on his notorious relatives nicely rounds out the book.

I highly recommend Alison's book to anyone interested in the history of capital punishment, history of Victorian England, and Victorian crime fiction.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Comments: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest by Stieg Larsson

MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus), 2009. ISBN 978-1-906694-16-6. 601 p.
English translation by Reg Keeland

There are many excellent and perceptive reviews of this last book in the Millennium trilogy so I am going to limit myself to a few observations. I have included links to some reviews at the end of this post.

  • Being monolingual, I can't compare the original Swedish to the English translation but Keeland has made it a smooth, natural read. I wouldn't have thought that it was as translation.

  • Bernadette at Reactions to Reading (link below) puts it in the journalistic and legal thriller genres. I would add that there is also a some spy thriller and I wouldn't have minded a bit more police procedural action.

  • Part 1 was interesting and kept my attention but starting with part 2, binge reading took me over and found it difficult to stop. I was sorry to turn the last page knowing that there wouldn't be another book in the series.

  • Larsson could be a bit pedantic and slip into lecture mode but I didn't mind. In fact, I'm astonished at how he kept me interested in detail about Swedish politics, the organization of the police forces, and Sweden's legal system.

  • Lisbeth Salander has less of a role than in the first two books but when she is there you are reminded what a unique character she is.

  • As I read, I wondered how much of Larsson's intent was to focus more on those willing to take risks to see justice for Salander thus intentionally putting her more in the background for much of the book. Salander does change a little (and grudgingly) at the end. This may be a "well duh" comment but it did run through my mind.

  • Larsson can really make you angry at the arrogant abuse of power.

  • I really enjoyed how the court room drama played out.

Highly recommended but don't start here. You need to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire first.

South London Books.
Maxine's Review at Euro Crime

Reactions To Reading
DJs Krimiblog
International Noir Fiction
Nick Cohen writing in The Observer section of Guardian UK

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review: The Rule Book, Rob Kitchin

Pen Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-906710-57-6. 350 pages.
Author's blog: The View from the Blue House.

Detective Superintendent Colm McEvoy is called to the scene of murder where the body of a young woman has been found in a way suggesting that she passively accepted her death. The case gets even stranger when a document is found at the scene written as the first chapter in a self-help guide for serial killers. Soon after, a search of the area locates six carefully placed business cards advertising The Rule Book with a picture of a raven. Does this mean six more victims?

As bodies of the second and third victims are found on succeeding days, it becomes clear that a serial killer is at work in Dublin.

Choosing a serial killer story for your first crime fiction novel is a bold move. It is too easy for stories in this genre for the focus become one of shocking the reader with graphic gore. So I was very pleased to see that Kitchin has written a very good police procedural that features a serial killer. This isn't to say that there isn't violence, there is, but it isn't drawn out in a voyeuristic fashion. There is one exception but I looked at it as means of showing just how far the killer has separated himself from any remaining humanity.

I don't want to say too much about the killer, The Raven. The hunt is intercut with scenes from The Raven's point of view and more of his methods are revealed. He is arrogant in his feeling of superiority and disdain for the police but not infallible. The way the clues are constructed and what the police do with them is clever, unique even, and adds to the enjoyment of the story.

Colm McEvoy is sympathetic and engaging character. He is still morning the death of his wife and trying to be a good father to his daughter while conducting the hunt for a psychopath. With few clues to go on, he knows that there will have to be more deaths until a pattern emerges.

With serial killers rare in Ireland, the case gets world-wide attention and pressure from superior on the police force, politicians, and the press to produce results. Added to McEvoy's problems is Charlie Deegan, an ambitious, arrogant, and back-stabbing young detective whose interest is more in making a name for himself that being a member of the team and is not above keeping information to himself.

I liked the way Kitchin builds the tension and shows how the responsibility wears on McEvoy. I really felt his frustration and weariness as leads go nowhere and the dread of more bodies bears down on him.

The author has also developed a good cast of supporting characters. In addition to the other detectives, there is Hannah Fallon, the no-nonsense leader of the crime scene investigation, Elaine Jone, the state pathologist who is determined not to let McEvoy sink into him misery, and Kathy Jacobs, a Scottish profiler. Charlie Deegan is used effectively to add tension and will also make an excellent recurring character.

Kitchin has the foundation for a good series and I closed the book wishing that there already was a sequel available.

I enjoyed The Rule Book and the story, characters, and writing style make it one I would recommend to readers who like police procedurals and can handle some graphic gore.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Teaching Holmes - Pastiche and Parody

WARNING: Long post and ponderous. Includes a list of print and internet resources at the end.

I'm assisting two professors with crime fiction themed freshman seminars this Fall. I gave presentations on searching library resources and the Internet for material related to detective fiction and Sherlock Holmes to three classes. It is interesting to try to condense the searching possibilities into 45 minute to an hour sessions when I could talk half a day on any single source.

I was talking with one of the instructors about my interest in parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes and she offered me the opportunity to discuss this topic with the class. Last Thursday night night was the night. It's been a long time since I had to do any class prep so my timing and organization were a bit off but it was fun... for me anyway. Here are the highlights of what I covered.

I defined pastiche as something done in the style of, or recognizably influenced by an author's works, akin to an homage. This is more of a popular culture approach than a formal literary definition.


One approach to a pastiche is to write a story the way Doyle would have done. The fun comes in when the author takes a theme, style, or character and develops new situations and twists. What if Watson was smarter than Holmes; Moriarty wasn't a villain; Holmes got married; Holmes met Dracula; Holmes was involved with Jack the Ripper; Holmes resisted the Martians in The War of the Worlds. The problem is that it you frequently end up with pastiches and parodies that are clumsy, forced, and just don't work.

Sherlock Holmes is an ideal subject for pastiches.

The legalities of using the Holmes character and events from stories are tricky. In the U.K. all sherlock Holmes stories are in the public domain. In the U.S., stories published before 12/31/1922 are in public domain but not those after.

Holmes is known to more people than any other fictional character and there are Sherlock Holmes societies around the world.

More parodies and pastiches have been written about Holmes than any other fictional character. In The Alternative Sherlock Holmes: Pastiches, Parodies and Copies, Peter Ridgeway Watt and Joseph Green write:
Sherlock Holmes is unique. His creation gave rise to an extraordinary sub-genre, the Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which has, indeed, become a literary form in its own right.

Watt and Green point out only a few other detectives have been the subject of pastiches - Philip Marlowe, Nero wolf, James Bond.

The first known period pastiche (conforming to "the historical and geographical domains of the Canon") appeared in 1893, five or six years after A Study in Scarlet and was written by J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan), a close friend of Doyle.

Doyle himself gave the world the motivation for writing pastiches. In The Problem of Thor Bridge, Watson tells the reader about the "travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box...crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious problems, which Mr. Sherlock Holmes has at various times to examine." And in The Five Orange Pips, Watson writes "I am faced with so many which present strange and interesting features that it is no easy matter to know which to choose and which to leave."

In the Canonical works, Watson alludes to over 100 cases investigated by Holmes but about which chose not to publish or Holmes wouldn't let him.

We looked at the trailer for the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie which will be released Christmas day, 2009. Having read Holmes' stories, the class felt that, based on the trailer, if the names Sherlock Holmes and Watson were removed there would be no way to tell that this is a Sherlock Holmes story. It comes across as more of a Victorian James Bond.

I see the Sherlock Holmes pastiches as falling into six groups. Most of these are actually sub-groups but there are enough works that can be assigned to each that they deserve to be treated separately.

1. Cases mentioned in the Canon but not published (more than 100).
The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr.

2. New cases not based on references in the Canon.
The Italian Secretary, Caleb Carr
The Final solution, Michael Chabon

3. New case involving historical characters or events
Sigmond Freud - The Seven Percent Solution, Nicholas Meyer
Jack the Ripper - Castle Rouge, Carole Nelson Douglas
Jack the Ripper - The Last Detective Story, Michael Dibdin

4. New cases involving fictional characters and events
Dracula - The Tangled Skein, David Stuart Davis
Mary Russell - The Beekeeper's Apprentice (and others), Laurie R. King Mary Russell and Holmes marry. King also links Holmes with her modern day San Francisco police detective, Kate Martinelli.
War of the Worlds - Sherlock Holmes' War of the Worlds, Manley Wade Wellman

5. Reworkings of Canonical cases
Irene Adler, A Scandal in Bohemia - Goodnight, Mr. Holmes, Carole Nelson Douglas. William Baring-gould speculated that Holmes and Adler later had an affair in Montenegro that produced a son, Nero Wolfe.

6. Stories that somehow relate to Holmes
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Mark Haddon
Holmes on the Range, Steve Hockensmith

NOTE: I had started on my outline of types of pastiches when Rafe McGregor posted Sherlock Holmes for Beginners on his blog. It was quite useful and provided examples of book falling into his categories. Thanks Rafe.

I asked if someone could write a story that would be instantly recognizable as a Sherlock Holmes story without mentioning Sherlock Holmes. I described Michael Chabon's story, The Final Solution, where the names Sherlock Holmes and Watson are never mentioned. The story takes place in 1944.

Chabon tells us that the old man is reading The British Bee Journal and has a "battered coal-scuttle in which he had once kept his pipes." He is asked by the local police to assist in a case and at the crime scene "...he reached into the old conjuror's pocket sewn into the lining of his cloak and took out his glass. It was brass and tortoise shell, and bore around its bezel an affectionate inscription from the sole great friend of his life." And if those are not enough clues, one of the local detectives thinks, "He had heard the tales, the legends, the wild, famous leaps of induction pulled off by the old man in his heyday, assassins inferred from cigar ash, horse thieves from the absence of a watchdog's bark."

Holmes "lived" in a particularly rich time for stories that cross-over with Science fiction and Horror. Shadows over Baker Street is a collection of stories associating Holmes with the H.P. Lovecraft universe. For example, "A Case of Royal Blood" by Steven-Elliott Altman pairs Holmes and H.G. Wells in a secret and sensitive case involving the royal family of Holland mentioned in "A Scandal in Bohemia" and "A Case of Identity".


Parody is a near relation of pastiche. I see the parody as not mean-spirited or disrespectful but an exaggeration of characteristics.

Watt and Green write that
The Sherlock Holmes parody sub-genre is exceptional in several ways: not only in its extent, but in that the 'turns of thought and phrase' of both the author and the characters he created are its central subject."

The authors describe a book of parodies, Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie and Murder in Pastiche where Marion Mainwarning parodies nine contemporary fictional detectives.
after that, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes, there has been almost nothing. No major parodies of any of the other great detectives of the twentieth century would seem to have been written.

Watt and Green describe the characteristics that make the Sherlock Holmes stories unique. These characteristics could apply to pastiche as well as parody.

1. The style, the ingenuity, seemingly inexhaustible detail of the stories; the ambience of 221B Baker Street; the setting of Victorian London with fog, hansome cabs, gas-lite lamps, blundering police.

2. The name Sherlock Holmes. Watt and Green believe that had the name been something plainer it wouldn't have inspired parody. Early parodies used such names for Holmes and Watson as
Picklock Holes and Dr. Potson
Thinlock bones and Dr. Whatsoname
Hemlock Jones
Shamrock Jones and Dr. Whatsup

3. Watson. Prior the Holmes, sideicks/assistants/chroniclers were not well developed.
The invention of Watson was, perhaps the one single factor that established the uniqeness and the pre-eminence of the Sherlock Holmes Canon.
Doyle's first choice for a name was 'Ormond Sacker'.

4. Holmes' powers of logical deduction, his arrogance, being nearly always right are characteristics that can be used in both parody as well as pastiche.
In parody, Holmes can be not merely arrogant, but pompous; not always right, not even sometimes right, but wrong. His methods can be copied and then shown to be fallacious.

We two looked at two examples of a Sherlock Holmes parody.
"How Watson Learned the Trick" by Doyle himself. Here Watson tries to show Holmes that he has learned the trick of making seemingly improbable deductions, but is totally wrong.

"The Really Final Solution" by Nick Pollotta where the author exaggerates the wild machinations to bring down the criminal
"But then, when the little blonde girl asked for more --"
"We had already had the mastiff tied and helpless!"
"So, the carriage ride to the boathouse--"
"Was a sham! And therefore--"

The students preferred Doyle's parody of his own work to Pollotta's. Doyle's parody was more subtle in that was close to scenes that happened in the stories while Pollotta went with wild exaggeration.

Watt, Peter Ridgway and Green, Joseph. The Alternative Sherlock Holmes: Pastiches, Parodies and Copies. Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003. ISBN 0 7546 0882 4. An excellent resource book

Kaye, Marvin (ed.). The Game is Afoot: Parodies, Pastiches and Ponderings of Sherlock Holmes. St. Martin's Press, NY, 1994. ISBN 0 312 10468 5. Excellent collection that includes interesting commentary.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Robert Hale: London, revised, expanded, and illustrated, 2001. ISBN 0 7090 6738 0. Contains the parody "How Watson Learned the Trick." Editor Peter Haining makes the case that there are twelve more stories that should be included in the Canon.

Reaves, Michael and Pelan, John, editors. Shadows Over Baker Street: New tales of Terror. Del Rey, 2005. ISBN 978-0345452733. A generally good marriage of Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft in horror pastiches. I particularly like the Neil Gaiman contribution, A Study in Emerald, which won the 2004 Hugo for Best Short Story.


Rafe McGregor. Crime Stories & Weird Tales. This is an all around great blog and source of discussion about Sherlock Holmes. I drew upon Sherlock Holmes for Beginners for this presentaiton.

Eternally My Dear Watson. A nice overview of the Sherlock Holmes spoof.

There is also an index to Canonical characters.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sherlock Holmes (Canon and Pastiche). Nice annotated lists.

Sherlockian.Net: Pastiches, parodies and new stories. some of the links no longer work but is an good resource.

Parodies at Crimeculture. Has reference to film parodies of Sherlock Holmes. Interesting site for discussion of crime.

Whodunit: a serial of aliasses. This is an Ellery Queen site but this page has an interesting discussion of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.

Sherlockian Who's Who. I looked here when gauging the current popularity of Sherlock Holmes.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Traveling with a Kindle

Breaking News: It looks like the U.K. will finally be getting the Kindle. The Register Hardware website posted this story yesterday.

I gave my Kindle its real first travel test on a recent trip to the U.K. The Kindle (or Ken Doll as my wife insists on referring to it), loaded with 5 books, fit nicely into my backpack, taking nearly no room. I did take one softcover book for "just in case" situations. We were on a night flight and the LED clip-on I purchased along with the Kindle worked well - no problems reading, eyestrain, annoying fellow passengers.

I charged it once, just to top off the batteries before the flight home. It can handle British current, all I needed was a plug adapter.

During the trip Declan Burke posted that Crime Always Pays (in Kindle format only), his sequel to The Big O, was available on Amazon. I couldn't use Kindle's built-in wireless but I had my laptop and access to wifi and it took a couple of minutes to download the book and copy it to the Kindle.

There was one unsettling moment, though. I was reading Crime Always Pays and the Kindle appeared to reset itself, leaving me with only the dictionary. I turned it off and on but that fixed nothing. It was good that I had packed Bill James' The Lolita Man. I turned Kindle on two days later and all the content had reappeared. Amazon has no explanation, one of those things.

I was pleased with the Kindle for long trips (unsettling moment notwithstanding) and appreciate the convenience and its slim profile in my backpack. I will still carry one softcover on trips.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Holiday Post 1 - Driving in the U.K. : A Yank on the Left

The first photo shows us beaming as we turned in our car hire at Heathrow without having to pay the damage deductible.

I would say that the Brits are good drivers and they know how to maneuver. My fear was that I would zig when they expected me to zag.

If you are a Yank driving in the U.K. for the first time, I recommend:

  • Automatic transmission - I don't care how skilled you are in the U.S. there will be Many times when you don't want to be fumbling for the gear shift.

  • Get something small. That large car might be great leaving the airport on the motorways but wait until you move on to the A and B roads, driving between hedgerows, and town and village driving.

  • A GPS might be something to get with the car hire. We spent a lot of time trying to find a place to turn around after missing a turn. This is harder to do than you might think.

  • If you are going to do a lot of country driving, invest in good maps. That Michelin map of Great Britain & Ireland you purchased in the U.S. is great for getting an idea of distances but won't work on a smaller scale. Fortunately someone left a road atlas at the car hire and they loaned it to us. Even that wasn't detailed enough at times.

  • Someone in the front passenger seat is quite helpful. I found it difficult to judge distances on the left when driving in towns and villages. The streets are narrow and you are usually driving past parked cars while facing fast moving traffic that appears to be occupying the same lane as you.

  • Have a mobile phone. Seriously. Check with your service at home to see the available options.

  • Look up road signs and driving rules before you go over. There are many good web sites including this one for a brief overview. Just do a google search for UK driving

  • I thought about this after but I wonder if someone driving in the U.K. for the first time could get a New Driver magnetic sign for the back of the car? I saw one of these on several cars.

  • See if Jason Statham (the Transporter) is available as a driver.

The week I spend driving in the U.K. was the most intense experience I have ever had behind the wheel. Once you get off the motorways (equivalent to our interstate highways) you find yourself on small, often very twisty roads with blind curves that would be adequate for a Mini Cooper but are bi-directional and driven by all size vehicles including buses, delivery vans, Land Rovers, etc.

My first experience with intense town driving was in Bovey Tracey on the way to Dartmoor. Due to a missed turn I found myself driving through town center - one lane, vehicles parked on the right, bi-directional traffic, vans, buses, other cars including Land rovers. The traffic flow almost seemed choreographed with cars shifting right and left in an instantaneous judgement of who needed to give way to an oncoming vehicle. Also very polite, you get a nice wave when you have yielded. No place for competitive, "I gotta get there first", driving.

Once we made it to Dartmoor we found ourselves driving between very high hedgerows on a single lane road with blind curves and no idea if there was an oncoming car. Occasionally there would be a 1.5 foot widening so that you can pull over to let someone by but there are times when a driver has to reverse to give way. But it works and I can't say I was ever close to a head-on.

The U.K. has, roughly, a trillion roundabouts, maybe a trillion five, some within yards of each other. I learned to love the roundabout. Sometimes the signs within the roundabout would be different than the diagram on the sign leading into the roundabout which made it interesting to figure out which road to take. The Brits, as I observed, know when to yield and traffic generally flowed smoothly in and out.

While filled with anxiety and tension, driving was an interesting part of the experience of being in the U.K. and I won't hesitate to hire a car on our next trip.

Books acquired on our trip to the U.K.

The photo show me in Heathrow waiting for my flight to be called, reading the last item purchased on our trip.

I traveled to the U.K. with carry-on luggage convinced that would limit my compulsion to buy books. That cunning plan did work, sort of, considering that I could have fit at least five more books into my suitcase. The customs agent at Heathrow was impressed at what I was carrying and asked if I was a librarian (I am).

Unfortunately, so convinced that I could restrain myself, I didn't have a list of titles with me and thus panicked when faced with shelves of books and forgot three quarters of the titles I wanted.

Here is what came back with me:

Winnings from the Crime Scraps Fiendish Quiz. The photo was taken at Greenway, Agatha Christie's summer home and shows me being congratulated by Norman, the perpetrator of the quiz.

Neon Mirage, Max Allan Collins
Diamond Dove, Adrian Hyland
A Deal with the Devil, Martin Suter

Books Purchased
Tally - 9 books, 1 hardback, 8 softcover.

The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie. How could I go to Greenway and not buy a book?

Mystery Man, Bateman. Waterson's at Picadilly Circus. I was talking to a lady just finishing this book in a Hummus Bros restaurant (terrific place by the way) and she loves Bateman for his irreverent humor and the Northeren Ireland setting.

The Ice Princess, Camilla Lackberg. Waterson's at Picadilly Circus.

Light Reading, Aliya Whiteley. WH Smith in Cheltenham. I chatted with Aliya on Crimespace and was happy to find a copy of her book. I'm 25 pages in and enjoying it.

The Dead and The Dark Eye, Ingrid Black. Hay-on-Wye, Wales. I got a copy of her third book, The Judas Heart, from Declan Burke and enjoyed the characters, the story, and the setting (Dublin) so coming across the first two books in the series was an excellent find.

Lonely Hearts, John Harvey. Hay-on-Wye, Wales. This is the first Charley Resnick story and I've been looking for it for a while.

King of the Streets, John Baker. Hey-on-Wye, Wales. I was looking for Winged with Death but couldn't find a copy anywhere. This is the third Sam Turner.

The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq, Criminal, Spy and Private Eye, James Morton. Hay-on-Wye, Wales. I'm interested in the antecedents to crime fiction and Vidocq influenced Arthur Conan Doyle as he developed Holmes' methodologies. Vidocq helped found the Sureté, the French detective bureau.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Side Trip on the SHRC: The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, Michael Chabon

Harpercollins, 2004. ISBN 0-06-076340-X. 131 pages.

I suppose one could say that there are spoilers ahead but nothing that should diminish reading enjoyment. This is the second time I've read this book and, if anything, I enjoyed it more this time.

It is 1944 and an old beekeeper stops a young boy from an act that might have been fatal. The boy, who cannot or will not talk, is accompanied by an African gray parrot. The old man is surprised when the parrot begins reciting a strings of numbers in German. The old man speaks German to the boy and determines that is his native language. The boy and his parrot walk away without satisfying the old man's curiosity.

We then learn that the boy lives in a boarding house run by Mrs. Panicker, an Anglo married to a high church Anglican vicar who is "a Malayalee from Kerala, black as a bootheel." The other residents include their son, Reggie, a larcenous layabout, Mr. shane, a traveling salesman, and Mr. Parkins, a researcher in architectural history. We get the impression that there might be more to Shane and Parkins than is apparent.

The old man is sitting outside his front door when Inspector Bellows and Detective Quint arrive to consult with the old man. Bellows has a problem and admits to the old man that "I'm new on the job, down here learning the ropes, as they say, and don't at all overrate my capabilities." The old man knew Bellows' grandfather who was also a policeman. "I have know a great many policeman" the old man says to Bellows and Quint.

A murder has occurred at the boarding house. Shane has been murdered by a savage blow from behind and Reggie has been arrested. The old man is not at all interested in getting involved until Bellows tells him that the parrot, Bruno, is missing. The old man finally agrees to look into the matter but only to find the parrot.

I was thinking about pastiches and homages to Sherlock Holmes when I remembered this little book and how much I enjoyed it. One feature that makes the book fun is that the name Sherlock Holmes never appears. Instead, we get clues from page one showing us that the 89 year old man is The Great Detective.

  • When we meet him he is reading The British Bee Journal.

  • We are told that "he had once made his fortune and his reputation through a long and brilliant series of extrapolations from unlikely groupings of facts."

  • He has a great beak of a nose.

  • He retired in 1914.

  • He has "a battered coal scuttle in which he had once kept his pipes."

  • His magnifying glass was a gift from the "sole great friend of his life."

Chabon wonderfully captures Holmes as an old man, toward the end of his life. It is both sad and affirming. Holmes' great intellect and deductive skills are diminished but what remains is enough to see the case through to a satisfying end.

Chabon's writing captures a nostalgia for Holmes in his prime and is quite evocative. I had to wipe my eyes several times as I read. Here is a passage from a page chosen at random:
Long life wore away everything that was not essential. Some old men finished their lives as little more than the sum total of their memories, others as nothing but a pair of grasping pincers, or a set of bitter axioms proved. It would please him well enough to amount to no more in the end than a single great organ of detection, reaching into the blackness for a clue.

This is an excellent story that Holmesians should enjoy. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Corduroy Mansions 2: The Dog Who Came In From The Cold, Alexander McCall Smith

I was asked if I would like to take part in an ‘Online Blogger Book Club’ for Alexander McCall Smith's second Corduroy Mansions novel, The Dog Who Came In from The Cold. It doesn't fall in one of the sub-genres of crime fiction I usually write about but, on occasion, I feel the need to pass something light and fun across my synapses to maintain a soupcon of balance.

As with the first Corduroy Mansions, it will appear in the Telegraph - Alexander McCall Smith - Corduroy Mansions and as a podcast, beginning Monday, 21 September.

I've received the first five chapters and, while I'm forbidden from quoting or providing details until the chapters are available online, I can say that if you enjoyed the first Corduroy Mansions you will be happy with the sequel. The appeal of the Corduroy Mansions stories for me is the same enjoyment I get from reading P. G. Wodehouse: gentle humor, quirky characters, and a slightly skewed look on life.

There is also a Corduroy Mansions Facebook page.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Humor in the SHRC: The Case of the Two Watsons

I stumbled upon Kate Beaton's web comic, Hark, a vagrant, today. She has a funny look at Sherlock Holmes -- The Case of the Two Watsons -- that seems appropriate considering the movie coming out in December. Think of Jude Law when you get to panel eight.

While you're there, check out the archives, you'll be astonished at the range of topics in the previous comics.

Review: Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates has won a National Book award, been nominated for two Pulitzer's, and, according to Wikipedia, might have a shot at the Nobel Prize for Literature. When I heard that someone with those credentials had written a novel told from the viewpoint of a serial killer, I was curious and kept an eye out for a copy. Saturday I found one and Sunday I read it...just after finishing the latest Dexter book.

In an interview with Salon, Oates says that the N.Y. Times commissioned her to write an essay on the literature of serial killers and she read 35 books for her research. The Wikipedia article on Zombie says that it was based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer.

The format of the book is like a cross between a first person narrative and a journal. It jumps around in chronology as a narrator might do but it includes drawings like a journal.

Quentin P. is in his thirties and on probation for attempting to molest a young black boy. He is creepy but his mother and father support and defend him, he's good to his grandmother, his therapists think he's making progress, he has a job, and his parole officer doesn't see any problems. He is also a serial killer obsessed with the desire to create what he calls MY ZOMBIE by performing a transorbital lobotomy using an ice pick. Dahmer also thought he could create a zombie, though by different means. Quentin reasons that
A true ZOMBIE would be mine forever. He would obey every command & whim. Saying "Yes, Master" & "No, Master." He would kneel before me lifting his eyes to me saying, "I love you, Master. There is no one but you, Master."

& so it would come to pass, & so it would be. For a true ZOMBIE could not say a thing that was not, only a thing that was. His eyes would be open & clear but there would be nothing inside them seeing. & nothing behind them thinking. Nothing passing judgment.
This passage is representative of the style of writing in book: use of ampersands, capitalization,fragmented sentences, stream of consciousness flow of words. The book puts the reader inside the head of a sexual psychopath giving an all too real feeling that you are seeing what he sees and hear his thoughts.

I found Zombie to more disturbing and horrifying than Brett Ellis' American Psycho, a book I didn't think could be topped. Where American Psycho has a strong element of satire, Zombie is pure horror. In fact, it won the Bram Stoker Award given for superior achievement in horror writing.

You will find a very detailed description and analysis of Zombie at

It was an interesting contrast to follow my reading of Dexter By Design with Zombie. Quentin is the kind of person you would like for Dexter to target. But where Dexter is played for dark comedy, Quentin is a glimpse at what a real serial killer might be like and it works on the fear that such a person could be anywhere.

Zombie is an extraordinary piece writing and there are not many writers who could pull it off. However, I would only recommend it to someone who has a serious interest in the serial killer sub-genre of thrillers/crime fiction.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review: Dexter by Design, Jeff Lindsay

Dexter Morgan and his wife Rita are in Paris on their honeymoon as the book opens. Rita is enthralled with all things Parisian but Dexter and his Dark Passenger are impatient that they aren't in a place safe to exercise their homicidal proclivities. On leaving the Louvre they are handed a flyer advertising an exhibit of performance art called Jennifer's Leg. This does satisfy Dexter's inner dark needs.

Back at work in Miami, Dexter is sent to a crime scene where he finds the bodies of a man and woman - "pale, overweight, and hairy" - decoratively arranged in a theme guaranteed to send shudders through the tourism industry. Almost immediately, another body, also artfully arranged in a tourism themed pose, is discovered.

Soon Dexter finds his sister in the hospital and himself and his new family stalked and in danger of becoming part of an art project.

Dexter by Design is an entertaining read. Dexter is given some excellent sarcastic and sardonic commentary and the anti-tourism themed performance art is amusingly macabre.

As for me, while I enjoyed parts, I find it is time to part company with the book series. The previous book, Dexter in the Dark, really annoyed me when it revealed the Dexter's Dark Passenger is actually the spawn of an entity that has existed since earth's beginnings jumping from life form to life form until humans gained sentience. That aspect of Dexter isn't played up as much here but the presence of a giggling dark force that exists separately from but motivates Dexter is not what I want in crime fiction. It moves it out of any possibility of social commentary and into the realm of the supernatural. I'm not opposed to that sub-genre but it isn't what I want in a story.

Dexter in the Dark introduced a sub-plot involving Rita's children Cody and Aster and their relationship with Dexter. It is continued here and is one that I'm not comfortable with. I would have a serious problem with the books if that storyline progresses much further in the direction it seems to be going.

I would recommend Dexter by Design for readers who enjoyed all three of the previous books. They will find much to please them.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Side Trip on the SHRC: On the Wrong Track, Steve Hockensmith

First sentence: Few things dampen a man's appreciation for natural splendor more quickly than the sound of another man retching.

With that opening, Big Red (Otto) and Old Red (Gus) Amlingmeyer are off on another detectifying adventure in the West of 1893. The boys finally have the opportunity to be real detectives courtesy of a recommendation from a legendary, old-school Pinkerton agent named Burl Lockhart. They are hired by the Southern Pacific railroad and sent on the express train to San Francisco for training. The railroad has all the best men looking for the Give-'em Hell Boys who have been robbing trains and they need men not likely to be spies for the gang.

It doesn't take long for the first body to appear and Old Red gets to apply the analytical techniques of his hero, Sherlock Holmes. With murder, the threat of train robbers, passengers who may be more than they seem, no respect from the train crew, and a bad case of motion sickness, Gus finds his confidence challenged.

On the Wrong Track is the second adventure of Old Red and Big Red. I reviewed the first, Holmes on the Range, here. Like the first book in the series, it is a fun homage to Holmes and Watson. There is less direct reference to Holmes' techniques but there are numerous references to the stories that will amuse the fans of Sherlock Holmes.

There is a different flavor to the story since it is set on a train where Holmes on the Range took place on a ranch. Their fellow passengers are not the common cowboys Gus and Otto are used to dealing with which changes the dynamic considerably.

Gus does his deducifying with Otto, his reluctant Watson, backing him up. Along the way the author looks deeper into the relationship between the brothers, an aspect that I enjoyed and appreciated. It develops them as characters and tightens the relationship with the reader.

It is a good story, well told, with earthy humor and I recommend it (after you've read Holmes on the Range first).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Resisting A Day Without Cats

By way of Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine I visited URLesque where they called for 9.9.09 to be a day without cats on the Internet. While their motives are good (i.e. give the cats a rest) I believe it is possible that this will cause a rip in the fabric of reality so I am posting a photo to hold back disaster.

This is me holding Tyke, one of two feral cats that lived in the woods behind the library where I work. Owen the Grey (not pictured) is the other. I fed them regularly and they became used to me. I got word that someone was going to complain about the cats so I rescued them and found them a home as indoor cats. They adapted well to their new lives.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Review: Wake Up Dead, Roger Smith

This review is based on an ARC of Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith, (the author of Mixed Blood). Wake Up Dead will be published by Henry Holt & Co in February 2010. Roger lives in Cape Town, South Africa. His web site is Roger Smith Books. You can jump to a link of a video trailer for Wake Up Dead as well as links that show the environment in which Wake Up Dead is set here.

First Sentence: "The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore."

Roxy is an American ex-model married to a gunrunner and broker for mercenaries. The book opens with a business dinner where Joe and the elegantly dressed cannibal (he might only have eaten one heart for the cameras) are finalizing a deal.

Unknown to Joe and Roxy, when they leave the restaurant they are followed by two low-level thugs from Cape Flats -- Disco De Lilly and Godwynn MacIntosh. Joe and Roxy are hijacked at the gate to their house, Joe is wounded, and the gangsters leave in Joe's Benz. Roxy makes a decision that leaves her husband dead and her a not-so-grieving widow.

The point of view shifts to Billy Afrika, an ex-cop just back from Iraq where he worked for a contractor providing security services for the U.S. Billy's employment had been brokered by Joe Palmer and Billy would like to know why he hasn't been paid. Arriving back in Cape Town, Billy returns to the Flats needing a weapon. He meets people from his past who will have a part in the story including a detective with the unfortunate name of Ernie Maggott. Ernie remembers Billy from when he also was a Cape Town detective and doesn't remember Billy fondly. He also wants out of the Flats and is looking for the big case to get him promoted.

Meanwhile, Disco De Lilly is consumed by the fear of a psychopath named Piper. Piper is still in Pollsmoor Prison but that doesn't lessen Disco's fear. While in prison himself, Disco was Piper's "wife" and the crude tattoos carved into his body reflect Piper's obsession. Billy and Piper also have a history.

The hijacking, Roxy's actions, the obsession of an imprisoned psychopath, and the return of Billy Afrika start a chain of events that will leave a bloody trail through the Cape Flats and culminate on a Cape Town beach.


Why are there photographs of a knife at the top of this review? It is the Okapi 907E and it has a significant role in the story as the weapon of choice of Piper. Roger Smith wrote me that "the Okapi of choice is the 907 E. It has put many brown men into bodybags. Quite a pretty knife, too." The Okapi has a distinctive shape and knowing what the knife looks like made the story more immediate for me. There is a link to a store selling Okapis at the end of the post.

Wake Up Dead is a crime thriller and there are elements I want to be present if the story is to appeal. Obviously, plot is important. Also, with thrillers you expect a faster pace and more intense action. I also look for a strong sense of place, sharp writing, and well developed characters. If I feel that the story and actions of the characters are plausible, all the better. Books like this are not disposable reads and make me think about them long after I've turned the last page. Wake Up Dead nails everything I want in a thriller.

Thrillers often have complicated and conspiratorial stories. Wake Up Dead is complex with regard to the interaction of the characters but it deals with basic human weaknesses like greed, lust, ambition, and revenge. For me this is a positive, it keeps the story grounded.

The lead up to the scenes of action and violence is very well done. Sometimes you know something is about to happen, other times it's "huh, I wasn't expecting that." Roger's thrillers are very violent but I've never thought that the violence was gratuitous. Brutally honest, yes. He writes about a segment of society where sudden and senseless violence is the norm and he has met the people capable of those acts.

A strong sense of place is something I enjoy in a story. After reading Wake Up Dead, I did some Internet searching, looking at Pollsmoor Prison, photos of former gang members, scenes of Cape Flats. I felt like I already knew those places and people from the descriptions in the book.

Wake Up Dead is written from multiple points of view. These points of view gradually build up a composite image of the people and events and their relationships. In some cases you can see that event A will probably lead to consequence B but other times I found myself sitting there thinking about what I just read.

Roger also has an interesting way with descriptions about people and events, often involving dark humor.
The whore had yellow braids, the dark roots cross-hatching her skull like sutures on a cadaver.

I don't think anyone will have a problem building a mental image from that description.

The cannibal is described as having an elegant French accent leading to this scene
Then Joe gave her the look, invisible to anyone else, and she knew that the men needed a few minutes to talk business. Weapons or mercenaries. Or both.
Roxy stood. "Let's go to the bathroom."
"I don't need," the whore said, clearly new to this part of the game.
The cannibal elbowed her beneath her plastic tits. "Go and piss." Coming from his mouth it sounded almost like a benediction: Go in peace.

In Mixed Blood and now Wake Up Dead I've admired the way Roger builds his characters. He does evil really well though he says the characters write themselves. Piper, for example, is about as scary and real a character a as I have encountered in fiction. Billy you want to root for but he isn't an agent for good. Disco you feel sorry for, his life on a course for destruction, but you wouldn't want to be his buddy. Roxy is a basically good person who does bad things but isn't someone you can consider sympathetic. You know who the characters are and where they came from.

Wake Up Dead is a well done and exciting crime thriller that I recommend highly. It is available for preorder. If you haven't read Roger's first book, Mixed Blood, pick up a copy at the same time. It also is set in Cape flats, has everything I like in a thriller (see above), and a wonderfully nasty detective named Gatsby.

Links to give you insights into the story, the setting, and the characters.

Roger's video trailer for Wake Up Dead.

The Okapi in the photographs came from World Knives where you can buy one for yourself. You can also use it to slice fruit and carve decorative items.

Slide show of Cape Flats and Cape Town on Roger's web site.

Slide show of prison body art with voices of former prisoners.

Photographs of South African prisons by Micheal Subotzky.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott

Synopsis of the First 25 Pages

It's 1930 and Marion Seeley is in Phoenix, Arizona, left there by her husband, Dr. Seeley, who took a job with a mining company in Mexico. Dr. Seeley lost his license to practice medicine in the U.S. because of his addiction to morphine and hopes to kick the habit at his isolated posting. Before he left he set Marion up in a boarding house and found her a job as a filing clerk and stenographer in a tuberculosis clinic.

Marion is still an innocent though fraying at the edges as she watches her husband's descent. She was still living at home at nineteen when she married and had never set foot in a hotel, eaten in a restaurant, or seen a motion picture.

At the clinic, nurse Louise Mercer befriends her and begin educating her in the seamier side of the "nice" doctors. Soon she is a regular at the house Louise shares with her roommate Ginny. Ginny, who previously had been on stage in "bloomers and pointy shoes," has tuberculosis and Louise has taken responsibility for her care. Louise and Ginny are fast women, worldly and pragmatic about what it takes to get by.

On New Year's Eve, Louise and Ginny host a party where Marion meets Gentleman Joe Lanigan, the life of every party, every one's friend, and a ladies man. Gentleman Joe takes a fancy to Marion and her life makes an abrupt turn.

I enjoy all of Megan Abbott's books. Queenpin, an Edgar winner, with its Jim Thompson atmosphere, was one of my favorite books in 2008. Norman over at Crime Scraps reviewed Abbott's Die a Little and wrote something that is true of all of Megan's novels: "This novel made me think of the television series Mad Men in its meticulous recreation of a period in the quite recent past." Here Megan puts us eighty years in the past and uses language and observations to make the world real. She does this in a natural and unforced way.

Megan's use of language is lyrical and evocative. Here she describes Marion meeting the director of the clinic
..taking her small hand between his palms deep as serving dishes, as softly worn as the leather pew Bibles passed through three generations' hands in the First Methodist Church of Grand Rapids...

And when she meets Gentleman Joe you can sense what is in her future
A motion picture actor, that's what he looked like, with that burgundy felt hat and his broad-shouldered topcoat and shoes shining lick chrrch floors on Easter. a smile like a swinging gate and smelling strong of sweet tobacco and slivered almonds and wind and travel and far-off places.

The pacing and development of the story is appropriate to the period and the characters as we watch Marion go from an innocent young woman to one who finds an inner core of strength that she would never have thought possible.

Bury me Deep was inspired by, and shares several elements with, the true story of Winnie Ruth Judd, known as the "Trunk Murderess." Abbott provides an author's note at the end of the book where she describes that case.