Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

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.

REVIEWS
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.

PASTICHE

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

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.
But
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.

REFERENCES
Print
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.

INTERNET

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.

Sherlockian Indexes: HISTORICAL & FICTIONAL CHARACTERS IN SHERLOCKIAN PASTICHES. Very detailed.
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.