Friday, February 26, 2010

The Moor, A Study in Emerald

I just finished two Sherlock Holmes pastiches, back to back -- though one was a short story.  The short story was also closer to being a parody, while the novel can stand on its own,

"A Study in Emerald" is, as the name suggests, closely tied to A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel, as well as Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories (I'm guessing at the part, but it seems to fit).  As much as I enjoyed the story, most of the fun comes from looking at the way Gaiman has twisted around the original, and I'm not sure it would have any interest to someone who'd never read it.

Laurie King's The Moor is less tied to the source material, although she draws heavily on The Hound of the Baskervilles (I get the impression that other books in the series are less directly drawn from Doyle's originals).  But she gets to eat her cake and keep it too, as far as going her own way; she has Conan Doyle as an off-screen character in the novel, who has chosen to write about Holmes's adventures, and has sensationalized them into the bargain.  This allows King to jettison pieces she doesn't like as being Doyle's invention.

On the whole, it works very well.  King's narrator, Mary Russell is a good partner for Holmes, clever enough to be interesting, but not a Mary Sue who constantly astounds him with her own wit.  (I must admit to a bit of trepidation on this score before starting the novel).  Although King doesn't present us with Doyle's Holmes, exactly (he never pulls one of those "this mud is of a yellowish color that one only finds within these 3 specific spots in London, as you would know if you had read my monograph on the subject" moments), she has clearly read the originals.  There's a funny inversion toward the end where she talks about him "rummaging through the lumber in his store-room of a mind" which can't be coincidental.  On the other hand, I would find this a book easy to recommend to someone unfamiliar with Holmes in general, which definitely can't be said of "A Study in Emerald" -- if you've never read A Study in Scarlet, it will have no resonance whatsoever.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Great Expectations

Great Expectations is really a profoundly democratic work, especially when one reads it for the second time.  I think that one of Dickens's great themes in this novel is the corruption that comes from unearned wealth.  Pip at first seems blessed to be the exact opposite of most Dickens characters -- most of them start in the lower middle class or even genteel poverty, and then get into even worse straits until pulled out by a benevolent rich person.  Pip, though, is given his promise of "great expectations" very early on, as well as a generous stipend.

Instead of being his salvation, though, the money impels him to live above his means, reject his best friends, and lose a good marriage prospect.  It's symptomatic, I think, that the two best things he does involve giving the money away.

One of Dickens's shortest books (I think the only complete one to match it is A Tale of Two Cities), it's relatively focused.  In most of the novels (that I've read), Dickens piles up incidents and characters with abandon.  They're mostly amusing, which is why Dickens is still read today, but you could easily cut out huge swathes of without affecting the major plot development.  (As a concrete example, Nicholas Nickleby's stint as a secretary to an MP is absolutely pointless, as is the whole muffin conspiracy which starts out that novel).  Great Expectations, though, has very little that's extraneous; what doesn't bear on the plot is at the very least a part of the Gothic atmosphere.  Also unlike the longer books, it's clear that Dickens had worked out most of the major plot points in advance, and that allowed him to focus on his themes without getting bogged down.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Asking for the Moon, Great Expectations

Asking for the Moon is a collection of 4 short stories about Dalziel and Pascoe.  The first one is their first meeting (although written at least a decade after A Clubbable Woman).  It's fun because Hill really matured as a writer over that decade, and the characterizations are so much sharper than they were at first, but we get to see a more callow Pascoe than Hill would write later.  As a bookend to the first story, the last story is supposed to be their last team-up, to solve a mystery set on the moon.  Pascoe is head of European Federal Intelligence (or some such thing), and when an astronaut is killed on the moon, he brings Dalziel out of retirement to solve the case.  Dalziel is great here, but I felt that Pascoe was really out of character.  I've read some novels past the time when Hill wrote this story, so it could be that he was pointing Pascoe in this direction, and then changed his mind.  Pascoe's always been fairly likable, and a guy who's doing his best to find the right solution to problems, and in this story he's presented as being rather manipulative and a bit of a jerk.  Fortunately we spend by far most of the story in Dalziel's company, and so it's still enjoyable overall.

It was a neat idea to put the stories of their first and last cases and the beginning and end of the volume, but unfortunately, it really showcases how poor the middle two are by comparison.  They were written around the time of Clubbable Woman, and the best one can say for them is that they show how much Hill grew, and why it's a good thing he avoided the short story form for a long time.

I'm almost done with Great Expectations, which I read back in 8th grade.  Unfortunately, as I write this Noam is waking up, so I'll just mention that it's a very different book once you know the twist that's coming.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cities of Coin and Spice, Swing

I talked about Cathrynne Valente's Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden here and said that I liked it from a formal perspective, but felt that it didn't have any emotional impact.  I also said I was interested in reading the follow-up, In the Cities of Coin and Spice.  It turns out not to be a follow-up, but rather an integral part of the experience.  Stories from the first part are concluded in the second, characters' fates are revealed, and the grand design of the work becomes clear.

With this second book, Valente also brings in the feeling that I thought was missing from the first one.  I became more involved with the characters, and I suppose she also builds on the emotional investment from the first book.  Overall, the diptych was a very satisfying experience.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Rupert Holmes's Swing.  It has lots of good parts, but they're stuck inside a rather mediocre mystery novel.  It feels like Holmes wasn't that interested in the mystery either -- a woman is killed in the fourth chapter or so (out of more than 50), and then the mystery is dropped completely until chapter 40 or thereabouts.  It turns out that some of the events in between are linked to the mystery, but if you read them independently you wouldn't feel like you were missing something.  Having said that, Holmes gives us a great sense of time and place.  The novel is set in San Francisco right before Pearl Harbor, and it's very evocative; in particular, Holmes provides a soundtrack (which is worked nicely into the audiobook), and he's a great mimic of big-band swing of the period.

The dialogue is also snappy, and sometimes feels like a movie out of the period.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's So Funny, Confederacy of Dunces, The Adventures of Sally, The Four Last Things

Three humorous books this time around, each disappointing in its own way, as well as a solid psychological suspense novel.

Donald Westlake is usually considered the master of the comic caper, but I found What's so Funny? to be below par.  I generally enjoy the Dortmunder novels, and this one had some solid parts.  Dortmunder is brought into a scheme to steal a very valuable chess set of doubtful provenance, much against his will.  Westlake faces right up to the task of making a loser criminal into someone that we care about, and I think it's a tricky act.  For one thing, Dortmunder is usually being pushed into his schemes by someone worse than he is, and so he has that sad sack, put-upon aspect that makes us like some kinds of clowns.

Westlake's sense of comedy is impeccable in a number of the scenes.  There's a great bit of farce when the 5 gang members are trying to hide in a two-room office as a detective checks around.  Westlake manages it very deftly, even though it would almost seem like the various peregrinations would need a diagram.

But I think that where Westlake really misses the boat in this novel is in the wrap-up.  In his better novels, the thing that undoes his protagonists' schemes seems to come out of nowhere, even as he sets it up way in advance, and it seems inevitable in retrospect.  Here, though, we know exactly how everything will unravel by 1/3 of the way through, and that's a pity.  There's also a sort of perfunctoriness to his denouements for the minor characters.  Johnny Eppick and Fional Helmslow just sort of fade out, with neither getting any sort of resolution.

In A Confederacy of Dunces, P J O'Toole takes a different approach to a loser protagonist.  Ignatius Reilly is absolutely unappealing, a self-centered, ungrateful elitist who insults everyone he meets.  I had very mixed reactions to this book.  There are some very funny bits, when Reilly starts a riot in a pants factory, for example, but the tone never really gelled for me.  It feels like O'Toole occasionally wants to write a satire of the type where a naif is thrust into the modern world and confused by, say, race relations.  (Sort of like Being There).  But Reilly is such a jerk that he gets in the way of these segments.  At other times, the book feels like it's a farce -- look at these silly people doing silly things.  But it's just too long for that -- there are long stretches where nothing particularly funny happens.

What it really comes down to for me, though, is that O'Toole didn't give us anyone to care about.  You can pull that off in a shorter novel, but in a book this long, it turns it into a real slog.

I've just begun Wodehouse's Adventures of Sally, and I'll probably finish it because I'm a completist, but it's an obviously early work.  There are some sparkling lines that could sit with the best of his later work, but they're pretty infrequent, unlike his later work in which funny lines seem to unfurl effortless one after another.

On a totally different note, Andrew Taylor's The Four Last Things was an excellent psychological suspense thriller, very different from Waiting for the End of the World.  At the beginning of the book 4-year-old Lucy Appleyard is kidnapped, and the story follows the twin paths of the kidnappers and Lucy's mother (a Church of England deacon).  Lucy's mother goes through a crisis of faith which is touchingly described.  Taylor paints a great picture of a person facing the problem of theodicy for the first time in a real rather than theoretical way.  The novel ends with a neat trick, making us want to read the next book in the trilogy, even though it takes place more than a decade earlier -- the opposite of the usual "what comes next?"

There's a police procedural in there as well, but it's barely touched on, and I think Taylor made the right choice to keep it in the background.  The psychological drama stays in the foreground, and, in the end, the police don't do much except act as a motivating force for some of the actions that the Appleyards and the kidnappers take.