Showing posts with label Arthur Conan Doyle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Arthur Conan Doyle. Show all posts

13 July 2019

A Morning in Conan Doyle Land

by Stephen Ross

I woke up on Saturday morning not feeling well (this was a month ago, I'm all better). I was resting on the sofa and doing the swipe through Netflix's recently added and currently trending lists, looking for something new and interesting to amuse, entertain, maybe even enlighten. Finding nothing that "grabbed" me, I moved over to Amazon Prime. Flicking down through the rows, I passed the children's section, and a title in that row reached out and took hold.

A Study in Scarlet. 

An animated telling of a Sherlock Holmes tale? For kids!? Seriously?!? I selected the program and let it start playing, the cynic in me chortling, this will be good for a laugh. I went in with zero expectations; in fact, minus expectations. I expected Dr. Watson to be played by Scooby Doo.


The opening shot is a moonlit set of rooftops; a dark and stormy night in Victorian London. A police constable is on the street, patrolling with a lamp. He winds up on the Brixton Road. He's joined by another bobby. There's a light on in an empty house. They enter. In a dilapidated drawing room, there's a dead body of an elderly gentleman on the floor.

Two and a half minutes in, and I'm thinking, this ain't too bad. The animation isn't going to win any awards, but the storytelling seems to be faithful to the source, and it has mood and atmosphere.
The opening credits started, and I was about to turn the thing off, when the following credit appeared: "With Peter O'Toole as Sherlock Holmes." That got my undivided attention. Naturally, I let the program keep playing. I could happily listen to Peter O'Toole read aloud from the phone directory, or recite the Periodic Table (have I mentioned My Favorite Year is one of my favorite movies?). I had no idea he had ever played Holmes. 

For the next 50 minutes, I was away (once again, happily) in Conan Doyle land. The program did indeed prove to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story, Watson was not played by an exuberant Great Dane, and nothing in the story's telling was "watered down" or "rendered appropriate" in any way for children; my biggest fear while watching.

And it's funny, when you think about it: an adult tale of murder, forced marriage (i.e., rape), revenge, and justice filed away for children's viewing pleasure alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat, and Spongebob. I presume this was because it was animated. There persists (in some minds) that quaint notion that if something is animated, it must be for kids, that all animations are simply "cartoons" and should be dropped into the "Kids and family TV" box. (I gleefully await the addition of Fritz the Cat.) Had the exact same script of A Study in Scarlet been filmed as a live action drama, then it would have gone straight into the adult drama box. No questions asked.

But I'm glad it did, one way or another, wind up in front of kids. They seem to get so much rubbish in their TV diet. Let them find this quiet little doorway into the world of grownup mystery fiction.

Peter O'Toole did four Holmes animated stories. They were all made in 1983, they're all 50 minutes long (with the exception of Baskerville, 70 minutes), and they're all on Amazon Prime (here in NZ, at least).
  • A Study in Scarlet 
  • The Baskerville Curse 
  • The Sign of Four
  • Valley of Fear
I've watched all of them. And as I said, there's nothing overtly special about the animation. The specialness of the telling lies in the stories themselves, and in this instance, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes (not that the films' imagery bears any resemblance to the man). If it's a wet Saturday morning, and you're unwell, I can recommend this medication.






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29 June 2016

Sherlock Holmes by the Numbers


by Robert Lopresti

Recently I discovered a Sherlock Holmes story, previously unknown to me, in the government documents collection of the library where I work. No, this is not one of those rare-but-real incidents of someone opening an ancient box of manuscripts and finding an unknown treasure - like this one I read about yesterday. In fact, the story I discovered was not even by Arthur Conan Doyle.

It appeared, of all places in a book published in 1980 by the Census Bureau: Reflections of America: Commemorating the Statistical Abstract Centennial. As you can probably deduce, the book was intended to celebrate the 100th edition of Statistical Abstract of the United States. If you aren't familiar with these books, they are a type of almanac of varied data, covering whatever the Census Bureau thought was most important about life in the United States that year.

Just for kicks, here are some of the tables in Statistical Abstract, and the first year they appeared.  It gives you some idea when the public - or at least the government - got particularly interested in a topic.
Immigrants of each nationality. 1878.
Public schools in the U.S. 1879.
Vessels wrecked. 1885.
Area of Indian Reservations. 1888.
Telephones, number of. 1889.
Civil Service, number of positions. 1910.
Homicides in selected cities. 1922.
Accidents and fatalities, aircraft. 1944/5. 
Population using fluoridated water. 1965.
Motor Vehicle Safety Defect Recalls. 1978.
Firearm mortality among children, youth, and young adults. 1992.
Student use of computers. 1995.
Internet publishing and broadcasting. 2008.

Reflections of America features essays by distinguished authors discussing many different aspects of Statistical Abstract: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Michener, John Kenneth Galbraith,and Jeane Kirkpatrick, to name a few.

The essay on international trade, cleverly titled "A Case of International Trade," was written by business journalist J.A. Livingston,.  It begins as you see on the right over there.

It goes on for many pages.  You can read it all here if you wish.  But what I am pondering is: why would anyone think that's a good idea?

I'm not talking about parodies, or what I call fan fiction (creating a new case for your favorite detective).  I understand those impulses. But I think it is a bit weird to use a character for a completely different purpose than what made that character famous.

So, for instance, here are a few books about (or "about") Sherlock Holmes:

The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes



 Conned Again, Watson!: Cautionary Tales of Logic, Maths and Probability

What other fictional characters have become cats's paws for authors who wanted to teach a subject painlessly?  I knew without looking that one young lady must be on the list and sure enough:

Alice in Quantumland

I even thought of one book in which the author himself  did this to his character.  Harry Kemelman's Conversations With Rabbi Small is an introduction to Judaism thinly disguised as a non-mystery novel about the amateur sleuth.

I still say the instinct to do this is an odd one.

And as long as we are tying government publications to mysteries, let me point out an old federal document that is not available for free on the web: The Battle of the Aleutians: A Graphic History 1942-1943.   What's the mystery connection?  It was co-authored by a rather superannuated corporal who served in that frozen wilderness: Dashiell Hammett.




08 November 2015

Sherlock Holmes and the Allegorical Context

by Leigh Lundin

James Matthew Barrie
James Matthew Barrie
(Peter Pan)

Arthur Conan Doyle
(Sherlock Holmes)
Did you ever wonder what might happen if Sherlock Holmes met Peter Pan? Wonder no more; it actually happened– sort of.

J. M. Barrie and A. Conan Doyle were good friends. By 1892, Doyle was well established and Barrie was beginning to make a name for himself. The first glimpse of Peter Pan wouldn’t appear for another decade, and would continue to be revised for another ten years.

Nonetheless, Barrie had developed enough of a reputation to broach the subject of an opera to the masterful head of the Savoy Theatre formerly known for Gilbert & Sullivan operas. Richard D’Oyly Carte approved Barrie’s idea of a comic operetta titled Jane Annie or The Good Conduct Prize. D’Oyly Carte recommended ‘the’ Arthur Sullivan score the music, but Sullivan suggested a former pupil, Ernest Ford.

During his writing, Barrie suffered a breakdown. He turned to his friend, Arthur Conan Doyle.

As collaborators, Doyle and Barrie didn’t quite connect. For months, they batted the plot back and forth. The music hinged upon the libretto, the libretto depended upon the story line, and the story continued to evolve nearly to opening night, 13 May 1893.

The opening tanked. The authors weren’t asked to ascend the stage for a curtain call. In response, Barrie and Doyle churned out changes, but the die was cast. After fifty performances, the play closed 1 July 1893. (Another source claims the play ran March through April of 1893 for a total of fifty performances.)

Jane Annie became the Savoy’s first flop. Most contemporary sources conclude the play was a failure, but that’s not quite accurate. The play had a strong cast and the company went on tour for another two months in Bradford, Newcastle, Manchester, and Birmingham, where it proved to be considerably more popular. Nonetheless, the London response determined the fate of the show.

Fortunately, Barrie’s and Doyle’s friendship remained intact, and they treated their venture on the stage with humour. Barrie even joked about it with a Holmes parody. Inside the flyleaf of Barrie’s short story collection, A Window in Thrums, he wrote “The Adventure of the Two Collaborators” and presented it to his friend, Doyle.

Without allegorical context, this little story appears to be an awful Sherlock Holmes pastiche, but with the background of the play, we can understand this rueful exchange between two professionals who happened to be best of friends. Note that Barrie hints at the demise of Sherlock, which would take place later that year at Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem.

The public would remain unaware of this small exchange between writers until 1923 when Doyle wrote an essay for Colliers Weekly, “The Truth About Sherlock Holmes.” At its end, Doyle presents J. M. Barrie’s "The Adventure of the Two Collaborators". Doyle published the parody again in his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures.

The Adventure of the Two Collaborators

by Sir James Matthew Barrie

In bringing to a close the adventures of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I am perforce reminded that he never, save on the occasion which, as you will now hear, brought his singular career to an end, consented to act in any mystery which was concerned with persons who made a livelihood by their pen. “I am not particular about the people I mix among for business purposes,” he would say, “but at literary characters I draw the line.”

We were in our rooms in Baker Street one evening. I was (I remember) by the centre table writing out “The Adventure of the Man Without a Cork Leg” (which had so puzzled the Royal Society and all the other scientific bodies of Europe), and Holmes was amusing himself with a little revolver practice. It was his custom of a summer evening to fire round my head, just shaving my face, until he had made a photograph of me on the opposite wall, and it is a slight proof of his skill that many of these portraits in pistol shots are considered admirable likenesses.

I happened to look out of the window, and perceiving two gentlemen advancing rapidly along Baker Street asked him who they were. He immediately lit his pipe, and, twisting himself on a chair into the figure 8, replied:

“They are two collaborators in comic opera, and their play has not been a triumph.”

I sprang from my chair to the ceiling in amazement, and he then explained:

“My dear Watson, they are obviously men who follow some low calling. That much even you should be able to read in their faces. Those little pieces of blue paper which they fling angrily from them are Durrant’s Press Notices. Of these they have obviously hundreds about their person (see how their pockets bulge). They would not dance on them if they were pleasant reading.”

I again sprang to the ceiling (which is much dented), and shouted: “Amazing! But they may be mere authors.”

“No,” said Holmes, “for mere authors only get one press notice a week. Only criminals, dramatists and actors get them by the hundred.”

“Then they may be actors.”

“No, actors would come in a carriage.”

“Can you tell me anything else about them?”

“A great deal. From the mud on the boots of the tall one I perceive that he comes from South Norwood. The other is as obviously a Scotch author.”

“How can you tell that?

“He is carrying in his pocket a book called (I clearly see) ‘Auld Licht Something.’ Would any one but the author be likely to carry about a book with such a title?”

I had to confess that this was improbable.

It was now evident that the two men (if such they can be called) were seeking our lodgings. I have said (often) that my friend Holmes seldom gave way to emotion of any kind, buy he now turned livid with passion. Presently this gave place to a strange look of triumph.

“Watson,” he said, “that big fellow has for years taken the credit for my most remarkable doings, but at last I have him - at last!”

Up I went to the ceiling, and when I returned the strangers were in the room.

“I perceive, gentlemen,” said Mr. Sherlock Holmes, “that you are at present afflicted by an extraordinary novelty.”

The handsomer of our visitors asked in amazement how he knew this, but the big one only scowled.

“You forget that you wear a ring on your fourth finger,” replied Mr. Holmes calmly.

I was about to jump to the ceiling when the big brute interposed.

“That Tommy-rot is all very well for the public, Holmes,” said he, “but you can drop it before me. And, Watson, if you go up to the ceiling again I shall make you stay there.”

Here I observed a curious phenomenon. My friend Sherlock Holmes shrank. He became small before my eyes. I looked longingly at the ceiling, but dared not.

“Let us cut the first four pages,” said the big man, “and proceed to business. I want to know why —”

“Allow me,” said Mr. Holmes, with some of his old courage. “You want to know why the public does not go to your opera.”

“Exactly,” said the other ironically, “as you perceive by my shirt stud.” He added more gravely, “And as you can only find out in one way I must insist on your witnessing an entire performance of the piece.”

It was an anxious moment for me. I shuddered, for I knew that if Holmes went I should have to go with him. But my friend had a heart of gold. “Never,” he cried fiercely, “I will do anything for you save that.”

“Your continued existence depends on it,” said the big man menacingly.

“I would rather melt into air,” replied Holmes, proudly taking another chair, “But I can tell you why the public don’t go to your piece without sitting the thing out myself.”

“Why?”

“Because,” replied Holmes calmly, “they prefer to stay away.”

A dead silence followed that extraordinary remark. For a moment the two intruders gazed with awe upon the man who had unravelled their mystery so wonderfully. Then drawing their knives, Holmes grew less and less, until nothing was left save a ring of smoke, which slowly circled to the ceiling.

The last words of great men are often noteworthy. These were the last words of Sherlock Holmes: “Fool, fool! I have kept you in luxury for years. By my help you have ridden extensively in cabs, where no author was ever seen before. Henceforth you will ride in buses!”

The brute sunk into a chair aghast.

The other author did not turn a hair.

To A. Conan Doyle,
from his friend
J. M. Barrie

30 October 2015

Old School, New Readers

By Art Taylor

A few years back, one of the professors in the English Department at George Mason University (where I myself teach) told me that she never put her own favorite books on the syllabi for any of her classes; seeing what the students said about them was too heart-breaking for her.

I'm currently teaching a class called "Five Killer Crime Novels"—a gen ed survey of some of milestone books in the genre, or at least books that serve to represent/illustrate some of the trends and range and depth of mystery and suspense fiction. So far, we've read Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, along with a sprinkling of short stories; still ahead are Ed McBain's Sadie When She Died and Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep. (And yes, I know there are tons and tons of others that could've/should've made the list!)

Whether I'd count these books as all-time favorites or not (Red Harvest certainly is), each of these are books I love, one way or another. And indeed it is a little heart-breaking to have students talk (spoiler alerts!) about how disappointed they are by various aspects of the three we've read so far. "We finally see the hound and then in the next paragraph they just shoot him and that's it?" And: "She could've cut about 50 pages toward the end of Roger Ackroyd. It was so slow and so boring." And then: "I'm sorry, Professor Taylor, but Red Harvest just sucks."

I'll admit it; my internal response to that last one was along the lines of "You think your comment shows your superiority, but really it just reveals your ignorance." But I would never say that publicly, of course.

(Oh, wait.... Whoops.)

Actually, I try not to take offense to these kinds of comments and criticisms, but instead try to transform them into productive aspects of class discussion. The complaint about Hound of the Baskervilles, for example—that quick movement from the hound's appearance in one paragraph to his demise in the next—leads to a closer look at serialization and how the publication schedule built suspense. The eighth installment of the story in The Strand ends strategically at the break between those two paragraphs, with these words: "Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog."

AND STAY TUNED FOR WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!

A different effect, right?

Other reactions call for deeper discussion: Why are certain scenes included? What is the potential purpose of such-and-such artistic decisions? What are the potential effects on the reader? Why structure and pace a scene this way? or a chapter? or a succession of chapters? Or more to the point: Can you articulate why you think this book "sucks"? The key isn't the judgement itself—pro or con—but backing up judgements with evidence and authority.

"Red Harvest was just a bloodbath. I couldn't both to get connected to the characters, because after a while, I knew they were just going to die. And nobody seemed to care, not even the detective—and we're not connected to him either. We don't even get his name!"

OK, let's dig deeper into all that, I'll say—and then we do.

My point here isn't to criticize my students or to celebrate my own tactics in the classroom. My students are—fortunately!—a bright and active bunch, and our discussions are often sharp and insightful. But I do wonder sometimes about the reasons behind some of those gut responses of boredom, dismissal, dislike.

Is it that students have been so conditioned by today's various media—the pacing of a CSI episode, for example, or the short bursts of information that constitute news, or the structures and expectations of Facebook status updates, tweets, and IM exchanges—that older works become dated in more fundamental ways than just their vocabulary or dress or gender attitudes? Maybe today's modes of communication and storytelling are so different that the average student can't relate.

Is the issue about the age or era of a book at all, or is it something about the genre itself (crime fiction) or the form (a novel) that is the impediment? Sisters in Crime has done studies about the demographics of mystery readers (an aging one, as it turns out), and many students in my gen ed classes these days don't count themselves as readers at all—not in a conventional sense, even as their days often consist of more reading in other ways than most "grown-ups" do.

Is it that many of my students in this class—a gen ed class, drawing mostly on majors outside the humanities—simply aren't interested in literature at all, so the process itself might be with some level of disinterest or even hostility?

I don't know the answer to these questions. Likely some deeper study would be required, and maybe I haven't even asked the right questions or framed any of this properly in the first place. Either way, I'd love to hear what others think.

In the meantime, however, an anecdote to end this on a more positive note—a story I've told before:

A few years ago, we'd come to the end of the semester for a class that examined hard-boiled detective fiction as social documentary (maybe my favorite class of all the lit courses I've taught). It was final exam day, and students were turning in their exams as they completed them, mumbling quick good-byes, and heading out of the classroom, done for the semester.

One student turned in her exam and then walked around the desk to where I was sitting, gave me a big smile, and held out her arms wide.

I have to admit, I find myself disinclined to hug students—for a variety of reasons, as you might imagine—so I didn't stand but just sat there, gave her a "what's this? look or gesture of some kind, I can't really remember.

But I do remember what she said: "Professor Taylor, before this semester, I'd never read an entire novel, and now I've read six of them."

I stood.

I hugged.

We're Facebook friends now, and she has a daughter of her own these days, and my hope isn't simply that she's continuing to read herself but that she's reading to that daughter too.

22 February 2015

Songs of the South

by Dale C. Andrews
Please not yet. Those are the three eternal words. Please not yet.
                                                John D. MacDonald
                                                A Deadly Shade of Gold

       As usual the month of February finds me on the gulf shore of Alabama, making a good on a promise my wife and I made to ourselves back when we were still in the work-a-day world: once we retired February would never again find us in Washington, D.C. So we have again traveled south to a rental on the shore. Not the tropics, but also not the frozen east coast of the past several weeks.

Harper Lee
     Alabama is a sort of exciting place for anyone interested in literature to find themselves this February. Only a few weeks ago, and a scant 100 miles north, Harper Lee, the now 88 year old author of the American Classic To Kill a Mockingbird announced to a stunned world that, after 55 years of literary silence, this summer a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning story of Scout, Atticus and the travails of small town life in Alabama will be published.

       Whether we should feel some trepidation as we await the return of Atticus and Scout in the long-withheld Go Set a Watchman has already been the subject of numerous articles. Far be it from me to add another. But aside from such speculations concerning the ultimate merit of the Mockingbird sequel, an interesting sidelight to the pending publication of Harper Lee’s second novel is the reaction of the reading public, which had become resigned to Lee’s oft-articulated position that she would never publish a second work. This had been both accepted and hard to get over -- we had fallen in love with Mockingbird -- and Lee’s resolve to leave it at that had left us feeling a bit like a child allowed but one toy. The anticipation has been overwhelming with the possibility of another now on the horizon. 

Arthur Conan Doyle
       A writer’s decision to not follow up on a popular book, or to end a popular series of books, often invites a public outcry. Famously, Arthur Conan Doyle found himself unable, in the face of such clamor, to leave Sherlock Holmes sprawled at the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle (and now Lee) ultimately bent, in some degree, to the clamor. Doyle took up the pen again, and Lee's attorney discovered that previous manuscript. And just yesterday Arthur Conan Doyle had his own last laugh -- a similarly "lost" Sherlock Holmes story was discovered in an attic after lying there unnoticed for the past 111 years.

       But what happens when the series ends for reasons beyond the author’s ability to remedy; when the author is gone but nothing is left behind?  Since, as noted, I am gazing out toward the Gulf as I type, what could be more natural than to allow my gaze to linger off toward the east, where 17 miles away Florida beckons? And what is more “Florida” than John D. MacDonald and his iconic literary sidekick Travis McGee?

John D. MacDonald
       Okay, okay. I know there what you may be thinking. Does he intend to offer up as a premise a column that lumps Harper Lee -- a Pulitzer Prize winning (and beloved) artist -- with John D. MacDonald, the erstwhile paperback king who wrote almost 80 books over the course of a career that began in pulp fiction?  In a word:  Yep. But I'm not the only one who places MacDonald on a pretty high pedestal.  Back in 2003 Jonathan Yardley, literary critic for the Washington Post, went back to re-read MacDonald and came away incredulous, concluding that the body of work revealed the author as "one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period."  Yardley went on to explain:
This man whom I'd snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was -- no other word will do -- breathtaking.
       This is not the first time that I have offered up thoughts on MacDonald and McGee in this space. Unlike Harper Lee, who wrote but one book (now, two), John D. MacDonald (like Doyle) was prolific. He wrote almost 80 works of fiction and nonfiction, and 21 McGee novels before his sudden death in 1986. But he still left us hanging.  In the last of the Travis McGee series, The Lonely Silver Rain, McGee is confronted with several revelations (no further spoilers here!) but then, given MacDonald’s demise two years later, McGee’s fans are ultimately left to ponder where these revelations might have led.

       Like Harper Lee, whose sequel to Mockingbird was known by some friends to have existed, at least at one time, MacDonald, too, was rumored to have a final Travis McGee novel under lock and key.  I remember reading as much in a 1975 interview with MacDonald, and Stephen King has stated that before MacDonald's death he had discussed with King the backbone of what would be the final McGee adventure.  But all rumors of that final work, usually conjectured to bear the title A Black Border for McGee, were apparently baseless. MacDonald’s heirs have asserted that no such work exists, and have steadfastly refused all requests by other authors -- most notably one from Stephen King -- to continue (and properly end) the series. One caveat, here:  there is a little-known novel, The Black Squall, by Lori Stone, which sneaks around the heirs' prohibition by offering a final adventure clearly addressing what might have happened to Travis McGee and his friend Meyer, but doing so without ever using their actual names. But other than that, barring a Harper Lee, or Arthur Conan Doyle-like denouement -- a final work miraculously discovered -- that is it for McGee.

       So aside from The Black Squall (which, I admit, I have not read) the many fans of Travis McGee have had to look elsewhere over the last thirty years for a fix. And that has sparked a bit of a literary cottage industry among authors seeking to re-capture, and then offer to the reading public, the essence of McGee. 

       So, pause with me here. What, at base, is the Travis McGee formula?  What do readers look for in a Travis McGee novel?  The series evolved over time, but viewed in its entirety it seems to me MacDonald's McGee adventures are comprised of the following base elements: 

The Busted Flush, as imagined
       First, the series is centered around an “off the grid” protagonist with an off-beat lifestyle and home. McGee is a self-described beach bum who occasionally comes out of his “installment” retirement to take cases as a “salvage consultant,” working for 50 percent of the value of the property recovered. He lives in his 52 foot cabin cruiser, The Busted Flush, won in a poker game. His detached and unburdened lifestyle, and his luxury to observe the world around him as an objective critic, captures the reader. He narrates his own stories with spot-on observations and critiques of the world in which we live. We, as readers, nod in agreement and become wannabes. 

       Second, there is the “best friend” buddy who provides an intellectual counterpoint, someone with whom the protagonist can spar during the course of the narrative. This companion must be colorful in his own right, intelligent, and equally detached, but must in some respects stand in independent contrast to the protagonist. McGee’s “buddy” is Meyer, an erstwhile economist, who lives on his nearby book-packed ship, initially The John Maynard Keynes, later (after The Keynes fails to survive an adventure) The Thorstein Veblen. 

     Third, the stories, at their heart, focus on the strengths, and the largely man-made weaknesses, of the state of Florida. Even when they do not take place there, each Travis McGee adventure displays a love of the natural Florida ecosystems, a disgruntled horror as to what is happening to them, and a matching disdain for those who are “developing” the state out of existence. A kind word is never said about a double wide, a condominium, a jet ski or a Hawaiian shirt.  As Florida author Carl Hiassen has written: "Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn. I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty." 

       Fourth, the adventures must be well written.  MacDonald often criticized what he viewed as "hack" writing, and his own works set a high bar with his clean and spare prose, his eye for detail, and his ear for dialog.  

       With these elements in mind, for those craving a Florida fix, or, more specifically, a Travis McGee fix, there are at least two series that work pretty hard to deliver: The Doc Ford series written by Randy Lee White, and the Thorn series written by James W. Hall. 

       Doc Ford, a retired NSA agent and marine biologist, has been the hero of 21 mysteries written by Randy Lee White, with a 22nd, Cuba Straits, due out this March. The similarities to the McGee stories are striking. Ford is decidedly “off the grid,” living in a stilt house above the water on the gulf coast of Florida and ostensibly making his living by peddling marine specimens to collectors and scientists. His best friend and sidekick (like Meyer, always referred to by a single name) is Tomlinson, a frequently stoned philosopher who lives nearby on a Morgan sailboat (also, in a direct nod to MacDonald, named The Thorstein Veblen).  And the Doc Ford stories invariably contain impassioned takes on the delicate Florida eco structure and the angry rants of a frustrated environmentalist protagonist as he witnesses what is happening to it. 

       Another take on the formula is James W. Hall’s series, featuring the loner Thorn. Thorn is also an environmentally-aware protagonist who lives in a Florida shack built above the water and makes his living tying fishing lures. He is an orphan and a maverick, and is usually aided by his (again, one-name) sidekick Sugarman, a Florida policeman (and, eventually, ex-policeman) who serves as Thorn's verbal sparring partner as they fight various injustices, including the abuses rendered to the Floridian land and sea. 

       Each of these series has its faithful followers, and each is well written. Randy Wayne White has authored over fifty books, fiction and non-fiction, under his own name and several aliases. James W. Hall is both a novelist and an accomplished poet. The reader expects well written prose from these gentlemen and the authors deliver. But having read most of White’s series and the first third of Hall’s, there is still something missing for a reader, such as myself, in search of Travis McGee. Maybe it is the fact that Doc Ford, and (I suspect) Randy Wayne White, at least for me, is a little too right wing for a steady diet. Maybe it’s the fact that entirely too many of the characters in Hall’s series end up dying, and in gratuitous ways unnecessary to the logical progression of the story. 

       But lets face it: criticism is easy. And, by the same token, concocting a riveting tale and telling the tale as well as MacDonald, by contrast, is hard.  It takes a real hand to pull off a Florida series that can be read as a steady diet.  I can’t even do that with Carl Hiaasen's novels. When I have read a few I feel the need to come up for air.  These books, and other Florida capers, are fine as far as they go, but they still pale when compared to the works of John D. MacDonald, in the words of Stephen King “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.” 

The last Travis McGee novel
        It looks like those of us who wondered what ever happened to Scout and Atticus will get our answer this summer, fifty five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. And now we also have a new Sherlock Holmes story, thanks to that lost Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript.  MacDonald’s fans, of course, arguably have little to grouse about by contrast. The available MacDonald library is far greater than Harper Lee's two books, and McGee, on his own, weighs in with 21 installments. But, still, that has not stopped fans from wishing, and from searching out and then gobbling up similar Florida adventures.    

       For fans of these authors it is not so much how many books were written as it is facing the prospect that there will be no more.  It is that prospect that leaves us overjoyed at the unexpected promise of Go Set a Watchman or that final Sherlock Holmes story, and despairing over the fact that McGee's tale is apparently done.  The response of many of us to the fact that it is all over is a rift on McDonald’s three eternal words:

       “Please, not yet.”

12 February 2015

Write What You Know

by Eve Fisher

"Write what you know!"  That old cliche gets trotted out regularly.  Now usually it's meant as an encouragement, but it's also used to set up (and even justify) limitations. I've had people seriously ask how I could teach World History without having visited every country in the world.  I've talked to writers who seriously said that they couldn't write about a ski bum or a serial killer or a heartbroken mother of a dying child because they'd never experienced that.

My response to the first is, "Does a medieval historian have to go to the Middle Ages?"  [Perennial note to self:  get a Tardis.  NOW.]

And my response to the second is, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, and Flannery O'Connor.

Or Terence:

"I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."
                        --Terence, The Self-Tormenter (163 BCE)

Or Walt Whitman:

"I am large; I contain multitudes."
                       --Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1892 CE)

We are (almost) all born with the same emotional equipment.  Love, jealousy, envy, happiness, sadness, depression, joy, verve, hatred, need, greed, etc.  You want to know how someone else feels?  Pay attention.  To them and yourself.  Look inside and amplify (or de-amplify) as necessary. Everything that happens starts inside the human heart and mind.  If we're lucky, not all of it gets out, except in fiction.
NOTE:  "Just because it leaps into your head doesn't mean you have to DO it," is an observation I keep trying to share with my friends at the pen.  One of the main differences between (most) writers and (most) criminals is that writers have the ability to delay gratification.  (Per word, per piece, perhaps....) 
But seriously, think about writers:  Besides absolute loners like the Brontes and Emily Dickinson, there are many others who wrote amazingly atypical stuff.  In real life, Conan Doyle had far more in common with Dr. Watson than Mr. Holmes.  By all accounts Margaret Mitchell was neither a bitch nor lived during the Civil War.  Elizabeth George is neither a viscount nor a working class frump, and she's never lived in England.  Patricia Highsmith never actually killed anybody, although I understand that some people wanted to kill her.  Ray Bradbury never drove a car.  Rex Stout was happily married (at least the 2nd time), and fairly thin.  Our own Janice Law has never been a male gay artist of extremely unconventional genius with a liking for rough trade.  (That or she has the most fantastic disguise in history.)  It's called imagination.  And observation.  And mulling things over.  And wondering...  That's why we write.

Look, there's nothing new under the sun.  Humans are humans (including Neanderthals).  Everyone on Jerry Springer could be any of us, given the wrong circumstances and a complete lack of self-control in public.  There are really no new plots, which is a godsend to those of us who scramble to figure out not whodunnit but how the heck they did it.  My story "Sophistication" used a 4,000 year old plot device and I'm damned proud of it.  And if the news is quiet, and you just can't think of a reason why someone would commit a violent act, consider Steven Pinker's breakdown of the Five Inner Demons from his book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature":
  • Practical violence (means to an end)
  • Dominance violence (the quest for authority, prestige, power, glory, etc.)
  • Revenge 
  • Sadism 
  • Ideology 
There's a list to haunt your dreams.

James Joyce,
painted by Patrick Tuohy
in Paris, 1924
So we have all the emotions, we can crib the plots, what do we really need?  Education.  Facts.  And here's where we are the luckiest generation in history.  You can research almost ANYTHING on the internet.  I don't have to be James Joyce, sitting in Paris, writing frantic letters back home to Dublin, trying to nail down details of Dublin, June 16, 1904.  (Although there's worse things to be, that's for sure.  I wouldn't want his failing eyesight, but otherwise...)  I can find out almost anything I want to know about guns, poisons, crime, statistics, spyware, malware, anything-ware online.  I can read old diaries, old letters, old cuneiform, and go to an infinity of historical websites dedicated to Life In ___ (fill in the blank).  It's out there. And I have done it:  I am proud to say that my most recent sale to AHMM (thank you, Linda Landrigan!) is "Miss West's First Case", set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-WW2 Vienna, and I did ALL the research either on-line or amongst my books.  

Write what you know?  Honey, we can know anything we want.  We just have to put it together. Excuse me, I have to get writing!


19 March 2013

Doyle When He Nodded

by Terence Faherty

First I'd like to echo Brian Thornton by thanking the other contributors to SleuthSayers for their warm welcome. I'd especially like to thank Robert Lopresti for inviting me to give this a try and Dale Andrews, who's alternating with me on Tuesdays, for the generous plug he gave me in his most recent post.

For my first post, I thought I'd write about one of my mystery writing heroes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and about one of his most interesting characteristics (from a writer's point of view): his carelessness.

Even casual readers of Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes stories have probably noted one egregious example of this carelessness, namely Watson's mobile bullet wound, which unaccountably shifts from his shoulder to his leg. Well, you might be thinking, in a long series of stories (there are fifty-six Holmes short stories and four longer ones), a writer is apt to get a detail of a character's backstory wrong. But Watson's wound made its famous migration sometime between the first tale, A Study in Scarlet, and the second, The Sign of Four. Not a good omen for the future, though a telling one.

I'll cite just a couple more examples I've come across recently. In "The Copper Beeches," a young governess arrives at 221B for a morning meeting, stays about twenty minutes, and bids Holmes and Watson "good-night" as she leaves. In "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson's wife refers to him as James, though his given name was John. Speaking of the doctor's wife, the reports of her death seem to have been greatly exaggerated, as she returns from the grave from time to time. Or was there a second Mrs. Watson? Or half a dozen?

Dorothy L. Sayers, another of my favorites, once wrote a scholarly essay that attempted to straighten out the date problems in "The Red-Headed League." She focused on four issues, one of which might be called "The Mystery of the Missing Summer." The story is set in October of 1890 but a character refers to an April newspaper article as having appeared "just two months ago." What, as current scholars might phrase the question, is up with that?

I find two features of Doyle's carelessness particularly intriguing. The first is its endurance. Okay, so Doyle wrote quickly and didn't get much help from his editors at the Strand Magazine. But who was minding the store when the stories were collected in book form? Buy any new edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes today and in "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson's wife will still get his first name wrong. October 9, 1890 will still be called a Saturday in "The Red-Headed League" when it was in fact a Thursday. It's as though Doyle carved his first drafts in stone.
 
Even late in his long life, by which time Sir Arthur must have known that the tossed-off Holmes tales were going to outlive his more serious literary efforts, he didn't clean up after himself, though by then he must have received hundreds of letters from helpful or confused readers. By then, too, pioneering Sherlockian scholars had published essays on all aspects of the Holmes tales, including the puzzling problems.

Doyle might have recognized in this correspondence and in the critical literature an unlooked-for benefit from his mistakes. I find this benefit to be the second intriguing characteristic of Doyle's carelessness: its appeal. Far from turning readers off, it draws them in. It makes the Sherlock Holmes stories a particularly interactive form of fiction.

All fair play mysteries are interactive to the extent that readers are invited to solve the crime along with the detective, but the Sherlock Holmes stories take interaction to a whole new level. Like Dorothy Sayers, generations of writers, who presumably had better things to do (like dogs to walk and lawns to mow), have taken up their pens to try to reconcile or explain away Watson's two wives and the "long interview" in "The Copper Beeches" and so on. (One of Sayers' explanations for the date problems in "the Red-Headed League" was transcription errors caused by Watson's poor handwriting, perhaps the earliest argument against cursive.)

In the process, the Sherlockians scholars have created hours of enjoyment for readers who love the stories and maybe even helped the stories live on. It's enough to make an author cast a jaundiced eye on writing-manual advice of the "revise endlessly" variety. A little carelessness might actually be good for the soul of a work. To paraphrase Holmes himself, once you have eliminated actual spelling errors, whatever remains, however improbable, might be better left alone.