Showing posts with label P.G. Wodehouse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label P.G. Wodehouse. Show all posts

25 February 2014

Something in the Water

by Terence Faherty

P.G. Wodehouse
In earlier posts, I've mentioned my admiration for two writers:  P.G. Wodehouse, the great humorist and creator of Bertie Wooster, and Raymond Chandler, one of the founders of the hard-boiled private eye school and the creator of Philip Marlowe.  I proudly claim both as influences on my own humble writing.  At first glance, Wodehouse and Chandler would seem to have little in common (besides me).  But there are interesting parallels.  Both men wrote popular fiction for a wide audience but attracted their share of admirers in ivy-covered halls.  Both were wonderful prose stylists, admired by the likes of Evelyn Waugh, despite the handicap of never having set foot inside a university.  And, speaking of schools, both went to the same one at almost the same time. 

Raymond Chandler
Seriously?  The very British and frivolous Wodehouse and the very American and serious Chandler at the same school?  Yes, Dulwich College, outside London, England.  In spite of the college part of its name, Dulwich (pronounced dull itch) is a public school (pronounced private school), a very exclusive prep school.  It was founded in 1619 by Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe's favorite actor, Edward Alleyn.  Wodehouse arrived in 1894 and stayed until 1900.  Chandler arrived in 1900 and stayed until 1905.  So they might have just missed one another, if Wodehouse departed at the end of the spring term and Chandler arrived at the start of the fall term.  (In Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane, the mystery writer mentions Wodehouse, but doesn't say whether they'd met.) 

Dulwich College
Was there something in the Dulwich water that stimulated great prose writing?  Was there a particular headmaster or a teacher on the staff who inspired and encouraged these two students?  I'd love to know.  If there's a doctoral candidate out there who's stuck for a thesis topic, he or she should snag this one, delve deeply into the subject, and report back to me.  As an added inducement to potential deep delvers, here are some additional  parallels between the two men.

Both were separated from one or both parents at an early age.  Wodehouse was farmed out to boarding schools and relatives in England while his parents lived overseas.  Chandler and his mother were deserted by his father.  The pair moved to England in part because Chandler's mother hoped to educate her son more cheaply there.  After Dulwich, both men tried conventional jobs, Wodehouse in banking and Chandler in civil service, and both soon quit to try journalism.  Wodehouse made a success of that and honed his prose style while contributing to various papers and magazines.  Chandler didn't; he returned to America, worked his way up in the oil industry and only returned to writing when he lost his job due to the Depression (and his drinking).  He then honed his own prose style writing for pulp magazines.

Both men tried their hands at screenwriting in Hollywood, with varying degrees of success.  Both married but neither had children.  Wodehouse loved mysteries and had fairly catholic tastes, enjoying Edgar Wallace, Ngaio Marsh (whose Inspector Alleyn spelled his name the same way as Dulwich's Edward Alleyn), Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Arthur Conan Doyle.  But then, mysteries were an escape for Wodehouse, not being his bread and butter.  They weren't an escape for Chandler, and he tended to be critical of other mystery writers, especially Golden Age writers like Christie.

C.S. Forester
In a recent post, I mentioned my love of coincidences.  While researching this brief column, I ran into another one.  Around the same time I was snubbing Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in favor of Wodehouse and Chandler, another of my favorite writers was C.S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower series, among many other popular novels (including some fairly noir crime stories).  No points for guessing where Forester spent his prep school days.  Yep, good old Dulwich, from 1915 to 1916.

I wish now that during my one and only trip to England I'd stopped by Dulwich and tried the local water.  It couldn't have hurt. 

17 December 2013

Pastiche or Parody?

by Terence Faherty

First, a little shameless self-promotion.  The new issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the February number, starts with one story of mine and ends with another, which I consider a career highlight, right up there with being published in Queen for the first time in 1999.  In between those bookend stories, the February issue contains six other tales, including a great one by SleuthSayers alumnus David Dean, "Murder Town."  My contributions are two Sherlock Holmes parodies:  "The Red-Headed League" and "A Case of Identity."  These stories are follow-ups to "A Scandal in Bohemia," which Queen ran last year.  It was my first Holmes parody.

Or do I mean pastiche?  That's the question that occupies me today:  Am I writing parody or pastiche?  Ellery Queen straddles the fence, referring to my stories as parodies here and pastiches there.  Could they be both?  Could parody be a form of pastiche?  That seems reasonable to me, but not to Wikipedia, the all knowing.  It defines pastiche as a "work of visual art, literature, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists.  Unlike parody, pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates." 


Mr. Wodehouse and cigar
That last bit seems a little harsh to me.  Surely every parody isn't a mocking one.  Some, at least, could be thought of as affectionate.  The Holmes parodies written by P.G. Wodehouse, the great English humorist, fall into that category, I think.  Wodehouse loved the detective fiction of his day, but he was aware of its shortcomings, especially the stories of the "Great Detective" school, which includes the Holmes tales.  I quoted one of Wodehouse's insights on the dedication page of my first short story collection, The Confessions of Owen Keane:  "A detective is only human.  The less of a detective, the more human he is." 

Back to my own Holmes pastiches/parodies.  I refer to this series of stories in my journal and my filing system as The Notebooks of Dr. John H. Watson.  The conceit is simple enough.  Recently unearthed notebooks have been found to contain first drafts of Watson's immortal Sherlock Holmes stories.  (Yes, I know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually wrote the stories, but Doyle gave the credit to Watson, so I do too.)  And while a given first draft bears a certain resemblance to the famous story of the same name (which I'll refer to as "the Strand version"), each is really quite different.  Holmes is more of a blue-collar, working detective with blue-collar tastes (principally a taste for beer) in Watson's first drafts, and the cases he undertakes are a little more "down-market" as well.  And the solutions are always different.

When I write one of these, I first reread the Strand version looking for a "back door," an alternative way into the story for purposes of reimagining its basic events.  Sometimes the back door is an alternative solution, as it was for the two parodies Queen published this year.  Sometimes it's a famous "problem" with the story, something about it that's bugged generations of Sherlockian scholars.  An example might be the fabulous coronet that a distinguished personage (the Prince of Wales?) pawns in "The Beryl Coronet," a piece of public property that he has no right to pawn.  Resolving that problem can suggest an entirely new take on the tale.  Sometimes the back door is simply an ambivalent title, as in the case of "A Scandal in Bohemia."  Since "Bohemia" can refer to both a geographical region (as it does in the Strand version) and a lifestyle, simply switching the meaning can suggest an entirely different course of events.

The fun for me is trying to make these read as though they might actually be first drafts by including items that Watson can adapt for his final versions, like the plumber's smoke rocket that creates havoc in my "Scandal in Bohemia" and clearly inspires the smoke rocket device that works so well in Watson's "Scandal."  I also enjoy putting in allusions that I hope  Sherlockians will spot and enjoy.  My source for these is often Leslie S. Klinger's wonderful The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.  In his notes for the "The Red-headed League," for example, he tells us that Holmes and Watson's trip on the underground in that story is the only one mentioned in the entire canon.  I explain that in passing (claustrophobia).

Speaking of allusions, I also use a few turns of phrase familiar to lovers of the works of the aforementioned Mr. Wodehouse, like Holmes "getting outside of three pints of bitter (beer) in record time."   These stories are meant to be funny, so I strive for a Wodehousian tone throughout.  I don't think P.G. would mind, and I like to think Sir Arthur wouldn't either.  Because my parodies, defined in Faherty's Collegiate Dictionary as a time-honored subset of pastiche, are nothing if not affectionate.