Wednesday 25 June 2003

John Dickson Carr: Fire, Burn! (1957)

Edition: Carroll & Graf, 1994
Review number: 1168

John Dickson Carr is best known to those interested in old-fashioned crime fiction for his detective Gideon Fell, who solved the many variations on the locked room mystery theme which Carr thought up. Fire, Burn!, though still a locked room mystery, is very different. The detective, John Cheviot, is a Scotland Yard superintendent, who finds himself travelling back in time to 1829, to the earliest days of the Metropolitan Police. This is before the days when policemen began to be respected (a situation to which we seem to have been returning for some time), before the institution of the CID, before the ideas on which modern police work is based. He meets a woman with whom he falls in love, but has to risk alienating her and breaking the code governing honourable conduct (in the days when duels were still being fought) in order to solve his case.

Since the publication of Fire, Burn!, historical crime stories have become big business. It is really a precursor to this genre, but it has this unusual time travel aspect as well. One of the major difficulties with the genre is that readers expect modern investigative methods - sifting of evidence, attention paid to forensic detail including examination of the body, elimination of suspects by logical deduction, being willing to suspect anybody - which would have been considered strange and even improper in the past. (The tendency which is still sometimes seen today to automatically blame society's outsiders was often the principal method of criminal investigation.) Difficulties inherent in suspecting or even questioning members of the upper classes are often glossed over for the sake of the plot. By bringing his detective from the future, Carr neatly sidesteps all these problems, and also makes the contrast between the expectations of eighteen twenties society and those of a nineteen fifties policeman the core of the novel.

This makes Fire, Burn! more serious than the majority of Carr's massive output, and it is successful as a carefully documented historical novel as well as in the genre more familiar to the author.

Friday 20 June 2003

José Carlos Somoza: The Athenian Murders (2000)

Original title: La caverna de las ideas
Translation: Sonia Soto, 2003
Edition: Abacus, 2003 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1167

This novel seems to have been one of literature's recent success stories. It is basically a crime novel, an investigation into the death of a young student at Plato's Academy, initially thought to have been caused by a wolf attack but leaving grounds for suspicion of something more sinister. The Athenian Murders takes the form of a translation of an ancient manuscript telling the story, complete with copious footnotes by the translator, who is fascinated by the literary convention of eidesis of which it forms part (that is, the presence of meaningful images in the text not part of the story, such as repeated metaphors). He becomes convinced that some secret is hidden in the narrative's images (the word eidesis comes from the Greek for image), and is eventually rather neurotic about them.

Reviewers have described The Athenian Murders as a hybrid of The Name of the Rose and Pale Fire. It is in reality not much like The Name of the Rose, which is a fairly lazy comparison made for any historical crime novel with literary pretensions. Pale Fire is far closer, but it is a comparison which really shows up the shortcomings of Somoza's novel. The enjoyable aspect of Nabokov's idea (which is to illuminate the obsessions of the annotator through his misunderstanding of the text, and thereby satirise at academic literary criticism) is completely missing in The Athenian Murders. The translator does become obsessed, but it is about something so pointless as to be almost unbelievable - the use of the repeated images is interesting, but hardly enough to convince a reader, as it does the translator, that they reveal a secret of vital importance. (I don't know that much about it, but the form of the word eidesis leads me to suspect that a secret does not have to be involved at all, and that it could be used in other ways - as part of an intellectual game, as we have here in the way that the images are used to link each chapter to one of the labours of Hercules, or as by many writers from Aeschylus on, to use the subconscious to heighten the mood of a passage.)

There are other problems with The Athenian Murders, as far as I was concerned. A minor one is the occasional error in the background Some of these are quite obvious and jolted me out of Plato's Athens; an example is the use of the American rattlesnake as a simile in the supposedly ancient text. (Since the novel is full of ironies, this hint of modern authorship may be another, but it doesn't really bear that appearance besides being far more subtle than the rest of it.) The main problem that the novel has is its ending, and this affects the whole of the last quarter or so of the text as Somoza leads up to it. As always when criticising the ending of a novel, it is hard to talk about it without giving it away; the least I can say is that it is banal and dull, pretty much at the level of "and then I woke up, and it had all been just a dream".

It's hard to tell how much of this is the fault of the translator rather than the original author, since my feeling is that anyone who dumbs down by changing the title to something as silly as The Athenian Murders rather than keeping the reference to Plato's famous metaphor from The Republic could easily have completely destroyed the intellectual content of the rest of the novel.

Wednesday 11 June 2003

Orson Scott Card: Hart's Hope (1983)

Edition: Tor, 1988
Review number: 1165

There is an immense number of ways that fantasy authors have used to depict magic. Usually, particularly in writers who are just re-using the standard accoutrements of the genre, it is basically an alternate way to perform actions, or a way to do the impossible. This reduces it to a narrative convenience, which is not in the end terribly interesting unless it makes it possible for the author to concentrate on other things. There are few novels which present magic as something innate in the world yet disturbing; Hart's Hope is one of their number.

The plot of Hart's Hope is basically similar to that of many fantasy stories, a tale of magic and an usurped throne. A king, himself an usurper, is deposed by the daughter of the man he ousted. She was raped and discarded by him as part of the legitimization of his rule, but now, taking the name Beauty, she uses dark and forbidden magic not just to take her revenge but to submit the whole kingdom to an regime of unprecedented rigour - generally just by heaping obscene torments on the former king and his friends. She is even able to chain up the gods, rendering them virtually powerless. (Of them, the Hart is the symbol of masculine power, the Sisters of the feminine, while God has certain aspects of Christianity as it must have seemed to the pagans of northern Europe in the early Middle Ages.)

What makes Hart's Hope different is its atmosphere, which is cruel and dank, brutal and sordid. The nature of the magic in Card's world is part of this atmosphere; it is about the shedding of blood - by cutting oneself or by using menstrual blood, or, in the case of Beauty, by the sacrifice of a child carried to a ten month term. I was recently reading John Sutherland's book about puzzles in nineteenth century fiction, Is Heathcliff A Murderer?, and one of his articles comments on how strong a taboo there was against mentioning menstruation. Even in the twentieth century, with so many taboos broken that some writers seem to transgress for the sake of it, it is unusual to find a novel where menstrual blood has such an important (and uncontrived) place. This means that it provides a large part of the disturbing nature of magic in Hart's Hope.

This is quite early Orson Scott Card, and his work since has been more accessible and mainstream. Hart's Hope display at least as much imagination as any of Card's later writing, even if it is more difficult to get into.

Tuesday 10 June 2003

Iain Banks: Walking on Glass (1988)

Edition: Macmillan, 1988
Review number: 1166

Though the prose is recognisably by the same writer, Iain Banks' second novel is very different from the first. The Wasp Factory is about psychology, particularly concerning itself with the boundary between sanity and madness and the origins of religious ritual; it is basically a straightforward first person narrative in structure. Psychology is still a part of Walking on Glass (paranoia, whether deluded or not, plays an important role), but the structure of the novel is its central feature.

Apart from the last, each of Walking on Glass' parts is divided into three sections, which seem to be independent stories. In each part, the first is about the infatuation of a young man for a beautiful and slightly strange girl he met at a party; the second is about a roadmender who believes himself to be an admiral from a galactic war imprisoned in the body of an Earthman; and the third is a combination of Mervyn Peake and Franz Kafka, in which a pair of war criminals from opposing sides in a galactic war are imprisoned in an enormous castle and forced to play impossible games until they can solve the riddle "What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?"

At the beginning, of course, Banks' aim it clearly to make it as hard as possible for the reader to perceive any connection between the three narrative threads, and trying to work it out is the main pleasure of Walking on Glass, at least on first reading it. (None of the characters, for example, are likeable enough to become enjoyable acquaintances, though all are interesting.) Even though Walking on Glass is not among Banks' most successful novels (something due in part to the lack of sympathetic characters), it must be admired for its ingenuity.

Wednesday 4 June 2003

David and Leigh Eddings: Regina's Song (2002)

Edition: HarperCollins, 2002
Review number: 1164

Most people are fascinated by the intimate relationship which exists between identical twins, and this forms the basis of the most recent novel from David and Leigh Eddings, one which edges into the horror genre - a new departure for the pair.

Regina and Renata Greenleaf were identical twins, who continued to use a private language between themselves long after most pairs have given it up - right through high school. (I was surprised not to find any references to this cryptolalia - use of a secret language - online; may be it's not as common a practice as the Eddings imply.) Then, on the point of graduation, their car broke down returning from a party and when one of them went to find a phone, she was attacked, raped and viciously murdered. The surviving twin is so traumatised by this, that she reverts to their secret language, and it is only following six months in an asylum that she recognises anyone or returns to speaking English. Even so, she cannot remember the past, making it impossible to tell even which twin she is (or even to tell her that she had a twin sister).

To the chagrin of her parents, the person she recognises is a family friend, Mark Austin - also the narrator of the novel. His is a graduate student at Washington University (the whole novel, like all of the Eddings' non-fantasy, takes place in Washington State). A major part of the novel is about Mark's attempts to help the surviving twin (now insisting on being known, rather nauseatingly, as Twink) rehabilitate to the real world by auditing some of the courses at the university, including the basic English one he teaches. This means that Twink moves away from her parental home to stay with an aunt, who has a job which means that she is out a large proportion of the time - surely a situation which a psychiatrist would be unhappy about for someone only recently released from a mental ward. And then strange things begin to happen...

The main idea is strong, though it could be the basis of a far more bleak novel offering more insight into how it feels to be a twin and the nature of mental illness. (This could be done most easily by improving the essays that Twink hands in, which Mark somewhat bizarrely thinks are brilliant - they're nothing like that good.) Such a tale would be a radical departure for the Eddings, and the impression I got was that his was something they kept moving towards and then shying away from to produce something more lightweight. (After all, they don't want to alienate all their fans.) This desire makes the second half of the novel poorer than the first, and also means that some of the cute phrases and ideas which fill so much of the Eddings' recent writing appear once more. It may also explain an interesting change of attitude: all of the Eddings' fantasy involves the killing or disabling of a god, but here the role of religion as represented by a Roman Catholic priest is overwhelmingly positive.

Regina's Song contains a crime investigation and a (rather unconvincing) courtroom drama as well as the twin psychology and horror elements, and this is something of a mistake from a structural point of view, as it makes the novel seem somewhat overcrowded with strands from different genres. Nevertheless, Regina's Song is consistently entertaining (if you can ignore the cute turns of phrase) and the use of identical twins at the centre of this kind of story is fascinating.