On Being an Imitator

The Mapp and Lucia novels by E.F.Benson have been a part of my life since college days when I discovered them as rather camp amusing little tales, but without a full understanding of the protagonists, or the inter-war middle-class world in which they lived. Much of the subtlety and wit went over my head, but as I read and re-read them I discovered new depths in the characters and their doings.

In fact, these books became so much a part of my life that I could feel I was coming home to well-loved friends whenever I dipped into them, and they became my specialist subject for the first round of the BBC quiz series Mastermind in the 2019/20 series. Nor was my confidence misplaced. Lucia and Georgie, together with the other inhabitants of Riseholme and Tilling, after a ridiculously incorrect first answer, carried me through to the next round.

SmallMapp-at-Fifty-Kindle copyWhat more natural, then, when I came into contact with the Mapp and Lucia group on Facebook, that I should try to expand the canonical reach of these characters? The result was Mapp at Fifty – a novella (20,000 words) which attempts to reproduce and possibly expand, but always within the limits of the originals, Benson’s wonderful characters. I was slightly worried about whether I could manage Benson’s rather idiosyncratic (and definitely dated) style, with its little barbs and sarcasms, but I did find the characters’ speeches easy to manage, and that in turn led me to what I felt was an authentic style to describe their actions.

And my intuition was proved correct. A few relatively minor (and justified) criticisms on matters of detail from other Luciaphils, but overall, it can be counted as a success. I am pretty certain a sequel will follow. Many thanks to all who read, criticised, and suggested.

Benson’s books are not so much plotted novels, as slices of the characters’ lives, in which events occur which are linked, not so much by plot, as by the effect they have on their characters’ lives. To take one example in the Benson originals, Lucia invests successfully in the stock market, and Mapp follows her lead, but fails to read the small print. As a result, Lucia manages to unload her position at a profit, but Mapp is stuck with a set of underperforming shares which don’t even pay dividends typing up her capital. This leads to Mapp having to sell her house (which Lucia has been coveting for some time).

In the same way, even in 20,000 words, I managed to incorporate Mapp’s plans for her party, her desire for a particular gift to be presented by her husband, and a previously unknown character with a spectacular past arriving in Tilling. But there is no “plot” in the traditional sense, though I think the episodes hang together nicely.

Sidenote: At the time of writing (8 April 2020), Amazon seem to have rather messed things up – I wanted the print and ebook editions to be made available for pre-order from 9 April, but deliveries to start on 1 May.

UPDATE (13:30 April 8): Kindle now due on 11 April!! Paperback may well appear days before??

Being an Imitator

My first books were originals – the two alternative history titles featuring Brian Finch-Malloy, and my Tokyo-based thriller At the Sharpe End. So was the book that landed me a publishing contract with Inknbeans Press (RIP), Tales of Old Japanese .

But then I got started on writing Sherlock Holmes stories – I’d previously written semi-pastiches for advertisements in English-language Tokyo-based publications, and I’d always loved the style and phrasing of the prose – somewhat archaic, and sometimes with the power to surprise and even uplift at times.

At first, I was rather offended by the term “pastiche” – but it seems there is little pejorative about the term as used by fans of the original Sherlock Holmes. For whatever it’s worth, Wikipedia writes:

In literature usage, the term denotes a literary technique employing a generally light-hearted tongue-in-cheek imitation of another’s style; although jocular, it is usually respectful. The word implies a lack of originality or coherence, an imitative jumble, but with the advent of postmodernism pastiche has become positively constructed as deliberate, witty homage or playful imitation. For example, many stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, originally penned by Arthur Conan Doyle, have been written as pastiches since the author’s time.

There can, of course, be bad pastiches – ones which fail to capture the spirit or the character of the originals, but for better or worse, I discovered that I was writing pastiches.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It seems I succeeded – the Sherlockian community approved of my efforts, and some claimed that I had nailed it – “it” being the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Maybe… anyway, it’s a style that I like, and I am very happy to write in. Sometimes I write a few lines which seem to me to be more than mere pastiche. For example, in my current Sherlockian work in progress:

“Watson, I wish your honest opinion,” he said to me when I had likewise ensconced myself beside the fire.

“Always,” I replied.

“Is it your opinion that I should return to France tomorrow?”

I was dumbfounded, and it took me a little time before I replied. “As your friend, I would advise against it. You will place yourself in danger. As a doctor, I would strongly protest against your doing so. Your health would not support such an action. And as an Englishman, I see that you have little choice but to do so, given the peril before the nation. That is, on one condition.”

Holmes raised his eyebrows. “That condition being?”

“That I accompany you.”

The problem with my Holmes stories now (I haven’t published a new one for some time) is not that I am bored with Holmes and Watson, but that I am running out of interesting crimes. My current Sherlockian project is, to my dismay, turning more into a RDJ-type “Sherlock Holmes” – but I am still attempting to maintain the true characters of the protagonists, even if the plot is somewhat non-Canonical.

However, I have been inspired to try other styles in addition to ACD and Benson.

G.K.Chesterton

For example, I wrote a Father Brown pastiche, The Persian Dagger, with plotting assistance from my then editor, the late Jo Lowe. This was tricky – Chesterton’s style is somewhat baroque and full of little paradoxes and word tricks. I tried to get this style, and some of the spirituality that runs through Father Brown, into this little story:

“He is not a Catholic, then?”

She sighed. “He is nothing,” she said. “That is to say, he claims that he cannot prove that God exists, or that He does not. Therefore, he mocks both those with faith, and those who deny faith. Though he is a most efficient and useful addition to the household, and of great assistance in Uncle Archie’s work, I – we – feared that my uncle would give him his notice if he were to continue in this fashion. It upset my uncle considerably.”

“And yet you tell me that you love him?” asked Father Brown kindly.

“I do. I have faith – faith that I can bring him to belief and into the bosom of the Church. I pray every night for him to believe.”

This interesting conversation (interesting, that is, to the young lady at least, since Father Brown had heard that story, or one very similar to it, many times in his role as a priest) was interrupted by the entry of the young man in question.

William Hope Hodgson

And then there’s William Hope Hodgson, creator of many wonderful weird stories and also of Carnacki, the ghost-finder. And if you don’t know Thomas Carnacki, it’s time you did. I managed to put together a pastiche of Carnacki, described by one person as “pitch perfect” and which appears in Unknown Quantities.

Carnacki stories have their own mythos and world-picture, and I reproduced that, I think, fairly faithfully:

“After the initial chalk circle and pentacle, strengthened with garlic, the Electric Pentacle was obviously the first line of my defences to be established, and I welcomed the glow from its wards once I had assembled it. I performed the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual at each vertex, though if matters were as I suspected, and that the beings reportedly described in the lost Heptatrych of Laskaria were involved, the Ritual would have little or no effect. My faith lay in the Pentacle, along with the linen-wrapped bread placed in the ‘Points’ and the water placed in the ‘Vales’, and I determined to spend the night inside that, provided, that is, that there was no clear natural cause for any untoward event.

But Carnacki is also human, and there is more to producing a convincing Carnacki pastiche than simply reproducing these words, just as in another universe, simply repeating a stock list of names and phrases (Cthulhu, The Old Ones, Necronomicon, and The Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred) is not enough to create a true Lovecraftian pastiche (something I have yet to attempt, by the way). So Carnacki tells his listeners:

“I cannot say that I feel any regret over the arrest of Kirkwind, who behaved as no man should and will, if there is any justice, hang. Nor can I shed tears over James Offley. But I failed miserably and wretchedly when it came to the protection of Sir William Offley, and the memory of my failure will remain with me to my death.”

He ceased to speak, and there was silence for a few minutes, broken only by the rattle of coals in the grate, and a faint shuffle as one of us moved in a chair.

At length the silence was broken by Carnacki himself.

“Out you go!” he commanded us, invoking the usual formula.

I attempted to get into Carnacki’s mind – and here I was lucky, because I once knew a man who, had he lived some 100 years earlier, might well have served as a model for Carnacki.

And next…?

I don’t know. The important thing is for me, that I can identify with at least one of the characters in the story to such an extent that the story almost writes itself. But I enjoyed my visit to Tilling and especially my time with Georgie and Irene, and I think that’s where my next pastiche will come from.

 

Lend me your ears…

There’s a very interesting development coming up soon. One of my Sherlock Holmes stories for the MX Collections, “The Holloway Ghosts” was written not in my usual first-person Watson narrative style, but as an audio play.

Steve Emecz, the publisher behind MX, had been quietly asking for some time for me to make my works available as audiobooks, a field in which MX Publishing has quietly been making significant progress.

Accordingly, the Holloway Ghosts made their way over to MX, where they have been recorded and produced by another Steve (White), and Steve W and I worked out some of the production issues (including some of my stupid errors in the script) by email until we were both happy with it.

Audio is more than just the words

As we processed the script, I discovered that there is much more to making a successful audio drama than merely the right words. It helps to have a little atmosphere in there – a ticking clock and a crackling fire summon up the atmosphere of the rooms in 221B Baker Street. The clip-clop of horses’ hoofs brings us outside into a Victorian street, and a little reverberation added to the effects and dialogue places us with Holmes and Watson in a deserted empty room.

And then there’s the voice in which the accents are spoken. Steve, without going into a ludicrous falsetto, can portray the female characters in my story. However, I had envisaged one of my characters as being much more strident, and probably not a Londoner, than Steve made her. So we changed her to be a Midlander with an attitude, and I think we’re much happier with her now.

Steve surprised me with his Lestrade, who seemed to be from Norfolk. However, once I had got over the surprise, it worked, and made a great foil to the stolid Cockney PCs who play a role in the story.

And we also had fun with Otto Sussbinder – a German character who is not all that he appears.

And next…

This is one of the problems I encountered with regard to a voice play – transitions. I could have taken the easy way out, and had Watson do a voice-over.

We left Baker Street and made our way to Holloway by cab. During the journey, Holmes informed Lestrade of his conclusions regarding the recent theft from Westmereland House.

But I felt that was cheating. Accordingly, I wrote these scenes either as dialogue, or as a spoken cue by one of the characters:

Come, let us take a cab to Holloway, and we may usefully pass the time by my informing you, Lestrade, of the conclusions I have reached regarding the Westmereland rubies.

I also found, in scenes where more than one character is present, that I needed to throw in names in order to indicate who is being addressed:

Lestrade, if you would be good enough to call one of your constables, and Watson, follow me to the rear of the house.

All very technical, but necessary to the ultimate success of the production.

So… Keep a lookout for the Holloway Ghosts – appearing soon in a little over 30 minutes of glorious  audio. And at least two more of my longer stories are on the stocks, being adapted in the same way – no descriptions – simply dialogue. It’s an exciting venture.

I’ll be writing more later, when these hit the “shelves”.

 

The Secret of the League – Ernest Bramah – REVIEW

I’ve held off political writing on this blog for a while, but this post is an exception, as a result of the book that I read recently.

The Secret of the League – The Story of a Social War – is a 1907 novel about a Britain in the late 1910s (no world war takes place in this world). A Labour government has been elected, and the government and Cabinet, former union leaders and shop stewards, are out of their depth.

Bramah is best known for his stories of a blind detective, Max Carrados, which I have enjoyed reading, and his Orientalist Kai Lung stories, which I find pretentious and tedious. This book is more like the former than the latter, and though the style is slightly dated, it wears better than many others of the same vintage. The basic plot could be written today, however, with a few modifications to bring it up to date.

The socialist leaders are depicted mockingly, and Bramah makes them slavishly repeat all the clichés of the Left at that time (in dialect at times). They institute a welfare state which goes beyond anything that ever actually existed, and pay for it with ever-increasing taxes on the “bourgeoisie” and the upper classes (the House of Lords has, of course, been abolished). Interestingly enough, Bramah describes the Laffer curve, some seventy years before it became part of the economic vocabulary.

To counter the excesses of the socialists, a League of Unity is set up, fronted by a once-popular politician, which works behind the scenes to prepare for a spectacular act of civil disobedience (it’s all described in Wikipedia and elsewhere, but I won’t tell you here, because the book is well enough crafted to leave you in suspense).

Suffice it to say that it is a revolt by the middle- and upper classes to overthrow a fanatical (if superficially well-meaning) government which is driving the country to destruction. Violence does arise, but as a response to the violence of the supporters of the government side, rather than being instigated by the revolters. Eventually the government is brought to its knees, having shot itself in the foot, with its Achilles heel being the handouts that the electorate have come to expect. (how many below-the-waist metaphors can I cram into one sentence?)

Though it may appear that the tenor of the book is anti-socialist, it transpires at the end that Bramah’s sympathies lie with the anti-populists, as the League of Unity offers places in the new government and there is sympathy for the ultimate goals of the socialist government, but not for their methods.

I discovered some disturbing parallels between the book and our current political state in the UK (I am writing this in the middle of the prorogation crisis just triggered by Boris Johnson). I would recommend that you read this story – a free download as an ebook from Project Gutenberg – and then add your comments here.

The Bloody Steps

BloodyfrontOn June 17, 1839, the body of Christina Collins, who had been raped and murdered by the crew of the canal barge on which she was travelling from Liverpool, was carried up “The Bloody Steps” in Rugeley, Staffordshire.
Several decades later, the famous consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, was called to Rugeley to investigate the alleged sighting of Miss Collins’ ghost by the wife of the Rector of the local church. What he discovered was much darker and more sinister than any ghost.
BloodybackToday, June 17, 2019, being 180 years after the discovery of Collins’ body, the story of Sherlock Holmes’ Rugeley investigations is officially published and available for sale. The story has been edited by Hugh Ashton, widely regarded as one of the most accomplished narrators of the exploits of the celebrated sleuth.

Currentl;y available in paperback from Amazon or contact me for information about ordering a signed copy.

For more on the story of the Steps, see this page. It describes the murdered woman as already married and on her way to meet her husband, while I had always believed her to be meeting her intended husband. But of course, I may well be mistaken.

There’s a catch … isn’t there always?

Tomorrow (May 1, 2019) there’s a “Coffee Morning with Local Authors” at Lichfield Library from 10 to 12. If you haven’t visited the Library yet, it’s well worth the visit, believe me. It’s a medieval church that’s been brilliantly converted.

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Photo: Express & Star

Continue reading “There’s a catch … isn’t there always?”

Making a steampunk book…

This is one of my favourite books from the point of view of the physical design of the book. Originally, it was two separate paperback volumes, The Untime and The Untime Revisited (both of which are still available as ebooks – check them out here), but I decided to combine them into one print volume, since one is a very clear sequel to the other.

I had some designs which I’d used for the cover of the original, but I preferred to take a completely different tack on this, and to try to recreate the feeling of a 19th-century book using 21st century technology. Steampunk publishing, if you will. Continue reading “Making a steampunk book…”

Did I get it right?

A couple of years or so ago, I started an experiment. I wanted to write a novel in a place I had never visited, and about people I have never been, and never will be.

The result was Balance of Powers – which came out much better than I expected, to my mind, anyway. I am sure there are some flaws in it, though – but no-one has pointed them out to me yet. Perhaps you can help me here.

Continue reading “Did I get it right?”