Open for business…

I’ve been writing Mapp and Lucia pastiches as part of my lockdown busy-ness. Both have been turned into ebooks and paperbacks.

The first, Mapp at Fifty, is available from Amazon, and other purveyors of fine literature, and the second, Mapp’s Return, will be available publicly from July 1.

However, both are available (in ebook and signed paperback formats) NOW, from here. And there is an audiobook version of Mapp at Fifty – and all prices are less than the Amazon prices.

Signed copies now available

I now have a few paperback copies of Mapp at Fifty.  If anyone would like a signed copy, this can be arranged easily. Simply click the button here, and fill in the form, including the “Dedication”. In other words, how do you want me to sign the book?

The price of a signed copy from here is £5.99, as opposed to the recommended price of £7.49. Pay with PayPal or credit card.

But wait, there’s more…

If you would also like a copy of my collection of slightly weird tales, Unknown Quantities (more details on the Amazon page), I have a few copies here. They are going for £3.99 (Amazon £5.99).

Postage is calculated as a Large Letter (non-trackable) and may (depending on where you live) end up being as much as the book(s). Sorry. I have no control over postage rates. With the current Covid-19 pandemic, shipping times will be longer than usual. I would estimate (and this is only an estimate) that UK delivery will be about a week from posting, and European and North American about two weeks. Australia and NZ, perhaps a little longer. So please have patience. I will try to get the package in the mail the same day that I receive an order.

The postage for your order is automatically calculated for the following countries:

  • Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, UK, USA

However, if you live in a country which is not on this list, don’t order just yet. Check on the map here or use this link to check your zone. If you are in World Zone 2, then there is a default “worldwide” setting. Otherwise, please let me know through the contact form before you order, I’ll add your country to the automated pricing system and then let you know.

Screenshot_2020-04-20 Country sending guides Royal Mail

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.

 

Panic lending

Staffordshire Libraries will be closed from the end of today (Saturday 21 March). They are allowing people to take out a lot of books, with no overdue fines or limits until this whole social distancing thing blows over.

I went along yesterday to take back the books that I had already borrowed, and chose a few more which will see me through the next week also.

A somewhat eclectic selection

Fracture – REVIEW


Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938
by Philipp Blom

A slightly sideways look at history between 1918 and 1939 – taking in some of the principal social and political events of that time. Blom seems to be one of those historians who sees this period as a time of relative calm in the Second European Thirty Years’ War (1914-1945), given the conflicts in most Continental European countries.

I learned a lot, for example, about the political violence in Austria post-1918, and about this history of Italy, particularly the influence of d’Annunzio’s style and tactics had on Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. The social structure of Prohibition, and the pernicious racism in the USA which ironically coexisted with the rise of African-American culture in the form of jazz also play a part in the story, as does the decadence of the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood and Sally Bowles.

However, the conclusion may seem particularly shocking to many, especially those right-wing libertarians who worship the god of Mammon. Blom pours scorn on what he sees as the myth of the neoliberal free market, which he blames for many of today’s ills and insecurity, and which he dismisses, saying “the gospel of the free market is just as ideological as fascism or communism. The belief in the seemingly unideological power of the market has helped only a small minority, creating for the rest a world in which hundreds of millions of people live less well and more precariously than their parents.”

He builds a convincing case for this view in the previous chapters, and to me, there is much to be said for it. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the book is worth reading, whether or not it agrees with your views, if only for the stories it tells.

View all my reviews

The woman who fooled the world – REVIEW

The Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness IndustryThe Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness Industry by Beau Donelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very frightening expose of how easy it is to fool many people by telling them what they want to believe. This book deals with the “wellness” business, but the same principles can be applied to financial and political scammers as well.

“Woo” and political “woo” (Brexit, Trumpism, etc.) have many things in common – an audience who are desperate for some good news, believing the existing system has failed them, and welcome any kind of relief from what is troubling them, however ludicrous and outrageous the claims and methods may seem to be.
View all my reviews

If Only They Didn’t Speak English (John Sopel) – REVIEW

A book that looks at America and Americans – the premise of the title is that the USA is a very foreign country indeed – very far away from the UK in many deeply fundamental ways, but because they speak English, we think of them as slightly eccentric siblings, rather than distant relatives with very different  worldviews to those we have in Britain.

Continue reading “If Only They Didn’t Speak English (John Sopel) – REVIEW”

Halloween is coming

Unknown Quantities is now available for pre-order and will be on sale from Halloween (the paperback will also be available on that date ). However, I will be happy to send a free ebook copy (EPUB or MOBI) to the first ten people to contact me, in exchange for a review somewhere.Unknownback@1.5x

  • Bee-bee – a rag doll who helps her owner cope with life’s ups and downs
  • What you find in a skip – it can be surprising
  • Babysitter – something nasty in the Coopers’ woodshed
  • Time thieves – they steal time and dreams and energy
  • Ships in the night – “as night turned to day, he started to understand the truth”
  • Carnacki at Bunscombe Abbey – a sincere tribute to William Hope Hodgson’s classic ghost-finder
  • The story that wrote itself – sometimes an author gets help from an unexpected source
  • Gianni Two-Pricks – be careful what you take from others – even when they’re dead
  • Lady of the Dance – movement as message
  • Me and my Shadow – or is it really my shadow?
  • What Happens Afterwards? – when you die on the operating table, what’s next?

Another day, another genre…

I’ve written books in a variety of genres, but one I’ve shied away from, for no good reason, is the horror/weird genre.

However, in the Lichfield Writers, I found that quite a few of my pieces actually were at least moving in the direction of that genre, and could be put together to make a small collection. I was encouraged in this by John Linwood Grant, who has much more experience in this field, and am going ahead with the project.

UnknownbackI’ve picked out ten stories, and the 96-page book will be on sale soon. I’ve produced it as the same pocket size (4″ x 6″ or 101mm x 152mm) as the Untime paperback. It’s cute and it’s rather friendly.

The cover is still a little provisional, but I’m pretty certain that Unknown Quantities will end up looking a little like this.

The price it will go for on Amazon is £5.99 (US $6.99). I should be able to do it for much less (including p&p). If you are interested in a signed copy, please let me know, and I’ll be able to order copies for resale.

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.

David Marcum – Interview

David Marcum is known to fans of Sherlock Holmes, at least partly as the editor of the MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes series, which collect “authentic” Sherlock Holmes pastiches, published in handsome volumes, the profits (including the authors’ royalties) from which go to help Stepping Stones, the school currently occupying Undershaw, the house designed and built by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He also writes Sherlock Holmes pastiches of his own, as well as those featuring Solar Pons.

51A1-VnwqMLBut David has many other strings to his bow, and one of them is an interest in John Thorndyke. For those unacquainted with this “medical jurispractitioner”, a little later than Sherlock Holmes, Thorndyke, created by R. Austin Freeman, is a very scientific detective, with much more in common with modern forensic practice than Holmes. Starting life as a doctor, Thorndyke later proceeded to the bar (became a barrister), and brought a scientific rigour to the cases in which he appeared as an expert witness.

David, with a background in investigation and forensics, has just completed editing a collection of the original Thorndyke tales, and I asked him a few questions about this project, and related issues:

If you were an official police detective working on a case, who would you sooner have working at your side, John Thorndyke or Sherlock Holmes?

RAusti2.gifThe short answer is Dr. John Thorndyke, although it pains me to pick him over my hero, Sherlock Holmes. Having grown up around detectives and policemen (see below), I know that their disdainful attitude toward private detectives and amateurs that is portrayed in books and film is accurate. The police have a procedure that must be followed in order to document everything to make a court case that can’t be picked apart. The chain of evidence is sacred – or supposed to be that way. Also, there’s a feeling that if someone could really do the job, they’d be on the official force. Private detectives are usually a joke at best to the police in the real world.

We had a private detective in my home town, a one-armed man who had also previously been the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan group. His vehicle license plate said Im 007, and he had a house full of silly listening equipment and other tools of his trade. He would often butt in on cases to express ridiculous theories, but the newspapers would eat it up. Once, in my capacity as a federal investigator, I had to interview him. He insisted that we sit in his Im 007 car so that any listening device that I might be wearing (which I wasn’t) would be blocked. While we sat there, I began to be covered by tiny baby spiders that were crawling up out of the car seat. Without missing a beat of whatever nonsense that he was telling me, he began reaching over with his one arm and picking off the spiders and popping them, one by one, until we were done. That’s my real-life encounter with a private detective in action.

Part of what makes the Holmes stories so fun is that he sees what others don’t, and sometimes those others who aren’t seeing are the official force. When the first Holmes adventure was published in 1887, the idea of preserving a crime scene, or approaching a crime scientifically, simply wasn’t done. And yet, as time passed, the police adopted more modern methods, including some that were originally described in the Holmes narratives. By the later Holmes stories, the Yard was attempting to do things the right way, and Holmes had gone from being an outsider who was laughed at behind his back, despite his successful results, to someone that was admired. As Inspector Lestrade said at the end of “The Six Napoleons”:

We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.”

By the time Dr. Thorndyke came along, the Yard was well along toward embracing scientific detection. In the first book in the series, The Red Thumb Mark (1907), Thorndyke and his friend Dr. Jervis visit the Yard’s fingerprint department. Nothing like a fingerprint department existed in Holmes’s day. Thorndyke is still something of an outsider, able to see and do things beyond what the Yard can accomplish, but he’s also a welcome co-investigator, instead of someone like Holmes in the early days, who lamented the stupidity of the police.

I remember discussing The Body Farm with you some time ago, and so I know that some members of your family have had some real-life forensic experience. Would you like to provide a little more detail about this? And how has this knowledge and experience influenced your attitudes to crime fiction written before the advent of modern forensic practice?

 For someone who is interested in mystery stories, I grew up in a very interesting way. Or possibly the way that I grew up gave me an interest in mysteries. My dad was a Special Investigator for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, covering a multi-county area, and assisting other local law-enforcement agencies when they needed help. He had been an MP in the Army during the Korean War, and then he became a Highway Patrolman before becoming a TBI Agent when I was just two or three years old, in the late 1960’s.

Because he covered a number or rural counties, his office was in our home. There he kept all of the equipment that he’d need, including his fingerprint kit, crime scene investigation tools, blank forms, and evidence collecting items – and also the files of all his cases, in two big filing cabinets. He would let me read those files, starting when I was around eight years old, pulling one after another out of the drawer, as long as I was careful with them. I was probably much too young to see that stuff, but I don’t regret it. (One of his most lauded cases was the murder of a rural country doctor by way of a sawed-off shotgun fired close-range at his head. The extremely graphic photos were all in the file, and when I read about the same type of murder in the Holmes adventure The Valley of Fear a year or so later, I knew exactly what it looked like.)

In addition to letting me read his casefiles, he would occasionally take me on investigations with him. He taught me how to obtain a subject’s fingerprints, and to lift them from an object. I saw him conduct interviews – and in hindsight I wonder how it was managed that I could sit in on them – and once he took me to a murder scene. While there, I found what I thought was a blood stain well away from the action and was sure that I’d discovered an alternate route as to how the body was removed. I went and pestered the “blood expert” to come look, and he informed me that instead of a blood stain, it was the droppings of a bird who had been eating berries. Thus ended my big Ellery Queen moment on one of the Inspector Queen’s cases.

For a while as a kid, I established my own detective agency in a big walk-in closet in our basement. Some neighbors actually “hired” us, and the little money that we earned was rolled back into the business in the form of office supplies. To help us, my dad gave me a bunch of his official forms – blank fingerprint cards, evidence collection stickers, and so on. He also regularly received FBI Wanted Posters in the mail, and he passed those on to me. I hung them in our office.

Later in his career, my dad became the first TBI polygraph (lie-detector) operator in the state. When he would give demonstrations to public groups, he would take me along as his guinea pig and hook me up as his subject to avoid the liability of asking strangers questions. When we would demonstrate at my school, I usually received very embarrassing questions yelled out from my peers about which girl that I had a crush. That wasn’t fun, and also it was usually very revealing to the girl.

body_farm_skull.jpgMy dad had several notable cases over his career, and one was written up in a “True Crime” type magazine, but one big career accomplishment was that he was the first to use Dr. William Bass, the world-famous forensic anthropologist, as a consultant related to dead bodies, back when Dr. Bass was simply a college professor. When he retired, my dad received a commendation from the state for his entire career, including having that idea to involve Dr. Bass in a case. This involvement led to more work of the same type with other agents, and eventually Dr. Bass became so intrigued that he created “The Body Farm”, a world-famous site where decomposition of human remains can be studied under all types of conditions. It’s located about fifteen miles from where I live.

I’m very glad for this experience growing up, and how some of it helped prepare me for my first career as a federal investigator with an obscure U.S. Agency, now long defunct. Personally, seeing all of these things in real life has really given me an added perspective when reading crime stories – whether it be the Great Detectives like Holmes, Nero Wolfe, et al, or other books that focus more on police procedures. I understand that, even as investigation becomes more and more about gathering evidence, there is still a human component that can’t be ignored.

Connected to the above, I was talking to a former police officer the other day who was bemoaning the fact that (in the UK at least), most crimes are solved and convictions obtained, not through detective work, but through DNA analysis or CCTV footage. In your opinion, could this be a factor for the enduring popularity of the more “human” detective story, which may use psychology as well as forensic science in order to determine the perpetrator?

That might explain the enduring popularity now, but I’m not sure that it adequately explains the popularity of those stories through all the years before DNA and CCTV. I think that people look for a hero that is always one step ahead (or two or three like Holmes!), and also who has a sense of justice. He should be something of a guardian angel, or a Court of Last Resort. However, I have seen a very disturbing pollution of Holmes in recent years, as many people add in various flaws in stories about him that were never in the original Canon – extreme drug addiction, sociopathic or murderous behaviours, attempts to put him on the Autism scale, or to make him manic-depressive, a total lack of social or grooming skills, a general inept disfunction, etc – in an attempt to have a broken Holmes with whom they can identify. Holmes doesn’t need to be broken. He is a hero. And we don’t need to drag him down to identify with him. In the original stories it’s Watson that we identify with – a brave, steadfast, and intelligent friend, doctor, husband, and former soldier –the everyman that shows us Holmes through his lens. That’s how I want to see Our Heroes, and not as something sad and struggling.

What about the role of sidekick in the Holmes and Thorndyke series? Watson versus Jervis. Who makes the better narrator, and who is the more appealing character, in your view?

Inverness and DeerstalkerNo question, I choose Watson as the better narrator, because before Watson appeared, there had been nothing really like that, and all that follow are just imitators. There’s a reason why so many of the other narrators of The Great Detectives’ adventures – Dr. Parker, Captain Hastings, Archie Goodwin, Dr. Jervis – are referred to as their Watsons. Even Dupin’s unnamed friend and narrator, who came before Watson, pales when compared with Watson. There are quite a few who argue that The Canon is really Watson’s story, since we see it all from his perspective, and he’s such an interesting, brave, compassionate, and decent character. We need him to filter our view of Holmes. I don’t think anyone will ever argue that some of the Poirot stories are actually Hastings stories.

And while Dr. Jervis is most often associated with Dr. Thorndyke, there are actually a number of other narrators of the various Thorndyke stories besides Jervis, including Doctors Berkely, Jardine, and Strangeways, lawyer Robert Anstey, and even Nathaniel Polton, Thorndyke’s crinkly-faced assistant. (Polton is something between Thorndyke’s Q and a forensic house elf). In many cases, Freeman seemed to need to use a different narrator because he’d already allowed Jervis to meet his wife in the very first book, and in order to have a romance bloom in subsequent tales, he needed new and unmarried narrators. (None of these other narrators can equal Watson either.)

If you were a TV producer making a series of Thorndyke episodes, closely based on the originals, who would you pick to play Thorndyke (and the other principal characters)?

That’s a tough question, because I don’t usually pay attention to actors. Instead, I’m interested in characters. I’ve never in my life watched a film because it had a certain actor in it. I either watch because it’s about a character that I care about, or because the story sounds interesting. In so many cases where a film has been made about one of my “book friends” (as my son called them when he was little), the actor simply isn’t right. He or she may get close, but it’s never completely true, for various reasons – physical variations, choices by the screenwriters/adapters to service their own swollen egos over the original material, etc.

Dr. Thorndyke was born in 1870, and his adventures span from when he’s in his late twenties to his sixties. However, when he’s about thirty is when he’s in his prime, so we’d need an actor of around that age. Often when an actor is cast as Holmes, he is far too old for the part. In every Canonical adventure but one, Holmes was under fifty, and for a good many of them he was in his thirties, with Watson only a couple of years older. The elderly versions of Holmes and Watson portrayed onscreen are often simply wrong.

Thorndyke is described as very handsome, and he’s usually in a good mood, smiling easily. He generally knows more about what’s going on than those around him, and the actor playing him needs to have a twinkle in his eye when watching others try and figure out the solution. John Neville played him in a rare 1970’s televised version of one of the stories, and he was somewhat close, but still not quite right. (There’s something about Neville, as seen in his portrayal of Holmes in A Study in Terror [1965] that’s a little to breathlessly enthusiastic.)

Jervis is about the same age as Thorndyke – they were friends in school. We don’t know a lot about him, except that he’s tall and apparently handsome too, although life had beaten him down a little bit before he began working with Thorndyke. Marchmont, a lawyer who appears frequently, is seemingly in his sixties, and Superintendent Miller is probably a few years older than Thorndyke. Polton is older – he seems old when we first meet him, and he stays that way – and is a small fellow with a crinkly-faced smile. Then there are the other doctors (and a lawyer) who sometimes narrate the Thorndyke adventures – Berkely, Jardine, Strangeways, and Anstey. They are all a bit younger than Thorndyke, and would need to be cast as well.

If he weren’t already in his sixties and retired, Daniel Day Lewis would make a good Thorndyke. (I’ve long made the case elsewhere that he should play Holmes in the World War I years. Just take a look at him in 2017’s The Phantom Thread to see how right he physically looks for the part.) However, after giving this way too much thought, I simply can’t pick anybody. I don’t know actors that well, until they get cast in something that I want to see, and then I judge whether they’re right or not.

Stephen Moffat, co-creator of the BBC SHERLOCK series says that other detectives have cases, Sherlock Holmes has adventures. Where does Thorndyke fit on that scale?

Thorndyke is much more on the “case” end of the spectrum. Those stories are generally very workmanlike, with Thorndyke gathering evidence that is in plain sight of the narrator and the reader, but refusing (with a smile) to interpret or explain it before he’s ready. Then he lays it out, often in a Coroner’s Court, and suddenly it’s very obvious. When something adventurous happens – such as Thorndyke being sent a poisoned cigar by a murderer, or being trapped in a locked secret chamber with a container of gaseous poison that might kill him at any minute, it’s much more of an unexpected treat, as one is conditioned to expect that he’s simply going to be steadily gathering evidence to build his case.

What augments the pleasure of reading these evidence-gathering stories is that in a number of these cases, we already know who committed the crime, and we’re simply seeing how Thorndyke builds his web, one strand at a time, undoing what the criminal thought was unsolvable. The author, R. Austin Freeman, invented the “Inverted Detective Story”, in which the reader sees the crime occur, and the real mystery is how will Thorndyke uncover the truth. This was later used by Columbo in that long-running television series.

Any thoughts on who will be the next “Marcum discovery”?

First up is finishing the re-issues of the Thorndyke books (along with the various ongoing Holmes projects that I write and edit). Later this year, three more volumes will arrive (to complement the first two volumes from late 2018, which consisted of the first half of the short stories and three novels.) The next set will be the rest of the short stories, and six more novels. Then, during 2020, I plan to release the final twelve Thorndyke novels in four more books, making it a nine-volume set of The Complete Dr. Thorndyke. That, along with all the Sherlock Holmes writing and editing on my plate, should keep me busy.

After that . . . I have an idea. I reissued all of the Martin Hewitt stories back in 2014, although some people didn’t like it, as I reworked them into early Holmes stories, set in Montague Street before Holmes moved to Baker Street. Then I spent much of 2018 to bring back all of the original Solar Pons stories. After that came Thorndyke, and now I’m thinking about doing the same for another detective who has faded from the limelight. However, he’s less like Sherlock Holmes and more like Ellery Queen, one of my other heroes – that may be a clue – and I don’t know what the reaction to that might be from Sherlockian publishers. Hewitt, Pons, and Thorndyke all have strong Holmesian connections, so that was an easier idea to sell. However, there’s plenty of time for that later. First I have to finish up Thorndyke – but what a great way to spend some of my time! I invite everyone to wander to his chambers at 5A King’s Bench Walk and get to know him!

Thanks very much for this opportunity!

Thank you for all these answers.

To find out more about David Marcum’s work on detective fiction, simply type his name into your local Amazon site.

 

 

Good Omens – REVIEW (TV series)

This is unusual for me – reviewing a TV series (on Amazon TV). I don’t watch an awful lot of TV series – I tend to get bored with them – unless they’re semi-documentaries like The Looming Tower or Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon.

However, I did note that Good Omens was available on Amazon TV. I’m never 100% convinced about Neil Gaiman’s books, but I do like Terry Pratchett, and I had enjoyed Good Omens as a book, though the end went a little too fast and left me confused. So I decided to watch the first episode of the Amazon production, and I was hooked.

Somehow, the verbal paradoxes and twisted logic of the book made it onto the screen, partly due to the voiceovers by God which played the same sort of role as The Book in HHGTTG.

What really made it for me, though, were the characters of and the relationship between the angel and demon (Aziraphale and Crowley) who came through beautifully. I went into there with almost no expectations of how the actors would come over. I had heard of David Tennant but couldn’t tell you anything about any other parts he’d played except for his role as Doctor Who (which I have never seen) and would never recognise him, and had never heard of Michael Sheen.

How can you manage to be so ignorant? you ask. Lack of interest in “celebrities” and in fictional drama, and nearly 30 years out of the country, I answer.

But what really made it for me is that the ending, complex in the book, all started to make perfect sense in the TV series.

The special effects were, of course, wonderful and the makeup and the characterisation of some of the minor characters was great (I especially liked Beelzebub, and Gabriel). Definitely worth giving up three evenings for.