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.

John Linwood Grant – Interview

The first interview on this blog, with John Linwood Grant, writer and editor of weird fiction, sharer of space with lurchers, and creator of several strange characters who live and move and have their being in and around the London of Sherlock Holmes (who also makes his appearance in several of his works). He has also reviewed a book of mine and interviewed me – and in the interest of balance it is only fair to let him present his side of the story.

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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

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A Study of Fear

Yes, I’ve conflated the titles of two Sherlock Holmes novellas here (“conflated” – did I really write that word?).

I confess to not having read The Valley of Fear for a long time, and it’s been some time since I read A Study in Scarlet. There are some real similarities, though. Both involve a murder of a particularly unusual kind, and both involve a flashback sequence to an American past.

What is really striking about the central portion of both books is the attitude of Conan Doyle to American society.

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Yo ho ho and a bottle of correction fluid…

I recently discovered yet another site which listed many of my titles as being free to download. The site itself does not appear to be hosting the titles but seems to be aggregating content from a number of pirate sites, many of which are listed as hosting malware (browser hijackers, etc.).

At least ebooklibs.co has a page devoted to the steps that anyone alleging infringed copyright can take – so I took them.

Important Note

DO NOT attempt to download the books from the site mentioned here. It links to some very dubious places, and unless you want to spend half a day scraping malware off your hard disk and re-installing software (and/or sending all your credit card details to Eastern European mobsters, I do not recommend downloading from there. By all means use this site here (HughAshtonBooks.com) or any reputable retailer to download my books, but don’t put your digital health at risk by supporting piracy!

Dear Sir

The following titles, whose copyright is owned by me and by my self-publishing operation, are listed as being available on the eBookLibs site as being made available:

Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD
The Darlington Substitution
Beneath Gray Skies
Secrets from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD
More from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD
Without my Boswell
Notes from the Dispatch-box of John H. Watson MD
Further Notes from the Dispatch-box of John H. Watson MD
Red Wheels Turning
At the Sharpe End
The Deed Box of John H. Watson MD*
The Bradfield Push
Tales of Old Japanese
The Reigate Poisoning Case: Continued
The Death of Cardinal Tosca
1894
The Trepoff Murder
Keiko’s House
The Last Notes from the Dispatch-box of John H. Watson MD
Sherlock Ferret and the Missing Necklace*
The Adventures of Sherlock Ferret*
The Untime
Leo’s Luck

These titles may be listed by using the following URL:
https://www.ebooklibs.co/book/search/hugh-ashton/

I hereby declare that I and my self-publishing operation j-views Publishing own the copyright to all these titles, following the reversion of copyright from the now defunct Inknbeans Press. No permission has been given for these to be freely distributed through ebooklibs.co, including from some sites which are recognised by security professionals as being vectors for malware infection (e.g., UIrbookdownload).

Please also note that the metadata information is incorrect, and many of these were published as ebooks, but are no longer available as such, and furthermore titles marked with a asterisk were only published in paper format and were never released as ebooks – they have therefore been scanned and reproduced illegally. In addition, these were never offered for sale in PDF format, which is the format in which they are offered from your site.

I therefore await your speedy confirmation that links to downloads of these titles have been removed from your site.

We will see what effect, this will have, if any. Unfortunately, this is a whack-a-mole business – there are hundreds of these pirate-supporting sites (even if they are not pirates or fronts for pirates themselves, they are actively supporting theft). Please do avoid them.

 

Invasion 1940, Derek Robinson – REVIEW

My introduction to alternative history was Philip K.Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I read when I was about 20. I hesitate to call it my favourite, though.That prize goes to Len Deighton’s SS-GB, which combines an interesting alternative timeline where the Nazi invasion of Britain takes place with a detective/espionage thriller. Since Len Deighton has also written some pretty good popular historical books on related subjects (e.g., Fighter and Blitzkrieg), I took his ideas as being fairly accurate.

And now here comes Derek Robinson, whose books I also enjoy, who enjoys getting to the heart of matters – at least as he sees them – which he has done in novels such as A Piece of Cake and Damned Good Show, in which he explores the myths that have grown up around the historical episodes he is writing about. So Invasion 1940 is there to prove to the reader that the Battle of Britain, though important, had very little to do with stopping Operation Sealion (the planned Nazi invasion of Britain).

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What the f___iddlesticks?

Warning – contains words that some may find offensive (and that’s the point, actually)

Recently I saw a post on Facebook which gave a list of euphemisms sometimes used in the US to avoid using certain swearwords. They struck this Brit as being quaint and amusing (even the term “cuss words”!).

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