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.

 

 

Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW

Sorry about the silence recently. Some of it has been an enforced silence (minor surgery with subsequent complications) and some has been connected with things I am not allowed to talk about (no, I haven’t joined MI6 or MI6 or GCHQ, but there are secrets which must remain hidden for the nonce*).

Anyway, I recently bought a copy of Hell’s Empire, an anthology of weird/horror tales around a common theme.

Imagine Them – the demons of Hades, the Empire of the Damned, the Dukes and Earls of Hell, commanding legions of the damned to battle against the heartland of the Empire on which the sun never sets. Martini-Henrys and Maxims bark and chatter against fanged, clawed horrors that rip off heads and splay intestines in obscene eldritch patterns. Continue reading “Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW”

The sound of silence…

…or how to describe without description.

Aspiring writers are told to “show not tell” – in other words, to allow the reader to do a little work in setting the scene for themselves. Don’t say “he was angry”, say “his face grew red as he pounded the table with his fists”.

Thomas Love Peacock satirised the over-telling in the stage directions provided for a fictional (doubly fictional, since the “author”, Scythrop, has never written it) play in Nightmare Abbey.

The princess is discovered hemming a set of shirts for the parson of the parish: they are to be marked with a large R. Enter to her the Great Mogul. A pause, during which they look at each other expressively. The princess changes colour several times. The Mogul takes snuff in great agitation. Several grains are heard to fall on the stage. His heart is seen to beat through his upper benjamin.

If you’ve never read the book, I strongly recommend it – it’s a lot of fun if you’re into the early 19th century (if you’re not, then you’ll find it boring).

But there is one genre where showing rather than telling is a must, and that’s a radio play. It is possible to cheat, and basically write a straight story, with actors reading out the parts in quotation marks, but the purest form of radio drama (in my opinion) has no narration, and all is explained through the dialogue.

I set out to do just that with a Sherlock Holmes adventure, and using the BBC radio drama template in Scrivener, produced the first draft of a thirty-minute (or so) drama in one day, and though I say it myself, I am rather pleased with it.

It was a real challenge at times to provide the settings and the explanations with no narrative, other than that provided in the dialogue:

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Bear in mind, if you would, that this is a draft – but I think this illustrates how I tried to set the scene with a minimum of description. A very interesting technical exercise, and even if it doesn’t get bought and produced by the BBC, I feel it has been worthwhile.

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.

Continue reading “A Study of Fear”

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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Continue reading “What the f___iddlesticks?”

Bee-bee

Just finished a 3k+ word short story which ventures into new territory. The protagonist is a youngish woman, and the situation is one I have never personally experienced.

It’s all from a very intimate third-person POV, and though there are flashbacks, the majority of the action occurs in one small room and one person’s mind – it’s quite claustrophobic.

There’s a lot of swearing and four-letter words at one point. Still not sure whether to leave them there, but they do fit the character and her mood at this point.

The style is closest to my Tales of Old Japanese – a very sparse style –  not too many adverbs, and very little in the way of physical description.

There’s an element of the supernatural here, but there’s also ambiguity here – I hope, and I also hope that it’s quite scary from a psychological point of view (as opposed to people being eaten by zombies or chopped up with chainsaws, etc.).

Oh, and the title, and the image I’ve chosen to decorate this page with? All part of the story.

…she kept coming back to Bee-bee, as she had done for over thirty years.

Bee-bee was six months younger than Anne, and she had been given to Anne by her grandmother, who had died less than a year later. From the start, Anne had instantly fallen in love with the rag doll, who seemed to always have been called Bee-bee. No-one could remember who she was called that, or why.

Now on her fourth set of button eyes, and after many major surgical operations to repair almost ripped off limbs, severe abdominal lesions, and general old age, Bee-bee went everywhere with Anne, whether Anne was on her own or not. Bee-bee was always there to listen, sitting at the head of her bed, whenever Anne had doubts, or when her heart was broken as yet another man walked out of her life.

Now, what to do with what I’ve written… Any agents or publishers interested?

Beginning at the end

Our writers’ group, the Lichfield Writers, gave us an interesting exercise this week. Usually, a writing exercise gives you the opening sentence of a piece. This time, we were presented with the end.

As night turned to day, he started to understand the truth.

I ended up writing a genre which is somewhat unfamiliar to me. I think it almost works.

Continue reading “Beginning at the end”

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…”

Dead Ringer (M.C.Beaton) – REVIEW

At our writing group, the Lichfield Writers, one of our members mentioned how much she enjoyed M.C.Beaton’s books. As we were going out of the library where we meet, I noticed the latest Beaton, Dead Ringer, on the Rapid Reads shelf (books which have just come in and you must get through them in a week because other people want to get hold of them). So I picked it up, and…

Continue reading “Dead Ringer (M.C.Beaton) – REVIEW”