Sunday, March 23, 2014

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

Another delightful murder mystery starring Lord Peter Wimsey. Like Clouds of Witness, the story is about getting someone off a charge of murder rather than (or as well as) looking for a killer among suspects. That makes it immediately warmer and more benign than most other detective adventures. Plus our detective has fallen in love...

Strong Poison begins at what seems to be the end of the adventure, with the summing up of evidence in a trial for murder. Harriet Vane, writer of popular murder mysteries (just like Sayers herself), is suspected of killing her no-good rapscallion boyfriend - like something out of one of her own books.

Wimsey is not involved in the case, he's just a fascinated observer. When the jury can't decide whether Vane is innocent or guilty, he steps in to prove her innocence.

Published in 1930, the book feels racingly modern, the plot tied up in all kinds of things of its time: seances, socialism and speakeasies, with motivations all bound up in "what will people think". It's only a post-war perspective that makes an early clue so striking: when Urquhart speaks of euthanasia as kindness, he's expressing what was then a widely held view.
"It always seemed to me a cruel thing that one may not put these poor old people out of the way, as one would a favoured animal."
Dorothy L Sayers, Strong Poison, p. 126.
I loved the idea of the "cattery" (first described pp. 54-5), an office of smart, professional spinsters who help Wimsey foil criminal schemes. It's like the Baker Street irregulars in Sherlock Holmes, but without the sense of exploitation (as I discussed in reviewing The House of Silk). I especially like the plot zigzagging off as one of these women takes central stage and has a mini-adventure. Leaving London for the countryside is a much bigger deal - there is communication by post and telegraph, but she's basically out on her own. There's some nice character stuff about the pricking of her conscience over whether to dupe a nurse if it will help solve the mystery.

But there's also something strange about the book being contemporary. Written and set in 1930, there's a moment when it jumps to the future:
"Wimsey was accustomed to say, when he was an old man, and more talkative than usual, that the recollection of that Christmas at Duke's Denver had haunted him in nightmares, every night regularly, for the following twenty years."
Ibid., p. 141.
It's perhaps stranger still coming so soon after Wimsey has joked to a socialist about what the future might hold:
"People will point me out, as I creep, bald and yellow and supported by discreet corsetry, into the nightclubs of my great-grandchildren, and they'll say, 'Look, darling! that's the wicked Lord Peter, celebrated for never having spoken a reasonable word for the last ninety-six years. He was the only aristocrat who escape the guillotine in the revolution of 1960. We keep him as a pet for the children.' And I shall wag my head and display my up-to-date dentures and say, 'Ah, ha! They don't have the fun we used to have in my young days, the poor, well-regulated creatures."
Ibid., p. 99-100.
Far odder, though, is Wimsey's interest in the suspect. He seems to have fallen for Vane at first sight, and there's no indication what makes him so sure she didn't do it. On the few occasions they meet while he struggles to save her, I got little sense of her character, or of a spark between them - she merely seems baffled at Wimsey being so head over heels.

Vane is, understandably, wary of Wimsey. Besides, whether or not she's a killer, the case has brought out all sorts of lurid detail about her past. There's also the delicate matter of obligation: if Wimsey can save her, does she then owe him a date - or is that horribly unseemly? As a result, it's hard to believe in his infatuation or that there's any hope for the two of them. It just feels rather odd.

Far better played is the romance between Wimsey's sister and an honest copper who dare not speak of how he feels about a woman so far above his station. Wimsey is an unlikely Cupid, having it out with them both to get their act together, but it's a warm, funny sub-plot that lifts the whole story above the brutal, nasty murder.

Friday, March 21, 2014

SALE! All nine hours of Graceless for £25!

Those splendid fellows at Big Finish are having a sale this weekend: buy all nine hours of my sci-fi series Graceless for just £25. AMAZING.

Graceless is about two time-travelling minxes and the larks they get up to. It stars Ciara Janson, Laura Doddington and Fraser James, and the stellar guest cast includes David Warner, Derek Griffiths and Geraldine James. There are jokes, there are explosions, there is quite a lot of very gratuitous nudity.

But on audio. Sorry.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Making of Dune by Ed Naha

"Please enjoy this book and, most important, enjoy the movie. I have no doubt that there will be more."
Dino De Laurentiis, "Introduction" to Ed Naha, The Making of Dune (1984), p. 2.
I reread and wittered on about Dune last year and, as a result, have been commissioned to write something looking at the book and the film - hurrah. As part of that, I read Ed Naha's The Making of Dune (the film) and am a bit surprised by how little it's been of use.

As a kid, I treasured this book: a holy text of instructions on how to make something so epic and strange. In the first paragraph of his introduction, De Laurentiis (whose daughter, Raffaella, produced the movie), dismisses the standard making-of:
"It has usually been a nice book, telling the world how much everyone who made the movie liked every moment, how the relatively few little problems that arose were quickly solved. Too often, such books are only fairy tales.
Making a movie, an inexpensive movie or one on the scale of Dune, is always an exercise in the impossible. There are no small problems: personal difficulties, technical foul-ups, financial over-runs, the weather, the food - all become major concerns."
Ibid., p. 1.
Yet, unsurprisingly for an officially sanctioned tome, The Making of Dune is largely taken up with how the cast and crew triumphed over the challenges to produce an ambitious, grown-up, effective motion picture that deserves to be a success. As so often in these things, everyone's very complimentary about each other and they praise the food.

That said, there's plenty of interesting stuff on the colossal production:  all the mechanics involved in a pre-digital age, the problems of getting kit through customs, or the cast afflicted by sickness. Some decisions are telling:
"The women's [stillsuits] looked rather unfeminine ... so we redesigned the suits to have larger breasts. That's also why most of the Fremen women characters have long hair. It softens their looks in the suits. It works quite well."
Ibid., p. 72.
But there's almost nothing on the script. When David Lynch - who directed the film based on his own script - is asked why previous scripts had not worked, he answers:

"I don't know ... There's no logical reason why they failed. Maybe they were scared about the script. Maybe they were scared about the money. Maybe they were scared about so many major roles."
Ibid., p. 16.
But there's nothing on how he adapted the book: what he thought was essential and what could be stripped back, what needed improving or changing, or even what he felt the book says. "Tell the fans they're making the real DUNE" says an endorsement from Frank Herbert on the back of the book - but the book doesn't address the adaptation.

Why, for example, do we lose Paul and Chani having a child - one killed in the battle at the end? Was it for time or tone, or what? Nor does Paul end up engaged to a princess with Chani accepting her fate as a concubine. The end of the film is taken from one of the later books in the series... There's no discussion of those choices.

In the chapter devoted to him, Lynch talks about reworking the script as they film it, but there's little on what those reworkings might be. Later, there are two brief mentions of changes, and one is a picture caption:
"At right: No longer in the film, this photograph is of the original version of Paul's Water of Life scene. In the final version of Dune, this scene occurs in the desert."
Ibid., p. 186.
The other is right at the end of the book, as the film is in post-production:
"En route to a final cut, only one major story change has been made; the subplot involving Paul's killing of Jamis and his subsequent involvement with Jamis' mate Harah and her children has been completely excised.
'That has caused me some worry,' admits Raffaella. 'That whole sequence was very important in the book. It's a turning point for Paul. We had to eliminate it because it got very involved.If we kept Paul's fight with Jamis in the movie, then we had to deal with Jamis' wife and Jamis' children. It stopped the whole film.'"
Ibid., pp. 289-90.
She refers to the scenes as "boring". Lynch concurs, explaining how he tried to keep the "feeling" of the missing material if not the scenes themselves.

I don't feel I'm being swindled: the front cover promises "The filming of Frank Herbert's bestselling science-fiction masterpiece" (my italics). But Naha is, according to Wikipedia, a "science fiction and mystery writer and producer", so it's especially odd that he ignores the writing. The book rather implies that in making a film, a script is a minor consideration, not at the root of the production. Ignoring that root means there's little depth to this account. That seems wrong for such a complex subject as Dune, and means the making of is little help to me in understanding the film.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan

“Agatha Christie remained inwardly detached from archaeology. She relished the archaeological life in remote country and made good use of its experiences in her own work. She has a sound knowledge of the subject, yet remained outside it, a happily amused onlooker.”
Jacquetta Hawkes, 1983 foreword to Agatha Christie, Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946), p. 15.
Come, Tell Me How You Live is a lively, funny and sharply observed memoir of Agatha Christie's time in Syria in the mid 1930s, assisting her husband Max Mallowan, the archaeologist. Wikipedia says that Christie mixes up the chronology of the real excavations, and there's surprisingly little about what they found and learned from their months of work. This is not a field report but a memoir of happier times, written in the midst of the war.

Christie has an eye for incongruity and oddness, the eccentricities of her friends and colleagues of just as much interest as those of the locals. We get a good sense of her fond, teasing relationship with her husband, and she herself comes across as great fun. She is self-effacing about her size, her anxieties and fussing, but it makes us like her all the more.

Some of the misadventures struck a chord with this anxious writer as I've accompanied the Dr in pursuit of ancient treasures (mostly involving long trips on transport I don't fit on to fields of indiscriminate rocks exactly like the ones seen the previous day).  But mostly it struck a chord because it's a warmer, more joyous read than Christie's murder mysteries.

Even so, there's are moments of darkness. Christie is good on sketching in the horror of the death of a workman, or the threat of sectarian violence. Poirot and Miss Marple are adherents of the death penalty in cases of murder, but when faced with the grisly realities, Christie is squeamish.
“Once when we were digging near Mosul, our old foreman came to Max in great excitement. 'You must take your Khartún to Mosul tomorrow. There is a great event. There is to be a hanging – a woman! Your Khartún will enjoy it very much! She must on no account miss it!' My indifference, and, indeed, repugnance, to this treat stupefied him. 'But it is a woman,' he insisted. 'Very seldom do we have the hanging of a woman. It is a Kurdish woman who has poisoned three husbands! Surely – surely the Khartún would not like to miss that!' My firm refusal to attend lowered me in his eyes a good deal. He left us sadly, to enjoy the hanging by himself.”
Ibid., pp. 144-5.
 But it's a shame there's not more on the archaeology because, when she does address it, Christie is good at making the past vibrant:
“All the Bible and New Testament stories take on a particular reality and interest out here. They are couched in the language and ideology which we daily hear all around us, and I am often struck by the way the emphasis sometimes shifts from what one has commonly accepted. As a small instance, it came to me quite suddenly that in the story of Jezebel, it is the painting of her face and the tiring of her hair that emphasizes in puritanical Protestant surroundings what exactly a 'Jezebel' stands for. But out here it is not the painting and tiring – for all virtuous women paint their faces (or tattoo them), and apply henna to their hair – it is the fact that Jezebel looked out of the window – a definitely immodest action!
... The Good Samaritan story has a reality here which it cannot have in an atmosphere of crowded streets, police, ambulances, hospitals, and public assistance. If a man fell by the wayside on the broad desert track from Hasetshe to Der-ez-Zor, the story could easily happen today, and it illustrates the enormous virtue compassion has in the eyes of all desert folk.”
Ibid., pp. 166-7.
That observation then leads Christie's group to ask themselves if they would stop to help someone out in the desert. Christie laughs when one man states baldly that he wouldn't - but that he would stop to help a horse. It's not a joke - he means it - but Christie's response is telling. She delights in his blunt honesty, the insight into the dark workings of his mind. Little wonder: it's like dialogue from one of her books.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

"Foreigners nearly always wish to simplify the Middle East, Agnes. They cannot tolerate to feel ignorant long enough to understand it."
When all her family die in the 1918 flu pandemic, middle-aged American schoolteacher Agnes Shanklin finds herself suddenly free. Without her overbearing mother to tell her otherwise, she goes shopping for the latest styles and has her hair cut. She also books passage to Cairo, where she just so happens to stumble into Lawrence of Arabia, Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell as they struggle to carve up the Middle East...

Dreamers of the Day is an odd but engrossing book. It's partly a late romance adventure, with the dowdy, timid heroine learning to take what she wants - and then paying the price. But it's also a history lesson, or several strung together.

Its first section covers the flu pandemic, the way it cut down the apparently fit and healthy in their prime, and the effects it had on society. The middle and longest section explores Egypt, Gaza and Jerusalem and has plenty to say on their history and peoples, as well as on the diplomats sowing "black seeds" for the future in the aftermath of World War One and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. The last, short section sees Agnes return home and takes us up to her death and beyond - as it turns out she's narrating this from a special kind of afterlife on the banks of the Nile, in the company of Napoleon and St Francis.

That last section isn't any less odd for having been signposted: Agnes tells us several times throughout the novel that she is long dead and that what she saw will help us understand our world today. It's true, the schoolteacher is concise and lucid in pulling together the threads that explain the sorry mess in the Middle East now.

Agnes is so horrified by the English toffs dictating the fate of these nations (it reminds her too much of being forced to eat oatmeal as a child - whether it was good for her is not the point). So perhaps it's ironic that she often lectures us on the history of the region. But it's hard to object because it's so deftly done. It's a beautifully told story - full of wryly observed character and humour, and joy in the adventure. I just felt that the final conceit rather trivialises what has gone before.

Other reviewers don't share my dissatisfaction with the end. Niall Harrison, for example, says:
"The effect of [Agnes being dead], which I take to be deliberate, is to break the immersion associated with historical fiction. Agnes's times are not for us to live in—they are for us to watch."
Perhaps that's my objection: as a narrative device, it stops us losing ourselves in the story and the rich, tangible world that's created. That's a shame because the book otherwise feels very credible: the characters - both real and invented - feel like flesh and blood. That's quite a feat, to paint Churchill and Lawrence not as myths but as men.

The book is peppered with sharp observations, too. I especially liked Agnes guiltily justifying a trip to a medium after all her family died.
"And remember, please, all the other invisible forces that had so recently become a part of our lives in these days. Madame Curie's radiation, and Signore Marconi's radio, and Dr Freud's unconscious. Even before I died, it seemed possible that there might be some scientific basis for communication with the unseen soul. There might be a sort of telephone of the spirit, or maybe radio waves, which were there to be heard if only one were tuned to the right frequency."
Mary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day, pp. 70-1.
I was intrigued by mention of Lady Churchill, Winston's mother:
"Jennie Churchill was, according to Winston, one-quarter Iroquois".
Ibid., p. 155.
But that turns out to be a myth. There's a nice bit of history when one woman suspects Karl of being homosexual because he wears a "bracelet watch". Agnes snaps back a reply:
"They're called wristwatches... All the soldiers wore them in the war."
Ibid., p. 199.
Karl, the unreliable spy who Agnes falls for, is a fascinating character. Russell tells us in her acknowledgements that,
"As often as possible, I let historical figures write their own dialogue".
Ibid., p. 375.
But Karl is not a historical figure, and his job here is to question the statements by Lawrence, Churchill et al. According to Niall Harrison, this creates a game of "knowingness", where we question and interrogate what these people say. I think it's simpler than that: Karl makes us more suspicious of what Agnes takes on face value. Plus, his status as a Jewish German (not a German Jew, as he says himself) makes us less trusting of the claims made by westerners about nations, religions and race in the Middle East.

The book rather concludes that, despite the best efforts of the peacemakers, there will always be war. Napoleon and Churchill both seem to relish the prospect. For a book so preoccupied with faith, it ends feeling rather hopeless.

And yet earlier, when Agnes visits Jerusalem and is furious by the lies told by those guiding the tourists around, Lawrence comes to her rescue. He explains that no, the current city, is not the one in which Jesus lived:
"When they started excavations at the northeast wall of the Temple, archaeologists had to dig through something like a hundred and twenty-five feet of debris before they got to the level of Herod's city. My field was Hittite, but I think this Jerusalem is probably the eighth ... The city of David sat on an even earlier settlement. Then there's Solomon's Jerusalem, which last about four hundred years. Nehemiah's - three hundred for that one, I believe. Herod's Jerusalem was magnificent, by all accounts. That's what everyone expects to see when they come here, but Titus destroyed it. Later on, a small Roman city was built on the ruins. Since then, Muslims and Christians traded this place repeatedly, and burned it down occasionally. And yet... the pilgrims come."
Ibid., p. 281.
Agnes protests that it's a nineteen-hundred-year-old scam (and is most upset by the thought that her late sister devoted so much of her short life to it). But Lawrence counters with a surprising argument:
"'Jerusalem has always been important strategically. It's been one war after another for millennia. But if you can convince enough people that this place is sacred ...?'
He let me consider this until I could admit I'd understood his point: 'Then maybe the next army won't destroy it.'
The corners of his long mouth turned up, but the real smile was in those tired eyes, already lined at thirty-two. 'The present city has survived six hundred years,' he said. 'That's the longest stretch on record.'"
Ibid., pp. 282-3.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

I really didn't like The Shining Girls at first. It's a thriller about a psychopath in Chicago who hunts down a series of women who, he tells us, "shine". The killings are described in graphic detail, with much of the story told from the killer's perspective - that is, Harper's brutal view of women and what he does to them. It's not that I'm particularly squeamish, but I don't like nasty things happening for the sake of it.

But I persevered through the first 20 pages, chiefly on the strength of how much I'd loved Beukes's Zoo City, and was soon swept up in an extraordinary piece of work. For one thing, Harper travels in time between the 1930s and 1990s, which makes the chances of his being caught all the more remote. More than that, it allows vivid glimpses of history: how these people lived as much as how they died.

Beukes' acknowledgements at the end spell out how much research into all kinds of areas has been necessary to make this world so rich and real - as she says herself,
"everything from illegal abortion groups to real-life radium dancing girls, the evolution of forensics, '30s restaurant reviews and the history of '80s toys."
Lauren Beukes, "Acknowledgements", The Shining Girls, p. 387.
What really makes the book special, though, is that the person on Harper's trail is also one of his victims - a girl who he thinks he killed. Kirby is funny, furious and liable to plunge headlong into trouble. She also feels very real, which makes it easier to accept the convenient, unexplained time travel stuff.

Kirby's story - her efforts to overcome to the trauma of what happened to her, to own it, to make something of the life she nearly didn't have - makes the horror more that titillation. We understand its long-lasting impact, and fear her facing it again. One sequence midway through the book skips ahead, showing Kirby in danger before we know how she's got there, and really builds the tension.

The last 50 pages or so are spectacularly exciting - I was rather glad the Dr had a night out in the pub last night so I could indulge in racing to the end.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Graceless on the wireless again

Graceless - the science-fiction series I created and wrote - is back on BBC Radio 4 Extra this week.

The first episode was broadcast last night and you can listen to it for free on iPlayer for the next seven days. Episode 2 is on tonight at 6pm and available to catch-up afterwards.

The series stars Ciara Janson, Laura Doddington and Fraser James, with guest stars David Warner, Derek Griffiths, Patricia Brake, Susan Brown, Michael Cochrane and Joanna Van Gyseghem.