Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Sherlock Holmes - The Vanishing Man, by Philip Purser-Hallard

In 1896, Holmes and Watson are called in to investigate the disappearance of Thomas Kellway from a locked room with a window in the door, through which he was being watched by pairs of observers on a carefully organised rota. Kellway was engaged in a psychic experiment, and his acolytes think he has teleported to Venus. Holmes investigates the strange group of individuals who took part in the experiment - and before long he's caught up in a murder case...

My friend Philip Purser-Hallard has produced a really engaging and fun mystery for Holmes, published last year and part of the line of new Holmes stories from Titan Books. The basic idea - of a psychic who claims to be able to reach across space - feels very Conan Doyle and yet wholly original. It reminded me first of all of the "Victorian seance" performed by Derren Brown.

The strange assortment of characters seem authentically Doylish, too, as does the mix of the oddly comic and the outlandishly macabre. At times I was ahead of Holmes but there are a series of related mysteries and I didn't solve them all. They're all satisfyingly unthreaded by the end.

I especially liked the retcon of Holmes' ignorance of certain subjects that most people take for granted. That issue is described by Watson in chapter two of introductory story, A Study in Scarlet (1888):
"His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he enquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
'You appear to be astonished,' he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. 'Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.'"
Phil has Watson regret writing these words, with Holmes explaining:
"'When specific knowledge is required of me, I am quite capable of acquiring it from the available sources. I would have been unable yesterday to tell you with any great certainty whether Venus was a planet, a comet or a star, but today I have at my fingertips such facts as are known about its magnitude, its periods of rotation and orbit, its atmosphere and its surface, in case these data should should become relevant to the matter at hand. Among other things, I have learned that Venus is judged by astronomers to be a younger world than our own, on the basis of its greater proximity to the sun, just as Mars is supposed to be older. That being the case,' he said languidly, 'the superior development that Kellway ascribes to its inhabitants appears to be rather anomalous.'" (p. 60)
It's a simple, logical fix. It also nicely incorporates scientific thinking from the period (which we no longer think is right), and even better has Holmes use that as part of his deductions. Clever. 

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Sign of the Four, by Arthur Conan-Doyle

"This Sherlock Homes story was published in 1890 so contains actions and attitudes reflective of the Victorian era in which it was written..."
So begins the very good BBC Sounds audiobook of The Sign of the Four, read by Kenny Blyth and released in August last year. This is Holmes' second published adventure and a huge improvement on A Study in Scarlet (1888), where Part I is the detective story in which Holmes first meets Watson, and Part II is a wholly less engaging Western told to Holmes by the culprit he ensnares. The Sign of Four still ends with the culprit regurgitating his back story in one long info-dump, but it's done in a single chapter.

It's something like 20 years since I last read the canon of Holmes stories written by Doyle - the four novels and 56 short stories published between 1888 and 1926. Then, Jeremy Brett was indelibly "my" Sherlock Holmes, but there's since been Cumberbatch and Downey Jr vying for that title (and I've caught up with Rathbone, Wilmer and Cushing, too). I'd thought the 21st century Sherlocks made the original stories more pacey and action-packed so it was a gratifying surprise to return to The Sign of the Four, which I remembered as one of the better ones, and find so much adventurousness there.

The book is full of striking, strange incongruities. The villains are hard to forget: a one-legged man and his diminutive companion - who I shall not say more about rather than spoil it. But there's also the incongruity of Holmes scrambling barefoot across the roof of a grand house (Pondicherry Lodge in Upper Norwood, just up the hill from where I type this), or that Holmes gets access to the house in the first place because he happens to know the servant on duty at the door, having boxed with him for three rounds at a benefit fight four years previously. Even before that, there's the, "Hindu servant, clad in a yellow turban, white loose-fitting clothes, and a yellow sash," who opens the door of the only occupied house in a new, dull terrace just off Coldharbour Lane - even Watson notes that, "There was something incongruous in this Oriental figure framed in the commonplace doorway of a third-rate suburban dwelling-house." Later, there's the gathering of street urchins in the respectable rooms at Baker Street, and the oddness of the Sholto brothers whose case this partly is. It's all arrestingly peculiar.

I am also struck by how much of this story takes place south of the Thames, not least because the bit of London I've lived in for 20 years is so often overlooked by them northerners. Here, Thaddeus Sholto lives off Coldharbour Lane, his brother in Upper Norwood, Mary in Lower Camberwell, and Toby the dog in Lambeth, while Jonathan Small is brought to ground at Plumstead Marshes. Doyle didn't move to his house on Tennison Road in South Norwood until 1891, so I wonder why the south so appealed. The Victorian buildings of South London - including the one that I live in - seem old, but in Doyle's time this vast metropolitan sprawl was all new. Watson makes his feelings clear about these, "interminable lines of new staring brick buildings,—the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country." Doyle fills these identikit buildings with distinct individuals.

The joy is that ordinary life is presented as being full of wonders, if only we trouble to look. Plus. there's the promise that these strange, seemingly random incongruities will be threaded together by Holmes. Famously, he demonstrates his deductive skills early on when Watson passes him an ordinary pocket watch, a scene all the best later Holmes stories whether by Doyle or his successors have attempted to emulate. Just from the engraving on the back of the watch and a few dents and scratches, Holmes deduces the life and tragic death of Watson's elder brother. The thrill is not in his insight, but that he then explains exactly how the trick is done.
"The implication is that we could replicate the experiment ourselves and learn to be like Holmes. As he challenges Watson in The Sign of the Four (and some later stories, too): 'You know my methods. Apply them.'" - Me, "My Immortal Holmes" in The Lancet Psychiatry
It's fun to see Inspector Athelney Jones attempt to play the game and come to the wrong conclusions. But Holmes can be mistaken, such as when he, Watson and Toby (a dog) follow a trail to the wrong place. There's his frustration, too, when the boat he is looking for completely disappears despite his ingenious efforts to find it. For all his brilliance, the investigation is not easy - and the more difficult for him it is, the more satisfying it is to read. But at the end, the incongruities are connected in a way that feels satisfying, logical, obvious - just as with the demonstration with the watch. Doyle doesn't cheat us.

Holmes here is more than an egg-head: he's a man of action. He can box, he can climb a roof, he can disguise himself so perfectly as a painfully asthmatic old man that his friend, housemate and doctor (Watson is all three) is entirely hoodwinked. The whole adventure is pacey and exciting, and culminates in a death-defying chase down the Thames. Holmes is dynamic, relishing the danger. He's exciting yet unemotional.

Watson is the romantic lead, drawn to Holmes' beautiful client Mary Morstan but prevented from acting on his feelings because she might be out of his league given the fortune she seems about to inherit. Time and again in his account, Watson tells us what Mary thinks now - as in, when he's narrating, looking back on these past events. That means we know she's never in any danger in the story, but that's not the point. The jumps forward help to build up the moral dilemma sub-plot of Watson falling for an heiress but not wishing to seem out for her money. Mary is very nice and moral, too, but there's not very much else about her. (Doyle wrote a more memorable woman - the woman - in his next Holmes story, "A Scandal in Bohemia".)

A lot of modern Holmes has attempted to make more of the women in his and Watson's life. Like Buchan, these boys' own adventures are too happy excluding girls. The treatment of India is interesting: yes, Doyle/Watson is condescending and there's a eugenicist link between Tonga's appearance and his personality. But it's not as simple as - in the works of other authors of the time - that foreign equates with bad. Watson's own military experience in Afghanistan is a source of pride and of melancholy, the life of ordinary Englishmen entwined with the orient and wider world. The Victorian attitude is imperial but nor parochial, and there's little sense of the white man being superior given their behaviour here. Given the evidence here, Watson is morally exceptional just as Holmes has an exceptional brain.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman

The middle chapter of The Book of Dust is thrilling, rich and downright weird. Since reading volume one - La Belle Sauvage - I've gone back to Northern Lights and reread most of The Subtle Knife (which my son has now pinched), as well as been avidly glued to the TV version. Given that immersion in this fantastical universe, I can report that The Secret Commonwealth is Pullman at his best, the story so compelling that I raced through the hefty tome of 687 pages in just a matter of days.

It's set 20 years after the events of La Belle Sauvage and eight after those of the His Dark Materials trilogy, with Lyra Silvertongue nee Belaqua now a grown-up. Shockingly, she and her daemon, Pantalaimon, are not getting on - when their bond gave the original trilogy such emotional power. We keenly feel their separation, while for those in this world it is utterly scandalous, physically repulsive, that they can be apart. The sense is that they have been changed, psychologically and physically, by the trauma they have been through in previous books. Pan, shockingly, sneaks off without Lyra - something most daemons would find impossible - to explore nocturnal Oxford, where he witnesses a murder...

Lyra and Pan go to report this to the police, but Pan recognises a policeman as one of the murderers. Other figures of authority are also a problem: the new Master of Jordan Collage evicts Lyra from the rooms she's lived in since childhood, and threatens to expel her from the college entirely; there are new people at and gathering power within the Magisterium - one of whom has personal reasons for wishing revenge on Lyra. And far away in the east, something is going on to damage the trade in certain derivatives of roses (yes, really) that suggests the emergence of another, ruthless power...

With the stakes so highly set against her, and an adventure that begins in the locality of Oxford but then jaunts across the world, it feels like Lyra is in a spy novel, and a good one - le Carre or James Bond, but with magic. The characters and situations are vivid and arresting, with plenty of twists and shocks along the way. The atmosphere is tense and bleak through ought. Pullman also develops the mechanics of his world: we see all kinds of exceptions to the normative, binary human/daemon relationship - the daemon who falls for another human, the people who buy and sell daemons, the man who insists that daemons aren't really there. In each case, it's more than just a fun idea; Pullman explores the resulting emotional devastation. How brilliant to make the intricacies of such fantastical relationships so moving.

Whereas I felt La Belle Sauvage lost its way in its second half, The Secret Commonwealth sustains the pace and excitement, while at the same time covering lots of philosophical ground as per previous books. It's as deep but less talky, I think, and also palpably angry, with stuff to say about fake news, restrictions on academic freedom, the parochial nature of reporting and politics. There's a lot, too, on the cruelty of families and the kindness of strangers. I wonder how consciously Pullman is addressing readers of Lyra's age or thereabouts, the now young adults who first read his books as children: how much is this a rant, and how much a rallying cry?

There's one thing I really wasn't keen on: the fact that Malcolm Polstead, protagonist of La Belle Sauvage, is in love with Lyra - who he knew as a baby. Yes, she's now 20 and could be a consenting adult, but I didn't feel comfortable about the balance of power between this Oxford tutor and this vulnerable student who has so much on her plate already. I really hope they don't get together in book three.

But I also can't imagine that Pullman would do anything so simple as that... I wish he'd hurry up and write it.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Susan's War

Yesterday, the splendid lot at Big Finish announced Susan's War - a box-set of audio adventures in which we find out what Doctor Who's granddaughter did during the Time War.

I've written the second of the four stories, The Uncertain Shore, and the other writers are Eddie Robson, Lou Morgan and Alan Barnes.

Carole Ann Ford of course plays Susan - as she did in the very first episode of Doctor Who in 1963 - and the cast of the four stories includes William Russell as Ian Chesterton and Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor.
Gallifrey needs every Time Lord to fight the Time War. A summons has been issued across the universe to its prodigals. Whatever their skills, the war effort can use them. Susan’s call-up papers have arrived, and, unlike her grandfather, she is willing to join her people’s battle and finally return home. Because Susan knows the Daleks, and she will do her duty...
Susuan's War is released in April 2020 and available to pre-order now

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Once bitten in the Lancet

The February issue of the Lancet Psychiatry includes my "Once bitten", my review of the book Dracula for Doctors by Fiona Subotsky.
“According to Pliny in the first century AD, 'epileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators,' considering it 'a most effectual cure for their disease.' Medical science took longer to accept the restorative powers of someone else's blood. During the summer of 1492, in an event sometimes claimed as the first transfusion, the comatose Pope Innocent VIII was reportedly given blood from three ten-year-old boys. The boys died, as did the Pope, and the doctor fled...”
I posted a little more about Dracula for Doctors last month. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Star Outside my Window, by Onjali Q Raúf

Ten year-old Aniyah is a star hunter, an astronomer, thrilled by the discovery of a new star in the night sky. But she thinks the star is her mum, whose heart has ascended, and is determined to ensure that the star hunters at the Royal Observatory Greenwich give it her mum's name. As she sets off with her friends from the foster home on an epic quest to Greenwich, we realise what Aniyah and her five year-old brother do not: their mum was murdered - by their dad.

I rattled through this exciting, emotional story full of high stakes. It would be wretched to quibble the practicalities of the journey Aniyah and her friends undertake - is there really a bus from Victoria coach station to Island Gardens, and could you get all that way without anyone checking you'd paid? - or the physics of the star that passes close to Earth. It's certainly never easy, and Aniyah and her friends show incredible daring along the way. The conclusion, in which Aniyah must face the awful truth that she's evaded so long, is beautifully done.

For all the awfulness, the book is peppered with kindly adults - the amazing foster mum Mrs Iwuchukwu who has tragedies in her own life, kindly superhero actress Audrey Something, and helpful astronomer Professor Grewal. The other foster children all have their histories, too - and in the case of all but one of them, that makes them keen to support Aniyah whatever it takes. That really got me: people inspired by their own experience of crisis to help someone else through theirs.

I also liked the resolution for the "villainous" character, Sophie - explaining her insecurities and returning the thing she takes from Aniyah without her ever quite apologising. It's a remarkable adventure but Raúf ensures that it feels credible to the end. The story wraps up the plot about the star satisfactorily but I find myself wondering what becomes of all these characters afterwards - always a good sign in a book.

Raúf explains in the end section the inspiration for the story - the murder of her own aunt Mumtahina, which also inspired her to set up Making Herstory - and is careful about warning readers in advance of the subject matter.
"The author of this story does not like to link the word 'Domestic' to the word 'Abuse'. This is because the word 'Domestic' implies that abuses happening inside the home should remain private, even when they constitute a crime, whilst also making many people too embarrassed to report abuses. However, as the prevailing term, she has used it throughout this book for clarity." (footnote to the dedication)
So this is a lively story about a very difficult subject told with flair, insight and sensitivity.