Sunday, March 23, 2008

Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders: Gyles Brandeth

I remember reading Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary many moons ago. It is one of the many tributes paid to the man still recognised as the first name in detective fiction. It was very difficult to take a position on the book – should you view it as Carr’s work or should you compare it with the original? Little wonder then that it was one of the few Sherlock tributes I read. Until I picked up Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders recently.

What made the book intriguing enough to pick up was the combination two legendary names – the narrative is Sherlock Holmes, the detective is Oscar Wilde.

The hagiographical tone on Wilde was unmistakeable, in terms of the content and the characterisation – his famous statements, a glorification of his skills of detection, his acuity, his sangfroid. . .

The tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle is total and complete as well, in terms of the narrative style, the constant exaltation of Sherlock Holmes, the methods followed by Wilde as Sherlock, the open admission by Wilde that he is playing Sherlock, the carefully planted red herrings, the surprise denouement (except for Wilde himself, another Sherlock staple) . . . the comparisons are obvious through the book.

Which is what put me in the same position as when I was reading Caleb Carr. What am I reading (and reviewing) here? Thankfully, the Wilde part proved to be the differentiator. The insights into his character – the homosexual undertones that are fairly heavily present in the narrative and the characterisations, among other traits you read about here and there about the man – are so convincing (Gyles Brandeth is a Wilde scholar) you feel that’s about the best return you can get from the book.

So there you are, a new reason for reading crime fiction. It’s a darn sight better than reading a biography, even an unauthorised one.

On reflection, I reckon Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders is not quite in the same mould as the Sherlock-in-the-hands-of-lesser-authors. A closer comparison seems to be Mathew Pearl’s first book, The Dante Club, which focused on nineteenth century Boston and a clutch of Dante scholars – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell – investigating a series of murders that are straight out Dante’s works. Pearl’s subsequent novel investigating the murder of Edgar Allan Poe, The Poe Shadow is another comparable piece, as is Arturo PĂ©rez Reverte’s The Club Dumas.

Gyles Brandeth is yet another author I picked off my hat recently (along with the supremely impressive Jean-Patrick Manchette), and it wasn’t quite a waste of money, all things considered.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Of Time and Stars: Arthur C. Clarke

Science fiction was part of my growing years, as much as crime fiction, adventure, fantasy and the like were. However, over time, I gravitated away from it for the same reason I did with fantasy: if I cannot imagine it happening to me, I cannot relate with it.

Recently, one of my friends put me at ease about science fiction by a simple definition of the genre: take normal life and twist / invert / change one aspect of it, and that’s science fiction for you. I was taken by the definition. So after a long time, and not with a bit of trepidation, I picked up a science fiction book: Arthur C. Clarke’s Of Time and Stars. The short story format reassured me – I can’t lose the plot for too long. Different worlds, the moon, stars, aliens, plants, animals and birds (oh yes, and humans) – all this and more make up this collection of 18 very short stories.

As with any diverse collection, you are bound to like some and not be too impressed with others. Of Time and Stars had more stories I liked than ones that left me cold. If the nifty play on gravity in Green Fingers chills you, the back-to-the-basics simplicity of Into the Comet cannot fail to impress you. The Reluctant Orchid grips you; All the Time in the World freezes you; An Ape About the House sweeps you off your feet. Then there is the philosophical angle in The Fires Within and the religious touches in Encounter at Dawn (Why does this remind me of a story on the Magi by Roald Dahl?) and The Nine Billion Names of God. If the cat and mouse game in Hide and Seek is riveting, the kitten in Who’s There? is cute, as is the canary in Feathered Friend. And then there is Security Check, easily the most stunning story in the collection: every time I think of it my spine tingles. The collection is rounded off by The Sentinel, the story that was the genesis of 2001: A Space Odyssey later on.

Arthur C. Clarke died earlier today. The world of science fiction (and science) loses of one of its most significant voices and minds. I recall Clarke’s Three Laws from Profiles of the Future, published as long ago as 1962.

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

3. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Three to Kill: Jean-Patrick Manchette

I begin reading Three to Kill in a pub. The initial few pages almost make me forget my pint of Guinness Extra Cold. The tight and brief first chapter introduces the main character, and a potentially interesting one, Georges Gerfaut, though the “fact that Georges has killed at least two men in the course of the last one year is not germane.” The tight but not-so-brief second chapter ushers in Alonso Emerich y Emerich, who “had also killed people, a good many more than Georges Gerfaut.”

The tightness and the narrative style remind you of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The prose is sparse, the focus is on an impending act, the time shifts are subtle and almost impalpable, there is a sense of inevitability about events that are about to take place. Simply put, you sense you are on to something very different indeed.

The plot is deceptively straightforward. Georges Gerfaut stops to help an injured motorist on the road, and three days later . . . hold on, let Georges himself summarise it.

“Until last summer I was a middle manager in a company in Paris. I went on vacation, and two men tried to kill me, twice, for reasons unknown to me. Two complete strangers. At which point I left my wife and children and, instead of informing the police, I fled. I found myself in a freight car crossing the Alps. A drifter knocked me down with a hammer and threw me off the train. I injured my foot, which is why I limp now.”

The narrative style is where Three to Kill triumphs. It particularly reaches its peak when Alphonsine, with whom Georges has a brief dalliance, is shot and killed. It is not a very significant incident in the plot really (it’s not insignificant either, just in case you wonder whether the narrative rambles, it certainly does not), but its suddenness and directness are chilling.

The different slices of life the book deals with – that of a travelling salesman, that of a rich and retired officer from a banana republic, that of a recluse in the forests deep in the Alps – are as different as they are enchanting.

There are times you gamble on authors you’ve never heard of and hit the jackpot. Jean-Patrick Manchette is one of those for me. If Three to Kill is anything to go by, he is an author whose books I’d want to read more of.