The Appeal of the Detective

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  In 2017 crime and thriller books outsold general and literary fiction titles in the UK. This could be partly because of television adaptations that bring in more readers. But there is also the theory that in troubled times people turn to murder mysteries which are, notwithstanding the twists and turns in the book, predictable. After all the deductions, the culprit is apprehended and sent off to be punished. At the end there is the guarantee of justice being handed down and a closure for the reader. The predictability also comes from the detective in a series who becomes a familiar character, the inner workings of whose mind the reader comes to understand and appreciate, despite the story itself being different in each book. The reader of a murder mystery will always identify more with the detective than with the victim, purely because none of us want to be victimised but do like to see ourselves as crusaders of justice. This combination of familiarity, admiration and desire to do the right thing probably explains why the persona of the detective quite often ends up overshadowing the will of the author.

  But then, what makes a good fictional detective? What are the characteristics that the readers will feel invested in and proprietorial towards? TS Elliot who was a fan of detective fiction felt that “the detective should be highly intelligent but not superhuman. We should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him.”

    For writers however, a popular detective can sometimes become a double edged sword. On the one hand the popularity of the character sells more books, but on the other hand , the public’s admiration invests the detective with a real persona and takes the character out of the control of the writer. And some writers just end up feeling haunted by the characters they create and cannot get away from.

  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was possibly the first writer of detective fiction who felt the pinch of his character becoming too popular.  He actually said ‘I weary of his name’ and killed him off in the Adventure of the Final Problem, which appeared in The Strand magazine. People were so upset that more than 20,000 people cancelled their subscription to the magazine. And of course, as we all know, Sherlock Holmes was resurrected and through the ages has had many avatars on film and TV screens. But no one remembers Doyle’s other works which he felt Sherlock Holmes distracted him from.

  Then there was Agatha Christie, her detective Hercule Poirot has made as many appearances on screen if not more than Holmes. But the author once described him as a ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego centric little creep’! As admirers of Hercule Poirot we feel offended for him. Christie, after having created him, felt that he limited her work. She very much wanted to get rid of him except her publishers would not let her because his popularity sold books. Finally in 1975, one year before Christie’s death, she published Curtain, the last Poirot novel, in which he dies. He is the only fictional character to have received a front page obituary in the New York Times. If anyone knows if the author herself received the same honour a year later, please let us know.

  Although  Dorothy L Sayers did not dislike her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, she stopped writing detective novels after thirteen books as she felt she was done with him. She instead wrote extensively for radio and stage and even carried out a scholarly translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy into English. But she is still known in the public’s mind primarily as the creator of Peter Wimsey. And as with all of them, the books are known by the detective’s name.

  But as always, the grass is greener on the other side. There have also been popular authors who switch genres and start writing detective fiction/murder mysteries and would probably be very happy to have their detective become more famous and known independent of the author’s persona. Figure that one out for yourselves.

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Intrigue and faeries

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A brutal faerie court, a human girl and her twin sister brought up by a ruthless faerie general who lives by his own set of morals, an elder, half faerie sister who wants to live in the human world while the human girls want to be accepted in faerie. Holly Black‘s The Cruel Prince (Book 1 in the Folk of the Air trilogy) has intrigue, politics, faeries of all colours and varieties and the High Court of Faerie. Though the other courts, the Seelie, Unseelie and the court of the Alderking, also make an appearance. There is also the eponymous cruel prince. But then there are three of them in the High court and each one a contender for the title.

Despite the story being about faerie, fantasy writers, Black included it would seem, cannot get away from the school setting (or Hogwarts hangover) with the different kids, in this case the human Jude and her sister Taryn, being reviled and set upon by the elite groups. Prince Cardan (Draco Malfoy?) and his cronies spend their time targeting and playing vicious tricks on Jude and her sister even though the two human girls try to maintain a low profile. Thankfully this typical high school scenario does not take up too much of the book which really picks up in the second half. The book is essentially a bildungsroman story charting Jude’s growth from a girl intensely aware of her fragility and mortality at the court of immortals. It is about her desperate need to gain power by being appointed as a knight in order to feel safe but instead becoming a spy and slowly evolving into someone who feels the need to protect not just herself but also the boundaries of the human world.

  There is violence which Jude experiences at times but deals with it in a matter of fact way, similar to the way in which she slowly accustoms herself to faerie poison by imbibing small quantities of it. Incongruously, no real violence comes her way from the one character who has been her antagonist from the beginning of the book.

  The Cruel Prince is the second book of Holly Black’s that we have read recently. Having enjoyed The Darkest Part of the Forest(see our review here), we had high expectations of this one and we were not disappointed. Black likes to write about young girls who want to be knights, which must be empowering for young girls reading her books. But at the same time her characters are not black and white and no one is either really good or encapsulating all knightly virtues. They are just doing what is expedient. Even Jude’s human ethics do not stop her from lying, deceiving and killing when necessary.  Ultimately The Cruel Prince is a book about political power and  gaining strength at court by whatever means possible. The ending has enough in it to make the reader await the next book in the series eagerly. Unfortunately The Wicked King is out only next year.

To Shakespeare or not to Shakespeare

9BDFC31F-29BA-4E67-85F0-8C00DEF449F9 They say that the best way to learn a language is to start with the swear words or insults. The same maybe true when it comes to Shakespeare. Children going into high school these days dread the thought of having to decipher the outdated Shakespearean tongue which, they insist, is not English.

 And frankly the way in which it is often taught, Shakespeare’s writing comes across as incomprehensible, convoluted and cumbersome. It would make sense if the kids were familiarised with the fabulously insulting phrases out of Shakespeare’s plays. Starting off with sentences that they could actually put to use might just seem more appealing to them. The joy of sounding mean and sounding smart at the same time could add an extra dimension to the learning process.

 We decided to compile a list of a few of our favourites, which we try not to use when coming across irritating or even merely boring people. Actually one need not even say the insult out loud. Just quoting the bard in your mind somehow gives one a smug expression which can be more disconcerting to the person standing in front of us.

1. “Out, you green- sickness carrion!” – Romeo and Juliet

2. “The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes” – Coriolanus

3. “Thou smell of mountain goat.” – Henry V

4. “As dull as night” – the merchant of Venice

5. “Scratching could not make it worse, such a face as yours” – Much ado about nothing

6. “I do desire that we may be better strangers” – As you like it

7. “Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle.” – King Lear

8. “Not so much brain as earwax” – Troilus and Cressida

9. “Would thou were clean enough to spit on” – Timon of Athens

And for quick use against the exceedingly aggravating:

10. “Poisonous, hunchbacked toad” – Richard III

 If only we had been taught these while in school, our language would certainly have been more colourful in those days. And we might have made a better job of being irritable to the irritating.

A different spin

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  It seems that that there are a number of books in the fantasy genre these days, inspired by eastern European folk tales. Or perhaps it’s just that we are picking them up in our desire to read about the snow and cold winds which we never see here. Spinning Silver is Naomi Novik‘s second such book after Uprooted (and the second one that we have read – see our review) and is very loosely inspired by the Rumplestiltskin story.

  Novik’s stories are filled with strong female characters who know their minds and don’t look to others to tell them what to do. Spinning Silver has three strong female protagonists who, despite coming from different backgrounds and being very different people, are very similar in the strengths they exhibit. They each have an innate ability to take hold of a situation and do what is required, without looking to others for help.

  Each chapter in the book is from a different character’s point of view and is, strangely enough, not at all confusing. The book starts with Miryem the daughter of a kind hearted and unsuccessful Jewish money lender in a small town. It is important to mention here that her family were Jews, because of the antisemitism exhibited by the surrounding characters in the story. The impact comes from the almost matter of fact way in which the prejudices are written of and also from the familiar attitudes of ‘them and us’ which still exist in any society. When Miryem finds her family close to starvation, she takes over her father’s business, hardens her heart and becomes known for turning silver into gold. As a result, she attracts the attention of the cruel and arrogant Staryk (supernatural elvish beings) King who wants her to turn silver into gold for him.

  Then there is Wanda, the battered daughter of a drunk poor farmer. Her mother who was buried under a magical tree manages, to some extent, to protect Wanda and her brothers but ultimately it is Wanda who has to protect herself and her brothers from their father and from a marriage that she does not want. Lastly there is Irina, the daughter of a Duke. She is married off by her father to the Tsar who is possessed by a demon who wants Irina for her part staryk blood. She then takes it upon herself to keep the demon at bay and somehow save her people from it.

  Spinning Silver is ultimately a book about the courage of these three women whose stories eventually link up during the course of the novel, though it may not be evident to the reader at once. All three of them have the ability to grit their teeth and get down to doing not just what was necessary but also empowering themselves. It is about taking care, not just yourself, but of others around you. It is also a book about families and about paying your debts.

 We enjoyed Spinning Silver much more than Uprooted (although we did love Uprooted when we read it). It is a much more layered tale and though the story was magical and at times fantastical, yet the tone of it was so practical. Just like the protagonists.

Saints, owls and radios

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And you may wonder what the connection between the three things mentioned in the title is but they do come together beautifully in Maggie Stiefvater‘s All the Crooked Saints.

  After reading the Raven Boys quartet by Stiefvater, we could not help but get hold of her latest book which actually turned out to be very different. Good, but different. Much softer and more contemplative and, for us, all the more enjoyable for it.

  Set in the early 1960’s in the small, extended family settlement of Bicho Raro in Colorado, with rock and roll playing on the radio, the story centres around the Mexican American Soria family. They are a family of saints but with one person designated at a time to work miracles. The miracles however are not the kind that one would normally expect. The pilgrims who come seeking the miracles have to go through a two step process. The first performed by the saint manifests their inner darkness in some bizarre way (Marisita is hanging around in her wedding dress covered with butterflies and her own dedicated rain while Tony becomes at least twenty feet tall). It is the pilgrim who then has to understand what has happened and why, and perform the second miracle in order to accept and overcome their darkness. The Soria family are not allowed to help them with this process, so the pilgrims just hang around Bicho Raro, being carefully avoided by the family.

  In this background come the stories of Daniel, the young, current saint who falls in love with one of the pilgrims and those of his cousins Beatriz and Joaquin who are broadcasting a pirate radio station out of a truck. All in a town which is full of owls, but nobody seems to know why, other than that they herald miracles.

  The story could be categorised as magical realism and most reviewers have done just that. But we feel that other than the mention of Elvis and a whole load of 1950’s and 60’s songs, it’s mostly magic, atmosphere and inner demons. The book has been classified as a YA book, perhaps because Maggie Stiefvater’s earlier books are all YA with the, now necessary, degree of action and romance. It is probably this lack of world saving action which has resulted in a number of Stiefvater’s readers on Goodreads comparing the book unfavourably with the Raven Boys quartet.

  We personally felt that All the Crooked Saints is very much a book for adults, even though the publishing circles seem to have a check list of sex, violence and bad language for adult books. This book has none of that, but how many teenagers and people in their early twenties can truly understand and appreciate the concept of facing your own darkness, shortcomings, guilt etc. Understanding them and truly letting them go in order to be redeemed. We feel that perhaps one has to have lived, at least a little beyond the years when you feel you are the centre of the universe, to appreciate the beauty and quietness of the story.

  Stiefvater’s writing has only grown more lyrical through each book she has written. We loved the Raven Boys and totally loved and admired All the Crooked Saints but when we tried reading some of her early novels we gave up after the first few chapters. Which is probably good because that means there is hope yet for all of us who want to write but feel our writing is not that great.

A good witch

AF821452-3386-494A-BE17-B804BE448EB2  Mythological stories in general lack novelty. We have versions of the stories which already exist in our consciousness through tales heard and read since childhood. So how much can an author play around with a retelling? Stick too much to the original and it becomes boring, write something wildly different and it is unacceptable. However, Circe by Madeline Miller manages to find that ideal balance with a gripping retelling of the life of a minor immortal who is mentioned in a few passages in the Odyssey for turning Odysseus’s crew into pigs and then showing him how to get home after having delayed him for a year.

  Miller manages to flesh out a more human character for Circe who was the daughter of the Titan Helios, the sun god, and the nymph Perse (the daughter of Oceanus). Because she is not as lovely as an immortal should be, she receives only scorn in her father’s and grandfather’s courts. Perhaps because of the disregard of the immortals, she is drawn to humans in a different way from the other gods whose interest in humanity is purely for the sake of self aggrandisement. Through the book, written in the first person, Circe keeps referring back to the bleeding and battered Prometheus tied up in her father’s court before judgement was pronounced on him by Zeus for helping humans. The implication being that her own view of the treatment of humans was impacted in some way.

  Ultimately Circe is exiled, partly due to the politics played out between the Titans and Zeus, to the island of Aiaia which becomes her home. She teaches herself witchcraft and becomes a powerful witch and lives her life accompanied by wild beasts and the occasional visit from Hermes. It is at Aiaia where Odysseus, on his return journey to Ithaca after the Trojan war, encounters Circe. The way Miller tells the story, they are both fascinated with each other and find solace in each other without any element of entrapment. Even the crew being turned into pigs is explained as self defence.

  Circe is basically a feminist story about a woman who teaches herself her profession, lives her own life without any help from her family and yet she is always willing to help those who need her, including her sister who despite all her derision for Circe, calls her for help when giving birth to the Minotaur. The completely new perspective that Miller gives on Odysseus, as a man who cannot accept going back to a small life on a small island after having been on the centre stage and been the guiding force behind world events, is fascinating because it is so plausible.

  The story is, throughout, infused with the fickleness and perfidy of the immortals who are shown as self serving and basically full of themselves. In their desire only to be worshipped by humans but not really caring anything about the small lives of the mortals, is an explanation, as good as any, for why the religion might have died out. Even Athena the goddess of wisdom, does not seem have the wisdom to look beyond her own greatness. Only Prometheus is shown to have considerable nobility, grace and compassion. But then again, no human can possibly write about Prometheus without imbuing him with those qualities.

  Miller has written a gripping and easily readable book, shedding new light on a lot of known characters along the way. We absolutely loved this one.

The satisfaction of binge reading

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  While everyone is busy binge watching TV series on Netflix and Amazon Prime, we spent this month enjoying a bout of binge reading. When we started Maggie Stiefvater‘s The Raven Boys, the first book in the series, we hadn’t realised that all the four books in the The Raven Cycle had already been published. Oh the joy of finding out that one can read the entire series in one go! It just added to the excitement. So there were the two of us indulging in a serious case of parallel binge reading, getting irritated with anyone and everything taking our attention away from the books and messaging each other about parts that we really liked.

  The first book seemed to fit more into the paranormal genre but along the way the series converted into outright fantasy. Such fun! The Raven boys (Gansey, Ronan, Adam and Noah) are a foursome who attend a private school situated near the small town of Henrietta, Virginia. They end up forming a friendship with Blue, a local girl who’s the only non psychic in a family and house full of psychics. Henrietta lies on Ley lines which give the town and surroundings volatile magical energy and a mythology about a buried medieval Welsh king and members of his court who had possibly travelled to Henrietta through the Ley lines, or ghost road as Blue’s family call it. One of the boys, Gansey, is obsessed with searching for the buried king who is supposedly only asleep and the others get caught up in the search since it is believed that the king will grant a wish to whoever wakens him. In their search for the king and his court the five of them become a court of sorts of their own; with Gansey being the leader, Ronan the dreamer and poet and Adam the wizard. As such they form a little knot in the middle of everyone else, a part of the whole and yet separate.

  Stiefvater very beautifully juxtaposes modern kids with their cell phones, modern vocabulary and their obsession with cars, with the search for a medieval king, forests that speak Latin, boys that can bring objects out of their dreams and zany psychics. Her characters have quirks which makes them likeably weird. Stiefvater offsets the very dark portions in the books with the main characters’ staunch loyalty to each other and the affection of people around them. Without that we felt the books might have been too dire a read for us. We also learnt a lot about different types of cars which are mentioned repeatedly in the books, almost as if they were characters themselves (like Gansy’s orange Camaro).

  We also really liked Stiefvater’s use of Latin through the books which made it different and interesting. Strangely this did not distract from the story, despite us having to look up the meanings, since  not all of them were obvious. The style of writing makes the books more than just the story, which for us, as always, provided the likeability factor. A series one can truly be absorbed in.