Friday Frippery: Something to chew on…

The Case of the Mutton-Bone
by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

(So many of us were disappointed to discover that the weapon in The Mystery of the Yellow Room wasn’t a real mutton-bone that I felt the matter ought to be rectified. Fortunately I was able to track down this tale from our old friend Sir Arthur Donan Coyle…)

It was an early spring morning as I made my way to Baker Street in response to an urgent telegram from my old friend, Sherlock Holmes. The last wisps of fog were burning off in the pale sunshine and I felt a renewed strength of vigour as I inhaled the clean air that returns to the great city each year when winter recedes. My medical practice was also receding, however, as the annual round of winter coughs and wheezes gave way to simple summer sneezes. I was ready for an adventure and hoped that Holmes was about to provide one. Little did I know that I was soon to be plunged into a horror blacker than the darkest nightmare.

….“Ah, Watson, you’re here at last!” Holmes cried, as I was ushered into his room by the small maidservant employed by the landlady of the house, Mrs Hudson. This little scrap of humanity answered to the name of Agnes. Mrs Hudson had taken her from the orphanage where she had spent her first years. Her story was the age-old one – her mother, little more than a child herself, tempted into error by a worldly man and then abandoned when he proved unwilling to pay the price of his pleasure. Shunned by family and friends, the woman’s grasp on life became ever more tenuous until she gave her last remaining strength to this, her daughter, and died without revealing the name of the child’s only living relation, the cruel and unfeeling father. God forgive her, and all other simple, loving women who fall from grace under the blandishments of a careless seducer.

….“You have a case, Holmes?” I inquired.

….“On our very doorstep, Watson! Come! Inspector Gregory is below!”

….I followed in some astonishment as Holmes led the way down the back stairs of the house to the private quarters of Mrs Hudson. Passing swiftly through the kitchen, we proceeded through the rear door into the small backyard. There, Gregory awaited us with a pair of rather bored looking constables. As Gregory moved to one side, I suddenly saw, at the entrance to the coal bunker, a man lying sprawled on the ground, clearly dead!

….“My word, Holmes!” I cried. “What can this mean? Do you know this man?”

….“There is a certain familiarity about his features, but I do not think I have met him. Have you found anything to tell us his name, Gregory?”

….“Yes, Mr Holmes, there is a letter in his pocket, an old one from the looks of it, addressed to Mr Alfred Smith, in Fremantle in Western Australia. The contents are of little interest – here, see for yourself.”

….Holmes took the worn and yellowed leaf from his hand and passed it to me, requesting I read it aloud.

….“Dearest Alfie,” the letter began. “I have had no reply from you to my last letter, so am writing one last time in the hope that you will have a change of heart and not be so cold to the one you were once pleased to call your little coo-pigeon. If you were to send me the price of the crossing, I could join you and I know we would be happy. A little family to call your own, Alfie. Is not that what you told me you desired, when you took from me the most precious gift a woman has to offer – her innocence? Please, for the love we have shared and the sake of your soul, do this thing that I ask of you.” It was signed, “Your loving friend, and more than friend, Ada.”

….I wiped a surreptitious tear from my eye. “Why, the fellow is obviously a complete reprobate! One can’t but feel that his sordid end is a just reward!”….

Holmes was thoughtful over lunch – soup followed by pork chops. I was a little disappointed that the soup, though delicious, was vegetable: in the years when Holmes and I roomed together here, Mrs Hudson had always given us a hearty mutton broth on Thursdays. As we drank our coffee, Holmes lighted his pipe and lay back in his old wing-chair, eyes closed and fingertips pressed together. I knew better than to disturb him so caught up on the news in The Daily Telegraph – Moriarty’s Madam had won the 3.30 at Epsom, giving my bank balance a much-needed boost.

….Suddenly, “Come, Watson!” Holmes cried, striding purposefully from the room. I followed after him, rather wishing I had brought my trusty service revolver along. Down to the kitchen we went, and entered to find Mrs Hudson and young Agnes just sitting down to their own lunch. I sniffed – mutton broth? I was somewhat annoyed, but reminded myself we had serious business on hand.

….Holmes, taking in the scene in an instant, took two long strides to the table, dashed from her hand the spoon Agnes was raising to her lips, lifted her soup-plate and emptied it into the kitchen sink! Poor Agnes began to sob and I rushed over in case she should swoon. But then I noticed that Mrs Hudson had paled to a dull grayish colour and her whole body was trembling like one of her own blancmanges.

….“Oh, Mrs Hudson, no,” Holmes said, shaking his head sorrowfully. “The first was excusable but this latter is unworthy of you. Send the girl to her room so we may talk freely.”

….Baffled, I waited till the girl had left the room and then demanded to know what Holmes had meant by it.

….“Shall I tell the story, Mrs Hudson? You must set me right if I err in any particular.” He led the old lady kindly to her accustomed chair and waited until she was settled. “A little brandy for Mrs Hudson, I think, Watson, and perhaps for us too. I fear the tale I have to tell may shock you.” I complied and finally, the three of us settled, Holmes began…

….“When I examined the dead man’s wound, I noticed small flecks of raw meat had attached themselves to his hair. A closer examination by dint of my keen olfactory sense allowed me to determine the type of meat: mutton. The wound itself could only have been caused by a blow from a heavy but blunt instrument – you know I have written a short monograph on the subject of head injuries caused by various implements and the signs were clear. I had already begun to suspect that the murderer – or perhaps I should say killer, since I believe her actions were fully justified – was none other than our own dear Mrs Hudson. And when today – Thursday, you note – we were served with vegetable soup rather than the usual mutton broth, my suspicions became a certainty.”

….I gasped and took a quick drink of brandy to steady my nerves. “But Holmes, how? And in God’s name, man, why?” Mrs Hudson had buried her head in her hands and was sobbing piteously. Holmes gently patted her knee. “Hush, Mrs Hudson, leave it to me and all will yet be well,” he said kindly.

….Turning to me, he continued. “You see, Watson, some years ago as we shared a Christmas sherry, Mrs Hudson told me that she was not a widow as we had always believed. In fact, she never married. This – reprobate, I think you called him, and a fine word it is to describe him – once told her he loved her, and with the innocence of youth Mrs Hudson – Ada – gave him all a woman has to give: her love and her trust. Having ruined her, this heartless brute then deserted her and went off to Australia. Poor Ada gave birth to their child, but it was a sickly little thing, and soon left this world for a better one.

….“Now I shall speculate as to what happened late last night. Smith had returned to England, and heard from some mutual acquaintance that Ada had got on in the world, earning back her respectability among people who knew nothing of her tragic story. To a man like him, her little property and the small wealth she has accumulated were enough of a temptation. He turned up here and demanded that Mrs Hudson give him her little all or he would reveal her past to the world, thrusting her back into shame. She refused, and he took violent hold of her, threatening to beat the money out of her if necessary. In the extreme fear and turmoil of emotions he had aroused in her, Mrs Hudson for one instant lost herself and, snatching up the nearest object – the mutton-bone for today’s broth – struck him as hard as she could on the temple. A lucky blow for her, though not for him. It killed him instantly with less pain than he deserved. And so Mrs Hudson dragged his corpse out to the yard, hoping that no-one would discover her connection to him.”

….“That’s just how it was, Mr Holmes,” Mrs Hudson said through her tears. “It’s as if you had been there and seen the whole thing! Do what you must, sir – the law can never punish me more harshly than my own conscience.”

….“Pshaw, Mrs Hudson! We shall find some way to send Inspector Gregory off on a wild goose chase, never fear. The man was a scoundrel and a blackmailer – neither the law nor your conscience should waste another moment on him. He will now face judgement from a higher power than we. But you must promise me to look after the child, Agnes. Her poor mother did not have your strength.”

….“And my poor daughter did not have hers. It shall be as you say, sir – she will be well looked after while I live and provided for on my death. God bless you, Mr Holmes, sir!”

Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

….“But, Holmes,” I asked rather plaintively, once we were again alone in his study. “Why did you throw out young Agnes’ broth?”

….“My dear fellow, it’s elementary! Mrs Hudson had to get rid of the mutton-bone; it was the only evidence against her. Making broth with it was clever enough. But I cannot feel it was right to allow the young girl to eat it.”

….I shuddered, and felt thankful after all that we had been served the vegetable soup. “As always, Holmes, you have tempered justice with mercy.” As I raised my brandy to him in salute, I contemplated my good fortune at being able to call this great man my friend.

HAVE A GREAT FRIDAY! 😀

The Mystery of Briony Lodge by David Bagchi

Say nothing of the dog…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a client turns up at Baker Street, she is accidentally shown to 221d by mistake – the room upstairs from the famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. This room is occupied by J. Yes, that J. The one from Three Men in a Boat. He’s there that day with Harris and George, to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency. And when the lovely Miss Briony Lodge appeals for his help over some mysterious letters she’s been receiving, he’s so taken with her that he decides to play along with her belief that he is Holmes and investigate the mystery himself, with the rather dubious help of his friends.

So begins this mash-up pastiche of two of my favourite bookish delights of all time. When I was offered a copy of this my first impulse was to shudder violently and issue a haughty thanks but no thanks – regulars will know nothing is more guaranteed to make me froth at the mouth than people messing with my literary idols. However something made me glance at the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon. The first line made me laugh out loud…

“To Montmorency she is always the woman.”

One good line doesn’t necessarily mean the whole thing will be good though, so I read on…

“Young men such as ourselves, with active minds (naturally I excuse you from this generalisation, George) and active bodies (forgive me, Harris, I don’t mean you, of course) do not need rest. Rest for us is the mere counterfeit of death. There will be time enough for rest when the Grim Reaper taps us on the shoulder and asks to see our ticket.”

This is followed by a delightfully silly argument between the three men on the subject of how many servants a knight of yore would have had as he went off to “try his valour against all manner of foe”

By now I was sold! And I’m happy to say that the entire book lives up to the promise of these first few pages. Bagchi clearly knows the originals inside out and loves them, and he replicates J.’s voice with impressive accuracy and warm affection. Holmes himself is an off-page presence, but there are zillions of references to the stories and it’s great fun trying to spot them all. I’m pretty sure Bagchi must also be a Wodehouse fan, because there are occasional touches of his kind of humour in there too.

The plot is a mash-up of several of the Holmes stories combined with a trip down the Thames to some of the places that appear in Three Men in a Boat. If I have a criticism, it’s that occasionally Bagchi veers too close to the original – such as in J.’s musings on the mysterious workings of the British railway system. But for the vast majority he achieves that difficult balance of staying true to the source while stamping his own originality on top, and the story all hangs together very well.

It’s mostly told by J. in the first person, but it turns out that by coincidence Holmes has sent Watson to follow a chap who happens to be involved in the mystery too (being deliberately vague here). So, in the manner of The Hound of the Baskervilles, we get to read Watson’s reports to Holmes along with extracts from his personal journal, and Bagchi has totally nailed Watson’s style too.

My dear Holmes,
Today’s proceedings have been as full of incident as we could have wished or feared. I only hope that my pen can do justice to the high drama of the day.

Deliciously, even the chapter headings match the style of the originals. Here’s Chapter 2, a J. chapter…

Of the power of female beauty upon the male brain—A decorated ceiling—On the supernatural abilities of dogs—The railway guide a threat to public morality—On the glorious freedom of God’s special creation, the locomotive—Harris has an idea—The moral degeneracy of the downstream man.

David Bagchi

It’s 155 pages – long enough to be satisfying without reaching the point of outstaying its welcome. I’ve said snootily in past rips of dreadful pastiches and follow-on novels that writers shouldn’t set themselves up for comparison with the greats unless the quality of their own writing is up to standard. Bagchi’s is – there are bits which, if taken out of context, I’m sure would fool most of us into thinking they had genuinely been penned by either Jerome or Conan Doyle. I enjoyed every minute of the couple of hours it took me to read, laughing out loud many times along the way. Highly recommended – a better cure for the blues than cocaine, liver pills or clumps on the side of the head…

Oh, and, Mr Bagchi… I think there’s plenty of room for a sequel…

NB This book was provided for review by the author.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Friday Frippery! A conversation regarding whales…

Call me FF…

moby-dick-john-barrymore

Tap-thump! Tap-thump! Tap-thump! FF heard the unmistakeable sound of the captain crossing the deck.

“Ahoy, FF, thou lazy dog! Whyest dost thou lyeth there on that… thing… whilst Ahab practiceth his best cod Shakespearian?? Whatest is that thing, anyway, in the name of the gods above in Heaven, or perhaps the devils beneath in Hell! Or vice-versa. If Gods exist. Eth.”

FF raised her sunglasses and perched them on her golden curls. “It’s a sun-lounger, sir. Don’t you like it? I ordered it from Amazon and they had a drone drop it off an hour ago. It’s very comfortable.”

Ahab stuck his bone leg in the socket he had had specially made for it and, swivelling madly like Zebedee on his spring, cried out, “Thou liest here in the sun imbibing the devil’s grog…”

“It’s a margarita,” murmured FF, sipping.

“… when there is work to be (or not to be) done! Hast thou seen the great white whale?”

“No, and I’m at 92% now. Strange, isn’t it?”

Ahab ceased to swivel and fixed her with his mad eye. “Eh? 92%? Thou speakest in strange riddles as of one who has seen things not of nature!”

“Well, the book’s called Moby-Dick: or, the White Whale so you’d kinda think the whale would actually be in it, wouldn’t you?” FF waved her Kindle at the infuriated captain. “But no. We’ve sailed every sea in the entire world and not a blessed sign of him yet. A cheat, I call it! Plenty of other whales though – big ones, little ones, lots and lots of dead ones. And as for gory! Well, let’s just say I know more than I ever wanted to about how to skin them and squeeze the oil out of their blubber.” She shuddered, and sipped her margarita. “Sir.”

moby-dick-the_voyage_of_the_pequod

Ahab shook his fist at the cloudless sky. “Thou wasteth time reading stupid books on thy infernal device when thou shouldst be aloft the main mast searching for the monster whom thou hast sworn a great oath to destroyeth!”

“To be fair, though, sir, that was during the first night party and you’d been pretty generous with the old gin before you asked. I’m not sure that really counts as a proper oath.”

“Thy honour grovels on its lowly belly acrost the mud in the deeps where lie littered the bodies of great heroes and the monsters they pursued to their doom! Queequeg the cannibal shalt not fail me, he with his skin tattooed with marks that would scare the devils themselves. Nor even the poor, crazed savage, Pip, whose little black hand is nearly as soft as that of a decent white boy!”

“That reminds me, sir, an e-mail came in from Head Office. They want you to confirm you’ve completed the online training course in cultural sensitivity.”

“Aarghh! Get thee up to the lookout afore I call on the Heavens to strike thee with the unnatural fire of the corpusants!”

“No can do, I’m afraid, sir. Health and safety. You’ll just have to rely on the sonar equipment.”

“Gah! Art thou a yellow-bellied poltroon?? Thou wilt know real danger when Ahab sends thee in the little boat to stick harpoons in the monstrous Leviathan!”

FF shuddered. “I fear that won’t be possible, sir. Whaling has been outlawed by international convention. These days we use electricity to light our lamps.”

Ahab leapt up and down so hard his bone leg began to splinter. “Outlawed?! Never! For here, on the great ocean, Ahab is all – the captain, the King, the God! And the great white whale shall die, die horribly, because Ahab sayeth so! Look! What ist that strange vessel that approacheth?”

“It’s Greenpeace, sir. They’re here to protect the whale. I Skyped them when I realised you were insane, sir.”

Ahab turned purple with rage, and shook both fists at FF. “Thou hast ruined my revenge! Truly, verily, and yea, ’tis true what they say! To allow a woman aboardeth a ship is folly, for they are cursed, and curseth those who saileth with them!” Tap-thump! Tap-thump! Tap-thump!

“Silly old misogynist!” murmured FF, as she lay back on her lounger and opened the new Ian Rankin.

moby-dick-cartoon

HAVE A GREAT FRIDAY! 😉

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Dear reader, she murders the English language…

😦

jane steele 2Young Jane Steele’s favourite book is Jane Eyre and she sees some parallels between her own life and her heroine’s. Not yet an orphan when we first meet her, the suicide of her drug-addled mother soon allows her to achieve that status. Jane has been led to believe that Highgate House should be hers, left to her by her father. But her aunt is living there now and shows no intention of giving it up. And her cousin Edwin is a nasty piece of work who is sexually harassing her. So she kills him. Then she goes off to a school chosen by her wicked and now grieving aunt – a school much like Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall, but with added sexual harassment. While there, she kills a man, but he deserves it, so that’s okay. Then she goes off to London, where she meets with all kinds of men practising different forms of abuse or sexual harassment, so she kills them.

I’m afraid I just don’t get what it is that other people are liking about this book. It’s a simple stream of man-hate – if the genders were reversed I’m pretty sure there would be howls of outrage from some of the same people who are praising it. Every man who appears (up to the 44% mark when I abandoned it with huge relief) is some kind of sexual predator, paedophile or wife-beater, and it is therefore shown as amusing, even admirable, that they should be murdered. It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but the humour wears very thin after the same premise is used several times – man appears, man abuses girl/woman, man is murdered.

But assuming that for some reason our society is okay with denigrating men on a wholesale basis, that still wouldn’t excuse the writing. If pastiching or referencing a great writer, then one has to be able to reproduce or equal that writer’s style – comparisons should and will be drawn, especially if large extracts of the original, skilled writer’s work are used to head up each chapter. The language in this has no feeling of authenticity, no elegance of style, is sprinkled with anachronistic phraseology and occasional Americanisms, and frequently contains words that are incorrect in the context or, indeed, just plain wrong. Would people put up with a professional pianist who kept hitting the wrong notes? Or a surgeon who removed the wrong organs? Then I simply don’t understand why readers are willing to put up with professional authors who use the wrong words.

Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order...
Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order…

A couple of examples…

On the subject of her cousin Edwin, Jane muses: “Kin, kin, kin was ever his anthem: as if we were more than related, as if we were kindred.” I remain baffled as to what Faye thinks kindred means.

“Never having studied Latin previous, I congratulated myself when at the end of the hour, I was explaining the lesson to the perplexed circumference, and Miss Werwick forgot herself far enough to frown at this development.” I’m going to ignore “previous” because I think Faye’s using this incorrectly deliberately to try to give some kind of sense of outdated language. But perplexed circumference? I assume she means circle. Perhaps she thinks that because circles have circumferences then the words can be used interchangeably. Like milk and carton, perhaps, or chocolate and box.

Lyndsay Faye
Lyndsay Faye

I did think there was a certain irony to Faye introducing a character (an abusive male, obviously) whose major characteristic was his supposedly humorous incorrect use of words. Dickens can do that, because he is skilled with language. Unfortunately, here, it became difficult to differentiate between the character’s errors and the author’s. It’s odd, because in the only other book of Faye’s that I’ve read, her début in fact, I thought her writing was much better than in this. Perhaps it’s because she’s trying to emulate an outdated style of English English that doesn’t come naturally to her and is just not getting it quite right. I’m sure I wouldn’t get 19th century New York English right either (but then I wouldn’t publish a book written in it if I couldn’t).

However, given that the book has accumulated an astonishing number of 5-star reviews, it appears that the reading world doesn’t share my dislike for either misandry or poor writing. But I fear I can only recommend it to people who hate men and don’t mind having to guess what words the author meant to use…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Headline.

Amazon UK Link
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Book 13
Book 13

Mrs Hudson and the Malabar Rose (Mrs Hudson 2) by Martin Davies

The other mastermind in 221b…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

mrs hudson and the malabar roseTwo clients turn up at Sherlock Holmes’ rooms in 221b Baker Street – a woman whose son-in-law has gone missing, and a representative of the Home Office who is concerned for the safety of the Malabar Rose, a priceless ruby gifted to the Queen with the condition that it is put on public display. Rather dismissively, Holmes brushes off the woman, suggesting her daughter’s husband has merely left her and will no doubt show up soon. He then turns his attention to ensuring the security of the ruby. Fortunately, Mrs Hudson doesn’t share his lack of concern regarding the missing man and decides to undertake her own investigation, with the help of her servant, our narrator, young Flotsam. As the two cases proceed, it gradually appears that there may be some links between them…

Well, I have to say that, despite all my anti-Holmes-pastiche prejudices and against all expectation, I thoroughly enjoyed this romp! It’s very well written with a good plot, and the Victorian world as seen through the eyes of Flottie is believably depicted. It’s a slightly cosier London than the one the original Holmes inhabited, but that works fine with the gentle humour in the book and the friendliness and support of the little community that surrounds Mrs Hudson and Flottie.

There is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the portrayal of both Holmes and Watson, each with their well-known traits slightly exaggerated. Holmes, it transpires, is perhaps not quite the great mastermind we thought, or at least not the only one in the household. As Mrs Hudson’s genius reveals itself, each of her discoveries is met by a knowing nod from Holmes as if to say he knew all along… but the reader isn’t so sure! Watson seems to have upped his alcohol intake quite a lot, along with his buffoonery and his susceptibility to a finely-turned ankle. Normally, these things would have me frothing at the mouth and possibly even gnashing my teeth but, partly because Holmes and Watson aren’t the central characters in the book, and partly because the mockery is done with warm affection for the originals, somehow it all works.

Martin Davies
Martin Davies

Flottie herself is a great character. A young orphan, Mrs Hudson took her in at a point when Flottie had been heading towards crime in order to survive. Flottie’s gratitude and admiration for her benefactor make both characters very likeable. I was particularly impressed by the way Davies handles Flottie’s ‘voice’. Although she is a 14-year-old uneducated maidservant at the time of the case, Davies quickly lets the reader know that Flottie is in fact telling the story in retrospect from when she is much older. In the intervening years, Mrs Hudson set her on the path to a good education and a successful career. This allows her to speak with an educated voice and a good vocabulary – no faux Cockney maid talk! It also means she can be more insightful and humorous about events than would sound realistic from the mouth of a 14-year-old.

The plot takes us into the world of theatre with conjurers, exotic dancers, and elaborate trickery, and it all takes place around Christmas so we get some mouthwatering descriptions of the kind of Christmas fare Mrs Hudson whips up for her lodgers when she’s not out detecting. The mystery is not so much whodunit as how was it done – or, in the case of the potential theft of the ruby, how will it be done and how can it be prevented. There are enough nods to the original stories to satisfy Holmes geeks, but catching these references isn’t necessary to enjoying this story on its own account. All in all, excellent writing, a strong plot, some likeable characters and plenty of humour – I’ll certainly be reading more in this series. Most enjoyable!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canelo.

Amazon UK Link
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Friday Frippery! Interim Book Report…

absalom absalomSo,

 

she (Miss Rosa Coldfield) rattles on circuitously, circling round and round, in a circle; and yet, not round always, but in memory, sometimes backward, before the enemy thrashed her father and destroyed the Old South, destroying it in a destructive manner, while he watched the dust motes and wondered why she repeated herself endlessly without ever actually saying anything to the point, endlessly repeating the story of her sister, long dead, and Sutpen, repeatedly telling him (Quentin) about his (Sutpen’s) beard that was the only thing that differentiated him from the wild black men he brought with him when he came to destroy the honour of his or possibly her family, or possibly their families, or possibly not, for as she would undoubtedly come to say “It is important that this story never dies, so I’m going to reveal it to you in a code so obscure it will take, not just the rest of your life, but the lives of many academics, paid for by the taxes not just of ourselves but of those who conquered us and tamed the wild men, destroying something precious but perhaps a little immoral along the way, for some strange people in the North, you know, think that to chain wild men to a post is nearly as wicked as to beat horses for no reason other than to show how wicked the beater is, to decipher it or at least to convince themselves that they had deciphered it because otherwise would be to admit that yet again the Nobel Prize had been given to someone who fundamentally can’t write intelligibly, though of course in the wondrous worlds of academe and literary prizes intelligibility ranks low on the list of things a writer should achieve, which is not how it was…” and she broke off as her voice retreated not into silence exactly, but into silence nevertheless, a silence forced upon her and all her race by the men who conquered her or them or him and his family and their honour, and he said “Yessum” which was, one has to admit, as good an answer as any from one of the broken ghosts that inhabit this broken land, broken by conquerors who destroyed the honour of those whose only fault, if indeed fault it were, and who is to decide that question is still to be decided, was to tie wild men to posts and impregnate wild women, hardly a fault at all; though some may say that then naming the offspring with silly names like Clytemnestra may have been the most wicked thing of all and may even have been some small justification for the destruction of these once proud people, now wandering ghost-like through the past and present…

William Faulkner

…with no calendar, dammit, to tell them where they might be supposed to be, which is to assume anyone cares, which brings me back to the point which I have unfortunately forgotten since my braincells began deteriorating at page 5 and the deterioration deteriorated so rapidly that by page 48 I had turned into a brainless mumbling mono-celled organism condemned to spend eternity going round in an endless circle of rambling, barely punctuated, incomprehensibly-structured prose, an endless circle of destruction, leaving me feeling like a ghost inhabiting a land which unfortunately the destroyers didn’t destroy thoroughly enough or they would have wiped out Miss Coldfield, Mr Compson, Mr Sutpen and all their pesky descendants and left Mr Faulkner with nothing to go round in endless circles about, so that when at some time in the future or perhaps the past FF asked for recommendations for the Great American Novel Quest, no-one, not one person, not even a ghost, would have suggested torturing herself half to death reading a pretentious, repetitive, repetitive book, which is to literature much as WWE is to sport, with its major claim to fame being that it contains the longest grammatically correct sentence in the English language, thus getting into the Guinness Book of Records, surely more illustrious than the broken Nobel, though that record doesn’t specify intelligible, nor does it take account of the fact that Michael Chabon created a much longer, better constructed, and rather beautiful one in Telegraph Avenue, thus making this work even more redundant than it once was, this being the problem with all records, for who now remembers who held the record for the fastest mile before Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mark, itself a record now broken, but one that was at least exciting at the time, which I suggest this one wasn’t; and if they did, if some ghost drifting in the motes of dust circling round the room of the woman who is doing a particularly bad Miss ‘Avisham impersonation, in her room where she lives with the blinds drawn, angsting about a 50-year-old jilting, had whispered “Read Absalom! Absalom!”, then FF would have known to say “No’m!” – but too late, alas, too late!

* * * * * *

I’m at page 72. 240 to go.

 

alphabetti help

 

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle – Part 3

Chapter 3

 

(If you missed Part 1 and want to catch up, click here. And for Part 2, click here.)

 

The Dancing Men (1984)

Lady McFan looked a little surprised at Houses’ request for chocolate cake but, with true Highland hospitality, she bustled off to the kitchen to speak to the cook.

“Chocolate cake, Houses?” I was baffled. “Are you peckish? Personally, after that meal of cullen skink, venison served with clapshot, and cranachan to finish, I can’t imagine being hungry again for a week!”

Houses merely smiled wolfishly and shook his head.

“You have all the same information as I, Witless. Surely you can see what’s happening here?”

“Well, Houses, applying your own famous precept that having eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, I do have a theory,” I said, rather proudly. “I suspect the culprits are the fairies at the bottom of the garden!”

cottingley fairies(The Cottingley Fairies)

Houses gazed at me for a long moment with what I could almost have mistaken for pity, and squeezed my shoulder gently.

“Well, you shall know all in time, my dear fellow. Meantime why not take a seat and write a description of the brilliance of my methods?”

I muttered indistinctly, fighting a sudden urge to use some improper language. Thank heavens my fine old English breeding stood me in good stead and enabled me to resist! I removed some books and a cat from an armchair and sat down. Not sharing my delicacy, the cat swore profusely.

Lady McFan returned bearing a huge chocolate cake on a silver salver. “Will this do, Mr Houses?” she inquired.

“Admirably, madam!”

Houses suddenly began to behave as if in the grip of madness. Had I not known he’d been staying clear of the opium dens for some weeks, I might even have suspected an onslaught of the midnight munchies. He took a slice of cake and began to chomp at it, while pacing furiously to and fro in front of the bookshelves. Back and forth he went, taking slice after slice and devouring them as if he were a fashion-plate model with bulimia! Crumbs sprayed disgustingly from his mouth and from the crumbling cake in his hands, leaving a trail over the room’s ancient tartan carpet. I was heartily ashamed of my friend and remonstrated severely, but he brushed me off with an incomprehensible and messy mumble. Lady McFan meantime contemplated the swift disappearance of her chocolate cake with a dismay that bordered on hysteria.

last slice

Finally, when the cake was almost gone, Houses ceased his restless pacing.

“Now, Effie, there is no more we can do this evening, so I suggest we lock this room and retire to our chambers for the night.”

“Don’t you want me to sit up with my trusty service revolver?” I asked, somewhat disappointedly.

“Would you really be willing to shoot a fairy?” responded Houses, with unanswerable logic and what I could almost have mistaken for a touch of sarcasm. We did as he said, checking that all three doors were securely fastened, and retired to bed.

We passed a quiet night, except for a brief period when the ghost of the Headless Lady began shrieking for her lost lover in the hallway. However, Tommy and Tuppence, the ferocious house cats, swiftly rounded her up and chased her into a corner, where they took turns in rolling her severed head around the floor until she promised to remain silent for the rest of the night.

The next morning, the three of us met in the hallway. Lady McFan unlocked the door of the drawing room and we entered. Her face paling, the Lady Laird gave a little scream and pointed to the side table. A brand new set of The Complete Works of Mark Twain lay there – surely the perpetrator of this madness had a streak of inhuman cruelty!

twain

Houses however paid no attention – he was busily peering at the carpet in front of the bookshelves. With a sudden cry, he leapt forward and pulled at a section of the shelving! It swung open, revealing a set of winding stairs leading up the floor above. He sprang up the steps, with Lady McFan and myself in swift pursuit. At the top of the stairs, there was a door. Houses flung it open and we entered the room. There was Wullie the Piper, with a pile of new books in his hand, about to head down the stairs to carry on with his nefarious scheme!

Houses and I wrestled with the bounder and felled him like a tree trunk being prepared for the caber-tossing competition.

Highland_Games_Caber_Toss

“You see, Effie,” Houses explained, once we had Wullie securely tied up and had set the cats to guard him, “I knew there must be another entrance to the room, so I spread some crumbs on the floor. As Wullie entered the room, the secret door in the bookshelves pushed the crumbs away, showing me where the door must be. As the illegitimate son of your father, Wullie hoped that he could drive you into an asylum or worse, and then come forward to claim the title and castle as his inheritance.”

Lady McFan looked shocked, so Houses suggested we return to the drawing room for a nice cup of tea. As we passed Wullie on the way to the stairs, Lady McFan accidentally kicked him hard on the shins, twice.

We arrived in the drawing room to find it occupied by a tall woman, whose general appearance of ethereal beauty was only a little marred by the chocolate cake crumbs on her chin. Lady McFan hastily introduced her to us as her dear cousin, Lady Fancyboots.

Lady Fancyboots walked over and embraced her cousin, saying “Happy Birthday, dear Effie! Had you forgotten?”

She handed over a parcel, which Lady McFan hastened to open. The Complete Works of Tolstoy! Poor Lady McFan was so overcome with gratitude she swooned quite away…

swooning

The End!

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle – Part 2

Chapter 2

 

(If you missed part 1 and want to catch up click here.)

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 3

“Welcome to my ancestral home, Mr Houses, and you, Dr Witless! I cannot tell you how relieved I am that you are finally here. Things have got worse since I wrote you – I’m at my wit’s end!”

We didn’t mention that we were equally relieved to discover that the Lady Laird spoke perfect English, but with a pleasant lilt that revealed her Highland origins. Ah, the benefits of a fine English education – even the most savage of peoples can be given a veneer of civilisation!

Having had supper, we were now settled in the grand drawing room of the castle, a large room with doors on three sides. Despite the generous size of the room, it was crowded – books covered every shelf and lay in tottering piles on every surface, and in heaps around the floor. It looked as if some effort had been made at an earlier period to organise them, but it was clear that the attempt had now been abandoned. Big books, little books, old books, new books, even some strange device that, on pressing a button, sprang to life and showed the page of a book on a glass slide! Some mysterious kind of telescopic instrument, I surmised.

Piles-of-books

Houses said “I deduce you are an avid reader, Lady McFan.”

“Please call me Effie, Mr Houses. Yes, indeed, I always have been since a young child.”

“Good Lord, Houses!” I cried in astonishment. “How in heaven’s name did you deduce that?”

Houses preened a little. “Oh, Witless, surely by now you know my methods. Effie here has the refined, glowing complexion and shining, intelligent eyes that only the true reader ever possesses. That, plus the piles of books.”

“How absurdly simple!” I cried, and for some reason a grimace crossed my friend’s face.

“Quite.” He turned to our client. “Now, Effie, please explain why you have asked us to come here. Very simply, if you don’t mind, since Dr Witless will be listening.”

“It’s the books, Mr Houses! The books!” And she proceeded to tell us her story. For many years, Lady McFan had been adding gradually to the collection of books she had inherited from her ancestors. She would acquire half a dozen or so, read them and add them to her shelves. But suddenly, several months ago, she noticed that the little pile of unread books seemed to be growing larger. And larger. And larger. It soon became impossible for her to read them quickly enough to shelve them before another pile would appear. Every night, she would count the books and every morning she would discover there were three or four more than the night before.

piles of books

“I don’t order them, Mr Houses, I’m sure I don’t! They just… appear! Oh, please help me! Every cupboard is full of books; I’ve had to put the horses up in a hotel so I could turn the stables into extra library space; the ghost of the Headless Lady has had to move out of the attic to make room for books, and is now wandering the Castle moaning and groaning day and night, and being downright depressing! I’ve even taken to locking all three doors to this room overnight, but still they arrive, always placed just here, on this side table. Am I mad, Mr Houses? Or can you find an explanation and put a stop to this horror?”

She sent a glance of such piteous pleading from her fine blue eyes that even the hardened heart of Houses must surely have been touched. If I weren’t a happily married man, I may well have proposed on the spot.

Houses sat back, closed his eyes and steepled his fingers. Lady McFan and I sat in breathless silence, waiting for that great brain to work its magic. Houses snored gently. I tactfully kicked his ankle. His gimlet eyes opened and pierced me like… well, like a gimlet.

Holmes

“Is there anyone else in the house overnight, Effie?” he inquired incisively.

“Only the servants, but they’ve all been with my family for generations and are members of the Clan. I trust them with my life. And Lady Fancyboots, my cousin and oldest friend, has been staying here for some months, having spent all her little inheritance on fine chocolate, and being now quite destitute, were it not for my exceeding generosity.”

“Your cousin, you say?”

“Yes, we’re the two last remaining members of the family, so have always been close, even though I inherited fabulous wealth and she only got £100 and Grannie McFan’s recipe for black bun. Some people may have been resentful, but not Lady Fancyboots! She has remained a staunch friend.”

“That portrait,” Houses indicated a full-length picture that hung above the mantel, of a fine-looking old gentleman in what I was beginning to realise must be the traditional dress for the savage natives of these wild regions.

Sean-Connery

“He is your father?”

Lady McFan assented.

“He bears a striking resemblance to Wullie the Piper, wouldn’t you agree, Witless?” remarked Houses.

Lady McFan blushed gently.

“All the clan are related to one another, Mr House. Furthermore, my father was…,” she cleared her throat delicately, “fond of Wullie’s mother, a maidservant here for many years before her death.”

A gleam had come into Houses’ eyes during this conversation, and he now rubbed his hands, chuckling. “Well, I have high hopes that we may be able to get to the root of your little trouble,” he said. “And now, could I trouble you for some chocolate cake?”

* * * * * * *

To be continued… (only one more, I promise!)

Meantime…

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

Chapter 1

.

Basil_rathbone_nigel_bruce

Dense, black, billowing fog was swirling around Baker Street when I arrived in response to an urgent request from my old friend, Sherlock Houses. The great detective had clearly had considerably more than his customary three pipes. I hastily opened a window and inquired as to the cause of my summons.

“Elementary, my dear Witless. The game’s afoot! Kindly reach down the Bradshaw and look up the time of the next train to Kirkintilloch.”

“I’m afraid there is no train to Kirkintilloch. However, there’s a canal boat service. If we leave now, we should get there by next Thursday or thereabouts.”

“Then make haste, Witless! There’s not a moment to be lost!”

Forth and Clyde Canal at Kirkintilloch (the official Canal Capital of Scotland!)
Forth and Clyde Canal at Kirkintilloch (the official Canal Capital of Scotland!)

Houses refused to say another word about the reason for our journey, declaring we should have the full story on our arrival from our client herself. Stopping only to send a brief telegram to my long-suffering wife, (a gentle, understanding woman who always did her best to appear as if she thoroughly enjoyed my frequent absences, often going so far as to telegraph Houses to ask if he needed me for anything), I packed my trusty service revolver, rubbed some embrocation into the old war wound in my leg – or was it my shoulder? Strange how I could never remember – and we hastily set off on our journey to the wilds of North England, which some of the natives still insisted on calling Scotland.

* * * * * * *

A week later, we stumbled weakly off the canal boat at our destination. It had been a long and tiring journey, during which Houses had enlivened the atmosphere with impromptu, unsolicited violin concerts, fascinating monologues on how to identify 600 different kinds of tobacco ash (which unfortunately, since the canal boat was a No Smoking zone, sent several of the passengers into a tooth-gnashing frenzy) and a little target practice with his revolver, inadvertently causing the boat to leak heavily and list to starboard. As always, Houses had made himself extremely popular, and the passengers and crew raised a hearty and prolonged cheer as we disembarked.

Kirkintilloch was a quaint old town built near the site of a Roman fort and looking as if it hadn’t changed much over the intervening centuries. The street names had a poetic ring that conjured up visions of rural loveliness – Cowgate, Industry Street, Gallowhill Road.

Cowgate, Kirkintilloch
Cowgate, Kirkintilloch

Our client lived outside the town, so we hailed a cab and Houses told the driver to make all speed to Culcreuch Castle, the home of our client.

“Lives may depend on it, man! Don’t spare the horse!”

“Och, hoots, dinna ye fash yersel’, sir! The castle’s been there sin’ the days that the auld chieftain o’ the Clan McFan caught the first haggis, an’ it’ll still be staunin’ when we’re a’ deid! Ay, it’s a sorry place noo, tho’, ye ken. They say that strange things happen there in the nicht – gey strange! An’ the puir Lady Laird is at her wit’s end wi’ it a’. Happen ye’ll be the gents she’s sent for frae doon Lunnon way?”

“I have no idea what you’re attempting to say, my good fellow. Drive on!”

We had a long winding journey of it, uphill most of the way, and dusk was falling over the rolling Campsie hills when we finally caught sight of the castle, nestling amongst the trees by the side of a picturesque lake. It was a beautiful setting, its air of peace and tranquillity belying the horror that was beginning to clutch at my heart.

Culcreuch Castle - once upon a time home to the Chief of my own clan...
Culcreuch Castle – once upon a time home to the Chief of my own clan…

We came to a halt at the massive oaken doors, held open by an elderly man in a rather strange looking multi-coloured skirt. Perhaps there was to be a fancy dress-ball that evening, I speculated.

A horrible wailing, screeching sound suddenly caused us to clutch each other in momentary terror. Quickly recovering our stiff upper lips and manly demeanours, Houses and I pulled out our revolvers and prepared to deal with supernatural hounds, or possibly ghoulies and ghosties and lang-leggedy beasties, which the indispensable Bradshaw had informed us frequented these heathen parts.

“’Tis only Wullie the Piper, sir, tae let us ken that supper is ready,” the elderly man cried incomprehensibly.

wullie the piper

Another skirted man appeared round the side of the castle, wrestling with a horrible 5-legged beast, from which the ghastly sounds were emanating. At that moment, with a final scream of mournful agony, the creature seemed to breathe its last. It was a chilling start to our adventure…

 

* * * * * * *

To be continued… maybe…

(This story was suggested by my old mate, Lady Fancifull. So blame her!)

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

Bravo, Mr Horowitz! Encore! Encore!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It was as if the world were ending here in a perpetual apocalypse of thundering water and spray rising like steam, the birds frightened away and the sun blocked out. The walls that enclosed this raging deluge were jagged and harsh and old as Rip van Winkle.

moriartyIt is the year 1891, just after Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have fought their final battle at Reichenbach Falls. Our narrator is Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton man, in Europe on the trail of a criminal mastermind, one Clarence Devereux, who he believes is responsible for killing one of his colleagues. Devereux has decided to extend his operations beyond his native America and has come to London, and Chase believes he has been in contact with Professor Moriarty, so on hearing of Moriarty’s death he has rushed to Switzerland to discover whether he can find any clue to Devereux’s whereabouts. Here he meets Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, also over to investigate the happenings at the Reichenbach Falls and they quickly form an alliance to hunt Devereux down and to stop the wave of violent crime sweeping through London.

Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls - by Sidney Paget
Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls – by Sidney Paget

I enjoyed Horowitz’s first foray into the Holmesian world, The House of Silk, very much, feeling he got Watson’s voice more nearly than any other faux-Holmes I had read. But this one is truly outstanding – one of the best books I’ve read all year by a wide margin. When I saw that it was set during the period when Holmes was ‘dead’ and that Watson wasn’t to be the narrator, I was disappointed, but not for long. It’s a brilliantly clever device that allows Horowitz to work firmly within Holmes’ world but without the pitfalls of characterisation or tone that so often beset ‘continuation’ novels. I won’t tell you more about the plot, because almost anything I say could be a potential spoiler. I’ll merely say it’s fantastic – Horowitz played me like a fish with intellectual challenges and made me laugh at my own stupefaction. It’s fast-moving and complicated, but not in the way that makes the reader feel lost – Horowitz keeps us on top of the story all the way through – or at least we think we are!

It was formed of brick walls and vaulted ceilings with arches, dozens of them arranged opposite each other in two lines. Steel girders had been fixed in place above our heads with hooks suspended on the ends of rusting chains. The floor consisted of cobblestones, centuries old and heavily worn, with tramlines swerving and criss-crossing each other on their way into the bowels of the earth. Everything was gaslit, the lamps throwing a luminescent haze that hung suspended in mid-air, like a winter’s fog.

Photo: Museum of London
Photo: Museum of London

Chase is a great character who rapidly takes on the role of Watson to Athelney Jones’ Holmes. Jones, as Holmes geeks may recall, was the detective who appeared in The Sign of the Four, and has developed a complex about Watson’s unflattering portrait of him in that story. So he has devoted himself to mastering all of Holmes’ techniques, meaning that we get a lovely pastiche of Holmes within the story, which stops us missing the Master too much. And Chase writes just as wonderfully as Watson, so that side’s covered too. The story easily stands on its own – it’s not necessary to be a Holmes geek to follow it, but there are loads of references to the original stories which add immensely to the fun if you are. For example, we finally learn all about the mystery of the parsley in the butter…

Anthony Horowitz
Anthony Horowitz

There’s constant excitement, terrifying peril, touches of horror, brilliant descriptions of London and enough humour to keep the tone light. The writing is superb, totally within character and as good as Conan Doyle’s own. The tone feels completely right for a Holmes book and the world of the book is absolutely the one in which Holmes lived and worked. And the only word I can find for the climax is awesome! So clever I read the last part of the book with a huge grin on my face, out of sheer pleasure and admiration. And then metaphorically rose to my feet and offered Mr Horowitz a well-deserved standing ovation…

You won’t be surprised to learn that I think you should read this. It’s a very special thing for Holmes fans, but it’s a great historical crime thriller in its own right too. Magnificent!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Monogram Murders (Hercule Poirot) by Sophie Hannah

Poirot just knows

😡

the monogram murdersA terrified woman bursts into the coffee house where Hercule Poirot is partaking of the best coffee in London. When Poirot tells her he is a detective, she seems tempted to share her worries but in the end tells him only that she is about to be murdered and that, once she is dead, justice will have been done. Pausing only to beg him to prevent the police from investigating, she pleads cryptically ‘Oh, please let no one open their mouths’ and flees back into the night. Meantime Mr Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who lives in the same lodging house as Poirot, has been called to the Bloxham Hotel where three guests have been found murdered. Poirot (psychically) suspects there may be a link…

In fact, I hadn’t ever before realised just how psychic Poirot was. How remiss of Ms Christie never to reveal this fact! All these years she led us to believe he came to his conclusions based on his reading of the clues, his ability to see through the red herrings to the facts, the superior power of his little grey cells. Ms Hannah kindly lets us in on the true secret though. Clues are unnecessary. Poirot just knows what has happened. At each stage, as other people flounder to make sense of the plot (well, I certainly did!), Poirot sees straight through to the truth without the need for any pesky evidence or suchlike nonsense. What a gift! Unfortunately not one that makes a detective novel work very well though…

If this book had been written about a detective called Smith, it might have rated maybe three stars. The plot is convoluted, psychologically unconvincing and over-padded. The list of suspects is far too small, meaning that there are no big surprises come the reveal. But the writing style is quite good, some of the characterisation is fine and the descriptions of the places involved in the plot are done reasonably well.

The real Agatha Christie
The real Agatha Christie

BUT…there is a great big ‘Agatha Christie’ on the front of the book, so this should really read like one of hers, shouldn’t it? It doesn’t. From the very beginning Poirot is not right. For a start, he has moved into a lodging house because he wants to escape from his fame for a while and be anonymous. Doesn’t sound like the Poirot I know! Secondly we hear almost nothing about his little foibles – his vanity, his moustaches, his rotundity, his endearingly egg-shaped head, his patent leather shoes. We do get to hear a little about his passion for order but just as a sop. Thirdly he goes about searching rooms and seeking out physical clues like Holmes on an eager day. The real Poirot, as we know, is actually much more interested in the psychology of the crime. Fourthly, when the real Poirot speaks French, he kindly only uses words we’re all going to get without resorting to a French-English dictionary – mais pas ce prétendant. Fifthly, at the end he actually participates in a formal police interview in a police station – but I was past the stage of caring long before then anyway. So I’ll be kind and spare you sixthly, seventhly…etc.

Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah

I saw Sophie Hannah being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel, and she said that she had decided not to try to recreate Christie’s style. So she created a new character, Catchpool, to be the narrator so that he could bring a new voice to the story. I was willing to go along with this idea, though it seemed a shame not to have Hastings along for the ride. But firstly (sorry), Catchpool is extremely annoying. He can’t stand dead bodies, keeps walking away from the investigation, is as thick as a brick and basically hands the entire investigation over to Poirot (mind you, with Poirot’s amazing supernatural abilities, who wouldn’t?). Secondly, he’s struggling not to reveal that he’s gay – that’s never spelled out, but it’s quite clear from the unsubtle hints that are dropped all over the place. Now I know it’s obligatory that every police officer in detective fiction is either gay or drunk these days, or both, (I suppose I should be glad that at least he was sober), but this is supposed to be a Christie-style book. I’m certainly not arguing that all gay men should be portrayed like Mr Pye in The Moving Finger, but the idea of Ms Christie having a gay policeman is frankly ridiculous. And Poirot’s psychic powers let him down on that one, since he seems determined to pair Catchpool off with a nice woman. Thirdly, Catchpool tells the story in the first-person (past tense, thankfully), and yet knows every detail of what happens when he’s not there. So he can describe all of Poirot’s conversations verbatim, tells us when people stand up, sit down, blush, etc. – clearly Poirot’s psychic abilities are catching.

hercule-poirot

The last fifth of the book is taken up with the traditional get-together where Poirot reveals what happened, but it goes on for ever and is mainly just Poirot telling us the whole story, with no reference as to how he came by all these amazing insights. As I said before, he just knows! And considering how silly and unlikely the plot is, that seems beyond miraculous.

I can only say that I sincerely hope there won’t be another of these. If there is, even I will be able to resist the temptation next time. Because now (cue spooky music), FictionFan just knows too

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link