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The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Headline Review, 2006, 213 p One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The Hound of the Baskervilles cover

This takes the usual form of the Sherlock Holmes story. A client comes to Baker Street to enlist Holmes’s help in unravelling a mystery, in this case a Dr Mortimer, friend of the late Sir Charles of that ilk, who relates the legend of the hound of the title, said to be the curse of the Baskervilles and apparently responsible for Sir Charles’s death and seeking Holmes’s protection for the heir, Henry, about to arrive in the country from overseas. After some preliminary shenanigans in London our narrator Dr Watson is packed off to the Devonshire countryside to seek information and act as a kind of bodyguard while Holmes does his thing, supposedly on other cases but in reality following his own path to the answer. Throw in a few red herrings like the light on the moor at night, disguises of various sorts, people who are not who they pretend to be, and the mix is complete.

The attractions of the form are readily apparent. The book is easy to read, comforting (Holmes rarely fails to set the world to rights,) as well as formulaic. It is not, though, literature of the highest quality. The prose never rises above the workmanlike, the characters are little more than stereotypes and it surely appears on that “100 best” list only because Holmes has become so familiar as a cultural reference point.

The piece of dialogue, “‘Interesting, though elementary,’ said he,” incidentally shows that Doyle did put that word into Holmes’s mouth (though without appending to it, “my dear Watson.”) It also illustrates Doyle’s irritating use of “said he” rather than “he said.”

Pedant’s corner:- “If he would, confine his energies to this all would be well” (surely has an extraneous comma,) rosterer (roisterer is the best fit.)

The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid

Harper, 2010, 537 p. First published 1997. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 The Wire in the Blood cover

I have not seem the TV series into which this was adapted so had no preconceptions, nor illusions to be shattered, but it wasn’t long into the novel before I was wondering why it made it onto a list of Scotland’s favourite books. It seemed like a reasonably standard crime (or police procedural) novel with nothing particular to distinguish it. Okay there is a twist in the sense that we are in the midst of a newly set up (and experimental – for the UK) psychological profiling unit but we have the usual coppers reluctant to accept something different from their common practice. Then there were the things that swiftly irritated or grated. We discover who the baddy is in the prologue, pretty well dispelling the suspense and rendering the sections where we learn how he got to be psychopathic less revealing than they might be. Several early sections begin in journalese – the first three are, “Tony Hill lay in bed,” “Shaz Bowman understood perfectly,” “Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan slipped the original out of the photocopier.” With the odd exception this practice is repeated throughout, though perhaps with surnames omitted. Fair enough we are dealing with a range of viewpoints and authors may need to signal who the relevant character is but this way of doing it is, at the least, inelegant. Then there is the fact that in the text no crime is committed till well after page 100, which for a crime novel, I would submit, is lumberingly slow. The sub-plot, about a fire-raiser in East Yorkshire, seemed only to be there to give one of the characters a tenuous connection to the experiences of the profiling expert. And the victims are portrayed as almost asking for their fate – certainly by the killer but also by the police officers investigating (cursorily) their disappearances – which is disconcerting.

Having said that, McDermid does know her tool – language – and deploys it well (only three entries for Pedant’s Corner is remarkable for a book this length) and her plotting was accomplished even if it unravelled a little slowly and the psychopath’s mistake was obvious from the moment it happened (and somewhat unlikely I’d have thought.)

I have read that McDermid modelled her psychopath on Jimmy Savile (brave for the time, and she expected to be taken up on it) but while he is a very well-known TV personality here and does good works in hospitals as a cover, he is also married – albeit in a sham arrangement – and a former Olympic athlete, sufficient divergence I’d have thought for any resemblance to be muted or passed over. (Plus Savile wasn’t a murderer – as far as I know – and could he have taken the risk of litigation? Might that not have signalled his recognition of himself in the portrayal?)

I suppose the main attraction to this sort of thing is the possible insight into the mind of a killer and in particular in this case to the art of psychological profiling but I’ll not be in a hurry to read another McDermid.

Pedant’s Corner:- fit (fitted,) dissemblement (my dictionary gives dissemblance, but states it is rare. In any case inventing words isn’t impermissible.) “‘Play it as it lays.’” (Should be “as it lies” but it was in dialogue and so may have been true to the character.)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Headline Review, 2006, 352 p. First published in 1892. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes cover

Being not much of a fan of crime novels I would not normally have picked this up but it is on that list – it even made the top ten – of Scotland’s favourite books (see link above) of which, having recently ticked off Willa Muir’s Imagined Corners – which is separately among the 100 best Scottish books while this is not – I have worked through all but four now. But it was available at a local Library.

So: how to account for the perennial attraction of these Sherlock Holmes stories? While they are easy to read they are not particularly well-written, being prone to exposition and, taken as a whole, remarkably repetitive in form. Nor are they particularly diverse. Not less than three of the ones here hinge on attempts to thwart possible inheritances. Moreover, our narrator, Dr Watson, is usually not present at the crucial points of an investigation, only for the reveal. And quite often the criminal – or malfeasant, there is not always a crime involved – ends up not being punished.

As to the stories themselves: A Scandal in Bohemia isn’t; either a scandal or set in Bohemia. The Red-headed League is an invented body whose advert is intended to attract applicants for the purposes of diversion from a crime. The perpetrator of the misdemeanour in A Case of Identity is obvious from the moment of its description by the victim. So too from early on is the murderer in The Boscombe Valley Mystery. The Five Orange Pips are the Ku Klux Klan’s equivalent of Treasure Island’s black spot while The Man with the Twisted Lip turns on an ingenious way to make a comfortable living. The Blue Carbuncle is a stolen diamond that ends up in the crop of a Christmas goose. The Speckled Band is a tale of murder by unusual means. The Engineer’s Thumb is barely a mystery at all. The Noble Bachelor’s bride does a bunk almost as soon as the wedding ceremony is over but Holmes soon divines why. The Beryl Coronet is a piece of jewellery entrusted to a banker as security for a loan and part of which is subsequently stolen while in his care. The banker’s dissolute son is given the blame until Holmes gets on the case. Once again the true perpetrator (or at least one of them) is not hard to pick out. The Copper Beeches is the house to which a governess is invited to work but there are odd conditions attached to the post.

Well, I can now say I’ve read Doyle’s Holmes (two years ago I reviewed for Interzone one of James Lovegrove’s homages) but I can’t say I’m keen to repeat the experience. The Hound of the Baskervilles, though, is on that 100 best list. I suppose I can always hope Doyle is better at novel length.

Pedant’s corner:- hurrah for encyclopædias! Otherwise – The King of Scandinavia (there is no such person; but I suppose Conan Doyle did not wish to name actual royalty.) “‘The form do so when the security is good,’” (ought to be “does so” but it was in direct speech,) shrunk (shrank.)

Superposition by David Walton

Pyr, 2015, 302 p.

 Superposition cover

Told in alternating chapters headed Up-Spin and Down-Spin – until the text’s narration merges in Chapter 40 – Superposition is an exploration of quantum theory and how it might manifest in the macroscopic world if its effects were to apply there. At the same time it is a crime story with a murder at its heart. The victim, Brian Vanderhall, was a physicist who has managed to find a way to interact with creatures from the quantum world, using their knowledge to build a Higgs projector, which can locally alter the Higgs field, thus allowing bullets, for example, to be fired at an object and pass around it, plus various other might-as-well-be-magic occurrences.

The Up-Spin chapters see Jacob Kelley relating the events surrounding the crime and its aftermath, the Down-Spin ones depict Kelley’s trial for the murder. At first the chapters are set at different times but they eventually become contemporaneous. Irruptions from the quantum world have meant that two sets of Kelley – and some other characters – can exist at one time, their probability functions supposedly spread out (superposed) in the manner of sub-atomic particles. Quite how this squares with there only being two – or at most three – versions of each is left unexplained, or, more charitably, a form of artistic licence.

As might be imagined there is a plethora of information dumping and explanation. For this, handy non-Physics-knowledgeable characters provide useful sounding boards. While necessary, these explanations do tend to the obtrusive and there are occasional other narrative infelicities.

The back-cover blurb from William Hertling, “Walton’s captivating writing will draw you in, the murder mystery will keep you reading and you’ll finish with a better understanding of quantum physics,” is wrong on all three counts. Walton’s writing is up to the task but rarely more than workmanlike, the murder mystery is the least of the attractions and the last will only apply if you didn’t know anything about it already. (Arguably even if you do. As Niels Bohr said, anyone who isn’t profoundly shocked by quantum physics hasn’t understood it.) The text also betrays some unreconstructed ideas about both the triggering of female sexual arousal and maternal instinct. The plot depends for its continuation on the lack of collapse of the probability functions of both Kelley and his daughter Alex/Alessandra yet other characters not so necessary to it revert to the one form relatively quickly.

In addition Walton represents the “split” characters as mirror images of each other. Down-Spin Kelley – and one version of daughter Alex – have been active throughout. They will require to have eaten during this time. Like most other biological molecules carbohydrates, fats and proteins are compounds which are chiral (ie exhibit handedness – all in the same sense.) A mirror image body would not be able to metabolise food molecules inverse to it (the only ones available) since its relevant processing enzymes work only with the correct handedness, and hence it would starve. This is not a problem Roger Zelazny avoided in his novel Doorways in the Sand: he addressed it straight on. Walton doesn’t even seem to be aware of it.

Superposition is an entertaining enough tale – the courtroom scenes are well realised, if familiar from countless screen dramas. And it does fulfil the function of the detective novel. If you want a primer on quantum Physics dressed up as crime fiction this is the book for you.

Pedant’s corner:- “firmly established liver mortis” (liver mortis? Not rigor mortis?) “It wasn’t until I walked around one of the card tables that I saw him.” (saw the body, rather than “him” would have had more impact,) “‘What it doing?’” (What’s,) “the stream was still projecting, a show about the real-life exploits of…” (no comma,) “like an auctioneer valuating items for sale” (USian can be so ugly at times; the word is valuing,) “and a hanging model of the super collider hanging above our heads” (well, a hanging model can only hang, can’t it?) imposter (impostor,) “each of them wavered between themselves and their double” (their doubles.) “But hadn’t Elena and Claire and Sean had already resolved…?” (omit “had”.)

Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg

Titan Hard Case Crime, 2012, 213 p. Content first published in 1959, 1960 and 1962.

 Blood on the Mink cover

The author is my second favourite writer of SF and I read this one for the sake of completeness. Silverberg is not widely known for his crime novels but he knocked a few out in the last dying days of the pulp era when that market for Science Fiction had dried up. Pulp crime was not long in following but that wasn’t Silverberg’s fault. He is incapable of writing anything that is less than readable but this has the vices of its idiom in its lack of ornamentation, of its time in its casual sexism and of its place in an equally casual attitude to the use of guns.

Narrator Nick is a law enforcement agent whose speciality is in subduing his own identity and impersonating less major criminals in order to get to the main players. The plot involves the distributor of very good forgeries of five and ten dollars bills and the discovery and release from bondage of the engraver who made the plates for their manufacture. None of the characters lifts beyond the functional – or typical – but the plot is well-honed and provides the action its intended readership presumably craved.

The two accompanying short stories used to pad out this paperback are from the same era and in similar vein. Dangerous Doll riffs on the counterfeiting game and, as its title suggests, features a femme fatale, while One Night of Violence sees a travelling salesman get caught up in a gangland shootout. In this story I did wonder what on earth the “video set” in a late 1950s hotel lobby might have been.

Pedant’s corner:- bollixed (the British “bollocksed” is much to be preferred,) Klaus’ (Klaus’s, several instances,) Chavez’ (Chavez’s, ditto,) a missing full stop, Kleinjeld (elsewhere always Kleinfeld.)
Plus points for fitted – USian fiction usually has fit as a past tense.

Garnethill by Denise Mina

Orion, 2014, 427 p.

One of the 100 best Scottish Books. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 Garnethill cover

Maureen O’Donnell is an abuse survivor in a relationship with a psychiatrist at the same hospital where she is receiving treatment for her continuing trauma. After a night out with a friend she tumbles straight into bed and wakes up in the morning to find her (married) boyfriend tied up in her living room with his throat slit. The police, the man’s wife and politician mother all believe Maureen, or her drug dealing brother, did it. In an attempt to make sure her name is cleared Maureen begins to investigate the crime herself.

The proximal subject matter, sexual abuse in institutions, is an important issue but I am astonished that this book could appear on anyone’s list of best or favourites as Mina’s writing leaves a lot to be desired. There is a profusion of telling not showing plus acres of unconvincing dialogue. Chapter titles tend to be people’s names but quite often those people barely appear within them. Every time there is a police interview we are told about the tape recording protocol. It is as if Mina believes the reader must be shown every little detail of her hero’s experience. We really don’t. In what must surely be a breach of police good practice one of the investigating officers conveniently gives her privileged information.

The novel is set in Glasgow but the city itself seems absent. None of its vibrancy or character comes across. Also there are constant references to the Byres Road, the Great Western Road, the Maryhill Road. No Glaswegian I have met has ever mentioned a street by name and used the definite article. It’s always just Byres Road, Great Western Road, Maryhill Road. No “the”.

Yes, the purpose of this sort of thing is the unfolding of the plot and the unravelling of “whodunit” and in this respect it just about meets the need. Yet even here there was a hiccup. Quite near the novel’s end Maureen is told the name of the murderer by one of her interviewees but Mina does not let the reader know it at that point. I don’t read much crime fiction but I would submit such an attempt to prolong suspense artificially is unfair on the reader. (That the murderer’s identity could be worked out fairly easily vitiated that attempt in any case.)

The more the book progressed the harder my suspension of disbelief became. Towards the end I wasn’t believing any of it.

Moreover the book is riddled with punctuation errors (see Pedant’s corner.) The edition I read was a reprint; the latest of numerous editions. (Goodreads lists well over ten.) How can these errors not have been spotted and rooted out long before this? Does no-one care about quality control? Some might say these are niggling concerns but when they stop a reader in his/her tracks and force a line, sentence or paragraph to be re-read to decipher the sense it becomes non-trivial.

This one is for die-hard crime fans only.

Pedant’s corner:- cagoul (cagoule,) no start quote mark for a piece of dialogue (x 9,) a missing full stop (x 7,) for badness’ sake (badness’s, x 2,) butt naked (I believe the phrase is buck naked,) a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) snuck (please use sneaked instead of snuck,) smokey (smoky,) “really don’t want to tell you” (I really don’t want to tell you,) “for implicately slagging her mammy” (implicitly,) the team are known (is known,) teathings (tea things,) Germoline (Germolene.)

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2003, 300 p. One of both the 100 best Scottish Books and Scotland’s favourite books.

The Cutting Room cover

A narrator known only as Rilke – I don’t believe we are ever vouchsafed his given name – is an auctioneer and valuer for a struggling auction house in Glasgow. He receives a call to inspect the contents of a house for clearance and complete the sale quickly. The contents consist of good stuff and could save the auction house’s finances. In its attic there are rare first editions of notorious books but he is asked by the deceased’s heir – an elderly sister – to destroy them. Amongst them Rilke finds some disturbing photographs which appear to show the murder of a young woman. Intrigued by this mystery he spends most of the book trying to investigate the photographs’ origins instead of looking after the house-clearance. This brings him into closer contact with the shady side of Glasgow life than is healthy before the mystery is resolved.

The Cutting Room is written with a literary sensibility, is full of well-drawn characters and has many fine descriptive passages. While it does yield the satisfaction that detective/crime fiction provides it goes beyond that. It is a novel, pure and simple. (Well, actually not that pure – and not really simple either.) And Rilke is an unusual protagonist for a crime novel. As a debut novel I found it more accomplished than Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses and James Oswald’s Natural Causes. I’ll be reading more from Welsh.

Pedant’s corner:- the Great Western Road (I’ve only ever heard this referred to as Great Western Road; no definite article,) each others eyes (each others’ eyes,) burglarised (No! The word is burgled,) two missing end [and one beginning] quotation marks, our monthly sail (sale,) “in a herd that shook the ground with the weight of their hooves” (leave aside the fact that herd is singular so it should be its hooves, it isn’t the hooves’ weight that shakes the ground, it’s the buffaloes’,) thrupney bits (yes that corruption of threepenny was pronounced that way, but it was always spelled thruppenny,) asshole (arsehole,) a boy had watched “the first moon launch”, dedicated himself to space exploration, twenty years later became an astronaut, only to vomit copiously the whole time in mission after mission; his “hermetically sealed sick bags still orbit the moon” (that would be “the first moon landing” not launch, plus; the last orbit of the moon was in 1972, only three years – not twenty – after the first. Those sick bags might be in Earth orbit but would be nowhere near the Moon.) “Other ungodly titles lesbian are known by” (lesbians; but it was in a pamphlet, these are notoriously misspelled,) “aren’t I?” (Grrr! The speaker is Scottish; she would say “amn’t I?”,) shtoom (usually spelled schtum or shtum,) “I was coming warn you” (coming to warn you,) the Ukraine (the speaker is Ukrainian; they just say Ukraine, no “the”,) medieval.

Murder at the Loch by Eric Brown

Severn House, 2016, 208 p.

 Murder at the Loch cover

If you want an example of how character can be established with economy look no further. Brown does this with facility. Witness how much we learn about Gabriel Gordon from the reactions of Sophie, living in an artists’ commune in London, to Maria Dupré seeking him out. This, in the third of Brown’s Langham and Dupré mysteries, is in part of the narrative where Maria is looking into Gordon’s background while Don Langham is investigating an attempted murder at a hotel in the Scottish Highlands. Langham’s wartime comrade, private detective Ralph Ryland, enlisted his aid when their wartime commanding officer Major Gordon, who now owns the hotel, called for assistance after he and a guest were shot at while they were involved in work on a project to raise the wreck of a German Dornier aeroplane which had crash landed in the nearby loch in February 1945.

The inhabitants of the hotel, not only Gabriel Gordon but also Hungarian emigré Renata Káldor, the German Ulrich Meyer – an expert on World War 2 aircraft – a Professor Hardwick (who is delving into the hotel’s history of paranormal phenomena) and Major Gordon’s ward Elspeth Stuart (with whom Gabriel had a fling before the Major put a stop to it) provide plenty of scope for suspicion.

The splitting of Langham and Dupré is a device Brown has employed before and is a useful tool when background information has to be sought from different locations many miles apart. It also handily allows both to be placed in jeopardy separately. Here the fifties setting yields a benefit to raising tension in that communication between the pair has to be by an unreliable telephone connection. The book also sees the welcome return of Langham’s literary agent, Charles Elder, released from jail, where he made a new friend. (It remains to be seen whether this will be a wise liaison.)

This isn’t quite a locked room mystery (though a winter snow storm makes it more or less a hotel in lock-down one.) However, the actual murder when it occurs – with which another years previously is connected – comes close to the classic scenario. And there is nothing gratuitous here. Brown adheres pretty closely to the template and feel of the stories he is echoing. If at times his Langham and Dupré mysteries may seem to have a soft edge that isn’t necessarily a drawback. Those fifties crime stories were primarily entertainment and still are.

Pedant’s corner:- Inverness is described as a “little town.” In the 1950s? “Soon they were tooling along,” (tootling?) “economical with the truth” (in dialogue – but was it in use in the 1950s?) “a crack at the Bosch!” (Boche,) “a Hungarian who had fled her homeland when the Nazis invaded” (I think the Nazis already had a presence there and so took over rather than invaded, but they certainly occupied the country in an attempt to prevent it changing sides as Romania had just done,) jerry-rigged (jury-rigged,) Camus’ (Camus’s,) “it appeared as first glance” (at,) primeval (I prefer primaeval,) “She said It was unlikely” (insert quote marks or make “it” lower case,) of the Loch Corraig Castle (of Loch Corraig Castle,) “drawing is revolver” (his.) Plus sixteen instances of “time interval later” (but two of these were in dialogue and another two not very glaring.) Also one “within minutes.”

Murder at the Chase by Eric Brown

Severn House, 2014, 214 p.

 Murder at the Chase cover

The second of Brown’s Langham and Dupré stories this one promises to be a locked room mystery but the locking is cleared up very quickly. Donald Langham’s acquaintance Edward Endicott is the one who has disappeared. His son, Alasdair fears he has been harmed as he had fallen under the influence of a man claiming to be Victorian Satanist Vivian Stafford.

Retracing the possible path along which Endicott’s dog returned, Lanham, Dupré and former Hollywood actress Caroline Dequincy come upon a body. It is not Endicott’s though, but Stafford’s. The web of connections Brown then constructs involves most of the leading characters. I note here the appearance of artist, Haverford Dent, not the first time an artist has appeared in Brown’s fiction. The unwinding of the circumstances leading to Stafford’s murder and to the death of the local village’s vicar, Marcus Denbigh, involves a lot of toing and froing – not to mention sipping of pints. The hesitancies of the relationship between Langham and Dupré do take up quite a bit of the book’s time, though.

Though there are some sharp edges Brown again emulates well the cosiness of the classic detective story. However, a few of his characters seem more free-minded than might perhaps be expected of his 50s setting.

Pedant’s corner:- A “time interval later” count of 33 plus one instance of “a little later.”
“The bells of the neighbouring churchyard peeled” (that should be pealed – which was used for the same bells further into the book,) medieval, “the latter forbore the attention” (“bore the attention” makes more sense,) vol-au-vents (I still think the plural should be vols-aux-vents; I’m obviously in the minority here,) “aware of the sadness in actress’s words” (the actress’s words,) I thought there was a continuity error when Langham says to Maria “On top of the brandy?” – she’d been drinking only tonic water previously, registry office (Register office,) “Her smiled faltered” (smile,) veniality, (this means easily excused or forgiven; pardonable: I think venality, the condition or quality of being venal; openness to bribery or corruption was intended,) curb (kerb.)

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