Saturday, 3 December 2011

Reviews - Arthur and George and Detection Unlimited

NaNoWriMo 2011 is over, and I am officially a winner. Phew, look at that handsome purple colour on my stats. It was actually - strange as this is to admit - not that difficult to do. Maybe I write too much. Now that I'm done, though, I'm wondering what I'm I supposed to do with all my extra time I have. Leisure! What is it? I feel like a medieval scribe on day release.

Anyway, the final part of my November was busyness as usual. I did an interview with the talented and most interesting Polarbear - whose latest show finishes on the 3rd, but whom you should keep an eye out for in the future. He's a very nice guy and I only blanked out and said UM while I was talking to him once. Or maybe twice.

The Literary Review's Bad Sex Award shortlist 2011 has also been announced! Oh joy, oh happiness, oh crowning moment of my year. My personal favourite The Blue Book didn't make the cut (read my review of it for some choice examples of why I thought it should have), but there's some pretty choice stuff all the same. I've written an article about it for Litro (and for the record, I'm now backing David Guterson's Ed King. It's - wow. Just wow.)

And on to the reviews. This week's theme appears to be detective fiction (which is never far away, for me. I've got a bit of a thing for it, and when I start my dissertation in a few months' time you are all going end up SICK of me talking about crime and detection and people doing gruesome things to each other in barns and privies and country manors). The two books in question are from two writers who came at the concept of writing a mystery novel from two very different perspectives, and with - I think - varying degrees of success.

First up is Julian Barnes's Arthur and George. Admission time: this has been on my shelf for years. My mother bought it for me when it first came out, and with typical fifteen-year-old insularity I didn't see why I should bother with a book about people who didn't even have last names. So I ignored it until last week, when a friend informed me that it was a crime novel in disguise. I read it immediately.

It turns out that both Arthur and George do have last names, one of which is a very famous last name indeed. I'm not going to spoil it for you (although I was told myself) because there's a very nice little oh! moment when you realise who it is you've been reading about. In fact, who Arthur and George both are turns out to matter just as much, and both of their identities are central to the direction of the plot. It's a very clever bit of narrative engineering from Barnes.

At the heart of Arthur and George is the retelling of the story of a real-life late-Victorian trial (again, I'm not telling you which one, although if I did I doubt you'd be enlightened - this has slipped very much out of the frame of general knowledge, one of the reasons why Barnes has picked up on it). Barnes uses a brilliant mixture of detailed research and sensitive imagination to write an account of the crime and its consequences that feels both compelling and real. What he's got to tell is fascinating, if awful - an account of spectacular police bungling and a terrible miscarriage of justice - and the first 200 pages or so had me completely gripped.

From there, though, things got a bit more murky in terms of enjoyment. Arthur and George is one of those books in which, by the middle of the text, the main event has already taken place . It always strikes me as a very bad idea, structurally, because no matter how well you write, what you've got to say after this point is essentially the world's longest postscript. And so it is here. After the trial, Arthur and George suffers a crisis of identity. Is it about the life of a great man? Is it an examination of a religious movement? Is it the story of an affair? Is it a crusade for justice? It's all of those things to some extent, but none of them are enough to give it focus and direction.

Now, it's possible that I feel this way because I was sold Arthur and George as a crime novel. Crime novels are expected to snap along like nobody's business, whereas the mood of this book is far more restrained and introspective. All the same, I'm not sure if Barnes is technically accomplished enough to convey all the insight he's trying to pack in in lieu of plot. He's at his best when he's describing events, not musing on human nature.

Arthur and George was clever and interesting, and I definitely enjoyed it more than anything else I picked up for the first time last month. But all the same, it has its flaws, which are enough for me to give it a

3.5 stars.
Next, we've got Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer. These days, Heyer's more famous for her Regency romances - and, in fact, I only had the dimmest notion that she wrote crime novels too until I was reminded of it by long-time fan and fellow blogger Desperate Reader. 

Detection Unlimited is a murder mystery very much in the tradition of the English Golden Age, a froth of high artifice and extraordinarily impossible circumstance, what Raymond Chandler describes in his (brilliantly jaded) essay 'The Simple Art of Murder' as 

the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests.

It's one of those books that you have to accept on its own terms, otherwise you'll go mad from plotholes and the sort of trickery-for-its-own-sake that 99% of actual human beings couldn't dream up in fifty years even with a gun (or a solid platinum poignard) being held to their throat. It's fun enough, it's ridiculous enough and at the denouement it's revealed that Heyer was playing a much bolder and more interesting hand of cards than I thought she was.

All the same, though, I had what can politely be described as Problems with it during my reading. While a mannered writing style is expected and to some extent even required, I'm not sure there is a book in existance that needs to use the word 'besought' to indicate speech more than three times. In fact, I think that once is one time too many. Heyer's detective, Inspector Hemingway, also caused me a lot of concern. Most Golden Age detectives have characteristics that give a modern reader serious pause in their attitude to those human beings unfortunate enough to be poor, odd or foreign, but Hemingway does it with such blissful license and obvious intention of being incredibly light-hearted and funny that he makes Josephine Tey's fearsome bigot Inspector Grant look like Albert Schweitzer.

It's ironic - and telling - that Inspector Hemingway bears a very close resemblance to the (real-life) Inspector in Barnes's novel whose insularity and narrow-mindedness ruins George's life. Inspector Anson decides that the schoolboy George is 'not a right sort', and from then on there's nothing George can do done to save himself. Similarly, when Hemingway hears that there's a Pole involved in the case he judges him before he even sets eyes on him (although as Not Guilty - in Hemingway's bemusing universe Poles are infuriating but totally irrelevant). In fact, everyone who is not upper class and in possession of at least a nice little historic red-brick in town does not matter in the slightest, nor are they suspects in the case - even though we're never really told why they should be so definitely ruled out. Hemingway works on whim and caprice, and though it's presented as a joke it feels at the very least like dangerously bad police work.

There's just a lack of logic here, a skipping over from A to G without any basis for the leap, and I ended up feeling completely swallowed up by the gaping plot holes that Heyer barely even bothers to paper over. I can't give it more than

2 stars.

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