Category: Writers we like

Authors We Like—Christopher Nugent re-reads Agatha Christie

I have a soft spot for Agatha Christie. Our life-spans only overlap by about 12 years, and she started publishing when most of my grandparents were still small children, so she is hardly a contemporary writer. And she is regarded a little ambiguously now, a popular writer of an earlier era, and like many of the greats, now so familiar that her influence seems almost like reverse plagiarism. I’ve never been any good with Whodunnits, and part of the pleasure of reading back in the last few weeks (The ABC Murders, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot Investigates and The Murder on The Links) was the haziness of thirty-some years of distance from the first time reading and having very vague idea that All Was Not As it Seems, without really getting much a nudge and I was just as useless with the clues as previously. I would never have been a huge consumer of Christie, not of whodunnits in general, being more a thriller reader. Bear in mind my reactions here a mostly as a reader rather than as a rival writer 🙂

The ABC Murders

I was totally foxed. I vaguely remembered that Mr ABC was probably not the murderer. I had totally forgotten that Captain Hastings had moved to South America and wondered vaguely why his wife hadnt come back to England with him. The book is slick and fast and very practiced and the explanation was as usual a bit far-fetched. But then thrillers dont exactly cling to realism that much either so I cant throw stones. One thing that did strike me as it did when I first read it many years ago, is that there were a couple of times when Christie forgot that she was writing as a man and wrote Hastings too feminine. As before, I couldnt put my finger on this and will have fun tracking down the offending passages. As usual the badinage between Hastings and Poirot is the most enjoyable part of the book (You should be in a nudist colony Poirot says, rather shockingly for the time, when Hastings says he doesnt really notice what people are wearing)

The Mysterious Affair At Styles

A totally astonishing performance for a young pharmacy assistant with only a couple of sock-drawer novels under her belt. Was it really her first effort at a whodunnit? It is a very accomplished novel. I couldn’t follow the clues again. A few things stand out, in his first appearance, Hercule Poirot is described as being an old gentleman already with a limp, which is remarkable as he will be crime-busting from 1917 or so up to about 1975 if I remember correctly. However this is a problem a lot of authors of popular series have and don’t solve (no pun intended) very successfully. Spencer is frozen as a very fit forty-something despite having been in the Korean war, and Elvis Cole and Joe Pike similarly never aged beyond about 1986.

We never do find out how he knows Arthur Hastings, or what exactly he was in the Belgian police (presumably in a part of Belgium overrun by the Germans as he is a refugee in the English countryside). This doesn’t matter exactly right here, but in a long running series it could really have been fleshed out at some stage.

Interestingly in this book Hastings is plain Mr Hastings, no rank, despite the fact that WWI is raging in the background and you would have thought that he would be flashing his rank around to show that he wasn’t a profiteer or Conshie (ok Conshie is probably a WWII term for conscientious objector but the question as to why most of the other men of military age in the book don’t have to justify their non-combat status either, its a bit weird. Maybe people were just so sick of The Great War that they didn’t mind at the time, and that later on it became important for Hastings to have a rank.) Here, Hastings as narrator is pitch perfect as the stuffy block-headed male he should be, obtuse to clues and susceptible to romantic notions about beautiful ladies. He seems to have been insurance before the war and seems to be about thirty, which makes him a surprisingly young friend for Poirot who is presumably over 65. For now.

Presumably my lack of cultural background on the Whodunnit and English Edwardian country house high-society life are both telling against me here, but some of the social nuances were probably totally lost on me. Was the house-keeper/companion rather mannish and would this have been suggestive at the time, enough to help throw off any possible alliance with her cousin the murderer, while suggesting a motive for her having developed an otherwise unlikely dislike of him?

And was it really believable that there were no matches in the house for destroying incriminating letters but there was petrol for cars? The Germans were sinking all the oil tankers, but the match factories would have been on land.

Anyway, straight away from the off, the main enjoyment for me was the interaction between Hastings and Poirot, immediately the pattern and patter of the block-headed would-be sleuth and his bantering mentor is established, I haven’t read Holmes for a while but I suspect Hastings of being dimmer and less humble than poor Doctor Watson.

Poirot Investigates

An agreeable collection of short stories, fast fun to read, not too demanding, simpler and after a while even a Hastings-like dumb-bell like myself gets into the rhythm and vague recollections of long ago reading and the common structure of most of the ‘mysteries’ make them easy enough to guess. But the banter between Poirot and Hastings makes it all rattle along very enjoyably.

The Murder on the Links

I hardly remembered reading this one at all, and certainly not it being hard work. Certainly the weakest of the early novels I think, the plot is far-fetched in its convolutions and Hastings is dimmer and almost insufferable as a narrator and everything seems to be drawn out to the requisite length, it could have been thirty or more pages shorter, something you will not have seen me say about Styles. In fact, I found myself wondering as I closed the book, was it actually an early work than Styles, only published later? I found Hastings a little less convincing as well as irritating. And Poirot was so rejuvenated that he climbed a tree at the end of the book to attempt to stop a murder. Nice going for a over 65 guy with a bad leg don’t you think? What a writer might forget in the heat of the moment eh. Still some interestingly modern stuff – vigorous woman murderer, not afraid of physical violence, and a plucky female acrobat also. How the murderer ends up accidentally dead handily avoids certain tidying up, and everybody has botox-stiff upper lips as they dont even turn a hair at this turn of events. Eve3n as cosy mysteries go, this was all a little too cosy, As was the queue of people willing to volunteer to confess to the murder and risk a sentence of death by beheading in france, Again the Poirot -Hastings banter was the joy of the book.

Apparently AC in later life grew very tired of Poirot – this was probably because with Hastings off in South America or whatever, there was no suitable foil for Poirot and instead of altering his character to accommodate this change of circumstance and dynamic, she continued to make him insufferable and tired of the joke, which of course was no longer a joke anyway without Hastings. Hamlet without the prince and all that.

I haven’t read much of Miss Marple and would be keen to move on to reading her.

Books We Like, Dennis Drayton on Wolf’s Head by JK Mayo

I think I read only three of J.K. Mayo’s thrillers, admittedly there were not many more,  apparently he was a Scottish newspaper columnist or editor who wrote novels in his spare time.  Reviewers, and not just me, consider Wolf’s Head to be his his best book. So good at the time I first read it that I thought it was Gavin Lyall writing under a psuedonym. It has a few continuity errors, as in Harry Seddall’s when hot girl assistant Sorrel Blake (echo of Modesty Blaize– although similarly she doesn’t come across as an adornment or anything so old hat) goes from having blue eyes to brown,  something that I had not noticed before but I remembered as one or the other and was confused in the re-read. Colonel Sedall himself, is an out of condition old soldier perhaps in his fifties — something I didn’t realise reading it as a young un. But now re-reading as somebody also over 50 (gulp) I found his relationship with the (presumably twenty-something) French waitress a bit bizarre and probably mostly wish-fulfillment on the part of an over fifty out of condition author. Anyway, the plot is that long. long before this sort of thing became common, a British government minister is mysteriously murdered and beheaded by persons unknown, and trouble shooter Colonel Harry Sedall and his team get on the case, fake a car accident to cover up the murder and get on the trail of a baroque SAS/CIA/Government mission gone wrong where the sole survivor is avenging himself on all involved. Harry Sedall was so alike in function to Gavin Lyall’s Major Maxim that as I said, I thought it might be the same author. But perhaps the sort of genre was already emerging  even if it was new to me — it has the team, the veteran older officer with some younger assistants – which might have been a template by the early nineteen eighties, it was certainly used by Colin Forbes in his Tweed books (which I could never get into for some reason, they won’t be the ones in my books I like series) and later in Jack Higgins’s Fergusson/Dillon books (which I also tired of very fast). In more recent times the whole “spy/special forces type team investigate mystery/political dangerous shennanigans” has definitely become a sub-genre of its own so this book probably counts an early example. It is great fun if a bit gruesome (for the time) and the suspense keeps you going even if the pay-off is messy and inconclusive, but then it is a Cold War thriller. It’s hard to not give spoilers as not much happens really, there is action and sex, though mostly behind the scenes, and the main mystery is why anyone, let alone a special forces type, would want to kill a boring old government minister. But its worth reading for Sedall’s world-weariness and Sorrel’s perkiness — she’s not a modern type female kick-ass heroine, but she’s not a Bond girl either.

Writers we like #4: Christopher Nugent on Patrick O’Brian

You will note that the name of this series is “Writer we like” not necessarily love, or recommend. And not everyone is going to necessarily love Patrick O’Brian’s work. He is not an easy read, although some people describe his style as very modern, he uses quite a lot of pre-Jane Austen turns of phrase which are demanding and even boring for the causal reader. But you know, the long title could be “Writers we like that you might not but are interesting to check out”.

 

When C.S.  Forrester died, his publishers were looking around for a snappy young author to replace him, and this O’Brian guy had written a couple of similar books so they decided to try him. And it was a big fail as we say now. So the original publishers dropped the series but a different publisher kept it going and over time the readership grew.

“Lucky” Jack Aubrey is a happy-go-lucky Royal Navy officer in approximately the year 1805.  I don’t remember if we are ever told directly but he is perhaps thirty years of age at the start of the series, waiting for command of his own small warship, and through an unfortunate disagreement at a concert, he meets and challenges to a duel the borderline autistic Dr Stephen Maturin, a French-Irish medical doctor with a bad temper who we presume is about the same age.  Instead of fighting a duel as originally intended, the occasion of Jack’s appointment to command a vessel results in their polite patching up of differences and acknowledging their shared love of music. And so they become friends for life. This is all done in a witty and sometimes humorous manner which again may put some readers off. For instance, in one of the later books, Dr Maturin misses the start of a cricket match due to a spying mission and comes back in time for his turn to bat. He assumes that he is playing a variation of the Irish game of hurling, with comically disastrous results. As the series develops it covers a lot of ground, there is much naval jargon and talk of parts of ships that anybody not used to sailing boats will be baffled by, but also interesting facts on the development or science and medicine of those times. And much discussion of music. Also remarkable is the recreation of the claustrophobic and self-contained world of the sailing ship at sea. This artful but artificial recreation of a bygone time is somewhat similar to what Georgette Heyer did, in bringing Jane Austen into the twentieth century.

I have read nearly all of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series , but to date I have only re-read “The Wine Red Sea” which I originally read first and it actually reads better in its approximately correct place in the sequence .

I am not un-critical of the series, I really enjoyed the first eight books or so but I think, and I speak as a reader firstly here, that the quality of the stories drops off slowly but increasingly from “Clarrssa Oakes” onwards. It may just be that the story-lines were not to my taste, but I felt the series crested around “The Surgeon’s Mate” where the original story question of “Will Maturin ever get a clue or  will he marry Diana Villiers?” is partly of answered and one of the continuing elements is tied up, and the end of the “Ionian Mission” felt like the end of something too.

If you want an amazingly level of detail, a great write up is Jo Walton’s re-read (http://www.tor.com/features/series/re-reading-patrick-obrians-aubrey-maturin-series/) over at the excellent Tor books web site

Writers We Like #3: Dennis Drayton on Jack Higgins

Last time I mentioned how the publication of “East of Desolation” marked the ascent of not-so-new author Jack Higgins. I think if I may say so myself, that it was a total fan-boy rave. As I said “Yes I was proud to be a Jack Higgins fan-boy back in the day.  I eventually … tracked down many of his psuedonyms so that I could keep reading more and more Higgins…”

Truly for quite a few years I couldn’t get enough Jack Higgins. By the eighties, his publishers were coyly admitting that Harry Patterson was Jack Higgins and vice versa, but I went further and discovered that he was also James Graham. By that time his various other earlier pen-names had been tidied up, but the Grahams were still in the library in their original guise. I not only wanted to read Higgins, I wanted to become a writer in the same style.

However, as with many a torrid love affair, eventually I suffered from Jack Higgins poisoning. It was a slow enough process, but times and people and tastes changed, and me and Jack diverged. At which point I began to notice more strongly The Dark Side of Jack Higgins (pun intended, he has several books with titles beginning “The Dark Side of …”)

I particularly devoured and still think uncritically of the “middle period” Jack Higgins of “The Eagle Has Landed” up to (but not including) “The Eagle has Flown” period.

There is the “early” or pre-Higgins, some of which I didn’t care for at all (“Testament of Caspar Schulz”,  I’m looking at paint-by-the-numbers you)

And the  “late-early” Higgins which I would rate it just below the “mid” and above the “late” period books. The James Graham books are pretty strong.

Then we have the  Dillon-Fegusson series and this is where the divergence occurs. I think from looking at Amazon reviews that there is a dividing line and that Jack Higgins is an acquired taste, partly  because he has been so prolific that being a fan of some of his books doesn’t mean being a fan of all – for instance a lot of people seem to be fans of Dillon-Fergusson series and not of the earlier books and in my case I would be the opposite. I enjoyed Thunder Point particularly for it being The Testament of Caspar Schulz done right, but for the most part I find them facile, the few that I read before giving up on them —I never really understood or believed in Dillon’s transformation from renegade Irish Terrorist to committed British Secret Agent.

But even with the books I loved, I began to notice his penchant for sticking in some black and white movie cliches and even whole  plots seem to be lifted from noir-period movies, which haven’t dated as much as the movies themselves it’s true, but it gets irritating after the first ten go-rounds,

Also he has  re-used and recycled characters, character names and whole plots with a bewildering frequency that you can pretty much guarantee there will be somebody called Kelso, or Steiner, a small dark man (swiped from the author of The Quiet Man, which is another post), bar fights ended by somebody shooting the ceiling. Nazi paratroopers, Irish terrorists etc etc

And in the later books, especially since Dillon became a plot machine, that the distinct voices of the characters has been lost and everybody speaks exactly the same way, like in a Joss Wheedon movie. They have got witter too, like the characters in a Joss Wheedon movie.

So, having read maybe fifty of them, I have ‘nt read a new one for maybe fifteen years, but I do dip back into the old ones to recapture the magic from time to time and see if it’s still there. And usually it is.

 

 

Writers We Like #2: Dennis Drayton on Edgar Rice Burroughs

Yes, the Tarzan guy. He hardly seems worth mentioning because Tarzan is, or at least was, so famous for so long. But you never know, I only read one of the books in high school and never followed up.

Recently I discovered that many of his works are available for free on Project Gutenberg.

I have caught up on many years of neglect by reading four of the John Carter/Barsoom books and four of the Tarzan books. For anyone who really doesnt know, Barsoom is Mars with people living on it and John Carter is a Confederate officer who ends up teleporting to Mars by some unspecified technology of wish-fulfilment – Mr Burroughs was more of a fantasy than a science fiction writer. There was a movie based on these recently which failed probably because so many of the ideas had been recycled by Star Wars and other fantasy and science fiction franchises in the intervening 100 plus years. Be warned, familiarity may breed contempt or confusion.

I think the books stand up very well for their age. The dialogue and social attitudes are a bit eye-rolling a hundred years on, and many of the situations are so absurd as to be comical. Even in Tarzan, things happen by co-incidence, not once but up to three times in a row – ships are taken over by drunken sailors who murder or maroon their passengers. In the exact same place that it happened to Tarzan’s parents. Where Tarzan’s parents were marooned. And where he swims back to in a later book having been thrown off a passing ship. But the books really rattle along and the action scenes may pull you right in and make you forget the overall ridiculousness. In the second era of Fake News (then being the first) it is easy to see how serious people would have been dismayed, but if you take it as all good fun (sadly naked princesses of Mars still seems to have a grip on the imagination of the spec-fic community) then it could be well worth your time. The Barsoom books have entertaining hand-wavy technology that now seems steam-punk, and Tarzan may sometimes strike you as a fore-runner of more modern toff action heroes.

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