Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category

Wilkie Collins – The Woman In White

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

One of my goals while exploring the world of books is reading the classics of literature. I don’t aim to read all of them because some  simply turn out not to my liking. So if I have tried at least one famous novel of an acclaimed author I am satisfied enough as I am able to express my opinion on its nature as a classic. One branch of classics, which is a bit more obscure, is reading those novels which created a new genre or subgenre in literature. Of course such definitions are prone to discussion as literature always goes through different stages of development. Novels can be denoted as partially creating a new genre so one defining line would be that a whole novel is intentionally written to be in the new genre as a whole and that it lead to many new authors copying the new genre.

One of those classics in literature which created a new genre is The Woman In White (1860) by Wilkie Collins, the first “sensation” novel. Of course sensation is a broad term. What defines The Woman In White is that its sole purpose is to captivate the reader with an exciting story while making use of cliffhangers to keep them reading. So one could say a sensation novel is a pageturner. It makes the reader unable to put the novel down. The novel was originally published as a weekly serial and its success achieved great heights. This format and the aim of the author to put in each part something that would keep the reader hooked was on a level not seen before.

So what is The Woman In White? It is a complex story with many layers which are well structured. The story is told from the viewpoint of several narrators who each contribute a part of the story. There are two main narrators. The others mainly fill in gaps so the reader gets the whole picture. The two narrators also pretty much define the nature of the story they tell. The first narrator, who is male, opens the story, then follows the second narrator, who is female, after which the first does the remainder. The first part is for the greater part told as a simple romance which on the background contains a lingering mystery. The latter is what keeps the reader going as the romance might be enjoyed by a female reader, but is nothing special.

The second part however turns everything upside down. It is a pure thriller, dark and captivating, in which the reader has little understanding of all that is happening and only knows that it is bad and nasty. There is great power in the central part of the story and as it is told by a female narrator who is part of the events and much constricted in her actions because of the social limitations she is bound to.

The third part changes style yet again. Now the story becomes more of a tale of mystery as the first two parts have created too many which need to be resolved. Collins takes his time and step by step everything is unveiled, either by chance or by smart reasoning. Even so nothing happens in any way that is predictable. There are some surprising twists which I hadn’t seen coming at all. This novel may have started a new genre but it did not contain any typical clichés we are now familiar with.

Until so far the story. What about the characters? There is not much particular development. Only the main male narrator undergoes a change which certainly improves the story. The others important characters are not so much developed but have great depth. The villains would have been very original were it not that they are one of the few elements which have been copied in later thrillers and mysteries. Even so they have many layers and very interesting. The character that stands out most among the main characters is the female narrator. She is almost manly (like a feminist), a relatively modern woman with great intelligence and understanding and a strong will. She dares and acts and is very likable. She is dominant despite her lesser social position and the rock that holds everything together.

Usually I’m very good at finding flaws and weaknesses in a story and most of my reviews contain much of that. The Woman In White is however a wonderful story with great complexity which is written with a good pace and with many strong twists that will  shock you. The different styles might set different moods of which one may be enjoyed better than the other but each serves it purpose. Because of the romance, the thriller hits harder and deeper and the mystery allows you to recover while still being much engaged. The only thing that makes me wonder about this novel is how little known it is. I only discovered it because I like browsing the available books in the libraries of publishers like Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics and Wordsworth Classics and look at books I haven’t heard about. The internet makes this easy to do. I certainly consider this novel to be literature because of the complex structure, the strong characterization and the mid-nineteenth century setting. This novel is certainly highly recommended. Anyone who loves a great book or a thriller or a mystery should certainly pick it up.


Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes Complete

Monday, July 1st, 2013

I don’t read that many detectives or mysteries and one might not be surprised that I prefer those of great renown like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. What I like most of them is that despite the mystery centered plot their works give a vivid and recognizable picture of the then contemporary times in which they stories were written. While Agatha Christie’s novels mainly take place in the Interbellum and shortly after, all of Doyle’s mysteries take place before the first world war, in a time when modern technology was only at its breakthrough.

In the case of Arthur Conan Doyle I am of course talking about his stories about Sherlock Holmes, one of the most famous detectives ever created. Doyle wrote 4 novels and 56 short stories about him. As the works are more short of nature it is more appropriate to review these not separately but as a whole. I should also add that most of the so-called novels are of a relatively short nature, barely reaching a hundred pages, depending on the edition.

I own a very nice edition called Sherlock Holmes Complete (1985), divided into two large volumes. I bought it a long time ago and this is the third time, I think, I have read it. The stories are ordered in a chronological order. This is of relatively minor importance as Doyle has been very sloppy with his time references in most of his stories, except for three moments. The first two are of course related to the beginning and the end of what are in essence memoirs written by Doctor Watson, the ever present sidekick of Sherlock Holmes. The one other moment is caused by a break that Doyle took in his writing of Sherlock Holmes, being tired of the character. Doyle presented Holmes in a realistic fashion, no matter how fantastical the mysteries might seem. Just as the stories showed a development of Holmes over time, showing the beginning and the end of his career, he needed to give Holmes a break as well, as Doyle didn’t know if he would return to writing more stories.

I should not elaborate too much on these details. As I wrote before the stories depict an almost nostalgic view of late Victorian England. Of course it had its flaws but these were part of it. Every class of society had its peculiarities and so the stories were very recognizable. One could compare it the writings of Dickens although Doyle did not waste time on elaborate descriptions and introspections. It is actually rather surprising that Doyle wrote the stories in a very clean and sober way while his main character Sherlock Holmes was always looking for details. Doyle wrote for money and had to publish regularly. The plot thus was everything and he did not waste words where they weren’t essential. The reader will only find bare descriptions of characters or locations. Doyle gives the characteristics necessary and the reader will have to imagine it. And this works quite well.

The stories themselves are often not that complicated. Doyle simply creates puzzling situations because one has a limited view where misinterpretation plays an important role. Most of his novels are actually no better. Much of the story actually contains a separate narrative telling a more complex background of how current events came to be. The actually mystery was solved rather quickly. That doesn’t take away the fact that these stories inside the mystery are quite engaging.

One thing that I should address is that the Sherlock Holmes stories are in most cases actually more mystery than detective stories. The police may be involved most of the time, but often no actual crime is committed or apprehension of the supposed criminal does not happen. It is a detective because it is the occupation of Sherlock Holmes, but the stories themselves are of a different nature than what the common description of a detective contains.

The stories contain a wide variation of topics. What marks them is the great creativity which Doyle showed in writing so many original stories, keeping his approach and interest strong.

It is hard to say anything about the characters. Few exist which do not know them. Holmes and Watson were a pair that has been copied many times since in different but recognizable variations: the eccentric hyper-intelligent detective and his down-to-earth good-hearted common man companion. Of course I have seen many adaptations of the characters but in the end they are only adaptations. When reading their tales a different picture was created in my head which was much stronger and vivid than any of those adaptations. Making these two central characters that hard to approach I consider a great feat.

As I had done before during my previous readings of these works I enjoyed the stories intensely. It was hard to reach the end, knowing that it will take 5 to 10 years before most plots have become hazy enough for me so that I can enjoy them to the full extent again.

Stephen Hunt – Secrets Of The Fire Sea

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

My fiftieth review of the year is Secrets Of The Fire Sea (2010) by Stephen Hunt. It is a steampunk novel that feels more like science fiction than fantasy as the fantastical element is small, although not absent. A mishmash of technology provides a mixed combination of the society of his world, which is quite different from any Earthly analogies. Overall this novel provides few insights in the world the story takes place, as its setting is located at a distant island at the edge of civilization.

Secrets Of The Fire Sea starts off as a murder mystery which through other storylines quickly evolves into a greater mystery. The plot develops rapidly with much happening within a short interval. Halfway through the novel the story changes as the greater mystery gets preference over the murder mystery. Hunt keeps his pace, all the while expanding his plot until it reaches a grand finale. The novel is a real pageturner and it certainly caught me as well.

There are two main protagonists from whose view the story is told although some of the side characters also get time to provide a greater perspective and more action. The better of the two is the detective who with his unusual side-kick forms a great pair that I enjoyed a lot. I certainly want to see more of them in the future. The other characters remain somewhat bland although Hunt fleshes them out sufficiently. The fast pace of the story and the steady revelations concerning the mysteries leave hardly any time for character development. This can be a choice and with the engaging plot it is not missed.

The novel is far from perfect. The plot shift halfway through the book turns the murder mystery into an adventure story. The whole murder mystery gets overwhelmed and its solution later on is presented on a side note, not having gotten enough attention with lost focus due to the adventure plot having taken preference. In the end both plot halfs do not get enough attention and combining them gives the novel as a whole a mixed mood that might separately be very enjoyable, but is not wholly satisfactory together.

That said I was quite impressed by the ideas and strong writing style of Stephen Hunt, who dodges a number of steampunk clichés, at least in this novel, and makes it much more substantial. Personally I envision steampunk to be more science fiction than fantasy, the latter being the more commonplace in a number of novels I’ve encountered the past years. As I’ve written in one or more of my blog posts certain subgenres get swamped by average or cliché novels that take advantage of the popularity but scorn the essentials of it. It causes me to avoid those subgenres although I usually go by my gut feeling (which is usually very accurate) to try something out that may be something better. Now with Stephen Hunt I have the feeling he gets the steampunk genre right and I certainly want to read more to discover if he can sustain that opinion. After completing the novel I discovered that Secrets Of The Fire Sea, although being a rather standalone novel, is the fourth novel of a series taking place in the same world. So I will have more to read in the near future. This one is certainly recommended.

Charles Palliser – The Quincunx

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

If you are a fan of the works of Charles Dickens you will find the right novel in The Quincunx (1989) by Charles Palliser. Although I have read only one novel of Charles Dickens I quickly felt the same atmosphere, style and themes from Dickens in The Quincunx, which takes place in the same time and environment as Dickens wrote his novels, although in his case he wrote contemporary novels. Either way it is a remarkable feat to do so more than 100 years later. In my case there is however a downside. I am no Dickens fan. I don’t like his style much, although my stance is more neutral than negative. I don’t rule out the possibility that I will try another of his novels.

While The Quincunx breathes in the same way as Dickens novels, there are a number of major differences. I will name the three most notable ones. The first is the tone of the story. Dickens’ stories contained a character going through bad and good times, experiencing different sides of the mid-nineteenth century Victorian society in England. There are also moments of light comedy and you know the main character is going forward. In The Quincunx the story sees very few good, or rather reasonable, times. There is very little cheerful about the story, it is actually quite depressing. As Palliser like Dickens wrote a large novel, the road is long. I can stand some negativity in a novel, but if it goes on for too long, it gets harder to keep going.

The second main difference is the detail of the setting. Dickens kept the details commonplace, mainly touching on familiar grounds the reader would be easier able to relate to. The Quincunx shows an impressive amount of research of the period and times, introducing sides and details of the society I hadn’t been aware of. He brings it in a natural way and I could only think it to be true. The story also includes extensive descriptions and discussions of the economical, financial and judicial (obviously all related) systems of the times. This all makes the novel more complicated and impressive.

The first two differences already make The Quincunx a harder reader than the average Dickens novel. The third difference takes the story to a different level. The plot is of a grand complexity that drives the reader forward and keeping him attentive. A number of mysteries form the core of the plot which drive the story and the main character. It is here that Palliser provides the reader with a greater challenge. The main character has to figure out the mysteries on his own based on often contradicting tales from characters involved in the plot and who don’t know the whole picture themselves.

It doesn’t hurt to disclose these things in my review. I started reading without being aware of it, while it would have made me pay more attention to all the revelations. It was only at a later stage in the book that realized the intention of the author and by then I didn’t remember enough to draw my own conclusions.

An opinion on this book is hard for me. As I don’t really like Dickens the style was not much too my taste. The depressing overall story made it hard for me to keep focus while the complex mysteries, a thing I love, drove me on. Because of my weakened focus I was not able to keep my attention all the time, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I perhaps could have. I will let the review reader judge for himself.

Last of all I do would like to address some of my views on the plot. These might be spoiler-ish, so I put the warning here. It might be interesting for those who have already read it to read my view. It is not that I have that much to say. After I read the novel and the author’s afterword I looked up some commentary on the web. During the reading I noted some inconsistencies in the explanations. These were partially caused by the main character ignoring certain details and drawing his own conclusions, causing his own research to follow a different path. It was quite clear I was dealing with a untrustworthy narrator who also didn’t see the whole picture. This was even more obvious as the author, as he admitted in his afterword, had left out certain details. There was no single conclusion to the mysteries and different interpretations were possible. A challenge to the reader and it also addressed the notion that a story should not provide all the answers. Being able to discuss it adds a different dimension. My opinion thus is that there is no single answer. Each reader can decide on his preferred answer and be satisfied with that.

Agatha Christie – And Then There Were None

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Agatha Christie‘s most popular mystery is a standalone novel that has none of her famous detectives, like Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, in it. And Then There Were None (1939), originally titled Ten Little Niggers, is most of all her most daring mystery. Christie took up a challenge and wrote her most astounding murder plot. As it is her most popular novel it is enough to say she succeeded in completing her challenge to write an incredibly compelling murder mystery.

Telling much about the plot without giving much away is difficult. Comparing it to the Agatha Christie novels I’ve read in the past it is quite different in structure. Usually she starts off to set the stage, introducing the different characters (or possible suspects), following a murder investigation. This time there is hardly an introduction before the murders start as she has a lot of ground to cover to meet her challenge. Because of this the characterization is done during the events of the novel. The advantage of this, due to the required plot development, is that the events allow Christie to give the characters a greater substance than usual when they are just the possible suspects or victims.

The whole compelling plot creates an unique atmosphere. It’s not even that detailed and actually quite compact. Christie doesn’t use more words than necessary and doesn’t stretch out the developments. The pace is rather high and in combination with Christie’s easy writing style it makes a fast read. That said, I finish her books very quickly, which is one reason why I like to watch TV and movie adaptations because they are slower and give me more time to appreciate the mystery.

As this is a book in the top 10 of most sold novels I don’t really need to recommend it. If you like mystery it is simply a must-read. I am happy I finally did as for some reason I never picked it up. Better late than never.

Strange mysteries

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Another two novels arrived this week, both by a female author and both in sense a tale of mystery. The first is the Gothic novel The Mysteries Of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe. With almost 700 pages quite the heavy tome for the time. Second is And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie. Its original title is Ten Little Niggers, but of course such titles aren’t seen as politically correct anymore these days. I’m quite the Agatha Christie fan and love the movie and TV adaptations of her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot stories. I’ve read a fair number of her books, but only a limited amount of her many publications. Although I knew the original title of the novel and never realized I had never read the actual novel before while it is considered to be one of her best. So on that acclamation I decided to buy it as I would else not have turned upon it by chance.