Read: A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in Scarlet is, of course, the first of Doyle’s classic stories featuring what must by now be the most famous detective throughout history – Sherlock Holmes. However, reading the original stories makes one realise that it is the various adaptations of Sherlock that has made his fame – not the written source material.

The story is divided into two parts.

The first part is where Watson makes a new acquaintance, moving in with Mr Holmes. We get to read about his reactions to this Sherlock fellow but we also get an earful about the doctor himself – he returns to England very weak after almost having died from his wound and spends most of his time indoors and in bed. But then one morning, when he is up earlier than usual, he ends up visiting his first crime scene – a murder, in an empty or perhaps abandoned house.

So far so good. But suddenly part one ends and part two abruptly catapults the reader across the ocean, to the US, and to the founding of Salt Lake City. Initially this change of scenes make no sense but then names we heard in part one re-appear and suddenly the motive behind the not one but two murders perpetrated in part one is uncovered; and the reader gets to understand that neither of these evil deeds would had happened if Mormonism had been a more generous and open-minded creed.

As I wanted to read A Study in Scarlet as a crime/detective story I found the first part promising but the second part slow and uninteresting, even as I felt Doyle poured more heart in it, and it didn’t get better, either – the last handful of pages is pure info-dumping, with Mr Holmes telling Dr Watson about the clues everyone had missed: how he saw them, and how he interpreted them. Which makes me wonder if Doyle’s underlying reason for writing this story was to expose what he felt was the errors of the LDS/Mormons, and with the invention of Sherlock pure collateral; originally intended as nothing more than a tool for telling this tale. A tool which then took on a life of it’s own.

Obviously.

A Study in Scarlet has its place in the history of the crime novel genre, and as the point were a legend got started. But as reading material for the 21st century it doesn’t measure up. In my humble opinion.

Review: Ture Sventon Privatdetektiv – en samlingsvolym, by Åke Holmström

Nothing short of hilarious!

When I was a kid I loved the stories about the lisping year-round Shrovetide bun-eating private-eye Ture Sventon. My memories as to why has been vague – I mainly remembered the stories being generally thrilling, but what isn’t to a 8-year old kid?! So, some time ago I found a omnibus containing three unabridged books, none of which I had, at a thrift shop. A 1970 hardcover edition, in very good condition. For the bargain price of 9 SEK (or approximately UK£0,8/€1,01/US$1,32). Of course I had to get it and read it, immediately, and well I was rewarded!

Now, it took some time to get around to the last of the three books (Ture Sventon i London). The reason was the intrusion made by the release of Cherryh’s Intruder, which demanded to be read and reread instantly. Now that is finished the last book went by in a whirr, and was almost as shrewd as the other two (Ture Sventon Privatdetektiv and Ture Sventon i öknen).

Ture Sventon Privatdetektiv (Private Detective) is the very first book in the series. Lisping private eye sits in his empty office wondering how to make odd ends meet, without a client in sight. He’s the very best of the best and the only problem is no one but himself knows that. So – no clients. The book tells the story of how he got his magic carpet, how he met his sidekick the inscrutable and ever so polite Omar, and how he got his reputation as a world class private eye.

The second book is Ture Sventon i öknen (Desert Detective). Sventon’s new fame has resulted in him being overloaded with work and he decides to go visit Omar in his oasis in the Arab desert, as a vacation. He is a bit worried over food – this Shrovetide buns needs refrigerating. Luckily he is acquainted with a fridge inventor who lends him a prototype of a new suitcase-sized fridge which shrinks the food, to maximise storage volume. Of course the prototype gets stolen, and so the story begins…

The last book in the omnibus, Ture Sventon i London, takes the reader to the English city and lets us experience the famous London fog as a practically broke English Lord needs help solving the mystery of the pointy shoes he has seen peek out from under a curtain in the library, not to mention the mysterious sounds that has his cook and maid threatening to quit.

All three books are deftly illustrated by Sven Hemmel and all of them are funny. Written to imitate the hard-boiled private eye books of the 1920’s but for kids so cleansed from the typical elements while retaining the style there is no end of what wonders Ture Sventon can do.

In Sweden there has been a debate concerning a perceived racism in the books. I can honestly say that I think that is pure paranoia. The books in this omnibus were written in 1948, 1949 and 1950 and while being a bit naive and simplistic in the portrayal of Omar and of Arabs – Omar can’t understand why anyone would drink tea when there’s coffee to be had, he takes his vacations in a tent in an oasis and he owns three camels – he displays none of the signs of a colonial and (or) sexist attitudes present in other authors of that time. The focus of the debate has been a book not included in the omnibus discussed here – it is called Ture Sventon i Paris, where he goes to France to find out what happens to the vanishing castles. Omar disguises himself as Sventon’s chauffeur, and he do so by applying black shoe polish. The way it is written it was clearly meant to be funny, even from the start – who on Earth would be fooled by that trick? Yet the book was omitted when the others were re-published recently.

Compared to the Tintin albums, which had to be redrawn and retold even during the lifetime of Hergé and despite that displays a colonial, racist and sexist attitude that leaves a sour aftertaste, Ture Sventon is clean and safe. And hilarious!

A real treat, if you ask me.

Some of the Sventon books have been translated to English – his name then is Tam Sventon.

Review: Rule 34, by Charles Stross

Fast, fun, and highly rhetorical if not downright political. The standalone – yes, I think it works well on its own – sequel to Halting State Stross‘ Rule 34 is a good read.

The story revolves around sidestepped and showed sidewards Inspector Liz, a set of murders that are too coincidental to be coincidence, and the cast that comes with it.

At first the way the story is told throws me a little. To tell a story from different perspectives is relatively common in modern SF; that was not unusual. No. What got to me was that the story of every person is described as by someone else. Soon enough I got used to it, to the extent that I started to reflect on it… and indeed – it is a clue. The track grows stronger in the last third of the book, where clues are dotted all around – sometimes begging you to backtrack what you read, to check the way another person experienced it… and so the ending does not surprise.

Still, done in a neat way, so not to depend on the surprise moment.

Like with Halting State I think anyone living in the modern world should read it. Not for its poetic values and fantastic storytelling. There are, after all, better authors than Stross out there. No, you should read it because it is highly relevant to the times that we live in, asking questions about where we’re headed, and how.

This perfect day, indeed.

Review: The City & The City, by China Miéville

I had heard about China Miéville for some time – years, actually – and was just about to get Perdido Street Station when I for some reason put it back on the shelf at the shop. Instead, and considerably later, I got The City & The City. Then it went to sleep, on my bed side table, from where I picked it up some days ago – I hadn’t had the energy left for reading for some time but decided I just HAD to read, to get back on track again.

It starts out an almost ordinary murder mystery. A woman with too nice hair and skin to belong either among the whores she’s made up to look like or in the neighbourhood in which her body is found is murdered and we follow the detective who got her case on his table.

I say “almost” ordinary, because it is soon clear that something is not what the reader could expect it to be – the detective chooses to “unsee”, and it is soon apparent that it is something weird going on with this city, the city of Beszél. After a while the reader understands that the city is a city state and not only that – it is TWO city states, sharing the same physical space, more or less, and with the respective citizens respecting the borders by reflectively not seeing – unseeing – people who look different, houses or infrastructure not belonging in the city they live in even if sometimes half a house is Beszél and half house is in Ul Qouma (which is their “neighbour” state).

The perpetrators play with this, making things difficult for the detective.

This could had lead somewhere interesting. There’s lots of opportunities to discuss alienation, the Other, nationalism, and other things. Instead – and here’s a spoiler warning is in it’s place, because I’m almost going to tell whodiddit – there’s a power-greedy politician, a disillusioned archaeologist, an opportunist multinational, and an obsolete map. Felt like a cop-out.
There is some more to it, of course, but this is exactly how it felt after I had turned the last page – let-down, not living up to the promises made by the build-up.

The author clearly is skilled at writing. The imagery is vivid. It was a nice read as long as it lasted. But then it was gone, without leaving much of an impression. So, off to find something else to read :-)

Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon

We follow homicide detective Meyer Landsman, and we find him when he’s at his absolute bottom; living in a flea hotel, with a drinking problem, and as the world is turning a fellow unlucky is found murdered in another room a few floors down. As the story unwinds we get a waft of that precious 90’s X-files feeling as we zap through a few days on the Alaskan coast, in an imaginary near future where a lot of things turned out in another way, with a small part of that frozen country a jewish enclave.

I really don’t like the hard boiled style of some crime novelists; the fake macho veneer, the affected tone of an author sitting back in his or her insulated life. In this particular case I’m prepared to make an exception, though, because Chabon uses it to good effect and with a steady hand.

*SPOILER WARNING*
What irked me, though, when I was through reading the book, was how miraculous recovery Landsman made from his drinking habit. Not very believable, in my humble opinion.
*END SPOILER*

Maybe not the most revolutionary book ever written, but witty, entertaining and very well crafted. I can recommend reading it.

Review: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

A crime novel set in an alternate world where some parts of history happened different from ours while others didn’t The Eyre Affair manages to utilise both archetypes and tropes in a highly entertaining way.

We follow the adventures of Special Agent Thursday Next, part of the section for crimes against literature, as she tries to track down diabolic arch-villain Acheron Hades. As we go we are presented to a world were England is on war with it’s Welsh neighbour, not to mention the 100+ year armed conflict with Imperial Russia over the Crimea, and where classic English literature is an integral part of what shapes the English national identity.

The result is an absurd but well written and very witty mystery cum comedy. I didn’t laugh out loud but I smiled almost continuously for all of the nearly 400 pages.

It helps if you’re well read on the English Classics, including Shakespeare, but it’s not a prerequisite. I recommend reading it!