Completed: The Return of Sherlock Holmes

Cover: The Return of Sherlock HolmesThe Return of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1905, Scotland

 “Come, Watson, come!” he cried. “The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

(“The Adventure of the Abbey Grange”)

Just a quick post to note that I’ve finally finished the 6th of the Sherlock Holmes titles on my Classics Club list (or 5th book in the 8-volume set I’ve borrowed from my Dad).  This is hands down the longest of the books, which, without actually checking to confirm this assumption, I believe is because the short stories in this collection are lengthier than those in the other collections, not because there are more stories. Certainly, it seemed to take longer to read each story. Although I’ve stated in the past that my problem with the short stories is that it often felt as if there weren’t enough Homes–here that is no problem–the problem here was that it felt at times as if the book was endless! (I’m so fickle.) I’m sure that had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that since starting this collection I’ve finished four other books. Nope, can’t possibly be my fault.

That said, I did enjoy the stories for the most part. Some I worked out much to early in the story (“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” in particular). Some I was just “meh” about. But I quite enjoyed “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” and “The Adventure of the Priory School.” My memory of the earlier story collections my not be accurate, but it seemed that in this collection–the two last mentioned stories being examples–we see much more of Holmes outside of the murky London that I more strongly associate with Holmes. There are even two stories set in university towns (I envision Cambridge or Oxford), a setting that reminds me of the Inspector Lewis TV series rather than Holmes–and it was a delight to see Holmes there.

Of course, these being stories of their time, there is also on occasion the tidbit to make the 21st century reader squirm a bit. In “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” (which my notes emphasize refers to busts of Napoleon, not the pastry!), specifically, the terms “simian” and “ape-like” are used to describe the villain–an Italian. Although Doyle evidently had an interest in phrenology (see The Hound of the Baskervilles), and could perhaps just be using this to emphasize the evil nature of the character, the knowledge that many people of the time had an anti-Italian bias, makes me think this plays a factor. Squirmy…but also illustrative of the period. For that matter, the Holmes stories also often illustrate the limitations placed on the women in the era. (Examples here are “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” and “The Adventure of the Second Stain.”)

All in all, I enjoyed making my way through the collection, but am more than happy to take a bit of a break from Holmes. Apparently I’m not a true Holmesian! (On the other hand it was quite fun to recognize references or stories used in the most recent series of Sherlock, references I had not previously known.)

Reread: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hounder of the Baskervilles 1st Edition CoverThe Hound of the Baskervilles
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1902, Scotland

But it was not the sight of her body, nor yet was it that of the body of Hugo Baskerville lying near her, which raised the hair upon the heads of these three daredevil roysterers, but it was that, standing over Hugo, and plucking at his throat, there stood a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon. (Ch. 2)

When I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles last fall, I couldn’t help but compare it to The Castle of Otranto, the grandfather of the Gothic novel. This year, at a further remove from my reading of Otranto, it is less that specific novel that I am reminded of and more of the general idea of “ghost story.” Certainly, at least, the legend of the Baskerville family–that of a diabolical hound that killed the blackguard Hugo Baskerville–would all on its own be a perfect campfire story.

The deliciously spine-tingling atmosphere of the Baskerville legend continues throughout the short mystery, with a gloomy, autumnal setting in the moors; eerie, unexplained sounds filling the air; and an escaped convict just to complicate things. It is only a little too bad that this is a Holmes mystery and so therefore the end seems a bit of a sharp contrast–all must be explained by light of day in Holmes’s stark logic. And really, for being a mystery, it is the atmosphere that keeps me returning. Although I don’t foresee myself rereading again next year, it does seem that visits with some of the movie adaptations may perhaps be in order.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is my third read for this year’s R.I.P. Although several people expressed interest in reading it with me a while back, the only post I’ve seen so far is Christine’s at The Moonlight Reader – let me know if I missed any!

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Completed: Death Masks (#5 of Dresden Files)

Cover: Death Masks by Jim Butcher
Death Masks
Jim Butcher
2003, U.S.

I had hoped to have The Hound of the Baskervilles finished by now for the readalong (if you’re participating, share the link to your thoughts on the RAL post by the end of the week–I’ll be done by then, promise!), but lacking that, some quick notes on my latest completed read.

Death Masks is the 5th of the Dresden Files, a series that is part mystery, part urban fantasy–and thus perfect for R.I.P. I’ve been (very slowly) making my way through the series in order, and by this point I think it’s safe to say that they pretty much follow the same formula: Harry Dresden, Wizard and P.I., finds himself entangled in a mess usually partly of his own making and partly as a result of an investigation he has been hired to solve (and/or to consult on for the Chicago PD). The action is nonstop, there’s pretty much a guarantee that a)Harry won’t get enough sleep b)he will completely miss an obvious clue because of either his tiredness or (more likely) a pretty lady c) he will face down a creature more powerful than himself but d) you know he will win in the end because 1) the good guys always do, especially when they’re the narrators and 2) he’s not so good that he’s above cheating. So pretty standard stuff, and really not too much to think about past the first book or two (beyond maybe looking up the traditional stories about some of the creatures/legends Harry encounters). However, probably because of all the blogging/tweeting I’ve seen about diverse books and diverse characters this year, it finally dawned on me–the Dresden Files novels have a really diverse set of characters. I don’t spend much time with fantasy-type novels (Tolkien and children’s lit aside), but my understanding this a diverse cast of characters is not exactly common in the genre.

I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess

Completed: Raven Black (Shetland Island Series)

Cover: Raven Black by Ann CleevesRaven Black
Ann Cleeves
2006, UK

Twenty past one in the morning on New Year’s Day. Magnus knew the time because of the fat clock, his mother’s clock, which squatted on the shelf over the fire. In the corner the raven in the wicker cage muttered and croaked in its sleep. Magnus waited. The room was prepared for visitors, the fire banked with peat and on the table a bottle of whiskey and the ginger cake he’d bought in Safeway’s the last time he was in Lerwick. He could feel himself dozing but he didn’t want to go to bed in case someone should call at the house. If there was a light at the window someone might come, full of laughter and drams and stories. For eight years nobody had visited to wish him happy new year, but he still waited just in case.

Outside it was completely silent. There was no sound of wind. In Shetland when there was no wind it was shocking. People strained their ears and wondered what was missing. Earlier in the day there has been a dusting of snow, then with dusk this was covered by a sheet of frost, every crystal flashing and hard as diamond in the last of the light, and even when it got dark, in the beam from the lighthouse. The cold was another reason for Magnus staying where he was. In the bedroom the ice would be thick on the inside of the window and the sheets would feel chill and damp.  (Opening)

I believe I first heard of Ann Cleeves’s Shetland mysteries by way of knitting. While that may sound a bit odd, there is a distinct style of lace knitting that originates in the Shetland Islands (and Fair Isle, known for its knitted color-work is between Shetland and the Scottish mainland). One Shetland topic–lace–led to another–mysteries–but it was finally an NPR interview with author Ann Cleeves this summer that prompted me to pick up the first in her Shetland series.

I guess it’s been a while since I’ve read any contemporary mysteries (mysteries, not thrillers). A few years at least. I say (write) this because I was about halfway through Raven Black when my oh-so-intellectual thought process became “Oh! Duh! Mysteries have conventions!” Right. In this instance, the convention of a rather small cast of characters that form the entire list of suspects. Of course, for a novel set in a small town in  remote Shetland, a small cast of characters is perhaps also realistic.

Actually, it was a certain sense of realism that I think kept me in part from remembering the mystery conventions. This is a mystery that seems plausible–the victim, the community, their motivations. Even the activities of the police seem grounded in reality–the early mornings, late nights, little to go on, waiting, waiting, questioning, listening. No grand revelations. (That said, the end did feel a bit rushed, but I so often feel that way, that I wonder if it’s me speeding up.) It is the story of a murdered girl, Catherine Ross, 16, an outsider, yet at first there seems no reason anyone should wish her dead. Which is why suspicion immediately–and naturally–falls on the lonely old man who was questioned, but never charged in the disappearance of a little girl some years previous.

The story is told from the points of view of four characters: Magnus Tait, the man suspected; Jimmy Perez, the local detective; Fran Hunter, who discovered the body; and Sally Henry, the victim’s neighbor and friend. While I didn’t notice that their voices (with the exception of Magnus) were distinct, their perspectives–what they know, what they are thinking, who they meet and talk to, their motivations–are decidedly so. It was a method of storytelling I really liked (at least here)–the different perspectives, the way it moved the narrative forward. I don’t think I would necessarily call it a “fast-paced” novel, yet I found it difficult to put down.

Of course, I think I must also be a terrible mystery reader. I never work out “who done it.” Sigh.

I’ve never been to Shetland (or Scotland, or any of the U.K.), so I don’t really know how accurate Cleeve’s portrait of the islands is, but it felt real: The descriptions of the landscape, of the town, the sprinkling in of local words (such as “peerie”), the insights on a small town. Cleeves is not from Shetland, but has been there many times, and in her NPR interview, she takes the reporter to meet some Shetland friends who review her novels for accuracy before they are published. There is a remote feel that I would expect from settlements so far from the bustling cities and easy access to–everything. (It is amazing to me to know, actually, that during the Victorian era, English women would purchase fine–ultra-fine, actually–knit lace shawls from Shetland and send them back to be washed and blocked as needed–in an era when the islands were even more remote!) It is a setting I will be happy to return to with her later books.

Raven Black is my first R.I.P. read this autumn.

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Completed: The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
1954-56, England

At first the beauty of the melodies and the interwoven words in the Elven-tongue, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the entertainment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him. Swiftly he sank under its shining weight into a deep realm of sleep. (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 1)

It has been a long time–relatively speaking–since I last read The Lord of the Rings. Although I’ve read it some five or six times now, most of those were spaced closely together, and I last picked up the books in 2002. (Which I remember distinctly, because it was between the first and second of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, and the second came out just before I went to Italy in 2003.) In some ways, reading it again, I feel like a worse reader than I was all those years past, as it took me so much longer and at times seemed to drag on so much more. But I’ve read more–that is, other books–in the meantime, and I got so much more out of this reading than those past.

One important difference–I finally read The Silmarillion a couple years ago. One of many of Tolkien’s works published posthumously, it contains much of the background of Tolkien’s imaginary world. Reading The Lord of the Rings after it, I realized how much of this background, this invented history is referenced in The Lord of the Rings–references that I would never have caught, nor even realized that I was missing. The depth and breadth of Tolkien’s creation continually astonishes me.

I’ve also read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” developed from a 1939 lecture, in which he lays out a defense for what he calls “fairy-stories” or what we might now term fantasy. It is interesting in light of the debate, not only over the literary merits of “genre” writing, but also the debate over whether to consider The Lord of the Rings as for “children” or “adults.”* From what I see online, it seems the debate often goes, “well, there’s a clear-cut battle between good and evil, so they must be for children.” But this is in contrast with Tolkien’s own views. First, that “fairy-stories” should not be relegated to children merely because they are imaginary. And more importantly, because of Tolkien’s concept of “eucatastrophe,” the sudden unexpected turn to the joy of the happy ending, which he would never dismiss as for children only: his ultimate example is that of the Resurrection, and as a faithful Catholic, Tolkien would never call the Easter story one for children only. His definitions of “good” and “evil” are clearly informed by his religious faith rather than that of a secular worldview.

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.’ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2)

In fact, on this fifth/sixth(?) reread, I am completely convinced that Tolkien’s writing cannot be fully understood/appreciated without acknowledging his faith. Although there are not allegorical allusions (Tolkien disliked allegory), the worldview is strikingly Christian, as seen in the repetitions of the ideas of faith, mercy, redemption, and hope throughout the novel. In the confrontation between Frodo and Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was struck that while Frodo maintained faith despite recent events, Boromir had lost his–or at least lost hope. In contrast, at about halfway through The Return of the King, Frodo has lost all hope–but remains steadfastly faithful to the mission, even without hope. Samwise, steadfastly faithful to Frodo, provides all the hope they need.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. (The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 2)

One thing I can’t quite seem to put my finger on: how is Tolkien’s work generally considered, critically? Browsing blogs, there seem to be mostly posts of either the “I LOVE this so much, it’s my favorite thing ever!” or “I just.couldn’t.get.through.it” types. There are websites by Tolkien scholars, often dedicated to minutiae; I would assume that most of them started from a “love it” place. And where I see those that dismiss it as “mere children’s stories” not worthy of study, it seems they do so for the good/evil reason. At times I found the language stilted (specifically dialogue), but it seemed a deliberate choice, to make his heroes sound as the heroes of epics past. Perhaps, even sixty years on, we still need more passage of time for illumination.

I feel like this year, almost all of my reading has made me want to wander down another path I hadn’t planned (I’ve resisted, mostly), and The Lord of the Rings is no exception. I’ve never really read any of Tolkien’s sources or inspirations, just a little of Malory. Tolkien’s faux-historical narrative (both in plot and style) encourages me to visit some of his predecessors. The ancient sagas call to me. And there are still works of Tolkien’s I’d like to explore: his retelling of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Children of Hurin. Stories of ages long gone, or of ages that only ever were in imagination, but grand tales to tempt the imagination.

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually–their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on–and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same–like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! (The Two Towers, Book 4, Chapter 8)

 

*My opinion? Why on earth need there be a distinction between books for children and books for adults, so long as they are good enough for children? But, that said, the style and language might be a bit tricky for some young readers–Tolkien liked antique words that I often must look up, and his narrative at times harkens to epics past.