classic books

Does it Have to Be Fair?

Hercule Poirot

If you were to ask a million people what makes a detective story good, you might get a whole bunch of different responses, everything from that the murder be nice and bloody and happen to someone who deserves it (or who, though undeserving of being murdered, perhaps is annoying enough that we enjoy it), to the fact that the detective is someone unexpected.

However, and this is pure speculation as I have no way to ask a million people a question (and if I did, this probably wouldn’t be the question I’d choose), I believe that there are two answers that would come up more than the rest combined.

The first is the interest factor.  If the butler did it with the revolver in the billiards room, no one cares.  It’s been done before.  So to keep people’s interest, the writer needs to get clever either in the method, the culprit or the motive.  So if the butler’s invalid mother committed the murder using a poison distilled from the teeth of a Venus flytrap, because she wanted to take the rear-view mirror from the victim’s antique Bentley, readers who like originality will be happy.

The second major preference in my utterly hypothetical scientific study would be those who want to have a chance to beat the detective at his or her own game.  These would insist that the keys to discovering the murder must be given to the reader, no mater how fiendishly disguised.  In fact, the more cleverly hidden, the better; true experts aren’t interested in the thrill of a hollow victory.  They want to earn it.  But to do so, there must be no ambiguity, and the clues must point to a single possible resolution.

The perfect mystery story would have both of these characteristics at the same time.  It would be both original and fair.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, which creates a Venn diagram with a couple of circles that do touch, but not as often as would be ideal.

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

So where are we going with this?  Well, we’re looking at a specific book, and through it at a particular author.  The book is After the Funeral and the author is Agatha Christie.  I’ll try not to spoil it for anyone.

(By the way, we’ve looked at Agatha Christie before, but that was through the lens of what made her a megagazillion bestselling author–not looking at her as a pure specimen of a mystery writer.)

This is a typical Christie book in that everything, including the murder, is in doubt until the very end.  From a reasonably large sample size that also includes her more well-known titles, I’d have to say that this is a fairly typical showing.  If someone put a gun to my head and asked me where Christie falls on the spectrum discussed above (again, is that the question anyone would ask another person while threatening them with death?), I’d place her firmly on the “originality” side of the Venn diagram with one foot occasionally, but certainly not permanently in the “fairness” circle.

This isn’t to say that Christie doesn’t give certain clues, or that it’s always impossible to guess at what’s happening, but her objective, I believe, was more to make her audience say ‘coo, that was clever’ (she was British, the British say this sort of thing) than to slap themselves in the forehead and say ‘of course! That was why the goose swallowed the revolver!’

But, at the same time, there is certainly a soft focus to the clues in many of her mysteries.  While the resolution arrived at by Poirot or Marple or whoever might fit all the clues, there is always a fuzzy border in which the clues also fit other answers.  These are usually discarded by Poirot after he goes on an undisclosed trip to talk to someone off camera.

That’s fine, and I think half of the people who read these books will not be overly concerned with that… But the other half might, and considering Christie’s status, they might be put off mystery fiction forever.

Of course, as a writer in a different genre, I am not unduly bothered by this.  A failed mystery or a perceived unfairness in a Christie novel might simply drive them to one one of my books instead (hooray).  So I’m not complaining!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, an SF novel with a mystery at its core which may or may not be fair, but it will definitely both shock and surprise you.  You can buy it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Controversy Isn’t What It Used to Be

Lady Chatterly's Lover - D.H. Lawrence

I’ve recently read a book that, in its day, and despite an utter lack of social media on which people could vent their anguished outrage, sparked a firestorm seldom seen in the literary world.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover, probably D.H. Lawrence’s most famous work, sparked obscenity trials and bannings across the globe, and on every continent.

As you can probably imagine, I approached this controversial book with a lot of curiosity: what kind of naughty, explicit, sticky and uncomfortable prose would cause such a stir.  Making it more interesting, the book was published in 1928… in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, an era described by our experts as the greatest epoch of partying ever.

So, how was it?

From a literary and sociological point of view, it was a great book which probably deserves its current status as a classic in its own right which just happened to get off to a rocky start.  Lawrence was a good writer whose characters are motivated by realistic forces and who struggle against class restrictions that, though they no longer exist, are easily relatable by the reader.  In fact, this, not the sex, is the focus of the novel: Lady Chatterley’s “bit of rough” as Mellors is described in the book’s introduction is, you can tell, an object of sneers and knowing looks.  That sets a brilliant tone, and will likely be the book’s enduring legacy.

Lady Chatterley's Lover Interior Illustration

The supposed obscenity, on the other hand, is essentially a non-issue today.  Yes, there is sex, explicitly described, in this book, but it isn’t remotely erotic sex.  Mechanically described, and with only the kind of overwrought and unrealistic wording one might find in the words of a pre-Raphaelite poem it’s the weakest part of the book.  The prose style there was more suitable, perhaps, to a medical journal.

That isn’t to say that the sex scenes aren’t important.  They are.  Editions in which the sex have been omitted are worthless, because of the supreme importance that they have in the character’s development, and because Lady Chatterley’s actions during and reactions to sex are paramount to the story.

So what happened?  I think it’s a conjunction of two things.  The first is that Lawrence knew he was breaking all the taboos when he wrote this.  One thing is to poke a socialist finger into the holes in the unraveling British class system… quite another to talk openly about intercourse in the way of the lower classes.  Lawrence knew it perfectly well.

The second, and the impression I get when reading, is that Lawrence himself had a complicated relationship to both women and sexuality.  I might be wrong on that score, but it’s certainly the sense a modern reader has when laboring through his descriptions of what is supposed to be illicit pleasure.  Of course, compared to his contemporaries, Lawrence was a regular Hugh Hefner, so maybe that is just a modern impression.

Nevertheless, it’s the lasting impression I left with.  As a writer, I’ll write erotica if either the market or the story calls for it.  The main thing one strives for is that the sex actually be sexy, provocative and, if possible, titillating.  One can fail spectacularly, of course, but that is the aim.  If your readers are reading one-handed, you’ve succeeded.

Lawrence either wasn’t aiming for this, or simply missed his mark.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose popular novel, Siege, has no sex in it (but people liked it anyway).  If you’re curious to see what he does when sex is involved, please check out Sinisterotica, an anthology that contains his story “Top of the Food Chain” and has one of the greatest covers ever created (and do you imagine the stir that one would have caused in Britain in 1928?).

A Trip I’d Take in a Heartbeat

Imagine the following: you hop on a local train in Boston and, a few weeks later, hop off a train in Patagonia.  It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, doesn’t it?

Well, it kinda is, except for the fact that it isn’t, technically, possible; not only is the Darien Gap still alive and well, but there are other spots where the train system is disconnected in the middle of the journey.  That, of course, didn’t stop Paul Theroux from getting as close as possible in 1979.

Now, I don’t normally read travel books of any kind (though we do sometimes have travel writers here), but I’d read Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast in high school (it wasn’t assigned reading, but I used to sit in the back row and I had a locker just behind me.  Another class was reading this, and I was bored in class, so I read it while my classmates were slowly discussing Shakespeare plays that I’d already finished reading), so I decided to give this one a shot.  Plus, I got the book for free…

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

The Old Patagonian Express tells the story of an adventure which, even in the limited form that Theroux attempted, is no longer possible.  The final legs of the train journey, within Argentina, no longer exist (they may, again, someday – the missing link has recently reopened for cargo trains… here’s hoping passenger service will resume someday).

It also tells the story from a point of view that is almost forty years old.  Yes, I know that most Americans are still just as provincial in their outlook today as they were in 1979, but now the WAY they are provincial has swapped around.  Today, an American traveler might be surprised that countries on the other side of their border are not as politically correct and don’t really care for American’s sensibilities…

Trochita - Expreso Patagónico - Patagonian Express

But in 1979 it was very different.  Theroux might have been a world traveler and an enlightened exponent of his age, but he still looks at the people in Latin America without romanticizing them, and generalizes about their habits and activities in a way that would cause shock and outrage if published today.

The net effect of this is… refreshing and likely more accurate.  Much of what he says isn’t exactly gentle and “nice”, but it is supremely accurate.  Someone using this as a field guide for Latin American countries might find that a lot has changed, but might still find a more realistic description of the people one will encounter along the way than if you look at a modern equivalent.  Seems that modern authors will never let you know when a certain town in Costa Rica is populated almost exclusively by people who hate tourists and look to rob them whenever possible.

Now, the question is: is accuracy a sacrifice that it’s reasonable to make in the name of cultural sensitivity?  When does political correctness cross the line from a necessary buffer to avoid prejudice to outright lying in order to soften a hard truth.

I don’t have the answer to that, but I recommend reading this book if you’re interested in the question.  It will make you think, and possibly to question.

And besides, it tells about a fascinating adventure which, in itself is more than enough to justify the purchase price.  Also, we like trains.

Definitely one to read if you can.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most popular novel, Siege, is available here.

 

 

Advancing the Middle-Earth Story

The War of the Ring - JRR Tolkien - Christopher Tolkien

I’ve been reading the History of Middle-Earth series for a few years now – and have recently read The War of the Ring.  As I mentioned before, it’s a fascinating look into the thinking and process that went into the most influential modern fantasy work.

Today, everyone in the fantasy genre is defined by Tolkien.  Most obvious are books like the Wheel of Time or the Shannara series which in greater or lesser measure build on the Tolkien formula (the Brooks books do so more transparently, but almost every quest-based, journey-of-the-hero fantasy series does so in greater or lesser measure).

The rest of the genre, of course, is desperately trying to break away from the Tolkien tradition.  They hate high fantasy with a passion, either for silly “political” reasons (it is western-based and non-inclusive) or for more understandable artistic reasons; when a writer says they dislike the subgenre because the characters, far from acting like real people, fit into the roles that legend assigns them, makes a valid point.  But even those who break with the tradition do so self-consciously, always trying to define the exact limits of the shadow of the colossus they’re trying to escape.

And for people outside the genre, fantasy is essentially synonymous with Tolkien.

Yeah, I think understanding what went into creating this giant is worthwhile.  But more than just an academic pursuit for writers, it’s also a fascinating one.

As I mentioned earlier, the true, grinding world-building went into the Silmarillion.  This project was Tolkien’s passion, a labor of love that he knew would likely never see the light of day.  Dismayed as he was by the lack of an English mythology (Romans and 1066 saw to its destruction), he set out to create one from scratch.

From short texts and poems set in this mythology grew the story and world that we love today… but it grew in layers that would make an onion feel inadequate.  A lot of the fun of the History of ME books comes precisely from reading Christopher Tolkien’s descriptions of the scraps of paper his father used to compose the original drafts.  One comes to have a great admiration for the editor’s work in this case.  Actually it became the world we met in The Silmarillion.

So when he decided to write a children’s book, The Hobbit, he simply (what a deceptive word, that “simply”) layered it over what he’d already spent decades building.

And LotR built on that, another layer to the cake.

This particular installment deals with the destruction of Isengard, and comes, as should be evident, at a time when many of the bones of the mythology were already in place.  It is in near-final form, and reads very smoothly, unlike some of the early texts which were intentionally written in an archaic style.  As always, the true fanatics will love mining the text for differences with the final version while less-obsessed readers will enjoy revisiting the world and reading about how Tolkien built his masterpiece, as revealed by Christopher.

I can’t really recommend this series to everyone, of course.  But I will happily do so to writers who enjoy a window into another writer’s craft and also to OCD fanatics.  It is an effort, but it does have its rewards.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His novel The Malakiad, far from trying to escape Tolkien’s shadow, would likely make Tolkien attempt to disavow the fantasy genre.  Also, it’s a very funny book.  You can check it out here.

Book Collecting for Non-Collectors

Summer 2018 Fine Books & Collections

I’m not a book collector.

Well, I am in the sense that I have hundreds of books on my shelf, and that I love to possess books that are important to me in beautiful editions.  But I’m certainly not the kind of person who cares whether a book is a first edition, first state copy with the missing semicolon on page 59.  I prefer to have a nice copy I can read than a million dollar edition from 1814 (if you’re going to give me a gift, however, please send the million dollar edition… I’ll buy my own nice copy and keep the change after the auction).

So, perhaps I am not the target consumer for a magazine entitled Fine Books & Collections.  And yet, I look forward to its arrival every quarter more than anything else I subscribe to.

Why?  I suppose it’s because the magazine is much more than just about collectible books.  It’s about books in general, especially old ones, the history of the book, artwork, maps, covers, typesetting and pretty much anything else that might have the most remote connection to books.  It’s the most culturally interesting publication I’ve seen that doesn’t fall over the edge into specialist reading that requires either thirty years of accumulated knowledge to enjoy.  Anyone can pick it up and fall in love.

A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes

So perhaps there’s a reason I enjoy this one, but why did I love the book A Gentle Madness, written by the magazine’s editor, Nick Basbanes, so much?  On the surface, it seems like something for the true collectors: a detailed look at some of history’s major bibliophiles and the story of how their collections came to be.  If someone pitched that at me in an elevator, I’d say… So, a book about a bunch of boring rich old guys?

Well, many of them were both rich and old, but this book was anything but boring.  The passion (obsession?) driving the creation of some of the world’s foremost collections, and the… let’s say eccentricity… of the principals makes this one an absolutely riveting read.  I couldn’t put it down, something that doesn’t often happen to me with nonfiction titles.  There’s everything in here from magnates to thieves, and it should appeal to basically anyone who’s ever coveted a book.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy knowing that there’s at least one hobby that turns normal people into madmen that you haven’t fallen victim to.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is currently writing a book that takes place in the same universe as his novel Outside.