Tag: murder mystery

My Top Ten “Gateway” Books

  1. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. As with, I suspect, many other people, The Hobbit was my gateway into The Lord of the Rings, a book that, almost uniquely, sits deep in my psyche. And so it was a gateway, too, into a fandom and a way of writing and thinking and into a shared code of story.
  2. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. This was my gateway into feminist thinking, and into serious, weighty literary criticism in general. It showed me what you can do with criticism, the anger you can wield with it and the worlds you can create.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. A gateway into the Gothic, a mode which holds so much interest for me, deep and dark and ambiguous and strange.
  4. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. This was the book that made me realise that postmodernism is actually pretty cool, definitely more cool than Modernism.
  5. Havelok the Dane – Anonymous. Havelok the Dane is a thirteenth-century narrative poem about, er, a Dane called Havelok who…invades Britain or something? I can’t even really remember what happens in it. Anyway, I read this a couple of weeks before I started at university, in a vague panic because I didn’t get the reading list when I was supposed to get it, and just being utterly enchanted because it was so Tolkien-y and fairy tale-esque. And it was that that made me choose to study Middle English instead of Old English in my first year, so I got to read lots of other wonderful works like it, including several Arthurian romances, and overall I had a great insight into a literary period that doesn’t get studied very often.
  6. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This was my first graphic novel, and I couldn’t really have asked for a better introduction. It’s punchy and fearless and full of emotional truth.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. So this was my gateway into proper grown-up fantasy, really: fantasy in which worldbuilding is metaphor and metaphor is worldbuilding, in which our world is always half-glimpsed in the strangenesses of another one.
  8. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I was quite lucky that this was my first Dickens novel: it’s sentimental and sprawling and right up my street, and it’s why I continue to read Dickens novels. (To be fair, there’s only been one real dud among the ones I’ve read.)
  9. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This made me properly want to go to university and study things in dusty old libraries.
  10. Steampunk Your Wardrobe – Calista Taylor. I mean, I still haven’t made anything from this book, but it was my first steampunk reference book, so to speak. I now have three, and intend to collect lots more!

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Deja Vu

In Deja Vu‘s opening chapter, a woman named Saskia has twelve hours to figure out who killed her secretary and stuffed her in the fridge.

But it’s when she works out – with the help of some clever computering – that the murderer is herself that we know something really weird’s going on.

Turns out the investigation is a test; that Saskia is a criminal being controlled through a computer chip implanted in her head to become an agent for the EU police; that, if she refuses to work for them, or runs away, she’ll die.

Oooh! I thought. State repression and an exploration of personhood and technology! It will be like Nikita but futuristic and good!

Sadly, after the first couple of chapters, Saskia is shunted sideways to make room for David: an English academic, suspected of bombing a research facility twenty years ago and killing his wife, who’s encouraged by a mysterious masked woman to return to the scene of the bombing and destroy a virtual world he once worked on. What follows is a really tedious thriller plot, as David goes on the run from the police, with Saskia and a member of the British police hunting him. There is also time travel.

The problem I had with Deja Vu was that genuinely interesting, SFnal stuff gets subordinated to this thriller plot, which for at least three-quarters of the book might as well take place in the present day. For instance, there’s talk of capital punishment and mind-wiping as established punishments, and the EU has its own FBI analogue – but once the action moves to England there’s no sign of any of the political climate that’s brought these developments about. The virtual world David created and must destroy is apparently full of artificial intelligences for which it is a prison – but, again, nothing is made of this dystopian premise. And although Saskia’s gradual rediscovery of her own criminal past, her struggle with what it means to be a person without memory, is a theme throughout the novel, it turns out that essentially her entire psyche is based on her suffering a sexual assault. Her whole identity is “rape victim”, and, sure, she was really fucking angry about it – her crime was enacting revenge on her attackers – but, really? There was nothing else important in her past?

Deja Vu feels like an interesting novel buried in a marketing category. It’s such a pity that that damn thriller plot and that white male academic (*cough* Robert Langdon *cough*) get in the way of a story about a woman struggling to define herself under state control.

Review: Alias Grace

This review contains spoilers.

I’ve been in a literary fiction mood lately, and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace really skewered what I wanted. (Well, what I really wanted was another Our Tragic Universe, but that wasn’t what was on my TBR pile, so.) One of Atwood’s lesser-known novels, it takes as its focus Grace Marks, a real-life Canadian woman who was, alongside fellow servant James McDermott, convicted in 1843 of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear. Along with McDermott, she was sentenced to death on her conviction, but the sentence was commuted to imprisonment. She spent some time in an asylum before being transferred to Kingston Penitentiary. After thirty years’ imprisonment, she was pardoned, and went to live in Northern New York, where all trace of her vanishes.

What’s interesting about the case, to Atwood, is its profound ambiguity. Marks’ conviction was controversial: she evidently managed to convince a number of influential and respectable people that she was, in fact, innocent, and she seems to have related three different versions of the murder. So: was she a murderess, or an unwitting accomplice? Or something in between?

Atwood’s novel focalises Grace’s story through a fictional doctor, Simon Jordan, who is trying to ferret out the truth from Grace in order to get a good enough reputation to set up a lucrative asylum on his own method. It’s narrated partly from his point of view, and partly from Grace’s, in the novel’s “present”; there are also extended flashbacks to Grace’s past as she narrates her story to Dr Jordan; and there are letters to and from various characters, including Simon’s mother, his landlady and his doctor friend in the States. Finally, each section begins with a number of epigraphs, many drawn from one of the primary sources for the Kinnear murder, Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings. (Moodie met Grace at the asylum, and Life in the Clearings contains one of Grace’s three accounts of the murder.)

This technique of multiple narratives is a classic way of creating textual ambiguity, and so it is here – although Atwood makes the technique her own. Early in the novel, Dr Jordan, writing to his friend in the States about his latest project (Grace herself), says:

…I suspect Grace has had scant reason to trust anyone at all for a very long period of time.

This follows a highly imagistical scene, narrated by Grace, in which she meets Dr Jordan for the first time and is clearly unsure what to make of him. Atwood’s setting up a certain narrative expectation, here: we might well think that we’re about to read a story in which an abused, mistrusted innocent slowly opens up to the first disinterested kindness she’s received in a very long time. This expectation is perhaps bolstered by the generic expectation that we’re about to read a detective story of sorts. Dr Jordan is a scientist, and that discipline in the early nineteenth century is accompanied by specifically masculine rhetoric, about penetrating Mother Nature’s secrets, laying them bare for categorisation and pigeonholing.

But, of course, Dr Jordan isn’t disinterested or particularly scientific: he’s trying to “cure” Grace of her amnesia (she’s claiming that she doesn’t remember murdering Kinnear) in order to prove himself as a psychiatrist and create a name and a fortune for himself. He has no real interest in her wellbeing; to him, she’s a problem to be solved.

And, in turn, Grace resists penetration, categorisation, pigeonholing, solving. She knows perfectly well that those appealing for her pardon, or asking to hear her side of the story, are mostly doing so not for her benefit, hers as an actual specific person, but for ideological reasons, or because they want to seem magnanimous and merciful, or simply because they want to have an opinion about Grace Marks, the Celebrated Murderess. The people appealing for her pardon – primarily represented in Alias Grace by Reverend Verringer, a Methodist in whose social circle Dr Jordan finds himself – are seeking to pin her down just as much as those who think she’s a violent murderess. And so, Grace lies. And she acts. And she edits the story she tells Dr Jordan.

And we’re never sure, even as readers, exactly how much.

It’s a fantastic piece of feminist mythmaking, because it is, at root, about the ways that femininity is pathologised as madness. Madness, of course, is a social construct: it’s been used in literature since the Brontes to encode feminine resistance to patriarchal norms. Grace is deeply threatening to society – and I can’t help thinking here about the novel’s Canadian setting, in a colony that’s caught between English propriety and provincial making-do – precisely because she can’t be categorised. Her demeanour is mild-mannered, polite, all innocence – and yet her actions are canny, guarded, even wicked. And so, because she fits neither of the characters society grants women – angels or demons, innocent as children or guilty as sin – she must be mad. There is no in-between.

I really, honestly wasn’t expecting to enjoy Alias Grace: I was anticipating a tough slog. What I got was everything I like in literature: ambiguity, generic slippage, radical feminism, a sprawling Victorian narrative. Just excellent.

Top Ten Worlds I’d Never Want to Visit

  1. Future Earth – Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. The Earth is fucked, everyone spends their time in a video game and whitewashing is the solution to oppression. Yeah, no thanks.
  2. Panem – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way.  Panem is a place of massive inequality, a system designed so that it’s near-impossible not to become complicit in the murder of children. Even the revolution is morally compromised.
  3. The silo – Wool, Hugh Howey. Another oppressive world, designed to keep its citizens in check. (Pesky citizens.) Pretty much every right you can think of is compromised: reproductive rights, freedom of expression, freedom of movement. Again: no thanks.
  4. Orthogonal – The Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan. Misogyny! Treacherous biology! Extra-dimensional danger from the skies! All that bloody physics!
  5. End-World – The Gunslinger, Stephen King. It’s a world that’s literally winding down: echoes of our own world lie scattered amongst the desert dust. There’s just nothing any more to look forward to, except death, and the mountains.
  6. Umayma – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Another desert world, this one in the throes of a holy war that’s gone on for so long no-one can remember why they’re fighting. And, let’s face it, I would be crap in a battle. Also, everything runs on bugs. Eurgh.
  7. The Wild West – Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne Valente. Rich, racist colonists? Dusty, filthy ruby mines? Woods full of bears? Sounds great! /sarcasm
  8. Kingsport/Arkham/Innsmouth – H.P. Lovecraft. I think the Dreamlands would probably be quite interesting – if they even allow women in – but in Lovecraft’s Massachusetts you can barely move for haunted houses, weird fishy things from the depths of the sea, night-ghasts, witches, sinister aliens and fungi from Yoggoth. And then you die. Or, more likely, go mad.
  9. The Solar System – Proxima, Stephen Baxter. Probably the only remotely interesting thing about this book was its depiction of over-population: the packed public transport, the domes on Mars and the moon where people live crammed together, the ratcheting international tensions. Smelly, crowded and busy – and nowhere to escape to.
  10. The Solar System – Jack Glass, Adam Roberts. Again, this solar system is a massively overpopulated one, with the vast crowds of the poor living in fragile plastic bubbles orbiting the sun and prisoners used to make asteroids habitable for the rich. I mean, what is there to visit?

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Things on My Reading Wishlist

  1. More books by Marisha Pessl. I think I’m just in that kind of reading mood at the moment: I want twisty, Gothicky, sparky novels about people who think too much about things.
  2. More New Crobuzon novels. I just love China Mieville’s steampunky, politically fraught city: like all real cities, it’s hypnotic, oppressive, dirty and alive.
  3. A book about a supernatural detective in a real city. I appreciate this probably already exists, but I haven’t found it yet. I think the detective story is a great way of exploring a new world; and I’m fascinated by urban stories that channel the energies of the city.
  4. Space pirates. I think I actually want a novel about The Mechanisms. Because that would be awesome.
  5. A book set on a ship. Ships are just fascinating, aren’t they? Like little worlds of their own, warring against the elements. And ship crew dynamics tend to be really interesting too.
  6. A grown-up fairytale. Something perfectly formed and resonant and gorgeous like Catherynne Valente’s writing, and something a bit like The Hobbit too: “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending.” Something that keeps Fairyland mysterious and strange and wonderful and dangerous.
  7. Decopunk. Like Valente’s Radiance: the rage and social revolution of steampunk combined with the aesthetics of the 1920s.
  8. Books about unconventional relationships. Because I think it’s important to tell stories that resist our cultural norms and create new paradigms; because our relationship norms are based so much in old-fashioned misogyny and power imbalances.
  9. More books about science and society. What I loved about Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket was that science and culture aren’t opposed, they’re inextricably intertwined. That’s how science works, or how it should work, anyway: it’s important that we remember that science isn’t some obscure process carried out by people in white rooms, it’s something that affects all of our lives, all the time.
  10. Steampunk books! I’m building up a collection of steampunk coffee-table books, basically, for writing inspiration and just because I like looking at the pictures.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Lost Symbol

the-lost-symbolThe Lost Symbol is the third book in Dan Brown’s series following the trials and tribulations of Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist extraordinaire. In this gripping instalment, Langdon is Mysteriously Summoned by an old friend to the US Capitol to give a lecture, only to find his friend’s severed hand tattooed with eldritch symbols. He has only a few hours to crack the code and deliver up the ancient Masonic wisdom the kidnapper is after, or his friend will die. Apparently. No-one bothers to check this information.

One of the most annoying things about The Lost Symbol – and believe me there are a great many annoying things about it – is the way it insists on presenting itself as factual and educational. “All organisations in this novel exist,” it proclaims, as if this actually means anything in a genre not unadjacent to realism; and almost every single chapter begins with a rundown of useless factoids (usually of the dimensional variety) about some Washington building or other. Not only is this bad writing – the thriller equivalent of the infodump – it’s also a deeply mendacious narrative strategy designed to suggest that everything in the novel is true. It’s assuming a position of authority that it doesn’t deserve.

I don’t think I would be quite so bothered by this if one of the main characters wasn’t (supposedly) a scientist. Katherine, the brother of the kidnapped man, studies noetics – a real discipline concerned with studying the power of the human consciousness. Whether or not the real-world Institute of Noetic Sciences (which, yes, does exist, thank you Dan Brown) seems legitimate isn’t the point here: the point is that it comes off as hokum in the book because Brown doesn’t seem to have the least idea of how science actually works. Katherine’s work is secret, and is not backed up anywhere. It has never been published or peer reviewed. And yet, the vast amounts of data sitting on her hard drive apparently “prove” that thoughts have weight and can cure cancer and other unlikely things.

In particular, there’s a scene in which Katherine plays her brother a video recording of an experiment – a single experiment on a single person – in which a dying man is weighed in a sealed chamber. And, lo and behold, at the very moment of his death the number on the scales drops – proving that the soul is real and physical!

This is stupid both on its own terms and in the factual real-world terms the book aligns itself with. Firstly, physical things can’t leave the sealed chamber – that’s the point – so if the soul is physical its leaving the body wouldn’t register a loss of weight on the scales; it would just float around, presumably, within the chamber. Secondly, any scientist worth their salt – any scientist whose research might, for example, genuinely be able to revolutionise our understanding of the human mind – would know that one data point proves absolutely nothing. It could be a systematic error, an error with the measuring equipment, a flaw in the glass of the sealed chamber that’s letting some of the air out. None of this apparently crosses Katherine’s mind, or, indeed, Dan Brown’s.

I think the problem here is that Brown is trying to draw a parallel between the “knowledge of the ancients” (which Katherine, incidentally, has dedicated her life to proving, which is also not how science works) and modern-day science; and that this is a parallel which doesn’t hold up. As Brown presents it, the “knowledge of the ancients” is a body of knowledge locked up in old books. Science isn’t like that; science is a process in which nothing is ever really proved to be “true”, only less false. Unlike, say, Freemasonry, science isn’t a field in which authority is based on how much you know (or it shouldn’t be, anyway); it’s based on how you think, your reasoning, your logic, your experimental design. It’s the difference between learning by rote and actually learning. The Lost Symbol doesn’t understand this; hence the fact that it takes such pride in the kinds of factoids a twelve-year-old would trot out at parties (“did you know the Capitol covers four acres of floor space?!”).

Why does this matter? Because thinking about scientists as a privileged elite isn’t healthy, for them or for us. Anyone can do science, in theory. I mean, to do properly groundbreaking stuff nowadays you need complicated and expensive machines; but everyone can think about science, evaluate evidence, weigh up whether a study into whether the MMR vaccine causes autism that involved ten children who were selected for the fact that they already had autism actually tells us anything new. And breeding misunderstanding of this fact, casting scientists as experts who know secrets we mortals can only dream of, is (to get topical for a moment) one of the reasons America has just sworn in a maniac as President.

Or, as the Circumlocutor says, “It is a smelly book.”

Top Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I think this is actually already a TV series – I mean, I doubt there’s a single Dickens novel that isn’t – but I haven’t managed to get my hands on it. It’s almost a truism to observe that Dickens is perfect for a TV series’ episodic, sprawling structure – certainly Our Mutual Friend needs more space than a film can give it.
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. I had to think about this one a bit (and it’s never going to happen in any case, the Tolkien Estate being notoriously tight-fisted with the rights), but it’s an episodic narrative with a vast cast of characters and a number of narrative strands. It would be like Game of Thrones but without all the rape.
  3. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. I cannot imagine any TV producer being brave enough to take on Perdido Street Station, with its particular brand of squicky violence and unromanticised reality, but I wish they would. The pulpy plot elements, the rambly narrative, the overbearingly Gothic-steampunk city of New Crobuzon? Yes, yes, yes.
  4. Saga – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I don’t know why, I just think the high-speed zaniness of the graphic novels would transfer well to TV. (Maybe like Doctor Who but without all the sexism?) It makes a lot of play with different kinds of pop culture and the role they play in public dissent, too, which would be interesting to consider in a TV show.
  5. Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon. Obviously, there’s a lot in Pynchon that couldn’t be captured visually, but that’s the case with pretty much everything else on this list too. But I can see a TV version of Bleeding Edge playing out like Dirk Gently, almost.
  6. Paradise Lost – John Milton. What? Paradise Lost would look fantastic on TV, all fire and brimstone and war in Heaven, and it has some pretty compelling characters too. If you can have Shakespeare on TV, you can have Milton.
  7. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Yes! It would be like Firefly but with aliens and fewer guns.
  8. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. I just read this, and it would make a terrible film but a great TV series (though I suppose it’s quite short). You could do a lot with the city of Palimpsest itself, and intertwining that with the characters in the real world would work really well on TV.
  9. Robot Dreams – Isaac Asimov. You know what would be good? A Twilight Zone-style anthology series featuring Asimov’s short stories, which all have that kind of conceptual twist you got in Twilight Zone episodes, when it turned out the person narrating the story was dead or something. Obviously, not that tone of twist, but structurally it’s the same thing.
  10. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. All the Regency society manoeuvrings are like a soap anyway. It would just have dragons in it too.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)