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Sunday, 13 April 2008

Written in granite: Knock, knock...

A while ago a friend of mine whose judgement in such matters is generally trustworthy suggested I should read Andrew Lycett's biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Helpfully the cover tell us that this was "the man who created Sherlock Holmes". This strikes me as slightly unnecessary, rather like saying "David Beckham, the footballer". I mean, Beckham also has a number of parallel activities, modelling, shaving, husband and father, etc. etc. but generally speaking any interest in these other pursuits would be extremely limited were it not for the man's ability to bend free kicks around defensive walls and deliver pinpoint accuracy crosses from the right wing. Likewise Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a man of many parts; a doctor, a keen cricketer, a spiritualist, an author of historical novels, horror stories, boys' own adventures and a whole gamut of other styles but he would be at best a footnote in literary history if he had not created the world's first genuine superstar fictional detective in Holmes and his sidekick Watson. We won't be looking so much at Holmes here, suffice it to say that he was far from the first fictional detective, indeed he drew heavily on the likes of Poe, Gaboriau, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, to name but the better-known predecessors. Anyway, I think most people who know Doyle's name will be aware that he created Holmes, good though many of the other stories are the two names are inextricably linked. If they know anything else about him then they might've heard of the whole Cottingley "fairy photographs" business and Doyle's interest in spiritualism, which developed throughout his life. Lycett's excellent biography goes a long way towards explaining this. It also offers wonderful snippets of fact so that, for instance, we learn that Doyle once bowled out W.G. Grace and that the latter doctor got his revenge on the former a few years later (although there is no record of Grace creating a consulting detective).

I was listening to BBC Radio Four's Front Row arts magazine the other evening and they had a piece linked by the theme of spiritualism. It featured Julian Barnes – who had clearly either read Lycett's book or seen the same source material - talking about Doyle. It also featured John Harwood talking about his second novel, The Séance, which has just been published. His first, The Ghost Writer, was a curious but very enjoyable Gothic novel which I remember reading a few years ago. His second is yet another piece of faux Victoriana of the kind which has enjoyed such a vogue over recent years. I've just finished it and it's impossible not to bring the name of William "Wilkie" Collins into any discussion of it. I remember being thrilled by The Woman In White when I first read it roughly 25 years ago and looking for more, only to discover that the only other Collins novel in print was The Moonstone, that favourite of T.S. Eliot's. General opinion at that point was that Collins was a second-rate Victorian author of "sensation novels", which were treated with the kind of disdain reserved for all "genre" fiction. But over the last 15 years or so in particular there has been a huge resurgence of interest in the late 19th century as a setting for fiction of all kinds. It is not too hard to see why: the way the Victorian period looks to us now, it is all about the occult in the original sense of the word, i.e. that which is hidden. All those layers of underclothing, the seething passions under the morality and keeping up of appearances, the advent of a technology-driven society: this is a gift for any plot. So, although we saw a few early pieces of faux Victoriana in the eighties, Peter Ackroyd, Charles Palliser's extraordinary The Quincunx, one or two others, the mid to late nineties saw a sudden explosion, most famously Sarah Waters, two of whose novels were filmed as BBC series, with the curiously postmodern concept of novels by a writer not only living but at the start of her career being filmed as costume dramas (indeed Tipping The Velvet was Waters' first novel and the other, Fingersmith, only her third). Then there was Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal And The White, Michael Cox's The Meaning Of Night, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell, Iain R. McLeod's Light Ages books (these latter being essentially fantasy, alternative history), plus we suddenly saw lots of Victorian detectives...

Another book featured on Front Row recently was Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, a factual account of a fairly grisly real-life Victorian murder case, generally reckoned to have influenced the course of detective fiction. The Woman In White was in the process of serialisation at the time and, apart from the sexual aspects of the case being somewhat too close to the surface for fictional propriety at the time, it could've been scripted by Collins, featuring, as it does, remarriages, a first wife tainted by madness, her place in the master's affections (and bed) usurped by a governess who thus becomes a stepmother, the possibility of the madness being transmitted to the children of the first marriage, questions of identity, emigration to Australia, the shadow of the noose, clergymen, a proper detective... All of which leads us back to The Séance, a book which has pretty much the full set of Collins' habitual themes. I'll try not to give too much away here, but first of all the book is written using the device of a number of overlapping journals written by the main characters. Then we have more clergymen, lawyers and doctors. We have mediums and psychic research investigators seeing to expose them. We have the shadows of both the noose and the asylum, i.e. have both murder and madness, we have questions of identity, of heredity, we deal with the question of women essentially being the chattels of their husbands... This is core Collins territory. That and the book is beautifully plotted, another key Collins trait. There is also a spooky country mansion from which people keep disappearing inexplicably, with hints of alchemy and occult dealings, so there is more than a hint of M.R. James (which makes a change from Henry James, who seemed to crop in every third novel published a year or so back) and I wonder whether it is any coincidence that the central male character's first name is Magnus. The Séance is actually a highly enjoyable novel in its own right and you don't need to be familiar with Wilkie Collins to enjoy it. In the end it is not a supernatural novel, not really, there are one or two ghosts but they appear only in minor roles and are more about building up the unstable atmosphere surrounding certain characters. Nor is it a murder mystery. The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher is a murder mystery (oh and it comes with quotes from the aforementioned Sarah Waters on the dust-jacket), although the identity of the perpetrator becomes known well before the end.

I don't imagine we've seen the last of the current vogue for books of all kinds written by modern authors and set sometime in the 19th century. As I say, it offers a wonderfully tight setting and all sorts of plot devices are available. It's easy to see the attraction to both authors and readers.

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