by Catriona Mills

Humiliation, Round Five: A Slight Difference

Posted 3128 days ago in by Catriona

I’ve been slack on the blogging front the last couple of days, due to enthusiastic birthday celebrations. But a discussion last night that we should really have another round of Humiliation segued into a suggestion of holding a round of Film Humiliation.

That’s an idea I like, but it’s trickier, I think, than books.

For all Bayard argues that it’s not necessary to have read a book in order to claim to have read it, it is fairly straightforward—for the purposes of this game—to say, “No, I have never actually opened a copy of this book.”

But films—it seems to me that it’s trickier to say, “Nope, I’ve never consciously watched this film.”

And I’m not even talking about the broad tendency to use the television set as a kind of aural and visual wallpaper, because I don’t do that myself: I don’t put the telly on unless I’m actually intending to watch it (with the exception of test cricket).

But films seem to be more easily and readily quotable than books—or perhaps I mean that we’re more likely to recognise a quote from a film than from a book. It depends, of course, on the book and on the quote: anyone will spot “To be or not to be” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but unless we’re actually looking for literary influences, more obscure quotes may well slip past in casual reading.

But I’m not convinced this works with films, when the quotations are as often visual as they are verbal, not to mention the broad geek tendency to speak almost exclusively in quotations from film and television.

I, for example, have never consciously watched Citizen Kane—how’s that for humiliating? But I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable taking that as my offering in this game of Humiliation, because I’ve seen the core scenes, The Simpsons episode based on the film, the episode of Mad About You that focused on when Jamie had seen the film, documentaries about Orson Welles . . . and so on.

But it’s been too convivial a weekend for me to work through these ideas clearly.

So, how about a round of Film Humiliation instead?

Same rules apply as in the book version: in the comments thread below, nominate a film you haven’t seen but that you think everyone else has.

Nominations will close on Tuesday 2nd December at 5 pm. Then I’ll open up a new thread for the voting. One point per person who has seen your film—and the person with the most points will be the humiliated winner.

Actually, I've Decided To Become Cranky

Posted 3131 days ago in by Catriona

I’ve written numerous posts, going right back to the first month of this blog, about my frustration with adaptations of Agatha Christie.

Now, to be fair, I don’t recall ever having seen the Joan Hickson adaptations of the Miss Marple stories, which Nick holds in high regard. And I do rather like David Suchet as Poirot. It’s the mucking around with the plots that drives me mad—when Christie is such a careful plotter.

But my recent reading of Reginald Hill, which I alluded to in my last post, is what’s got me thinking here: Hill isn’t treated any better by adaptors than Christie has been.

And so here’s a rant.

Why are Hill’s books treated just as poorly as Christie’s in adaptations?

Here’s a shortlist of things they’ve done to Hill’s books that have annoyed me:

  • They separated Pascoe and Ellie.

Now, my understanding is that the actress wanted to leave. All well and good. That doesn’t mean the character has to leave. I’m not partial to recasting myself, but it’s a fairly common technique. Or the character could simply cease to play a significant role in the stories and have faded into the background, heard but not seen.

As far as I recall from a newspaper article at the time of this change (I can’t remember when or where I read it, unfortunately), Colin Buchanan (who played Pascoe) was furious about the change, as well: he felt it played into all the standard stereotypes about television policemen being entirely unable to sustain personal relationships.

And I think he’s right.

Ellie was an important part of the balance of the books: she disapproved strongly of Pascoe’s job but was able to juxtapose that against her desire for a sustained relationship with him, and the way in her engagement with his profession mutates as the books move from 1970 to (at last count) 2008 and the nature of the police force alters is actually one of the aspects of the novels that interests me the most.

And the separation was done is such a daft way, as I recall. For Ellie to then move to the United States with their daughter? (Did they, I wonder, omit the subplot about her father having Alzheimer’s? Because surely she wouldn’t have left if he were still ill.) And for Pascoe to move in with Dalziel? (Why? He didn’t need to live with Dalziel before he was married, so why would he not be able to afford a place on his own now, when he’s significantly higher in rank and, presumably, in pay?)

  • On a similar note, why did they drop Wieldy? I stopped watching before this happened, but it still annoyed me.

As with Ellie, Wieldy is a centrally important figure in the books: in later novels, where the focus is on newcomers to the CID, generally fairly low-ranked officers such as Shirley Novello and Hat Bowler, Dalziel, Pascoe, and Wield are known as the Holy Trinity.

Take one away from the Trinity, and it loses balance.

Again, I assume the actor wanted to leave: in fact, I see that he only worked irregularly after leaving the show in 2002 and retired from the profession in 2006 for health reasons.

That’s a shame: he was excellent in the role.

Nevertheless, Wieldy was central to the shape and feel of the books: if you have to abandon two major characters, maybe that’s when you need to start thinking about whether or not the programme is still viable.

  • And for my final whinging point, why did they continue the series after they’d worked their way through all the extant novels?

The later storylines were so far removed from the style and panache of Hill’s writing that I wasn’t even faintly compelled to keep watching, no matter how good the actors were.

Oh, I know complaining about this sort of thing is futile.

And I do know that adaptations aren’t going to be identical to the book: I don’t expect that.

But I am thinking of starting up a small society—very exclusive—called “Well, If You Aren’t Going To Pay Any Attention To The Feel Of The Original Books, Why Not Just Call It Something Else?”

I don’t think I’ll get a usable acronym out of it, though.

Strange Conversations: Part Sixty-Eight

Posted 3131 days ago in by Catriona

When Facebook-specific games engender competition:

ME: I’ll get that high score, though, eventually. (Makes defiant fist gesture)
NICK: I’m sure you will. (Makes punching fist gesture)
ME: No, no: it’s not aggressive. It’s like this (makes defiant fist gesture). “I’ll get you, Gadget!”
NICK: (raspy voice) Next time, Gadget! Next time!
ME: See, I was waiting for that. The minute I did the voice, I thought, “Nick’s going to one-up me, here.”
NICK: Of course!
ME: No, one-upping your girlfriend is never good.
ME: But Doctor Claw impersonations are a special case, because I’m so good at them.

Strange Conversations: Part Sixty-Seven

Posted 3131 days ago in by Catriona

What happens when Nick trots down to the Fiveways to buy fish and chips, because we’re too lazy to cook:

NICK: It is I! Your Nick! Returned from the East, bearing strange gifts!
ME: You’re not really, though, are you?
NICK: Well . . . no. No, not really.

Books That Don't Exist

Posted 3131 days ago in by Catriona

I’m not talking about books that seem to have existed once but have subsequently sunk without a trace, books that left some mark on the ephemera of the publishing industry—catalogues and advertisements—but don’t exist in libraries, of which Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won are perhaps the pre-eminent examples.

I’m not even talking about the fact that I sometimes have dreams in which I’m book shopping, but the books I buy then don’t exist anywhere in this world—sequels to books I love that have no sequels, or entirely imaginary volumes.

No, I’m not talking about those, though they’re closer to the truth.

I’m talking about books that have no existence except in other books.

Perhaps Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series provides the pre-eminent modern example of authors who do this.

(And, by the way, Mr Fforde? May we have another book, please? I’ve read all mine. Doesn’t have to be another Thursday Next, but another book would be grand. Ta!)

When Thursday is working as a Literary Detective for Spec Ops and, even more obviously, when she is working for Jurisfiction and moving in and out of The Well of Lost Plots, she deals regularly with books that don’t actually exist, as well as with ones that do.

Some of the ones she deals with don’t fill me with any inclination to read them, such as the unpublished manuscript “Cavendish Heights” or the fantasy novel that doubles as a menagerie, which off the top of my head I think is called Swords of Zenobia.

But some are more intriguing: I admit, I’d like to see what all the fuss is about with Daphne Farquitt’s novels (especially given how much they appeal to the lobsters)—although I suspect I’ve already read most of them in the guise of my disturbingly large number of Georgette Heyer novels.

But Fforde isn’t the only one.

I’ve recently been re-reading some Reginald Hill, specifically the inter-related Dialogues of the Dead and Death’s Jest-Book.

These two novels are intensely literary: with main characters who are academics, librarians, and novelists, they’re full of literary in-jokes and seemingly effortless quotations from obscure fiction that make me feel very poorly read indeed.

They also refer heavily to two authors whom I’ve never read: Heinrich Heine, the German Romantic, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the English Romantic.

Beddoes, I understand, is not terribly well read by anyone, so I don’t feel too guilty about not reading his masterpiece, Death’s Jest Book (despite completing an M.Phil. on the Romantic novel. I’m salving my conscience with the fact that Death’s Jest Book is actually a play.)

Heine, though, I probably should have read, since he’s significant to German Romanticism. Alas, I never got any further than Goethe.

But the books are also littered with fictional books, books that don’t exist: some are academic texts, like the two competing biographies of Beddoes that circulate through the sub-plots in Hill’s two novels, Dick Dee’s never-to-be-completed dictionary of dictionaries, or the translations of Heine’s poems on which novelist Charley Penn has been working for many years.

But some are fictional novels: specifically, Penn’s series of successful Harry Hacker novels, based partly on Heine. Though these have been adapted into Sunday night bodice-rippers—or what another character calls “claret and cleavage” television, which is my favourite description—the analysis of the novels themselves makes me desperate to read them: they’re described as “full of verbal wit, lots of good jokes, passages of exciting action, good but not overdone historical backgrounds, and strong plots which often include a clever puzzle element which Harry is instrumental in solving” (394). There’s also a supernatural element, through Harry’s doppelganger.

Harry is himself is said to be a blend of Heinrich Heine; Pechorin, the Byronic hero from Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time (1839, revised 1841); and the Scarlet Pimpernel, blended with Sherlock Holmes, Don Juan—“Byron’s rather than Mozart’s,” the woman outlining the novels insists—and Raffles, the gentleman thief (393).

Now who wouldn’t want to read those?

Except, of course, that they don’t exist. Which doesn’t seem fair, somehow.

Neither Fforde nor Hill are unique in this respect, of course. Volume four of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, for example, allows a glimpse at a shelf of never-written books in the Library of Dreams: books by Wodehouse (Psmith and Jeeves. Perhaps Jeeves has finally had enough of Wooster’s inanity?), by Dickens (The Return of Edwin Drood), by Tolkien (The Lost Road), by Conan Doyle (The Conscience of Sherlock Holmes), by Chesterton (The Man Who Was October).

Also on this shelf are two imaginary books that I am desperate to read: The Dark God’s Darling by Lord Dunsany and Alice’s Journey Behind The Moon by Lewis Carroll. The others I can take or leave, but I’m quite frustrated by the fact that those two don’t actually exist.

There’s no rhyme or reason to this post: just frustration.

Taunting your loyal readers with books that sound fascinating but that they’re never going to be able to read is too easy to be sport.

(All quotes from Dialogues of the Dead from the 2003 Avon paperback.)

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

Posted 3132 days ago in by Catriona

I decided to put our Christmas tree up tonight, partly because I like to have it up early, or else we don’t have the advantage of it for a full month, and partly because I got a little squiffy and it seemed like a good idea at the time:

We’d never put up a tree before last year, but last Christmas I rebelled and decided I had to have a tree.

It’s a tiny little tree: according to the box, it’s something called a “Canadian Black Pine,” but I find that unlikely, since the tree also has sparkly silver and purple highlights—I’m quite certain there’s no tree in the wild, Canada or elsewhere, with that type of colouring.

But we are limited to a small tree by available space and it was this or a fluorescent pink one.

Frankly, though, the main reason I determined to put the tree up so early was because I adore my lights:

Falling in love with these lights at Tandy was a determining factor in deciding to buy a tree to display them on.

I don’t want to spoil their novelty as Christmas lights by displaying them on non-Christmas occasions, so putting them up a month before Christmas seems a fair compromise.

Why I'm Suddenly Not So Enamoured Of My Paladin

Posted 3132 days ago in by Catriona

You know, I’d thought that Paks the paladin was a more successful adventurer in the Dungeons and Dragons: Tiny Adventures universe than retired Saeana, whose less savoury adventures I’ve chronicled elsewhere on the blog.

(Honestly: that elf and her predilection for incubi.)

But Paks—helped, I admit, by the Vorpal Greatsword I carried over from Saeana’s pack, which is really not a level one weapon—seemed to be passing through the adventures with more success and with fewer problematic moral choices—well, except for the time he faked a marriage with an orc maiden and then legged it with the wedding presents.

That was aberrant, hopefully.

But my brief absence from Tiny Adventures seems to have caused him to lose his panache: perhaps he’s rusty from disuse?

It seems so, since so far in today’s adventure—Red Plume Mountain, in which I’m apparently chasing down a thousand-year-old wizard called Byron Silvertongue, who has been leaving mocking poems at the site of cunning thefts. Naturally, when your parents saddle you with a name like “Byron,” you have to live up to it—he has:

  • fallen into a pit trap, while wandering casually around a deserted mine.
  • successfully beaten up some hobgoblins, which was a measure of success that didn’t last, since he was then
  • successfully beaten up by four brigands, after comprehensively failing an Armour Class check. But, seriously? Four brigands? That’s hardly a fair fight.
  • been skewered by the poison spikes of a kruthik. I don’t even know what that is, but it caused fourteen points of damage, which seems to be the main thing.
  • completely failed to find a mysterious and familiar-sounding bird that he could hear in the woods. On top of that, while he was searching for the bird, the merchants he’d been chatting with disappeared. Double fail, there.
  • more or less managed to outdistance a goblin horde, until he tried to jump off a cliff into a river, missed (how do you miss an entire river?), and broke his leg. That’s going to make the rest of the adventure a little tricky.
  • been severely beaten by a strongman who managed to get his Vorpal Greatsword off him. Now what’s the point of carrying a Vorpal Greatsword if you’re going to allow a long strongman to just take it off you?
  • fallen down a mountainside trying to help a young man who was hanging over a ravine. To add insult to injury, the man then broke his leg and Paks had to carry him up the mountainside—which is odd, since I’m quite certain Paks himself broke his leg jumping off that cliff. Perhaps there was a silent passage of time in the middle of the adventure?
  • ultimately failed the entire adventure—no surprise there, then—after this woeful encounter:

Paks found Byron Silvertongue sitting on a rock overlooking a beautiful mountain vista. Byron rose, turned, and confronted Paks. After a moment of baleful glaring, the wizard shot a vicious poem Paks’s way.

Paks made a Wisdom check with a difficulty of 17 . . . and rolled 9

Paks shouted some vulgarity back at Byron and charged. What Paks hadn’t realized was that the wizard’s words were also a spell, and he ran smack into an invisible wall of force, knocking himself out. When Paks awoke, Byron the Silvertongue was long gone, with the only remaining evidence being a small scroll with the poem inscribed upon it.

Really, Paks? A wizard—a one-thousand-year-old wizard, in fact—shouted at you and it didn’t occur to you that it might be a spell? So you knocked yourself out on an invisible wall? Now, that’s just embarrassing.

And “some vulgarity”? I hope, for your sake, it was at least a rude limerick.

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part Five

Posted 3133 days ago in by Catriona

Fair warning: this puzzle was impossible to consider with spoilers.

7. What are Lord Edgeware’s vices? (Lord Edgeware Dies, 1933, with reference to Mrs McGinty’s Dead, 1952)

Lord Edgeware is the unpleasant murder victim in Lord Edgeware Dies: we know he’s unpleasant, because we’re told so (and, perhaps, because his daughter is so highly strung and terrified). But we know very little about the actual man.

Yet we know there’s something about him that is outside the normal. He strikes Arthur Hastings as an animalistic, barely human creature who exercises superb self-control (33). Poirot says that “he is very near the borderline of madness” and that “I should imagine he practises many vices, and that beneath his frigid exterior he hides a deep-rooted instinct of cruelty” (34). His daughter speaks haltingly of his “queerness” (85). His nephew and heir’s “fatuous expression of good nature” falters when he is asked about his estrangement from his uncle (89). And his wife shivers when she talks about him, describes him as a “fanatic” and “a queer man—he’s not like other people” (15).

Yes, there’s definitely something odd about this man.

But his wife’s testimony is not reliable: she is, after all, the one who kills him.

And she kills him for gain: she hesitates not at all to admit that. She wishes to marry another man and, since that man is possessed of a violent and rather morbid Anglo-Catholic fervour, he is willing to marry a widow but not a divorcee.

But just because she has one motive, is that any reason to assume she doesn’t have another? What exactly are Lord Edgeware’s vices?

We don’t know for certain, but we do receive a hint from Arthur Hastings: as Lord Edgeware, with a “queer smile” notes, “But I enjoy the macabre. I always have. My taste is peculiar,” Hastings “had been looking at the shelves near. There were the Memoirs of Casanova, also a volume on the Comte de Sade, another on mediæval tortures” (33).

If these books represent Lord Edgeware’s tastes, then we can plausibly assume two things: his vices are sexual and they are sadistic.

Who is more likely to suffer from those vices than a wife? A wife who leaves him within months of the wedding and, despite her other motive for murder, shivers when she speaks of him?

A clever defense counsel could do something with this.

Perhaps I wouldn’t find this so intriguing if it didn’t remind me of an ultimately irrelevant piece of back story in a later novel, Mrs McGinty’s Dead. This novel turns on the recognition, by the late Mrs McGinty, of a photograph previously published in a newspaper exposé of four female murderers: Eva Kane, Lily Gamboll, Vera Blake, and Janice Courtland.

Eva Kane is clearly modelled on Ethel Le Neve from the Crippen Case. Lily Gamboll is a young girl who murdered her aunt and Vera Blake a woman who was more or less implicated (though not legally) in her husband’s crimes.

Little direct text from the fictional newspaper report is repeated in the novel. But what is describes Janice Courtland as the woman whose husband was a “fiend in human form” (66): the narrative voice, paraphrasing the article, speaks only of “peculiar practices referred to in such a guarded way as to arouse instant curiosity” (69).

The newspaper report is clearly sensational—based on the snippets we get—and, at the confession of the journalist who wrote it, occasionally inaccurate. But Janice Courtland still seems analogous to Jane Wilkinson in Lord Edgeware Dies: a woman married to a man who seems to be abusive in a viciously sadistic fashion.

Does this mean Lord Edgeware deserves a knife to the base of the skull? Of course not.

But perhaps there’s more to his murder than simply his wife’s desire to marry a violently Anglo-Catholic duke who looks like a dreamy monk.

(All quotes from Mrs McGinty’s Dead taken from the 1990 Fontana edition. All quotes from Lord Edgeware Dies taken from the 1979 Fontana edition.)

Strange Conversations: Part Sixty-Six

Posted 3134 days ago in by Catriona

We were listening to Jonathan Coulton’s “Chiron Beta Prime”—the Christmas letter from a family banished to an asteroid by their robot overlords. Did I say overlords? I meant protectors—when we had this conversation:

ME: If you like, you could make up a playlist for my birthday.
NICK: Yes! I will!
ME: Songs I like.
NICK: Oh.
ME: Well, good stuff—you can have some Space, and Catatonia, and so on.
NICK: Well . . .
ME: But not the Planescape Torment soundtrack, okay?
NICK: Oh, okay.

You know you’re living with a geek when his idea of appropriate party music is a video-game soundtrack.

[Actually, no, you know you’re living with a geek when you have the following follow-up conversation:

NICK: Whatcha blogging?
ME: Read it.
NICK: Ha! Hang on, I’ll just check you spelt Planescape Torment correctly.

For the record, I hadn’t.]

As always, all of Jonathan Coulton’s songs can be streamed directly here and I strongly recommend them, though the site’s been a bit buggy lately.

Bow Bells Novelettes

Posted 3134 days ago in by Catriona

Look what just arrived in the mail!

I found this via the fabulous (and likely to bankrupt me) American Book Exchange, further via (if there is such a thing) the awesome BookFinder.

Actually, it’s lucky I don’t have a credit card: Nick is willing to use his, but far less susceptible to the charms of late-nineteenth-century serial fiction than I am, so he’s talked me down from more than one extravagant purchase.

Not this this was extravagant: far from it, considering that it’s still in its original paper cover:

You don’t find that very often. Of course, the front cover has completely separated from the spine, for which I blame the postman—who curled the parcel up and shoved it between the letterbox and the fence paling. Why?—but then that’s not only reparable but also the downside of Victorian paperbacks. Yellowback collectors have been complaining for years about the relative fragility of the books and, in fact, they tend to be bought for their appearance only: they’re hard to read without damaging.

I didn’t buy this purely for decoration: more as a research tool, if I continue to focus on ephemeral nineteenth-century publishing, which I may well. But I’m certainly not planning to read it in bed.

And now, some context.

Bow Bells Novelettes was conceived by John Dicks as a spin-off to the highly successful Bow Bells, a penny weekly: that is, an inexpensive magazine published weekly, specialising in (largely lurid and melodramatic) fiction, and aimed at the working classes (though almost certainly read into the middle classes, as well).

In my thesis, I dealt with Bow Bells Novelettes in the same chapter as Bow Bells itself, partly because Eliza Winstanley didn’t publish many stories in the former—not ones that I could confirm as hers, anyway—and partly because there’s not much distinction between the two journals, except that the stories in Bow Bells Novelettes are longer: each issue contains one “novelette,” a (generally) sixteen-page story, complete with three illustrations, like this one:

(That one looks to me as though it is by Frederick Gilbert, who did a great deal of illustration work for John Dicks’s publications: he was the less famous and less successful brother of Sir John Gilbert) who also did magazine illustration—most notably for The Illustrated London News and, I believe but I’d have to check, later for The London Journal under George Vickers—but was also a Royal Academician. Also, I genuinely made that decision on aesthetic grounds before I noticed the “FG” in the corner. Honestly.)

John Dicks’s publications achieved some notoriety at the end of the nineteenth century (separate from the type of notoriety attracted in the mid-nineteenth century, when G. W. M. Reynolds was editing Dicks’s publications) as the type of pernicious reading material likely to corrupt the working classes. In George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), for example, we know that Esther is likely to find trouble in her new situation (she is eventually seduced by a fellow servant and abandoned while pregnant) because of the porter’s reaction to the books he carries from the station for her:

Sarah Tucker—that’s the upper-housemaid—will be after you to lend them to her. She’s a wonderful reader. She has read every story that has come out in Bow Bells for the last three years, and you can’t puzzle her, try as you will. She knows all the names, can tell you which lord it was that saved the girl from the carriage when the ‘osses were tearing like mad towards a precipice a ‘undred feet deep, and all about the baronet for whose sake the girl went out to drown herself in the moonlight. I ‘aven’t read the books mesel’, but Sarah and me are great pals.

(George Moore’s Esther Waters. 1894. Everyman edition. London: J. M. Dent, 1994. 8-9)

To balance that, though, here’s my favourite quote about Bow Bells Novelettes, from G. K. Chesterton (who, among other things, wrote the Father Brown mysteries):

Nietzsche and the Bow Bells Novelettes have both obviously the same fundamental character; they both worship the tall man with curling moustaches and herculean bodily power, and they both worship him in a manner which is somewhat feminine and hysterical. Even here, however, the Novelette easily maintains its philosophical superiority, because it does attribute to the strong man those virtues which do commonly belong to him, such virtues as laziness and kindness and a rather reckless benevolence, and a great dislike of hurting the weak. (197-98)

(G. K. Chesterton’s “On Smart Novelists and the Smart Set,” from Heretics. 1905. London: Bodley House, 1950. 196-215.

I can’t argue with that.

On a final note, it was not until I saw Bow Bells Novelettes in its paper covers (instead of bound in green cloth, as was usual for the yearly volume) that I realised how consistent John Dicks’s branding was across his various publications.

Look, for example, at this cover from C. M. Braeme’s Lord Lisle’s Daughter in Dicks’ English Novels (which reprinted novels to which Dicks had the copyright, mostly serials from Bow Bells or Reynolds’s Miscellany):

(Another Frederick Gilbert illustration.)

I don’t know if there’s anything significant about consistent branding: it did strike me as intriguing for late-nineteenth-century publications, though.

So, Without Official Confirmation, It Looks As Though The Next Doctor . . .

Posted 3135 days ago in by Catriona

May well be Paterson Joseph.

There’s no official notification and the blogosphere is divided on the apparent accidental reveal of Joseph as a frontrunner in this very short snippet of an interview (via IO9) with his Survivors co-star Phillip Rhys.

Me, I’m not quite certain that the interview is as revelatory as some people are thinking. It could be an accidental slip of the tongue or it could simply be a verbal shift away from a potentially damaging statement.

As to whether I’d like to see Paterson Joseph as the Doctor? Well, I think I would.

I’ve seen Joseph in a number of things, most recently as the punctuation-challenged Dr Rossi in the first episode of The Gil Mayo Mysteries: the one who had “No special relationship’s” written on his wall and to whom Gil said, “You’re really just making yourself look stupid.”

Before that, he was Lyndon, the world’s sexiest IT consultant, in Green Wing, which was a superb show and a charming role.

He was in Steven Moffat’s Jekyll, which is probably where the rumours started in the first place: anyone who has ever worked with Moffat is currently being linked to the role of the Doctor for 2010.

He’s been in Doctor Who itself, of course, as Rodrick in season one’s weepy two-parter “Bad Wolf” and “The Parting of the Ways.”

And before all of those, the role I genuinely adored and the reason why I’m not too worried about these rumours—he was the fabulous Marquis de Carabas in the BBC version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

(And if you’ve neither read that book nor seen the television version, I can strongly recommend both of them—but if you’re thinking of catching up on what Joseph is capable of before this rumour is confirmed or denied, definitely track down the television serial.)

Gaiman has, apparently, said that he wrote the Marquis de Carabas’s character as William Hartnell’s Doctor, so the role is both unique and, simultaneously, a nice primer for perhaps playing the Doctor.

I don’t know if this rumour is true or not, but I’m not going to fret if it is.

The Marquis de Carabas knows everything. Knows everyone. Can go anywhere. Can do anything.

Just like the Doctor.

[An aside: Today might well, as Nick has just reminded me, be an auspicious day for an announcement of some kind. Today, forty-five years ago, Doctor Who premiered.]

Strange Conversations: Part Sixty-Five

Posted 3136 days ago in by Catriona

I do love the various incarnations of Mario Party, but . . .

ME: I hate Yoshi!
NICK: But you always play Yoshi.
ME: Yes, but he just rolled an 8.
NICK: And that’s bad?
ME: When he’s rolling three 10-sided dice instead of one?
NICK: Ah.
ME: I’m going to cook him and eat him.
(Note: He’s a dinosaur, so this is nearly but not quite as creepy as it sounds.)
NICK: But he’s you!
ME: No, I’m him. It’s similar, but less . . . ideologically complicated.

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part Four

Posted 3136 days ago in by Catriona

No, I haven’t quite run out of puzzles just yet:

6. How seriously are we supposed to take the supernatural? (Sparkling Cyanide, 1945, and The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928)

I’m excluding from this piece 1930’s The Mysterious Mr Quin, which is the most distinctly supernatural of Christie’s works. Mr Quin fascinates me, because he’s a strange and disturbing being who evokes some of the more sinister undercurrents of the Harlequinade.

I know little about the origins of Harlequin and of the Commedia dell’arte, but Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests that the name (from the Old French Hellequin or Herlequin) may derive from either the Middle English Herle king, which is one of the names for Woden, or the German Erlenkönig (literally, “king of the alders,” often represented, as it is on the Wikipedia page for “Harlequin,” linked below, as “Elf king”), either of which could have informed the term “Arlecchino.” Both Brewer’s and Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopaedia emphasise that the character is invisible (except to Columbine) and frequently mischievous.

Wikipedia also has, on its “Harlequin” page, a fifteenth-century image, though the content of the image is not referenced in the article, subtitled “Arlecchino and other demons handling souls from the pitch for Dante and Virgil.” On that note, however, Henry Cary (who translated The Inferno in 1805 and the rest of the Divine Comedy in 1814) presents the name as “Alichino” (canto 21, line 116), as does Mark Musa (canto 21, line 118.)

(Dorothy L. Sayers presents it as either “Hacklespur” or “Hellkin.” It’s impossible for me, monolinguist that I am, to tell which, since she reverses the order of some of the other names in this list, in comparison to Cary and Musa: “raving Rubicant and Farfarel” (canto 21, line 123), for example, where Musa has “Farfarello and our crazy Rubicante” (canto 21, line 123). I’m tempted by “Hellkin,” given its strong phonetic connection to the Old French Hellequin, noted above.)

Either way, “Arlichino” and “Arlecchino” may not be the same name—or, alternatively, the former may not have influenced the more modern version of the latter character.

Either way, I now desperately want to know more about the origins of the Harlequin character, and might need to make that a small research project—if you take “research” to mean “buying a book on the subject.”

But, as I say, this puzzle isn’t about The Mysterious Mr Quin, despite the fact that I’m fascinated by the character, by the odd positioning of the Harlequin as an emissary for the dead, and by way in which Mr Quin’s foil (his Columbine?), Mr Satterthwaite, reappears in the entirely non-supernatural Three-Act Tragedy (1935)—how does the little, bird-like Satterthwaite, epicure and acknowledged art critic, reconcile his two divergent lives, his crossing in and out of supernatural events? No, having devoted an enormous amount of space to something I’m ostensibly not talking about, I’m not talking about it any further.

Nor is this about stories such as “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” (from 1924’s Poirot Investigates), in which a killer deliberately exploits superstition to hide the motives for their crimes, in which superstition and the supernatural are pure misdirection.

No, this is about where the supernatural impinges on otherwise realistic narratives, in Sparkling Cyanide and The Mystery of the Blue Train.

The supernatural is a small element of Sparkling Cyanide, merely the strange sense that Iris has that her dead sister Rosemary is watching and protecting her in the year after Rosemary’s tragic death, her apparent suicide. Iris is uneasy and uncertain about this throughout the novel, but it is only really addressed explicitly at the end:

Then his face changed, grew suddenly serious. He touched a little vase by Iris’s side in which was a single sprig of grey-green with a mauve flower.
“What’s that doing in flower at this time of year?”
“It does sometimes—just an odd sprig—if it’s a mild autumn.”
Anthony took it out of the glass and held it for a moment against his cheek. He half-closed his eyes and saw rich chestnut hair, laughing blue eyes and a red passionate mouth.
He said in a quiet, conversational tone:
“She’s not around now any longer, is she?”
“Who do you mean?”
“You know who I mean. Rosemary. . . . I think she knew, Iris, that you were in danger.”
He touched the sprig of fragrant green with his lips and threw it lightly out of the window.
“Good-bye, Rosemary, thank you. . . .” (188-89)

It’s a small scene, and could be fanciful: Iris is highly strung and, as a very young girl, was horribly traumatised by her sister’s horrific death. This could simply be a symbolic way of laying a ghost. It is not, after all, much like the analogous scene in The Mystery of the Blue Train, where a ghost actually helps solve the crime.

In The Mystery of the Blue Train, Katherine Grey, who has traveled to the Riviera with the murdered woman, Ruth Kettering, sits in a garden in Monte Carlo with Ruth’s father’s secretary, Richard Knighton. When he leaves:

Then suddenly Katherine had a very curious sensation. She felt that she was no longer sitting alone on the seat in the Casino gardens, but that someone was standing beside her, and that that someone was the dead woman, Ruth Kettering. She had a further impression that Ruth wanted—badly—to tell her something. The impression was so curious, so vivid, that it could not be driven away. She felt absolutely certain that the spirit of Ruth Kettering was trying to convey something of vital importance to her. The impression faded. Katherine got up, trembling a little. (160)

So far, so good. The evocation of the murdered woman’s spirit could still be symbolic, though Katherine’s physiological response to the experience suggests otherwise. And it seemed symbolic to me, until Poirot references it during his summation of the case:

Miss Grey is not a fanciful woman by any means, yet she firmly believes that she felt your daughter’s presence beside her one day in the Casino Gardens at Monte Carlo, just after she had been having a long talk with Knighton. She was convinced, she says, that the dead woman was urgently trying to tell her something, and it suddenly came to her that what the dead woman was trying to tell her was that Knighton was her murderer! The idea seemed so fantastic at the time that Miss Grey spoke of it to no one. But she was so convinced of its truth that she acted on it. (216).

So how seriously are we supposed to take this? Katherine believes it—and in acting on it helps bring Knighton to justice, though Poirot is also working in that direction without, as he says here, knowing of Katherine’s supernatural experience. But are we, the readers, supposed to take this as fact?

Christie mentions in her autobiography that The Mystery of the Blue Train was one of her least favourites among her own novels: she wrote it in a period of desperation, after her mother’s death, her own breakdown, and her husband’s infidelity, and has never cared to re-read it.

It’s tempting to assume that this odd supernatural streak comes from that place of pressure and pain: to complete a novel, to fulfill contractual obligations, to support herself and her daughter, she pushed the credulity of the reader.

But then what of the shades of this in Sparkling Cyanide? What of intensely supernatural events of The Mysterious Mr Quin, to which Mr Satterthwaite refers obliquely in Three-Act Tragedy?

It seems to me that we are supposed to take this seriously: that, sometimes, Christie’s characters exist in a world in which the supernatural clashes with the polite ladies and gentlemen of between-the-wars England.

(All quotes from Sparkling Cyanide from the 1983 Fontana edition. All quotes from The Mystery of the Blue Train from the 1979 Fontana edition.)

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part Three

Posted 3137 days ago in by Catriona

And yet more puzzles from Agatha Christie novels:

4. Whose son is Colin Lamb? (The Clocks, 1963)

Colin Lamb is the one-off investigator in The Clocks, a murder mystery tied up with espionage. He’s acquainted with Poirot through his father, whom Poirot knows and, perhaps, worked with in earlier years. This is all made clear when he arrives in London to lay the details of a curious murder case in front of Poirot.

But “Lamb” is not his real name; he works for an unspecified MI branch (presumably MI5 or MI6), and Lamb is his current pseudonym. His real name is never mentioned.

So who is his father? Is he someone we’ve already met in an earlier book?

Colin’s father is a police officer: Poirot makes sly comments about Colin following his father’s profession, but Colin points out that he’s following it in a rather tangential fashion. But which police officer?

He may, of course, be someone we’ve never met. But if he’s a character from earlier books, who could it be? The logical choices would be Chief Inspector Japp, Superintendant Spence, or Superintendant Battle, but none of them seem plausible options.

Japp’s personal life we know nothing about, as far as I can recall from my reading. But he’s primarily a character in the earlier books, and seems, perhaps, too senior a man to have a thirty-something son in the mid-1960s. For the same reason, I’m excluding another possible: Colonel Race. I don’t recall Race’s age being specified but he is not, I believe, a young man when he makes Poirot’s acquaintance.

(It’s also less likely that Colin would describe his career as tangentially like his father’s if his father were Race, since Race was involved in espionage work.)

But, then, what we know of the other men doesn’t make them more likely characters, either. Superintendant Battle we know has a daughter, whom we meet briefly and tangentially in Towards Zero (1944), while Superintendant Spence’s home life, as revealed in Hallowe’en Party (1969), centres on a house shared with an elderly sister: there’s no mention of a wife or children. That wouldn’t stop either man from having a son, but it does mean that neither man is explicitly described as having a son.

I can’t isolate who Colin Lamb’s father is and, given the ambiguous treatment of the character in The Clocks, I’m not sure we’re supposed to.

But it annoys me, nonetheless, in a mild fashion.

5. Does Poirot have any family?

Now this is a tricky one, because Poirot clearly lies all the time about his family: in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he talks of a cousin with developmental delays to induce confidences from a witness, and he does likewise with a relative suffering from jaundice in Dumb Witness (which I addressed in my last set of puzzles).

Similarly, the mysterious Achilles Poirot, the putative brother in The Big Four (1927), is—according to the standard reading, which I think is correct—Poirot himself in disguise. But is it possible that Poirot himself is entirely without family?

Poirot is Catholic: he mentions this on more than one occasion, most notably in Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), when he recognises that the so-called Father Lavigny is like no priest with whom he, as good Catholic, is familiar. And for a Catholic man born in the nineteenth century to have no extended family whatsoever seems unlikely to me. In fact, in Three-Act Tragedy (1935), he mentions to Mr Satterthwaite that “as a boy, I was poor. There were many of us. We had to get on in the world” (47).

Against that, however, we have to consider the fact that Poirot is also Belgian, and Belgium suffered terribly in both World Wars. It is possible, if not likely, that his entire family may have been killed in one or the other of those conflicts.

But the incident that always strikes me as suggestive is the one in Cards on the Table (1936), where he sets a trap for a young girl he suspects of being an opportunistic thief by leaving her alone with small, luxurious items that he claims are Christmas presents for his nieces and nephews.

Among them are an enormous quantity of gossamer-thin silk stockings, the type of luxurious present that a doting uncle would plausibly buy for nieces, especially if those nieces were in straitened circumstances: the vast expense of the stockings has already given the shop assistant an entirely false impression of Poirot’s morals.

The quantity is ostensibly part of the trap: he believes, quite rightly, that the girl will be more tempted to take a few items from a large pile than from a small one, where their loss is more likely to be noticed.

What, then, is the purpose of these stockings? Are they purely to trap the thief? In which case, what does he do with them afterwards? Return them to the shop? Store expensive stockings against a rainy day?

Or does Poirot actually have nieces? Is he the doting uncle who feels that, with not only Christmas close but also, simultaneously, a man murdered almost under his nose, that this is an opportunity to undertake a small experiment and finish some of his Christmas shopping?

That does not seem an impossible solution to me. Poirot, with his occasional habit of calling himself “Papa Poirot” and his perpetual interest in the happiness of younger people—in Death on the Nile, for example, this interest induces him to allow a murderer to choose their own death—seems to me eminently suited to be the doting uncle who showers a bevy of pretty nieces with small luxuries each Christmas.

(Quote from Three-Act Tragedy from the 1972 Fontana edition.)

Lights, Camera . . .

Posted 3138 days ago in by Catriona

Yeah, there was really no chance I was going to avoid making that pun.

Once the storm moved away from us, we could see an amazing lightshow from the back verandah: these don’t do it justice, but they’re fairly funky, anyway.

This next one is a cropped version of the above photograph, showing the lightning in more detail:

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