- Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers - I don't imagine that I'm the first reader to pick up the next-to-last novel in Sayers's Peter Wimsey detective series, Gaudy Night, and then move backwards through her bibliography to the origin of Wimsey's relationship with Gaudy protagonist Harriet Vane. As was the case with Gaudy, I found Strong Poison compulsively readable and a great deal of fun. It was also, in spite of the rather grim plot, which sees Harriet accused of murdering her former fiancé and facing the gallows, surprisingly funny, although Sayers does on occasion stray too far into farce, and on other occasions (especially when delving under the surface of Wimsey's over-the-top persona) into melodrama. In her first appearance, Harriet is only very faintly sketched, and a little too perfect to be believed--I certainly see how Sayers fans might jokingly (and sometimes not so jokingly) accuse her of having written Vane as a self-insertion character. Her interactions with Wimsey are obviously intended primarily to shed light on his character, and not always an entirely favorable light--the characters' first meeting, in which Wimsey just comes out and announces that he and Harriet will be married, has got to be one of the most pitiful moments in literary history. I had a very strong impulse to step into the book and stomp on his foot before he made an even greater fool of himself than he already had. The mystery itself was rather obvious, but I wasn't really reading for the mystery so that wasn't too big a problem (I did, however, find Strong Poison's final third, in which the narrative leaves both Wimsey and Vane and follows a tertiary character who I didn't really care about, a bit dull). I think I probably will end up reading the other Wimsey/Vane novels, but I don't imagine I'll be traveling any further back into Sayers's bibliography.
- A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin - Cullin's novel was published at roughly the same time as Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, and tells roughly the same story: in the 1940s, an ancient Sherlock Holmes struggles against age and his failing mind, and is confronted by the ultimate insolubility of life, as exemplified by one of the atrocities of the early 20th century (the Holocaust in Chabon's case, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in Cullin's). At the time of the two works' publication, I remember that most comparisons were more favorable towards Cullin's, calling it a more subtle and thoughtful accomplishment. In one respect, I do believe Cullin outdoes Chabon--whereas the latter author's protagonist is Sherlock Holmes the character, ravaged by age but still unmistakably Arthur Conan Doyle's creation (in spite of Chabon's rather silly insistence on referring to him only as 'the old man'), Cullin chooses to separate Holmes the character (whose ticks and mannerisms, we are told, were in many cases the result of aggrandizement and outright invention on the part of one John Watson) from Holmes the man, who is human, fallible, and in many ways quite ordinary, and who is alternately bemused and exasperated at being constantly compared to and confused with a literary creation.
In most other respects, however, Chabon's novella turns out to be a more satisfying read. Trick switches back and forth between Holmes' present, in which he is faced with a mundane tragedy, his recent trip to Japan, and a baffling case from the very end of his detective career. It seems unfair to complain that none of these plot strands is very interesting or exciting--Cullin is very obviously not writing a mystery--but they all seem to amount to the same thing, the same point retold three times, which we will have already gathered from Chabon's shorter (although not by much) and more beautifully written novella - that not even the Great Detective can make sense of life. Trick is undoubtedly the more subtle and subdued of the two works, but it is too subdued for my tastes, too steeped in melancholy. It would probably be accurate to say that The Final Solution works a little too hard to milk the tragedy of its central mystery, and that it often teeters over the edge of melodrama, but at the very least it tries to tug at its readers' heartstrings. Cullin's novel, in comparison, is too prudish to make the attempt--it seems to feel that eliciting strong emotion would be in bad taste.
- Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim - It's been almost two weeks since I finished Heim's 1995 debut, and I still can't decide whether I liked it, disliked it, or thought it was just OK. The novel switches back and forth between the points of view of two boys who, at the age of eight, were molested by their baseball coach, as well as those of their friends and relatives. One of the boys, Brian, has completely blocked out the experience, and in his late teens begins to suspect that the hours missing from his life and the obvious symptoms of trauma he experienced in their wake are signs of an alien abduction. The other, Neil, is gay and has convinced himself that what he experienced was an act of love. This is not the kind of novel I tend to read very often, but even I noticed Heim resorting to stock situations (Neil engages in risky sexual behavior and ends up in danger) and characters (Brian's oblivious father; Neil's promiscuous mother). Heim isn't the greatest writer ever--some of his dialogue and narration are, in fact, painfully artificial--but what elevates Mysterious Skin and makes it so very compelling is that his writing has an unbelievably visceral quality. Whether describing a Kansas fishing pond or the most graphic sex scenes, he puts you in the room, and although neither boy is particularly likable--Brian is a bit of a nebbish and Neil simply isn't a very good person--they are believable as human beings and ultimately pitiable. I can't quite decide, however, whether these strengths are enough to justify the novel's existence, or whether it is ultimately nothing more than very standard variation on a very standard topic.
- The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell - In 1857, the East India Company's decades-long hold over India was shattered (and quickly replaced by outright colonial rule) by a revolt of native battalions. British settlements in India were were massacred or besieged (the phrase 'the black hole of Calcutta' originated in an account by one of the survivors of these sieges). J.G. Farrell's 1973 novel describes the months-long besiegement of a fictional Company outpost (drawing primarily on the real-life siege of Lucknow). According to the novel's introduction, Farrell is parodying a stock plot that became prevalent in the years following the 1857 mutiny--the siege novel. Without having read a single iteration of this concept, I think most of us can imagine its more prominent elements (quite a few of which frequently turn up in your average disaster movie)--the guy, the girl, the priest, the star-crossed romances, the weakling transformed into an action hero. For a novel with such a grim topic--two of them, in fact: the inhuman conditions and brutal suffering within the besieged Residency and the very notion of colonial rule--Siege is surprisingly lighthearted, sometimes verging on farcical, but therein lies the secret of its success. Farrell attempts, and for the most part sustains, a delicate balance between horror and farce, humor and seriousness. The defenders squabble over trifles and cling to pointless social niceties, which makes them, at one and the same time, both ridiculous and noble, and therefore entirely human.
Where Siege nearly falters is in its political dimension. Farrell works hard to ensure that the novel, whose characters earnestly and fervently believe in the idea of a moral empire, spreading science, progress and enlightenment to the unwashed native masses, doesn't devolve into a screed against something that, we can all agree, was a truly terrible idea and anyway doesn't exist anymore. He tries to distract us from the more obvious aspect of the discussion by widening it--instead of asking whether colonialism was a good idea, a question to which we all know the answer, he asks which is more important, ideas (as represented by the aforementioned science and progress) or feelings (as represented, I think, by the bruised and battered ego of a nation condescended to and ordered about for decades). The two questions, unfortunately, don't map very well onto each other, and anyway the latter is a little too metaphysical for my taste (and shouldn't the answer, in any case, be 'both?'). It's hard not to roll one's eyes when Siege's plot or character exploration give way to yet another discussion of these two warring aspects of human nature, but happily Farrell more than compensates for those dull stretches--with some scenes that are uproariously funny, and others that are pulse-poundingly intense. Ultimately, for all that they are ridiculous and hold objectionable opinions, Farrell makes us care about the starving and ill defenders, and hope against hope that, like the protagonists of a siege novel, they too will have a happy ending.