Sunday, June 3, 2012

Playing games with classic literature

The Bookman
By Lavie Tidhar
(Angry Robot Books)

Professor Moriarty: 
The Hound of the D’Urbervilles
By Kim Newman
(Titan Books)

     As I may have mentioned before, critics don’t always know WHY they like or dislike a work. Since it’s their job, they will backtrack and try to figure it out, and latch on to one thing or another. That this may contradict an opinion in an earlier or later review is no obstacle.
     I’ve just read two books that do similar metafictional things, but I only liked one of them, and I'm not sure why.
     Writers have been mixing and matching fictional and historical characters, and sticking  characters from one genre into another, long before Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That's part of the appeal of steampunk. 
     On paper, I ought to like The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (a male Israeli author, if you’re curious). It is steampunk, with no obvious fantasy elements (ghosts, vampires, magic), and it explains how its steampunk technology came to be. It includes a mix of real and fictional characters, several derived from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. It involves a poet and bookseller, and pays homage to several fictional authors (some out of their actual time, but never mind). Yet it left me cold. I will try to explain why, but, remember, I’m only guessing.
     The Bookman tells its story through the eyes of Orphan, a young poet in an altered Victorian England. One alteration: Queen Victoria is a human-sized intelligent lizard, as are many of the upper class. The prime minister is Moriarty, who is constructing a space cannon out of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells  to launch a probe (so he says) to Mars. History changed in the 16th century or so when Amerigo Vespucci voyaged to Caliban’s Island (out of Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and the lizards (Les Lizards, from the French for some reason) emerged. America is called Vespuccia. Among the technological changes are sophisticated automatons.
     The antagonist of the book is the title character, a sort of terrorist who disrupts large public gatherings and events with exploding books. One event is a one-man show by Bram Stoker’s actor friend and employer Henry Irving of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which is now about Les Lizards); another is the attempted launching of the Mars probe, at which Orphan’s beloved is killed.
     The Bookman then dragoons Orphan to his cause, in exchange for which he will return Orphan’s beloved to life. Orphan doesn’t exactly believe him or trust him, but he has little choice. Aiding him in this task is Jules Verne, along with a couple of his fictional characters: Capt. Nemo/Prince Dakkar and Robur the Conqueror.
     Eventually Orphan discovers a connection between Les Lizards and the Bookman, and must choose sides. The book ends in a satisfactory way, leaving room for sequels or not (there is already a second book in the series, though with a different setting and cast).
     So, what didn’t I like? One thing is that Tidhar or his editors had a distracting habit of beginning a paragraph with one character speaking, and ending it with another. Then, too, Orphan is a bit of a disappointment as a protagonist. His secret notwithstanding, he’s a bit of a bore, acted upon more than acting. Then, while Les Lizards explains the advanced technology out of time, I didn’t find them too believable. And why, if they’ve been ruling England for 300 years does their queen happen to have the same name as the human queen of the era? Is the name pre-destined?
     But I acknowledge that this is not sufficient reason to explain my dislike of the book. Maybe it was the wrong time for me to read it.
     (The next book in the series, Camera Obscura, features a swashbuckling Milady deWinter from Dumas’ “Three Musketeers.” I may give it a try. )

     On the other hand, I loved The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Kim Newman, featuring the Watson-like memoirs of Professor Moriarty, as recorded by his lieutenant Col. Sebastian Moran. It is in some ways a parody of Holmes, with titles and cases that superficially resemble the Great Detective’s but involve characters from other, contemporary fiction, or who are destined to appear in future fiction. 
     “The Hound of the D’Urbervilles” section is a parody/imitation of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (and superior, to my mind, to the serious-minded but similar "Hound" imitation "The Giant Rat of Sumatra" which I read and reviewed last year), but it is also a sequel of sorts to Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”
     Other tales involve Irene Adler (while to Holmes she was always “the woman,” to Moriarty she was “that bitch!”), the murder victims from Holmes and Watson’s first case, A Study in Scarlet (along with the hero of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage), and the Royal Astronomer from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (whom Moriarty only dupes into thinking there is an imminent Martian invasion).
     Another tale has Moriarty and Moran gathering up various cursed objects from other fictions and their cinematic versions, including Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars (film version: Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb), Doyle’s “The Six Napoleons” (film version: The Pearl of Death), Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse" and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (featuring a teenage Kaspar Guttman).
     As with The Bookman, there is no real supernatural element. Unlike it, there is little (perhaps none) super advanced technology either, so it’s not steampunk per se, but it takes the kind of fun with history and literature that steampunk does.
     Maybe that’s the difference: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles is fun, and The Bookman isn’t. Or, rather, I found the one fun, and the other not.
     It also helps that Newman and I are on the same wavelength as to the films, television  and literature we love (another character in one of the stories is an obscure Victorian crook/detective whom I first encountered – and perhaps Newman did as well – on the TV anthology series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes). Even the framing device – the discovery of Moran’s manuscript in the present day in a famed criminal’s bank – parallels a scene from the original cut of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The footage was cut and is lost, but I read it in a contemporaneous novelization of the film. Perhaps Newman did, too.
     I’m not sure if Newman plans any sequels to his Moriarty book (I guess it depends upon whether he decides to have Moriarty escape his death at Reichenbach Falls), but if you’re looking for more of the same, Newman’s Anno Dracula series is being reprinted, in which he postulates that Dracula defeats van Helsing and company, puts the bite on Queen Victoria and becomes the Royal Consort and de facto ruler of England, making vampirism chic and the way to get ahead. Newman adds just about every fictional and film vampire to the mix, and a Jack the Ripper-like vampire serial killer with a silver knife. The first book is one of my favorites. Latter volumes weren’t as appealing to me, but there’s a new one forthcoming that I’ll have to check out: Johnny Alucard (a spelled-backwards pseudonym for Dracula, the last name of which only was first utilized in Universal's 1943 Son of Dracula, while the full name was a disciple of Dracula in Hammer's Dracula A.D. 1972).


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