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Sunday, 15 June 2014

My Favourite Mystery -- A Guest Post by Adi Rule

I’m a big fan of mysteries. And I’m a firm believer that the heart of a good mystery story has to be, well, the mystery. In the best examples, all the clues are there, the characters’ actions are believable -- even inevitable -- and yet, somehow, the solution takes me by surprise. I love that feeling!

If the story’s voice also stands out for some reason -- it’s quirky or darkly atmospheric or witty -- then you’ve really got something special.

So it’s hard to choose a favorite mystery. The genre is full of wonderfully strange detectives and clever plots. But I think, for me, if it’s a combination of surprising plots (that you should have been able to guess, but completely didn’t!), great characters, and pitch perfect writing, I have to go with Sarah Caudwell. (Hers is also a name that I don’t see tossed around as much as some of the giants, so I won’t miss a chance to send up some hurrays in her honor.)

Sarah Caudwell (the pen name of Sarah Cockburn) was a British barrister who published three devilishly ingenious mystery novels in the 1980’s and a fourth in 2000, the year of her death: Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder, and The Sibyl in Her Grave.

Although the stories are contemporary, the wry humor and tongue-in-cheek literary sophistication is more reminiscent of Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie than it is in line with some of today’s grittier mystery stories involving things like Forensics and Cell Phones and Dirty Cops. Caudwell’s detective, of unknown gender, is Professor Hilary Tamar, supported along the way by a cast of young barristers, and the details of the plots often center on things like tax and inheritance law. I’m not sure there’s a bigger discrepancy anywhere in literature between how boring a thing sounds and how utterly hilarious and entertaining it actually is.

So if you haven’t read it, here’s the very beginning of The Sibyl in Her Grave:

The two men struggling on the floor of the Clerks’ Room differed widely in appearance: one young, of slender build, dressed in cotton and denim, with honey-coloured hair worn rather long and a pleasing delicacy of feature; the other perhaps in his sixties, tending to plumpness, wearing a pinstriped suit, with the round, pink face of a bad-tempered baby and very little hair at all. They rolled this way and that, as it seemed inextricably entwined, uttering indistinguishable cries and groans, whether of pain or pleasure I could not easily determine. A ladder was also involved in the proceedings.

Thanks for having me over! I look forward to hearing about others’ favorite things.


Adi Rule

Castle, suspending disbelief, and our love of amateurs -- A Guest Post by Rewan Tremethick

Castle, suspending disbelief, and our love of amateurs

After finally getting the season 1-6 box set, I'm currently blitzing my way through Castle. It's not hard to see why it has legions of fans, including myself, across the globe. Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic have the perfect chemistry; the show blends humour and drama perfectly, and the murders it depicts are suitably unusual to set it apart from other crime dramas on TV, of which there are many.

For those of you that haven't yet had the pleasure of Castle, the show is about a bestselling writer - Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) - who draws inspiration for his latest character from a talented and driven New York detective - Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). Thanks to high up connections, Castle is allowed to team up with Beckett for research purposes and together they solve murders ranging from the ordinary - someone getting shot - to the extraordinary - a man being sliced in two by a Samurai sword.

All stories require us to suspend our disbelief, but Castle requires something very specific. As much as I love it, if I'm honest, on paper the premise shouldn't work. Bestselling author helps cops solve crimes? Then again, it's no more ridiculous than Agatha Christie's little old lady crime-fighter, Miss Marple, is it?

In fact, Castle is just one of a long list of shows in which the cops are helped, shown up, or invalidated, by a total amateur. Which begs the question: if we know the idea of a crime writer being a better crime solver than the professionals is totally unrealistic, why do we buy into Castle so readily?

What's meant to happen is boring

As the Joker so aptly explains in The Dark Knight, 'You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan". But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!' (Source: IMDB)

Basically, things that happen the way they are meant to are boring. A cop solving a murder is uninteresting (I'm generalising, of course), because that's what cops do. Brazil winning the World Cup won't cause much of a splash - Nigeria lifting the trophy, on the other hand, would be an event. Or Atlantis. Perhaps it is because we wouldn't be prepared for it. If you know something is going to happen, and it does, you've had time to plan your reaction. Everything has been rehearsed subconsciously and set in motion. But when something unexpected happens, there's more scope for reaction.

Is Castle the underdog?

Nothing illustrates our love of flaunting convention better than an underdog story. We all know the rules of the world in which we live. We know what we can and cannot do and what our limitations are. That's why we like to escape into novels, films, and television. And while some of the biggest books and films have been complete fantasy, we don't always require a story to take us to a world where the grass is pink and badgers make ice cream. Sometimes we just want a world that is the same as ours, but with a little more hope.

Which is where the underdog comes in. The school nerd getting together with the most popular pupil; the amateur sports team winning the major league; the single woman or man out to expose corruption, fighting to survive against the combined force and resources of a tyrannical government. All of these stories are based on something that shouldn't happen. Part of what makes Lord of the Rings such a popular book is the fact that Frodo is a scared little Hobbit, completely alien to danger, horror and heroics. If he had been a professional ring-destroyer - with the business cards, uniform and branded horse to prove it - the story would have held only a fraction of the power it does.

Amateurs remind us of ourselves

Ask anyone who's favourite superhero is Batman, and they will probably give their reason as being the fact that he doesn't actually have any superpowers. He never fell into a vat of radioactive soup, or got bitten by a rare breed of polecat on Friday the 13th. He's just a man with a lot of money and a strong morality. That makes him easy for us to identify with. And while Richard Castle may be a multi-millionaire, Ferrari-driving, bestselling author, we can identify with him because he's a civilian.

Of course, Castle's success is down to many different factors. The spot-on 'will they, won't they?' relationship between Castle and Beckett, the purity of Castle's relationship with his daughter Alexis, the comedy, the strong supporting double act of detectives Ryan and Esposito.

Castle won our hearts for many reasons. It takes us to a world where a mystery writer has a better understanding of mysteries than the cops. Because in the real world, cops solve murders. Why would we want the world to which we escape to be the same?

About the author

Rewan (not pronounced ‘Rowan’) Tremethick is a British author who was named after a saint. St Ruan was invulnerable to wolves; Rewan isn’t. Rewan is a fan of clever plots, strong woman who don’t have to be described using words like ‘feisty’, and epic music. He has dabbled in stand-up comedy, radio presenting, and writing sentences without trying to make a joke. He balances his desire to write something meaningful by wearing extremely tight jeans.
Rewan’s paranormal detective noir novel, Fallen on Good Times [link:], is out in paperback and on Kindle now.