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Archive for October 8th, 2020


Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett, 1980s BBC) — detection genius


George Smiley (Alec Guiness, Tinker, Tailor … 1970s BBC) — spymaster extraordinaire


Melissandra (Carice Van Houten), prophetess (Games of Thrones) — Cassandra-witch

Friends and readers,

This blog is a bit of departure from my usual modes. I usually zero in on a particular work or works; here I remain in general, and just cite examples briefly. What is left out (alas) are the moral inferences that Marr makes so precisely when he cites and goes over particular books and talks to particular authors.  (I no longer have the facility or strength of fingers or speed to get down accurately what he said.)  These inferences are mostly pessimistic, dark, unsettling utterances, often half-ironic.  So, again, in general, here is what he inferred: Detective stories today reveal an abysm of poverty; spy a fearful terrain of ruthless totalitarian and fascist states; sorcery the return of atavistic amorality as part of superstition. I add that we see in the latest of these kinds of works that women are made to behave in ways directly as violent and treacherous as men (this is not credible as at least studies of women who commit violence show); and men in the last 30 years ae shown to be as sexually vulnerable and ambiguous in their sexuality.

You may recall I wrote about Andrew Marr a few weeks, calling attention to his wonderfully insightful literary documentaries (for lack of a better term — they are highly entertaining, witty, amusing). One series was on popular “thrillers,” the action-adventure type, at one time usually male-centered (Miss Marple and Harriet Vane were the exceptions who proved the rule), which he divided into “detective, mysteries;” “spy, surveillance;” and “sorcerer, fantasies.” On first impression as I listened to him offer the “rules” (formulas) for each, play clips, talks to authors, the types seemed to blend, but when I conquered my recent laziness, and at least tried to force my hands to write stenography once again, and read over what he had said, I realized he had made distinct and explanatory distinctions. I was surprised to think about how his formula linked on the surface such different seeming detective stories, showed how different they are from spy and surveillance action, and finally picked up on the fantasy elements of historical romance, so this usually woman-centered genre shares terrain with say (and this makes sense) the stories of Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin. I’m especially intrigued with the element of time-traveling in this last.

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Lord Wimsey (Edward Petherbridge) facing Harriet Vane (Harriet Walter) — the amateurs?


Sam Spade (Humphry Boghard, Hammett’s Maltese Falcon) – hired private detective


Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect): DCI

So here are the the characteristics of detective mysteries (they cross into police procedurals as you’ll see): 1: there must be a mystery, a pattern to find, a puzzle element, ingenious; 2) the writer must play fair, and not deliberately lead astray, no supernatural agencies; 3) the detective must not have committed the crime, corpses about, not an idyllic place at all; 4) there must be locked rooms, impossible terms, keys are clues, multi-layer to unravel; 5) the detective is a kind of super-hero, we must watch him so as not to be fooled by a sleight-of-hand, do hard work, find what actuates motivates people; 6) crime must be believable, painful, almost doing it in front of us, with a pervasive sense of evil all around it; 7) the detective must get his (or) her hands dirty and must set the world to rights, then retreat, escape back to his lair; 8) he must follow recognized procedures; incremental tedious work, under social pressure, moving into rotten hearts; 9) we have the comfort of knowing the truth at the end; we adapt, recent ones are complex; 10) the detective must be flawed, must be difficult to get along with, withdrawn, not likable (Inspector Morse).

I am struck by how the murder mystery in the second half of Phineas Redux corresponds to the above

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Alec Leamas (Richard Burton, The Spy who Came in from the Cold) — set-up betrayed spy


Gunther (Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man — today’s fascist totalitarian states) — another set-up betrayed spy


The Americans, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) — without identities

Then we have the espionage story (and movie): 1) they reflect the particular social conditions of their time, people with insider knowledge, about betrayal; the question of who is the real enemy comes up early, foreign people, a creeping paranoia; 2) you must create a climate of fear, ominous atmosphere; 2) spies’ loyalties are always up for question (The 39 Steps, The Americans, Greene’s Human Factor), a popular version of an existential nightmare; 3: the spy contacts his nemesis; 3) they can end up cast out of humanity (as in The Spy who came in from the Cold); 4: they are ever trying to adapt to changing times. I add the vast perspective and explicit political propaganda, often anti-communist still.

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) amid the ancient neolithic stones, Craig Na Dun, Mrs Graham her sorceress (Outlander, 1:1) — healer & white witch


Gandolf (Ian McKellen (Fellowship of the Ring) — wizard

The fantasy, science fiction, allegorical: 1) you must build a whole world, consistent in itself as to details too; the depth of detail compels us; weave real with fantastical, keep it coherent with a map; 2) there is a portal to this other world; 3)these are anti-enlightenment stories, matter from the atavistic, where the “easy” laws of science do not necessarily apply; it’s a spectrum of extremes; 4) fantasy nowadays uses the method of distilled wonder (a metaphor); a parallel to the feeling we let ourselves be comforted by, making a parallel to faery; uses folklore that does not in itself seriously frighten — think of The Hobbit; 5) there is a hero’s story, sometimes told by the heroine, a dropped down trunk, papers telling the story; 6) someone to help us cross the threshold; you move into unknown, there are ordeals, supreme tests, sometimes an elixir helps you return through to “reality” or today’s world; 6) we come upon counter culture (not necessarily a good world); Le Guin shows us a fascist take-over, with a wizard; barbarism, bitchery; 7) there are rites of passage or rites tht bridge generations and new Gods created; 8) winter is always coming, deep poignant melancholy for what’s just over the horizon, a kind of existential threat; and 9) some explore the deepest world of author (so an inward form), and/or are philosophic.

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There you have it. Or do you or we? there are thrillers which don’t fit these paradigms, or slide over. So Daphne DuMaurier’s Scapegoat belongs to fantasy but remains in here and now — it’s not quite gothic either, as gothic’s sine qua non is supernatural and she would have us believed in her doubles, her twin men. Marr did not work in the gothic which has lent itself to formulas (some of which make fun of its furniture), nor ghost stories, the vampire and wanderer, nor specifically the female gothic. These would take several blogs … I have written of separate gothic stories and once in a while the gothic as such. I’ve a whole section in my website devoted to the kind: Gothics and ghosts, vampires, witches, and l’écriture-femme


M. R James, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral — core evil presence


Illustration by John A. Williams for Mary Heaton Vorse, “The Second Wife” (1912) — this is the type Jane Austen made fun of and parodied in her Northanger Abbey, it is a type Nancy Drew draws some of its power from (girl as snoop into wild and weird territories)


Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) arrives (NA, scripted Andrews Davies, 2007) — female reader of gothics.


A 1970 version of a Nancy Drew — girl sleuth

Ellen

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