A Study in Scarlet- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle [Review]

”Truly you are brilliant Holmes!” -Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes series

I have always been intrigued about the Sherlock Holmes books. Part of me knew I would enjoy them but did not realise how much I would. I came across A-Study-in-Scarlet-by-Arthur-Conan-DoyleA Study in Scarlet on my bookshelf and thought it was about time I tried reading it. I was hooked from the first page. I did not put it down until it was finished. I think I even ignored my housemates for the day.  😛

A Study in Scarlet is the first book in the Sherlock Holmes series. It introduces readers to Dr. Watson, the intrepid chronicler, who is newly returned to London from the Afghanistan War after being shot in the leg. He is in search of a place to stay and through a mutual friend he meets the eccentric, nebulous Sherlock Holmes. Soon they both rent a room at 221B Baker Street. Watson learns who Sherlock really is and that he works as a consulting detective. A mystery case comes up and Sherlock Holmes is on the case with Dr. Watson by his side. A dead man is found in an abandoned house, no mark upon him, and no clues save for the word ‘RACHE’ written with blood on the wall.

Trivia for you: A Study in Scarlet was the first detective work of fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.

Trivia: A Study in Scarlet was the first detective work of fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.

Sherlock Holmes is a genius when it comes to clues and mystery, he plays the violin beautifully, but he is completely ignorant of other things- such as the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun. “His Ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.” Dr Watson once remarked.  In addition, Sherlock is very cheerful, eccentric , sarcastic, loves to be flattered, and is bluntly honest. You cannot help but fall in love with his character and love him despite his many flaws. Watson’s witty and snarky (sometimes) comments about Sherlock Holmes are hilarious. You cannot help but laugh at his various observations for his fellow flatmate. He even writes a summary list of Sherlock Holmes’s strengths and weaknesses:

“1. Knowledge of Literature: Nil.
2. Knowledge of Philosophy: Nil.
3. Knowledge of Astronomy: Nil.
4. Knowledge of Politics: Feeble.
5. Knowledge of Botany: Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
6. Knowledge of Geology: Practical but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
7. Knowledge of Chemistry: Profound.
8. Knowledge of Anatomy: Accurate but unsystematic.
9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature: Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.”

The mystery itself is great and very well done. Clues were presented at a regular pace and you found yourself turning one page after another until you discovered who the murderer was and how the crime was done. A good crime mystery is that there are a number of suspects, each have their own agenda and you don’t know who the real guilty person is until the very end. You won’t see the ending come, which is why I love this book so much. If you happen to have watched the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch I will say this; the first episode of the first series, A Study in Pink, is quite faithful to this book and maybe you won’t be surprised with who the murderer is  but the back stories are slightly changed so it is not as predictable as you might think.

After Sherlock Holmes apprehends the murderer, the entire narrative changes from Watson’s first person account to a third person omniscient. Conan Doyle does this in order to tell us the history of the murderer, his motives and his reasons. I have to say that I did not expect this and I did not know what to make of it, but I did enjoy this change of narration. I don’t think I have come across this in a novel (as far as I remember). I have read that some readers did not like this change and were struggling to get through the book as they missed Dr. Watson’s witty comments. However, I came to enjoy it and as wrong as this sounds I even felt sorry for the murderer. You get to hear both sides of the story as well as the murderer’s reasons for committing the crime. I liked that you got to read [in this book] about different cultures, different traditions in a different country in a completely different time; in this particular case it was about early Mormon settlements near Salt Lake City in 1847. There are some who believe that Conan Doyle was wrong to write this section of the books as he pictures Mormons in a very negative light. I will agree on that argument, when reading about the Mormons I did think that Arthur Conan Doyle was being harsh and maybe he had something against them? But then again this story was written and published in 1887. I did read somewhere that Doyle did state ” All I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that”. Later on, his daughter added  “You know, father would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons.” So whichever the case might be I am just going to focus on the fiction itself and not on the historical accuracy [which is surprising considering I am a Ancient Historian graduate and History fanatic!]

Overall, It is an incredible and good solid story with witty dialogue and fascinating character development.  Arthur Conan Doyle offers a story full of action, intrigue, and eerie suspense for any mystery-lover. Even Holmes’ arrogance and egotism is amusing and entertaining. A Study in Scarlet introduces us to Doyle’s most enduring character figure and one of the most iconic, strongest pairings in all literature. I thoroughly enjoyed A Study in Scarlet and I cannot wait until the next book in the series.

Sherlock_Holmes

“To a great mind, nothing is little.”

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James [Review]

One evening my friend Mary and I were discussing books over a cup of coffee, as we usually do. This time we were talking about gothic novels due to the fact that we had just watched BBC’s The Art of Gothic  Britain’s Midnight Hour. The Brontes came up as they usually do in our discussions, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and many more. Mary told me that she has not read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, I told her that she should when she got the time as Northanger Abbey is not a typical Jane Austen book. It is different from her others and you can tell from the theme of the book and the various circumstances that appear. However, Northanger Abbey will have to wait for another post as I could go on forever. Whilst I recommended Northanger Abbey to Mary, she recommended Turn of a Screw by Henry James to me. She had loved the book when she first read it and told me that it will disturb me and leave a chill. I was intrigued and borrowed her copy of Turn of the Screw and started reading.

turn of the screw2One thing I can tell about this novel. She was right, I was greatly disturbed by the children in this book. Especially Miles as he acts and talks like an adult which creped me out immensely. The story begins with an unknown narrator, who listens to Douglas, a friend, read a manuscript written by a former governess whom Douglas claims to have known. The manuscript tells the story of a young governess hired by a man  who has become responsible for his nephew and niece after their parents had died. He lives in London while the children and governess live in the countryside. He wants to have nothing to do with the care of the children.  The children, Miles and Flora, are not the typical sweet children you would expect. They are described as beautiful, angelic and majestic… how can one not love them!  Are they as innocent as they seem? Soon, the young governess starts seeing two ghosts and it seems to be the ghosts of Miss Jessel (the previous governess who died under a mysterious circumstance) and that of Peter Quint, a previous employee. Do the children see the ghosts or not? Or is it the imagination of the young governess? She sees them peering in threateningly through the window, standing silently and starting at the children from the top of the tower.

This story is absolutely chilling and very clever. It’s a story within a story, told as a ghost story. It is dark and melodramatic, telling the story of good and evil with hints of sexual relations, reflecting the Victorian society at the time. Throughout the book you wonder whether the children know about the ghosts and whether they see them.  You wonder whether the governess has gone mad as you only read her side of the story. We don’t get to see what the other characters think about these spirits. However, when the governess describes the figures to the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, the later does not seem to think that she has lost her marbles (as one can put it!) and recognises the spirits as Peter Quint (the late valet) and Miss Jessel ( the late governess). You are still left wondering even if you come to the conclusion that the young governess in not the only one who can see these wandering spirits.

Henry James somehow keeps the tension mounting. His story grows ever grimmer, ever scarier.  You are kept on the edge of your seat (or bed in this instance)  trying to solve the puzzle, solve the mystery. Who is Peter Quint and Miss Jessel? What do they want with the children? What was their relationship?  Is the governess mad or not? It’s the darkest and richest story I have ever read — thus far. I am left wondering whether Miles and Flora did know about the presence of the ghosts and how innocent or guilty they really are in the end. It is left open for the reader to interpret however he or she wants.

I will say this; Turn of the Screw is a very good story, I loved every minute of it, even though I was a bit disturbed in certain passages and was on edge throughout the story. It is a story that stays with the reader, even after the final and shocking last page.  Thank you Mary for recommending this great book to me. 🙂

—- K.J.Koukas

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James [Review]

Many authors before have attempted to write a sequel to the notorious novel Pride and Prejudice such as; ‘The Darcys of Pemberley’, Georgiana Darcy’s Diary’, ‘Mr Darcy takes a wife’ and many more. As well as writing spin offs of Pride and Prejudice and other Jane

death comes to pemberley

Austen’s novels such as ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, ‘Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’, ‘Mr Darcy, Vampyre’.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the greatest writers in the English literary canon and Pride and Prejudice is one of her most famous novels. A book as great as that does not need any sequels and must be left alone. However, P.D. James has attempted and, in my view, thrived in creating a sort of sequel to the story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.
The story is set six years after Pride and Prejudice in which we see how marriage life is treating our dear Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. P.D. James writes a little note before beginning her story but stating:

” I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her
beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation,
especially as in the final chapter of Mansfield Park Miss Austen made
her views quite plain; ‘Let other pens dwell on the guilt and misery.
I quit such odious subjects as soon as i can, impatient to restore
everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort,
and to have done with all the rest.’ No doubt she would have replied
to my apology by saying, had she wished to dwell on such odious
subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done better.”

We then have a small prologue in which she recaps the story of Pride and Prejudice for those who have not read the actual book (for shame on those people 😛 ). It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Their peaceful, orderly world seems almost unassailable. They have two fine sons, Fitzwilliam and Charles. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits them both often- Lizzy more so than Jane- and they are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.

Then, on the eve of the ball, a coach careens up the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.

It has to be said that P.D. James is the first to try to write a mystery murder case in a Jane Austen world. I have to say that I prefer a murder mystery to a zombie breakout. Can you really imagine our beloved Elizabet fighting off zombies? Anyway, back to P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley.

OB-JH746_james7_DV_20100720151806A rare meeting of literary genius: P. D. James, long among the most admired mystery writers of our time, draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem. I have to confess that I have not read any of P.D. James’ novels but my mum has and she says that she is a very good mystery author, and I trust my mum’s choice of authors! P.D. James has admired and loved Jane Austen all her life and  inspired by a lifelong passion, James masterfully re-creates the world of Pride and Prejudice, electrifying it with the excitement and suspense of a brilliantly crafted crime story. An acute admirer of Austen’s novels (which, her autobiography makes clear, she has been re-reading for more than 80 years), she keeps her sequel close to their ironic spiritedness, moral toughness and psychological finesse . Peter Kemp from Sunday Times states that ‘Death Comes to Pemberley is an elegantly gauged homage to Austen and an exhilarating tribute to the inexhaustible vitality of James’s imagination.’

The greatest pleasure of this novel is its unforced, effortless, effective voice as many scholars and reviewers have stated. James hasn’t written in ‘florid cod-­Regency whorls, the overblown language other mimics so often employ’. Not infrequently, while reading Death Comes to Pemberley, one succumbs to the impression that it is Austen herself on the page and not P.D. James.
Jane Jakeman from The Independent writes ‘This Gothic element is, of course, dangerous ground, the kind of mystery which Jane Austen mocked so effectively in Northanger Abbey, but James handles it with a delicate touch. There is another departure: this novel must sometimes venture outside Austen’s feminine world into the masculine arenas of inquest and trial, and some minor male characters from the canon play larger roles for the purposes of the murder plot. James makes a plausible account of them, giving us into the bargain an interesting male viewpoint of past events, where Darcy explains his strange behaviour at Longbourn.’

While many writers have composed sequels to the various Austen masterpieces, James manages to preserve the flavor of Pride and Prejudice while also creating a fairly good ‘whodunit’ story. One negative viewpoint that I can mention is that in “Death Comes to Pemberley” marriage has made Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s smartest, sharpest-tongued and most beloved character, ‘a little dull’. Apparently weighed down by her responsibilities as chatelaine of Pemberley — the need to keep up appearances and propriety — she’s become earnest and dutiful, seldom speaking her mind. And though the novel keeps insisting on how much she and Darcy are in love, they get little chance to show it. Each is so involved in his or her own sphere, and so solicitous of intruding on the other, that they have to make appointments to have a conversation.

I have to agree with other reviewers that the most original invention in “Death Comes to Pemberley” is Darcy’s great-grandfather, an eccentric but not unsympathetic character who couldn’t stand the pressure of being lord of the manor and went to live alone in the woods with his dog.

Many Austen fans have written bad reviews for this particular book or have just plain refused to read it. I was one of them and in some cases i am still one of them… I refuse to read ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ out of principle but you never know I might read it one day just out of morbid curiosity and write a very bad review about it 😛 … but as far as Death Comes to Pemberley goes, I have to say that I am happy I read it and it is a lovely short mystery story. This is a novel one reads for its charm, for the chance to revisit some favourite characters, for the ingenious way James resolves old elements from Austen…It is a solidly entertaining period mystery and a major treat for any fan of Jane Austen.

—– K.J. Koukas