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Friday, January 20, 2012

The House of Silk. Anthony Horowitz. Orion Books Ltd. (2011)

A superb Sherlock Holmes story, it captures the spirit of the originals and uses the required details in a fresh and very enjoyable way. While London is in the grip of a savage winter, a client comes to 221B Baker street with a strange story. He is being stalked by a scar faced man, a man he can identify, a man who is a grave threat to him and his family. Holmes is very interested in the case and agrees to investigate. As he does so he hears of the House of Silk, a mysterious,very powerful, and clearly criminal organisation. Holmes is very explicitly warned against any further inquiries in the House of Silk, which naturally encourages him to delve even deeper.  Holmes and Watson find themselves in very considerable danger, from unexpected sources as the investigation unfolds. The reveals are superbly staged, Holmes is as brilliant and unexpected as he should be. The secret of the House of Silk is ugly enough to support the plot and the superb loop the story takes at its conclusion is sharp, bitter and utterly fitting.
Anthony Horowitz has accomplished a very difficult feat, he has written a true Sherlock Holmes book that Arthur Conan Doyle would never have written. From the wonderful opening that sets the stage for one story that cleverly becomes another before the satisfying resolution, the structure of the story never fails. The set pieces are staged with great flair, they effortlessly showcase Holmes' brilliance and his love of the dramatic. The cast are a nicely judged mixture of new and old, they play together with force and tremendous vigor. Mycroft Holmes features  as does Inspector Lestrade and Professor Moriarty, all of them are given fresh opportunities and are far from stale replicas of the originals. In particular Inspector Lestrade is given a chance to be the competent, professional police officer he is away from Holmes' withering gaze.
The new cast members are a salty and engaging series of villains, they are careful, vindictive and powerful. The threads that bind them and the force of their motives are well shaded and sorted, they act to be a convincing threat to Holmes, something that is very difficult to do. The rules of the genre dictate that Holmes cannot fail completely in a truly serious matter, the game is largely about how he wins. In this case Anthony Horowitz give the game a subtle and very effective tweaking that does not damage or undermine it, it is a very engaging variation.
This highly engaging book is a deeply satisfying pleasure.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rupert. 1970 Annual. Alfred Bestall Writer and Artist. Classic Media Distribution/Express Newspapers (2011)

Vintage nostalgia, beautifully packaged, this re-print is a a pleasure in its own right as well as for the effortless way it conjures with a never-never past. Rupert the Bear is a very long running strip in the Daily Express newspaper and a clever decision by someone has ensured that it has retained it popularity through the decades. Rupert has never changed in content nor format, the strip long ceased being old-fashioned and simply became itself. There are four large panels per page, each panel has a small caption which are are simple rhyming couplets, the lower half of the page has an extended text narrative for the action in the panels. In addition each page has a descriptive title. The simple and direct design of the pages means that the pages are neither cluttered nor crowded, they give the reader multiple options on how to read it without tripping each other up.
Rupert is a human like white bear who always wears yellow check trousers, a red jumper and a yellow check scarf, his friend, like Bill Badger, Edward Trunk are the same. They have safe but exciting adventures with inventors, magicians and bandits.
The context is a wonderful never-time, what was imagined the best possible childhood would look like early in the 20th century when the strip was launched. Looking it it today the unspoken attitudes of the creators and readers are vividly clear. There are no ethnic characters in the cast beyond a Chinese magician and his daughter, certainly no one with a dark skin. This is a very English, genteel and supremely middle class world. This is the very factor that should render it stale or vapid if not frankly offensive, yet it is the essential element that keeps it fresh and attractive. Rupert ceased having the slightest relevance or connection to the real world a long time ago, it is a museum piece in the truest sense. It is a call from another time and a window into another era. It retains it complete sincerity, a picture of the exciting, friend filled, adventurous childhood that many have dreamed of and desired.
Alfred Bestall's wonderful art is the heart of Rupert and it a joy to read, the panels are spaced widely enough on the page that each one is considered by itself as well as part of the progression of the story. Each one is carefully balanced with the need to convey the story and to stand individual attention. The details are simple and telling, they give a great physical context to the action. In particular I love the landscapes that Rupert and his friends move through, the shades of green and the variety of the ground is a delight.
The stories are nicely varied, neatly structured and engaging. Rupert is placed in enough danger or trouble to be interesting, the resolution comes from his kindness and courage, a return home to safety and friends is inevitable.
The pleasure of this book is to see again a long, golden afternoon of mystical childhood which never fades, where adventure is always around the corner just waiting for you.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Thicker Than Water. Mike Carey. Orbit Books (2009)

An highly entertaining, very well structured and very dark fantasy. Felix Castor is a freelance exorcist in an England where ghosts, werewolves, zombies and demons are part of the population. Felix is taken to a crime scene where he discovers that his name was written in blood by a victim of a very savage murder. This becomes a bigger problem when Felix reveals that he knew the victim and that he had tried to kill Felix when they were children. Under suspicion for the murder Felix has to investigate to clear himself. The trail leads to the Sailsbury estate where something very nasty indeed in brewing. The trouble on the estate had attracted the attention of a violent and militant Catholic group, The Anathemata. As Felix continues to investigate the trial leads back to his own family past in Liverpool and a web of secrets and lies. The action is fast and very well set up, the reveals are superb, the cast engaging and the story thread very cleverly knotted together. The climax is savage and fitting, no one is left unpunished.
One of the great pleasures of the book is the way Mike Carey uses his premise about the supernatural invading the world and becoming a, nearly normal, part of reality and everyday life. This accommodation lets him drive the story forward as a very noir thriller with a supernatural cast without having to break the genre conventions to do so. Felix is a great leading man, he is trying to do his best and do the right thing in a world where that has lost a great deal of meaning. He is not a superhero in any sense, he does have a strong talent which causes him as much trouble as it solves for others. He is willing and able to act, make mistakes and just ultimately do what has to be done. With a supporting cast featuring a demon who lives for sex and blood and a zombie property developer, the standard police officer who is a wary ally of Felix has to work hard not be simply be a cliche. Mike Carey gives him a genuine spark of life and the relationship between the two rings true.
The opening incident of the book appears to be a freewheeling sub plot that is woven into the main plot with a cunning ferocity that is matched only by the bitter story that lies behind the activities on the Sailsbury and the murder victim. The supernatural elements are not window dressing on a excellent noir thriller, they are woven into the fabric of the story so that they give it extra bite and severity.
This is a great read, Mike Carey is a very skillful writer who has created a gripping blend of ideas that could work against each other, in fact they combine seamlessly to add weight and texture to a cold and griping story.