Thursday, December 6, 2012

Cities and mysteries

A recent piece in The Guardian, London: fantasy's capital city, has me thinking about mystery, imagination and cities.

'Mystery is the doorway to fantasy' the writer remarks. Quite so, but then mystery is one of the basic wellsprings of plot and story, as Dickens so often demonstrated. When I wrote The Raven's Seal, I used one of the techniques of fantasy by making my setting, the city of Airenchester, wholly imaginary. In this way, it was the ideal stage on which arrange and play out my mystery.

The urban mystery, the attempt to pose the reality of the city as a mystery and then unpick it, is one of the oldest forms of mystery. I've always been attracted to cities of the imagination, from Italo Calvino's Venice to M. John Harrison's eerie and unforgettable Viriconium.

'Mystery is also the doorway to reality,' the writer concludes. Airenchester has always been a character in The Raven's Seal, as vividly drawn and present. I hope that Airenchester's fictionality, its fantasy, also tempts the reader to look behind the facade and imagine the mechanisms, the subterfuges, social forms, expectations, dreams and ideologies that drive and support it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Literary names and updates

I was thinking recently that someone ought to, if there wasn't already, make a study of the function of names in literature. In an odd instance of synchronicity, it seems that that book is here: Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature by Alastair Fowler, reviewed in the London Review of Books (linked).

Several readers have noticed that I take a suggestive or descriptive approach to names in The Raven's Seal. This is not just a Dickensian technique, though Dickens was a master namer, but a way to tag or expose something about a character that can be wonderfully evocative. In fact, there are several buried clues to character in The Raven's Seal that I'm waiting for an astute reader to notice, but even if they remain unseen, they add something to the texture and sense of a character.

There is a very warm review of The Raven's Seal on the historical novels society site, and in this guest post for the Historical Fiction Society I write a little about composing The Raven's Seal and the way historical details were brought into and shaped the story.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dickens and his 'mysteries'

I'm back from travelling in the USA, stopping in Nashville and San Francisco. San Francisco, wonderful city that it is, puts me in mind of Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon.

I admire the classics of American 'hard-boiled' mystery, particularly Hammett and Chandler, because these mysteries, with their intense action and dynamic interaction between the detective and the crime, are so different from the detached English style of detective fiction. It reminds me that there really is no one kind of mystery, and that a mystery plot is not necessarily confined to an intricate, logical puzzle with a definable solution, conducted solely as a game between author and reader.

Dickens, for instance, was drawn to mysteries and mystery plots. He dropped a murder into Bleak House, and we can be pretty sure that The Mystery of Edwin Drood was going to be the portrait of a murderer, but he resisted the idea that he would use mystery to baffle, trick or even fool the reader. The guilty figure in a Dickensian mystery is usually pretty clear (see 'Hunted Down', for example). Dickens used mystery to create suspense, to draw us into stories, to make the reader wonder, and also to illuminate the darker recesses of the human mind. Dickens did not want his reader to solve a mystery, but to experience many mysteries. His detectives could show a sharp light on certain events, but the light also made the shadows dance.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Word Junk

Management is a useful technique, but it belongs properly to the domain of logistics: to coordinating resources and activities. When management is elevated to an ideology (managerialism, if you will) it inevitably corrodes the distinction (which it little understands) between planning and strategy. It moves to lead what it should simply coordinate. Hence, managerial reports are stuffed with high-sounding and empty aspirational terms, vague assertions and incoherent popular terms. Thought is pushed to the edges. What is left is word junk.

A perfect example of this confusion is here, a 'strategic blueprint' (itself an oxymoron) for e-learning at The University of Queensland. Everyone knows a half-dozen other examples.

Tufte noted of 'chart junk' in PowerPoint that it 'weakens spatial reasoning as it does verbal reasoning'. Word junk weakens thought as it corrupts critical reasoning.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

New Reviews for The Raven's Seal

It's great to see a several really positive early reader reviews of The Raven's Seal over on LibraryThing.

This is particularly heartening because The Raven's Seal was intended as an entertainment, a text that would be readable, enjoyable even, and the reviewers seem to respond to this.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Slow reading The Lord of the Rings

I'm reading The Lord of the Rings again -- slowly. As a teen, and afterward, there was always time to read LotR at speed, to devour each page, chapter and volume, there and back again.

But I was always struck (as an author) by Tolkien's remark about the long period of time he took to write the novel and plodding on until stopping by Balin's tomb in 1940. Does that slow process of development, stops and starts and deep thought, reward slow readng? So I am reading LotR slowly, at a different pace, taking a page or a passages here and there, and months later the breaking of the Fellowship looms.

I've learned that it is worthwhile re-imagining Middle-earth, for its depth and strangeness, as well its familiarity. The movie trilogy is so strongly realised that there is a danger of its imagery effacing the books, and so rereading slowly is a way of restoring details, incidents and scenes and even the faces of characters from one's own inner vision. The long trek out of The Shire, the barrow-wight, even the wolves of Hollin are all encounters worth recovering.

The landscape of Middle-earth is still New Zealand for me, but I find it tinged now with the woods of the northeastern United States. After many shifts in landscape and setting, I find Galadriel's decision, 'I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel,' very moving.

It's sometimes the details, a camp, a song, a glimpse of the Brown Hills, that make the story. Slow reading is one way to get back to these details.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

An Actual, Authentic Review

Given the uproar over 'sock-puppet' - may we say 'author-led' - reviews, reported in The Guardian and duly repeated over here by the Brisbane Times, it's nice to see an actual, authentic early review of The Raven's Seal on LibraryThing this morning.

It's a very encouraging review, extremely positive overall, and close to what I wanted for readers. And a little criticism means that it's a balanced review as well. Will it come to pass that the trustworthy reviews will have to be salted with a little criticism, just to seem real?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Author's e-Book

I've had a chance to look through the e-book (preview copy only) of The Raven's Seal. It's a wonderful, strange thing for the author to hold his or her own book in electronic form. It's a file, no more or less than the words you wrote. It's ephemeral, but then, aren't the words what really counts?

The e-book version looks great, like all of Top Five Books' work. The font is elegant, with a slightly old-fashioned feel, and the page looks wonderful, especially in portrait. Of course, I think the print copies will feel even better, and there is something about the materiality of the printed page that still holds us, through memory or association.

Yet, I'm reminded of the light, almost onion-skin paper of the compact editions of Dickens I first read at home, and how the electronic page in iBooks (or Kindle) almost duplicates that lightness, and comes closer to the book that Borges speculated about: infinite pages of infinite thinness.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The ‘Dickensian’ and The Raven’s Seal

Novelist Martin Amis, interviewed in the Chicago Tribune, acknowledges a Dickensian influence on his new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England.

Amis says Dickens ‘isn't really a realist. Accurate social criticism is not his great strength; his great strengths are exaggeration and melodrama and comedy. It's a melodramatic form, the Dickensian novel — a magical transformation, with a sort of fairy-tale vocabulary or furniture behind this amazingly vivid picture of London....’

Amis’s comment had me thinking again about the Dickensian. To me, this word summons up not just the rich texturing of character and place and fairy-tale plots, but an extraordinary imaginative density and energy of style. Accuracy is not the point; the range of his sympathies, his irony, anger and penetrating humour are what makes Dickens' social criticism not only pointed but universal. 

This is what inspired me about using Dickens as a source for The Raven’s Seal. I aimed for a richness, and sometimes a complexity, of language that could create a lively sense of scene, which could be comic or melodramatic but never static. I wanted vivid characters rather than psychological portraits (although I hope that many of the characters are psychologically interesting). The prison was not only a Dickensian motif but an ideal setting for social criticism, still relevant because so much hinges on wealth and poverty, crime and punishment, the law and injustice, prisons and policing. And The Raven’s Seal is structured by at least a couple of Dickensian reversals of fortune which have that fairy-tale Romance flair about them. One of them, of course, is Grainger’s fall into the prison. The mystery hinges on the other. And the last thing I took from Dickens was a conviction that mystery need not just be a puzzle but the thematic core of a novel.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Coming in Fall 2012

More details of my forthcoming mystery novel, The Raven's Seal, are now featured on the publisher's website: Top Five Books. There's a sample from the opening and the back-cover blurb, here.

The cover design is great, but the sketch map of Airenchester (the fictional city where the story is set) is fantastic. More about mapping, imaginary spaces and The Raven's Seal soon.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mystery and the locked room

In The Raven's Seal, now on its way to galley proofs, I tease the reader with a locked-room mystery as a celebration of that venerable device. What is the locked room apart from a piece of machinery that can show us something about how plots work, as well as the gears and levers of reading?

BBC News magazine puts the locked room on display.

It occurs to me that all mysteries are versions of the locked room, except that the walls and door have been removed or, more precisely, replaced with the horizon.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Update - The Raven's Seal

My novel, The Raven's Seal, an historical mystery with a Dickensian edge, has been contracted for publication by Top Five Books, an independent publisher of quality mysteries and classics. Details to follow, after the manuscript is delivered.