At 10:35 on an early summer's morning, John Lanchester sat down at his study desk, switched on his new Dell computer, opened up the word processing programme that the computer had come with and began

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Because I didn't want to clutter up the What Are You Reading thread with the way this book perpetually perks its folly in my face.

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 11:18 (six years ago) Permalink

On a rainy morning in early December, an 82-year-old woman sat in her front room at 42 Pepys Road, looking out at the street through a lace curtain. Her name was Petunia Howe...

Don't be absurd! Also, reader wonders whether she is distantly or even closely related to Geoffrey.

The proprietor of 51 Pepys Road, the house across the road from Petunia Howe's, was at work in the City of London. Roger Yount sat at his office desk at his bank, Pinker Lloyd, doing sums.

I hope you're already getting a sense of fatigue at the toiling rhythm and progress of his sentences, the way he leaves nothing to chance.

It was late afternoon. Roger sat on one of the sofas in his office,

Stop telling me the time of day.

Ahmed Kamal, who owned the shop (sorry thomp) at the end of Pepys Road, number 68, came awake 3.59 in the morning, one minute before his alarm was set to go off.

Please stop telling me the time of day. Also - came awake?

Shahid Kamal, who was due to work a shift at the family shop between eight o'clock in the morning and six o'clock in the evening, walked down the street at a brisk clip.


At number 51 Pepys Road, Mrs Arabella Yount...

At ten o'clock Shahid was stacking...

Two weeks before Christmas, Petunia sat...

I've reached Part 2. Things are going to start happening!

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 11:19 (six years ago) Permalink

You can't buy this sort of publicity. Will read (this thread).

Ismael Klata, Friday, 9 March 2012 11:23 (six years ago) Permalink

Didn't bring the book with me today, of course.

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 11:29 (six years ago) Permalink

I was on the verge of ordering this yesterday, will hold off on that one then.

Homosexual Satan Wasp (Matt DC), Friday, 9 March 2012 11:47 (six years ago) Permalink

Can tell you the characters of course.

You just have to insert ffs or 'oh god' after each one:

Petunia Howe - an octogenarian lady who notices how young people like doctors are etc.

Roger and Arabella Yount - a wealthy banker and his wife who likes shopping and spas and says 'dahling'.

Quentina Mkfesi BSc MSc - a Zimbabwean refugee (escaping political death squads), who can't be deported, and who has a job as a traffic warden.

'Bogdan' Zbigniew (can't remember his surname) - a Polish builder who is saving up money to give to his father back in Poland. He saves this money up by playing the stock market (??).

Ahmed, Usman, and Shahid. Brothers who collectively run a corner shop. Shahid has dabbled in terrorism, and a shady terrorist friend from his past has just appeared on the scene. Goes to a militant mosque in Brixton. Can't remember what Usman does.

Freddy Kamo(!) - Young African footballer with lanky legs (Lanchester is an Arsenal fan right?) who plays for a thinly disguised Chelsea. Always smiling. Stern father.

Smitty - a 'concept' artist, who leaves anonymous graffiti around the place, and who Lanchester somehow manages to get talking in a faux faux-Cockney/Mockney.

All of these behave exactly as you'd imagine they'd behave if you a) had no imagination b) got all your information from Sunday Supplements/daytime tv? apart from 'surprising' gestures towards 'civilised' or nuanced (ie white male) thinking.

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 11:49 (six years ago) Permalink

read you talking about this in the reading thread and am glad this hilarious spin-off exists

Nultified Ancients of Man U (Noodle Vague), Friday, 9 March 2012 11:53 (six years ago) Permalink

Why isn't there a racist taxi driver? I demand a racist taxi driver.

Homosexual Satan Wasp (Matt DC), Friday, 9 March 2012 11:53 (six years ago) Permalink

further comments from here, Matt. Just couldn't be bothered to cnp them all in.

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 11:54 (six years ago) Permalink

Ah, with Lanchester the 'racist taxi driver' would in fact be a surprisingly tolerant racist taxi driver who has a copy of the Economist on the front shelf of his taximetered cabriolet.

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 11:55 (six years ago) Permalink

Q. Is the problem with "state of the nation" novels usually that they are written by people far removed from most of the nation?

Nultified Ancients of Man U (Noodle Vague), Friday, 9 March 2012 11:56 (six years ago) Permalink

Q. I though Lanchester's steez was a kind of sub-Banville aestheticism. Wtf was he thinking?

Nultified Ancients of Man U (Noodle Vague), Friday, 9 March 2012 11:57 (six years ago) Permalink

A little surprised there are no media types, unless that's Smitty's role of course. There should also be a harassed woman juggling kids with running some sort of poorly-funded third-sector body.

Ismael Klata, Friday, 9 March 2012 11:58 (six years ago) Permalink

Must have fancied it after everyone loved Whoops!, I guess. Once you're thinking 'I get bankers, I've talked to a lot of bankers', and you've written abt London property, it must be p much irresistible to write a 'city of do-you-see contrasts' novel.

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:12 (six years ago) Permalink

Also - came awake?

It's when someone has a nocturnal emission so violent that it wakes them up.
The cover of this book annoys me the way the cover of 'Cloud Atlas' does.

a box on the wall that sends the wind to make FPs marginally less (snoball), Friday, 9 March 2012 12:16 (six years ago) Permalink

Is there any detailed exposition of what bankers actually do, other than having three computer screens? Ian McEwan, even if being tedious, would always have some of this to redeem it.

Ismael Klata, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:19 (six years ago) Permalink

xpost to NV.

thomp p much nailed The Debt to Pleasure on the what are you reading thread - 'debt to pleasure' = would maybe have like to have been nabokov when it grew up, narrator has poisoned some dudes, envies his brother's career as chef, is self-described gourmand, presents memoir of dudes he has poisoned as a series of menus. it's aight i guess.

Problems with this state of the nation novel, with a star by problems that I think are possibly generic pitfalls:

The characters attempt to be 'representative' and of course are pure ciphers and representative of nothing.*

Lanchester isn't very good, in fact is very very bad at filling his book with material.

The need to fill your book with situations that, again, are representative, makes it feel like satireless satire.*(unless its actual satire)

Capital is extraordinarily badly written on a sentence by toiling sentence basis, which makes me wonder whether he's even capable of doing the sub-Banville aestheticism, on any level.

Insights of daily life barely merit the name insight, apart from a couple of occasions where I said to myself 'yeah, I guess that's just about a thing'.

The interior monologues of the characters are utterly utterly dreadful, full of truly mundane material that should never be in a book. 'So and so looked at the Prius and its leather seats, he wished he could afford a Prius but in the meantime would continue to take the tubefghk;lsfb;hadfjghvflk;sxnhjnhj'

It is a book whose messages come as a clearly attached post-it at the beginning of each chapter. *(I guess - message novels have to stay on message, rather than let the imagination of the writer take them in places that are interesting or entertaining. You just feel like you're being shown things that you've read a thousand times before in longer-form journalism.)

What it reminds me of most is The Information by Martin Amis, which isn't an amazing book, but is world's classics status compared to Capital. Amis wouldn't call a bar 'Uprising' but he might do something similar, better, but similar. Likewise there are the shady figures, the underclasses, the outsider figures, presaging doom for the main power characters.

But MA was probably the best recent State of the Nation novelist? He was funny and he was a very good writer, which helped. Still easy to come a cropper, with the all CAPS text messaging in Yellow Dog for instance. And everything from The Information onwards has been increasingly flawed, and is probably a continuation of the things that made London Fields weaker than Money?

Any other candidates for good recent State of the Nation novelists? (Or any time - would George Eliot have counted? Probably?)]

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:21 (six years ago) Permalink


His dad was some kind of banker iirc, & he does seem to have actual friends in the city, so you think it'd be his strong suit.

Feel like this is going to be a MAJOR NEW DRAMA on BBC1 at some point.

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:22 (six years ago) Permalink

What a Carve Up? I remember it being good, but don't trust 90s me as a judge tbh. It also doesn't quite take the cross-section of society route iirc.

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:24 (six years ago) Permalink

Amis also had a couple of Zbigniews in I think London Fields.

Ismael Klata, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:25 (six years ago) Permalink

McEwan's Saturday is clunky-as-hell but basically alright.

Ismael Klata, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:26 (six years ago) Permalink

Is there any detailed exposition of what bankers actually do, other than having three computer screens? Ian McEwan, even if being tedious, would always have some of this to redeem it.

― Ismael Klata, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:19 (2 minutes ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

There isn't, perhaps surprisingly. There's some rather awkward handwaving towards types of trading, and bankery things, to indicate he knows what he's talking about (which he does), but it's kept at a minimum, I suspect because Lanchester feared (prob rightly) that going too much into it would a)be disproportionate b)reveal that he knows rather less about the working detail of everyone else.

I think a fictional account of a banker by Lanchester, or a group of bankers, would have been far more interesting than this 'terrorist', 'immigrant', 'old lady', 'young artist' media stereotype bollocks.

Things where you can tell Lanchester feels more comfortable:

Talking about football (this isn't good, but it doesn't feel RONG).
Bringing up small children (this isn't funny, but " " " ")

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:26 (six years ago) Permalink

er 'of a banker or a group of bankers by Lanchester' not 'by Lanchester or group of bankers' obv.

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:27 (six years ago) Permalink


aesthetic saturday objections aside, I think a state-of-the-nation has to be significantly longer than that, 400pp minimum.

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:28 (six years ago) Permalink

Heh, I like the idea of a group of bankers writing as Luther Blisset.

Ismael Klata, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:29 (six years ago) Permalink

is Hensher's Northern Clemency in this vein? Anyone read that?

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:32 (six years ago) Permalink

Wasn't Amis' new book originally going to be called The State Of England? A better title than Lionel Asbo, anyway.

I enjoyed Theo Tait putting the boot into Ali Smith's last, vaguely S-o-E book: - doesn't happen often enough, presumably because of the very small world of London publishing. Read the kindle sample of the Lanchester and couldn't believe how slack it was, yet I haven't read a bad, or even mixed, review yet.

Stevie T, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:51 (six years ago) Permalink

Have the feeling this is going to belong on this thread soon:

Stevie T, Friday, 9 March 2012 12:58 (six years ago) Permalink

private eye gave captial a stinky review, fwiw


― Ward Fowler, Thursday, 8 March 2012 14:25 (Yesterday) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:05 (six years ago) Permalink

I am actually looking forward to Lionel Asbo.

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:05 (six years ago) Permalink


I also saw a mixed somewhere serious, but can't remember where.

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:06 (six years ago) Permalink

How about a state-of-the-nation novel not set in London? Is there such a thing?

Ismael Klata, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:07 (six years ago) Permalink

oh, theo tait again, Guardian.

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:07 (six years ago) Permalink

If the Northern Clemency is that sort of thing, it seems to be Sheffield-based. But I think most SoN-type novels would try to do London a bit maybe? At least have one character moving/working there?

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:11 (six years ago) Permalink

Actually, I may be imagining it, but is there something of Adam Curtis's faux-humdrum tone to some of those opening sentences up top? Like how all his BBC blogs begin with sentences like "One September night in 1945 three British mathematicians and astronomers went to see a new film at a cinema in Cambridge". I can almost hear Curtis reading the one about Petunia Howe.

Stevie T, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:13 (six years ago) Permalink

i was a fan of What a Carve Up when i read it but when i've flicked through it since i thing i was mostly wrong, and the clumsiness i excused as Dickensian at the time just reads like clumsiness to me now.

interesting to think of Middlemarch as a state-of-the-nation novel because of course it's addressing "middle England" before the fact, at a time when it was far from central to English notions of England maybe?

Nultified Ancients of Man U (Noodle Vague), Friday, 9 March 2012 13:13 (six years ago) Permalink

iirc Lanchester has too many friends in the journalism trade to get many bad reviews?

Nultified Ancients of Man U (Noodle Vague), Friday, 9 March 2012 13:15 (six years ago) Permalink

Wasn't Amis' new book originally going to be called The State Of England? A better title than Lionel Asbo, anyway

Should have just gone the whole hog with 'I Hate The Fucking Proles'.

Homosexual Satan Wasp (Matt DC), Friday, 9 March 2012 13:38 (six years ago) Permalink

don't think he realises his dad was sometimes joking

Nultified Ancients of Man U (Noodle Vague), Friday, 9 March 2012 13:39 (six years ago) Permalink

I quite enjoyed that Ali Smith book as I was reading it but some of its sympathetic characters are more annoying than its unsympathetic characters and it descends into caricature rather a lot. Also it doesn't really go anywhere.

Homosexual Satan Wasp (Matt DC), Friday, 9 March 2012 13:40 (six years ago) Permalink

oh, theo tait again, Guardian.

― woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:07 (31 minutes ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

"Actually it was a good sandwich," runs a typical sentence

Good job the review has forewarned me of this particular sentence, otherwise I might have hurled the book across the room.

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:44 (six years ago) Permalink

That review is spot on about the 'drone' of the prose. Also:

And there's a lot of slightly lazy repetition: "Parker, the boy she had been going out with ever since they kissed at a sixth-form dance on a hot June night back at sixth-form college."

This! Who on earth let this sort of thing through? It's like the weird repetition of the business about the skips and builders in the first chapter and the 'Transport for London card charging device'.

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:54 (six years ago) Permalink

There was an interview I skimmed through that did say L's dad was banker. But so what? Isn't part of the 'story' how the system almost took on a life of its own and no one really has any control/understanding?

Part of the reason why I never got round to Whoops! anyway was that all of a sudden this novelist that is never on your radar acquires an interest over these topical matters - except that in this case, as I've said, my impression is that even the so-called experts are no experts when it comes to the financial system, so what chance does this guy have? The other reason is that unemployed/laid-off bankers started writing a mountain of these so cynicism set in.

Related but separate thing is you have other novelists I think I'd hate - Geoff Dyer and Adam Mars-Jones writing bks on things I really like: on Stalker and Late Spring, whereas I would like to see these being written by film writers that would bring wider knowledge on Japanese and Russian cinema instead of what I think it would be (= too many boring personal reflections...its for the fans you know). Its depressing that this might be the only way for bks to get published on really interesting films/topics and this seems like the only way to get any shelf-space/coverage.

I guess they've done their 'research', ffs.

xyzzzz__, Friday, 9 March 2012 14:01 (six years ago) Permalink

'the system' took control -- this is SF material of course, fuck 'station of the nation' bullshit.

xyzzzz__, Friday, 9 March 2012 14:04 (six years ago) Permalink


Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 14:05 (six years ago) Permalink

iirc Lanchester has too many friends in the journalism trade to get many bad reviews?

yes, I get the impression he's well-liked; also bad reviews aren't really done that much anymore (there was some fuss about this recently, maybe centred around that hatchet-job award?). The notable thing is how much attention it's getting - I got the impression that Lanchester was slipping into the terminal midlist zone before this, releasing also-reviewed, diminishing-returns novels every few years. Now he's a hit! I guess that's partly Whoops!, partly a canny topic, partly a very quiet literary spring in the uk, partly book-page need to have some literary middle-aged men to take seriously.

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 14:18 (six years ago) Permalink

Actually, I may be imagining it, but is there something of Adam Curtis's faux-humdrum tone to some of those opening sentences up top? Like how all his BBC blogs begin with sentences like "One September night in 1945 three British mathematicians and astronomers went to see a new film at a cinema in Cambridge". I can almost hear Curtis reading the one about Petunia Howe.

― Stevie T, Friday, 9 March 2012 13:13 (56 minutes ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

there is a little bit. But I think the thing that annoys me about these specific sentences is the way he smuggles in other information. The 'brisk clip', and another one where after the usual time and season bollocks, Lanchester puts in a 'slightly out of breath'. I wouldn't mind so much if it was as formulaic as Adam Curtis' 'I'm going to tell you the story of x. It's a remarkable story that involves x,y,z,π and ك'.'

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 14:23 (six years ago) Permalink

Idk, should this be changed into a 'State of the Nation' novel thread? Change title one of these maybe?

'Actually it was a good sandwich' - State of the Nation novels and what is in them

'fuck 'station of the nation' bullshit'

'I am actually looking forward to Lionel Asbo'

'Why isn't there a racist taxi driver? I demand a racist taxi driver'

'I also saw a mixed somewhere serious'

'i'm assuming the copies i saw in waterstones were some britain-wide conspiracy'

'wonky textspeak'

' I guess it looks like what broadsheet journalism likes to believe novels are'

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 14:44 (six years ago) Permalink

ah, 'I also saw a mixed review somewhere serious'.

Fizzles, Friday, 9 March 2012 14:44 (six years ago) Permalink

I dunno, enjoying the title as it stands, above all "that the computer had come with"

woof, Friday, 9 March 2012 14:53 (six years ago) Permalink

Oh I see the adaptation changed the motive for the murderer which is insane as the new one made no sense at all, as the Pinefox has pointed out.

Matt DC, Thursday, 10 January 2019 18:22 (one month ago) Permalink

I think the "sense" of the motive is that the murderer was a psychopath with a fixation on Poirot which doesn't seem notable more implausible than the book

I can't dérive fifty-feev (Noodle Vague), Thursday, 10 January 2019 18:25 (one month ago) Permalink

It's definitely where the TV version's gestures towards politics and social relevance failed to cohere tho

I can't dérive fifty-feev (Noodle Vague), Thursday, 10 January 2019 18:28 (one month ago) Permalink

More importantly how come Ron Weasley still looks 14?

I can't dérive fifty-feev (Noodle Vague), Thursday, 10 January 2019 18:31 (one month ago) Permalink

Yes, I tried the first episode and found it too dour for my tastes, and not enough like the experience of reading a Poirot book - but then I got to thinking about bored how I am, too, with the Suchet 'heritage' treatment also. Perhaps something that acknowledged the surprising viciousness of a lot of Christie while at the same time sticking more closely to the 'traditional' whodunnit formula might hit the spot w/ me - or maybe if Mario Bava were still alive...

Ward Fowler, Thursday, 10 January 2019 18:45 (one month ago) Permalink

given that suchet redux set-design-wise is "it's the 20s! literally everything will be spiffy art deco!", i enjoyed the rebuttal here: ""it's the 30s! literally (almost)* everything will be edwardian, also decaying!"

*not the de la warr, an anachronism** they couldn't quite resist (the story was set in 1932 i think).
**another anachronism*** = a giles gilbert scott k2 telephone box (1st k2 = 1936: they needed a k1 but none survive in london)
***having a character sing 'night and day' isn't quite an anachronism: the show it's from, gay divorce (good title), is also 1932 -- but it probably didn't get widespread enough to be hummable for a couple of years (the film, the gay divorcee, is 1934)****
****(that i was busily googling all this while watching is possibly a sign my attention wasn't gripped)

mark s, Thursday, 10 January 2019 19:04 (one month ago) Permalink

I have to hand it to Mark S, those are good details.

the pinefox, Thursday, 10 January 2019 21:30 (one month ago) Permalink

In truth the 'night & day' semi-anachronism also results from being unimaginative about old time popular songs -- there are hundreds of less well known ones she could (more) realistically have sung but at this point 'night & day', 'I've got you under my skin', 'cheek to cheek' are virtually all that much of an audience will recognize.

(I thought this with very mild irritation at the time, while Mark was googling.)

the pinefox, Thursday, 10 January 2019 21:32 (one month ago) Permalink

they should have gone with this:

mark s, Thursday, 10 January 2019 22:00 (one month ago) Permalink

the motive was still inheritance wasn't it? the poirot bating was an extra treat. on xmas eve we watched the last ever suchet one from 2013, i usually enjoy them but it was truly dire.

things you were shockingly old when you learned: christie was writing them into the 70s, with contemporary settings. suchet filmed them all but made them all pre-war.

large bananas pregnant (ledge), Friday, 11 January 2019 12:07 (one month ago) Permalink

hoping there's a christie abt a 60s blues rockband getting back together for one last tour, but a freak accident with a live microphone and/or guitar/bass connection etc etc

mark s, Friday, 11 January 2019 12:34 (one month ago) Permalink

In the growing drug and pop culture of the sixties, he proves himself once again

not bad considering he retires aged 55 in 1905.

large bananas pregnant (ledge), Friday, 11 January 2019 13:00 (one month ago) Permalink

finally got round to this. didn't think it was terrible; in fact it wasn’t anything really. he hits upon a lot of the right points, but i don’t think he says much about them.

A telling phrase he uses is 'it's not as if anyone makes any claims for christie as a writer per se'. *writing* as the end point and purpose of writing has always struck me as a peculiar conceit of 'literary fiction' (begging the question a bit).

I think Christie *is* doing formal stuff and that formal stuff is characterises her and other Golden Age writing. I'd like to see the connexions that mark s suggests upthread where these formal experiments exist in some relation to the 'modernist project'. I'm not convinced they do in a way that illuminates much - my view is that the formal games are closer to crossword puzzles or parlour games than bearing much relation to the large narrative of Literature capital L; I’m suspicious of efforts like Lanchester’s to use this as an ‘in’ to literary credibility. I may be mischaracterising, but I think it can be the case. I'm also not a massive fan of 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, which often seems like a touchstone for genre-as-literature arguments, although it is technically impressive.

As I say, my primary take on all Golden Age writers, including my favourite John Dickson Carr, is that effectively they are an extension of a sort of Edwardian parlour game. Readers expected to try and *solve* them. Although the codification of the ‘rules’ wasn’t really that important – certainly no story i’ve read adheres to all of them – all of the writers had similar expectations about what constituted ‘fairness’ for the reader. This is a very different scene from a post-Chandler strand where impressionistic stuff just sort of happens at the detective. The furthest extension of this seems to me something like Broadchurch where no actual detection seems to get done at all (apart from going to places where things have happened), and where events keep on happening, with the detectives literally clueless, until the events reach an inescapable conclusion.

In GA fiction not only is detection seen to be done but the clues that are being used by the detective are available to be used by the reader. Incidentally although Lanchester says at the beginning he's trying to work out *why* Christie is so successful, there's bugger all consideration of reader or wider audience, it's just him going 'Christie, eh?' which is vmic. This explains a lot of the stylistic and character issues raised by people approaching this sort of fiction from a literary pov.

I think fundamentally Christie was very good at *snobbery*. It's for this reason Lanchester *is* right imo to highlight A Murder is Announced as a very useful book to look at Christie. Everyone is a social construct, with a backstory and clothes (my housemate recently pointed out that Christie is very specific about clothes - a key element in character definition for snobbery purposes). I think both the Edmund Wilson essays on detective fiction are bad not good, but their badness comes from what I perceive as his mandarin dislike of the genre – typically he’s right about a lot of technical things. In the paragraph quoted by Lanchester, for instance, he’s absolutely right to highlight misdirection as being one of the key techniques of this fiction. The unobtrusive distribution of the clues is essential – the unobtrusiveness comes by interlarding them in a way that’s integrated both in terms of style and narrative. They mustn’t stick out. Ideally they look whether in terms of sentence cadence or paragraph structure, unimportant.

I think the two-dimensionality of characters, a very common criticism, belongs to a similar category. Edmund Crispin/Bruce Montgomery, who I find pretty second rate, put his opinion fairly clearly in one of this novels, where the main character Gideon Fen comes across a crime writer testing out the practicalities of a crime device in a field. Fen suggests that doing this must enable him to some extent to get ‘inside the mind of the murderer’.

An expression of mild repugnance appeared on the man’s face. ‘No,’ he said, ‘no, it doesn’t do that.’ That subject seemed painful to him, and Fen felt that he had committed an indiscretion. ‘The fact is,’ the man went on, ‘that I have no interest in the minds of murderers, or for that matter,’ he added rather wildly, ‘in the minds of anyone else.’ Characterization seems to me a very overrated element in fiction. I can never see why one should be obliged to have any of it at all, if one doesn’t want to. It limits the form so.’

To my mind, and particularly with Christie, the two-dimensionality, the image of characters as intersecting vectors of social roles, background, clothes, domestic interiors, engages the reader’s own snobberies. This snobbery itself will misdirect the attempt to unravel what happened. After all there is always a suspect – a cad, a foreigner, a deliberately secretive person, who is used as an initial suspect (sometimes in a late reversal they do turn out to have done it). It also adds to the parlour game elements. They can arrange the cardboard cutouts. This is not at all, as Edmund Crispin points out, about psychology.

To digress slightly, it was interesting watching the recent adaptation of The ABC Murders. I was interested to see the generally positive ilx response. It really was a dog's dinner imo (unfortunately the point I need to make means SPOILERS if you haven't seen it). The elements weren't necessarily bad or *rong*: there is a bit of a grim anti-foreign element in the book (Poirot is dismissed as an interfering 'Frenchman', in the way Marple is as an interfering old woman) tho the V for Vendetta look in this adaptation was both gruelling and silly.

And I should add that I think things like Sherlock Holmes and Poirot are so symbolic now they are ripe for any sort of game you want to play with them at all. Notions of authenticity are absurd.

This three-parter was 'Poirot: The backstory' under the guise of a traditional detective story. I thought it was incredibly slow to go about its business. SPOILER The reveal of him as a priest rather than a policeman was a ridiculous on several levels: one, the detective as father-confessor and battler of evil in mundane forms is already a well-worked space so this amounted to a DO YOU SEE moment, emphasised by the second point that The ABC Murders is itself a formal experiment based upon Chesterton's question in his (excellent) Father Brown story The Sign of the Broken Sword: 'Where does a wise man hide a leaf?'. I think there's something of a direct reference to this in the original Christie novel:

Is it not your great Shakespeare who has said “You cannot see the trees for the wood.”’ I did not correct Poirot’s literary reminiscences. I was trying to see his point. A glimmer came to me. He went on: ‘When do you notice a pin least? When it is in a pin-cushion! When do you notice an individual murder least? When it is one of a series of related murders.

The adaptation completely broke the implications of this statement and effectively broke the point of it entirely. as the pinefox points out, the motive of it revivifying Poirot was daft, but so was the ‘I was enjoying killing so much I just thought I’d carry on’.

I thought Malkovich was good as a pained and in pain version of Poirot whose old world courtesy is out of place in a brutalised world – Lanchester is again right to point out the 'problem' of Poirot, tho he doesn't point out that Hastings is *even more* irritating – what this adaptation reminded me of was that actually it's often the fact that Poirot is well-liked by sympathetic other characters that enables him to solve crimes at a 'softer' level than pure clue finding, it's a central emotional mechanism to the books I think, and *is* probably a factor in the counterintuitive success of Poirot as a figure.

What John Dickson Carr did for the locked room, Christie did for all sorts of different 'set ups' – despite toiling in the right space, I don't think Lanchester quite gets this properly framed (his 'school for wizards' comment).

I think I got up to here and then abandoned the post cos i had to go and do something else, and now can’t remember what else i was going to say, which is just as well as it’s overlong already.

I still think the initial frisson of a magical impossibility to be unraveled by detection is hard to beat in this sort of fiction, though I don’t think Christie is particularly good at the atmospherics of it in a way that Dorothy L Sayers or John Dickson Carr are. I still get a frisson of excitement when I read the opening paragraph of The Hollow Man:

To the murder of Professor Grimaud, and later the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street, many fantastic terms could be applied – with reason. Those of Dr Fell’s friends who like impossible situations will not find in his casebook any puzzle more baffling or more terrifying. Thus: two murders were committed, in such fashion that the murderer must not only have been invisible, but lighter than air. According to the evidence, this person killed his first victim and literally disappeared. Again according to the evidence, he killed his second victim in the middle of an empty street, with watchers at either end; yet not a soul saw him, and no footprint appeared in the snow.

Fizzles, Saturday, 12 January 2019 14:25 (one month ago) Permalink

some french bigwig -- maybe breton? -- said that the english didn't need surrealism, they already had alice… and i feel you could make a similar claim about oulipo and christie, and then double down on the analysis: if in la disparition the "absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence" (the mass death of WW2), then christie's expertise in misdirection without cheating is maybe similarly deeply connected to the thing i liked best (for being said out loud) in lanchester's account, christie's "complete belief in… human malignity"

JL goes off the rails in his exploration of this, tho, i suspect bcz he associates it the conservative worldview (as in, we need the social structures we have -- even given some of the bad things that go with them -- because some ppl are evil and others need protection from them). he prefers christie to e.g. sayers or allingham, despite two things he assumes you'd expect him to be drawn to: (a) their greater ambition in lit-fic terms, and (b) that they considered themselves "progressive"

even ignoring the probable anachronism of the second as a term either writer wd use abt themselves, there's a really clumsy irregular verb going on here: I am politically engaged, you consider yourself progressive, they are virtue signalling, plus just a weird (and i think dumb and incurious) absence of interest on lanchetser's part in what the seeming flaws and lacunae in sayers' work -- as tecfic or as social observation -- can teach us about the historical development of (for example) feminism, and the various contradictory stages it passed through.

ok maybe this kind of topic DOESN'T interest him (bizarre flex given the focus of his own fiction, but everyone doesn't have to be curious about everything) (i guess) (big and grudging concession by me here lol). but i think it's tone-deaf not to grasp that it's going to be part of what others enjoy enjoying about the popular genre forms of yesteryear, and that some of the pleasure is the complexity of how it runs athwart the project the genre is allagedly ("classically") about. "christie is good bcz she stays in her lane" is real la-la-la-i-can't-hear-you stuff, given all the material he seems to have gathered about the genre and its pleasures and uses and flaws (and their uses…).

actually chesterton and father brown are a telling omission from this piece, i think -- i wasn't aware of the presence of his ghost in the abc murders, bcz i don't think i've ever read the abc murders, but he's surely the direct way into a discussion of crime and evil and formal playfulness and style and conservatives and progressives and etc: "The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution"

an essay on how christie isn't chesterton -- and why *that's* good not bad -- would i think tell us more about what's going on?

mark s, Saturday, 12 January 2019 15:41 (one month ago) Permalink

(i too have a whole list of notes on this piece that i kept starting to type out and abandon, lol: like "hercule poirot is almost a brechtian device", dude, no, that's not that a brechtian device is or does)

mark s, Saturday, 12 January 2019 15:47 (one month ago) Permalink

I'm also not a massive fan of 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, which often seems like a touchstone for genre-as-literature arguments, although it is technically impressive.

The thing almost everyone who makes claims for Roger Ackroyd seems to miss is that it is a complete steal of Anton Chekhov's only full-length novel, The Shooting Party, which was first translated into English only a few years before RA was published. So her great literary achievement was probably just plagiarism.

Mince Pramthwart (James Morrison), Saturday, 12 January 2019 23:45 (one month ago) Permalink

TMoRA is a great (if apparently plagiarised) twist attached to a dull book - so many of her others are smarter, funnier, more engagingly odd. I’m not sure why it gets mentioned so often.

Chuck_Tatum, Sunday, 13 January 2019 02:03 (one month ago) Permalink

I'd be interested to hear why you don't rate Edmund Crispin, Fizzles, I really enjoyed the few Gervase (not Gideon!) Fen books I have read, though Fen himself is something of a "Wimsey as Oxford Don" cipher.

Neil S, Sunday, 13 January 2019 11:06 (one month ago) Permalink

i’m being too harsh. ive read and enjoyed them. i think there’s two things that put the brakes on that enjoyment a bit. i think they may be the same thing, but i’ll work through it.

1 a sort of determined flippancy or flipness towards the form. it’s clearly a form he loves, but perhaps because it’s a form he loves and knows he seems at a distance. mark s and lanchester both right to point out Christie’s belief in malignancy and the possibility of evil. it does make it feel like something serious is at stake, which is exciting! i’m not sure i get that feeling from Bruce Montgomery’s books.

2 you sense he’s point scoring against certain points of view (liking the countryside, or as above, a view of literature) - it’s like K Amis does tec fic (if kingsley amis hadn’t done a fairly bad example of the genre himself in the riverside villas murder*) which is unsurprising as he was a slightly older member of that coterie.

the reason i think they may be the same is that my shorthand for this would be “all a bit meta”. or perhaps it’s that 1 allows 2.

saying all this makes me want to revisit tho.

*trvm is an interesting example where K Amis is extremely assiduous in doing all the clue stuff, but similarly lacks the sense of evil, and in fact surrounds it with his sharp-eyed (and of course a great ear as well) view of social commentary and psychology. it’s perhaps the counterfactual to the “why are golden age characters so 2d?”

Fizzles, Sunday, 13 January 2019 11:17 (one month ago) Permalink

lol gideon, thanks - easy mistake to make!

Fizzles, Sunday, 13 January 2019 11:40 (one month ago) Permalink

does JL actually ever note anywhere in this piece chuck's point, that AC is funny?

to ramp up my own (actually not yet existing) argument, if you can reach back to christie via oulipo or forwards via chesterton, then the territory you're moving through very much involves deftly weaponised flippancy -- the most serious possible topics (hate and death) tackled via the seeming diversionary tactic of (literally) intellectual diversion = puzzles and/or puns

(sayers too maybe, tho she defensively opts more for a loving portrait of a man addicted to (wait for it) whimsy -- the fact she's sort of saying "oh no it's his deflection tactic not my deep strategy", viz this is descriptive realism on my part not deceptive formalism -- is possibly at the root of why some readers take against her?)

mark s, Sunday, 13 January 2019 11:49 (one month ago) Permalink

xp yeah a bit of pedantry seemed warranted when it comes to detective fiction!

Fen (and therefore Crispin) is a bit flip, yes, and I see what you mean about feeling that there is little at stake. Even the slightest Wimsey novels make you believe that he cares about bringing the criminal to justice, but as you say about the form itself Crispin seems more interested in the mechanics of the mystery. I think the ingenuity of the crimes make up for that to some extent.

"Golden Era detective fiction set in Oxbridge colleges" forms a genre within a genre, not something Christie herself was interested in. Theatrical murder would be another micro-genre, half Marsh's books are set in theatres are among theatre people.

Neil S, Sunday, 13 January 2019 11:57 (one month ago) Permalink

the territory you're moving through very much involves deftly weaponised flippancy -- the most serious possible topics (hate and death) tackled via the seeming diversionary tactic of (literally) intellectual diversion = puzzles and/or puns

i think this is correct. parlour game evil would almost be my definition. they need to intersect at the right point tho and i don’t think they do with EC. it’s just occurred to me that crime fiction of this period meets the definitional requirements of comedy not tragedy (despite one or multiple deaths) - justice is served, order is returned, and it is endlessly repeatable.

my fairly conventional view of the village, country house, or yes college, is that they are closed communities - no one in, no one out, a version of the locked-room or snow-surrounded folly. but these are also comedic contexts, not least the consistent rural/pastoral settings.

this perhaps starts to help explain perhaps a modern fetish for this, which is no longer the “clue solving craze” of their contemporary time, but has a whiff of the downton abbey comfort blanket about them. (something of course the abc adaptation was trying to break).

Fizzles, Sunday, 13 January 2019 12:24 (one month ago) Permalink

that’s snide of me. especially since i enjoy these sorts of things very well, thanks, and saying that others enjoy them for hidden motives is naughty. save us from people who tell us how we should be enjoying stuff.

Fizzles, Sunday, 13 January 2019 12:59 (one month ago) Permalink

just went on a hunt for the early history of the parlour game "murder" to discover that
(a) wikipedia lists it under the heading "wink murder" (presumably so as not to confuse with the violent criminal act),
(b) there's a ref to it in harpo speaks (1961) that takes it back to the mid-20s, and a party at (new york critic) alexander woollcott's
(c) it was nicely reffed in the bbc abc poirot, the idea that between cases (or perhaps after they dried up) he made a living organising such games in big english country houses…
(d) wait, is this well known? woollcott totally had a pash on harpo for years (4evah in fact, since the day they first met in 1924 till the day he died in 1943) -- and they were close and affectionate corresponding friends all that time, tho the pash went unrequited

mark s, Sunday, 13 January 2019 13:30 (one month ago) Permalink

Was curious and found my old copy - good story!

Next page reads "...chapter in the novel she was currently writing while cooped up in the can."

Chuck_Tatum, Sunday, 13 January 2019 21:35 (one month ago) Permalink


mark s, Monday, 14 January 2019 10:22 (one month ago) Permalink

Fizzles' post, re ABC MURDERS, gives me the impression that in the original, the sequence of murders was a way of hiding the one important murder which was related to property, etc. I think that the TV version failed to bring this point out - hence my bewilderment at the final ludicrous 'motivation'. I don't recall 'can't see the wood for the trees' coming up at all.

the pinefox, Monday, 14 January 2019 12:31 (one month ago) Permalink

that's correct, pinefox. that point, the entire point you might argue, was lost. tho the whole thing was more a psychological portrait of poirot - the murders didn't make any sense either before or after the fact. in fact you could argue the whole thing would better have been called 'Poirot's Nightmare' - a series of clueless murders motivated by only a peculiar whimsy, which he must negotiate without getting any further *in*, in a brutalised england free of the sort of things poirot is seen to like (the notion of the gentilhomme, courtesy, pleasant foods), the death of his closest friend in the force, and finally, Mon Dieu! he remembers he was once, of all things, a superstitious *priest*, rather than the policeman he had always supposed himself to be!

Fizzles, Monday, 14 January 2019 13:17 (one month ago) Permalink

Yes now you mention it -- it was as though until the last half-hour or whatever, *he himself* had forgotten his previous job, and only remembered it when the flashback allowed!

the pinefox, Monday, 14 January 2019 13:39 (one month ago) Permalink

it turns out Poirot's profession was the real mystery

Neil S, Monday, 14 January 2019 13:42 (one month ago) Permalink

"Perhaps Poirot's entire being, his inner life, was a kind of absence, a variety of fugue"

mark s, Monday, 14 January 2019 13:42 (one month ago) Permalink

In fact the (sensible imo) absence of Hastings, an imbecile beyond comedy in the novels, does contribute to the notion of that absence or fugue. It's hard to take at face value in the books, but Poirot repeatedly insists that Hastings provides something essential to his reasoning process for each crime - a statement that's always been a bit mysterious, never quite clear exactly what he means - and lo here, in the BBC adaptation, without Hastings, he walks in a fugue-state netherworld. Hastings, the military-class moron *is in fact Poirot's central being*, the thing that negotiates between Poirot's locked-in mind and the material world of England and its crimes. In this TED talk I will &c

Fizzles, Monday, 14 January 2019 15:18 (one month ago) Permalink

Hastings: named of course for that liminal space by which the future gentry passed through from Normandy to complaisant command of all landed England. Has that battle ever even ended? Is not every murder in a sense — *soft sound of curare dart leaving blowpipe, entering neck*

mark s, Monday, 14 January 2019 15:45 (one month ago) Permalink

fucking loving the last week of this thread btw

downloading hollow man to ye kindle this very day

valet doberman (Jon not Jon), Monday, 14 January 2019 16:18 (one month ago) Permalink

I haven't read it myself, but I have a copy of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd by Pierre Banyard, which I think might be of interest here - I believe Banyard suggests an alternative murderer to the one Poirot accuses.

Hastings disappears from the Poirot novels fairly early on tho? Of course, all detectives have to have a less brilliant foil who allows for plot explanation and the demonstration of the detective's genius. I really like the Christie surrogate Ariadne Oliver, who turns up in a few of the later ones. like the pretty good Dead Man's Folly, another one involving a game of murder that of course turns into the real thing.

(sayers too maybe, tho she defensively opts more for a loving portrait of a man addicted to (wait for it) whimsy -- the fact she's sort of saying "oh no it's his deflection tactic not my deep strategy", viz this is descriptive realism on my part not deceptive formalism -- is possibly at the root of why some readers take against her?)

mark s, it was a previous defense of Sayers by you here, some time ago on some other thread, that actually made me pick up a copy of The Nine Tailors and start on it last year. I gave up on it halfway through, and I almost always finish books I've started. I'd always avoided Sayers before because of a prejudice against toff tecs, but in fact, Whimsey wasn't nearly as insufferable as I'd feared, it was the sheer tedium of the writing that did for me. The central mystery wasn't at all compelling, and the endless details about bell-ringing etc killed any kind of narrative momentum. It wasn't 'cosy' exactly, but it wasn't 'dangerous' either - there was none of Christie's nastiness or humour, or her incredible gift for swiftly moving through the gears of story building, all those short, sharp paragraphs that now define, more than almost anything else, the modern bestseller. It felt like Sayers would never dare to be so vulgar or crowd-pleasing.

But perhaps I just picked a dud one.

Ward Fowler, Monday, 14 January 2019 16:45 (one month ago) Permalink

it's the one that turned edmund wilson off also!

i'd recommend murder must advertise, the unpleasantness at the bellona club and maybe clouds of witness well before nine tailors, which is v slow, yes (as is have his carcase tho it has a better, grislier, sadder story)

(i'm actually a bit allergic to harriet vane i'm afraid, tho i have friends who luuuuurve her: gaudy night -- lanchester's quite incorrect pitch for best sayers -- is interesting maybe as a bluestocking 20s feminist's mary-sue fantasy of the perfect intellectual love match, in other words as a study of a bunch of symptoms offset by their partial cause, the tribulations of the early days of all-women colleges at oxford, inc. a nearly-all women cast)

mark s, Monday, 14 January 2019 17:00 (one month ago) Permalink

was this the thread you meant?
who CARES who killed roger ackroyd?

mark s, Monday, 14 January 2019 17:02 (one month ago) Permalink


Ward Fowler, Monday, 14 January 2019 17:09 (one month ago) Permalink

i am quite enthusiastic abt 9 tailors in that thread, partly bcz apparently i had only just read it? i think it has quite a non-cosy conclusion and the actual cause of death is a bit grisly -- also as i excitedly note it seems to have a callback to m.r.james's the treasure of abbott thomas (tho not in any very eludicidatory way) -- but it is long and the bell-ringing stuff becomes a hard slog yes

mark s, Monday, 14 January 2019 17:13 (one month ago) Permalink

I dunno I liked that one a lot, it was the novel (a gift) that got me into DLS, as no one has called her ever. It's very atmospheric, it has a satisfying story arc, though it's all very pious and by no means her best whodunnit. Five Red Herrings is good on that front and also a great evocation of an artists' colony in the 20s.

Neil S, Monday, 14 January 2019 17:22 (one month ago) Permalink

Is it not your great Shakespeare who has said “You cannot see the trees for the wood”’

half-want to do the spadework tying the sign of the broken sword into macbeth's birnam wood here

mark s, Monday, 14 January 2019 19:07 (one month ago) Permalink

"Precisely," I said. "Listen to this speech of the old man's. “On Tuesday last, a falcon towering in her pride of place was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and killed.‟ Who does that sound like?" "It sounds like the way the three witches talk," said my companion, reluctantly. "Precisely!" I said again. “Well,” said the American woman, "maybe you're right, but -" "I'm sure I am,” I said. "And do you know what I'm going to do now?" “No," she said. "What?" "Buy a copy of 'Hamlet,'" I said, "and solve that!" My companion's eye brightened. “Then," she said, you don't think Hamlet did it?" "I am," I said' “absolutely positive he didn't" "But who," she demanded, "do you suspect?" I looked at her cryptically.
"Everybody," I said, and disappeared into a small grove of trees as silently as I had come.

mark s, Monday, 14 January 2019 19:10 (one month ago) Permalink

two weeks pass...

"cold as charity - that's a good one"

Chuck_Tatum, Saturday, 2 February 2019 21:40 (two weeks ago) Permalink

mark s, Saturday, 2 February 2019 21:44 (two weeks ago) Permalink

is that from the book? did he watch the GoT opening scene S1 and think i kno let’s do this but with someone who thinks with leaden-footed affectedly affectless repetitiveness?

what is that style? the englisher mode of the US workingmans style? in itself fine (forebears like Carver, and the better Hemingway but in its U.K. form used through a fear for being though at all soft in any musicality, grace notes or intelligence.

“you look for metaphors” lol i think it was JL who was looking for metaphors. you don’t really look for metaphors when you’re cold esp not dead to semi-comatose ones.

he struggles with that metaphorical sphere of his mind quite badly really. and in fact i have a problem with “like a permanent physical attribute of the location”. doesn’t need “like”. it sounds like it is a permanent physical attribute, which he somehow contrives to make sound like it isn’t or that might be doubtful. i think he gets confused because it’s sensation rather than “water displacing object”. “it isn’t like other cold. this is a cold that is all about the place, a permanent physical attribute of the location” much more clearly does what it needs to - converting something understood by the reader into something that communicates the imaginative space JL is trying to convey.

perhaps a bit nitpicky that.

we can all enjoy the mangled boardroom of “it hits you as a package” tho.

the “it’s cold on the wall” bookending in the first paragraph is making me quite angry. it’s something you might do in school. it’s something legitimate - one of pierre michon’s short stories has a first para that subtly starts its first and last sentences with “je tiens” and in between delivers a glorious paragraph, which the bookending emphasises. here it just reminds you you are already fatigued (and i know that’s probably the point but why is it the point).


“mainly it’s about how to hold, clean, look after and fire your weapon. in that order”

lololol imagine doing it in reverse order.


Fizzles, Monday, 4 February 2019 07:27 (two weeks ago) Permalink

as we all know there are a *lot* of good books dealing with repetitive privation in bleak environments. it’s quite a challenge JL’s taking on.

as always he reads like he’s still in the stages of figuring out how something works. like he’s trying to work out what words to put on the page, to set the scene in his head. that metaphor bit for instance, but also the process of weapons training. he’s literally put the worst possible words on the page to convey it.

Fizzles, Monday, 4 February 2019 07:31 (two weeks ago) Permalink

You know nothing, John Lanchester.

Fizzles, Monday, 4 February 2019 07:39 (two weeks ago) Permalink

A good book dealing with repetitive privation in bleak environments that I reread recently:,204,203,200_.jpg

Mince Pramthwart (James Morrison), Monday, 4 February 2019 09:12 (two weeks ago) Permalink

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