Buon compleanno, Maestro!

This should have gone up on Monday.

Since the birthday boy only has his birthday every four years, I’m not fussed!

Gioachino Rossini turned fifty-six on Monday. Not bad for a man born in 1792.

People born on a leap year are lucky; they age four times as slowly as the rest of us! And Rossini’s music has never aged. There was a time in his thirties when his music seemed to have vanished – but since his fortieth birthday, his music has taken on a new life.

A wise man once said that life’s infallible pick-me-ups were champagne, the works of P.G. Wodehouse, and the operas of Rossini. He was right.

Rossini’s music is wonderful. It’s exhilarating. It’s full of joy and life. It’s music which makes you want to stand up and cheer, and hug everyone around you. It’s also incredibly beautiful.

Rossini’s most famous works are a string of brilliant comic operas – Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), L’italiana in Algeri, and La Cenerentola, plus the rousing overture to Guillaume Tell. But that list ignores the innovative, powerful serious operas he wrote, particularly those at Naples: Ermione, Maometto II, Semiramide, Mosè, La donna del lago, and Otello.

And if anyone doubts opera has anything to do with adventure, crime or mystery, I refer

them to what Anthony Boucher said in 1941. Besides, excitement is guaranteed in the pieces below!

In honour of l’illustrissimo signore, without further ado…

La gazza ladra (Milan, 1817)

 

Il viaggio a Reims (Paris, 1825)

 

L’italiana in Algeri (Venice, 1813)

 

Ricciardo e Zoraide (Naples, 1818)

La Cenerentola (Rome, 1817)

 

Matilde di Shabran (Rome, 1821)

Maometto II (Naples, 1820)

 

Tancredi (Venice, 1813)

 

Otello (Naples, 1816)

 

Armida (Naples, 1817)

 

Mosè (Naples, 1818)

 

Ermione (Naples, 1819)

 

La donna del lago (Naples, 1819)

 

Bianca e Falliero (Milan, 1819)

 

Zelmira (Naples, 1822)

 

Semiramide (Venice, 1823)

 

Guillaume Tell (Paris, 1829)

Murders in Pastiche – 1

The Affair of the Blood Stained Egg Cosy (James Anderson)

A country house party is used as a cover for a diplomatic meeting; one of the diplomats is Anderson Egg Cosy.jpgshot; and another guest could be a jewel thief, “the Wraith”.

This is set in the 1930s – and was written half a century later.

It seems to be a pastiche of Agatha Christie, but the only Christie it’s pastiching is The Secret of Chimneys, an entertaining but unrepresentative book. Chimneys is Christie’s gleeful parody of the E. Phillips Oppenheim country house party, with diplomats and spies galore, the sinister organization of the Red Hand, and the murder of the Crown Prince of Herzoslovakia (no doubt somewhere near Ruritania).

Although Anderson skilfully imitates Christie’s simple but effective character sketches, tells the story through dialogue, and the heroine is one of Christie’s poor but plucky girls in a ghastly job (like Midge Hardcastle, Jane Grey and Victoria Jones), the book lacks Christie’s lightness and pace.

Much of the book is plodding and dull, particularly Chapter 24 with its ‘Who was where when?’. The plot is complicated, and far too much so to follow easily. The murderer’s confession is long winded and hyper elaborate, and the following explanation laborious. One could claim that its hypertrophic complexity is a parody of Golden Age plots, but Golden Age plots were less mechanical. The solution is a) obvious and b) pins the crime on the least likely person – a gambit Christie used twice. The Christie murderer is nearly always a prominent character whom the reader does not consider a suspect, rather than the type Anderson makes the murderer.

What, though, is the point of this book?

The pastiche is neither clever, funny nor accurate. Anderson contributes to a false impression of the genre: that Golden Age detective stories were set in country houses. Few Golden Age detective stories were set in country houses. Contemporary critics felt that the country house was hackneyed, and that Ngaio Marsh’s use of it in Death and the Dancing Footman was beneath her.Marsh - Dancing Footman.jpg

When detective writers did set their books in country houses, they had a hook – something intriguing that makes the reader want to read – and a brilliant high concept solution. In Marsh’s novel, the country house is the scene of a dramatic experiment; all of the guests have reason to hate at least one other guest, and the Mephistophelian host delights in prodding his guests with pins and watching them jump. An unadorned country house mystery of the kind Anderson offers simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

The detective story was more sophisticated, more modern, than the dull country house. Writers had the exciting contemporary world to explore. Think of Van Dine’s art collectors, Egyptologists, stockbrokers and physicists; Ellery Queen’s theatres, department stores and hospitals; or Helen McCloy’s psychologists, journalists, publishers, actors and designers. Christie herself, the writer most associated with country houses and villages, used the large country house murder once (as opposed to an upper middle class family murder); she set most of her books abroad – in the Middle East, in Egypt, on the Continent, on trains and planes and boats – or in London.

For all that characters include aristocrats, politicians and foreign diplomats, the story takes place in an political and historical vacuum. Anderson’s book doesn’t draw on his experience of anything other than reading detective stories and LeRoy Panek. His book does not reflect life, and has little to say about the world.

A Fishy Business

I was going to call this review “Angling for Praise”, and boy, was I going to praise the Rutland Bleeding Hooksbook!

I was going to say that Rutland reminded me of Christie and Marsh in all the best ways. Bleeding Hooks (1940) is crisp, witty and highly readable; has an unusual setting, a striking murder, and excellent characterization; and shows an author gleefully manipulating the reader’s suspicions. I thought Rutland was playing me on the end of a line and that she’d reel me in gasping; and that I’d fallen for it hook, line and sinker – but that was my gaffe.

That was what I thought – until I came to the end. What Rutland’s book lacks – and which the Crime Queens’ had in abundance – was an ingenious plot.

Mrs. Ruby Mumsby is the least popular guest at the Fisherman’s Rest, a Welsh inn where all the guests are keen fly fishermen. The other guests think she’s flashy and vulgar, with her peroxide blonde hair and riding breeches, and the only thing she wants to catch wears trousers. So when she’s found dead, a fly-hook stuck in her hand, everybody’s happy to think that she died of shock and get back to the trout and salmon.

Everybody, that is, except for Mr. Winkley, who works for Scotland Yard, and a nice young couple named Pussy and Piggy.

They discover that the fly hook was doctored with prussic acid. This remMarsh Death at the Barinded me of Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar, which was also published in 1940, is set at an inn, and is about a character who is stuck through the hand with a poisoned dart. Which book came first, I don’t know, or even if they influenced each other.

And oh, Rutland is clever! She knows that the experienced reader will suspect everyone. Not just the obvious suspects – General Sir Courtney Haddox (a fishy name) and his sister Ethel; the galloping Major Jeans; the Westons, an artistic eighteen year old conjurer and his doting father; and the Pindars, a honeymoon couple – but the main characters who appear in other roles and the minor characters who aren’t suspects.

Rutland knows this. She gives the reader long enough to think he’s very clever to suspect all the least likely people – and then turns them into suspects. She then turns her attention back to the main group of suspects. In the space of four chapters, I suspected the four different people whom Rutland wanted me to suspect. And I was delighted. It reminded me of reading Christie as a kid. This, I thought, is a writer who juggles suspects and motives with the skill of a born detective writer.

Rutland has obviously studied how Christie draws characters; both how they interact with each other, and what their inner thoughts are.  She takes the reader into the characters’ heads in Chapter 6, and at the funeral in Chapter 19.

After reading a lot of pure detective stories in which a policeman is more interested in railway timetables and measuring footprints than people, or amateur detectives sit around and theorize, this was manna from heaven.

Then we hit the end. It’s acceptable, but my expectations were set a lot higher. I wanted a solution that would make me leap six feet out of my chair in surprise and bang my head on the ceiling. There aren’t any surprises; the murderer turns out to be one of the suspects. ‘Oh, so that’s who the murderer is. Okay.’

FIN

salmon.jpg

 

The Age of the Sex Olympics IV: Doctor Who

We can see the decline of television best if we look at Doctor Who.

Doctor Who was once a literate and intellectual adventure show, made by people who Dr Who readingthought books were important. It ran for twenty-six years, and was cancelled.

I’ll quote myself, if I may:

It’s practically its own genre.  It’s halfway between B-movie, avant garde theatre, rep Shakespeare and absurdist comedy.  On one level, it’s an exciting adventure show that mixes horror with high comedy, sending impressionable youngsters hurtling behind the sofa while older viewers laugh at the Doctor’s wit.

On another, it is (to the horror of moralists like Mary Whitehouse) liberal humanist propaganda (with a side order of strangulation by obscene vegetable matter), in which the hero wins the day by being curious, asking questions, and challenging bureaucracy and authority.

On another, it is an intellectual comedy that deals in social satire, hard science and high end physics, evolutionary theory, Buddhist parables, and cultural relativism.

While having taxmen made of seaweed, dangerous monsters that decompose into Dr Who City of Deathnarcotics, executioners made of liquorice allsorts, and alien criminal masterminds with six copies of the Mona Lisa in their cellar (with “This is a fake” written in felt pen).

And a madman in a box who lands in someone else’s story and warps the narrative around him.

The TARDIS doesn’t just travel in time and space; it travels in story.  One story might show the Doctor land in a Shakespearean drama; the next, Hammer Horror or a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu; after that, a hard SF story rewritten by Tom Stoppard, or The Prisoner of Zenda with androids.  The show is, as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor observed, serious about what it does, not about the way it does it.  As script editor Douglas Adams said, the programme is “complex enough for the kids to enjoy, and simple enough for the adults to follow”’.

In 2005, another series called Doctor Who was made. Under showrunners Russell T. Davies Modern Dr Whoand Steven Moffat, it became the BBC’s flagship programme. It had some of the plot devices of the earlier series: an alien called the Doctor who travels around time and space in the TARDIS; and monsters called Daleks and Cybermen.

It’s not the same programme. It’s a cult show, made by people who watch television. Its cultural background is pop culture, media and ’90s science fiction series.

The modern series plays it safe; it does what a cult TV programme is expected to do. It’s full of arcs and ongoing storylines. The regular cast and their relations are more important than the places they visit. It’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The Doctor used to be a medium for telling stories; now the stories are about the Doctor. The most important secret in the universe is the Doctor’s name. Questions about the Doctor’s companions loom large: Who is River Song (other than a psychopath Moffat thinks is “cool”?) Who is Amy’s baby? Who is Clara? Who cares? This isn’t telling a story; it’s setting up mysteries and solving them in the most anti-climactic way possible. What does this have to do with life?

Villains are defeated by the power of True Love; I was fascinated to see that people judged “Angels in Manhattan’s” success on the fact that it made them cry. Moffat is determined to make the audience weep, even if he has to have Murray Gold assault the audience with massed close harmony singing. The new series makes them feel; but does it make them think?

The Doctor himself is no longer an Enlightenment hero who travels because he is curious about the universe, asks questions, finds out how the world works, and uses reason and empiricism to solve problems (attributes which the audience can emulate). He is now the last of the Time Lords, the lonely god; knows everything without asking questions; and can rewrite causality on a whim, changing timelines until the universe suits him. He is God – and is to be worshipped.

It doesn’t do what Doctor Who used to do. It’s not imaginative or exploratory; it’s not interested in ideas or issues; it doesn’t challenge the viewer to ask questions and look at things from a different perspective. And yet this is a programme (to quote Lawrence Miles) that is supposed to be “about discovery, about finding the alien and making sense of it”; “an ever-growing experiment in High Strangeness and relative moral values”, that “should give us a kind of television we’ve never seen before, use the medium in unique ways, show us things that have never previously existed and take us to places where wholly different rules apply”. “Its view of the universe is exploratory, experimental, and egalitarian: in brief, outward-looking.”

Moffat thinks that Doctor Who should be fifty-minute Hollywood blockbusters – which means it can only do small scale stories or a frenetic series of images. Fifty minutes is not enough time to create a world. Moffat’s good at writing snappy one liners, but not at using dialogue to build a world, or show how a character interacts with the world, their understanding and perspective. Guest characters are animated window dressing, seen at its most cynical in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, in which Nefertiti appears for no other reason than that she looks cool – and without an explanation of who she was, why she was important, or any mention of the religious reforms of Akhenaten.

And what a goal to aim for!

The William Hartnell era (1963–66) was originally intended to be educational, with two Barbara Aztecsteachers having adventures in history and science. The Jon Pertwee era introduced audiences to environmentalism and liberalism, to Buddhism and Jung. The Sylvester McCoy era wanted to overthrow Thatcher.

In the 1960s, there was a Shakespearean historical chronicle written in iambic pentameter (The Crusade) and a black comedy set in the Trojan Wars (The Myth Makers). Stories dealt with cultural relativism (The Aztecs), the ’68 student riots (The Krotons), dystopian societies (The Macra Terror, The Happiness Patrol), xenophobia (The Ambassadors of Death), the end of empire and decolonisation (The Mutants), Apartheid and colonial exploitation (The Savages), free will vs determinism (The Space Museum, Inferno), and environmentalism and pollution (The Green Death).

Moffat wants the audience to laugh and be excited and scared.

The show is masturbatory: in love with itself, focused on its own mythology, and lacks a worldview outside the series. Traditionally, Doctor Who was about how much bigger and madder the world was than its mundane surface. It opened up history and politics and science and books and ideas. It engaged with the world.

Whereas Moffat’s Doctor Who, for all its cleverness, is about … Doctor Who. (It’s cult; cult is about itself.) And there’s a genuine risk that the series won’t inspire viewers to become liberal, literate, humanist, scientific, curious in the way that fans of the old series were.

Doctor Who was more sophisticated half a century ago than it is today.

And yet Doctor Who can – and should – do more. Doctor Who, like television itself, can embrace an expansive view of the world rather than a reductive one. It can make people curious and want to find out ‘stuff’, and help people to see from different perspectives, rather than the narcissism and wilful stupidity of most of what is provided (the idea that you and your emotions are more interesting than the outside world shows a marked lack of perspective) or the bland sterility of the consumer culture.

At its best, television can not merely entertain the public, but show them things they do not know. It can educate, inform and stimulate, and challenge and teach the audience. It can show the world in all its complexity. It can present ideas in an engaging manner and show the audience the big picture. It can emphasise diversity and encourage its audience not to think in set ways but to widen their mental horizons, see the problems and joys of life, and consider their responsibility for them. It can be a forum through which the ideas circulating in different parts of society can be articulated, and so open up public debate. At its best, it is questioning and imaginative.

Isn’t it time it was again?

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT VOODOO?sierra_001

In the 1980s, the adventure game was dominated by the puzzle. The Infocom text adventures were elaborate brain-teasers, often written by and for people with backgrounds in science and math. Even when Sierra popularised the genre, making it more accessible by adding graphics and animation, problem solving was still the point; story was secondary to puzzle and exploration; and characterisation almost non-existent; King Graham of Daventry or Roger Wilco were ciphers in whom one could not be expected to take any personal interest. (Neither really speaks in the EGA games.) They were an entry into the world of the game, a puppet the player could control and use to explore.

As technology progressed, so did what the adventure game was capable of. There were two main paths the adventure game went down: ‘adventure’ or ‘game’. LucasArts took the puzzle-driven approach of Infocom, and cloaked it in a more attractive, less drily mathematical guise; the problems became ever more baroque (notably Day of the Tentacle, with its time-travelling conundrums), while the writing and dialogue became cleverer and funnier. Sierra, on the other hand, placed the emphasis more on ‘adventure’, bringing the game closer to cinema. An average Sierra game of the 1990s has more emphasis on emotion and characterisation than a LucasArts game, with some downplaying puzzle solving, or subordinating it to the story (the Laura Bow and Conquests series, and to a degree Quest for Glory).

And then there is Gabriel Knight (1993).

Here, designer Jane Jensen took the genre’s growing interest in characterisation to its logical end: she gave players a character whose personality, as much as the adventure he appeared in, was the focus of the game.

Gabriel Knight, unsuccessful novelist and bookseller, is an anti-hero. Whereas the Sierra protagonist (with the exceptions of Manhunter and Leisure Suit Larry) was likeable—bumbling, naïve, yes, but likeable—Knight is not. For most of the game, Knight is an unengaging character: a womaniser, arrogant, and generally obnoxious. (The sexist comments and the byplay with Mosley – ‘you goddamn wiener’ – are particularly grating.) And the game is aware of this. sierra_025Indeed, the game is about Knight’s maturation: the Jungian process of individuation as adventure game, complete with monsters from the collective unconscious, dream sequences, symbolism and an entire ossuary in the family closet.

Knight investigates a mystery (a series of ‘Voodoo Murders’ in New Orleans), and ends up discovering his family history and himself: what sort of man he is, what sort of man he could be, and his purpose in life.

It’s tricky to pull off; making the protagonist downright unlikeable from the start, and then gradually humanising him. This is why a murder mystery is such a good choice. sierra_006A mystery is a ‘hook’: it has a strong structure, which a more open-ended adventure/quest story lacks. From the start, there are crime scenes to be searched, clues to be followed up, and witnesses to be interrogated. sierra_009

And voodoo and New Orleans are irresistible ingredients for a story, as John Dickson Carr (Papa Là-bas, not one of the old boy’s best) and the makers of Live and Let Die knew.  To its credit, the game largely avoids sensationalism; voodoo is treated as a serious religion, with distinctions made between various types (historical, current, hoodoo or black).  It never goes down the dubious path of equating voodoo with evil or superstition à la H.P. Lovecraft.  The cult is evil not because vodou is evil but because they worship a destructive loa.

And so the player’s focus is on investigating the mystery with Gabriel’s character an irritation; the connection between the Voodoo Murders and Knight himself is not apparent until a couple of days into the game.

Naturally, the gameplay is deep rather than broad; although Knight’s investigations take him to Bavaria and Benin, most of the game takes place in a few locations in New Orleans over ten days, with new events happening as the game progresses. (An approach which Sierra had used with success in the Laura Bow games, Quest for Glory, and Freddy Pharkas.) Gabriel Knight - BayouKnight’s investigations gradually reveal layers of the characters, who all react to his questions in different ways. Indeed, the game unfolds through character (talking and finding information), with puzzles as necessary to advance the story. There are some difficult puzzles (finding where the conclave is meeting in Bayou St John), but few have great neon signs saying ‘This Is A Puzzle’; rather, the puzzles are organic and integrated to the story, and the player wants to solve them to advance the story.

A remake of the game was released in 2014. Although an interesting game, it does not hold a voodoo candle to the original. The problem is the graphics. The original game was in 256 colour VGA, and (as Richard Cobbett points out) those colours are used to great effect. The remake, like Jensen’s recent Gray Matter, is more photo-realistic, using 3D modelling. As a result, the game looks too bright and clean; much of the atmosphere is lost. output_gQLfSdThis is particularly true of the Snake Mound in Benin, one of the scariest places in an adventure game; the remake lacks the original’s sense of danger. The Voodoo houngan in the remake is more stylish; instead of the near-Star Trek bland corridors of the original, the corridors are decorated with African masks and statuary. (I’ve loved African art since I was a kid: afternoons in the Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale in Brussels, looking at exhibitions of witchcraft and initiation rituals; my parents’ books on African masks…)

Perhaps the game’s greatest descendant is not the two sequels that followed (werewolves and Wagner in Bavaria, with too much video footage of bad actors; and vampires and the Grail in France), but Revolution Software’s Broken Sword series, with a similar blend of historical mystery, modern day crime, and exotic locations. Unlike Gabriel, though, George Stobbart, the American abroad, is actually likeable.

Why Adventure?

This blog is my views, opinions, critiques and criticisms of books, television, movies, games, music, and life, the universe and everything in general. More than that, it is about adventure! From Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin to the adventures of Doctor Who, from the adventures of Sherlock Holmes to Sierra’s 3D animated adventure games.

This blog shall serve as my Boswell, Captain Hastings, Doctor Watson.  It is a way of preserving those pearls of wisdom that drop from my lips, and would otherwise be as flowers born to blush unseen and waste their sweetness on the desert air.

But before we get down to the serious business of putting artistic sacred cows through the meat-grinder (my thoughts be bloody or nothing worth), let me put my cards upon the table.

WHY ADVENTURE?

‘If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?’

Have you never wanted to sally forth to Equatorial Guinea or Guyana in pursuit of the hyrax or the hoatzin, to sail down the Amazon, or to find lost cities in the Himalayas?  Have you never spent hours poring over atlases, following the course of rivers, or gazing in rapture at towns with such strange and exotic names as Ambatolampy and Paramaribo?  Have you never wanted to leap into a battered old blue police box and careen through space and time, from the metallic jungles of Skaro to the court of Kublai Khan?  Have you never wanted to solve murders that baffled Scotland Yard and play phantasmagorical games of blindfold chess against diabolical masterminds with a penchant for physics and Mother Goose, and who commit their crimes in rooms bolted and barred on the inside?

I have always thought that good fiction opens up the world.  It can show different times and places, and introduce different ideas and ways of looking at the world.  Adventure assumes that the world exists outside the individual; that the world is a huge place to explore; and that people can have new and interesting experiences in that world. With this go optimism, curiosity, pragmatism, flexibility, open-mindedness, a sense of proportion, and gusto: an appetite for life, and for the finer things in life: good food, good wine, and good company.

‘It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!’