Friday, June 27, 2014

Sherlock Holmes Revisited: Anthony Horowitz' The House of Silk

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What is about Sherlock Holmes that people can't bear to see him die? His own creator pushed him down the Reichenbach Falls but then brought him back to life as the public clamour grew too strong to resist. Other writers have followed suit and have not allowed Holmes the comfort of bee-keeping but have rather continued putting him in one dangerous situation after another. In school, I read a novel about Holmes pitting his wits against that other Victorian who refuses to die - Jack the Ripper. Then in college, there was The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, a pastiche, where Holmes travelled to Tibet during his missing years. Two years back there was Partha Basu's deconstruction of the Holmes legend in The Curious Case of 221B and now I have read Anthony Horowitz' The House of Silk.




...so many old men with their lives behind them....

In The House of Silk, an old Watson waiting for the day when he'd meet his creator as well as his old friend, writes down one last case of his. A case so scandalous that he couldn't dare publish it at that time. In fact, he puts the papers in safe-keeping with instructions that they are to be opened only a hundred years later.



The year is 1890. A married Watson returns to 221 B as his wife, Mary, is away tending to a young boy whose governess at one time she happened to be. Holmes, as usual, has amazed Watson by his brilliant deductions when the house keeper announces that there is a gentleman by the name of Edward Carstairs to see them. Carstairs is in a nervous state. He explains that he is the junior partner in an Art Gallery. More than a year ago, the partners were approached by an American gentlemen by the name of Cornelius Stillman who wanted to open a museum in Boston. For this, he ordered a number of paintings, including four by John Constable. Unfortunately, before they could reach their destination, the paintings were destroyed in an audacious attack by the members of the Flat Cap gang, a gang made by migrant Irish in Boston so named because of their habit of wearing flat caps. An enraged, Stillman employed a detective agency to destroy the gang and especially its two leaders, the twins Rourke and Keelan. The detective, Bill McParland, was able to corner the gang and in the gun-fight that followed all the members of the gang were killed except for Keelan who not only managed to escape but also killed Stillman in revenge.

Now, Carstairs says, it seems that Keelan has come to England to kill him because a man wearing a flat cap has been following him around. Fearing for his life, Carstairs has come to Holmes. The next day, Carstairs sends them a telegram saying that somebody had broken inside his house and made off with some jewellery. Holmes and Watson travel to Wimbledon and find themselves in a domestic drama. Carstair's wife, Catherine, a young woman whom he had met while his voyage back from the US, is hated by his sister who claims that her mother killed herself because she couldn't bear to see Edward being made a fool of by Catherine. The case which Holmes was not liable to take too seriously assumes a sinister tone when a murder occurs... and then another. For the second murder, Holmes holds himself responsible and in his zeal to capture the culprit finds himself trapped, in jail, and death looming large over him. What began as a case involving a train dacoity now stinks so rotten that not even Holmes' brother Mycroft is able to do anything for him except advice him to remain off it.



The book had been on my wishlist since I read a review of it by Writer-on-Wheels and I am glad it turned out to be as good as the review promised it would be.... good in its pace and evocation of atmosphere as well as in the mystery. The only thing that I didn't like was the characterisation of Mycroft Holmes. I always thought of the two brothers as sharing a strong bond but in this book, Mycroft seems a little too concerned about saving his own skin.

Sherlock Holmes still rules because in a recent contest @ Pretty Sinister Books, John had an interesting quiz on the children in the Holmes canon. I am not a Sherlockian at all but with much burning of the midnight lamp was able to answer all the questions correctly barring one. That made me eligible for the second prize. Wow! Thank you Holmes and Thank you John.

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First Line: I have often reflected upon the strange series of events that led me to my long association with one of the most singular and remarkable figures of my age.

Title: The House of Silk: The New Sherlock Holmes Novel
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Publication Details: London: Orion, 2012
First Published: 2011
Source: Delhi Book Fair, 2013
Pages: 405

Other Books read of the same author: None

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

'Bodyline': Once Again

 Cricket is a religion in India and cricket-lovers are not merely fans but rather fanatics. And thus it is but natural that when a serial based on a cricket-series was telecast way back in the late eighties, it should become immensely popular. Bodyline, the serial, was a dramatic (some would say over-dramatic) representation of the Ashes series of 1932-33, at a time when young Don Bradman was breaking all records and England feared that she'd never be able to win the Ashes as long as Bradman was on the crease. One had heard of the legendary Bradman but not of Douglas Jardine, the Captain of the MCC, or of Harold Larwood, the fast (perhaps the fastest ever) bowler. And the series was a revelation.

Soon, the boys at school were all emulating Larwood's action while the girls gushed over Hugo Weaving, Jim Holt, and Gary Sweet who played Jardine, Larwood, and Bradman, respectively. (Poor Ashok Banthia who played the Nawab of Patudi did not enjoy this gushing over). Heated discussions and debates regarding the tactics of the MCC team became common and a division much like the Australia-England divide took place in class-rooms. Then like everything, the season passed, we all grew up and went our different ways. Sometime in 2003, I chanced upon Philip Derriman's book on the 'Bodyline' series and bought it. It stayed on the shelves for more than a decade but then this summer I read it.... and it was like going back to the past...making connections with what was happening in Australia in 1932-33 to the scenario in India at that time (Post the death of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and their fellow-revolutionaries) as also reliving my school days with half-forgotten figures and conversations coming back to life. All in all, a great trip of Nostalgia.



Philip Derriman's Bodyline: The Cricket 'War' Between England and Australia is a lucid account of the series. The writer sees 'Bodyline' (or fast-leg theory as its defenders called it) not as an inevitable development in cricket but rather as a result of a clash of the three formidable personalities of Jardine, Bradman, and Larwood. The account thus focusses more on the personalities of the people playing in these matches. The treatment is even-handed though the writer (like many others whom I have read subsequently) doesn't know what to make of Jardine's deputy Bob Wyatt's recollection that it was he and not Jrdine who marshalled England's bodyline forces for the first time!!! According to Wyatt, he had received no instructions regarding field-placings from his captain who was, in fact, away trout-fishing at the time. The writer can only conclude (rather tamely) that : To reconcile all this with Wyatt's account, we must conclude that the leg-side field was not set solely at Wyatt's instigation, but at the bowler's instigation, too. (61) And the bowlers, of course, were following Mr. Jardine. Proof be damned.

The book - which first appeared as a series of articles in the Sydney Morning Herald - is a good introduction to the series but leaves you craving for more. The thing that I hated most in it was that it did not carry a bibliography. For a book that makes extensive use of earlier material on the series, this is unpardonable.


In 1982-83, as the 50th anniversary of the series dawned, there was a renewed interest in the series and a spate of books and documentaries (as well as the mini-series mentioned above) made their appearance. There was also a talk of movie to be made based on the novel Bodyline by Paul Wheeler.



This idea was trashed by the surviving members of the MCC team who took askance at their portrayal in the book. Bob Wyatt, especially, protested loudly at the way Jardine was presented in the book, stating that he would not allow Jardine's memory to be besmirched in this manner for he was a man of principles and not a cheat.

This loyalty that Jardine inspires in his team-mates, long after his ostracisation and death, is something that every writer writing on/ about that fateful tour has to take into account. They might want to wish it away but the evidence is too strong to be ignored. And there is no denying that the force of Wheeler's novel (insipid in parts) is Jardine.

Here he is talking to the umpires, even as the crowd in Adelaide, seething with anger, seems ready to enter the ground and lynch the English players:

The Umpires met and spoke to each other, calling Jardine over.

"I don't like this, don't like it at all Mr. Jardine," George Hele said, gazing round at the stands. "It's our feeling you should take your men off until things have cooled down."

"I'm sorry about Oldfield," Jardine replied crisply, "but it was nobody's fault but his own. He hooked the ball back on to his head. Neither Woodfull nor he was hurt because of leg-theory."

"I know that," Hele said grimly. "You now it. Even Oldfield knows it. But they're the ones..." pointing to the pandemonium, "who're making me nervous, and they don't know it."

"Unless you order us to," Jardine declared, "I'll not leave the field. We have a crucial advantage, and I do not intend to go and sit in the pavilion and play cards." (173)

[I don't know but that image of English players sitting in the balcony and playing cards had me in splits].


Here he is knocking at the door of the Australian dressing room to demand an immediate apology for Larwood who had been called a bastard on the field by some of the Australian players. When Vic Richardson turns to his team-mates and asks: "Which one of you bastards called Larwood a bastard instead of Jardine?" the Australian dressing room dissolves into laughter but for Jardine this is no laughing matter:

"I want you all to be clear about one thing," he said, speaking with a simple clarity that banished ambiguity. "Whatever happens out on the field, whatever injuries occur as a result of the bowling or the state of the wicket, the responsibility is mine. The bowlers obey my orders. When they bowl leg theory, it is because I wish it. Therefore, if you have anything to say about the matter, say it to me. If you have any name to call, level them at me. Not them." (169)

A Leader of Men, indeed!

Today is Jardine's death anniversary and I thought it'd be appropriate to end this post with a scene from the serial which seems to encapsulate his philosophy of life - and cricket:





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First Line: Don Bradman was only twenty-four years old when Douglas Jardine, cricket captain of England, set out to overcome him with the kind of bowling which came to be called bodyline.

Title: Body-Line: The Cricket 'War' Between England and Australia.
Author: Philip Derriman
Publication Details: London: Grafton Books, 1986
First Published: 1984
Pages: 204
Source: Bought from Sunday Second-hand book market at Daryaganj.

Other books read of the same author: None

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First Line: Play was suspended briefly at 3:30 on the second day and both teams were presented to King George in front of the pavilion.

Title: Bodyline: The Novel
Author: Paul Wheeler
Publication Details: NY: Atheneum, 1984
First Published: 1983
Pages: 224
Source: Borrowed from Open Library

Other books read of the same author: None



Friday, June 6, 2014

Forgotten Book: Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

One of the pleasures of reading vintage fiction is the sudden encounter with a forgotten figure. Ghosts who now flit only in dusty archives stand in front of you as warm living presences. Thus it was that in Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow that a character mentioned Mrs. Besant and suddenly Annie Besant (whom I must admit I had all but forgotten) was there speaking to the massive crowd that had come to welcome her release from a British jail and make her the president of the Indian National Congress.




Crome Yellow, Huxley's first novel, is a country-house novel in the sense that a group of people assemble under one roof, eating, drinking, and talking amongst themselves. Through their conversations various ideas are put forth, expounded, accepted or criticised. Thus aspiring author Denis Stone finds himself in the company of a diverse set which includes the deaf but brilliantly perceptive Jenny (what Denis finds in her journal is extremely funny), Henry Wimbush, the host, who is writing a history of his family (and the tale of Hercules the Dwarf is pretty moving), and the cynic Mr. Scogan who asks Denis: "Why will you young men continue to write about things that are so entirely uninteresting as the mentality of adolescents and artists?" Rather tongue-in-cheek, considering that Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man had appeared only a few years earlier and had been hailed as heralding a new age in English literature. {And yes, I concur totally with Mr. Scogan's view}.



Reading about the socio-cultural scenario of the 1920s was fun too. Here's Denis' hostess describing what she saw when they allowed the village folk to use the bathing-pool:

"... mixed bathing....saw them out of my window.... sent for a pair of filed glasses to make sure.... no doubt of it...."

Scandalous!!!

There was also a mention of Nestle's milk ad with two cats. Thanks to the internet, I was able to view it:

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All in all, a good book for a lazy afternoon.

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First Line: ALONG this particular stretch of line no express had ever passed.

Title: Crome Yellow
Author: Aldous Huxley
Publication Details: London: Chatto and Windus
First Published: 1921
Pages: 219
Source: College Library [823.874 H982C]

Other books read of the same author: Brave New World, Brief Candles, Point Counterpoint, Those Barren Leaves.

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Entry for FFB @ Pattinase.