The spring of 2020 has provided me with the opportunity to return to one of my favorite pastimes…and escapes.
And why not get back to my favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes?
I’ve spent the last few months catching up present-day iterations of the iconic and prolific Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective first saw publication in 1887. Since then, authors (and screenwriters) around the world have given a go at their take on the famous detective.
My first selection was The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas. As its title suggests, Sherlock Holmes is actually a woman names Charlotte Holmes. This turned out to be a delightful read. Thomas creates a storyline that sounds far-fetched but pulls it off with insightful references to the original Doyle short stories. The mysteries she’s created don’t allow you to put the books down.
Next, I turned to Laurie King’s bestselling novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In this book and those following in the series, an aging Sherlock is befriended by (or is it she who befriends him?) a highly observant, seventeen year-old woman who rivals his abilities in observation and deduction. She soon becomes his apprentice in the detective game, and then…well…the game’s afoot!
Anna Castle writes a delightful series, The Professor and Mrs. Moriarity Mysteries. In her incredibly believable way, Castle creates a world where Professor Moriarty is the good guy, and Sherlock Holmes is not. Not exactly, anyway.
Other authors have had their own way with Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes – Anthony Horowitz Series comes to mind as well as the Anna Elliott and Charles Veley series, The Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James Mysteries. Even Kareem Adbul-Jabar co-wrote a series based on Mycroft Holmes.
Now the warning. Reading all these Sherlock Holmes iterations (and binge-watching movies/series featuring Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch) puts one in a mood to eat. Apparently I’m highly suggestible when reading a good book. When the characters have tea, I want tea. And I’m not just talking about the beverage. I’ve been chowing down on tea sandwiches, scones, pastries, desserts–and I’m not even a sweets lover. And when a character in the book has had a shock or a close call, whiskey is handed out in short order. Now I don’t drink whiskey, but I manage to find my own libation. I hate to see a character drink alone.
So thanks to that lean, tall Sherlock Holmes, I have put on the extra pounds that he willfully sheds when he’s on the hunt for a villain.
If you’re looking for a comfort binge in these difficult times, I suggest you give Sherlock Holmes a try. But remember! You’ve been warned that you might come away with more (weight) than you bargained for!
So, did you dress up for Halloween? Did you buy a mask in New Orleans, or Venice, perhaps one with feathers? What would you wear to a costume ball?
“Man is a make-believe animal—he is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” William Hazlitt
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Oscar Wilde
Both statements have some truth. Maybe Oscar Wilde meant that when we can hide our faces, or adopt a disguise, we feel free to do what we want––without hesitation or regret. Yell “trick or treat!” Dance at the masked ball as a glamorous mystery person! Rob the stagecoach! Maybe writers understand Hazlitt: we’re at our best, writing, as we invent characters, invent parts for the characters, invent disguises. Yes, we’re at our best “acting a part…” and we act many parts as we write.
At my college there was a costume room where students could buy clothes from decades earlier. One year a group of us rummaged around and found remarkable outfits which we’d don sometimes for fun. For $1.50 I acquired a stunning long black silk evening sheath from maybe 1919, with black sequin trim under the bodice, slits in the sides of the skirt, and two long black “wings” attached to the shoulders that I could use like a shawl, or like… wings. When I put that dress on––SHAZAM! I wasn’t a young thing from Texas, I was the embodiment of glamour. (Where is that dress?) So, what’s the outfit you wear, or dream about, when you’re ready to put on that black cat-eyed mask from (New Orleans) (Venice) and enter the party? The disguise you’d choose? The disguise that would let you do what you want, learn what you want, go where you want?
Two genres especially abound in disguise: children’s literature, and mysteries.
Disguise lets us learn what may otherwise be unavailable. Think of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, where Merlyn (White’s spelling) enchants Wart (the future King Arthur) by turning him into a perch in the moat. Wart learns to swim from a fish called a tench, who reminds him, “Put your back into it.” He’s taken to learn about power from the King of the Moat, a murderously hungry four-foot long fish: “The power of strength decides everything in the end, and only Might is right.” He learns from his night as a merlin, in the terrifying catechism imposed by the peregrine, that the first law of the foot is “Never to let go.”
Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron need information to foil the Dark Lord, and to raid Gringotts Bank and the Ministry of Magic. They resort to the invisibility cloak, or use Polyjuice Potion to look like Bellatrix, or Crabbe and Goyle.
But knowledge won by disguise carries peril. Wart barely survives the unscrupulous King of the Moat, having to dive “the heartiest jack-knife he had ever given.” The moment when Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak slips, when the Polyjuice potion wears off, threatens exposure and punishment.
Kim, in Kipling’s beloved novel, disguises himself to learn secrets as a child spy for the Company’s intelligence service in India. But Kim doesn’t see disguise as work. He revels in the sheer joy of successful impersonation. He rejoices in the walnut dye that lets him escape on a railroad journey to meet his lama, where he tries out various personae, explaining to the passengers “that he was assistant to a juggler who had left him behind sick with fever.” As the occupants of the train car change, “he varied this tale, or adorned it with all the shoots of a budding fancy…” This joyous talent becomes dangerous as he adopts Mohammedan garb, spying for Mahbub Ali, and priestly garb as he chases Russian spies across the Himalayan foothills.
Maybe Kim’s an exemplar of Hazlitt’s statement, that “man is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” When fate requires a disguise—or just for fun on the Indian railway––Kim uses all of himself to create that disguise, summoning memory, imagination, accent, intonation, clothing, gesture, posture. As actors do! Perhaps all these disguises are part of him…though not all of him.
Like Kim, Sherlock Holmes (or Arthur Conan Doyle) loves disguise. Remember “A Scandal in Bohemia?” Disguises everywhere! First, a client sporting a “black vizard mask” seeks help from Sherlock Holmes. The client’s disguised as the Count von Kramm, a Bohemian nobleman, but confesses he’s actually King of Bohemia. He wants Holmes to “repossess” (snitch) a compromising photograph of the King and the famous beauty Irene Adler. Holmes himself then adopts disguises. First, to spy on Adler, he appears as “a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes,” so convincing that Watson “had to look three times before I was certain that it was indeed he.” Next he plots a disguise to gain entry to Adler’s house, where the photograph is hidden:
“He disappeared into his bedroom and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman. His broad black hat, his baggy trousers, his white tie, his sympathetic smile, and general look of peering and benevolent curiosity were such as Mr. John Hare alone could have equaled.”
Watson notes that it was not merely that Holmes changed his costume: “His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.”
But Conan Doyle fools us yet again. Holmes orchestrates a street melée whereby a crowd (of accomplices) carry the clergyman into Adler’s house. When Watson throws a fire rocket through the window, Holmes, as predicted, sees Adler rush toward the photograph’s hiding place. On their way back to Baker Street Holmes happily tells Watson about his ploy, but as he searches for his door key, he hears “Good-night, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” from “a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.”
Foiled again––Holmes, that is. Irene Adler, disguised as a boy, has followed him home and confirmed the “clergyman” was Holmes. The next morning Holmes and Watson discover her house is empty, the photograph’s gone, and his disguises were in vain. That’s “how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit,” says Watson.
Holmes does love a good disguise, and maybe that’s why he can recognize one. For another example of his Hazlitt-esque behavior, see “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” where Watson almost doesn’t recognize Holmes as an aged opium smoker, and Holmes susses out the (disguised) truth about the disappearance of a client’s highly respectable husband by (literally) washing clean the face of a notorious street beggar.
Josephine Tey teases us with disguise in Brat Farrar where the mystery turns on whether Brat Farrar, a young man who introduces himself as the long-lost heir to the Ashby family estate, is or is not Patrick Ashby, thought to have killed himself, leaving his minutes younger twin Simon as putative heir. Simon will be dispossessed if Brat Farrar is for real. The point of view is frequently in in Brat’s head, and we must decide if we like this disguised pretender as a protagonist, or not. He himself is ambivalent, arguing with himself about the whole scheme: On the one hand, he thinks, “But I’m not a crook! I can’t do something that is criminal.” But then: “All he could do was sit in the saddle and hope for the best. But at least it would be a breath-taking ride; a unique, heart-stopping ride. Danger to life and limb he was used to; but far more exciting was this new mental danger, this pitting of wits.” As he feels his way along, still in disguise, Brat slowly learns who did kill Patrick. That knowledge nearly kills Brat Farrar.
New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh has the murderer disguise his or her true identity in both Photo Finishand A Clutch of Constables. In the first case, the murderer creates a new identity from whole cloth. He accidentally gives himself away to Detective Rory Alleyn in part when Alleyn overhears his soft-voiced use of a Mafia expression. In A Clutch of Constables, the murderer––a master of disguise––entirely steals another’s identity, including his butterfly-hunting expertise, for the duration of a cruise. He relishes his persona and manipulates the unwitting characters like chess pieces on the board of the plot––more in the Hazlitt manner, being most truly himself as he throws himself into the role.
Mystery writers disguise their murderers, their sleuths, sometimes their victims, sometimes their protagonists. I use disguise in my new murder mystery Ghost Cat. I’ll be interested in what you think. Happy reading and writing, everyone!
Sometimes, as an author I am asked where I get ideas for my short stories. I get my inspiration from books and articles I read, places I visit, and events in the world around me. The six new short stories in Arson Vibes and Other Tales, which came out recently, can all be traced to these sources.
The story Victorian Vibes features my characters Lea and Kamika finding a gory, sealed room inside of a house under renovation. This story, which opens the collection, was inspired by a driving tour of Victoria, Texas, an old Spanish colonial town south of San Antonio. Victoria is home to more than 114 historic properties all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These buildings are mostly restored architectural gems. A driving tour through town will take visitors past 80 of them. Creating a similar house with a haunted past and ‘bad vibes’ for my characters to explore wasn’t a difficult task.
Feline Vibes, the second story in the collection, features Lea and Patrick trying to solve a murder in which the police have made no progress. The story was inspired by the many scattered properties I’ve driven past in the Texas Hill Country on the way to Fredericksburg and Enchanted Rock State Park. The natural beauty of the area draws hikers and campers and people looking to escape the fast-paced life of city living. But the isolating hills, cactus, and long distances between neighbors also make a wonderful backdrop for murder.
Texas Frontier Vibes was partially inspired by reading the book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne. The long and bloody battle between the Comanches and every wave of settlers that tried to take their land is fertile ground for ghost stories. In the story, a collection of arrow heads is bound to the ghost of the person who died being shot with the arrows. While the injuries sustained by the character in the story are drawn directly from history, the idea that the arrow heads could be haunted was inspired by my father’s inheritance of a collection of points, axes, scrapers, and other stone tools from his deceased brother who had been a lifelong collector of these items.
Space Shuttle Vibes owes its existence to my memory of the disaster involving the Space Shuttle Columbia when it came apart catastrophically over Texas in 2003. That accident led to the largest search and recovery effort ever carried out in the United States and is well-detailed and explained in a book that I read entitled Bringing Columbia Home by Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward. Sixty percent of Columbia remains lost in the swamps and thickets of East Texas. This fact inspired my tale of a man who dedicates his retirement and apparently part of his afterlife to finding and returning the pieces.
Museum Vibes, the story of a haunted living history pioneer farm, was inspired partially by my interest in all things historical, from gold-rushes and frontier life to the tuberculosis epidemic that plagued the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s also based on my many visits to pioneer farms with living history exhibits in the Dallas area and in the Austin area. What ghosts wouldn’t want to stay in a place that looked and felt like the time period in which they lived?
The final story in the collection, Arson Vibes, was inspired by a terrible fire that engulfed a lovely wood-frame church in a small community in Texas a few years ago. Texas has a number of famous, painted churches built by European immigrants in the late 1800 and early 1900s. The Painted Churches Tour in Texas is a great way to see a handful of them. While the fire in the real church was accidental, the one in my story is, of course, an act of arson which needs my investigative crew to solve it. And old churches, with their adjacent graveyards, should come with a ghost or two, shouldn’t they?
These new stories in the collection Arson Vibes and Other Tales are on sale this week, May 4 to 11, 2020. At the moment the stories are only available on Amazon, later in the summer they will be available from other retailers. I would have the stories available everywhere, but the coronavirus and its attendant issues have put a crimp in my schedule at the moment.
N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.
Neil Richard Gaiman will turn 60 this year. Gaiman’s stories and characters are now in our hearts and embedded in our lexicon. These stories are part of the story of us.
Who does not know the tale of Coraline, little girl lost, or American Gods, a tale of forgotten cultures and religions? And Anansi Boys (American Gods Book 2), a captivating yarn springing from African lore? And the popular collaborative work with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, now a Netflix production.
Gaiman is more than a fantasy writer, he reveals encyclopedic knowledge of world mythologies, world religion, world history, and a smorgasbord of other oddly relatable facts.
Mostly, people are drawn to him because he was and is a bookish person, and was once a very lonely boy who lived in libraries nurtured by librarians.
That lonely boy grew up and became one of the most famous graphic artists in the world, pushing graphic arts to new heights with his Sandman series. He has become a well-respected author for his research, and his multiple adult and children’s fiction. And he is the champion of Libraries and Librarians.
In 2018, Gaiman published a small book illustrated by Chris Riddell titled Art Matters-Because Your Imagination Can Change The World.
“The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.’ Neil Gaiman
This book is a story about reading, libraries, librarians, writing, life choices, disappointments, and the belief that Art Matters.
“I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast.”
Gaiman stands as the champion of the freedom of ideas and against suppression of any ideas. He is a believer in the right of expression; whether these notions are correct or not, they are yours. Your idea of God, the state of the world, or anything else is individual—if you don’t agree, you can ignore or object—it’s your choice.
And Gaiman believes that our future, your future, “Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.”
“I suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m making a plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.”
Simply, librarians are unique in their position in the world. More than ever, they provide a universe in which “the love of reading” is encouraged, they show that reading is a “pleasurable activity.”
“. . .Everything changes when we read. . .Fiction builds empathy. . .”
“I was lucky I had an excellent local library growing up, and met the kind of librarians who did not mind a small unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives of witches or wonders. . .”
“A Library is a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it.”
For writers there is a personal desire that people should want to read, buy your books, your stories, become engaged in what you write. But more importantly there needs to be a concerted effort by everyone to teach all children “to read and enjoy reading.” To do that, libraries and librarians are the key, without them, we have nothing.
And where did all this reading lead this small bookish boy? Gaiman admits that starting a “career in fine arts, you have no idea what you are doing,” and that is a good thing, because you will not be held back by others’ limitations. Regardless of what befalls you, he admonishes, “Make Good Art.”
If you do decide to pursue a career in fine arts, know that not everything is going to work. It will make you uncomfortable, it will make you want to stop, it will make you want to hide. The point is, try again, write or draw and explore again. If we listen to Gaiman’s message, the message to create in your own way, even if it is uncomfortable or not understood, even if you feel like a fraud, or even if you are criticized, you will survive it.
“Be bold, be rebellious, choose Art. It Matters.” Neil Gaiman
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.
“Tell me a story about before you met me,” the lover entreats the loved one.
“Tell me the story about how you met,” we ask the new couple.
“Tell me the scariest moment,” the reporter demands of the returning explorer.
“Tell me a story,” we whisper to the books on the library shelf.
After an astounding career as master of detective fiction, P. D. James finished Talking about Detective Fiction in 2009, when she was nearly ninety. This small but hugely thoughtful book touches many topics: the history of detective fiction, authorial arguments over point of view and whether or not the murderer can be a protagonist, variants in the genre. Then James tackles the importance of setting, the importance of character, and the importance of plot.
As to setting: “If we believe in the place we can believe in the characters.” She notes that one function of the setting is to add credibility to a story. For James, credibility is particularly needed for crime fiction, which often offers not just dramatic but bizarre or horrific events. (This immediately brought to mind Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike series, including The Silkworm.) According to James, “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character.” She says her Devices and Desires was born when she stood on a deserted beach in East Anglia, then turned and saw the vast outline of a nuclear power station.
Character: her characters “grow like plants” while she’s writing but still bring surprises, so that “at the end, no matter how carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned.”
As to why people love this genre? For the story. For the story! Here she quotes E.M. Forster:
“‘We are all like Scheherazade’s husband in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story….Qua story, it can have only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can have only one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.’” [E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel]
Our mystery genre has at its heart, of course, a mystery, and we know that by the end it will be solved, more or less. Of course, we readers relish solving the mystery, but, as James says of herself, if that were the only attraction, we wouldn’t reread our old favorites. Which many of us do.
Why do we reread? Not just for the solution, but for the story. Once upon a time there was [a character] who lived in [a setting] and one day, a [terrible awful amazing startling promising exciting bizarre weird shocking hilarious unexpected] thing happened. And what do you think happened next?
We can’t wait. Bring it on. Because we want a story, in a setting we believe in, even if surprising, so we believe in the characters, and––even when we’re re-reading an old favorite–– we want to keep turning the pages so we can know what happens next.
Thank you, P. D. James, for this rich small book, and for all your books with their settings, characters, plot intricacies…and story.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.
Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.
Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.
Writers (or at least me) despise (rightly so) the idea of formulaic writing. I am creative! I have my own ideas! Ain’t nobody gonna tell me how to write!
But what if this “formula” came from inside ourselves? What if I create it in my thoughts, my actions, my psyche? What if this “formula” is actually an internal pattern shared by all humans?
Joseph Campbell was a pattern finder. As he studied different cultures, different mythologies, different religions, he developed his theory that the journey of the archetypal hero is at the very soul of what makes us human. He called it the “Monomyth” and, drawing on Carl Jung’s theories, he proposed that a psychic unity is shared by all humankind, and that our lives AND stories are all mythic narratives as variations of a single great story.
Boulderdash, my creative spirit cries! But…shoving hubris aside, what does the evidence show?
Okay. Enough of Campbell. I’m not smart enough or deep enough to even begin to understand the intricacies of his studies or theories. So I did what most of us do. I looked for someone who could “explain it to me.”
For me, those answers came from reading Chris Vogler’s The Writers Journey. Mr. Vogler breaks down this inner self-generated pattern of how humans think and act into twelve understandable, progressive steps.
Step One-The Hero’s Ordinary World (Everyday Life Before the Insanity Begins)
Examples: Dorothy’s life in Kansas before the tornado tosses her into the land of Oz. Luke Skywalker’s mundane life on Tatooine before the C3PO and R2D2 show up. Your life when you’re in your comfort zone.
Step Two-The Hero’s Call to Adventure (Introduction of Something that Must Happen)
Examples: Bilbo Baggins appalling invitation to go with the dwarves to reclaim their treasure in The Hobbit. Captain Pyke’s challenge to James T. Kirk to join Starfleet in the latest Star Trek movie iterations. Your college acceptance letter taking you to a life you’ve never lived before.
Step Three-Refusal of the Call (Ain’t No Way I’m Gonna…)
Examples: Humphrey Bogart doesn’t want to take Kathryn Hepburn on The African Queen. Indiana Jones not wanting to investigate his father’s hogwash theories of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Your unsuccessful job hunt that presents you with the one offer you’d most dislike doing.
Step Four-Meeting with the Mentor (Somebody help!)
Examples: Robert Redford getting Paul Newman to help him get even with a murdering crime boss in The Sting. Charlie is guided by Willy Wonka through the Chocolate Factory. Your new boss’s admin takes pity on you and shows you the ropes of the career foisted upon you.
Step Five-Crossing the First Threshold (Taking that first step on the new journey.)
Examples: Alec Baldwin jumps from a helicopter to help find Sean Connery’s Russian sub, The Red October. Cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) leaves his Detroit home to discover who murdered his friend in Beverly Hills. You pack your belongings in a car and leave home.
Step Six- Tests, Allies and Enemies (Life Happens)
Examples: In Casablanca, Rick’s Café is frought with desperate refugees, thieves, spies and intrigue. In the recent movie, 1917, the two soldiers meet with countless dangers and pitfalls in their efforts to save 1600 British troops. You have to figure out where to live, who are your friends and who are your enemies, and how will you pay for it all.
Step Seven-Approach to the Inmost Cave (Facing Your Worst Fear)
Example: In The Matrix, the Oracle tells Neo that either Neo or Morpheus must die, and Neo has the power to choose which goes. Nala asks Simba to return to the Pride and take back the throne in The Lion King. You realize that you must make peace with the parent who never loved you.
Step Eight-The Ordeal (Your fight within the belly of the beast.)
Example: In Spiderman, Norman figures out that Peter Parker is Spiderman and kidnaps . In The Odyssey, Odysseus must go to the underworld to find the way home and is almost killed. You have no choice but to declare bankruptcy in a financial matter.
Step Nine-Reward (Hero Achieves Goal)
Example: Luke reconciles with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Robert Redford and Paul Newman pull off their “Sting” and get away with it. You and your creditors come up with a plan to pay off your debt.
Step Ten-The Road Back (Trouble’s Not Quite Over)
Example: The moonlight cycle ride of Elliott and E.T. as they escape government bad guys. Harry Potter’s walk on Hogwart’s Bridge to destroy in the Elder Wand in Deathly Hallows II. Your ride home from a hospital visit with medicines in tow and physical therapy sessions in sight.
Step Eleven-Resurrection (Death and Darkness Get One More Shot Before Their Destruction)
Example: In Divergent, Tris’s mother dies, but Tris and Four defeat the Erudite coup. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly witnesses the Professor getting killed (again), only to learn the Professor was wearing a bullet proof vest. You discover your long lost sister only to realize she’s dying.
Step Twelve: Hero Returns to Real World with Elixir. (Back at Home, but You’re Not the Same Person You Were When You Left.)
Example: Dorothy goes home to Kansas knowing that she if loved by her family. In The Hunt for Red October, Ryan is able to sleep on the airplane going home. Turbulence isn’t a problem—he’s seen a lot worse. You realize you’ve gone through hell with a certain issue, but you’ve come out alive and stronger.
Now folks have taken these steps and created beat sheets (I’m referring specifically to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! fifteen step beat sheet), diagrams, pie charts, whatever. But the basic monomyth theory is the same: a hero’s journey. Formulaic? Perhaps. Or maybe a pattern observed in the psychic unity of mankind. Is this something foisted upon us or something that originates from the very core that makes us human?
High brow questions for a low brow thinker. All I know is I love a good story.
K.P. Gresham is the author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field. Her most recent publication is Murder on the Third Try. To read more about K.P. and her books, click here.
Okay, you already know I’m hooked on le Carré. Never did I think any of his characters would buy my allegiance more than George Smiley, the nearsighted brilliant cuckold, a scholar of German romantic poetry, capable of thinking many chess moves ahead. Smiley can spin a web to catch a traitor. Smiley’s heroic.
But now, Nat’s got me. Nat, 47-year old field man from the British secret service or “Office,” has returned to his London home from Europe, at loose ends. He has proudly served his Queen, his country, his Service. He’s a jock, loves running, loves to play ferocious strategic badminton at the Athleticus, a club near his home. He’s Club champion. He loves his wife Prue, who as his spouse actually served the Office when they were stationed together in Russia. Prue now handles big pro bono legal cases and Nat likes to drop in to watch her courteous destruction of the opposition. Nat, with his German-Russian-English-Scots background, speaks Russian like a native. Now he’s expecting to be made “redundant,” put out to pasture, offered dead-end private sector jobs in, say, security.
Meanwhile, at the Athleticus he is challenged by a tall, bespectacled, socially awkward guy, Ed Shannon, who demands a match with the Club champion. Nat assesses this approach:
And the voice itself, of which by now I have a fair sample? In the time-honored British parlour game of placing our compatriots on the social ladder by virtue of their diction I am at best a poor contestant, having spent too much of my life in foreign parts. But to the ear of my daughter Stephanie, a sworn leveler, my guess is that Ed’s diction would pass as just about all right, meaning no direct evidence of a private education.
How deft is that description? So deft. Part of le Carré’s genius is to compose sentences which effortlessly expand the characters and scenes he’s building. Here Nat describes himself using (italicized) info from his own employment file:
I possess rugged charm and the accessible personality of a man of the world.
I am in appearance and manner a British archetype, capable of fluent and persuasive argument in the short term. I adapt to circumstance and have no insuperable moral scruples.
What a great ploy, letting the narrator use other peoples’ descriptions to present himself. Nat’s voice is irresistible.
Nat’s at a turning point. Now at home, waiting for some assignment from the Office and wondering about his future, he suspects his college student daughter thinks dad’s job performance is mediocre, far outshone by Prue’s legal career. It grates that his daughter doesn’t even know what he’s done:
I’d like to have told her why I’d failed to phone her on her fourteenth birthday because I knew it still rankled. I’d like to have explained that I had been sitting on the Estonian side of the Russian border in thick snow praying to God my agent would make it through the lines under a pile of sawn timber. I’d like to have given her some idea of how it had felt for her mother and me to live together under non-stop surveillance as members of the Office’s Station in Moscow where it could take ten days to clear or fill a dead letter box, knowing that, if you put a foot out of place, your agent is likely to die in hell.
When Nat goes in for the interview where he expects to be put out to pasture, we get an eyeful and earful of the infighting and sharp elbows within the Office. To our pleased surprise, Nat seems well able to handle those elbows. Furthermore, Nat wins the badminton match against the importunate Ed. When they drink a beer later, and after subsequent matches, Ed inveighs passionately against Trump, Putin, and the parlous situation of post-Brexit Britain. Meanwhile, instead of being terminated, Nat is asked to manage the Haven, a London sub-station of the Office, including supervising an intense agent named Florence who’s pressing the Office to approve Operation Rosebud. Operation Rosebud would insert eavesdropping equipment into the lush English home of a Ukrainian oligarch with well-documented links to Moscow Centre and Putin. Here’s Nat’s description of Florence:
And in Florence, as Giles [whom Nat’s replacing] was at pains to inform me over a nocturnal bottle of Talisker whisky in the back kitchen of the Haven, Rosebud had found an implacable if obsessive champion…
With Operation Rosebud about to begin, a sleeper Russian agent––currently acting as a double agent for the Office––requests an emergency meeting with Nat. It may be possible, the agent says, for Britain to capture a very big fish…well, no spoilers. Nat travels to Karlovy Vary to meet an informant who can identify the fish. The informant grills Nat, in dialogue so sharp on current world politics it hurts:
“So what are you?” “A patriot, I suppose.” “What of? Facebook? Dot-coms? Global warming? Corporation so big they can gobble up your broken little country in one bite? Who’s paying you?”
Like a set of Matryoshka dolls, le Carré’s plot holds secrets within secrets within secrets. Le Carré fans know his plots, in hindsight, seem prescient: he brought us big pharma in Africa and disaster in Chechnya before those issues hit the world stage. Now he zeroes in on the Europe of today’s news broadcasts, with Putin looming to the east, Trump to the west, and Britain bent on Brexit. I found myself wondering––fearing––how real the most treacherous plot in this Matryoshka might turn out to be.
Meanwhile, I know Nat’s got hidden depths. I’m rooting for Nat––and Prue––all the way.