It’s been a long time since I wrote; so, as I’ve been doing lots of reading (my computer is not healthy and needs lots of time off), I’ll do a bit a literary criticism.
Last week in the library, when I spotted Badgers Moon by Peter Tremayne, I got pretty excited. I already knew that ‘Peter Tremayne’ is the nom-de-plume of the noted Celtic scholar and Druid Peter Beresford Ellis. This book was advertised as a ‘Celtic Mystery’, set in 7thC Ireland, with a Celtic Christian priestess as the heroine. Celticism, crime and a female sleuth – got be a good read! So I thought.
Ummm, no. I managed about three chapters before hurling it down. The writing was stiff, the characters so wooden that you could turn them into occassional tables. The action was constantly interrupted by Tremayne’s authorial explanations – of the culture, the language, the meanings of things.
That, I think, was the main irritation – he just could not let things explain themselves, even though the book already had about a dozen pages of historical notes, a cast list, map – even a pronounciation guide. (Such might be needed for a 700-page fantasy blockbuster – but a 250-page crime novel? Come on!)
This over-explaining was particularly noticable as I’d just been reading a couple of Gerald Seymour novels. Seymour writes modern thrillers ; his world of the police, the army, international politics and the machinations of the intelligence services is as foreign to most people as Tremayne’s Celtic Ireland. Yet his books fairly race along, with the minimum of authorial explication to interrupt the flow.
For instance, here’s a sample of Peter Tremayne:
“These words are harsh and have harhness in the saying of them” Fidelma reproved him. I would caution you against calling people thieves. You know the law and the penalty that falls on those who tell false tales about others. It could even lead to the loss of your honour price, sudaire.” She laid a soft stress on his title as a means of reminding him of the standing in society that he could lose.
Eadulf knew that everyone in the five kingdoms of Eireann, from the lowborn to the highest, was possessed of an honour price, The High King himself was rated the the value of sixty-three cows whicle a provincial king such as Fidelma’s brother Colgu, held an honour price valued at forty-eight cows…..The cow was the basis of the currency, with a sed being the value of one cow, while a cumal was the value of three cows….
And on and on and on, for a full page and a half. And that was just one example. Granted, it leads to a better understanding of the background of the action, but it all could have been confined to an afterword.
Now compare with an extract from Gerald Seymour (from Line In The Sand):
The dhow had bought dried fish and cotton bales across the Gulf. The cargo for the return journey was boxes of dates, packaged video-cassette recorders and TV sets fromn the Abu Dhabi warehouses, cooking spices bought from Indian traders, and the man. The man was the important cargo and the engine was at full throttle…..He wore the torn dirtied clothes of a tribesman and smelt of camels’ filth, but the owner and the crewmen – simple, devout men who had sailed through the worst gale storms of the Gulf waters – would have said they held this quiet man in fear.
Later, when they had a good view of the buildings, minarets and cranes of Bandar Abbas, a fast speed boat of the pasdaran intercepted them, took him off and ferried him towards the closed military section of the port used by the Revolutionary Guards.
We’re never told what a pasdaran is, but it’s fairly obvious from the context. Indeed, Seymour sprinkles many foreign words and unfamiliar terms throughout his prose without ever bothering to specifically explain them. His books are mostly 300-400 pages, but they never have more of a forward than a map or two. A cast list? A pronounciation guide? Historical notes? Not there, not needed. Seymour just gets on with telling the story; the reader is left feeling that they have been given a guided tour around strange territory by a hospitable native. Tremayne, on the other hand, leaves you feeling that you’ve just wasted a long summer afternoon sitting indoors being lectured at.
Badgers Moon is the thirteenth or so book in a whole series of “Sister Fidelma Mysteries”. So they are undeniably popular; there’s even a fan club: www.sisterfidelma.com. Maybe I simply chose the wrong book, but I cannot see how they have so many fans. B. tried reading the book before I did; he did better than me, getting over half-wary through before chucking it in my direction. When I likewise threw it down, he asked me to take a look at the ending for him. “I’m betting it was the apothecary what dunnit.”
I took a look at the last chapter.
“Nope, it was…..”
But no. I won’t give it away. I’m too much of a mystery fan myself to do that. If you like these books, then you won’t want me to spoil this one by telling you whodunnit. And if, like me, you can’t stick the unbelievable characters and lumpen writing, you won’t lose any sleep over not knowing.