Sunday, 29 May 2011

'The Final Solution," by Michael Chabon

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

It's no secret that I love Sherlock Holmes. I wrote a little bit about this in my post "My forty books. Part 4: fiction." I chose 2 collections of Sherlock Holmes stories as part of my forty books that I could spend the rest of my life with. However, while I love some of the stories, I don't pretend to be an expert on the Holmes canon. I tend to re-read my favourites, while some others I haven't investigated.

Michael Chabon also quite obviously loves the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, and is way more knowledgeable than I am. I recently read an essay from Chabon's collection, "Maps and Legends," called "Fan Fictions on Sherlock Holmes," as well as his novella "The Final Solution." Chabon has great affection and respect for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation and for his skill as a storyteller, and he has gone on record as saying that a Sherlock Holmes story was one of the first things that he wrote as a child. Anyone who is familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories will recognise the old man in "The Final Solution," although he is never named: he is a once famous detective, renowned and well-connected, who has retired to keep bees. Just in case you didn't get the references, the copy I had of this novella, published by Harper Perennial, contains an interesting extract from an interview with Chabon which makes it explicit that the old man is intended to be Sherlock Holmes.

In Chabon's story the elderly Sherlock Holmes is spurred into now unaccustomed action to stop a small boy from nearly electrocuting himself on the railway lines near his cottage. He is intrigued by the young boy, who seems to be mute but has a constant companion in an African Grey parrot that recites strings of numbers in German. When Holmes is visited by a policeman who asks him for help to solve a murder he initially declines - until he finds that the victim appears to have been trying to steal the boy's parrot, which is now missing. He comes out of isolated retirement - this is Holmes without Watson, which is a shrewd decision on Chabon's part because it frees him from any expectation that he will slavishly mimic the style of Conan Doyle writing as Watson - to try to reunite the boy with his parrot, Bruno.

The choice of title is indicative of Chabon's skill and subtlety as an author. To the Sherlock Holmes fan, the title inevitably evokes Conan Doyle's story, "The Final Problem," in which Holmes is supposedly killed at the Reichenbach Falls. However, the novella is set in 1944, and the title also serves to invoke the atrocities of World War II and specifically Hitler's genocide of the Jews. The historical context is essential to Chabon's novella: the young boy, Linus Steinman, is an orphaned Jewish refugee, and Holmes himself fears going to London because of the devastation that he expects to see.

Chabon's Sherlock is more vulnerable than Conan Doyle's. He is an old man whose still active intellect is trapped inside a body that is breaking down and complaining, and he dreads succumbing to death in a way that would be undignified and ridiculous. Yet, even more than that, he fears the loss of the critical faculties that he prizes the most, and that set him apart from other men. He has moments of paralysing, sickening terror when the world ceases to make sense to him, like "a page of alien text" that resists interpretation. Chabon's Holmes is a weak, frail old man to an extent that gives the novella's title an added poignancy: it does seem very likely that this will be the great detective's final solution.

I think it's fitting that Chabon's novella is so slight - in terms of length, but not content - as I have always felt that Conan Doyle showcases Sherlock Holmes more effectively in the short stories than the novels. This novella made me realise that the Conan Doyle stories that I like best are those that reveal the flickers of humanity and sympathy behind Holmes' coldness: those that momentarily reveal his affection for Watson, or his empathy for a - usually female - victim. I enjoyed Chabon's addendum to the Holmes canon and, although I don't want to give anything away, there is a particularly audacious chapter that took me by surprise. But, all things considered, I would rather think of Sherlock as a vital, seemingly invulnerable, driven - although addicted and flawed - great detective rather than Chabon's enfeebled, scared old man.

Friday, 20 May 2011

"The Glassblower of Murano," by Marina Fiorato

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

If you are wondering why you get 2 posts in such quick succession, it is because I had this week off work - so I had more time to read. "The Anatomy of Ghosts" took me longer to read, and the post took me a couple of days to think about and write. However, "The Glassblower of Murano" is a less complex book, and the ideas are easier to read about and assimilate - hence this post following on quite quickly.

In general terms this is not a book I would normally have selected to read. Marina Fiorato's book is primarily a romance, and I don't tend to read romances very much. A romance plot alone is not enough to hold my interest - old cynic that I am - and I need something else, a ghost story or a crime, to entertain me. A dash of romance in a book can be good, but my tolerance for sentiment is usually tested beyond endurance by a bucketload of the stuff.

In "The Glassblower of Murano" Fiorato's heroine, Nora Manin, leaves England for the Venice of her late father - who worked on the vaporetti - after her husband deserts her for another woman. She wants to work in the glass furnaces of Murano, like her Venetian ancestor, Corrado Manin, who was a master craftsman. The novel has a dual timeline, as her discovery of love and a talent for glassblowing in modern Venice is set against the unfurling of Corrado's story in the 1600s. In the process she embraces her full Italian name - Leonora - and discovers her heritage.

I read this book, although I normally eschew romance, because of its Venetian setting. We had our honeymoon in Venice, and it is a fascinating, beautiful place. I love reading books set in places I have been - so I seek out books set in Venice, as much as I do ones set in New York - as it adds an extra dimension to the book if the author's skill in creating a sense of place is supplemented by my own idea of the geography of the place, or the sensual memory of its atmosphere. Alongside this book, I picked up my guidebook to the Doge's Palace to enhance my memories of the place - so, for example, when Fiorato mentions the Sala del Maggior Consiglio I was able to remind myself of this incredible room and Tintoretto's stunning work of art, "Paradise." In addition to this, Murano was one of my favourite parts of Venice - like an embryonic Venice with all the charm of the canals and with fewer tourists.

I'm trying to be more ruthless and take books to Oxfam if I don't think I will re-read them - I'm running out of book space - and I am undecided at the moment whether to keep this one or not. Fiorato does a good job of evoking the atmosphere of Venice - although just the place names are enough to do that for me - Leonora and Alessandro are appealing lovers, and the descriptions of glass blowing techniques are interesting. In Fiorato's book, Leonora wears a glass heart on a ribbon around her neck which was made by Corrado - apparently a glass heart is very hard to make - and one of my souvenirs from Murano which I treasure was a red glass heart pendant. But I'm not sure that there was enough substance to this book for me to want to read it again.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

"The Anatomy of Ghosts," by Andrew Taylor

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I started reading this book with some trepidation. I thought it sounded interesting, but I wasn't sure what the writing style would be like. My trepidation came from the fact that the book is entirely set in 1786, and I was worried that Andrew Taylor might have tried to mimic the style of writers of the period. When I think of eighteenth century writers, my first thought is of Henry Fielding's "Joseph Andrews." When I studied for my degree, it was a matter of pride that I wanted to try and read all the books; I never wanted to be a person who sat in seminars in silence, or who pretended to have read the text of the week. "Joseph Andrews" was the book that broke me; I was never able to finish it. I needn't have worried about Andrew Taylor's writing. His style is very cleverly judged; it is not too archaic, but manages to suggest a different age in its formality and manner. It is close enough to today's style to be read with ease and pleasure, but distant enough to suggest a feeling of period.

Andrew Taylor's hero is John Holdsworth. He was a bookseller and printer, who has fallen on hard times following personal tragedy. His young son, Georgie, drowned in an accident and his wife, Maria, in her grief succumbed to the wiles of a predatory woman who took their money in exchange for spurious messages from their dead son. While Maria frittered away their money in the vain hope of communicating with their dead son, John Holdsworth channeled his anger into writing a small book - called "The Anatomy of Ghosts" - which investigates and rationalises ghostly phenomena. Then, following an argument in which he hits her, his wife is found drowned in the same spot that their son died. It is his treatise on ghosts that leads the widowed and penniless John Holdsworth to be hired by a wealthy widow, Lady Anne Oldershaw. Ostensibly, she wants him to inventory the university library at Jerusalem College to judge if they are worthy to be bequeathed her late husband's library. However, she also wants him to investigate what happened to her son, Frank, a student at the college, who resides in a mental institution after claiming to see a ghost and having a breakdown.

The novel abounds with dead women who haunt the male characters. The novel starts with a ritual of the Holy Ghost Club, in which a girl brought in to fulfill the sexual aspect of the initiation is found dead. John Holdsworth is haunted by his wife, just as Frank Oldershaw is haunted by the ghost of Sylvia Whichcote (who was found dead in the Long Pond at Jerusalem College). The characters are haunted by the spectre of sexual desire, which cannot be articulated in the repressive, restrictive society of the time. Sexuality skulks in the shadows, like the prostitute who is picked up by one of the characters. The ghostly anatomy is gendered as female, and the feminine form, concealed beneath the very proper clothing, haunts the consciousness of many of the men in Taylor's novel.

The novel also plays with the idea of haunting, questioning whether haunting can be a dialogue, and whether it is possible to be haunted by a living person. John Holdsworth finds himself haunted not only by his dead wife, but also by the very alive Elinor Carbury (the wife of the Master of the College, and goddaughter of Lady Anne Oldershaw). Their burgeoning relationship is very well written. They are both interesting, prickly, well-rounded characters, and I found myself becoming invested in their relationship and hoping that they would come together despite the impediments of their complicated lives.

The blurb on the book jacket seems to play up the chilling, creepy aspects of this novel. There are ghostly elements to the story, but this seemed to me to be far more a detective story than a ghost story. Although it is set in the 1780s, the comparison that came to my mind was with a comparatively recent writer: the Victorian Wilkie Collins. I haven't read any of Andrew Taylor's other books, although I have the Alex Jennings narrated audiobook of Taylor's earlier novel "The American Boy" waiting on my ipod, and I liked "The Anatomy of Ghosts" enough to want to seek out more of his writing.

It occurs to me even more than usual that there are so many books in the world, and so little time. Every book that I read, rather than reducing my potential reading list, seems to throw up a list of other related books that I want to read.

Friday, 13 May 2011

The long and the short of it (version 2.0)

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I posted on this a few days ago, and then changed my mind and removed it. The ex-academic in me wasn’t happy with what I had written about Shakespeare - it seemed a bit disjointed and not very well argued and explained. I liked the premise of the post though, so I have been thinking about it since. Then, this morning, I had an idea while in the shower.

I started thinking about this post because I am listening to the audiobook of “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness, and reading “The Anatomy of Ghosts” by Andrew Taylor. Both of these books have strong, interesting heroines. And, in both of these cases, the male love interest is described as taller than average height, and the heroine is described as only a little shorter. When I read a book or a play I like to fix myself to one character in particular, but in these cases the stress the author has placed on the height of the character has alienated me from the character in terms of their physicality.

Below is the revised version of my post. For anyone who has already read this, it is substantially the same with only changes and additions made to the few paragraphs about Shakespeare. It is still meant flippantly, but has become a touch more analytical.


I have tweeted and commented on Facebook about heightism in literature as a throwaway joke, but I started thinking a bit more about this. I’m being flippant in this post and I’m not making a serious accusation of heightism. I know literature contains characters of all shapes and sizes. But some of my favourites are described as tall and, at 4ft 11 ish, I'm pretty much excluded from fantasy casting myself in these roles.

I am a huge fan of Edward Albee's plays. But he pretty much wrote me out of a possible part when he called one of his plays "Three Tall Women."

My main complaint is against Shakespeare. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Helena is "a tall personage" while Hermia is "dwarfish” and “low." Now, to my mind, Helena has by far the more interesting character arc. She is witty, passionate, devoted to Demetrius despite the fact that he acts like a bit of an arse - she has the persistence to fight for what she wants, and she gets her man in the end (albeit with magical intervention). I spent most of my teenage and early adult years in various phases of unrequited love, so I can sympathise with this aspect of her character and revel in her happy ending. By contrast, I find Hermia less interesting. She seems more like a spoilt child, who reacts more with petulance than passion when spurned by the enchanted Lysander. Her lack of height seems to correlate with a shortness of emotional stature and a meanness of spirit.

Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" might be my favourite female character in Shakespeare: she, too is witty, passionate, fiery and gets most of the best lines. Yet Shakespeare distinguishes that she is taller than the less interesting Hero, who is "Leonato's short daughter" and is "too low for a high praise." Hero - the short one according to Shakespeare's description - is wet and drippy, collapsing in hysteria when accused by Claudio. If she had Beatrice's passion she should tell him to bugger off if he doesn't trust her, and find someone better: show some anger instead of acting like a simpering sap.

Of course I know I’m ignoring Elizabethan gender relations and condemning Hero by today’s more feminist standards. But rationalizing it doesn’t alter the fact that my emotional reaction to the moment when Hero is denounced is stronger than my analytical one. I’d quite like to slap her and tell her to get a grip.

Maybe there is a causal link in this heightism. Perhaps it is easier fictional shorthand to portray a character as being dominant if their physical presence also towers above everyone else. It’s hard to play Beatrice as an equal with Benedick if the audience is aware that you are delivering your speeches to his navel or nipples. Or maybe - and this might be more likely - my own preconceptions are getting in the way. I'm just seeing what I don't want to see so that I can have a jolly good rant about it.

It has also just occurred to me that maybe there is a reason for the short jokes, which might stem from performance practice in Shakespeare’s time. This paragraph is speculation, but it was an idea that intrigued me. I think it is fairly common knowledge that women weren’t allowed on the stage in Shakespeare’s time, and that female characters were played by boys. I don’t know enough about how this worked in practice - maybe this might be an interesting area to read more about - but I wonder if Hero might have been played by a slightly younger boy than Beatrice? As Beatrice is a more complex character, perhaps she would have been played by a slightly older boy who might be able to portray her with more emotional maturity; whereas Hero, who seems to me to be a less developed character, could be played by someone less mature with less emotional range. Therefore a height joke about a character played by a younger boy might also act as a collusion with the audience who would be in on the joke. I’m less sure of this argument applied to Hermia and Helena, but it intrigues me.

In the course of my reading now I will be on the look out for characters who demonstrate or repudiate this theory. I will keep you updated on any results from my research ... and I welcome any suggestions of female characters who are diminutive but dominant, or tall and timorous to wreck my theory - or short and suggestible, asthenic and assertive to support it.

If I ever write my novel, my heroine will be quite short. She will prove to the world that short people don't have little voices that go peep, peep, peep - and nor do they have grubby little fingers and dirty little minds. Well, my mind is a little bit dirty, but life is more fun that way. And she will be fiercely independent - apart from when she has to ask tall people to pass things down from the top shelves in supermarkets.

Monday, 9 May 2011

In praise of obsessions

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

This post is liable to be rather confessional. I hope I don't embarrass myself too much.

My first confession is that I think that I am rather a negative person; I am often told off by my husband and friends for being very self-critical. I can probably think of 5 things that I dislike about myself for every one that I like - and that is on a good day.

But one thing I do like is my obsessive, addictive nature. This might seem like an odd thing to like. Thankfully my addiction has never been substance based - unless you count chocolate and, to a lesser degree, coffee - but has instead been more intellectual. When I have an obsession, it is normally with a writer or an actor.

My obsessions tend to be intense but often fleeting, lasting a few weeks, before they burn out into gently smouldering embers. My current one - the actor Jeremy Northam - is lasting longer than normal, and is probably starting to try my husband's patience more than a little. I was startled to realise recently how long I have been a fan of Jeremy Northam. I was reading through an old diary from 2001 - a funnier and less embarrassing experience than I expected - and found a birthday card from the people that I worked with at the time. In it, a girl I have since lost touch with had written "Expect a man-sized package on your doorstep soon, containing none other than Jeremy Northam!!" (Her 2 exclamation marks, not mine) "Well....I tried." I hadn't realised until reading her comment that I have been waiting for that elusive man-sized package to arrive on my doorstep for over 10 years. Instead I've had to settle for slightly smaller and less tactile packages of DVDs from (other internet sites are available).

I have a sense that this kind of obsession is something of which I should be ashamed. It isn't quite adult; it feels somehow immature and has a lingering whiff of the teenage crush. No matter how much I try to justify my obsessions in intellectual terms, I can't even convince myself of that, let alone anyone else. He is a brilliant actor who chooses interesting projects, but would I still seek out his films if he looked like Ken Dodd and sounded like Joe Pasquale? I would like to say that I have the wisdom and nobility of spirit to recognise talent and beauty in an unprepossessing package. I would love to say that the physical package - so to speak (sorry, smutty, I should have rephrased that when I realised that it sounded like a double entendre) - is completely irrelevant, but that would be dishonest. It is no criticism of his talent as an actor that I would be less inclined to seek out his films if he looked like a bus and sounded like a corncrake; if anything it reflects more on my shallowness as a person.

But I felt a bit less ashamed of myself when I reversed the question. Would I still want to watch his films if he seemed less talented, humourless, chose less interesting projects - but still looked the same, and had the same mellifluous voice? And it is probably more to my credit that I don't think I would. My teenage crushes were never typical; I was always more inclined to fancy someone for their humour and intelligence than just for their looks. I would rather have the variety of seeing him dance with William H. Macy in "Happy, Texas", scold Gwyneth Paltrow in "Emma," explode giant cockroaches in "Mimic" than see him as the latest, interchangeable, pretty face for hire in the most recent vapid, forgettable blockbuster. I'd be less inclined to watch his films if he fought against Michael Bay CGI monsters, rather than wrestled with his emotions with Jennifer Ehle.

I love my periods of intense obsession, although they probably get rather wearing for my very tolerant husband. They have a way of taking over, growing exponentially, and leading me down paths of enquiry that I otherwise might not have taken. I might not have read "Look Back in Anger" if I hadn't been obsessed with David Tennant at the time, and sought it out because I read that he had played Jimmy Porter. I might not have discovered "The Tempest" as a teenager - although I am sure that I would eventually have studied it - if I hadn't been a little obsessed with Frank Langella (who I knew had played Prospero) after seeing him on stage. (Although can you be a little bit obsessed? Obsession is all or nothing; it is as ridiculous as calling someone a little bit pregnant.) My recent Jeremy obsession led me to listen to his audiobook of "Our Man in Havana," which made me want to read some more Graham Greene (I haven't yet). I've just got playscripts of Pinter's "Old Times" and William Wycherley's "The Country Wife" from our local library after finding that he acted in these on stage. I may even try to read "Tristram Shandy" after finding out that Jeremy had read it when he acted in "A Cock and Bull Story," although this might be pushing it a little (I think, rightly or wrongly, of Laurence Sterne as being in the same vein as Henry Fielding and "Joseph Andrews" was one of the very few books that I was meant to read as a student but couldn't bring myself to finish). What starts as a shallow obsession can become a legitimate process of intellectual expansion and exploration. I don't know if I have convinced you on this one, but it works for me.

I found it interesting that this current obsession made me question the nature of my obsessions, although I realise that this is probably tedious self-analysis that is of little interest to anyone but me. My mind is more enquiring, more driven, my imagination more active and fertile when I am in the throes of an obsession. I started this post feeling a little bit ashamed of my shallow, obsessive tendencies - despite saying that it was something that I liked about myself - but after rationalizing this, I no longer see why I should be ashamed of something that brings me pleasure, and has led me to find films, novels and plays that I have grown to love for themselves alone when the original obsession has abated. So I embrace my obsessiveness with relish, while apologising to my husband for the Jeremy Northam films to come which I will subject him to. And the wikipedia entry on "Tristram Shandy" sounds interesting.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

"Emotionally Weird," by Kate Atkinson

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

A combination of reading "Emotionally Weird," set in Dundee University, and listening to the audiobook of Deborah Harkness' "A Discovery of Witches"(Oxford) is making me feel nostalgic for university and academia. It has to be said, however, that neither book is really typical of my time at university. I tended to write essays, unlike Effie, the protagonist and narrator of "Emotionally Weird," who rarely hands in any work. And I'm fairly sure that the university that I went to wasn't populated with vampires, witches and demons like the Oxford of Deborah Harkness' imagination.

This was my first Kate Atkinson book. I have friends who like her books, but I'd never tried one - so, I put out the question to my Facebook friends to find out where I should start. "Emotionally Weird" didn't even get a mention, but fate, conspiring with other library users who had borrowed all other Kate Atkinson books, meant that this was my first experience of Kate Atkinson. Usually when I write a review I try to have the book by me for reference. Another library user has confounded me by reserving this book, so I am writing this freefall without a net.

The heroine and narrator of "Emotionally Weird," is Effie, a student of literature at Dundee University. Effie is directionless, perpetually being chased to hand in essays that she has not yet written, and she has slipped into an accidental relationship with a stoner called Bob. Effie is telling her story to Nora, her mother, in their remote, derelict family home in Scotland. Effie's story is detailed, digressive and loaded with colourful peripheral characters; Nora is a more reluctant and sparse storyteller as Effie tries to coax her into reciprocating by telling her their family history. Nora is as much a reluctant listener as storyteller, interjecting critical comments on style and structure into the narrative, and even going to bed at one point to let the story carry on without her audience.

Reading "Emotionally Weird," in the best possible way, reminded me how much I enjoyed reading Graham Swift's "Waterland" when at university. Both novels are pre-occupied with the storytelling impulse and with history. Where Graham Swift grapples with the idea that history is nearly always his-story and not her-story, "Emotionally Weird" is very much her-story. Kate Atkinson's narrative is rounded, abundant with fertile detail. Unlike a historical text which tries to filter out extraneous detail to present a cause and effect narrative, Kate Atkinson's novel overflows with the minutiae of life and with supporting characters who may or may not prove to be significant. Like Effie's life, her narrative sometimes seems to lack purpose and focus, following a picaresque path before Nora finally reveals the family secrets to Effie.

I enjoyed the fun that Kate Atkinson has with genre. The main thrust of the story is interspersed with snippets of writing from Effie's creative writing class. Effie herself is writing a crime novel - one of the more debased and disreputable genres, according to her disapproving creative writing lecturer - and there are substantial extracts from her creative writing project. There are also short segments from the sub Lord of the Rings fantasy magnum opus being written by another member of the creative writing group, as well as from the interminable, pretentious postmodern tome being written by one of the university lecturers. The segments from Effie's crime novel are deliberately hokey in a way that implies that Kate Atkinson knows the genre well, and there is fondness in her mockery of its tropes and cliches.

Like my experience of recently discovering Graham Greene, it baffles me that if has taken me so long to get around to reading a Kate Atkinson novel. I liked the richness of her writing - which, to my shame, sometimes had me reaching for a dictionary - and the eccentricity of her characters. In her narrative words have a life of their own, spilling out and escaping. Words can prise themselves off the page, "hanging around like bored flies." Kate Atkinson's self-aware writing style embraces the playful side of postmodern writing. I definitely want to seek out more of her books and, as I too enjoy the crime genre, I plan to read her Jackson Brodie novels, and - like the good little book geek I am - read them in order.

Monday, 2 May 2011

My letters from Julian Symons

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

In my post on visiting Greenway House, I wrote about seeing a book by Julian Symons on the shelves in Agatha Christie's library. It is curious, as Julian Symon's novels were so much a part of my reading life as a teenager, that I have given him so little thought in later life. Seeing that book has made me think about him more recently so, on a visit to my parents' house, I decided to try to find his response to a fan letter that I sent him when I was a teenager.

Julian Symons, for those of you who have never heard of him (which is probably most of you, as I don't think he was a prominently known author) was a biographer, an expert of crime fiction, and a critically acclaimed crime writer. I haven't read much of his literary criticism - although a search in our local public library catalogue would seem to indicate that this has survived longer than his fiction - but I was a huge fan of his crime novels, and I also have one of his works of criticism on crime fiction ("Bloody Murder"). A Google search today which turned up a Wikipedia page tells me that he died in 1994, aged 82 - so the letters that I have from him, dated 1989 and 1991, were written to me when he was quite an old man.

I brought back one his books from my parents' house (which I am starting to think of as my stacks, as I have lots of books there that I don't have house space for and have a less immediate desire to read). I have a few of his, but I chose one that I remember fondly: "A Three Pipe Problem," in which the main character is an actor who, like Jeremy Brett, played Sherlock Holmes on television and became obsessed by the character (although, unlike Jeremy Brett, this obsession leads to solving a series of murders). I admit to being a little bit scared to re-read it. I loved his books so much as a teenager, I am very nervous of finding that - as in many things - the nostalgia is better than the reality. I do have a suspicion that they have probably not dated well.

I've scanned in his letters and I include them below as image files. In some ways the advice is standard advice to a writer - write about what you know - but it is an interesting curio (although I cringe slightly to wonder what my naive, youthful letter to him might have been like).

I'm pleased to note that my time spent in reading copious crime novels has not been in vain - it has allowed me to deduce that both letters, although 2 years apart, were typed on the same typewriter (the capital S is slightly out of alignment). I had forgotten that I had two letters from him. I can only deduce, to my shame as a person and as a writer, that my second letter to him was a thank you letter 2 years late. Although shamefully late, I'm glad that I did write that thank you letter before he died a couple of years later. I also deduce from the fact that, as an old man, he took time out to write a couple of letters to a teenage aspiring writer who couldn't even get around to writing a thank you letter, that he was probably a kind and generous man.