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Dr Lanselius was the consul of all the witch-clans at Trollesund, in the far north. Lyra remembered her visit to his house, and the secret she’d overheard – the secret which had had such momentous consequences. She would have trusted Dr Lanselius; but could she trust what someone else claimed on his behalf?
One of my favourite book series from the last decade, not just in children’s fiction – but fiction period, was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A story about two children from different worlds, threatened by a vast authoritarian conspiracy designed to exploit innocence, it managed to be thematically powerful and dense with literary references. Pullman takes his series title and many of his themes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He caught the notice of the liberal press (and the ire of religious groups and concerned parents) by launching a broadside against C.S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia and its overt religious allegory. His Dark Materials, by contrast, offered a fantasy universe that was inhabited by angelic beings and daemons, while at the same time subscribing to scientific theories of quantum reality and evolution.
Heady stuff for a kid’s book. Yet if there’s a consistent theme throughout my positive reviews of children’s books, it is authors who do not condescend to their readers. Philip Pullman certainly does not talk down to children. Even in Lyra’s Oxford, a short post-script to the trilogy, has a brief introduction by the author where he wonders if the past is conditioned by future events, hinting that this volume throws some of the events of the previous books into relief.
It is two years after the events of The Amber Spyglass and Lyra has returned to Jordan College Oxford. Pullman includes postcards, maps and journal extracts supposedly recovered from this world contained within the book to give a greater level detail. The story itself is quite slim, a taste of what is to come with Pullman’s upcoming second series The Book of Dust.
Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon encounter a witch’s daemon under attack from a flock of starlings. Rescuing it, the grateful familiar informs Lyra that he is searching for an alchemist who lives somewhere in the Jericho district of Oxford. The witch has sent him to ask this man for an elixir that will cure a mysterious ailment ravaging the witches who live in the north. Lyra agrees to help and hides the witch’s daemon in her room until nightfall.
What Lyra does not realize is that events from her adventures in the north and her conflict with the General Oblation Board have come back to haunt her.
At times I suspect that the religious controversy over Pullman’s writing obscured a well-told story. Wisely for this book he has chosen to return to the setting of Northern Lights, which transformed the familiar surroundings of Oxford into a steam punk fantasy of his devising. Will, the other protagonist of His Dark Materials, is once again absent.
This is a great reminder of what made Pullman’s books so appealing in the first place. I am eagerly looking forward to the next book in the series.
I think my mother’s talents deserve a little acknowledgement. I said so to her, as a matter of fact, and she replied in these memorable words: ‘My dear child, you can give it a long name if you like, but I’m an old fashioned woman and I call it mother-wit, and it’s so rare for a man to have it that if he does you write a book about him and call him Sherlock Holmes.’
What a delightful surprise this book was. I first heard of Dorothy Sayers some seven years ago while I was living in Edinburgh. A friend mentioned her to me, as he was reading her translation of Dante’s Inferno. A singular woman, one of the earliest female graduates of Oxford, she was a scholar who wrote murder mysteries. To give you an idea of what to expect, the main character of this book is called Lord Peter Wimsey and whimsical this tale most certainly is. His second named is ‘Death’. He solves murder mysteries as a ‘hobby’.
While enjoying a welcome rest on the island of Corsica, he receives the unwelcome news that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been accused of murder. The victim was a man named Denis Cathcart, whose body was found with the Duke standing over it by Mary Wimsey, who was also engaged to the dead man. Her testimony at the Coroner’s Court lands the Duke in jail awaiting his hearing. By the time Lord Peter has returned with his trusty man-servant Bunter in tow his sister has taken to her bed in hysterics, his brother the Duke is refusing to speak with his defense counsel and the whole thing has become one dreadful black mark on the Wimsey family name.
Joining forces with police detective Mr Charles Parker, whose feelings for Mary go beyond professional courtesy, Lord Peter strives to uncover evidence that proves his brother’s innocence. No matter what the cost. Perhaps the Duke’s silence is due to the Court having accused the wrong Wimsey and as a man of honour he is defending his sister’s reputation? The victim Denis Cathcart’s past is a murky one, with secrets that may have exposed the family to blackmail. Lord Peter’s powers of observation also identify the presence of a third man in the conservatory gardens on the night of the murder, whom he comes to refer to as Number 10 due to his shoe size. Of course there is always ample opportunity for a fine cigar and a glass of brandy, even when there is a murder mystery to solve.
There is a Wodeshousian tone to the proceedings that lift it up from the more dour detective novels. A wicked sense of humour is present throughout, as well as a rich intelligence and breadth of reference. Wimsey enjoys humming Bach to himself, or quoting Wordsworth randomly while searching for clues. He is a dilettante detective, whose genius was buffeted by his experiences during the Great War and a doomed love affair, leading to him exploiting his flair for investigation while he spends his fortune hosting parties in London.
The foppish Columbo acts the fool in order to provoke suspects into revealing something, with his status as an aristocrat allowing him to bounce from Paris to New York chasing down leads the police cannot afford to follow. When the Duke’s trial is held in the presence of Parliament, Sayers depicts the noble gentry as being to a man much like Wimsey, treating a murder inquiry as an opportunity for a bit of entertainment, chortling away at the witticisms of the defending counsel. With the world-weary Bunter as an alternative take on Jeeves assisting the amateur detective, Sayers enjoys poking fun at the conventions and morals of the British upper class.
She even introduces the occasional element of bawdy humour into the proceedings. Submitted without comment:
‘That thing’, was a tall erection in pink granite, neatly tooled to represent a craggy rock, and guarded by two petrified infantry-men in trench helmets. A thin stream of water gushed from a bronze knob half way up….
Ok stop right there!
So if you are looking for a ‘spiffing good time’, with bounders, poachers, blackguards and socialists, I would recommend checking out the adventures of one Lord Peter Wimsey, dandy detective.