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‘She’ll be right. No worries.’ It was an amazing phrase. It was practically magical all by itself. It just…made things better. A shark’s got your leg? No worries. You’ve been stung by a jellyfish? No worries! You’re dead? She’ll be right! No worries! Oddly enough, it seemed to work.

Wow folks. What a fantastic afternoon. We are just back in the door from seeing Terry Pratchett be interviewed by Garth Nix at the Bugarup Opera House. We even sang him Happy Birthday, but first, we were talking about The Last Continent

In attempting to rescue the Librarian from his morphic dissonance, Archchancellor Ridcully and his motley crew of academic wizards find themselves transported to a far-off land through a mysterious portal. The island presents certain mysterious phenomena, such as plants that produce pre-rolled cigarettes, which seems to be an example of a very literal form of evolution.

Meanwhile Rincewind finds himself corralled by a talking kangaroo into saving the land of EcksEcksEcksEcks from the oppressive heat, where the people living there (who all claim to be descended from folk who were washed up ashore on a piece of driftwood) believe that rainfall is a myth. Talking Gator bar-men, trampolining spiders and magic sheep-shears are just some of the strange things Rincewind has to get used to, while desperately attempting to run from his destiny, which as usual only serves to land him straight right back in the middle of it.

Yes there are a lot of jokes at the expense of Australian culture, including town names such as ‘Dijabringabeeralong’, or ‘Bugarup’. There’s even a supercharged vehicle driven by someone who self-applies the term ‘Mad‘. Pratchett does not poke fun in a condescending manner, however. The tone is affectionate throughout.

I also love the notion of Rincewind being the ‘eternal coward. The hero with a thousand retreating backs‘, a nice reversal of the Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Ridcully’s complete refusal to be confused by the vagaries of time travel, due to pure ego, as well as the notion of an ‘atheist god’, attempting to study evolution is just pure Pratchett.

This is a fantastic piece of comedic satire, an absolute laugh riot.

Right, let’s talk about the Sydney Opera House gig.

Firstly I think Stephanie and my mother-in-law were converted into genuine Pratchett fans by the experience. Garth Nix and Pratchett came out on stage, greeted by a huge applause. After introductions, the audience was treated to a reading from the next Discworld novel – Snuff. Pratchett described the book as a pastiche of Agatha Christie, with Duke Vimes going on a trip to the countryside and in typical Poirot-fashion discovering a murder mystery. The crowd were falling about laughing during the reading.

Nix had a series of questions from members of the audience, but Pratchett, ever the digressive raconteur, only managed to get around to two of them. A question relating to the satirical content of the Discworld novels resulted in a discussion of religion. Amusingly Pratchett argued that all of Christianity could be boiled down to Bill & Ted‘s catchphrase ‘be excellent to each other‘. He also questioned whether a religion should choose as its symbol ‘a torture device‘. On the other hand, he criticised atheism as evidencing ‘too much certainty‘, a form of extremism equal in intensity to religious fundamentalism. As a humanist he even campaigned to rescue an old church in his community, for the sake of ‘hedging his bets‘.

Nix as the author’s interviewer seemed at once awed at the opportunity to speak to Pratchett, referrring to him as a literary master, although he in response insisted that he is only a journey-man writer. A status he claims he only graduated to with the publication of I Shall Wear Midnight. Nix was also visibly affected by the toll of the author’s early onset Alzheimer‘s. The Australian media pounced on the opportunity to run a story about Pratchett vis-a-vis his status as a spokesperson for assisted dying, which he ruefully stated was an odd position to be placed  in by reporters. He’s busy enough arguing with his own government, so getting into it with the Australian government too seems absurd.

For me though the most emotionally resonant portion of the evening was Pratchett talking about his early days as a local journalist. His bio often refers to how he saw a dead body on his first day on the job, but here he elaborated on how having to report from the scenes of gruesome suicides and deaths left him devastated. He remains haunted by the image of a woman who smoked six cigarettes before jumping in front of an express train, which he managed to piece together when he discovered the discarded butts near the scene of her death.

Sir Terry Pratchett proved to be a wonderful soul. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to finally see him in person.

My friend Carol just let me know the link to the video is up – enjoy!

“What to my mind is so interesting in this case is that we have none of the facilities afforded to the police. We cannot investigate the bona fides of any of these people. We have to rely solely on deduction. That, to me, makes the matter very much more interesting. There is no routine work. It is all a matter of the intellect.”

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the filming of the ‘First Tuesday Book Club‘ at the ABC studios. The opening discussion focused on fantasy fiction. It was quite enjoyable to listen to writers debating the merits and possible disadvantages of books with elves, dragons and magic.

As interesting as all of this was, I have to say though I am sick of people discussing The Lord of the Rings exclusively when my favourite genre is the topic of discussion. Half a century has passed since that tome was published and much has happened since. No mention was made of New Worlds (which launched many a morally ambiguous fantasy novel), let alone the New Weird. One point that was made though, by Lev Grossman, was that fantasy and genre fiction in general have become more popular because they actually trade in plots – unlike novels that struggle with the literary heritage of Joyce and Woolf.

What a wonderful thing it is to read an entertaining page turner? Which brings me to today’s book, Agatha Christie’s classic ‘whodunnit’, Murder on the Orient Express.

Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is actually en route to England when he finds himself swept up in an unusual series of events. Firstly he is approached by a vulgar American businessman Mr. Ratchett while boarding a train from Istanbul. Poirot turns the man down, despite his claims that his life is in danger. Instead he concentrates on enjoying the train journey and observing his fellow guests. His friend Bouc, the director of the train company (and the means by which he was allocated a berth on this unusually packed train)  draws his attention to the extraordinary mixture of people on board. Hungarian aristocrats, an American widow, a German maid and an English nanny, numerous class distinctions and backgrounds arranged side by side in the small travelling compartments of the train. Then after one night when the Orient Express became delayed by large amount of snow in the ‘Jugo-Slavian’ countryside, Mr. Ratchett’s body, with a dozen stab wounds, is discovered in his room.

Bouc is desperate to save the reputation of his company and enlists his good friend the famous detective to investigate the crime. Poirot sets about interviewing all the guests in first and second class, as well as the staff. In his own irascible way, the detective indulges in his patented form of inquiry, baiting those who are reserved, placating and gaining the trust of the more alarmed travellers and generally remaining inscrutable despite the repeated pleas of Bouc to explain exactly what is happening.

Half of this book’s pleasure is seeing how Poirot unravels the mystery from such a morass of complicated relationships and air-tight alibis. What is more when the true identity of the murder victim is revealed, few can argue that he did not deserve to die. For Poirot, however, it is a question of intellect, a puzzle which requires his preceise attention.

This book is a delightful puzzle box, one which has a surprising theme underlying the action. What Christie has fashioned is an intelligent outsider’s perspective on America and its unique contemporary multicultural mix. The contrast inferred with sleepy Old Europe is wittily observed. In many senses the book is quite self-aware – often the characters scoff at how the events resemble a detective mystery from a cheap book – and ultimately resolves itself into a ‘whydunnit’, instead of a ‘whodunnit’.

A classic detective mystery with a surprisingly subversive streak.

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