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“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.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

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