Monday, 12 April 2010

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle-- Micah Clarke

Conan Doyle has been a favourite writer of mine for years. And a favourite of yours, as well, I should hope. Or in other words: how bloody good is Sherlock Holmes? How bloody good is Jeremy Brett? How bloody good is the Red-Headed League?

But Conan Doyle rather famously thought nobody would remember his Holmes stories, in the future. They were popular, but they weren't literature. He thought a lot more highly of his historical novels, and trusted that posterity would prefer them as well.

Which was wrong, as it turned out, and frankly a good thing. Sorry chap. But, judging on Micah Clarke, the historical fiction and the Holmes stories are not even in the same (red-headed) league.

The book is, not to put too fine a point on it, boring. It starts too slowly, there's no real conflict (even though it's the biography of a war) and it isn't entertaining.
That's a pretty big problem, and I put it down to two things:

1) The narrator is pious and thinks highly of himself (but not so high as to be interestingly at odds with the events.) He is, quite simply, boring company. For 559 long pages. You never know why he's telling you something, and most of the time it will turn out to be irrelevant. He makes some jokes, but... he should stick to the day job. In this case, soldiering.
He is also inconsistent. He will tell us one thing--about his character, or the character of his friend, of of how the war is going, or how people feel about it--then he will show us the opposite. Not in an amusing way. In an annoying way. It's annoying enough being told 'Reuben is clever with words' a lot, but it's even worse when the author forgets that half-way through the book.

2) The episodes disguised as chapters do not tie together to form a narrative. A string of events, yes, but there is no arc. There is no hint of a main goal, or central problem, or overcoming and development in our main man Micah. This book is just some stuff that happened. It's a civil war! It shouldn't take much to make a reader care about it. But there we are.
I think Conan Doyle needed to make up his mind what he was trying to tell us. Was this war heroically hopeless? Or a close-run thing, painfully snatched away at the last minute? It could be something in-between, but it can't be one--then the other--then back to the first one, changing at will.

The saving grace of this book is Decimus Saxon, and Micah's relationship with him. When it comes to flawed geniuses, even in the field of soldiering, Conan Doyle knows how to get it right. He wrote about this other flawed genius once, as well, but you won't have heard of him.
But even this highlight isn't what it could be. It fits in too much with the pattern of all the characterisation: everyone is either Good or Bad. You will know within a page of meeting them which they will be, and it's rather tedious watching the narrator get 'surprised' when this is borne out. Everyone is either, when it comes down to it, an uncompromised evil-doer, or a man of strong and good heart. The one occasion this might be avoided, the rebel king Monmouth--he shows signs of greatness, but is also weak-spirited--conformscompletely by the end (he's a Bad Guy.)
I get that in adventures, you don't look for artfully realised complex individuals... but that only works when there's too much adventure to notice the people much. That's not the case here.

Okay, that was pretty harsh for a 'saving grace'. And there were lots of bits in this book I quite enjoyed. But that just makes it more annoying that it is, overall, such a failure. Whatever problem Micah Clarke has is so fundamental, then, that it overshadows all the other evidence. So it is a problem I better take good note of, and avoid it like the frogs. Here it is:

The book is pointless.

Yup. Pointless.

Now, I'm not one for insisting books should always have a clear and relevant real-world message. In fact, I don't really like that, a lot of the time. The message of a book is, well... the book. If it can be shortened without losing its meaning, then shorten it, and publish it as a pamphlet.
But a book needs to have a point, on it's own terms, within its own logic. It needs to be heading somewhere, tie together, and relate to itself. I mean... relate to itself! How can something not relate to itself? Micah Clarke will show us:

There's details in this book. Details are great. Especially when they all tie together, and turn out to be important, or when they, taken together, form a bigger picture (that's what details are. Little bits of a bigger picture.)
But when we start seeing some chemistry references cropping up, they don't turn out mean anything more than 'there is some chemistry references cropping up.' They don't make any bigger picture at all. Some oppostion officers know about modern chemistry, that's all there is to it. I have no idea why they do, or why that is mentioned. When they meet a lonely little girl on the eve of battle, who sells them milk... well, that's all it is. BUT IF THAT'S ALL IT IS, WHY IS IT A WHOLE CHAPTER?

Whole chapters that do not justify themselves, details that mean nothing... it doesn't relate to itself. If the little girl had poisoned the milk, and they had to appeal to the opposition officers for an antidote... great. That would be details contributing to a bigger picture, and relating to each other.
But that didn't happen. Not with these details, or any others. Not with these entire chapters, or any others. It's kind of pointless.

All this adds up to a mistake that is big enough to make me dislike a novel by one of my favourite writers. So I had better avoid it.
Right now, I'm getting stuck into my first draft of Polaroid. I'm already aware that there's stuff in there that doesn't need to be there. There's quite a lot of conversations, as I get to know my characters and they get to know each other. Once I know them, and know exactly where the book goes (or points?), I will get rid of the bits that don't help it get there. I'll probably lose about 50% of what I've written so far.
And I'm also dropping details all over the place. Honestly, the thing is littered with them, it's a pig sty, you can hardly move, I come home with them all over my clothes. But they will be pruned down. Is it pruning, where you let a whole lot of bush grow, then cut it back? That's the way to write, anyway. I have a horrible feeling Conan Doyle just let the thing grow (Micah Clarke really long, as well.)

So the rule is, don't be pointless.
The lesson is, prune vigorously.

Damn right. Gardening.


  1. Interesting. I heart ACD. The only non-Holmes of his I have read is The Lost World. That is rather enjoyable.

    Interesting notes on vigorous pruning. I hope you take the same attitude to hedges.

  2. Phew! I'm impressed that you carried on reading right to the end, despite the diminishing returns. I got the gist that this was 'not a very good book' Am afraid I visually pruned the review itself once I'd gleaned that. But I like the way you've taken your criticisms of it and found positive points to apply to your own work - that seems a very worthwhile approach. All books that you don't like can therefore be as worthwhile as books you do like under such an analytical gaze.