The new face of mystery

It took me a few Anne Perry and Victoria Thompson novels to discover that the term 'mystery' has changed from how it was used let's say 10 to 20 years ago. Most readers might still associated a mystery novel with a puzzle and with sleuthing, but those terms rarely apply anymore to modern mysteries. Anne Perry is one of many contemporary authors who writes historical fiction with a romantic inclination, which is probably a better label than mystery. Granted, the reader does not know until the very end who has committed the heinous crime, but then again the reveal is most of the time arrived at by the culprit confessing without provocation and regularly without convincing motivation. You could say: with enough time and social pressure the murderer will eventually show him or herself without the need for evidence. Rarely in these novels is there actual hard evidence linking the crime to the crimee.

Traditionally in the context of a murder mystery there are a number of suspects each with the appropriate motivation as to why they wanted to snuff the life out of the poor victim. At the end of the story a sleuth or consulting detective explains why only one of the suspects could have actually committed the crime and why the rest of the bunch are not eligible for the title of murderer, no matter how much they desired that tribute.
In an Anne Perry novel the mechanism is reversed, we now have a number of suspects each of which was potentially at the proper place (one will never know) with the right intentions and correct means, but physical evidence and eyewitness reports don't matter that much. The one who has the best motive wins, it's that simple. Instead of the traditional plotting of the author, sleuthing by the detective and puzzling by the readers, we now have novels where the mystery content revolves around veiled dramatic character interactions. Most of these interactions will mostly appeal only to female audiences and ironically portray a rather traditional domestic picture and gender role division.

From a historical perspective there is much to be found and experienced. Authors like Anne Perry, Victoria Thompson and Caleb Carr to name just a few, are heavily invested in accurate depictions and appropriately original detail. Reading an Anne Perry is just as much an immersive trip into Victorian Times as it is an ongoing daytime television saga. Readers aren't really invested in an Anne Perry for the story, but for the endless almost but not quite amorous interactions between Charlotte and Thomas. For a Victoria Thompson novel you can swap out Frank and Sarah, everything else stays the same.

If you like a trip into a complete and convincing Victorian world with lots of interesting drama and elaborate character interactions through dialog, then you're in for a treat. If you're looking for an Agatha Christie mystery then I suggest you read an Agatha Christie.

A Narrative Discourse Analysis of Closed Room Mysteries

Recently we've been seeing a revival of the mystery genre known as 'the closed room' problem. First used in a novel called The Yellow Room, such stories revolve around several guests, who don't know each other, slowly being murdered, lots of possible solutions and most importantly: no way out. Even though we could argue that it all started with The Yellow Room, we should credit Agatha Christie with constructing the template for most if not all of the works of this genre. Christie added two important twists to the concept of a murder that happens in a place where there is no apparent ingress and egress and where there are a well defined set of suspects. What Christie did was she kept the guests prisoner in the 'yellow room' for the duration of the mystery and those guests or suspects would be killed one by one until no one would be left. So how does this form of narrative work and why is it interesting to know how it works?

Before you read this any further let me warn you. In order to explain the narrative patterns and constructs I'm going to have to reveal many well known plots. If you do not want to risk finding out the dunnit and the who, then stop reading.

Before discussing what we can do with narrative knowledge about closed room mysteries, let's first look at what we're up against. If we're talking about the kinds of mystery novels or movies that revolve around this closed room dilemma, then In all likelihood you will read a description that can be summarized as: two or more strangers are invited to a mansion/island/house/room by a host none of them knows. As they slowly become acquainted they also slowly die one by one until there is only one or no one left. The premise never changes except for some of the details of the setup and the conclusion. For example in the movie Cube we, as well as the trapped strangers, are immediately confronted with the fact that none of them knows what they are doing in a small room or how they got there. There is no lead-up where people explain to one another how they were all invited to this curious party at some remote location. A rather popular version of this same plot device can be seen in the movie Saw, the other plot mechanisms are however exactly the same. The other way in which closed room mysteries can differ amongst themselves is how they end, which can be one of two ways. Either one of the guests escapes by figuring out what has been going on all along, such as in the movies Exam, Saw, The Method and Fermat's Room or none of the innocent guests survive such as in Devil, which is the most common variety and the one Agatha Christie started with in Ten Little Indians. I would like to leave out such films as House on Haunted Hill, The Legend of Hell House and The Thing, etc, because they use either fantasy or supernatural elements making the narrative unreliable since anything can happen and any imaginary entity can intrude at any time.

This last detail, the one where nobody survives the ordeal, is actually a rather big clue because then the killer somehow must have thought to have died. Other than the movies Cube and House of 9, all other closed room plots have the killer or planner be part of the crowd that is trying to figure out the puzzle. A quick note on the film House of 9. It is in a lot of ways the odd one out. After watching this production, which has a delightful twist at the end, you realize the goal of the film isn't puzzling or problem solving. Instead we have to conclude that the director wanted to explore clashing personalities. There are two strong pieces of evidence noted by a lot of other reviewers. First of all those trapped do not make a concerted effort to find out if there are truly no exits. Also the writer of the script wonderfully decided to play out unlikable characters exactly as they would behave in real life as opposed to film where they would be arrested, imprisoned or killed. Another important detail to note is how a movie like The Method throws out a lot of important principles of mystery writing. It is therefore difficult to say something sensible about how the film fits into the format we've defined. For example at some point as the hopeful job candidates (read victims) are given some breathing space and time to relax because lunch is provided, a seemingly important scene plays out. To everyone except one of the known insiders, or informers, the lunch tastes bad and is possibly even spoiled. All job candidates pretend eventually that there's nothing wrong with the food and force eat it anyway. Except one of the characters. To anyone observing this sequence of events and character behaviors the conclusion would be that the individual making an opposite decision from the group must have some significant meaning. As it turns out, it doesn't. This is a clear instance of a writer not understanding Tchekov's Gun.

With all of these pieces in mind we can now say something about why stories like this are interesting.

The Closed Room Narrative

We have a group of people that never leave a space, who have to interact to survive and who will have very different personalities. As you can see, the restricted nature of the setup gives us a unique opportunity to study narrative. Because all events take place in a small confined never changing arena we can discard any influence on the story based on location. Characters aren't running around a city or urban area and we can therefor establish very exact times and places. As in: places within a room or rooms. Besides location we can also take out hidden events since everything occurs out in the open right in front of our eyes. There are no situations where we do not know what one of the characters was doing because all of them are always in view. Even when people are out of sight we are usually informed of their doings. In fact under the 'rules of mystery writing' we have to know what suspects have done otherwise the reader can't puzzle along.

With all those extraneous details out of the picture we end up with a sequence of events that truly matter. As in: we can now better judge how each event contributes to the puzzle. Normally when we read a novel or watch a movie we are treated to lots of extra details and character developments. Some of these are important to the narrative of the mystery and some of them are only important to the characters in the story. In a closed room mystery we can look at every event in light of the puzzle and the narrative. Some of them might turn out to be unimportant but in those cases the events turn out to be red herrings. We know this is the case for a number of reasons. First of all when you want to kill off eight to twelve characters in the span of an hour and a half you will need to have every event count. A second reason why we can now take events at face value is that we can better tell which events are real-time and which ones are reflective. Reflective means that events are described or mentioned by the characters in the room but are not actually happening at that point in time in the room. That means we can carefully separate what happened to whom and when. Characters might still be lying about what happened but at least we know more about the where and when.

We can now start to ask our main questions about narratives using the closed room experimental setup: what do we think is happening in the story v.s. what is actually happening? In more accurate narrative terms: how consistent are the perspectives (understanding of what is happening) and positions (level of opportunity to change events) of the characters compared to our own perspective. Are those two always different? Or are those two always the same perhaps? Quit frequently I have to or want to explain the difference between narrative and story. It sounds trivial and pedantic but there is an important difference. Understanding the difference can even help you enjoy a novel or movie more. Here's why. I will be using E.M. Forster's basic explanations of narrative, plot and story [1] to begin with:

A narrative is simply a sequence of events. If you were to write a novel that only has narrative it would look like: "and then ... and then ... and then ...". Narratives of this sort are quite boring because it doesn't tell us anything about people. Ironically even though the main construction mechanism is the "and then ..." structure it doesn't tease us to ask: and then what happened? In order to accomplish that elusive and important element "and then?" we have to turn the narrative into a story. A story starts to emerge when the events in a narrative have a significance and meaning to the characters they are about. More so when those events drastically changes their experience or even outlook on life. Things get interesting when, we, as readers, start to detect patterns between the narrative (events) and the characters' behavior in a story. That's what we call plot. A plot describes the causality between people's behavior and events, or between events in general. In a dryer form could even say that a plot consists of a causal chain which might only be apparent at the end of the chain of events.

Discourse Analysis

A plot, perhaps better called a character causality puzzle, is what we're essentially dealing with here when we look at Closed Room Mysteries. It's tempting to immediately delve into the technical details of event causality, but if we did that we might miss a lot of the human elements. Instead it makes more sense to use a method like Discourse Analysis [2], which can capture different perspectives and interpretations of a text. In Discourse a number of participants who are communication use various techniques to create a persistent and consistent reality. We will use the word 'means' for the methods characters use and 'creation' for the things they build or construct. So what do we mean by 'construct'? When people try to explain a situation to others and to themselves they construct a plausible explanation or description. That explanation is such a construction. But it is more than a formal way of saying what has just happened. It is also a self-contained reality with its own rules and standards.

This is pretty abstract stuff so let's take a look at an example first. Let's say that five people are for some mysterious reason trapped in a room which has no discernable openings, no means for anything to come in and no way for anything to get out. Most likely the question which will go through everybody's mind is: "how did we get here?" Depending on the roles and personalities one or more of the 'victim's will offer an explanation. This explanation might clash with the beliefs and sensibilities of the other subjects and they might step up and question the reasoning. What ensues is a back and forth between the trapped characters in an attempt to make sense of their predicament. They are effectively co-constructing a way of thinking about their situation. That's quite complicated because it would have been easier to say that they've come of with a rationale, but that wouldn't help them later on. What they need is a system of thinking that can help them in their overall situation. This way of thinking or reasoning can be considered the creation in terms of Discourse Analysis. When we apply Gee's general discourse theory [2] we should look at 7 versions or perspectives on reality. These perspectives are called:
  • Significance
  • Practices
  • Identities
  • Relationships
  • Politics
  • Connections
  • Sign systems and knowledge
Think of these perspectives as ideal states of understanding given a certain context or situation, or a lens that provides clarity and filters the characters' understanding. Our trapped victims, let's call them subjects instead, all together try to generate consistent versions of Significance, Identities, Relationships, etc. For example, our poor characters might be trying to create Connections. Either connections between themselves to figure out if perhaps they have something in common that brought them there and that could get them out of their predicament, or connections between events that happened to perhaps find a link or reason that explains what is going on. Think of the dinner scene in the movie Clue where each of the guests realizes they have some connection with the political world of Washington. The exact same scene occurs in Murder by Death where ironically all the guests are famous murder mystery writers. Another example would be that throughout the interaction between characters certain aspects of Significance are created. Think of those as highlights in the experiences of all characters/participants.

We need to make this one step more complicated because in narrative, particularly this kind, we need to add the narrator/author as a character who creates Connections and Significance, etc, as well. Now here we have to be extremely careful because the narrator and the author (and even the person telling the story) are not the same person, as it was very clearly explained by Ball [4]. Essentially the narrator's job is to make the narrative as clear and as accessible as possible to the audience. The author might have different goals, most of which are usually personal. Some authors use a story to analyze their own past, some want to make a viewpoint come across or deliver a message. Whatever the reason, since the author can have an unduly effect on our analysis, due to this intruding, external and irrelevant perspective as it were, we will add only the narrator as an additional character to our Discourse Analysis and we will treat this narrator as if he or she plays an active part, usually the part of hiding important information such that the subjects have to work rather hard to either make sense of their predicament or survive.

To accomplish this, to build the 7 versions of perspective, they have six methods to their disposal. Again this is according to Gee's theory, but we will see that it works out quite well for closed room mysteries and it can even help us out to understand what the dynamics are and narrative is in plots like these. In short our characters have the following means to make sense of their narrow world:
  • Social languages
  • Socially Situated Identities
  • Discourses
  • Conversations
  • Figured worlds
  • Intertextuality
A full explanation of all these methods and resulting creations is beyond the scope of this article, for more information please consult Gee's work on Discourse Analysis [2]. Instead of looking at all combinations of means and result for a full analysis instead we could look at those combinations especially vital for closed room narratives. Granted, all the combinations are potentially valid but some are more active in the foreground than others. What is meant by that is that some of the combinations are especially important for closed room mysteries.

Significance and Connections

Let's begin with the big stuff, the obvious stumbling blocks our subjects have to deal with. They do not know where they are and they do not know how they are related to each other or to the events that brought them there. In essence they are trying to find links and relationships. Most of the time the subjects try to find bits of information in the environment and the other subjects that stands out, something that is out of the ordinary. A ridiculous notion you might think because their very situation is extraordinary. Still, humans are extremely fast at adapting to novel situations and within minutes (film and novel minutes) they have accepted that they are in bizarre circumstances. But something else has to stand out, they are ordinary people who have no business being there, at least that is most likely their starter set of thoughts. How do they figure out what is now Significant in this new environment? What are the new rules of existence? Without anything to go on the subjects have to either try things out or through Conversations with the other subjects gather more details.

An interesting phenomenon plays out in most of the movies and novels listed, the subjects try to determine who is a friend and who is a foe. They go through this process even though there is no immediate evidence that any of the other subjects is the enemy in the story. For a lot of the stories presented here an adversarial situation is created whereby subjects have to compete for survival, but that doesn't automatically make a subject The unseen enemy. Instead we should think of this as a means or a technique which we can call the Safety Discourse. Discourse with a capital D as it is one of the seven means listed above. Humans, and also animals, will want to get an immediate sense of who can help us and who will hinder us or endanger us before we do anything else. In fiction the author has the characters use Social Languages and Socially Situated Identities to figure out who is what. Think of it this way, a man all of a sudden walks into our subjects' prison wearing a police uniform and is carrying a flashlight, this is our accepted way of signalling that he is one of the good guys. Of course this could be completely misleading and there are a number of examples where authors have used this accepted Socially Situated Identity to fool us. In our definition of a Closed Room Mystery there is nobody coming in from the outside and the characters will have to determine by picking up subtle clues what the collection of Identities are. Usually there are a couple of tropes we can count on. There is always the leader character, the paranoid character, the wise character (tends to survive) the rash character, etc. Whatever combination of Socially Situated Identities are being signaled we can count on them being clearly identified to us.

Now that our subjects have figured out what roles are amongst them they have at least taken away some of the insecurity of their predicament, they now have something they can count on. Or rather: the author of the narrative now has a means of making the events move forward with some basic assumptions. Because, really, the role assignments are there for us so that we can be funneled towards a conclusion or a point in the narrative where we can see the story as a whole. See Narrative Concepts for AI Driven Digital Interactive Story Telling [3] for a discussion about the difference between a conclusion or turning point versus a reveal.

Sign Systems and Knowledge

You might have gotten a sense that so far the Discourse Analysis describes some sort of negotiation, one between you the reader/observer and the author, accomplished by the proxies of the narrator vs the characters. Thinking about plot driven narrative as a negotiation is not a bad analogy. The author through the narrator gives the characters hints, leads, information and experiences and we're picking and choosing and feeling our way along. We might agree with the narrator (author) or we might disagree, but we know what we're both talking about. In other words we've built up a mutually agreed set of rules by which the small confined world works. You could think of this shared narrative model as a form of Sign System combined with context specific Knowledge.

How do subjects communicate and test the newly discovered rules of their demise? Most often they use Figured Worlds and Intertextuality. When you use a figured world you will couch a conversation in terms borrowed from well known contexts. The simplest example would be someone who uses baseball terms metaphors consistently in daily conversation. Think of it as speaking in metaphors borrowed from well worn tropes. We've already seen one such trope, which is the tendency to think in terms of human hierarchies. One of the subjects should be the leader, one should be the executive branch who gets sent out to do things and examine places, etc. Agatha Christie ironically had her characters always drawn from a static pool of roles. We therefor end up with characters whose role in the narrative needs no further explanation. For example in the story 'And Then There Were None', the leader is a figure whose profession is (was) a judge. The executive branch is represented by a police detective together with a retired colonel. Christie always deployed these types of characters because she could then focus on the puzzle not the participants. Other stories are not so clear about role divisions, which can greatly enhance the depth of a narrative or it can greatly confuse things if there are no other models the reader/observer can depend on. For example in the movie House of 9 there are no leaders and no followers. Even the notion of aggressor vs victim doesn't quite exist. Unfortunately there are no other support systems for the viewer to get a good sense of what is really going on and the film feels very scattered and unstructured. Nothing wrong with that except the very premise of the story is that there is a logical plot in which characters exist, instead of a number of characters that try to figure out if there is a plot at work.

Figured Worlds are very powerful mechanisms for getting a point across. It accesses common knowledge to rapidly build an understanding of a complex situation. But most of it is unspoken and assumed, we can't say much about it and it would be difficult to mimic in a digital system since it requires constant checking if the live participants are on board with the proposed model. A more direct approach is the use of Intertextuality since it is a direct quotation of references from external models. If we go back to the baseball example we could say that the actual quotes produced by our neurotic baseball obsessed subject are what Intertextuality is about. It appears that Intertextuality is a more overt form of Figured Worlds. This is in essence true but when using Figured Worlds we draw various elements from a well established trope, whereas in Intertextuality we leave the interpretation of the borrowed speech up to the observer. A wonderful film that spoofs closed room murder mysteries is "Murder by Death", in which the subjects are all famous mystery writers who are challenged to solve a murder. Take a look at the following clip:

Movies like Murder by Death and Clue are hilarious strings of quotable forms of Intertextuality. Each line accesses imagery directly related to murder mysteries and the typical characters we find in them. Murder by Death is an ironic work since all it does is continually reference itself in a humorous way instead of trying to drive to a reveal or conclusion.

It is tempting to tease apart in detail what works and what doesn't, to find that precise inventory of mechanisms we could use in a database to drive an interactive version of a Closed Room Mystery. Unfortunately there is much left to do and many additional elements are needed that are not covered by Discourse Analysis. All this technique can do is build a global inventory of high-level means and modes we can use to drive our investigation. A number of building tasks have not been addressed here, for example Practices and Politics. Arguably these are just as important and warrant a careful examination, but those will have to wait for a follow-up post in which more concrete aspects are discussed on how a Closed-Room Murder Mystery could be created using modern video game technologies.


I hope it is clear from the preceding that the analytical techniques described above aren't meant to help you figure out the puzzle. That tends to come down to logical reasoning, and contrary to Hercule Poirot's motto that it is the psychology that matters, the outcome is usually a combination of 'this happened and here's why'. The 'because this character is such and such' is unfortunately usually left out of the conclusion, even by Agatha Christie herself. Instead the exercise of dissecting Closed Room Mysteries using Discourse Analysis can give us a better way of setting up experimental interactive narrative models where we know what we can expect from those who participate. Think of it this way: if we walk into a restaurant we expect someone task ask if we want to be seated. In terms of narrative interaction expectations we can say: if a computer game or other such simulation of a Closed Room Mystery allows a human participate to engage as one of the characters, then we have an inventory of the kinds of behaviors and thought patterns that subject might have. Even thought more can be said and reasoned about how characters will behave and be predictable, we don't have an operational model or a test environment that will allow us to see if the believes about Discourse Analysis for the types of narratives presented here holds up. For that purpose I propose a well defined and critically constrained narrative environment that could be called the Ground Hog Day Mystery. How this works will be discussed in a future post.

  1. Forster, F. (1985). Aspects of the Novel. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  2. Gee, J. (2005). An Introduction to Discourse Analysis. New York: Routledge.
  3. Van Velsen, M., Williams J., Verhulsdonck G., (2009) Narrative Concepts for AI Driven Digital Interactive Story Telling, in proceedings of the 2009 ICIDS conference
  4. Bal, M. (1997). Narratology : introduction to the theory of narrative. Toronto Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.
Suggested Reading
  1. Chatman, S. (1980). Story and discourse: narrative structure in fiction and film. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.
  2. Genette, . Narrative discourse : an essay in method. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1983.
  3. Auerbach, E. (2003). Mimesis : the representation of reality in Western literature. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  4. Wood, J. (2008). How fiction works. New York: Picador.
  5. Bal, M. (1997). Narratology : introduction to the theory of narrative. Toronto Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.
  6. Leitch, T. (1986). What stories are : narrative theory and interpretation. University Park Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.

The Mystery of Darkness

It's been explained to me many times and I sort of get it but I can't reproduce it and it clashes with what I know about Old Masters. I think. My own favorite form of painting is a style known as Chiaroscuro, meaning light-dark. It's that style that creates great contrast between parts of a painting with great dramatic effect. Unfortunately it has gone out of style and modern paintings are typically of brightly coloured scenes of Venice or Paris or some other stereotypical destination. I'm sure you've seen lots of those. Your doctor's office probably has one or two.

We owe our magnificent light-dark painting styles to a variety of painters each of whom wanted to create great dramatic scenes of human tragedy. Some used the same technique to take an ordinary scene and show how even common human activities and emotions can be special in themselves. From such early painters as Titian, to Caravaggio, Velasquez and finally the ultimate master of light and dark: Rembrandt, we can see a long line of obsessed artists trying to capture humanity in all its forms.

In order to create stark differences between light and dark you need to have access to light paints and more importantly: very dark paints. Obtaining and using very bright pigments wasn't that complicated, although quite dangerous. Most white paints were Lead White, a substance derived from oxidizing lead. If lead poisoning didn't kill you it would most likely drive you mad, which makes you wonder how people like Titian and Rembrandt managed to become as old as they did. But back to darkness. How do you create darkness in a painting? Well you use black paint. At least that's the direct answer and the one you will be tssk-ed for if you were to be an art student. What you're taught is that you should mix other colours to obtain dark paints. For example you could mix Viridian Green and Alizarin Crimson to get a really dark colour. But unless you are making YouTube videos on how to do this where this always works you will either end up with something dark and green or something dark and red. It is very difficult to blend those colours to get actual black, or something close to it.

Now it does depend on your original background for this colour alchemy to work. If you have a blue-ish overall background and you mix the colours described above you could have a much better chance of ending up with black. That's the reason why this approach is suggested because these days most paintings have some happy background color. But not if you're an old master, then you start with pure darkness. Did the old masters also use red and green to create black? The answer is a very simple: no. They used black, or rather they used charcoal in various forms.

We know an awful lot about the pigments painters used and our chemical understanding of how they mixed their paints is quite detailed. There are also various books out there by authors with first-hand knowledge of how painters mixed their pigments, such as the famous Il libro dell'arte [1]. More specifically it says [5]:

How to Make Various Sorts of Black
Chapter XXXVII
Know that there are several kinds of black colors. There is a black which is a soft, black stone; it is a fat color. Bearing in mind that every lean color is better than the fat one [except that, for gilding, the fatter the bole or terre-verte which you get for gilding on panel, the better the gold comes out], let us leave this section. Then there is a black which is made from vine twigs; these twigs are to be burned; and when they are burnt, throw water on them, and quench them; and then work them up like the other black. And this is a color both black and lean; and it is one of the perfect colors which we employ; and it is the whole . . . . There is another black which is made from burnt almond shells or peach stones, and this is a perfect black, and fine. There is another black which is made in this manner: take a lamp full of linseed oil, and fill the lamp with this oil, and light the lamp. Then put it, so lighted, underneath a good clean baking dish, and have the little flame of the lamp come about to the bottom of the dish, two or three fingers away, and the smoke which comes out of the flame will strike on the bottom of the dish, and condense in a mass. Wait a while; take the baking dish, and with some implement sweep this color, that is, this soot, off onto a paper, or into some dish; and it does not have to be worked up or ground, for it is a very fine color. Refill the lamp with the oil in this way several times, and put it back under the dish; and make as much of it in this way as you need.

Let's start with Rembrandt, known for his bright striking paintings. What did he use? As it turns out his palette was quite restricted. He only ground a few pigments into paints to work with and those represent a rudimentary earth-tone palette. Usually he used a combination of:
  • Lead white
  • Ochres
  • Bone black
  • Vermillion
  • Siennas
  • Raw umber
  • Burnt umber
  • Lead-Tin Yellow
  • Cassel earth
From this he managed to create vivid representations on a canvas. If you've ever walked into a store that sells oil paints you might feel humbled that he managed to create all these masterpieces with so few colour options. See the photo above on the right for a snapshot of a recreated workspace of the painter [4]. Rembrandt was known to paint his entire canvas dark with blacks and browns over which he painted the lighter figures as filled shapes first [3]. This way he figured out the volumes and where light would be allowed to penetrate. Keep in mind that this technique relies on an immense confidence in knowing anatomy and proportions since those volumes do not contain anatomical content or other detailed information. They were just shapes.

One of Rembrandt's great inspirations and examples was Caravaggio, an earlier Italian painter who burst into the art world with wild paintings of struggling people. There are many similarities between the two artists and we know Rembrandt even modeled some of his compositions on famous paintings by Caravaggio prompting an exhibit in Amsterdam [6]. If at all possible Caravaggio's paintings are even darker and they needed to be since most of them ended up in fairly well lit and open church spaces. What did he use for his darkness? As it turns out his palette was strikingly similar to Rembrandts':
  • Umber
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Red Ochre
  • Vermilion
  • Lead White
  • Carbon Black
  • Lead Tin Yellow
  • Copper Resinate
Creating very dark mysterious paintings doesn't just depend on having very dark materials to work with, but it helps of course. Much also depends on the artist's skill in managing such pigments. When you try to make paint darker by adding black you tend to end up with a very dirty matte result. That's why they all started by filling in the background to work their way forward by applying layer after layer of lighter paints.

Another important aspect to keep in mind is the influence of varnish on a painting. When you're done with your work you still haven't seen the final version until the varnish has thoroughly dried. Once this final layer is added you've added a tremendous amount of saturation to your light and dark colours. Take a look at the included video about the restoration of a painting by Jan Steen. the lighter muted areas are those where the varnish has been removed. There is much more to the mystery of darkness in painting but this represents the basis to start from. As I learn more about Chiaroscuro and after I have more experience with this form I will most likely update the post with more information and details. Chances are there are better methods out there to achieve this effect but until then this will have to suffice.

[1] Cennini, C. (1960). The craftsman's handbook : the Italian "Il libro dell'arte. New York: Dover.

[2] Clark, K. (1968). Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton.

[3] Wetering, E. (2001). The mystery of the young Rembrandt. Wolfratshausen: Edition Minerva.

[4] Photo courtesy of Dan Englander



Book Review: Consider Phlebas

If you like narratives that extend endlessly into an unknown direction with plenty of fast flying-by descriptions, strange cultures, exotic aliens and complex machinery, then Consider Phlebas is yours to dive into for the holidays. I would agree with the reviews on the dust jacket that Iain Banks is the ultimate Science Fiction author, but I wish he would also be a stellar literaturist. Our main character and our emotional focus as a reader is a 'Changer' by the name of Horza. It would be best to describe him as an incredibly lucky assassin with an impressive array of personal and deadly tricks up his sleeve. Horza works as a mercenary assassin for a dominate galactic race called the Idrian. He also happens to agree with their philosophy of life although we never get that many details on exactly why he does what he does. Horza has been tasked to retrieve an advanced piece of technology called 'The Mind' from a dark underground labyrinth located on a deserted planet. He decides to accomplish this task with a set of misfit buccaneers on a raider spaceship under the direction of a pirate captain, who is at some point disposed of in order for the Changer to take his place.

That's pretty much where the common sense part of the story description ends. Horza is not one of the smartest assassins in the universe and he makes countless dumb mistakes but always gets gets through without much of a bad scratch. At least not a scratch a good night's sleep will solve. In those cases where Horza is indeed badly hurt, Iain Banks simply ignores the problem and moves the story onto other fast past space chases. For example, in one chapter one of Horza's fingers is bitten off leaving clean bones sticking out, something that should you would assume have a bit of an effect later on. We don't really know how that influences the rest of the story because we never hear from it again. It would greatly change everything I would imagine since Horza is imitating a well known player of a game of chance called Damage. Horza attends this mass broadcast and much attended game already completely in the guise of his target. Anyone knowing the person he's trying to imitate would be a bit more than surprised by a missing finger. Not only that but Horza casually walks around the immediate area of his target without anyone noticing that they are spitting images. Later on when Horza meets up with his old pirate crew, nobody seems to notice that their old captain is missing a finger.

Sure, it's details and in the end it's all about the action and the adventure. But if you call someone the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived, then I think you can have some higher standards and some more scrutiny. The book is riddled with cases like this and what's more important, the main plot-line depends on Horza making out-of-character mistakes. On the one hand he disposes of people easily enough and on the other hand he drags two enemies and one lethal adversary all the way down into the labyrinth to complete his task. At some point the silliness becomes so frustrating that you just want to see how it all ends.

We're supposed to believe that the Mind, or intelligent cylinder resembling a torpedo, is sentient. We know this because throughout the narrative the drone's internal thoughts are splashed in italics. The machine being highly intelligent is also a feeling being and is scared about being captured and maybe even fears for its existence. When we finally arrive at the scene where the drone is found we read nothing anymore about how this conscious object feels about the situation. We don't even read why it can't escape and why it simply flops to the ground ready to be trucked off to the surface. Why? The setup was wonderful and promising but we are essentially left with: well then they found it.

What you're left with is a good ride. It's entertainment and it's fun. Iain Banks is probably the only author who can extend any chase and action scene across an entire chapter. And even with a book this size you will breeze through it all at a break-neck speed. However, after you've read the conclusion you might wonder: so what was that all about?

Book Review: 1984

It is quite amazing that a novel which is so depressing and so negative has not only been read widely but is still consumed by many people today. Why? Nothing positive happens and even more, it paints a very bleak picture of a possible future. The same thing that happened to me must have happened to many people: I couldn't put it down and I can't tell you why. Perhaps George Orwell's mastery of storytelling is even more amazing than his talents for prognostication.

The year is 1984, ironically now in our past, and the entire world is split up into a very few totalitarian states. Never do we learn if in fact these states are ruled by a single dictator and to me that was part of the intrigue because you never quite know how everything works. An rather anonymous office worker by the name of Winston, in charge of forging the past, decides to keep a diary to note down all those facts and thoughts he wants to keep. We get the distinct feeling that Winston isn't sure himself if his memories are truly real and truly his own. Every external piece of evidence to a threatening past is constantly erased or changed. We follow him as he searches for true history and true facts and we learn how someone survives in a state where nothing you do is ever private and where paranoia is simply common sense.

The novel 1984 gives us a protagonist who has no hope, and more sadly: no apparent interest in a better future. He is not even sure if he can remember if there was such a thing as a better past. His main talent, and that thing which appears to drive us mostly in going along with his telling, is his desire to write down everything he experiences in the hopes of coming up with some explanation as to how the world ended up in such a mess. He is curious about what is happening to him and his world but he doesn't seem to have any inclination in changing it. We are told he does indeed want revolution but the true inspiration or insight isn't there. Instead he appears to be eternally searching for answers which he hopes will tell him: was I making the past up or was it really different?

I keep coming back to the central question: why do people read this novel with such great interest? It is not escapist literature in any sense and the book lacks every feel-good trope we've come to expect from works of fiction. Yet, with all the gloom and darkness we're fascinated as to what will happen next and we can't stop wondering how the somber world of Big Brother keeps on ticking.

Book Review: The Remedy

It took me more than a month to read this novel, which is extremely long for me. Honestly I don't think the novel is all that bad, but it is certainly confusing and frustrating. Ironically the plot is clear and predictable after the first few pages of the second part, how it all plays out after that is a bit of a mess though.

A rebellious Venetian girl is shipped off to a local convent where she at least can't make any more trouble for her noble family. Inside the convent things go from bad to worse and pretty soon the innocent girl is sleeping with invited male 'customers' of the nuns. Quite predictably she gets pregnant by her dashingly interesting stranger. After some final altercations she manages to escape the convent and ends up in London as an actress and spy for hire. We then switch to the perspective (although not in first person) of 18th century master of the London dispensaries by the name of Valentine Greatrakes. A more unbelievable and silly name if I've ever seen. Intrigue ensues. Valentine falls for the actress who turns out to be related to this and the other, they hate each other, miss each other, try to find each other again and again and so on. If you like coincidences then this is one you'll like.

Characters are beyond flat and modeled after what the author thinks current gender stereotypes are, and then projected on 18th century templates. None of the characters is particularly likable, which is not a requirement for a good novel, but they should at least be interesting. Granted the period is rendered in vividly accurate detail, but then again that is what we expect these days from authors. Flat novels are unfortunately also something we've become to expect. The male characters are all single minded and only interested in carnal pleasures. Women are either stunningly graceful or beyond ugly and/or boring, all of them being eternal victims who might also be seen as strong if it weren't for the overwhelming victim mentality portrayed in this book by all female characters.

So then why did I read it? I'm a bit of a sucker for immersive novels, especially those taking place in exotic locations from exciting periods of history. In this particular novel the opening recipes for quack medicines added an additional touch to the text although you quickly find out that the subject of the recipes doesn't have much to do with the contents of the chapter. You know the author got things right, you don't know why specifically but you know. Both London and Venice feel real and appear to be quite genuinely depicted in the appropriate period settings.

All of the world descriptions and depictions work together well on the other hand many of infuriatingly little narrative details stand out and detract from the story. All the female character's chapters are in first person but not the male protagonist. One of the female characters, the daughter of Valentine's best friend Tom, is given a very small amount of chapters to add something useful to the narrative but those fragments make things more confusing than they already are. Supposedly this girl/woman/child is dense and quite selfish. Certainly the selfish part is consistent but if we have to believe the author she is far from stupid. If this is a deliberate touch then nowhere in the rest of the novel does it make sense or fit in.

Other Voices, Other Moods

You may have picked up a novel at random and after reading a few passages thought: how curious that I can recognize this author by his or her voice. It's true that we each of us have a unique and individual voice, not just in speaking but also in writing. We all use the same letters and words but somehow while organizing the pieces into something bigger we end up with our own personal representation, a unique part of ourselves. Through the pages of a book authors speak to us and no matter how convoluted the narrative or how impersonal a story, we can always hear the writer's voice. Sometimes we can even figure out an author's intentions or frustrations, sometimes the personal voice is so loud that it drowns out the story we're supposed to be reading. Perhaps The Tetherballs of Bougainville or any work by Ayn Rand or Chuck Palanhiuk work well as examples.

Now I could go on and on about writing styles and how we can identify an author by their writing and I could even show fragments of text and show why that particular piece is exemplary for that particular author. But what interests me more is how a certain style can help communication. Certain voices lend themselves very well for certain types of fiction. Mark Helprin's voice is extremely suitable for magical realism whereas Michael Crichton can do fast paced science-action as if it was his conversational voice. Immediately we think that it would have been quite difficult for Truman Capote to write something like Atlas Shrugged, or for Ayn Rand to write Other Voices, Other Rooms. But there might lie a twist because most authors have practices their craft for so long that they know intimately how other voices work. Ayn Rand started working as a script writer and editor in Hollywood where she had to imitate all the different narratives styles in vogue at the time. Both H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe made their basic income by writing pieces they would never have dreamed of creating in their own voices.

How does it work? Can it be done? Writing in different voices that is. How would it read? How would it change the way a story is communicated and does each voice make a piece of text better in a particular way? Let's take a somewhat neutral paragraph, a story fragment, and see what happens when we cast it in the mold of authors with very recognizable voices. Please, for your pleasure, examine the following paragraph first.

Agatha Christie:

Roger opened the flap of his tent and grinned out into the blistering sunlight. He couldn't be more excited knowing that after so many months of searching and digging they would open King Ahknaten's tomb that morning. He would have been up early for a change if he hadn't found a couple of bottles of Glenlivet that evening, which the old fox had unsuccessfully stashed away in the base of a record player. Hastily he dressed himself performed an act somewhat resembling shaving and hurried out to the dig site stomping his feet into his boots. "Hullo!" he yelled, "everything ready?"  "You're late again", Roger heard from the square black hole carved out of the rock thousands of years ago. "Am I? Did you open it yet?" Roger said. "And a good morning to you as well", replied Mary jostling with a bunch of rolled up documents past him. Roger had heard her but only barely. Still, he managed to perform a mock tip of the hat as he grinned and bustled past her into the dark passageway. "Anything?" he asked to nobody in particular since his eyes had not adjusted to the darkness yet. "Anything what?" he heard from somewhere in front of him, an annoyed voice he recognized to belong to Dr. Ballard. "Anything happen yet? Did you open the tomb? What was in it?" "You'd know if you had arrived about half an hour earlier" Disappointed Roger skulked against the wall. "Nothing then?" "Well it wasn't a complete waste, we did find a bunch of scrolls. Mary just took them outside for examination." "Really? Any idea what's on them?" "Yes, in fact the text is quite well preserved. Apparently it was a resignation letter by one of the workers who built this tomb, a rare thing to have happened back then. Ironically when we translated the name of the author it turned out that even back then the name Roger was quite common."

Let's assume for a second that the paragraph above was in a fairly neutral voice. It most likely is since I don't have one for myself yet. Alas. If you were scratching your head and thought: that's pretty much how Agatha Christie would have written it, then yes I think you are right in saying it's fairly Agathaesque, but it's not entirely her voice I would argue as we shall see. Now that we have a baseline text we can start to play around and reform the sentences with the help of some favorable muses from the past. Perhaps the opposite of any author living or dead was the writing by solipsistic misanthrope H.P. Lovecraft. So how would he have written this piece?


Through closed eyelids, the pallid young man could see the morning's bright sun's announcement beaming and penetrating directly into his weary skull. He forced himself to rise through the dense fog surrounding his head, his arms, legs and entire torso, slumbering still from the forces of inebriation spurned on by ever filling glasses of Scottish distillations the evening prior. A quick rake of the razor only dragged him inches further back into civilization and he felt himself forced to wade towards the tomb's opening with boots only partially put on. A vague felted and flapping shape waved past him clutching several ancient rolled scrolls of papyri "Please gather your step and report to the Doctor", the woman said as she hurried on out of the gaping prehistoric man-made wound, carved directly into the ancient granite. Head bowed down, avoiding the low rocks and granite beams recently uncovered, he stumbled further into the ever stretching darkness hoping for a glimpse of that which lies behind the long covered doors. "You might begin to see your way back out of this realm young Mr. Marston, if you would be so kind." A dark voice beamed out of the pit and blew past the man's face as if an elder God smote his wrath out over his body. He heard more: "You are late and missed the uncovering of the critically important central key stone a few hours past. But never you mind, it seems those who came before us, those many thousands of years ago understood your predicament better than I can comprehend in these dark hours. Mary there is taking what we found in for examination. Count yourself lucky, your predecessor, judging from those documents was embalmed and mummified on the spot when he failed to show up for his duties."

It's the same story but feels completely different. The content is the same for the most part and the plot is identical, but which works better? Perhaps a miserly Victorian hermit wasn't the right voice for this story. Perhaps a more contemporary voice can shed some light into the tomb's darkness. How about someone like J.K. Rowling, how would see have handled this piece?

J.K. Rowling:

"Roger!" Shouted Mary, "Roger!".
Bounding out of the narrow square entrance of the tomb Mary tried to hold a bundle of old looking scrolls in her arms.
"Roger, you'll never believe what we found!" she yelled panting and hurrying through the jumble of tents. Roger could barely open his eyes, he still felt sleepy from having consumed perhaps a little too much alcohol the previous evening. Mary had so warned him about that, but here he was anyway, completely exhausted still and perhaps a little under the influence of last night's feast. "Roger Roger, you must see this!" Mary shouted practically rolling into Roger's tent spilling the old papery bits all over his bed. Mary had been very excited the last couple of days as they knew they had started to get closer and closer to the Pharaoh's tomb.
"Look Roger, it has your name on it", she said holding up one of the pieces of parchment.
"My name? How silly that would be, of course it doesn't have my name on it."
"No seriously, it says it right here. Look, the Ibis with the two staffs on either side." Mary sighed and wondered how much attention Roger had been paying during the last series of lectures back at the institute. The flap to Roger's tent was folded open again this time to reveal and old gentleman with a white beard, round glasses and a mischievous smile on his face. "Mary's right", he said, "it does have your name on it and apparently the Roger back then was also fired."

So there, we now have three completely different pieces of story each with a different voice. Do they work for the mini stories? What's in there, what makes them unique and recognizable? Ironically Agatha Christie novels tend to have extremely neutral language. Each sentence is in a way a play on facts. Christie wasn't an unemotional person at all, even though thinking of her writing might make it appear such. Her character's emotional life did not spring however from the minute ebbs and eddies of feelings that occur minute by minute. Christie's characters were impacted by big events such as a loved one being murdered or gross injustice wreaking havoc on a family for years and years. This opposed to J.K. Rowling's writing, which is a subtle yet continues flow of hyperboles. Lovecraft in that sense has more in common with Agatha Christie although you would get a Lovecraft story if you took out all human elements.

Rowling uses smaller more basic words and sentences. You may get the feeling that a narrator is telling the story to you and that would explain why the Harry Potter audiobooks are so incredibly popular. Lovecraft is the complete opposite and only those with a math or science background seem to enjoy his writing. Christie falls somewhere in the middle again. She never really wrote action pieces and you will not see any people hastily running from here to there. Rowling does that everywhere. Lovecraft tended to use run-on sentences and some of those could even span entire paragraphs. By the end of it you've read so many long nocturnal words that you're convinced the contents must be scary as hell.

You probably noticed that some of the content has been adjusted to suit the authors. For example Lovecraft only incorporated women only extremely rarely in his books. Chances are you would have rejected the narrative altogether if the stories were strict translations, perhaps they would not even have been recognizable as coming from those authors. For example J.R. Rowling would never have ended the story on a bad note without having given lots and lots of proof that the bad guys really are the bad guys. There is no ambiguity in Harry Potter. Quite the opposite is true for Agathe Christie. After the current ending the story could go in various different directions. But was that due to the voice or the contents?

If we stick to the definition that an author's voice is a preference for certain sentence structures, certain word orderings let's say then it becomes difficult to assume that the voice drives the story. Perhaps it is better to say that the voice enhances the topics chosen by authors and their voices fit their favorite themes. We're back at corroborative detail, those wonderful little pieces of information sprinkled all throughout a story that establish the reality of a story. Maybe an author's voice is another means by which writers can convey the validity of the internal rules of their fictional world? Perhaps I used the word 'rules' too lightly. Rules can restrict a creative work tremendously, so instead let's use the word 'consistency'. Being consistent is also perhaps a better way to describe an author's voice. It is not the specific choice of sentence arrangements but also being consistent throughout a novel.

Book Review: The Tetherballs of Bougainville

When I first read The Crying of Lot 49 I thought: well at least an author has found a way to dazzle us with language enough that we don't immediately figure out we're dealing with a cry for attention (a lot). Of course then you read Portnoys Complaint and The Tetherballs of Bougainville and you realize this is common practice. Most of the time there is something to be had in such novels that makes the reading worth while. In Lot 49 there is an interesting plot and in Portnoy we learn much more about mother-son and other family relationships. In Tetherballs we get absolutely nothing but the raw cry for attention by an author. Before we've figured this out we've gone through countless litanies of objects, people, places, situations, and anything else you can list or recite.

It's supposed to be funny, and it is for the first fifteen pages or so, but then the constant use of 'clever' metaphors, interlinked symbols, inappropriately yet sophisticated sexual remarks and blatantly in-your-face physicality eventually wears you out. There is a somewhat detectable plot line somewhere and it does seem to involve some of the main characters but it doesn't really matter much. It's not about them, it's about the author. Of course the author himself is clever enough to understand we eventually figure that out. He therefore included a review about his own book/plot in which he explains how self-gratifying his own writing is. Clever, but it doesn't fix much. By then the damage is done.

How does it all work? What I mean by that is, what's the literary device employed here that makes us read this text without wanting to yell at the author? There seems to be a basic rule in public speaking and entertainment that if you want to say something important that people remember, then you have to say it in all seriousness. If on the other hand if you want to say something important and have people pay attention, then you need to say it with humor. In fact if you say anything funny you can make people overlook any offensive content or direct insults you wish to hide. Most stand-up comedians are living proof of this principle. Even though a lot of the content in Tetherballs isn't actually funny, it sounds funny, or we know it should be funny. That keeps our emotional brain busy enough to not see the forest through the trees.

Essentially Mark Leyner is writing about himself. He's writing about all his frustrations, desires, needs and urges. For Leyner it is not enough to weave his own needs into an intricate story with many vivid characters that each evolve and come to grips with the maddening world around them. No, Leyer quite literally screams at us through his words. I find it difficult to label any book or novel offensive because you can always decline to read it. I also find it difficult to call a novel manipulative, because we all know they are and we all willingly participate. So I wouldn't call Tetherballs offensive or manipulative because I willingly read it and I never fell for the surface text. I will call the novel sad though.

Language-use as the payoff in fiction

For ages now I've been trying to figure out why novels like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell and The Historian work so well. Although the events and characters in those books are interesting, it can't really be said that 'and then ...' events play out. Most readers would even describe The Historian as having a disappointing ending. Why then are so many people excited about these books? My only conclusion is that the specific language used is incredibly enticing. Granted, the amount of environmental detail and the renderings of places and events are superbly rendered, but those are not what keeps everyone reading. There must be something else that keeps readers glued to their books.

Narratively rich books aren't a new thing, we've seen them come by for ages. Novels like Winter's Tale or anything by Neal Stephenson revolve mainly around detailed depictions of wonderful surroundings and colorful people. I could list many more stories where essentially nothing happens but where we're driving to keep on going. So why single out Jonathan Strange and The Historian? It seems that those books were specifically designed to engage and immerse readers rather than to drive then forward towards a conclusion. How does it work? What alchemical methods of writing are at work here? Here's a short excerpt from Jonathan Strange:

An elderly gentleman with faint blue eyes and faintly-coloured clothes (called either Hart or Hunt - Mr Segundus could never quite catch the name) faintly said that it did not matter in the least whether any body expected it or not. A gentleman could not do magic.. Magic was what street sorcerers pretended to do in order to rob children of their pennies. Magic (in the practical sense) was much fallen off. It had low connexions. It was the bosom companion of unshaven faces, gypsies, house-breakers; the frequenter of dingy rooms with dirty yellow curtains. Oh no! A gentleman could not do magic. A gentleman might study the history of magic (nothing could be nobler) but he could not do any. The elderly gentleman looked with faint, fatherly eyes at Mr Segundus and said that he hoped Mr Segundus had not been trying to cast spells.

I find it difficult to really put my finger on precisely why this works so well but I do see a couple of patterns. First of all the text is written to be narrated, meaning to be read out loud. Normally when we read a novel the voice telling the story is neutral. Instead, you, the reader, voices the narration and you add your own inflections and colour. In Jonathan Strange the author has almost explicitly added certain inflections and tone and done so in very clever way to entice us to read the text as if someone other than ourselves narrates or voices the story. Some might be uncomfortable by this and read the text as if they are being treated like a small child, and I can empathize with that, there is a certain 'being spoken to' sensation as you work through the text.

But there is more going on. This fictional novel takes place around the beginning of the 19th century. We can tell that by the use of words such as 'connexions'. Other smaller bits of text here and there gives us hints that we're not quite talking the here and now but notice how we're not reading pure Victorian prose either. Historical references and customs such as language use has been glossed over and polished while at the same time not losing that sense of reading dated fiction. We could combine the the text is historically treated with the first observation that the language has been chosen to sound narrated. In both cases the choice of words and the sentence construction is deliberately smooth and mellifluous.

As a final observation I would like to point out that the narrative contains a rather rapid wavering back and forth between various emotions. Not that other stories are that balanced, we wouldn't read them if they didn't take us on an emotional voyage. But in this small piece of text we're thrown back and forward quite a lot in short succession. We see something similar in the Historian, which at least in the beginning replaces the deliberate narrator's voice with an unfortunate chicklit tone. Luckily that sensation disappears after a few chapters. Take a look at the excerpt below:

At this point, my sense of guilt—and something else, too—made me put the letter hastily back in its envelope, but I thought about it all that day and all the next. When my father returned from his latest trip, I looked for an opportunity to ask him about the letters and the strange book. I waited for him to be free, for us to be alone, but he was very busy in those days, and something about what I had found made me hesitate to approach him. Finally I asked him to take me on his next trip. It was the first time I had kept a secret from him and the first time I had ever insisted on anything.

If we look at the very first sentence we could split it into: Guilt-Uncertainty-Fear-Pensiveness, and in that order. The effect this has is that we look to the author to give us guidance as to how we should actually think and feel about the text. The Historian is a historical novel and that was a clever choice because it allows the author to fall back on hard facts when this constant wavering gets too much and we can slip back into emotional overtones when the amount of historical detail becomes too much. I've noticed that in The Historian those two states are kept fairly separate, something Dan Brown doesn't do as sophisticated in his novels. In The Historian we also see the same language mechanisms outlined for Jonathan Strange and both novels feel eerily similar and only differ in the context and subject of the story.

There must be much more going on in the two chosen stories than the points I mentioned here but they are not as easy to nail down and describe. In fact they raise more questions than provide answers. For example in Jonathan Strange entire episodes from known history are rewritten to suit the narrative without anyone complaining that it didn't happen that way. How was that lack of expectation setup? It can't be the fact that you know it's a novel about magic, since many films and novels have reams of people who go into detailed rants about what's wrong with it.

To finish off I would like to add a small final observation and, which might be completely insignificant. It is that both novels were written by women. It could be that I haven't done a better examination and that I should add Neal Stephenson and Mark Helprin to balance things out but it does make me curious because there are a lot more distinctions between the male version of these types of narratives and the female versions of the same.

Book Review: Revenge

Stephen Fry made the right decisions. There's no denying it, with this novel, Fry made the right decisions about how his characters should behave and why. In any other fictional narrative, authors would have chosen the widely worn path and turned this story into shite. Not Fry, and let me explain how he has accomplished this. We meet a lot of typical Brits and one obvious American right at the beginning. A pretty school girl working at the Hard Rock cafe, a closeted fake upper class tosser by the name of Ashley who's diary in public school causes a tremendous amount of trouble later on, and Ned the stereo typical all-round good guy who you instantly hate because there's nothing to loathe. Guess who will be the victim, the helpless supporter and the antagonist? Through a curious and extremely coincidental set of circumstances Ned is framed for a crime has no knowledge of. He lands in an island based insane asylum and is slowly being convinced he made up his entire former life. Until he meets Babe. This old Socrates/Darwin/Richard Harris type personage helps Ned to reconstruct his life, his ego and his belief in himself. Ned is also taught several languages, problem solving skills, literature, etc, etc. When Babe passes away Ned uses the opportunity to flee from the prison asylum and setup a new life with the massive fortune Babe had 'appropriated' from various government schemes in his former life as a spy. From this point there is only one thing on Ned's mind: Revenge.

Granted this novel is a direct re-telling of the famous The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Unlike that famous romanticized adventure novel Fry's version is a bit darker and nastier. The characters are still very much over the top and the events are appropriately Baroque. But even with the inwardly shallow characters, the predictable romance and the obvious supporting cast there is something grand to be gleaned here. Dumas and every other author or film writer who has ever re-worked the story always chose to end the novel with some sort of reconciliation something good to take home. In Cristo the main character changes slowly after his escape from prison, he realizes there is still hope for a happy life and he makes peace with his past. That's the same idiocy as for example the psychopath Dexter turning into a lovable likable character the longer the tv show continues to run.

Of course that's not how these stories should end and Fry knows it. Characters learn and adapt but they don't change from saints to madman and back again. Ned acts and lives out his life as he would have and should have. It is both the best part of the novel as well as its weakness. To say it in a different way: the retribution and satisfaction achieved by the main character in Dumas' original is what sold the book and what made it famous, it is also what prevents Fry's version from becoming a classic of the same stature. I will leave it at that and have the reader find out how the story ends.

Stephen Fry is well known for his love of language. He lives in it, bathes in it and dresses in it. The fact that he creates in it is an unfortunate side effect. There is so much emphasis on Wilderesque language and anagrammatic stunts that some plot elements can become quite ridiculous. Coincidence is what drives the twists in this story. Unlike Dumas' version where events appear unusual but not unlikely, Fry's version leaps over the edge of the fantastic. It is the use of language that tips us off to perhaps Fry's personal reasons for creating this story. Knowing the fascination Fry has with Oscar Wilde, one has to wonder if perhaps this retelling is a way for the author to take his own personal revenge on those who incarcerated Wilde. Certain facts and characters that were changed from Cristo to Revenge can be seen as Wildish modifications. The character of Ashley for example stands out as such. In the end the balance of strange plot twists, shallow characters but persistent and believable human behavior is in Fry's favor. He has delivered an intriguing and pleasant read that is highly entertaining.