Thursday, 11 June 2009


Just finished reading Pelagia and the White Bulldog.

Despite stealing a plot twist from Rear Window, and having 'Sherlock Holmes syndrome' (by which evidence known by the sleuth is instrumental, rather than logic) it is a superbly written book with many interesting ideas.

Most interestingly it takes a (very vaguely) Platonic perspective on the Eastern Orthodox Church. The clergy should ideally be the 'philosopher class'; they should emphatically avoid any role in sectarianism and forced conversion.

I entirely agreed with this, and hope that this reflects a new trend in Russia. Post-Soviet they have adopted the same 'philosophers' as we have: journalists and politicians. At least Russian newspapers offer the odd laugh (in their reports about 'hairy females' stalking Caucasian men and the ongoing alien abduction problem in Vladivostock) but their editorials are even worse (if such a thing is remotely possible) than our own.

In the talk of the class system there is very little talk of whether we need a philosopher class (Martin Amis regards himself as being of 'the intelligentsia', which speaks for itself). However, clericalism did indeed offer a philosopher class which was considerably more intelligent and ethical than our 'political' class.

However, what impressed me most was that the nostalgia was somehow vibrant rather than dead and stilted. Akunin obviously expects his readers to be familiar with Gogol and Dostoevsky (Dead Souls and Demons are significant articles of reference). Sadly, as far as British reviewers are concerned, he was obviously asking far too much.

For some reason, there is nothing like a murder mystery to evoke nostalgia. one of my favourite films (1972 Sleuth) offers a very clever take on the ironic juxtaposition of the morbid and the nostalgic in the genre. Ken Adams' set design is genius, and if the acting/ plot is occasionally OTT, it is all good fun. The Tudor manor and assorted kitsch evokes the way that Olivier's character (Andrew Wykes, writer of detective novels) lives in a past that never existed. There is an interesting scene where Wykes and Tindle rummage through a dressing up basket and try on clothes apparently at random. The mystery writer dresses up as a Medieval monk and 17th Century Dandy. The randomness is misleading.

According to all accounts the remake of Sleuth was dismal. It could have been a 'period piece' set in the 1970s, but instead it was set in the glaring, plastic noughties.

Even the Poirot films that we keep making (despite good scripts and the superb acting of Suchet) are archetypally of our time, with the pretty, wooden actors and grey sets.

Whilst Agatha Christie's books are interesting in being set at the hinge of a historical transition, GK Chesterton is now largely forgotten. Whilst his novels were almost unreadable in their repetitive paradox, poor plot and unconvincing characters, his Fr Brown tales were gems of poetical writing. Whilst Chesterton evidently felt affection for the Britain of his time, he also implies a shadow world of the Stuart succession, where rationality and Christianity were not in conflict.

Perhaps it is not surprising that he is no longer read. I was brought up in the East of Scotland, which is very similar to East Anglia (the epicentre of British crime novels). Perhaps we repressed Brits are unable to express the beauty of our meadowlands without reference to people knifing/ poisoning/ bludgeoning each other, but nostalgia and love for our landscape seem inseparable from the detective genre.

Whilst Akunin's novels seem to want to pretend the ravages of neo-liberalism never happened, Britain seems more comfortable with this. That people like Boris Johnson and David Cameron can come across as anything but neo-liberal fanatics is a sign of just how out of touch the British are with their heritage. Whilst the British detective novel was seated in the 'Sleuth' idea of the private investigator sorting out the stupid plodder, the Tories have followed Labour in supporting CCTV (even expanding it in Boris Johnson's place) and other alarmingly statist policies.

Ironically enough, I intend to vote SNP. It is probable that we will preserve British identity and individualism better than the United Kingdom. Our parties are like the heads of Kerebrus; different faces same body.

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