Thursday, June 18, 2009

Existential angst in a post-Wodehousian Age: The Herring-Seller's Apprentice

No, really.

Ethelred, protagonist of L.C. Tyler's novel, is a mystery writer, several of whose discarded chapters Tyler interpolates in the final quarter or so of The Herring-Seller's Apprentice.

One of the chapters mocks the brooding nouveau roman of Alain Robbe‐Grillet and his followers, with its intense meditation on random objects. Another pokes fun at the brooding Italian fictional detective, with the loyal assistant, who likes to drink during working hours. A third is a fantasy on P.G. Wodehouse, with that comic genius' characters appearing in the guise of police.

Ethelred's protagonist, Fairfax, is a detective nearing retirement age without the rank his abilities should have earned him. He is without a wife, and he drinks often, without tumbling over into alcoholism. Ethelred has even, for reasons he does not quite understand, given Fairfax an interest in Norman architecture – you know, the strong, solid kind that prevailed before the slender fripperies and gaudy light of Gothic. Others will be more familiar with the details than I, but that moves in Morse/Wexford/Peter Diamond territory, I'd say.

Given that Fairfax begins with a typical English detective from a certain age (say, about 1970 onward) and has him try on then discard a number of other fictional-detective disguises – and given that The Herring-Seller's Apprentice was Tyler's first novel – it's reasonable to guess that Tyler thought about his own direction as a crime writer (and perhaps about the state of British crime writing as well) and decided to have some fun and let his protagonist do the same. One might even say he was exorcising some fictional ghosts.

Oh, yes. This is a mystery story. I don't know if it quite meets all the requirements of a fair-play mystery, but it does have a surprise ending along with a summation that offers a reasonable explanation for red herrings and wrong guesses throughout the story. A reader looking to do so just might be able to figure out the mystery. I did not, and it would be fun to know how many readers did.

(My emphasis on a serious side of Tyler stems from my first meeting with him, at CrimeFest in Bristol. In response to a question about crime writers who inject humor at grim, violent moments, Tyler said he liked Alan Guthrie – unexpected for a self-described author of comic cozy mysteries.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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15 Comments:

Blogger Len Tyler said...

Congratulations on the latest post and for recognising my existentialist angst - spot on - though J P Sartre was my target when writing about Fairfax obsessing over his police notebook. I have to say that almost nobody has worked out what I was on about in the Italian section, suggesting that I was not being half as clever as I thought I was (it happens). If anyone is up for a small competition, and it's OK with Peter, I'd be happy to offer a copy of my next book, Ten Little Herrings, to the first person who can identify which author I thought I was parodying in the Italian bit (clue: he's not an Italian and he didn't write crime) and which book by Sartre I had in mind. (Prize to be dispatched as soon as it is published in August.)

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In that case, Sartre's focus on the object caught on like wildfire in France. I'd recently read another French novel -- I don't remember which -- that used that same technique of focusing in microscopic detail on objects. Robbe-Grillet brought it to a pitch in Project for a Revolution in New York (I'm not showing off; that happens to be one of the books on a course syllabus that I actually read), but I did not know that Sartre had done it first. Now I understand your novel's epigraph.

I'd say that the cleverness deficit is on the readers' part. Thanks for the comment and the kind words. I shall be happy to host a contest, and I will be eager to see the results, though I'll disqualify myself.

And I realize now that I had also neglected to mention the A.A. Milne chapter that Ethelred writes then deletes.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

Sartre's obviously Nausea.
As for the non-Italian non-crime fiction author- not having read the book, the first name that "brooding" and "drinking" make me think of is Francis Scott Fitzgerald.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

We may have a winner. Let's see what Mr. Tyler says.

I read a bit of Sartre for a class once (not the same class where I read Robbe-Grillet), but he did not stick with me the way my bits of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard did. They were livelier writers and probably had better of senses of humor, too -- no mean feat for a pair of proto-existentialists, especially a German and a Dane.

V-word: socket

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Len Tyler said...

Half way there - Nausea it most certainly is. (Well done!)

But not Scott Fitzgerald - though I agree he could drink and brood with the best of them.

Let's see if anyone can get the author I was thinking of ...

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I shall give this one a think myself.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

But you did read the novel. You have unfair advantage.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In that case, I'll stick to my original plan and reveal any guesses I happen to make only after the prize has been awarded. But my having read the novel offers only a dubious advantage. I failed to guess Sartre even though Tyler's epigraph from Sartre was staring me in the face.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Len Tyler said...

While I've no objection to somebody winning with a wacky wild guess, I would regard having read the book as a fair rather than unfair advantage!

June 19, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

Fair advantage it is, but those who have read the book might probably buy the sequel anyway, while those who didn't know you yet might be prompted to buy the first if they win and enjoy the second...basic marketing, you see.

No, the real crux of the matter is that I'm sure I would have easily guessed the author had I read the book...impossibly bright and enciclopedically well-read as I am
;)

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd noted the Sartre epigraph in a comment somewhere, but I still assumed Robbe-Grillet was the target in the French-detective passage. When it comes to picking up clues, then, I may be more obtuse than some and thereby lose the advantage someone else may gain from reading the novel. May all your readers be alert to the clues you throw their way!

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's the fortunate blogger whose readers are smarter than he is!

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps I'll post excerpts from the chapters in question later tonight.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

It's the fortunate blogger whose readers are smarter than he is!

Leonardo da Vinci (in the teacher-disciple formulation - he was ahead of his time but not that much) though I had the tongue firmly in cheek. I'm not THAT bright: if people tend to avert their eyes when they cross me in the street, it's probably because of my poor fashion choices.

v-word: deluge

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not making this up, but my v-word: proper

You may not make fashion choices proper for an Italian, but I am pleased to see from a discussion elsewhere that you maintain your high standards with respect to food.

June 19, 2009  

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