Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: The Hog's Back Mystery

The Hog's Back Mystery
Freeman Willis Crofts

The most marked effect of The Hog's Back Mystery was to make me realize what a good writer Agatha Christie was.

That is not a conventional literary judgment, by the way. Most critics sneer at Christie for "two-dimensional characters", for a "flat" prose style, for lack of psychological depth, for--a cardinal sin, this--being Just Not Literary. A standard comment is that a Christie novel is nothing but a puzzle, a thought exercise perfunctorily wrapped up in a novel-like package.

These critics--and they are many, including the appalling Edmund Wilson--have clearly never read a mystery that really is a pure puzzle. The Hog's Back Mystery is such a one. As a puzzle, it's quite accomplished. As writing, it's ... well, Crofts was trained as an engineer; he seems to have approached the writing as one of those pointless-but-necessary things that clients require to bridge the gaps between the really interesting bits, such as finite-element analysis or object-functional decomposition diagrams or (in this case) elaborate timetables.

The result is, at best, awkward. Christie, for example, knew how to convey a clue so subtly that the reader never notices. Crofts does things like writing an entire scene in descriptive text--except for three lines of stilted dialogue, which needless to say are A Vital Clue. More generally, he uses narration when he should use speech; he uses speech when he should use narration; he's constantly telling us what the characters feel, rather than showing us; the characters themselves are not even two-dimensional; and there's not a trace either of descriptive writing or of humor. The detective, Inspector French, is positively featureless; I couldn't tell you anything about what he looks like, or how he approaches a case, or his personality.

And then there are lines like this:

Once again French registered a vow that he would not rest till the devil who was guilty of this ghastly crime had paid for it on the scaffold.

Agatha Christie gets no critical love because she used her gifts in ways that are conventionally deemed worthless. It doesn't follow from that that she wasn't gifted, or indeed that her choices truly are worthless. (Also, she was perfectly capable of going outside her usual lines. Think of And Then There Were None.) Freeman Willis Crofts was a careful constructionist and not much else. The difference is striking.

Dorothy Sayers's The Five Red Herrings is clearly Croft-esque, but Sayers was a vastly superior writer (and had a vastly superior central character to work with). If you're looking for an unjustly-overlooked master from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, check out the witty and devilishly clever Cyril Hare.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Don't Boldly Go There

On an airplane last night, I saw that the in-flight video system was offering up (among others) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It had been many years since I'd last seen the film. So I decided to give it a rewatch.

This was a mistake. 

(A full confession is perhaps in order here. I have never been among those who thought that The Wrath of Khan was a top-notch film. In fact, it's not even my favorite Star Trek movie. Still, I was predisposed to, at least, find it a diverting way to spend two hours hurtling across the North Atlantic.)

Put plainly, in a lot of ways, The Wrath of Khan just isn't all that good. It has good bits, but as a whole suffers from a multi-level Idiot Plot. I'm not talking about trivial inconsistencies--seriously, who cares? No, I'm talking major "Chuuuuuwhah?" moments here: places where the movie doesn't make sense even by its own internal premises. For example:
  • Starfleet sends out one of its front-line, newly-upgraded vessels on a training cruise, with a crew consisting of almost 100% cadets. Let me know the next time the U.S. Navy sends out an aircraft carrier crewed exclusively by Annapolis plebes.
  • The cruise is apparently supposed to take place at sub-light speeds, within Earth's solar system. Nonetheless, they are the only vessel in the area when they get a distress call from space station Regula I. Apparently this station, for security and safety reasons, is located in a remote and little-traveled sector very near Earth.
  •  The distress call is clearly being jammed, and it's obvious from the content that something funny is going on, and the hijacked U.S.S. Reliant goes out of its way to approach Our Heroes in an unnecessarily suspicious fashion. Nobody notices.
  • Apparently the Federation relies on clay tablets for record-keeping. Hence, they can enter a solar system without registering that one of its planets has exploded, much less remembering that, oh yeah, this was that place where we dumped that ship-load of highly dangerous genetically-enhanced super-criminals a few years ago. (Also, apparently, they can't count; they land on the fifth planet from the sun, under the impression that it's the exploded sixth planet. It's a wonder they can even find it.)
  • When you have beamed down to a planet, and you realize that you need to escape immediately, do not run outside to investigate the weather. Use the magic words "Two to beam up immediately." Remember that teleportation system that got you here? It works both ways!
  • Oh, noes! The Plot Device is going to blow up, and we're all doomed! Kirk: "We'll beam aboard and stop it." David Marcus: "You can't." (Well, wonder boy, why not? Apparently just ... because.) Missing next line of dialog: "OK, then, let's just photon-torpedo it into its constituent atoms, then phaser the remains."
Trust me, there's much more. There's a good movie lurking somewhere in there--the interpersonal and thematic elements work well, though they could use some expansion. Apparently, however, nobody cared enough about the plot to resolve the gaping holes. I suppose it's only a mercy that they didn't have modern special effects technology.