Friday Favourites: Mysterious Tales
By The Hodderscape Team
Posted on March 28, 2014 in Books, Film, Friday Favourites with tags Friday Favourites, Lord Peter Wimsey, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
This week saw the publication of A Love Like Blood by Marcus Sedgwick, a dark compelling thriller about a quest for revenge and the hunger for blood. So this week we’re picking out our favourite tales of mystery and suspense…
The Name of the Rose (English edition 1983) by Umberto Eco
Only the Dodo and I remember a time before Dan Brown, an ancient era when mysteries prided themselves in being erudite, witty, challenging and brilliantly written. Back in the 70s and 80s I was baffled by Borges and confused by Calvino but cock-of-the-postmodernist-mystery-walk was Umberto Eco’s brilliant Name of the Rose. Perhaps a plot which turns on a story-within-a-story and a narrative stuffed with medieval Latin aphorisms doesn’t sound so compelling. But as the author asserted: “books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.” If you’re a bibliophile there is a treasure trove of literary allusion to discover. AND there’s a rattling good mystery.
William of Baskerville and his novice Adso travel to a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy for a theological disputation but get more than they bargained for when the bodies begin stacking up. Given that William’s character is an homage to both Sherlock Holmes and William of Ockham it’s no surprise when the Abbot asks him to investigate the slew of deaths. But for once Ockham’s Razor, the theory that the simplest explanation to a problem is the one most likely to be true, doesn’t apply. After all, the key to the mystery lies with a book that doesn’t exist anymore, Aristotle’s work ‘On Comedy’. William and the reader are soon entangled in a labyrinthine web of allusion and illusion in which appearance is never reality.
‘The Abominable History of the Man with the Copper Fingers’ (1923) by Dorothy L. Sayers
I read my first Peter Wimsey story, ‘The Abominable History of the Man with the Copper Fingers,’ when I was nine. I was reading all the Sherlock Holmes stories at the same time, but none stuck with me the way that ‘Copper Fingers’ did. I don’t want to ruin it for you, though – part the pleasure of the story comes from device author Dorothy L. Sayers employs to tell it: the (re)telling, by Wimsey, to the other members of his club. The device is an homage to the old-fashioned club stories of the late 19th/early 20th century, but it also helps create distance between the superficially light-hearted narrator and the dark story he tells. It’s in that dark story where ‘Copper Fingers’ real strength lies, particularly its centrepiece, the original, gruesome fashion by which the victim is disposed of. These days, when shows like Hannibal are coming up with ever more inventive, ever more disgusting, ever more disturbing ways to knock people off, it seems impossible to imagine being shocked by a story written nearly a century ago. And yet, the reveal at the heart of ‘Copper Fingers’ retains its power.
‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853) by Herman Melville
This short story is the simple yet mysterious tale of Bartleby, a scrivener (a kind of clerk or copyist) employed at a successful legal firm. It is narrated by the owner of the firm, who tells of how Bartleby began as a productive member of the team, but one day, upon being asked to perform a small task, Bartleby simply replies: “I would prefer not to”.
This phrase becomes the mantra for Bartleby’s existence: he would prefer not to work; he would prefer not to find a place to live; and, eventually, he would prefer not to eat. Bartleby becomes a ghost-like presence, haunting the office and refusing to leave even after the firm has upped sticks.
The mystery is left unsolved, we never find out what made Bartleby give up on existence. Is Bartleby a ghost or figment of the narrator’s imagination? Is he a heroic figure, passively resisting the demands of an increasingly money-driven America? Is he suffering from depression? The genius of Melville’s tale is that all these answers swim about in the subtext of the story but none rise to the surface. The story simply ends with the narrator declaring: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
The Game (1997) and The Prestige (2006)
It’s too hard having to decide which of these two I enjoyed more, so you’re in for a treat – you’re getting two from me today!
One of my favourite tales of mystery/suspense has to be The Prestige, I’m going to fail and say I have the book and haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but the movie is fantastic! Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) – yes, it is worth watching simply for them – are competing magicians who are trying to create the perfect illusion. Their rivalry becomes heated and escalates to the point of obsession. This film is absolutely gripping: it keeps you guessing and it is excellently made.
The other is also a film… The Game with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. Oh man, this film was great! It doesn’t let you know if this game is real or not, constantly making you doubt both possibilities. I loved the ending, but I know others weren’t so keen – take a gander if you can get your hands on it! Well worth watching!