“Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve” by Ben Blatt (2017)

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“In literary lore, one of the best stories of all time is a mere six words.”

I am a proper nerd for statistics. I’m not very mathematically minded, but give me a good list, chart or graph and I’m a happy man. The only way I have ever been able to tolerate the Olympics or the World Cup is because of all the statistics that come along with it. Mixing up maths and literature, however, to examine the works of our best-selling authors is almost a dream come true.

Journalist Ben Blatt has allied big data with literature to explore the secrets hiding in the pages of our favourite novels. Is it possible to tell if a novel is written by Ernest Hemingway or Charles Dickens just by looking at the use of exclamation marks? Are American authors louder than British ones? Are men or women more likely to use the word “something”? Is the content of The New York Times bestseller list proof that we’re getting stupider as a species? Why do so many novels open with descriptions of the weather? And what do Suzanne Collins and I have in common in how we use cliffhangers? Blatt examines all of these topics and many more besides.

While it’s easy enough to tell if something is written by Douglas Adams or Virginia Woolf due to their vastly different content, this book actually focuses on the more general words used, right down to the smallest ones like the or not. Suddenly is an interesting one – for every 100,000 words J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, 78 of them were suddenly. Chuck Palahniuk sits at the other end of the scale, with 2 out of 100,000. The book can even prove that, if it hadn’t already been revealed to us, Robert Galbraith was more than likely going to turn out to be J. K. Rowling than anyone else, and that’s just going on the uses of what and but.

The gender splits are also very interesting. Quite famously, The Hobbit features the word he nearly 1,900 times, but she only appears once. Is there a book that skews quite this dramatically in the other direction? It doesn’t seem like it, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie appearing as the most she-heavy novel examined (21% he / 79% she). While women are apparently more likely to use words like lace, dress or curtains, they’re also more prone to saying should, since and like. Generally we don’t take in most of this stuff, but to see it all laid out bare, it’s very fascinating. Blatt also has good fun examining whether authors follow their own advice or not. Martin Amis hates cliches and Stephen King loathes adverbs, so Blatt checks through their work to see if they abide by their own rules. There’s also a lot of time spent reading fan fiction. Can you determine whether Stephanie Meyer wrote a particular chapter, or one of her fans? Yes, you can. There’s also a huge discrepancy between the styles of American and British fan fiction based on Harry Potter.

And yes, based on frequency of use compared to others, Vladimir Nabokov’s favourite word is mauve. Some of the others listed can hardly be considered a surprise – inquest for Agatha Christie, dragons for George R. R. Martin, dinosaur for Michael Crichton – some are a little odder. Who could have guessed that Ray Bradbury favours spearmint or F. Scott Fitzgerald used facetious a lot.

For anyone interested in how their writing matches up, I recommend heading to I Write Like, where you can dump in any text and it will tell you which famous writer your style most resembles. Despite my content matching up closer to the likes of Ben Aaronovitch or Neil Gaiman, my writing style can apparently be mistaken for, who else, Agatha Christie. Apparently she is an even bigger influence on my work than I realised. That, or I’m a somewhat unorthodox reincarnation.

Oh, and the link I have with Suzanne Collins? We both frequently end our chapters with one-sentence paragraphs.

So it goes.

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“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (1843)

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“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

I have been asked before how I can consider myself such an avid student of literature when I have (until now) entirely bypassed Dickens. Alright, not entirely. Great Expectations was one of my set texts at university, but I tired of Pip and his accomplices after four or five pages, discarded the novel, and blagged my way through the associated essay. (Stay in school, kids.) Finally though, at the age of twenty-nine, I have read an entire Dickens story. It’s a short one, true, but it counts, and it could really only be read at this time of year.

Do I even need to recount the plot? Ebenezer Scrooge, a notorious miser and uncharitable fellow, loathes joy, happiness and, above all, Christmas, despite all the “fools” around him rejoicing in the festivity. One Christmas Eve, he is visited by the spirit of his former partner, Jacob Marley, who tells him that three ghosts will come to him to get him to mend his ways, thus beginning one of the most famous tales in the English language.

We, of course, all think we know the story and yes, all the usual stuff we remember is in here, usually put into whichever adaptation we’re watching. But the thrill of reading the original text comes from learning that there is so much more. I didn’t know that Scrooge had a sister, but it was obvious really, given we knew he had a nephew. There are more ghosts than just the four famous ones in the text, and we see Scrooge go through more visions than I’m used to. Tiny Tim is as sweet as ever, making it all the more heartbreaking when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come reveals what happens to him.

Scrooge is vile, yes, but it feels almost comedic a lot of the time. Indeed, Dickens is far more prone to a pun or a gag than I would have given him credit for. The true barbarity of Scrooge’s deeds and personality come when we see the Cratchit family and how they struggle, although even in the dire situation they find themselves in, Bob still raises a toast to his employer on Christmas Day, further emphasising what a good man he is. Even Scrooge cannot fail to be touched by this. On the other side of the comedy, the chapter featuring the aforementioned Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is very creepy and oddly tense, even though you know exactly what is going to happen. Scrooge seems slow on the uptake regarding whose death he is being shown in these scenes, but it’s quite easy to read him as being in denial.

Much as I’m not sorry I’ve finally read the text – and in particular, I have to praise it for one of the very best opening lines in all fiction, and perhaps the greatest use of a colon ever – I’m mostly just pleased that I can finally say that I have read Dickens. As for the story? I’ll be sticking to the Muppet adaptation, which is far and away the best retelling of the novella, and given that it uses so much of the original text, may also be the one truest to its source material. Kermit improves everything.

It’s a little early to celebrate, but nonetheless if I forget to do so again, may I wish a very merry Christmas to all my friends and readers. Have a lovely season, and here’s to a wonderful new year.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Red House Mystery” by A. A. Milne (1922)

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“In the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon the Red House was taking its siesta.”

A. A. Milne, despite all his work as a playwright, poet, comedic journalist and soldier, is these days remembered primarily for just one thing: Winnie the Pooh. His life story, or at least the part focused around Pooh, featured heavily in the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin. It is therefore easy for many these days to assume that that was all he did. However, four years before a certain bear of very little brain wandered into our hearts, Milne created an entirely different story, set a long way away in space and substance from the adventures in the Hundred Acre Woods. This is Milne’s only foray into the world of mystery writing.

The Red House Mystery opens with the servants of the titular property discussing their master, Mark Ablett. It seems he’s just received a letter that his ne’er-do-well brother Robert has returned from Australia and is coming to see him that afternoon. Not long after the arrival of Robert, however, a gunshot is heard from somewhere in the house.

Antony Gillingham, a stranger in these parts, has got off at the village train station on a whim, upon learning that his old friend Bill is staying at the Red House. He arrives just as Mark’s friend and manservant Cayley is struggling to get into the house to learn who has died. Robert is dead on the floor, and Mark has gone missing. The police speak to the servants and the guests who had been staying at the house, and the latter are bundled off quickly when it transpires they were all off playing golf. Bill, however, stays on to keep Antony company, as the newcomer has decided to take on the role of Sherlock Holmes and needs a Watson. Without telling the police, the pair set about solving the murder themselves…

The novel is filled with most of the trappings of the classic crime story. There are secret passages, missing keys, a dredged lake … and yet what’s really missing are suspects. From the off, it seems there are very few people who could possibly have committed the crime, so quite quickly it stops being a “whodunnit” and instead a “howdunnit”. That’s not necessarily a complaint, as they can be just as engaging.

I did find the character in the Sherlock role, Antony, to be faintly unbelievable though. His guesses are always correct, never mind how flimsy the evidence that points him to a conclusion. While with Sherlock Holmes himself, you sort of accept it as he’s been training himself for years on how to be the world’s greatest detective, but Antony is by his own admission an amateur, so some of his leaps of faith are a bit of a stretch. Still, it’s entertaining enough that I didn’t mind too much. The characters are funny, and there’s definitely the occasional burst of the kind of wit and humour that Milne used to great effect in his time with Punch, and while writing Winnie the Pooh.

Alexander Woolcott noted that this novel was “one of the three best mystery stories of all time”, but I think he’s being rather too generous on that front. It has its place, certainly, and Milne can happily be counted among the authors of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but if you ask me, it is right that we remember Winnie the Pooh over this. I doubt anyone would really disagree.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

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Not pictured: her gams that won’t quit

“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”

Every so often a book comes along that births or redefines a whole genre. Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd blew wide open what was possible in a murder mystery. Mary Shelley is widely agreed to have invented science fiction with Frankenstein. And The Lord of the Rings ensured that in all future fantasy worlds the dwarves have beards and the elves are irritatingly smug. Dashiell Hammett takes his spot among these greats with The Maltese Falcon, popularising and cementing in many of the tropes associated with the hard-boiled detective novel. Though not the inventor of the genre – that title arguably falls to Carroll John Daly – it’s Hammett and his detective Sam Spade that we think of first when we find ourselves exploring this route.

It’s 1928, and a the beautiful Miss Wonderly has just walked into the offices of Spade and Archer. She wants them to tail a man called Floyd Thursby who has run off with her sister, and she’s worried. Before the night is over, Thursby is dead and so is Archer. The police immediately question Spade, who refuses to tell them anything.

Soon, Miss Wonderly is revealed to be Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a woman who is on the trail of the Maltese Falcon, a statuette of a black bird worth millions of dollars. She however, is not the only one. Joel Cairo, a Greek homosexual and Casper Gutman, an enormously fat and desperate man, are both after it too, although no one seems to know where it is, and no one seems very keen on telling the truth or admitting who they’re working for or with.

Are any of them in it together? Who is the young man tailing Spade all over town? Was Archer’s wife really leaving him to run off with Spade? With his work cut out for him and the police on his tail, Spade must get to the bottom of the business with the Falcon before it’s too late and he’s found floating face-down in the harbour.

Sometimes you read a book and think, “Something is off about this but I’m not sure what”. I had that here, and it took a few chapters for it to sink in. The book is told in the third person, which is far from uncommon, but it is perhaps the purest third person novel I’ve ever read. At no point do we get any hint of what people are thinking, what occurred in their backstory, or how they feel about situations. We are only told what people look like, what they’re doing and what they say. It’s easy to see, because of this, why the film was so readily produced. It’s a very visual piece, focused in the here and now so you aren’t distracted by knowing about Spade’s childhood, or how Brigid feels about her involvement.

Spade himself is a difficult character to pin down. Despite the fact he’s emotionally detached, a chauvinist, and willing to let any and all the women in his life believe that he loves them and them alone, I don’t altogether dislike him. He’s sharp and determined, although his sense of justice may not always align with ours, and I also find him quite funny. When being questioned by the police, he’s more than happy to wind them up, and he isn’t fond of taking shit from anyone. He’s inordinately brave, although perhaps its just sheer foolishness, and I’d trust him to solve any case I had. I wouldn’t trust him to not sleep with my wife before he’s through, however.

Plotwise, I suppose it holds together well enough but I found myself drifting a few times, though as usual that’s more of my own fault than a failing in the text – it’s been a long week. I like the set up that seems to be taking the novel one way, only for it to shift abruptly onto another tangent, a device I like employing in my books. It’s iconic in the genre, and I spent much of it suddenly wanting a cigarette, a trench coat, and a dame with legs that won’t quit to walk into my office. Even though I know she’s going to be trouble.

An interesting read, but I’m informed by a crime aficionado friend that Raymond Chandler is a step up again. I’ll get there soon.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Gently Does It” by Alan Hunter (1955)

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“Chief Inspector Gently, Central Office, CID, reached automatically into his pocket for another peppermint cream and fed it unconsciously into his mouth.”

Due to the sheer number of crimes that take place annually within fiction, it follows that there have been an awful lot of detectives invented to catch the criminals. Each has appeared with their own methods, and many of them are household names. Hercule Poirot relies on psychology. Miss Marple uses her knowledge of human nature to pin people down. Hamish Macbeth and Roy Grace are methodical and hard-working, Sherlock Holmes is highly observant, and Thornley Colton, now forgotten by most people, is blind and makes use of his highly-honed other senses. And then there’s George Gently, who does the graft and will stop at nothing to ensure justice is done.

In the first of the George Gently books, our hero is on holiday hoping to do a spot of fishing but finds himself roped into helping the local constabulary when a dead body is found. Nicholas Huyssman, a Dutch timber merchant, is discovered by the maid on the floor of his study having been stabbed in the back. His son, Peter, is believed to have been the last person to see him alive, but he’s gone missing, which leads the police to come to the obvious conclusion as to the killer’s identity. Gently, however, is not so sure. There are plenty of other people with a motive.

Huyssman was domineering to his daughter Gretchen, was disliked by his chauffeur Fisher, and the manager of his timber yard, Mr Leaming, potentially stands to inherit the business now that his boss is out the way. Gently must get everyone to admit the truth and work out what connects a knife stashed in a chest, a missing key, a football match and a cache of stolen money to find his killer.

There’s something oddly likeable about George Gently. The local police find him irritating and they clash horns quite badly, given that Gently won’t just settle for the first answer and instead is determined to work out exactly what has happened. It actually feels like the premise of The Poisoned Chocolates Case working as a full plot. He is a smooth operator, knowing exactly what questions to ask and when to remain silent and let his interviewee fill the silence with something they may not meant to have let slip. He’s also shown to be good with children, and doesn’t ignore the potential a child has to be a good witness, as long as you can tailor your questions to their interests.

But his most overriding feature is his obsession with peppermint creams. Rarely does a page go by without him popping another one of the sweets into his mouth, and he seems to become agitated when he doesn’t have any to hand, then relying on his pipe to provide a distraction. In fact, the book is quite heavy on food in general, often describing Gently and his dining companions’ meals in a curious level of detail. This does lead to some good adverbs when Hunter describes Gently as talking with his mouth full, the best of all being when Gently speaks while crunching through toast, his voice coming off “butteredly”.

There are over forty books in the George Gently series, and while I’m in no immediate hurry to dive into them all, I daresay that I’ll drop in again in the future and see what he’s up to, particularly if this is an anomaly and he behaves differently around his own staff. It’s a good solid crime novel though, not a whodunnit as Hunter politely reminds his readers at the book’s opening, and the solution is immensely satisfying.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Strangers On A Train” by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

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“The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.”

While most people would never act on murderous impulses, should they have them, it’s fortunate that this is the case. Quite a fun (purely theoretical) exercise, however, is to come up with the “perfect murder”. I’ve discussed some true ones before, and my extensive time spent reading crime fiction and books on how to write crime fiction means I’ve got a couple of ideas. But don’t worry, you’re not in any immediate danger.

In Patricia Highsmith’s classic, Strangers on a Train, we open on a locomotive tearing across the American south. On this train are architect Guy Haines and alcoholic Charley Bruno. Guy is on his way to finalise his divorce with his estranged wife, Miriam, although admits to himself that it would just be easier if she was dead. Bruno feels similarly about his hated father – why can’t he just disappear? Buoyed by alcohol, Bruno makes a proposal – the two men should swap victims and kill for each other. There would be no evidence leading to either man, as no one need ever know they’ve met, making it a pair of perfect murders.

Guy thinks Bruno is talking rot, and ignores him, but Bruno is not a man who gives up easily, and when Miriam is found dead a few days later, Guy is convinced that Bruno is behind it all. His new acquaintance now seems unable to leave him alone and begins to insidiously creep into Guy’s life, and both men are driving to madness and into actions that they may come to regret…

I love a good murder, and this is a really clever twist on the whole thing. It’s not a horror by any means, but it’s definitely a creepy thriller. You find yourself in the minds of Guy and Bruno, both apparently very different men who seem to perhaps have more in common than they’d like to admit. The idea of “swapping murders” is a good one, and has been copied and parodied endlessly since. I’m aware that Hitchcock turned it into a film, but from what I’ve read of that, he changed several major plot details, and what happens in the book is easily better. It’s quite clear what attracted Hitchcock to the text though; it’s just haunting enough to lodge itself behind your ear and bug you for days.

One of the most startling aspects of the book, for the time it was written anyway, was the sheer amount of homosexual subtext. Bruno, in particular, seems to be infatuated with Guy, even going so far at one point to think about killing off Guy’s second wife Anne so that he and Guy can be together. Their personalities become entwined quite marvellously, to the point that I wondered if there was going to be a sudden twist that revealed one of them didn’t exist and the other had just gone completely mad.

While not the greatest murder tale I’ve ever read, it’s nonetheless interesting and worth a look if you like that sort of thing. Just don’t go getting any ideas.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Pride And Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Several years ago, I hefted my way through Jane Eyre which, while turning out to be very much worth it, I described at the time as being the reading equivalent of “eating a whole deer raw with a fish knife”. I’ll stick with that analogy for this one. Pride and Prejudice, for all its fans, was to me like trying to eat a whole deer raw, antlers first, with a plastic picnic knife and one hand tied behind my back. Are you getting the impression I didn’t like it? You’d sort of be right, but not fully. Let me explain after the synopsis.

I’m sure you know the story. This is the tale of Elizabeth Bennet, intelligent second daughter of the Bennet clan, a young woman who is prime meat on the marriage market of Regency England. Her mother, the hypochondriac Mrs Bennet, is distraught that none of her five daughters are yet married, and hopes they soon will be, as the money and estate can’t be passed down through the female line. At yet another ball, Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy, a brooding, unpleasant man who doesn’t seem capable of socialising in any normal way. The two of them turn against one another quite quickly.

But then Darcy reappears and admits that he loves Elizabeth, most ardently. Elizabeth rejects him, thinking him boorish and proud. He respectfully steps back and soon Elizabeth is caught up in the matrimonial dramas of her sisters. But then, upon visiting Darcy’s house of Pemberley, she meets those who know him better and she comes to think that maybe she’s been too hasty with her first impression. If only he could overcome his pride, and she her prejudice, they may yet make for a happy couple.

And if that’s not what happened, then I probably fell asleep for several pages along the way.

What did I like? Well, I didn’t think I much liked any of it while I was halfway through, but in talking to a friend about bits of it, I realised that I do enjoy both Mr and Mrs Bennet and their relationship. He loves and tolerates his wife for all her insecurities and issues as she worries herself silly about her daughters – at one point, when Elizabeth has turned down the proposal of Mr Collins, her mother doesn’t speak to her for a few weeks. I also really enjoy the linguistic sparring of Elizabeth and Darcy, but the scenes are few and far between, and they don’t match Beatrice and Benedick by any means. Elizabeth, nonetheless, is a feisty character, displaying traits that, for the time, may be considered unseemly for a young woman, such as running across country alone to attend to her ill sister, muddying her dress along the route.

However, my overarching feeling was, “Get on with it, you snobs!” as they all waffled on about who should marry who. I get that there are themes here on whether one should marry for love or money, but they sit slightly submerged between conversations about who’s travelling where, who will be attending each ball, and how much money everyone has. I can see how it was important at the time, and there are some moments that may have even appeared quite daring, such as the youngest daughter, Lydia, eloping against her family’s wishes, but I found little relevance to now, aside from the idea that we shouldn’t judge on first appearances, and that excessive pride is unattractive. I think I’m just underwhelmed because the language is so ornate it was like trying to find a golf ball in a thicket to pick out what was actually going on, and people had really built it up for me. Austen can write, I’m not doubting it, but she’s too florid for my tastes.

Also, at no point does Darcy get wet.

I’m not sorry I read it, I feel it has its place in the canon for a reason, and I’m not calling it a bad book by any means. But I do think it’s overrated, and I’m in no hurry to attend to an adaptation (it’s just been announced that ITV are doing a new one soon). However, the film of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sits on my desk, so I sense I’ll be returning to a twisted version of this world shortly. Something has to liven it up.

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