Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Clue in the Capering Caper

When I was a young, goggle-eyed stripling, brainwashed by the works of Carolyn Keene, I became slightly obsessed with mystery books. I probably spent a good three weeks one summer scouring my neighbourhood for signs of a shifty-eyed man in a trenchcoat, or peculiar old box in an antique shop which the owner refused to sell.

Sadly, the closest I ever got to genuine pre-teen mysterydom was pretending that some secret hollow in the tree stump in the back garden contained a clue to hidden treasure. Unfortunately, it rained overnight and the watch I cunningly concealed in order to "discover" it the next morning was covered in mysterious grubslime that seized up the works and gave the strap an unwearable gloopy texture.

A few days later, I discovered a taste for Sherlock Holmes and gave up my patient scouring of border of the living room carpet to discover a "clue" in the "mysteriously"-knotted fringe (forever after hopelessly tangled) in favour of stealing my father's magnifying glass to look for telltale traces of Turkish ash and raspberry jam smears left on the back fence by an eagle-eyed detective dressed as a simple-minded clergyman disguised as a costermonger. Not that I knew what a costermonger was, but I was convinced that if I looked hard enough I would find evidence of costers thoroughly mongered at 5 times magnification.

But in all of the mystery books I read during the glorious haze of childhood, explanatory chunks were always dumped wholesale into the first few chapters. As a consequence, the phrases "titian-haired girl sleuth" and "motherly housekeeper" are forever emblazoned on my memory. I know how many steps go up to 221B, and the meaning of "???" on a business card.

Anyhow, since I assumed that this sort of thing was meant as a quick catch-up for readers, I tended to skim those bits and just jump into the story. But what on earth does it mean when the same unvarying information about a character is littered through all the chapters of a book? I mean, I read more than one chapter at a time. I can retain simple information in the rapid-access bit of my memory for a good... oh...


Marianne McA said...

Have you read the Laurie R King books?
My dad enjoyed Sherlock Holmes, so I read & reread them as a child - I can still remember being taken to Madame Tussauds on a school trip as a ten year old, and just being thrilled to see the Baker Street sign.
It's the first time I remember feeling that odd sense of dislocation when you accidentally find yourself somewhere you thought only existed in fiction.

EvilAuntiePeril said...

Hi marianne, I haven't read the Laurie R King books - I've seen them, though. What are they like?

But I've always loved that sense of dislocation you get when bookworld and realworld collide... London is fantastic for that.

Marianne McA said...

Well, she's one of the very few authors I buy in hardback, so I've only good things to say about the books.
Hopefully, this is the excerpt from the first book -
- that first paragraph sold me on the series.

At a guess, if that excerpt appeals you'd enjoy the book, and vice versa.

Ginny said...

You know, I always wondered how Nancy Drew would have turned out if her house-keeper had died tragically when she was three, and she'd been brought up by her mother.
The possibilities are endless!

Suisan said...

I used to wonder if the character references were sprinkled throughout so as to make the chapters interchangeable between books.

At some point someone told me that the Nancy Drew's were farmed out, and I started reading them with an eye to see if the chapters actually HAD to belong to this mystery, or if it had been picked up from another story.

I was an oddly analytical reader even at age ten.

EvilAuntiePeril said...

Hello again marianne, thanks so much for the links. I see what you mean about the first paragraph - if the rest of this series has the same tone, I'm definitely going to look out for it.

Hiya gins, one of the things I found out when I googled Nancy Drew was that the books were not only farmed out, as suisan says, but that they've been significantly revised since their first publication.

Apparently Nancy (who originally was about 16, not 18) used to order around Hannah, and consult her for meals. Since Nancy was oddly precocious given her era, I wonder if this gives her a more believable background than Hannah-as-mother-substitute...

And hello suisan, too. I had a pretty unsophisticated view of publishing, and often wondered if the printers could have had pre-set blocks for printing so that where the author had written "ND", they'd use the special block that said, "Nancy Drew the intrepid girl sleuth with titian hair..."

But I think I like the idea of interchangeable chapters even better.

fiveandfour said...

I used to read the Nancy Drew books late into the night, getting myself so good and terrified that I had to develop a system for leaping out of the bed in one bound so I could make stealth trips to the bathroom at 2 in the morning. I also developed a whole system for opening doors only after looking both ways for spies and utilizing an intricate system of knocks to make sure the coast was clear.

Anyway, Carolyn Keane was actually a group of people - kind of like the Dread Pirate Roberts or Betty Crocker. Perhaps the group of people who wrote the books needed to remind themselves, or maybe just the next writer who came along, of those physical characteristics to make sure they didn't accidentally mix up Nancy with Trixie Belden or a Hardy Boy or if the group was writing the books simultaneously, it would make sense that whoever was writing a chapter would include that info in what they were doing so that when the chapters were stitched together, voila, a mobius strip infodump was born.

I moved on to Agatha Christie and later Sherlock Holmes and still think of those as some of my favorite comfort reads, though at some point in a move I lost all of those books and now own a mere 2 bedraggled AC paperbacks I picked up at a garage sale a few years back. As far as those go, I thought that a lot of the stories appeared as serials in newspapers and/or magazines, hence the need to repeat certain things ad nauseum so people could be brought up to speed after the week + break in between the publication of the chapters.

EvilAuntiePeril said...

fiveandfour, i think you're on to something about the serialisation thing.

Wasn't it also one reason for the incredible lengthiness of 19th-century novels?

fiveandfour said...

Wasn't it also one reason for the incredible lengthiness of 19th-century novels?

That or the writers got paid by the word because MY GOD 19th-century novels are wordy.

EvilAuntiePeril said...

I do remember hearing in my 19th C. French Lit class, that when novels were serialised, they had a certain number of words for each section, and the author was paid by the section.

Also, apparently some writers of serial novels would start publishing without actually having a complete novel or even knowing how the thing would end. And they had to do it long-hand.

Again, I think that might explain a lot. So much for the perception of a "classic" writer as above such petty concerns...