Tom Ue and Jonathan Cranafield (ed.s), Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes (Intellect, 2014), 153pp. Paperback £22, $29.50
Intellect describes its series Fan Phenomena as being ‘prompted by a growing appetite for books that tap into the fascination we have with what constitutes an iconic or cultish phenomenon’. The series started in 2013 and has continued steadily, with topics including Star Trek (2013), The Lord of the Rings (2015), and Game of Thrones (2017), among others. Sherlock Holmes, who needs no introduction, is such an iconic figure in fandom and popular culture that it is no wonder the character himself has inspired a volume under the Fan Phenomena banner.
In Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes, editors Tom Ue and Jonathan Cranfield bring together thirteen chapters, consisting of eight chapters and five ‘Fan Appreciation’ interviews. Since ‘the figure of Holmes has been constantly refreshed and renewed, adapted […] to new cultural moments’ (6), the editors’ stated aim is to ‘attest […] to the popularity of the characters and fictional world that [Arthur] Conan Doyle created’ (5). It is such a vast aim that no 153-page book could fully do it justice, but Ue and Cranfield have succeeded in providing a comprehensive and attractive introduction to some of the key themes in Holmes fandom.
The volume is beautifully laid out and illustrated. Intellect Books are designed to appeal to students and well-informed enthusiasts as well as scholars and researchers, so it is not surprising that Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes is visually appealing. The front and back inside covers are filled with Sidney Paget’s illustration of Holmes and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, tumbling down the Reichenbach Falls. The pages are well-spaced and easy to read, with a variety of images, and each contribution is prefaced with what some would call a Conanical quotation: a remark from Conan Doyle’s original texts concerning Holmes.
Particularly strong are the opening and closing essays. Tom Ue’s ‘Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare’ (8-27) looks at ‘the numerous ways in which Shakespeare’s writing affected Conan Doyle in his creation and writing of Sherlock Holmes and his stories’, and Ue insists that ‘Conan Doyle’s reading of Shakespeare [lies] at the heart of his own writing’ (10). Both authors are authoritative voices in their respective historical contexts, but Ue points out a tradition of adaptation and allusion that positions the Holmes canon itself as a kind of fan fiction. Benjamin Poore, in closing the collection, offers a perspective on presentations of Moriarty on-screen in the twenty-first century (134-147). From Moriarty’s creation in 1893, ‘as a narrative tool with which to kill of Holmes’, which Poore says ‘backfired spectacularly’ (135), the character and his relationship to Holmes have gripped the public imagination, with a significance both on and off the page that cannot be easily separated. As such, Poore argues, ‘Holmes and Moriarty’s activities suit the porous boundary-crossing tenor of the times, where the Internet has increased the ways in which we commingle reality and fiction’ (142).
While some of the interviews with authors veer into promotional, rather than informative, territory, it is fascinating to see the variety of approaches to often similar concepts: for example, two of the interviews are with co-authors of distinct ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ graphic novels (80-89; 100-108). The final interview is with Robert Ryan, author of Dead Man’s Land, a 2013 novel set during the First World War and featuring Dr Watson (124-133). The novel is not a conventional Holmesian pastiche, and Ryan is open about not being ‘a Holmesian’, although he admits that ‘nobody who writes crime thrillers […] can escape the long arm of Baker Street’ (128). Ryan’s perspective offers points of contrast to the others, and nicely rounds the overall tone of the volume. The interviews intersperse the essays, two of which are written by authors – Jonathan Barnes (110-117) and Shane Peacock (118-123) – outlining the process of writing new Holmes adventures. This creates something of a slant towards authors-talking-about-their work. Some other essays are written by fans, and some by academics, which creates a welcome sense of variety. The different contributors’ styles may not rest in easy harmony, but the result is a volume with something to suit most tastes.
Jonathan Cranfield’s ‘Sherlock Holmes: Fan Culture and Fan Letters’ (66-79) is a fascinating study of ‘the writing of [real] fan letters to [the fictional] Sherlock Holmes – which has occurred continuously from the 1890s until the present day’, exploring how early letters ‘herald the coming multiverse of Sherlockian fan phenomena’ (67). Cranfield attests that ‘early Sherlock Holmes fan culture […] established a basic pattern for the ways in which later phenomena [such as online fan fiction] would function’ (75), which, as with Ue’s contribution, establishes Conanical links and presages to twenty-first century Sherlockiana. However, the delights of this chapter bring to mind the book’s one notable omission. While several contributors mention fan fiction, which is hugely important in the world of Sherlockiana, and a burgeoning field of study in its own right, no contributor has chosen to focus on it. A chapter on fan fiction would have made this already exciting volume stronger still.
Sherlock Holmes is as important a populist figure today as he was in the late nineteenth century. Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes testifies to this significance, with real-life implications playing out in its contributors’ varied backgrounds. It is undoubtedly a useful resource as studies of fan fiction and of fan phenomena continue to gather momentum. Conan Doyle’s creation continues to provide fertile ground for individuals within and far beyond scholarship. As Holmes himself declares, in ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’, ‘What one man can create, another can discover.’
Bio: J.C. Bernthal sits on a tutor panel at the University of Cambridge and is an associate lecturer at Middlesex University. He is also a private researcher to a major crime writer, and the author of Queering Agatha Christie: Revisiting the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
Book Review: American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature Reviewed by Anna Kirsch
Peter Swirski, American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature as Art, (Palgrave Macmillian 2017). eBook £56.99. Hardcover £72.00. Softcover £22.50
American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature as Art has a unique approach to the question of the value of genre fiction and the relationship between high and low culture. Peter Swirski is a Canadian scholar specializing in American Studies and is the author of, among others, Ars Americana, Ars Politica (2010), American Utopia and Social Engineering (2011), American Political Fictions: War on Errorism (2015). Swirski promises a new approach to the vexing question of genre fiction and value articulating the cultural war between the highbrow and lowbrow without engaging with the theory of a separation between intellectual classes by advocating for a middle ground between high and low culture, a transgressive intellectual space he calls Nobrow.
American Crime Fiction is comprised of six chapters covering authors writing from the twentieth century to today. Chapter 1 is thought-provoking and indirectly answers the question of how crime fiction can become academically valuable. Chapter 1 exemplifies the core thesis of the book and elucidates Swirski’s theorization of a Nobrow faction in popular culture. Swirski is a skilled writer who can write playfully and critically. He divides his chapters, into imaginatively named subsections. One section he calls The Bermuda Triangle outlines his conviction that popular fiction ‘borrows from serious fiction, leaving debased culture in its wake’ is nothing more than a myth, like the Bermuda Triangle (9). Swirski finds formulas and patterns in all artists work pointing out that even Shakespeare relied on types and formulas in his writing.
Chapter 2 sets a precedent for the rest of the work with Swirski comparing and contrasting John Grisham’s legal procedurals with Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled mysteries. Swirsk has a knack for finding commonalities. For example, despite the hardboiled mystery and the legal thriller seeming to have little in common, and the timeframe for their popularity being at odds, with the hardboiled peaking in popularity in the 1930’s and 40’s and the legal thriller emerging in the 1980’s Swirski is able to articulate their use of a common hero archetype writing:
Both are fast-talking urban cowboys who daily wade into the shark tanks of city streets and city courtrooms. Both are for hire for a fee plus expenses. Both are slow to get heavy but, when push comes to shove, neither the PI nor the attorney at law will back down from a tangle with the bad guys-or the bed-eyed dames, for that matter (30).
In Chapter 3 Swirski examines what he calls boilerplate potboilers where he looks at the work William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway who used elements of crime fiction in their work seeking commercial success. Unsurprisingly, Swirski argues this is an example of the blurred lines between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction. He makes a particular case for Faulkner’s Sanctuary and Hemingway’s To Have or Have Not to be read as an artistic effort in its own right rather than as an aberration from their previous work. This chapter illuminates the double standard applied to literary writers and genre writers and dives to the heart of American fiction which is the idealization of the individual in ‘a country built on mass production, mass culture, and mass culturally produced belief ’ (88). This chapter explores the line, which Swirski maintains is imaginary, between a generic writing formula and an inventive literary creation.
Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 focus on Raymond Chandler and Ed McBain respectively. Chandler is an obvious choice in an exploration of American crime fiction. In Chandler, Swirski has a perfect example of literary style within genre fiction. Swirski, however, chooses to use a close reading of Chandler’s last novel Playback, a novel that for critics, as Swirski phrases it, ‘is the one Chandler novel they love to hate‘ (99). Swirski, however, reads Playback as a meta-genre novel writing that ‘From the title down Playback spells out an invitation to a novel kind of detective game- intertextual, ironic and self-reflective’ (101). The theme of repetitive genre features as self- reflection appears again and again in Swirski’s work. Chapter 5 covers a police procedural series written under the pseudonym of Ed McBain, the author was born Salvatore Albert Lambino before changing his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. Ed McBain is not as visible crime author academically as Chandler, but, the series covering the fictional 87th Precinct has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Swirski is quick to draw the reader into his choice using McBain as an example of the racial diversity and literary potential of urban crime fiction continuing the theme of the individual in a mass-produced world he began in Chapter 3.
Chapter 6 returns to a compare and contrast formula turning his attention to Nelson DeMille and F.Scott Fitzgerald. Here Swirski brings his argument on genre fiction to bear on mafia fiction. Swirski reads DeMille’s The Gold Coast as a sort of playback of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Chapter 6 is somewhat disappointing because it attempts a detailed close reading of two authors while also functioning as a cumulative chapter for the book as a whole. While Swirski attempts to leave the reader with a conclusion in a section he calls The American Dream which focuses on true crime statistics, such as drug and gun violence, he slightly undermines his earlier argument that crime fiction is more than fantasy when he writes crime fiction is always waiting in the wings to satisfy ‘ the atavistic need coiled at the base of every readers thalamus to vicariously experience the primal crime of passion, power or revenge and to witness the dispensation of legal- or at least poetic justice’ (182) . This seems to slightly discount Swirski’s earlier points in Chapter 1 where he is careful to separate popular fiction from fantasy.
American Crime Fiction attempts to define the position of crime fiction in what Swirski calls Nobrow literature. American Crime Fiction would appeal to a non-specialist or to those specializing in American popular culture more generally, although the book is designed for those interested in American crime fiction. Because of the underlying premise of the importance of crime fiction in cultural dialogue those specializing in other areas of crime fiction would enjoy Chapter 1, but those interested in the underlying premise would be best served reading From Lowbrow to Nobrow (2005) for a more methodology driven argument. For those who enjoy American crime fiction this book is not to be missed.
Bio: Anna Kirsch is the Book Review Editor for The International Crime Fiction Association. She completed her English Studies MA at Durham University and is currently applying for her PhD. Her thesis was on environmental ethics and morality in Carl Hiaasen’s Crime Fiction. Her research interests include Crime Fiction, American Studies, Gender Studies, Environmental History, Satire, and Philosophy Her Twitter account is @kucerakirsch.
Books Available for Review:
Milly Buonanno (ed.),Television Antiheroines: Women Behaving Badly in Crime and Prison Drama, (Intellect Books, 2017).
Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton Murder and the Making of English CSI (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016 ).
Claire Hines (Ed.), Fan Phenomena: James Bond, (Intellect Books, 2015).
Angus McLaren Playboys and Mayfair Men Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).
S. Paul O’Hara Inventing the Pinkertons; or, Spies, Sleuths, Mercenaries, and Thugs (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016 ).
Alistair Rolls and Rachel Franks (Eds.), Crime Uncovered: Private Investigator, (Intellect Books, 2016).
E-books available . Please contact the editor for more information
Lucy Andrew, The Boy Detective in Early British Children’s Literature: Patrolling the Borders between Boyhood and Manhood, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
Julie A. Chappell and Mallory Young (Eds.) Bad Girls and Transgressive Women in Popular Television, Fiction, and Film, ( Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
Brian Cliff, Irish Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan UK, May 2018).
Laura Joyce and Henry Sutton. Domestic Noir: The New Face of 21st Century Crime Fiction( Palgrave Macmillan March, 2018)
Mareike Jenner. American TV Detective Dramas: Serial Investigations (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016)
Please contact Anna Kirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or suggestions. Please place Book Review in the subject line when inquiring about a book and include the address you would like it sent to. When writing, please follow the blog guidelines with pieces between 800-1200 words long which are fully referenced and cited where appropriate. Reviews would ideally be between 800-1000 words long. Also remember to include a short bio to appear with the piece. Reviews can also include images, but please ensure that any images are free from copyright and fully cited.