Monday, December 26, 2011

Elementary, My Dear Bond

Guy Ritchie's latest addition to the Holmesian cinematic canon, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," has done fairly well at box offices in what Hollywood is describing as a generally disappointing year for movie attendance. As of this writing, the film's combined domestic and foreign ticket sales since its opening last December 16th is approaching $80 million.

So a lot of people are seeing this movie. And a lot of people, professional movie critics and otherwise, are talking about it. What fascinates me most about reaction to the new Holmes film are the countless reviews and comments I've encountered accusing Ritchie's (and actor Robert Downey, Jr.'s) interpretation of the iconic Sherlock Holmes character of being untrue to the vision of the great detective's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Typical of this reaction is Washington Post reviewer Mark Jenkins' criticism that Ritchie's film "owes more to Ian Fleming or Marvel Comics than to Conan Doyle's drawing room mysteries." Jenkins complains that Downey "plays Holmes as brainy yet highly physical," which seemingly strikes Jenkins as an affront to Holmesian orthodoxy because, "[a]s originally conceived, Holmes was a reflective sort..." I've talked with many folks who share Jenkins' disapproval of Ritchie's and Downey's sinewy portrayal of Holmes as an abomination of Conan Doyle's supposedly far gentler creation.

 Let's explore that.

Over the course of four novels and 56 short stories published between 1887 and 1927 (all of which I've read), Holmes repeatedly demonstrates awesome talents in a wide array of deadly proficiencies. He carries a pistol, and he's an excellent shot. In addition to being an expert swordsman, he disables villains with sticks, canes, and riding crops. He's a highly skilled bare-knuckle fighter, a trained boxer, and a master of the Bartitsu martial arts. Physically, "[f]ew men were capable of greater greater muscular effort," Dr. Watson says of his companion. Accordingly, anyone even passingly familiar with Conan Doyle's stories knows Holmes never shies from a fight, and is always the clear winner in every instance of the many and brutal hand-to-hand battles he undertakes in the course of his detections.

Nor does Holmes merely sit around in his flat in London's Baker Street and solve mysteries solely through exercising his remarkable intelligence after digesting facts he's told as he lolls in the comfort of his drawing room. Instead, he travels extensively throughout England and to exotic European locales to capture felons and upend their monstrous criminal (and frequently political) conspiracies. He does so at the requests of private citizens, and the British government, usually working alone while warding off the deleterious effects of his fondness for cocaine.

Ian Fleming was born in the posh Mayfair neighborhood of London in 1908. As the son of a wealthy Member of Parliament, he enjoyed a first-class education in some of England's finest schools. He was extremely well-read, and following the conclusion of World War II began to seriously pursue his lifelong ambition of being a published author. Given his background and upbringing, it's inconceivable that growing up in England in the first half of the 20th century Fleming didn't read (if not devour) Conan Doyle's Holmes stories.

Fleming's James Bond debuted in the 1953 novel, Casino Royale. Over the course of 12 novels and nine short stories published between 1953 and 1966 (all of which I've read), not to mention 22 Bond films released between 1962 and 2008 (all of which I've seen), we've come to know James Bond well. He's a lone-wolf agent of the British government who travels the globe on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to derail nefarious plots through a combination of his keen intelligence, physical prowess, and mastery of all manners of weapons, all the while warding off the deleterious effects of his fondness for alcohol.

Sound familiar?

I know there were many real people who influenced the creation of James Bond. Fleming once said Bond "was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types [Fleming] met during the war."

But there was also someone fictional who profoundly impacted the birth of James Bond. Sherlock Holmes was the first literary super-spy, if you will, and his influence on the Bond mythos is patent and unavoidable.

Mark Jenkins says Ritchie's and Downey's Sherlock Holmes is derivative of James Bond, and a misguided depiction of Conan Doyle's seminal contribution to detective fiction.

Jenkins and his ilk couldn't be more mistaken. Ritchie's and Downey's two movies hew far closer to Conan Doyle's vision than any of the more than 200 Holmes films that preceded them (most of which I've seen). And if either character is derivative in any medium, it's James Bond who owes a debt to Sherlock Holmes, not vice-versa.

Incidentally, I saw "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" a couple days ago. It's really entertaining.

I'm confident Sir Arthur would have loved it.

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement."
~~ Sherlock Holmes (from A Study in Scarlet, 1887) ~~

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Author Spotlight: Raymond Khoury

Internationally best-selling author Raymond Khoury is a gifted storyteller, and a very talented writer. Each of his first four thrillers have ridden high on bestseller lists round the world. I know his next one, The Devil's Elixir, will do the same when it's released on December 22. In addition to writing fantastic novels, Raymond is generous and supportive of all his comrades in the wordsmithing community. He was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my own authorial dreams during some protracted intercontinental phone calls between us a few years back. Yet as accomplished an author as the redoubtable Mr. Khoury is, what matters most to me is that he has been my one of my closest friends for more than four decades across three continents. We met in Beirut, Lebanon, when we were both seven years old. It's both delightful and frightful that was such a long, long time ago.

The Devil's Elixir is Khoury's fifth novel. The pre-release reviews are stellar. Booklist calls it “A fast-paced thrill-ride.” Publisher's Weekly says it's “An exciting thriller with a paranormal twist.” If that's not sufficiently compelling for you, Library Journal calls it "Big-time fun," and Kirkus Reviews raves, "Vivid, energetic scenes ensure that Khoury’s tale never falters or bores." Wow. All this for the guy I used to wreak havoc with when we were deeply errant children with gleaming futures in juvenile detention. Kind of makes you wonder...

So a few weeks ago when Raymond and I were trading missives about his latest book's release, I told him it would be a good and brave thing for him to squirm a bit under the searing lights of Gazalapalooza's occasionally recurring feature, Author Spotlight. To his credit, the man never hesitated, never faltered.

As in Spotlights past, I’ve chosen a fairly open-ended interview format permitting our target to riff freely in his replies, so you readers can get to know something about Raymond and his latest book that might not shine as brightly in other interviews. Without further ado, let’s get this spotlight fired up and trained squarely on Mr. Khoury.

Gazala:      In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

Khoury.     What, no Kindle (with the solar recharger option)? Harsh. Okay, let's start with fiction. There are so many lofty titles one could give here (The Brothers Karamasov, anyone?). I'd be tempted to take the Lord of the Rings one-volume edition. Yes, there is one, and it's only 1178 pages long. That would kill a few hours. But I'd probably end up choosing the collected writings of Woody Allen. All his nutty essays from the New Yorker magazine and others, since the 1960s, in one handy paperback. That one alone might make me avoid the first rescue ship or two. Non-fiction... Is there an Idiot's Guide to surviving on a desert island? Either that or a book about "the making of" any of the Pixar movies. I could read and re-read something like that forever.

Gazala.      Your latest novel is an excellent and gripping thriller titled The Devil's Elixir. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about The Devil's Elixir, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Khoury.     Quite simply, because it's just spectacularly magnificent. Reading it will be akin to a religious enlightenment, and any reader who dares venture into its pages will be hopelessly addicted to reading all my novels and left wandering the streets aimlessly in between books, pleading with anyone he encounters for another hit of wondrous words. Then again, I do love a damn good thriller. But seriously--I'm tremendously proud of it. It's mostly set in San Diego, it doesn't have any Templars in it (it's all present day, not a historical thriller apart from its prologue), it's the first time I've written in first person (from Reilly's point-of-view, which was such a blast to write that I'm doing it again for at least the next two books), it's got a biker gang called the Babylon Eagles and a really creepy bad guy (a drug kingpin called "El Brujo", i.e. the Sorcerer) and all kinds of weird hallucinogens, and its plot is going to be really hard for me to beat in future books...

Gazala.      What are books for?

Khoury.     I use them to build big mazes in our basement where I banish the kids when they're being too noisy. Hours of fun to be had by all. Maybe not so much the kids.

Gazala.     W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Khoury.     One of my three rules in life is never to comment on anything W. Somerset Maugham says. It's gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years and I think some things are better left unsaid.

Gazala.      I have to take this call. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Khoury.     What's the recipe for the perfect mojito? No, wait. How about--who's the writer whose career you most admire? (Don't know where that came from, but I'll run with it). I'd have to say, Stephen King or Michael Crichton. King, for obvious reasons. But maybe even more so, Crichton. He was always coming up with these incredible high-concept stories, always cutting edge, an incredible imagination, just awesome fiction in terms of creating hugely memorable conceits and pulling them off with great believability. You never knew what he was going to do next, and that's a really great place to be, as a writer.

Starting Tuesday, December 22, you can find The Devil's Elixir all over the place. For more information about Khoury, his books, and where to get them, clicking on this link is a great idea:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Apple Falls Close

This wasn't at all like when I taught my kids to hit a ball deep to the outfield, or how to cook, or drive. This one hit much closer to home, when my high school freshman son told me a couple weeks ago his English teacher was running a contest in class. She tasked her students with a creative writing exercise. They were each to write an original very short story that would give her the creeps when she read it. Each submission was to be written as if it weren't a complete story in and of itself, but as if it were the first chapter of a longer work. At the story's end, the reader was to be left anxious to know, what happens next?

Those of you who've had high school freshman sons, or who have them now, know that sprinting down the academic paths of least resistance is a high art form with those kids. I'm an author, and I write scary short stories, so it didn't surprise me much when my boy cornered me as I was brushing my teeth, explained the assignment, and asked me what he should write. Write whatever you'd like to, I said through a mouth full of foam over the whirring of my electric toothbrush. But there's a prize for the best story and I want to win it, he said. I replied that he'd best write a really good story then, but that I wasn't going to help him beyond a few basic tips about crafting horror stories, and checking his grammar and punctuation when he finished his writing.

He granted me a scowl, then threw his hands in his pockets and wandered off to ponder as I flossed my smile.

I read his story when he finished it a few days later. I thought it was great, and told him so. His teacher thought so, too, as did the rest of his class. Yesterday, his eerie tale won the prize for best story. Overstating my pride about that isn't possible. And so without further ado, I present to you the work of a budding young author teeming with bright promise. Enjoy.

The Long Way Home

By E. Gazala

“You must not be from around here,” Brooke said. “I’m supposed to be home before dark, and this is the long way home. We should have gone the other way. Now it’ll be dark before I get home.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll be back in time,” Will replied.

There was only silence between them for a few minutes.  Both of them wanted to speak, but for some reason, they kept to themselves. Finally Brooke said, “Did you hear what Turner was saying today?”

“You mean about how the anniversary of the school bus wreck all those years ago is coming up?”

Brooke nodded. “Yeah. I always think about it when I walk on this street. It happened here, you know. Gives me the creeps…”

“Really? That makes me think about…“ Will stopped talking, abruptly.

Brooke waited for Will to finish his sentence. He didn’t say anything.

Will seemed sad when she looked at him. “What were you going to say?” Brooke asked.

Will shook his head.

“C’mon. Tell me.”

“Ok, ok. I was just going to say that it makes me think about ghosts,” Will answered, reluctantly.

“That’s it? Why did you not want to tell me that?”

“I’m not sure. We just met. I didn’t want you to think I’m weird or something.”

“No! Everyone thinks about ghosts every now and then, Will.”

Will smiled weakly, as if he knew he made a mistake by telling Brooke his thought. Another silence hung between them.

Finally Brooke said, “It’s going to be dark soon. My Dad gets mad when I’m out after dark. Why did you want to come this way?”

The sky was a fading orange as the sun began to set over the tree line of the suburban neighborhood Brooke and Will were walking through. The sun was still slightly out though, and it seemed too dark and too cold for the time that it was.

“I’m not sure. I just felt like coming this way tonight,” Will said. “I like it here.”

The sun vanished behind the trees. It was getting colder and darker by the minute. A chilling breeze picked up. It swished through the trees and pushed fallen, crumbling leaves against Brooke’s and Will’s ankles.

“You’re right. You are weird,” Brooke said. She tried to make it sound like a joke, but she sounded a little nervous.

Will laughed sheepishly. “Was it really this street that the school bus crash was on? Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Everyone knows that,” Brooke said. “You know, Turner said people think that some of the kids who died in the crash left their ghosts around here. He’s such an idiot.”

When Will didn’t answer her Brooke turned around. Will was gone. She looked everywhere, but she was alone, except for the silence all around her.

“Will?” she called out. Her voice was trembling

There was no answer but a single cold breath on the back of her neck.

 "The child is father to the man." 
~~ Gerard Manley Hopkins ~~