This alliterative title covers three episodes concerning Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes on BBC4. Last week we had Sleuths, this week we had Sorcerers (which is repeated tonight on the same channel), and next week it will be Spies.
Within the limited time of an hour, Andrew Marr attempts to deconstruct these popular genres; you know those books that never seem to win prizes, that the literary snobs decry and dismiss, those books that sell in their millions.
Sleuths was patchy, giving over many minutes to the genius of Agatha Christie, leaving less time for other practitioners. We had the John Dickson Carr’s locked room mysteries, Ian Rankins’ Rebus, Chandler’s Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op and Sam Spade to name a few. Interviewees comprised Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, and Anthony Horowitz, among others.
The psychology of the sleuths was examined, and the times they lived in obviously affected them. A long time ago, a reviewer of John D. McDonald said the author didn’t need to write The Great American Novel (a holy grail for American authors at one time), since he was doing that in his installments of Travis McGee and his other crime novels. That’s more or less the conclusion Marr makes concerning the crime writers, whether of the past or the present: they reflect the society from which they sprang, a rich trove to delve into for future archaeologists and historians.
Logically, Spies should have been next but for some reason Sorcerers followed. Here we entered the realms of fantasy. While fantasy has been around throughout the ages, in many cultures, Marr suggests that its modern popularity probably stemmed from the publication of The Lord of the Rings books. One of the prime attractions of fantasy is the world-building that is required; that means multifarious aspects of life in the fictional world, all logically fitting.
Besides Tolkien, Marr touched upon George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire sequence of novels, now filmed as Game of Thrones. Apparently, Martin was inspired to write the series when visiting Hadrian’s Wall and studying medieval English history and also the Wars of the Roses. The books contain ambivalent characters, people who are not wholly good or completely bad, as in life, perhaps, with conflict caused by ideology, greed, lust and a thirst for power. Other fantasists mentioned include Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea series), C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia), J.K. Rowling (the Harry Potter phenomenon) Alan Garner (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen), Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials trilogy), Neil Gaiman (American Gods), and of course Terry Pratchett (Discworld novels et al).
This episode seemed more coherent and covered a wide range within the genre.
As with Sleuths, however, there are bound to be many favourite authors omitted from this genre. It is now impossible to read all books within any single genre (nor would that be a good literary diet anyway), because there is so much choice.
Next, Spies. I can guess that certain names will crop up, among them Deighton, Le Carré, and Fleming, but who else? I’ll be tuning in to find out.