Friday, 20 January 2012

Forgotten Book - Dorothy and Agatha

My Forgotten Book for today dates back just 20 years. It is an American mystery, Dorothy and Agatha, and the author is Gaylord Larsen. The eponymous ladies are, needless to add, Sayers and Christie, and the supporting cast includes various prominent members of the Detection Club.

Regular readers of this blog can probably guess at my delight when I learned of and tracked down this novel. Larsen’s lovely idea of setting a story around the Club offers terrific potential, and I wish I’d been the first to think of it. But of course, an idea is one thing. Executing it successfully is something very different.

The story opens with the discovery of a dead man at Dorothy’s home in Essex. He is found slumped over a typewriter, and there is with him an apparent suicide note. Was he a distraught lover? No, it turns out that murder has been done, and Sayers and in particular Agatha Christie are the ideal people to solve it.

The dust jacket claims that Larsen “has rendered every detail of character and place with uncanny accuracy”. Unfortunately, this is so far off the mark as to be hilarious. Take for instance the author’s apparent belief that Chester (where Agatha watches a soccer match...) is located in the Lake District, and is a shortish drive away from Essex. Now, I wouldn’t want to be excessively pedantic about the countless factual errors and historical and chronological anachronisms. When writing about a foreign country and different era, mistakes are almost inevitable, and I’m as likely to get things wrong as most other writers. But here there are just too many howlers, page after page, and most could have been avoided by elementary care. The bizarre portrayal of Oxford life, for instance, might be forgivable, but the repeated references to “Summerville College” and the suggestion that Anthony Berkeley was president of the Detection Club are just lazy. Whatever happened to fact-checking and the editorial process?

And then there is the dialogue. Where do I begin? Dorothy saying to Agatha, “We’re a couple of stodgy, middle-aged storytelling dames.”? Agatha saying to E.C. Bentley , “Edmund, I’m sorry. I’ve gotten you out of bed?” You get the picture.

In defence of Gaylord Larsen, he can write agreeably, and the pages turn quickly. He deserves genuine praise for coming up with a concept of real interest and exciting potential. What is more, his “least likely person” plot isn’t at all bad. These positive points do need to be made, not least because I don't care much for reviews that are wholly negative. It's not right to overlook redeeming features. But I'm afraid that, overall, Dorothy and Agatha has to rank as, to put it kindly, a missed opportunity.

11 comments:

Sextonblake said...

These sorts of goofs can make you grind your teeth, spoiling the book. I've seen similar stuff too many times to mention. TV and Film can be just as bad; I remember Christopher Lee saying that when he did an episode of WILLIAM TELL in the 50s he had a cherishable piece of dialogue as the villain. As the hero escaped he cried 'Next time, Tell, I'll get you for sure!'

John said...

Sayers referring to any woman as a dame - let alone herself AND Christie - is hysterical to me. This was fun to read about but I will not be tracking down the book.

Fiona said...

Definitely best buried and forgotten! Mind you, there is a current American crime writer - apparently widely popular - who sets his/her books in England and desperately needs a good English editor. I finally gave up on the series when the head of Scotland Yard was sitting at his desk in his vest and pants....

Doug Greene said...

Martin -- I reviewed this book for my newspaper when it first appeared and panned it as getting the personalities of every character entirely wrong. Not only the title duo, but also Berkeley (who Larsen thinks was President of the Detection Club) and others. I think there is plenty of room for you to write a far better Detection Club novel . . . Doug Greene

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Sextonblake - great line! I distantly remember William Tell myself.
John, it's an extraordinary piece of work.
Hi Fiona, as I say, I make mistakes myself - but there are limits!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Doug, I rather thought I wouldn't be alone in being amazed by this book!
I remember you once gently pointed out a glitch in my story "Eternally", so I know I'm not totally beyond reproach myself, but this book makes errors page after page.
I do find the DC novel idea very appealing, I must admit...

Richmonde said...

William Tell spoke a Swiss dialect - so why not translate the dialogue into American? The Dorothy and Agatha saga sounds hilarious - in the wrong way.

Martin Edwards said...

Richmonde, I read an extract to my wife, and she thought it was meant to be a spoof. Enough said!

Meredith Inktwala said...

Gaylord Larsen isn't the only American mystery writer to underestimate the distances between various parts of Britain. Others include Martha Grimes and the usually impeccable Charles Todd. They have both clearly spent a lot of research time over here, so I can only suppose they have a different spatial sense to us British and genuinely regard Chester and Essex, for example, as being neighbourly.
After all, compared to their own country, Britain is pretty small!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Meredith, you're right, and to be honest, if it were a fairly isolated slip, I wouldn't make much of it. We all get things wrong sometimes. The problem with the book is the sheer number and scale of the errors.

Sextonblake said...

Richmonde: I think the truth is that some lines work and other just don't. In a film like KING RICHARD AND THE CRUSADERS you can spend as much time on the costumes and sets as you like, but when Richard the Lionheart's wife says to her hubby "War, war, war, that's all you think about, Dick Plantagenet!" it will all be for naught.
I suspect that for the Christie/Sayers book the problem is even worse. Speech patterns were probably slightly different, as was the slang, but when it is so recent it is much easier for a reader to tell whether it sounds genuine or not.
Martin & Meredith: We live in the Midlands, but we had some American friends who mentioned people they knew in Edinburgh. "Maybe you've met them?" they said. Definitely a difference in scale.
This book sounds so awful that I'm almost tempted to track it down...