Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

This is my first Julian Barnes novel, and while it took me a couple of tries to get past the opening--it ping-pongs so quickly between the two main characters at the start that I kept stopping--but once I got going I really admired and enjoyed it.

The Arthur of the title is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame and the George is an English-Indian solicitor accused of insane crimes that he didn't commit. I could never quite tell if it was based on a real case or if Barnes made the whole thing up (Google would tell I'm sure), but I'm often a sucker for the real life author as fictional character genre and I enjoyed imagining Conan Doyle via Barne's creation. (confession: I've never read any Sherlock Holmes).

But what really struck me about the novel is the way it uses the conventions of mystery within a literary novel. The end, which I won't give away, is a bold move away from the conventions of mystery but Barnes gets away with it because of his beginning (for the first 20-30 pages you have no idea you're headed toward a mystery). Anyway, I've noticed lately that literary authors, like Kate Atkinson, are taking on the mystery genre more directly and I think it's been good all around--whether you think of them as literary novels with strong plots or genre novels with strong characters--they're a pleasure to read. It can be useful for a novelist to acknowledge that we're pretty much all writing mysteries--not necessarily about crimes but about things unknown which will gradually be revealed--and so understanding the rules of the genre (multiple suspects, red herrings, tension, subplots and unexpected developments to name a few) can help with even the most literary construction.

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