Friday, February 6, 2015

Continuation Novels and Cocktails for All

By Art Taylor

Not only are Meredith Cole and I at opposite ends of the week's schedule, but I've learned over my year here at Criminal Minds that we're frequently at least a little at odds on the issues as well (see the zombies discussion from a couple of weeks back)—all of which makes for a good panel discussion, I hope!

This week's question: "Sophie Hannah continued Poirot and Sebastian Faulks continued Bond. What character would you most like to write about, if the estate asked you?" Meredith's firm answer about such a proposal: "I'm against it." Meanwhile, here on Friday and at the further end of the spectrum, I find such projects and the process behind it—the artistic process—fascinating.

Certainly, I understand the assumption that it's all motivated by money—either on the part of a dead author's estate or on the new author's part—but I also believe there's an excitement about the prospect of such a challenge. At Fall for the Book last September, talking about the first-ever Hercule Poirot novel not written by Agatha Christie, Sophie Hannah discussed in some depth the assumptions about money (it's not a simple answer) and about her own interests in writing what she called "a continuation novel" and the choices that had to be made in that regard. (GMU-TV filmed the event, which I helped to organize, so do check out the clip to Hannah's own take on all this.)

And certainly, there are such "continuation novels" written that fall short in any number of ways—the challenges not hardly met. I reviewed Benjamin Black's The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel for the Washington Post (see the review here), and I thought it was poorly conceived and almost dreadfully executed. Missteps can surely be made.

But when it works.... Well, our question this week asked specifically about the James Bond books, which offered a special set of circumstances even before Sebastian Faulks came into the picture. Ian Fleming wrote 13 James Bond novels by my count (not including the story collection); within four years of Fleming's death, Kingsley Amis (using the pseudonym Robert Markham) had taken up the mantle with Colonel Sun; between 1981 and 1996, John Gardner published 16 Bond novels (three more than Fleming had written); and Raymond Benson picked up the series a year later, carrying Bond in print through 2002. By the time Sebastian Faulks stepped in, there was already a long continuation underway—but Faulks, Jeffrey Deaver, and most recently William Boyd have done something different, not even bothering to build on one another's works but instead melding and shifting the Bond iconography within their own stylistic and thematic values and approaches, even jumping the character from one decade to another book to book, often to tremendously satisfying effect. I covered the latest of those novels for the Post as well—William Boyd's Solo, reviewed here—and think it's the best of the bunch so far. I'll be first in line to get the next one too: Anthony Horowitz's Murder on Wheels, due out later this year.

And in terms of other authors playing around with icons in their own writings—how many Sherlock Holmes pastiches, parodies, homages, etc. etc. are out there? And aren't fans of the originals often delighted by many, many, many of those revisitations and reinventions of that character? 

As for the characters I'd most like to write about, I have no hesitation at all—though a mighty big asterisk comes with it. Nick and Nora Charles may have appeared in only one novel, Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man (1934), but that doesn't mean they haven't already had a much longer life. Even beyond the brilliantly fun film series with William Powell and Myrna Loy—which cemented these characters in the public consciousness maybe even more than the book did—there was a nearly decade-long radio series in the 1940s, a short-lived TV series in the late ’50s, a mid-’70s TV movie, a failed musical (!!) in the early ’90s, a more straightforward stage adaptation (non-musical) just a few years back, and recurrent gossip even today about the possibility of Johnny Depp heading up a new film version of the story (which could be either really astounding or an utter mess, of course—the dangers of getting what you wish for, I guess). We've also had Hammett himself delivering the Charleses in fresh ways in recent years, thanks to the work of Hammett's biographer Richard Layman and Hammett's granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett, who co-edited Return of the Thin Man for publication in 2012; I reviewed that one for the Post too—which apparently means I'm making a career out of writing about such projects.

The asterisk, of course, is that continuing Nick and Nora beyond Hammett's final book has already been done—in a variety of ways, with more possibilities ahead, even if not in a new novel. But oh! what fun it would be just to spend some time on this side of the keyboard with that pair! Crime story meets comedy of manners, sophistication meets street smarts, suspense with a side of screwball humor, witty dialogue, sexual innuendo, and—of course—cocktails for all!

IN OTHER NEWS—though not unrelated to cocktails—I'm very pleased that two of my short stories have been named as finalists for this year's Agatha Awards, to be presented Saturday, May 2, at Malice Domestic in Bethesda, Maryland. "The Odds Are Against Us" was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (cover right), and "Premonition" appeared in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, published by Wildside Press in conjunction with the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Both stories are linked here—free reading!—and I hope folks will enjoy. And stay tuned for my next appearance here at Criminal Minds, since plans are afoot for me to host the other short story finalists—Kathy Lynn Emerson, Barb Goffman, and Edith Maxwell—for a discussion of all of our stories! See you for that on Friday, February 20!


Meredith Cole said...

Excellent points, Art. I love when we all don't agree on the blog -- but instead have an interesting discussion about a topic. Just to show that I'm open to change, I'm giving Sophie Hannah's Hercule Poirot a chance this week...

And congrats again on all your nominations!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Meredith! I actually fretted a little on calling out the differences in our opinion (by name!), but agree that *disagreements* here are what really makes for the best conversations—and glad, of course, we agree there!

And thanks, yes, re the nominations. I've been very fortunate with all the kind attention folks are giving my work! :-)

Susan C Shea said...

First off, congratulations times two for your nominations. Short stories are hard to write and I raise my coffee cup in salute to you!

My Dani O'Rourke series is a deliberately echoing reference to Nick and Nora - Dani and Dickie, her rich, charming but impulse-driven ex-husband, careen through investigations, alternately together and at odds, comic at times. It's been fun to write and so I quite understand your temptation. Go for it!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Susan! And I'm sorry to admit that I haven't read any of the Dani O'Rourke books. Definitely need to remedy that now!

That's the other thing with Nick and Nora too. They've been such an inspiration for and influence on other writers already! Do we even need to see more of them as them (...if that question makes sense) since other writers are reinventing them in fresh ways in their own works?

Thanks for the comment. And looking forward to catching up on your books!

Robin Spano said...

Hey congratulations on the nominations and way to spice up the conversation with a bit of friendly disagreement!