November 22, 2015

Of Interest (22 November, 2015)

Not Books:

David Robson talks to Nick Middleton about his new book on countries that don’t exist. A bit blissfully apolitical for its subject matter but I’m willing to ascribe that to the BBC rather than Middleton’s book (hopefully). Via Maureen Kincaid Speller.

David Whitehouse on the origins of modern policing in England and America. (Via the Metropolarity tumblr account, which you should be following.)

An Xiao Mina on #firstworldproblems and imagining the world. Not much here feels new, but this past week or so it has felt necessary. Related, Samira Nadkarni on fetishising nonwhite bodies to make them mournable.

Manisha Pande on “whataboutery,” the media, and why questioning disproportionate grief isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Rebecca Giggs on a dying whale, and on dying whales. I don’t always know how I feel about aspects of this piece (“what if we were now taking the wildness out of the whale? If deep inside whales the indelible imprint of humans could be found, could we go on recounting the myth of their remarkable otherness, their strange, wondrous and vast animalian world?”); on the other hand it is stunningly, startlingly written; on another hand, probably one belonging to a separate person, it’s easy to manipulate me (and most people, I hope) into feeling things about whales. (Hi Kate, when you see this.) (via Hiromi Goto on twitter.)

Mark Humphries on Niall Ferguson on Paris. Spoiler: Ferguson is wrong, I hope you’re amazed. (via Alex von Tunzelmann and Sanjay Sipahimalani)

Doreen St. Félix on talking to people about rats. (via Kate Schapira)

[If I hadn't shied away from even thinking about this this week, my next link would have been to something on that Daily Mail cartoon depicting refugees as rats this week. Thanks, the UK, you really do make an immigrant feel safe.]

Allison Meier on imagining cannibals into the new world. (via Kawrage on twitter)

Roxane Gay on safe spaces. (See also Kerim Friedman on safe spaces.)

Darran Anderson on architecture and the future.



Like Anjum Hasan, most of the Hindi literature I read is in English translation, though I can read Hindi (slowly). This essay on what we can access of a literary culture in translation, and what we miss of it, is really good.

As an SFF reader I’m both fascinated and made slightly resentful by this piece by Chaitali Sen on her choice to set her novel The Pathless Sky in a fictional country. Because it’s great on the ways that place works, the functions that fictional spaces perform (those of you who have to hear me talk about my thesis a lot are rolling your eyes as you read this) and so baffled by the idea that this might align it in some ways with a genre that … often sets things in fictional spaces, in order that those spaces may perform certain functions. (“Years ago, when I told someone that my then unfinished novel was a love story set in an imaginary country, she asked me if I was a science fiction writer. I thought that was a strange leap, but truthfully she wasn’t the only person who struggled with the idea of an unnamed setting.” It’s … really not a strange leap.)

Anne Boyer on the new Missy Elliot is the most perfect thing. (Also: new Missy Elliot video, new David Bowie video, new MIA song leaked and then apparently removed[?], this is certainly a month.)

Anne E. Fernald on Gertrude Stein and Margaret Wise Brown. I really like this, though the children’s lit person in me is going “but what about-?”  near-constantly as I read.

Clare Napier on gender and the Major’s body in Ghost in the Shell--the link is to the first of a series of essays on the subject that I’m still reading. (via That SabineGirl on twitter.)

Colin Dayan on Lori Gruen’s Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic For Our Relationship With Animals. (via Salman Hussain on twitter.)


November 15, 2015

Of Interest (15 November, 2015)


Priyamvada Gopal on Edward Said and Humanism.

Poorna Swami interviews Annie Zaidi about her own writing, and about Unbound, her anthology of Indian women’s writing that I’ve been dipping in and out of for the last few months. (via Nilanjana Roy)

Jess Zimmerman on the history of ‘owning’ land on the moon.

As a Person With Fraught Feelings About My Languages (and a person who loves Ursula the Sea Witch), I liked this, by Sophia Al-Maria, on her own relationship with Arabic.

I have more complicated feelings about this piece by McKenzie Wark.

Keguro linked to this piece by Egbert Alejandro Martina, on the effects of caring, and it’s great and exactly what I needed at this moment to hang some of my own thinking on and I want to read (probably will end up reading) his whole blog.

Deepika Sarma on constructing a medieval aesthetic in some recent Telugu and Tamil historical/fantasy films.

I was at a recent discussion of Angela Carter’s work and spent much of it thinking something like “sure, but that’s not the best thing about her”. I’ve kept going back to her essay “Anger in a Black Landscape” this year and the whole of it seems to be reprinted here (towards the end of the page) and it’s vital and angry and astonishing.

Danila Tkachenko’s fascinating Restricted Areas series of photographs.

Fascinating writing on things about which I don’t know enough 1. Charles Tonderai Mudede on Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Hyènes. (via Africa’s a Country on twitter)

Fascinating writing about which I don’t know enough 2. andré carrington on Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet at 25. (via Phenderson Djeli Clark)

I can’t not link to Mervyn Peake things, so here’s Rob Maslen on Peake and trees.

Erin Horáková reads A. N. Wilson’s London; is unimpressed; the world is awash with glorious rage. (If you don’t already read Erin you should; this piece says some really smart, important things about Britain’s national mythmaking, and it’s also hilarious.)

This piece by Rishi Majumder on intolerance as culture vs intolerance as incident, Savarkar, and conversations on trains. The title is a lot kinder in its assumptions than I’m capable of being.

November 11, 2015

JiHyeon Lee, Pool

Because water stories. Column here, or below.



JiHyeon Lee’s picture book Pool begins with a young boy by a swimming pool, empty and inviting. He’s about to get in, we assume, when a crowd of other people rush into his (and our) sight. They’re mostly adults, all bigger than him, armed with rubber rings and toys and all looking a lot less serious than our protagonist does. Hell is other people with beach balls. A page later the pool is packed, so full of people and floatation aids that we can barely see the tiny spots of blue water between them. And so our protagonist dives underwater instead, and that is where everything gets exciting.

Sound changes under water, as do movement, and colour, and even time. Immediately once the boy has entered the water he’s cut off from the world above (now a riot of feet and flippers at the top of the page) and in a dreamlike space which seems to work in different ways to the world he’s left behind. This new world has one other human inhabitant; a girl who has had the same idea as him. The boy’s skin and clothes, on the surface the same greys and creams as everyone else, take on new and rich colours; the girl wears a red swimsuit.

Suddenly the children are free, exploring a glorious, improbable underwater world. Shoals of brightly coloured fish with beaklike noses flit birdlike through an underwater forest; tiny creatures with long, tpool3ubelike noses sniff curiously at the intruders. There are friendly sea serpents peeping out of the holes in coral formations, sharklike creatures with huge, prehistoric grins but apparently benign intentions, giant sea slugs, and fish that appear designed to be ridiculous. The range of real world ocean life can often be so weird and wonderful that it’s sometimes hard to be sure that these creatures (a mobile feather boa, a goofy-faced yellow creature with both fur and fins) aren’t based on real things; particularly when a trio of narwhals shows up. Perhaps that’s the point though—our imaginations allow us to have the real and the fantastic simultaneously. We can have dragons and dinosaurs and iguanas all at the same time, should we so choose.

It’s not this diverse underwater menagerie that makes Pool special, however, but how it handles sound and space. In the early pages, there’s often nothing on the page but the boy and his corner of the pool in a vast white plane. Underwater the children have all the space they want; the three-spread sequence in which they meet a huge whale iPool2n particular gives a strong sense of size and scope and wonder. Above, as the pool fills with people, so does the page, till it is covered to the very edges and visually busy. (There’s often something a little disgusting about bodies en masse; in crowds we are reduced to the sweaty meatsacks that we really are. Lee manages to keep her crowds human and distinct, though I wish she hadn’t chosen to depict most of the offending pool-goers as fat.) Pool is a book entirely without words, but manages its depictions of space to make those silences sometimes plangent and echoing (the empty pool, the vast space around it) and sometimes intimate (the underwater world, so safely cocooned against the world above). The colours are delicate, the lines are pencil; it’s a very quiet book.

With an escort of strange creatures, the children swim back to the surface. The crowd has exited the pool as a group (perhaps someone saw a shark); the boy and girl take their goggles and swimming caps off and smile at each other for the first time. Their skin and clothes retain the vivid colour they acquired down below; they have been transformed.

And just as we think the crowd who stayed up on the surface have been utterly discarded by the book, a child in a rubber ring turns around to stare at the weird pink and yellow fish that have appeared in the pool. The children have brought back with them some of the wonder of the deep.


November 8, 2015

Of Interest (8 November, 2015)

Here are some things that I read and that you might like to read.



Rukmini Pande in Popmatters on race and passing in iZombie.

I haven’t worked out quite what I feel about Solarpunk (besides a vague support for anything that is so upsetting to the “but it’s not punk!” people; this piece by Andrew Dana Hudson gets at a lot of its appeal while also managing to be several things I dislike, but there it is anyway.

Frances Chiem on the Life is Strange finale and not letting teenagers save the world.

Two responses to Chetan Bhagat’s embarrassing rant about “liberals”: Sanjay Rajoura offering serious (and useful) opposition here, and twitterer “Doucheslayer” treating the piece with all the respect it deserved here.

While on the subject of quality literature, Shocko reads Striker! by Steve Bruce. Yes really.

Ijeoma Oluo refuses to review Suffragette because “the same process that thinks an entire film in which people of color don’t exist is “relatable” is the same process that leads a group of white women to wear shirts exclaiming their brave preference to not be slaves.” I suggest not reading the comments.

I love this review by Darcie Dennigan of Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo and Hotel, “how embarrassing it is to be alive, how each of us is continually barred from our self”.

Rasheedah Phillips has written and said some amazing things, and this interview with Katy Otto, which covers community, and parenting and Afrofuturism, is so good.

I’d never come across June Jordan’s “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America” before but thanks to Kate Schapira I now have and maybe you hadn’t either and now you can.

Via Prem Panicker, Amitav Ghosh’s “The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi“. “It is when we think of the world the aesthetic of indifference might bring into being that we recognize the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written.”

I’m glad The Wire published this translated piece by M.M. Kalburgi. “The Future of Folk in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“.


The World:

Via Nicholas Tam, Helen MacDonald forages for mushrooms.

Autostraddle’s Rachel on growing up with/in/near Salem.

Kitty Stryker on suicide and radical self-reliance.

Moon Ribas “reflects the same uncertainty as anyone living along earth’s many fault lines: trusting in stillness, but knowing that turbulence can come at any time”, this is amazing.

November 2, 2015

October Reading

Books I finished in October:

Uday Prakash (trans. Jason Grunebaum), The Girl with the Golden Parasol: I wrote about this for a column, and then added a whole bunch of gushing about all the columns I didn’t write here. It’s a good book, Prakash is a wonderful writer, Grunebaum’s a good translator.


Only one book, though.

I’m reading (slowly) W.E.B. Dubois’s Dark Princess, which is reminding me of his genius at nonfiction if it’s not doing much for my opinion of his fiction, Celeste Rita Baker’s Back, Belly and Side, and Dale Jamieson and Bonnie Nadzam’s Love in the Anthropocene, along with (theoretically) the other books I said I was reading a couple of monthly round-up posts ago (except in practice I haven’t touched them). I’m hoping to spend Christmas reading under a blanket and maybe getting through some of the TBR pile, if I’m not working. On current form, I expect instead to spend the whole time staring blankly into space.


October 27, 2015

Uday Prakash, The Girl With the Golden Parasol (trans. Jason Grunebaum)

This, for the weekend’s column, is shorter than I’d have liked it to be–there’s so much in Prakash’s book to work with that I could have gone on for at least a few more thousand words. I’d love, as well, to be able to link to Grunebaum’s introduction to the piece, which suggests (among other things) that Prakash’s novel grew more political in the telling, as the serialised version gathered letters from who identified with the caste politics of the story, and that the author decided that this simply couldn’t be a love story. Which raises all sorts of implications for the abrupt, filmi ending, which has the lovers safely and happily speeding away on a train, even as Rahul has nightmares that seem much more grounded in the book’s (real) world.

I want to talk about this book and Bollywood (fascinating!), and this book and gender (uncomfortable!), and the fact that Prakash ties global and racial and sexual and economic inequalities up with caste under the heading “Brahminism”, and I want to do a much more detailed reading of it in the context of the subsequent campus novel tradition, and I want to read it alongside Half Girlfriend at length and less dismissively of the genre than I have been here (though I’m glad I was, here). In an earlier piece about another Prakash book I wrote that the author “lays claim to the whole world“; the sheer scope of his imagined (political, philosophical, literary) universe makes it hard to write about but in that book, as well as here, this is the thing I admire the most. The result is rich and flawed and messy and brilliant and a better reader could probably talk about it for a lot longer than me.

In the absence of those unwritten pieces, have this profile of the author instead. And some of his own words, on the returning of his Sahitya Akademi award.

And my column, I guess.

********************************************** parasol

A boy named Rahul and a girl named Anjali meet on a university campus and fall in love. But while their friends (even a girl who has a crush on Rahul) are admirably supportive, there are obstacles to their coming together. This is unsurprising, for a book which opens with “the bare backside of Madhuri Dixit, the same one Salman Khan had aimed at and hit with the pebble from his slingshot”, and whose lead characters carry those names. Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol (Peelee Chhatri Wali Ladki) is often in conversation with Bollywood; in plot as well as tone. Occasionally Rahul will go off into a daydream that suggests a well-placed song sequence; more worryingly, his ideas about wooing women seem derived from films—including Shah Rukh Khan in Darr. Late in the novel Prakash drives the point home, for any reader who had somehow missed it: “So this was the reality after all? Did Bollywood commercial cinema represent the most authentic and credible expression of the reality of our day and age …?”

Rahul is of a lower caste, one of the only non-Brahmins in the university’s Hindi department (to which he has transferred from Anthropology in order to better gaze besottedly at Anjali). Anjali’s father is a local politician, his position upheld in part by the local goons whose assault on Rahul’s Manipuri friend Sapam Tomba led to Sapam’s suicide. Rahul is involved in a student movement to organise and fight back against these goons, who form a worrying nexus with the university administration, politicians and local police. So far so filmi, but there’s far too much going on here to centre the love plot. Rahul’s political ideals, disillusionment with the system, with “Hindu Raj”, with capitalism and global structures of power take up at least as much of the book, and of his mind, as his romance with Anjali. And there’s no glib love conquers all message; when they finally consummate the relationship Rahul is very aware of the ways in which power, class, and caste (if not gender) are in operation.

The university campus setting is crucial here, and not only because it’s an appropriate setting for a romance plot. In few other situations would the earnestness of the characters work. Here we have students who read Che Guevara for inspiration and adopt Junoon songs as appropriate revolutionary chants (one of the few flaws in Jason Grunebaum’s fantastic translation is that the direct connection to familiar song lyrics is lost), and the spectre of Rahul’s uncle Kinnu Da, who occasionally swoops into the narrative to educate us further and refer to Foucault. But the local politics of the university campus have much wider implications, we’re reminded; with references to police brutality elsewhere, corruption, capital, caste. Sapam Tomba’s brother has been killed and he cannot go home (“they’ll say I am a PLA member and shoot me”); when Sapam kills himself shortly afterwards, Rahul hallucinates the brothers’ corpses walking side by side.

In Indian-English literature, of course, the campus novel has another set of connotations. In its original Hindi publication Prakash’s book precedes the rise of that particular genre; it was published in 2001 (Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone came out in 2004). In any case despite the hapless male protagonist and romance plot, it’s hard to see these as the same sorts of books, or even about the same sorts of people. Rahul and his friends inhabit a wide-ranging, multilingual imaginary where anything from Hazari Prasad Dwivedi to Jan Otčenášek to the movie Critters is available for them to draw upon. It’s a separate world from that of your average campus protagonist, and a difference that can’t be dismissed as the elitism of the English speaking world.

It’s a difference that was visible again earlier this week, when Bhagat dismissed the returning of Sahitya Akademi awards by various writers (Prakash among them) as a form of posturing, and his supporters hurried to assure the world that no one had heard of these people anyway. In Prakash’s works, it seems perfectly reasonable to mention Nirala, Alka Saraogi, Italo Calvino, whether the audience has read them or not. In that other world it’s a matter of pride not to know of Uday Prakash.


October 25, 2015

Of Interest (25 October, 2015)



A link from a fellow Sunday Reader led me to something which led me to something else which eventually led to this piece by Daniel Salas, published last year, on the intertwinedness of religion and technology, and how this has played out in American narratives of apocalypse.

Via this by Zain Ahmed on Black Girl Dangerous, the secret history of South Asian and African American solidarity.

Naintara Oberoi is one of my favourite food writers (also one of my favourite people) and I am really looking forward to the whole of this essay, but here’s an extract: on Punjabi khana and histories, public and personal. (Also I’m craving home and food more than usual as a  result of this)

Via Maureen Kincaid Speller: the myth of the Cherokee ancestor in American culture.

Jessica Weiss on the secret linguistic life of girls. (Via Manjula Narayan)

The text from Kate Schapira’s Creative Medicine Lecture is up here, and is (predictably) wonderful, and I hope everyone reads it.


Books, film:

I’ve been writing a review of an Uday Prakash book (check back here in a few days) and therefore had cause to revisit this profile of him by Shougat Dasgupta, which I think is really good.

Trisha Gupta on folktales and the supernatural in Indian cinema, and the horror of Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi.

A thing that happened in my city that I missed because I’m poor at planning: Jo Lindsay Walton’s talk on SF and the future. (Also you should read his blog; this recent post is very good, for example.)

I don’t understand why Claudia Rankine’s Citizen should require defending (it’s phenomenal, she’s phenomenal, we’re lucky that it exists in the world) but Adam Fitzgerald has done it, here. (Via Aimee Pohl)

Rob Maslen on Lolly Willowes– I really enjoyed this, but am struck anew by the idea that Sylvia Townsend Warner’s work is unknown or even little known (in this post, less well known than Hope Mirrlees, and see also this column by Kari Sperring) I suppose in SFF this might be the case (Lud-in-the-Mist is a Fantasy Masterwork, Lolly Willowes is not), outside them, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t the other way around.

I haven’t read Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void yet (I expect to like it; his Skippy Dies is close to perfect); I loved this interview of him by Mark O’Connell.



October 18, 2015

Of Interest (18 October, 2015)

Empire & Nationhood &c.:

Bruno Faidutti on board games and colonising space (in both French and English!). I like this a lot, and laughed out loud at “Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism was published in 1993, more or less at the same time as Catan and Magic the Gathering”, which is honestly a perfect line. (Via @nanayasleeps on twitter)

Karen Sands-O’Connor eats an Empire Pie, explores the children’s section of a bookshop, and wonders if the empire is making a comeback. “Slaves are labelled, confusingly, as “cheap labour” (111) and the “Indian Mutiny” (otherwise known as the Sepoy Rebellion) started with “resentment” (127) and ended with the British building “roads, railways and postal services” (127), all resentment apparently put aside.”

Amit Chaudhuri would suggest that yes, it is. (Also: “The sight of Snow and his colleagues among teeming crowds, asking Indians what they think of the railways, provoked in me a Goodness Gracious Me-type reverse fantasy, of Indian reporters on the streets of London inquiring into how the English are coping with the decimal system.”)

Abdul Majid Abid on Pakistan’s origin story.

On Exxon and climate change (and don’t tell me this doesn’t belong under “empire”)



I wrote a review! It was of Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun and it was in the Strange Horizons fund drive (donate here!) special issue.

Kenzaburo Oe on Huckleberry Finn and being Japanese in America in 1965.

Isabel Ortiz on the mutable Nancy Drew.

Andrew Leonard suggests that reading Dune might save California. I’m bound to link to this because it’s a long piece of writing about the environment and an SF novel but UM. (I’m fully expecting some amusing shouting to follow.) (via Shruti Ravi)


Film/TV/Visual things:

Jaideep Unudurti talks to Vishwanathan Anand about chess in the movies. (via Rukmini Shrinivasan)

Krish Raghav travels to Mexico City and discovers M.N. Roy. (This is a comic, and it’s great)

How good is Annie Mok at pretty much everything she writes? (Ans: very good).

Will Partin reviews Prison Architect, says good things. (via Ben Gabriel, who causes me to read a disproportionate amount of games-related stuff for someone who doesn’t play them)

Finally, not a link but a reminder that in some lucky countries there is now a new season of Please Like Me and you should watch it, and the first episode is (legally!) on youtube and it is great.

October 18, 2015

Various Marses

Water on Mars, and so this.



“ … since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end,” explains H.G. Wells, at the beginning of The War of the Worlds.

silent planetEarly science fiction makes much of Mars’s age, of its supposed greater proximity to its ending than our own. Its fabled canals become the waterways and irrigation systems of a dead or dying people, elaborate civilisations that the books in question talk about with a sort of yearning regret—because they are dying, because they are unreachable, because they were never real, because it’s the turn of the century and everything anyway feels like the end of the world. Occasionally, in the midst of all the fantasy adventure of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books, we’re reminded that the world is ending—in A Princess of Mars the atmosphere is kept breathable via machinery that fails, after its (earthly) human hero John Carter kills the operator in self defense. With only days left to live the red Martians prepare themselves for doom, and only Carter’s fortunate intervention may (since the book ends inconclusively, though all is made clear in the sequels) save them. C.S. Lewis has another well-populated society in his Out of the Silent Planet, in which the canals of Mars are really only giant rifts in the surface of the planet that open into lower, warmer valleys with plenty of water and vegetation and three sentient races of aliens living in harmony. Yet we learn towards the end of the book that the surface of the planet was once populated, that there was a golden age of beautiful, winged beings living on those vast red expanses. This is Fallen Mars much as Earth, for Lewis, is fallen, but it’s also postapocalyptic Mars.

And then there are Leigh Brackett’s Mars stories, which are gorgeous in their own right but gain extra weight by unashamedly placing themselves in this tradition—decadence and doom and adventure—and I think they might just be my favourite.seakings

Mars was my first dying Earth. My first encounter with that particular sub-genre of science fiction (surely having a revival at the moment, though I’m not sure anyone has explicitly connected this wave to those earlier ones), but also my first encounter with the larger concept. I sometimes worry about my own tendency to respond to our actual dying planet with doom and nostalgia, and I wonder how much my tastes in genre fiction have to do with that. Later science fiction, working with more information, treats Mars as a real place, subject to actual science, and I find myself not caring very much. Is there something a bit exploitative (and a lot colonialist) about treating real places as places to project your own desires and emotions? Yes.

And watching The Martian, the movie based on Andy Weir’s novel, I find myself again not caring very much. Matt Damon’s Watney is stranded on Mars due to a tragic error—the only man on the planet, his chances of survival are low to non-existent. Yet there’s no real facing or waiting for the end here—only potatoes and problem-solving and a brilliant, upbeat soundtrack. Perhaps the book, which I haven’t read, is more interior, but there’s no indication that this is ever the sort of story that The Martian wants to be. Which is fair enough, and it’s not as if we’re short on narratives of characters waiting for the end.

It may, possibly, mean that the only great recent Mars story that is also a powerful story of loss and hopelessness may be an xkcd strip about the poor little Mars rover Spirit, stranded on a desolate planet and unable to contact home.



October 14, 2015

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Mr. Quin

For Christie’s 125th birth anniversary, a column and a bunch of generalisations about detectives and absolutely no Identifying With Mr Satterthwaite at all.



I suspect I’ve been reading Agatha Christie all my life. In the case of most other authors, my first encounter with their work is something I actually remember; but while presumably I read my first Christie novel at some point, I  don’t know which, or when, or even whether I liked it. As an adult, I’ve made my way through the vast bulk of the Christie canon and I do know what I like—I know which stories (and which series) I will visit over and over again because I enjoy them and find them comforting. I know which ones I will not revisit because they unsettle me (Christie is not normally the author to whom I turn when I want to be unsettled, as skilfully as she may achieve that effect), which ones I will not revisit because I just don’t enjoy them, which ones I might revisit only to check that I didn’t hallucinate them (Passenger to Frankfurt). I’ve fluctuated between being a Poirot loyalist and a Marple loyalist, all the while knowing that one could be both and neither. But to  ‘celebrate’ the author’s birth anniversary a few days ago I found myself rereading the Mr Quin stories.

QuinI’ve generalised wildly about detective fiction here before, so feel I can safely do it again: the detective story is fundamentally comforting. However much violence and bloodshed and psychological harm they may contain, the structure is that of a puzzle that is solvable—by you, the reader, if we’re going by the rules of fair play; by the characters themselves if this is not the case. There are clues, and they only need to be pieced together. There is only one solution that fits all the facts. Of course, it’s easy to generalise about the whole of a genre and detective stories have been undermining all of this for as long as they’ve existed. (Terry Pratchett’s police/detective Sam Vimes has a wonderful rant on the “insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience” that clues assume.) Christie’s own detectives challenge those notions—in Poirot’s disdain for physically hunting for footprints, or Marple’s apparent belief that likenesses between people are somehow infallible markers of character. And yet even these are only alternative methods towards solving a world that is, fundamentally, solvable.

And then there are Mr Satterthwaite, and Mr Harley Quin. Satterthwaite is an observer of human nature, we’re told (often by Quin); a rich, elderly man, interested in art, never in a romantic relationship and often aware of, and worried by the knowledge that his experience of life has been at a remove. But it’s precisely this detachment that makes him an able agent for Quin, a mysterious dark figure bearing a puzzling resemblance to a Commedia dell’arte character, who shows up on occasion when a crime has been committed and hints to Satterthwaite about what has happened and who has done it. Not a figment of Satterthwaite’s imagination, since other people see and recognise him, it’s clear that there’s something not quite real about him, even in the stories where his appearances and disappearances might have a rational explanation. Occasionally his supernatural nature is openly acknowledged—at more than one point he is said to speak for the dead.

The Mr. Quin books are detective stories, but crucially, they are also ghost stories. There is a crime, there is a solution, there is the sense at the end that we have grasped What Really Happened, but we’re also reminded over and over that none of this would have been possible without the supernatural intervention of Mr Harley Quin. It’s a yoking together of two genres that should not work together (and yet of course they do, so many ghost stories are stories of unsolved crimes); truth and justice are attainable, in this world, but only through a sort of divine intervention.