Writing Good Thrillers: Are Unreliable Narrators the Way to Go?

moshin hamid

During both my English Literature degrees my favourite module was always post-colonialism, as it exposed me to great writers I would otherwise have never even thought about, as well as some fantastic writing and new cultures. I learned to love writers such as Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Moshin Hamid.

I had only read Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist until recently, but I found my as yet untouched copy of Moth Smoke a few weeks ago (I haven’t even bought Hamid’s latest, Exit West, or his third book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, yet, which is testimony to how behind I am in my reading) and decided to delve in. I was not disappointed. As thrilling, tense and direct as The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Moth Smoke is an equally challenging thriller with a similar style, and a selection of equally unreliable narrators. As with the previous novel this is written mostly in a first person narrative, but with various narrators many of whom are contradictory and conceited, each believing themselves to be more right than anyone else. It is these narrators that form the backbone of the tension that remains taut throughout the novel; from the moment the reader enters the murky world of Lahore’s middle class society to the novel’s tense conclusion.

Despicable, unreliable and downright disgusting characters are a key trope in Hamid’s work. In Moth Smoke, the three core protagonists are all vile; Ozi is a spoiled little rich boy with a corrupt father and a manipulative nature, his wife Mumtaz selfish and bitter. Central character and main first person narrator Daru is morally corrupt and incredibly bitter about the increased good fortunes of his this wealthy, privileged couple, and it is his bitterness and jealousy that sets off a downward spiral in his own life.

So, are unreliable narrators the secret to truly great thrillers? Recently I have been searching for thrillers that are not driven by merciless violence, gore and a strong police presence and coming up decidedly short. Some of the greatest thrillers from the last year, such as The Girl on the Train, rely on unreliable narration to fuel the tension and drive the reader through the narrative, steering them towards incorrect conclusions. In standout brilliant thriller series such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, readers are made to disbelieve the central characters and distrust their motives, and it is this that fuels their interest in the overall outcome.

Overall, I am inclined to believe that whilst unreliable narrators should feature heavily in thrillers, it would be nice to see some new, original tropes such as setting featuring more heavily in modern thrillers. Moth Smoke encapsulates modern Lahore but, unlike many great thrillers such as Henning Mankell’s novels or Tayeb Salih’s stunning Season of Migration to the North, setting is not used as an additional character, which is what really makes these novels stand out. I would like to see additional uses of key thriller tropes in more modern novels as I continue to play catch up on myself and visit the latest novels of some of my favourite writers, many of whom combine post colonialism perfectly with thrilling stories to create books which stand the test of time and prove to be true classics.

Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express Trailer: My Thoughts

Murder on the Orient Express is an iconic novel, although I personally have always found it overrated. The novel is stunningly crafted right until the end, when we are left with a very strange conclusion in which there is no single murderer.

There’s no conclusive evidence that Branagh’s version of the film will remain true to the novel’s plotting, but I imagine this would be the case; there is no point in changing the ending, as this is what makes the novel truly revolutionary and unique.

I have awaited this film adaptation with bated breath ever since it was announced; I am a fan of Branagh’s thanks to his fabulous, if a little dreary, adaptations of Mankell’s Wallander novels, as well as his brilliant Shakespeare work. His cast is impressive; everyone from old favourites such as Judy Dench, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi through to shiny new faces such as Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley and Sergei Polunin is in this star studded adaptation, as well as box office favourites Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Willem Dafoe.

All this money and flummery cannot make you a good Agatha Christie adaptation, however. No matter how hard you try, the atmosphere and tension need to be there; without this there is no intrigue and without intrigue there is no point. The trailer is certainly visually stunning, and the voiceover is captivating (although I have to question Branagh’s accent).

Which brings me on to the casting. Pfeiffer is excellent in her brief appearance as Caroline Hubbard, and making the character vampish was a great choice for Hollywood. Depp is uninspiring as ever, and I question Judy Dench’s casting as the Princess- she doesn’t have the shabby, slightly seedy feel you get from the character in the book.

The big question is Poirot himself. Branagh has a hilarious moustache, which makes him look more like Peter Ustinov than David Suchet, the ultimate Poirot. His voice is very forced but it his lack of presence throughout the trailer that bothers me. Although a small man in stature, Christie’s Poirot takes up a great deal of space as he assimilates himself into new situations and generally draws attention to himself in his pursuit of the truth. Although this may simply be artistic imagery used to attract attention during the trailer, I am concerned that the great detective may be reduced to a walking, strangely talking prop in his own case for the sake of a good film.

Only time will tell as to whether I enjoy this film but for now I’d be fascinated to hear the thoughts of any Christie fan: do you think you’ll enjoy the new adaptation?

Maigret And The Case of the Confused Detective

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As with a number of my Crime Fiction obsessions, I was recently drawn to George Simeon’s seminal novels featuring the dour yet dogged detective Jules Maigret by the TV adaptation of the books, featuring the exquisite Rowan Atkinson as the titular protagonist. Sleek and intriguing, this portrayal made me want to seek out and explore this writer in the way that the very best adaptations do, and I was not disappointed by the writer’s grim yet optimistic style, as he and his determined detective delve into the murky Parisian underworld in search of some truly vile and disgusting criminals.

Previously I had watched a couple of episodes of the Michael Gambon version, which took a literal representation of the character as a human cannonball, barrelling through crime scenes clumsily, with an awkward way of speaking and a generally slightly confused manner.

Whilst Maigret does exhibit a number of these characteristics in the novels, he is a great enigma there also; like the TV adaptations each book, as with each portrayal, shows a different side to the character. He is equal parts confused and determined, at times forceful and unrelenting and others surprisingly understanding, as well as being both thuggish and compassionate simultaneously. In short, he is quiet possibly the most human detective I have encountered since I began my love affair with Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander many years ago.

So what makes Maigret so popular? Why is this detective, written by a Belgium author during the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, so widely read and so regularly adapted for the screen?

After all, the character has been portrayed for numerous audiences around the world by a myriad of actors, from Mr Bean himself through to Soviet Union Russian theater actor Boris Tenin and there were even Japanese and Italian versions on TV over the years. In film a number of actors including Pierre Renoir have taken a go at portraying the character, each brining a different element into the mix. There are even comic book strips devoted to the character, which highlights his suitability for various types of media.

my friend maigret

These portrayals are all incredibly diverse, which is partially down to the range of emotions the character exhibits throughout the novels. It is hard to lay down exact character traits for Maigret as he develops drastically over the years, growing and being affected by his life and work in the same way that a real person would, unlike some characters who remain stagnant even after many years have passed and dozens of books have been written about their exploits.

The characters’ growth can be seen as central to his versatility, as many of those portraying him look on him at a different stage in his development, or choose to exacerbate certain traits, such as his determination and stoic expressions, in the case of Gambon, or his compassion and the silent contemplation with which he undertakes a case, as in the case of Atkinson. With such a variety of traits to choose from those bringing the character to the screen have an important decision to make; which to cut from their depiction and which to focus on. After all, such a changeable and complex character suits books, as the medium affords the reader more time to understand the detective and grow alongside him, whereas on screen viewers seek an identifiable character with highly accentuated traits that remain static, as the story is more vital in this medium.

At the end of the day, it is Maigret’s changeability and human qualities which make him the international success he is, and offer the ideal platform for such a vast variety of actors, including the excellent Rowan Atkinson, to show off their skills and pass on their interpretation of this firm, irritable, flawed and intellectual character.

Talking Bodies 2017- The Post That Inspired My Paper on the Gendered Politics of Women’s Hair

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This post is just a quick thank you to everyone who came to see my talk at The University of Chester’s Talking Bodies conference, run by the fabulous Emma Rees. I was lucky enough to perform a talk earlier today about entitled The Gendered Objectification of Women’s Hair and its Correlation with Sexuality. I was overwhelmed by the enlightening comments and kind praise which I received from my talk, and I just wanted to say a massive thank you to everyone who came and who contributed to the fascinating discourse around hair and its correlation with sexuality. I wanted to share the blog post that inspired this discussion, first published on this very blog in October 2016. Although the ideas articulated in my paper have moved away from this gendered reading of hair in Adichie’s Americanah, the core argument around the gendered politicalisation of women’s hair, particularly with regards to sexuality and race, remains the same. 

‘Hair is political.’ I don’t think I truly understood what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie meant by this until I had my head shaved for charity.

There was literally no other reason for my head shaving except that I hadn’t had a new experience in a few weeks. When work suggested someone do it to raise money for charity I jumped at the chance.

Even just a few days afterwards people started staring and making strange comments. I was oblivious until someone came out with it and asked if I was a lesbian. It was then that I realized that my hair was more than just the stuff that grew out of my head- it was part of my identity. By shaving my head but not altering my identity to suit social stereotypes I messed with people’s view on the world, and it angered some people (a woman in a nightclub actually told me it should be illegal to have a shaved head and Doc Martins and not be gay).

It is worse for women than for men. A friend of mine had his head shaved for a part as an extra in a BBC drama a few years ago in order to preserve historical accuracy, and the only comment he ever has on the subject is that it “was the easiest 15 quid I ever earned”. The reason for this is fairly obvious- the reduced judgment on men for their appearance- however it is still confusing that a man with such an openly extreme haircut receives less social backlash than a woman.

However it wasn’t until my recent reading of Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, that I began to fully understand the politics of hair, particularly in relation to black people’s hair. The first time the reader meets the protagonist, Ifemelu, at the start of the novel she is travelling to have her hair braided. Throughout the novel the subject of hair, and how it shapes our identity, is called into question, as Ifemelu struggles to adjust to her new life in America and the specter of race, something she had never considered when she lived in Nigeria.

Her hair is a key part of her identity that Ifemelu decides to reclaim when she realizes that she is being changed by America, as she realizes that she is changing herself to suit the views of others. It is the realization that damaging her hair to achieve an ideal created by someone else was not worth it which causes her epiphany;

At night she struggled to find a comfortable position on her pillow. Two days later there were scabs on her scalp. Three days later, they oozed pus. Curt wanted her to see a doctor and she laughed at him. It would heal, she told him, and it did. Later, after she breezed through the job interview, and the woman shook her hand and said she would be a ‘wonderful fit’ in the company, she wondered if the woman would have felt the same way had she walked into that office wearing her thick, kinky, God-given halo of hair, the Afro. (p204).

So does this mean that hair is definitely the reason people judge us? Is it simply a small, intrinsic part of a wider social judgment or something much more?

Whilst Americanah does not answer these questions- indeed no novel could without being incredibly long and dense- what it does do is change the space hair takes up in literature. Although other novels have touched on the issue of hair and identity, for the most part hair is merely a descriptive device, used in characterisation in the same way that a handbag or a pair of shoes is- to provide an overall view of the character. Stiff hair makes the character uptight; hippies always have dreadlocks; pretentious types have perfectly coiffured up dos, etc. But in Americanah, hair becomes something more; here hair is a political issue, a social problem, a construct to be overcome. The same goes in real life, as emphasised by the people who told me off for being a straight girl with a shaved head, the people who claim that braids and afros are not professional hairstyles and try to have them banned from schools in order to intimidate and control black children. The fact that this has worked its way into mainstream literature shows that we are opening up to the idea that judging someone based on their hair is both wrong and abhorrent, and this can only be a good thing.

My paper took this argument, which you see here in the early stages (this blog post was the precursor to my paper), and concluded by articulating my belief that women, although outwardly seen to express their individuality through their hair, are actually pandering to male notions of normativity whether they are consciously making a stand against convention or adhering to it. Personally, I feel that the only way to combat this is to address the gender imbalance throughout corporate and artist worlds to provide women and minorities with a greater say in their own aesthetic choices and give them the agency to shape wider perceptions of their aesthetic choices. Please feel free to comment or message me- I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. 

Revisiting Hercule Poirot: Did We Really Need To?

poirot and hastings

Happy Easter!! On this fine Easter Sunday, which sees me returning to the shire for some much needed R&R, I explore the need to revive existing, popular characters such as Poirot and whether this adds anything to the canon of excellent literature already produced by creator Agatha Christie.

As a huge fan of Christie’s seminal Golden Age detective, I was both pleased and surprised when I encountered Sophie Hannah’s reinvention of the pernickety and fastidious Belgium detective in The Monogram Murders (check out my review HERE).

The book is a triumph, as is the follow up, Closed Casket, which I have just devoured in practically one sitting. However, whilst I acknowledge them as being excellent in their own way, it rather got me thinking about whether it was the plot or the reincarnation of Poirot himself that was so special about the books. The answer is the former.

Taken together with the recent reincarnations of Dorothy L Sayers’s excellent Lord Peter Wimsey by Jill Paton Walsh (read my thoughts HERE) and the many reinventions of other famed detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, this can be seen as the age of revival. Hollywood is constantly remaking movies, often shot for shot, and the literature world is no different, with these new versions of classic characters reappearing regularly. But are they worth it?

With the new Poirot novels, it is the differences from the originals that stand out almost as much as the similarities. In an effort not to borrow too heavily from the original Walsh invented her own sidekick, Edward Catchpool, a Scotland Yard detective with a limited imagination but an eye for detail. Catchpool is supposed to be the stand in for Christie’s brilliant Captain Hastings.

A note for those who have never read Christie’s works; Hastings is not the man you have seen on screen. I have never seen him portrayed properly. Whilst Poirot himself has been well done on a number of occasions, including Peter Ustinov’s measured version and the recent seminal portrayal of the character by David Suchet, Hastings always comes across wrong. From Jonathan Cecil’s incredibly upper class outing to the Hugh Fraser’s bumbling oaf, each of which are good characters in their own right, every on screen version of Hastings fails to take into account Christie’s writing, which showcased a brave and loyal man who was astute and intelligent, although occasionally lacking a little in common sense.

Creating a new sidekick in the form of Catchpool does allow Hannah to distance herself just enough from the Queen of Crime’s work and highlight her own talent for character creation, but what I cannot understand is the need to use Poirot to achieve this. Hannah’s other novels have all been huge successes, with the spectacular Little Face being one of the creepiest and most engaging books that I have ever read. Whilst I understand the value of wanting to reimagine a highly popular character such as Poirot, these novels would be even better if they instead introduced a new character that readers could enjoy without the burden of prior knowledge and high expectations.

The plots are a key area that are constantly compared to Christie’s original books, and whilst they are intriguing and inventive there are, in my opinion, too many twists to Hannah’s revised Poirot novels, reducing the impact and lessening the tension in the narrative. Christie was a master at creating taunt, tight stories that crackled with atmosphere; whilst they are great books in their own rights, The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket are both lackluster in comparison.

At the end of the day it is this constant commitment to reviving old characters and stories in an attempt to reinvigorate past success that is killing creativity across the media industry, and whilst I enjoy Hannah’s new Poirot novels it is my sincere wish that writers create new and exciting books which will one day become classics in their own rights, rather than constantly looking to prolong past appreciation.

Dystopia Novels: Are They More Relevant Now Than Ever?

the handmaid's tale

The world can feel like a scary place to be in 2017. With the rise of U.S President Donald Trump, a man whose foreign policy, immigration tactics and stance on woman’s rights all suggest that he is determined to undermine the basic human rights of everyone who is not a white male for the foreseeable future, coupled with the global refugee crisis and the continued issues around global warming, the world can seem truly frightening right now.

With this in mind, are dystopia novels the answer? Recently online streaming service Hulu showcased its trailer for its TV series version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the ultimate dystopia novel, showing perhaps a renewed interested in such books among both readers and the viewing public.

Dystopia fiction has been in the public eye for a while now, particularly in young adult fiction, where cult series such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games novels, (which are basically a cross between Battle Royale and The Running Man), Veronica Roth’s Divergent series and The Maze Runner books by James Dashner all focus on young characters working with resistance groups against corrupt governments who mistreat them under the guise of supporting the greater good.

the hunger games

Within adult fiction the focus is more on nostalgia than on creating a legacy of new dystopia novels, (although there are a few notable exceptions nothing has really made a massive splash in the literary market in recent years) with the film and TV market in particular keen to rehash old dystopian classics, such as the new Blade Runner and the reimagining of The Handmaid’s Tale. Such a strong appetite highlights, in my opinion, the growing dissatisfaction of readers and viewers alike as we all strive to understand the madness that is Trump’s America and the confusion we see in our lives as a result of some, frankly bizarre political decisions that have taken place over the past five years.

Whilst in times of great unrest and confusion, such as now, it might be considered more prudent to reach for something fluffy and distracting, the drive towards more dystopia fiction showcases a need for resistance and an interest, perhaps, in convincing ourselves that our politicians, for all their corruption and poor decisions, are at least not as bad as they could be.

For anyone seeking to explore the dystopia genre, re-reading old favourites is a great place to go, and everyone should read 1984 at least once; for those seeking something more modern, there are still a number of writers, such as Margret Atwood and Dave Eggers, whose phenomenal novel The Circle is, coincidently, due to be released as a film shortly, are still writing really relevant and interesting dystopia novels.