On Strong Female Characters & Sherlock Holmes’s Modern Successor?

First up, a hat-tip to Abhinav for sharing the link on Facebook, which is where I spotted it [everyone should check out his reviews on his blog, on Founding Fields, and follow him on Twitter].

Sophia McDougall has written a very good piece for the New Statesman, with an attention-grabbing headline: “I hate Strong Female Characters”. It’s an interesting article, and addresses what a lot of society views as a ‘Strong Female Character’, and the double-standards that exist when characterising a hero or heroine as ‘strong’. The whole article is well worth reading, so off you go and read it…

One paragraph in the piece got me thinking. Not really about the topic of the article, but something related to an example McDougall used to make part of her argument:

“Is, say, Sherlock Holmes strong? In one sense, yes, of course. He faces danger and death in order to pursue justice. On the other hand, his physical strength is often unreliable – strong enough to bend an iron poker when on form, he nevertheless frequently has to rely on Watson to clobber his assailants, at least once because he’s neglected himself into a condition where he can’t even try to fight back. His mental and emotional resources also fluctuate. An addict and a depressive, he claims even his crime-fighting is a form of self-medication. Viewed this way, his willingness to place himself in physical danger might not be ‘strength’ at all – it might be another form of self-destructiveness. Or on the other hand, perhaps his vulnerabilities make him all the stronger, as he succeeds in surviving and flourishing in spite of threats located within as well without.”

This made me wonder if there were any female characters that I’d read (recently or otherwise), who maybe adhered more to this archetype of (anti-)hero. And, I actually think I’ve come up with a speculative-fiction contender for the modern successor of Sherlock Holmes. There is, after all, a female character who can be described similarly to McDougall’s Sherlock. To reiterate:

“Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius.”

Who am I talking about? Chess Putnam, from Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts series (published by Voyager in the UK and Del Rey in the US).

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Downside Ghosts UK Covers

Chess is an addict, she is a gifted (supernatural) detective, she can be alternately abrasive and vulnerable, she can handle herself in a fight (against ghosts and against corporeal antagonists). She sometimes manipulates those around – on the job, but also as a way of hiding her substance abuse. She’s certainly brave, charging ahead into situations that would make me bug out, screaming like a petrified kitten. Even regarding the more ‘mundane’ elements in the above description, Chess can tick them off: Bohemian (she lives in a converted church on the wrong side of the tracks), vain, neurotic, untidy, and fastidious (in her spell-making, for example). I haven’t yet seen anything that suggests Chess is quite a “polymath genius”, but she has a considerable breadth of skills. At the same time, sometimes Chess needs help from “sidekicks”, and has a couple of her own Watsons – most notably Trouble Terrible,* who she does not always treat well or fairly.

So. There we have it. Chess Putnam is our contemporary Sherlock Holmes. Anyone have any other suggestions who could fill that role?

Downside Ghosts Series: Unholy Ghosts, Unholy Magic, City of Ghosts, Sacrificial Magic, Chasing Magic

Downside Short Stories: Finding Magic, Wrong Ways Down, Home, Close To You

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* Update: The original version of this post got the name wrong. Apologies to Stacia!

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Incidentally, Sophia McDougall is the author of the Romanitas trilogy – Romanitas, Rome Burning, and Savage City (published by Gollancz) – which you should all be sure to read, as well.

McDougallS-RomanitasTrilogy

Reviews, Debuts, Vampires, A Different Time…

Rice-InterviewWithTheVampire1I have been a fan of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles ever since I picked up Interview with the Vampire in 1999. I was living in New York at the time, and I went to Barnes & Noble on 51st & Lexington (in the CitiCorp Building), and came across the series. Even though I hadn’t read any of the novels, by this point I had seen the movie, starring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas, and a scene-stealing Kirsten Dunst. I really enjoyed it (and still do), so I thought I’d give the series a try. I proceeded to read all of the volumes then in print, and then bought each new book on day of release.

I didn’t think the first novel was perfect, and I found the fact that it was written as a conversation slightly strange – I was young and not very well-read or refined at the time. Nevertheless, it planted the seed that has had me eagerly await any new book by Anne Rice ever since. I consider the first two sequels, The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned, as one of my five favourite novels of all time (I can’t read one without immediately reading the next, so I consider them as a single book).

Time to get to the point of the post: I have also been reviewing books for almost seven years, and movies and music for a few years more than that. I therefore found this post on Anne Rice’s Facebook feed, attached to a link, rather interesting:

Interview with the Vampire was actually a flop when it was published, severely hurt by a negative New York Times review by Leo Braudy. I’m not sure a review can kill a book today. But this was 1976, a different world. And a first novel, especially a very unusual one, was I think tragically vulnerable to the power of the Times… Now 37 years later Interview is (I’m grateful to say) an unqualified success and is still in print in hardcover as well as in paperback…

Rice-InterviewWithTheVampire2Sadly, the review is behind the New York Times pay-wall (which I still couldn’t read, despite supposedly having access to a specific number of articles per month…). Nevertheless, and perhaps a little strangely, Barnes & Noble’s listing for the book has the following quotation from Leo Braudy, apparently from “Books of the Century, The New York Times, May, 1976”:

“Anne Rice’s publishers mention the Collector and the Other, but it is really The Exorcist to which Interview with the Vampire should be compared, and both novelist William Peter Blatty and filmmaker William Friedkin, whatever their faults did it much better… The publicity tells us Rice is a ‘dazzling storyteller.’ But there is no story here, only a series of sometimes effective but always essentially static tableaus out of Roger Corman films, and some self-conscious soliloquizing out of Spider-Man comics, all wrapped in a ballooning, pompous language.”

I thought it was interesting that Rice said she’s “not sure a review can kill a book today”. I think she’s probably right. Not only is the internet allowing critiques, criticism and praise to spread all over the world, but also the fact that negative reviews only seem to generate extra interest in books. Take two (admittedly unusual) examples: 50 Shades of Grey, or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (which got, effectively, a bad review from the Vatican = publisher’s Holy Grail).

I also think Braudy is wrong his statement that “there is no story” in the novel. There’s quite a lot, actually. Yes, it’s “static”: it’s a book-length interview. What was he expecting? I don’t understand the Spider-Man connection, but it stands out, no? I don’t know the other references he presents, so I can’t speak to those. The connection to The Exorcist is an interesting one, but I don’t know either the book or movie version of that story well enough.

I’m sure this would have been a more interesting post if I’d had access to the review, but there we go [and if I hadn’t been writing it during a bout of insomnia, at 3:30am]. I’ll keep trying to get the text, and see if it adds anything to the discussion. Or, at the very least, offer some interesting quotations from it as/when I find them.

What do you think? Can negative reviews kill books today? If not, why not?