What is "Metaliterature"? It is literature about literature, in this case, views, reviews, and thoughts provoked by stuff I've read. I'm hoping this might be a chronicle of the brain of a life-long reader as guided by intertextual coincidence. If you like what you read, read what I like.
Now locally referencing the Plasnewydd and Splott areas of Cardiff!
As has become customary in reviews of note, I must once again lead with a disclaimer – this one born of my own stunted temporal sensitivity; for me, time in publishing terms stopped when I left the book trade, in 2011, and therefore when I make reference to things published recently, recently might encompass more time that one might reasonably expect. Therefore, when I say that recently there has been a mini-spate of publications wherein someone challenges Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to flaunt his misguided beliefs in the face of scientific inquiry, you might be surprised to know that this includes Hjortsberg’s diverting crime novel Nevermore, first published in 1995, as well as the whimsical Oscar Wilde mysteries by Giles Brandreth, Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, one of the Flashman novels from George MacDonald Fraser, and lots of lower level self-published drivel flotsamming about the waters of the Amazon.com.
Sadly for Mr Higgins, my favourite Sir Arthur is definitely Hjortsberg’s, who is rather bemusingly and inexplicably haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (Poe in turn believes himself to be the recipient of visits from the beyond from Doyle). Nonetheless, Higgins’ spiritualist Doyle is a worthy adversary for the rather superior yet curmudgeonly Trelawney Hart, semi-permanent resident of the reading room of the Hyperborea Club and firm materialist stroke cynic stroke dipsomaniac. Indeed, it is Doyle’s intervention which sets Hart on his quest to disprove the talents of mystic J. P. Beasant and leads to his discovery of some of the rummest drinking establishments that Kent has to offer. Doyle is equally curmudgeonly, possessed of the utmost self-belief and convinced that there are supernormal forces at work in the world. With sycophantic Woody in tow, Doyle cuts a somewhat ridiculous figure, fittingly so for this comic caper. And of course, a pompous old fool with firm beliefs is just the sort of windmill our quixotic anti-hero cannot pass up un-tilted. Hart borrows some duds and strikes out for Broadstairs, Kent!
To round up with a nice, clean, trite conclusion would be to do Mr Higgins an injustice. For whilst the story is clean, pleasing, amusing and rather well written, there are many little things which add value to the experience, not the least of them being that this is another Unbound gem and as such comes in a luscious first edition format that rather shames my poor, beloved paperback collection. Others include the names of various vintage cigarettes, like Sheiks, Dragoumis and Ogden’s Guinea Golds, all of which make an appearance in the first few pages and which conjure images of smiling health professionals extolling the virtues of toasted tobacco for the throat and of their power to keep you slim.
Now, to counterbalance my runaway enthusiasm for the book, and to pre-empt accusations of fawning flattery for the purposes of further vicarious glory, the resolution to the mystery is somewhat expected, even from the outset. Is that a flaw in the story? Not necessarily, but even allowing room for the suspension of disbelief, I was unable to seriously entertain the thought that Hart would be defeated. This might be due to the aforementioned literary encounters with a fictitious Sir Arthur as, to my knowledge, he rarely, if ever, triumphs* in his quest to prove that faeries and spirits exist. This might also be due to the rather flaccid attempts by Doyle’s present incarnation to convince a reader otherwise. It might also be because I’m a massive arse when it comes to spiritualist mumbo-jumbo. Also, the ending is a bit Poirot-esque where I expect, precisely because Hart consults a Sherlock Holmes mystery for guidance, it should have been Sherlockian. And Hart’s reluctant guide, Billy, does feel a little superfluous in places, perhaps like he was in life, and seems to serve only as a drinking associate for Hart, and someone to provide Doyle with further blockades to be breached by Hart’s intellectual siege engines when Hart himself is too unwell to witness the spectacle himself. Still, why gripe when for the most part what we have is immensely enjoyable?
Lastly, an equally predictable and unrepentantly blatant plug for Unbound again. If you want to engage with what you read, then get in on the ground floor and support struggling writers, like Ed Higgins, whose work was discovered, as I understand it, on Jottify and for whom literary fame was a candle glimpsed through a dirty window from across a foggy moor until someone pressed alcohol into his hand and convinced him to chance his arm.
*Injudicious over-use of commas was inserted deliberately to gently remind Mr Higgins of their beauty and import and to damn minimalist editors to hell.