Thursday 28 January 2016

The Mystery of Silver Falls

The Mystery of Silver Falls in now available. It is my 32nd Black Horse Western.

This book continues my attempt to rectify a glaring omission in westerns, namely that too few are set underwater. I've never been sure why I like having my heroes fall into rivers or go diving into lakes, but I think I might have got it out of my system with this one that features a hero who solves his problems by going all Captain Nemo . . .

The whole town turns out to watch the first train journey when the bridge at Silver Falls is completed. The atmosphere is joyous, but the day turns sour when Kane Cresswell and his bandit gang arrive. They raid the train and, in the ensuing chaos, fifty thousand dollars fall into the river, seemingly lost forever.

Wyndham Shelford cannot get this image out of his head and is determined to find the missing money. Soon bodies start washing up in the river, and the unconventional lawman US Marshal Lloyd Drake arrives. The Marshal believes that the train raid wasn't everything it seemed, but his reckless search for the truth is endangering the lives of everyone in town. Can Wyndham find the money and put a stop to this path of violence before it's too late?

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Oh, Sherlock, where did it all go wrong?

I’ve finally got round to watching the New Year ‘special’ Sherlock episode and even with my expectations set low it somehow failed to deliver. All shows have ups and downs, but this show is becoming quite fascinating in its ability to somehow be worse every time it returns. The pilot was a joyous romp and I’ve seen it numerous times and still enjoy it, but since then it’s been downhill.

When it was first announced that they were doing a Victorian episode, my immediate thought was that it would just be an excuse to bring back Moriarty from the dead. My second thought was that I hope it’s not more of that memory palace nonsense. Sadly, it was both of them. I find it amazing that a tv company would actually commission a story with the ‘it was only a dream’ twist. There are one-celled amoeba living on distant planets that have only just mastered the ability to move that know this twist is a bad idea, and yet there it was being presented as a valid way to tell a story.

Of course, having stories that aren’t real isn’t a problem. For instance, there’s that Star Trek Sherlock Holmes episode that was written for the sole purpose of bringing back Moriarty from the dead. That has the ‘it’s not real’ twist and the story is a lot of fun. The reason it works is that the twist is the answer to the problem of how can Moriarty walk off the holodeck and exist in the real world? The solution is that he didn’t and the real world isn’t real either. This is all very convoluted, but it’s never confusing because the scriptwriters worked hard to make things clear.

There’s a certain smug arrogance about Sherlock these days that means the scriptwriters for the special weren’t prepared to put in the effort to make the twist work. I’m not a fan of sticking rigidly to rules in writing, but as Kurt Vonnegut is just about my favourite author, I’ve always liked his rules. The eighth one is worth mentioning here:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I’ve amended that rule for my own writing to one in which I always try to be fair to the reader. If there’s a twist in the plot, I try not to create it by deliberately concealing something. I’ll happily conceal plenty from the characters, but I never conceal anything from the reader that the characters know and as such I hope that nobody ever feels cheated when the characters discover something major.

That just wasn’t the case in Sherlock where the story was structured to deliberately conceal relevant facts from the viewer for as long as possible, although these were facts that Sherlock Holmes knew and there was no good reason to conceal them other than to create a twist. This, of course, violates Vonnegut’s eighth rule and it just goes to prove it’s not a wise rule to ignore.

I just hate it when detective shows reveal a huge fact in the last few minutes that changes everything and means there was no way you could follow the clues for yourself and solve the murder. Last week Endeavour in its first new episode did this when after trundling along for the first 85 minutes with a languid and relatively straightforward tale of murder and posh folk, it suddenly revealed in the last few minutes, and all without so much as a hint that this is what was going on, that the killer was really an evil twin who had concealed his existence for twenty years as part of a magic act, left the magic act, fallen in love with the good twin's girl, but when the girl married a rich man the good twin decided to win her back by taking on a new identity as a flamboyant gambler, building up a fortune, buying a stately home and then humiliating her husband at poker, but his plan failed when the evil twin killed him and took on his secret identity and then tried to woo the girl himself, but his cunning plan was undermined because the good twin had fallen in with an evil slot-machine salesman who was smuggling drugs in teddy bears at the local fair that just happened to include the magic act where he once performed illusions with the good twin and when a clippy got hold of the wrong teddy bear she was killed and that led to the magician killing him in retaliation.

I thought at the time that this data dump of new information at the end was just about as bad as it can get, but somehow Sherlock was worse. I reckon that's because following Vonnegut's rule and revealing everything immediately and not playing tricks on the viewer wouldn't have changed the Endeavour episode as Morse didn't know these facts either. But in Sherlock it would have led to a much better story as ‘it’s only a dream’ is then the basis of the story and not a twist. Sherlock could have got on the plane, taken drugs, and then passed out and woke up in Victorian times. Then the viewer would know from the start that the situation isn’t real and can enjoy working out why he’s having this particular dream.

This is what Life on Mars did. That ran for sixteen episodes, but it would never have worked without the opening ten minutes setting up the situation of Sam Tyler falling into a coma and waking up in the past. If it’d have started in the past and then revealed in the last episode that it was all a dream, the show would now be famed for having the worst ever ending in tv history rather than the best.

I'll stop moaning now. Roll on series 4 with better stories and less Moriarty, I hope. I mean, it can’t get any worse, can it? Can it?