Monday, June 11, 2012

Daunt're, Holes in Parallel Dimensions (2011)

Brian Daunt're, Holes in Parallel Dimensions (The Illogical Detective #1). Untreed Reads, 2011. Pp. 112. ISBN 9781611872040. $4.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Something odd and awful is happening in Fairyland. For a start, Santa seems to have gone bomb-happy and heavily reindeer-intolerant. Old King Cole is not a merry soul; in fact, he has braved stepping into reality to seek out the help of Britain’s greatest detective. No, not Mr Holmes, but Mr Holes! Fairyland isn’t the only place about to descend into bloody madness. It is 1913, and Europe is gearing up for war.

There is much that is cheerfully, rambunctiously anachronistic and delightfully silly about this novella. The short story that serves as the prologue and covering Holes’s family history is a playful take on ‘Holes’ as a surname, claiming the family came into prominence and money by being the first, way back in prehistoric times, to recognise the usefulness of holes in the ground; for storage, for burial, later for mining, real estate development and sewerage. Having chuckled through this, we take a step into the life of Albert Holes, the eclectically-minded detective offspring of this eccentric family, and his companion, Dr Aston. Obviously, Daunt’re is having a poke at Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson; Holes is here as the ascetic thinker, and Dr Aston’s earthier quality is highlighted with a decidedly below-the-belt condition resulting, we are told, from Aston’s overactive sex life. Furthermore, Inspector Lastarde’s double is Inspector Brastard. Perhaps we are meant to think this policeman is a bit of b*stard at his job? Daunt’re delights in playing with assumptions throughout the story. Dr Dett’el is later morphed into Dettol, and tea turns out to have surprising qualities.

In terms of presentation, Aston has very bald speech for a turn of the century gentleman; both in profanities and honesty over his genital warts. Sly, satirical remarks about characters in Fairyland (for example the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe must be Catholic as she had so many children and “obviously didn’t believe in condoms”) are quite later-twentieth-century in tone. This might be about events in 1914-1918, and be a parody of time-specific literary characters, but the writing is sharply twenty-first century.

All starts out comely enough for a parody; Kong Cole pays a visit and asks for Holes’s help in sorting out the deteriorating situation in Fairyland; characters acting very out of character. The Home and Foreign Secretaries also summon Holes and Aston, to request their services in finding out who is stirring Europe up into war. Then there is a murder, pinned on ‘King Cole’ as a dangerous lunatic. To then add a touch of insanity, Holes and Aston travel to fairyland, suffer a swap of personalities while there and symptoms of Aston’s sexual disease on their return. So off they go to see Dr Dett’el, a psychotherapist, to have these strange symptoms explained to them. On their departure, we learn the Dr Dett’el has a political agenda of his own, and is puzzling over a letter from Fairyland he stole from a window-cleaner-spy… And so it begins. The main problem with the novella is that Daunt’re has set the scope of his ambition very, very wide and very, very complicated.

While spy stories can be complicated with cross, double-cross and counter-plot, Daunt’re’s novella goes further, adding geo-political, satirical, fantastical, military, sociological, psychological, meta-fictional and historical aspects. The pace is cheerful at the start and end, but drags horribly in the middle. It is this problem with pace that takes away a lot of the pleasure of the book, for as it slows down, so characterisation suffers, detail is lost and the movements of the narrative become either incomprehensibly detailed moment-by-moment, sweeping then into wide, broad strokes to cover a space of time. There is a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing in terms of plot and counter-plot. I feel that the author has a scheme mapped out, templated over the events of WWI, which he is using as the background reference to this narrative, but there are too many extraneous extra actions and details. Holes and Aston spend some time in Fairyland, becoming pawns in the movements of the opposing sides there; captured, out to work, escaping, and re-used by the side that is supposed to be their ally. Meanwhile, Brastard in reality is scrabbling around after clues to sort out his own murder investigations, and the justifications and rationale for these events are not clear for some time. It rather feels as if the narrative is becomes bogged down in its own cleverness; juggling the reality of WWI and the parallel events in Fairyland makes for some very repetitive moments.

In fact, sections of the novella start to read almost episodically, as if this is an amalgamation of episodes serialised in a paper or magazine. There is heavy emphasis on the parallel nature of reality and Fairyland; descriptions of key events for WWI are repeated, translated only as far as army and character names are concerned, for events in Fairyland’s struggles. There are repeated reminders of acronyms introduced some time back, but constantly in use, so a reader is able to remember what they are, and in one section the familial anecdote about Holes’s “cupboard love”—the love of locking him in cupboards—is repeated at least three times in relatively short succession. This gives a rather clumsy feel to the approach of the middle part of the novella; the most bogged-down part. It feels as if the reader is not being trusted, either to recall previous details in the plot, nor to understand that, hey, WWI and Fairyland War are parallel, folks! Gosh, does this mean that the one infects the other and vice-versa?

The characterisations, too, suffer somewhat in this tone. The heavy-handed treatment of character changes—Holes and Austen in particular—once ‘real’ people are in Fairyland—become, after a while, a bore to read, since the main descriptor for this seems to be the use of very strong expletive. I’m no prude, but I like to see character progression. Dr Dett’el’s psychological reading of Holes and Aston’s confusing first trip to Fairyland is that an exchange of physical symptoms took place because in fact they have great empathy and sympathy and are sharing a level of fear over the imminent European conflict. And when in each other’s personalities in Fairyland, there are moments when Holes and Aston could reflect on understanding each other’s intellect and repressed sexuality and bravery and more visceral approach, but the opportunities to do so are fleeting. The characters are all but saying ‘look at us, aren’t we changed!’ each time and this obviousness, as I mention above, suggests a lack of trust by the author in the ability of his readers to keep up.

It appears that once the author has decided upon a level of information to be disseminated, then that is the level we stay at. It is also quite a cutting voice Daunt’re employs; perhaps a little too cutting to show affection for his creations and obtain interest from the reader. More than one character introduced, only to have credibility pulled out from under them with a sly comment. The mood is bleak when it comes to their believability; most stand as little more than cut-outs for the traits they are to bring to the plot. There is little to be sympathetic with in the characters, either good or bad.

The most readable character is King Cole, and he stands out in this respect. As a character driven slowly madder by circumstance, he comes across as almost Lear-ian, watching his country, his friends and himself sink ever further into the mire of war. Holes and Aston by comparison just seem to have very little to commend them as individuals; they are very much at the mercy of the to-and-fro plot. Of course, historically, this is emulating the slow attrition of the trench war of WWI, but a book that is setting up a new conceit; a satirical detective protagonist and he and his partner’s travels, should not do itself down by lumbering in the mud of narrative purgatory.

One of the biggest jokes is that the muddle over similar acronyms for Fairyland and reality agencies leads to increased confusion, with ‘real’ spies passing on fairyland intel, and one ‘real’ spy becoming a Fairyland character in his own right when Dr Dett’el discovers the beast within, a Mr Vho—the Hyde to his Jekyll—after drinking a strong cup of tea. The muddle arises from the use of identical stationery by both the British government and Fairyland’s leaders in their communications. This is a sub-plot over stolen stationery and communications between the British government and King Cole. The idea that WWI was partly promulgated by misplaced messages from a fictional parallel dimension is intriguing, but in the reading of, it just comes out in places as too damn confusing. Furthermore, the stationery sub-plot is effectively dismissed at the final tying up of loose ends as less important than Dr Dett’el’s rogue status as man-monster agent and the reason for the Fairyland character changes. The latter apparently being a side-effect of Fairyland characters being read by different mortal minds, and becoming ‘infected’ with grim reality, just as some of the wildness of fairyland leaks into reality the other way.

There is just so much to take in and plough through, that I think Daunt’re has just taken on, or bolted on, too much. It’s a huge scope to tackle, and could have been rendered in a tighter format in two or even three, separate books. One possible way would have been the ongoing story arc of WWI and the character changes in Fairyland, against which other areas of the plot could be split and be influenced by, e.g.: investigations into human-fairyland murders; a British government conspiracy; Spring-Heeled Jack/Mr Vho; the final WWI adventure. This is much the same as Holmes’s cases were individual, but often drawn together via a suggestion of a connection through a larger agency (Moriarty). To put all of it together in one volume, when the suggestion is this is just book one of a series, if the sub-title is anything to go by, is to try the patience of the reader. Especially if one’s main two characters are left lacking in order to keep all the plot balls juggling in the air.

This is not to say I do not enjoy reading this; but I much preferred the start and the end, when the action of the plot was coupled to a sense of purpose and direction. My favourite parts include the prologue story; as a stand-alone it works as a clever and witty introduction. Also the use of mirroring between reality and Fairyland. This is to show the parallel, interdependent nature of these two universes, but it also taps into older fairytale wisdom that the Fey lived in a mirror kingdom, and that the reversal of reality was the norm for the Grey Folk. The reversal of ‘once upon a time’ for an entry-phrase is a good example, as is the potential for non-fatal ‘combat’ (storybook characters are read back into the books, which when closed, trap them but not fatally, until the book is read again and they can be released). And Daunt’re must have had fun punning Holes’s name into the title and the chapter headings!

The original idea; mirroring events and characters between reality and Fairyland is a very clever one. And the next meta-textual plot is strongly hinted at by something Holes picks up on in Fairyland; that he and Aston and other ‘real’ people are in fact characters who have “fallen off your page.” They are, of course, fictional, but this time round, less ‘fictional’ than the Fairyland of a fictional work… think about it too much and your brain might hurt, but there are soundly fantastical ideas at work here, and the details and touches; lethal pop-guns, lethal ‘executive stress’, fairytale responsibility and a really ‘dirty bomb’ are nothing short of brilliant. It just feels as if, trying to include all his bright ideas, Daunt’re has packed in too much to the detriment of the treatment for most. Ideas can keep. A reader’s interest won’t.

Stick with this one and you’ll be rewarded with laughs and wit and intelligent fantasy. But I found I did have to make quite an effort to stick at it. Trying to find out where the author is coming from proved very tricky; there’s virtually nothing out there about him! Even the novella’s publishers don’t have anything on him. This does seem to be his first book, and so some growth and working-out can be expected. But I do hope he gains a little lighter touch with his next. He’s definitely got the ability, the intelligence and the wit. Now it just needs a little polishing.

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