Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe"

I have been doing some holiday reading which has included a couple of "Sharpe" books and an Inspector Banks novel by Peter Robinson. Now, it is not my intention to repeat the things I said in an earlier post about the Banks series of books. Suffice it to say that I found my Banks novel clever, excellently plotted and highly readable; in spite of this I skipped over large sections, leaving them unread. Why was this? Well, the average Banks book now runs to about 350-400 pages--far too long, in my opinion, for the detective or police procedural novel. Agatha Christie knew what she was doing and kept her seventy odd books of the genre to around 190 pages each. This is a nice size to set the scene, have a murder, let the detection take place and, finally, take a little fun along the way. Four hundred pages for such a book is a monster and presupposes that we have an interest in the characters as people; usually, however, we don't. How much do we know of Hercule Poirot's private life? Or Sherlock Holmes'? Wisely, Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie choose sleuths for their investigations who hardly seem to have a private life. This is as it should be in the murder mystery universe, leaving the detectives an optimum period of time to solve their cases. Bank's relationship with Annie Cabbott, or his wife Sandra, interests me not one jot: heart to hearts with his guitar playing son are often difficult to credit and also slow down the main action. Peter Robinson has decided to take the path of P.D. James (wrong headedly in my opinion) and invests his sleuth with a "real" character. As far as I know, Banks doesn't write poetry like Dalglish--but he does seem to be an expert on classical music and wine.

Now this has proved a long introduction to my main interest in this post which is to praise Bernard Cornwell's fascinating series of "Sharpe" books. For anyone who has been living in Mongolia for the past twenty years and has neither read a book nor seen an ITV film of the series, I should give a little background information. Richard Sharpe is a soldier who fought in the Napoleonic Wars rising from the lowly rank of Private, while in India, to Lieutenant Colonel at the battle of Waterloo. Sharpe is a tough devil and the books narrate his battles with authority, his many acts of bravery, his struggles with treacherous enemies and, most importantly, historical reenactments of real battles on which the fictional figure of Richard Sharpe is made to impose himself. The mixture (with an occasional dab of romance added) works perfectly and 350 pages are hardly enough to cover all the bases before the final great battle scene comes around, Sharpe is a born rebel and his character interests us in a way that a copper's personality doesn't. There are so many diverse strands of action taking place in a Sharpe novel (sometimes including elements present in a good murder mystery), that the story simply cannot be told in less than about 350 page--even without padding of any kind! Unfortunately, this is not equally true of Robinson's Banks novels and the ever present threat of pretentiousness is, at present, threatening to sink what began as a very entertaining series of novels.


Anonymous Cornelius said...

Very valid points.

10:27 PM  

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