A Modern Day Dickens

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by Jane Turley

The 1830s saw the arrival of one of the most formidable forces in English literature. His style and voice became unique and would sparkle for generations, indeed so much so, that his works have never been out of print.

His name, of course, was Charles Dickens.

Today, someone new has been blowing out the literary cobwebs. For over thirty years he has been producing academic work and both adult and children’s fiction. He has been unbelievably prolific and, like Dickens before him, he has now been serializing his work before publishing it as a complete novel.

His name, of course, is Alexander McCall Smith.

Alexander McCall Smith is most famously known for the award winning No1 Ladies Detective Agency which truly launched him into the public eye back in 1998. Since then he has completed over thirty works which have taken him from relative obscurity to international literary stardom. Not content to sit on his laurels, McCall Smith embarked on a new project in 2004 with the serialization of 44 Scotland Street in The Scotsman newspaper. This was followed by Corduroy Mansions early in 2009 on The Telegraph website and by its sequel The Dog Who Came In From The Cold which reached its conclusion just before Christmas.

The Dog Who Came In From The Cold is a delightful, amusing and thoroughly entertaining story about a collection of quirky stereotypical British characters in a spoof thriller which mocks the spy genre and takes its lead from John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The good news is that unlike Le Carré’s ridiculously complex plots McCall’s novel is ridiculously stupid; the protagonist in Le Carré’s novel is an aged MI6 intelligence officer whereas in McCall’s novel it is an innocent Pimlico terrier called Freddie de la Hay who unwittingly finds himself on loan to MI6.

There are a number of amusing plots running concurrently in The Dog Who Came In From The Cold about the other residents of Corduroy Mansions which are, more or less, tied up at the end of the novel. However, it is obvious that the stories are to be continued in more depth at some later stage - a mouth watering proposition for McCall Smith fans who will champing at the bit to find out just what happens next.

McCall Smith has an engaging knack of writing in a style that is both humorous and superficially lightweight but in actuality provides some very astute observations about British society at both its best and worst. Beneath the frivolity the tales are of friendships and folly, love and loneliness, joy and sadness. These are the stories of life of which we are all familiar; tears that come with laughter but also with pain.

Aside from being a pleasurable read, The Dog Who Came In from the Cold also became an interesting experience for me for other reasons. To my delight, I was amongst a group invited to read the chapters in a PDF format before publication on The Telegraph. However, my delight was tempered by trepidation as I’d never read a published novel in entirety “on screen.” Whilst I’ve debated the pros and cons of both the Sony e-reader and the Kindle in the past in neither case had I found the urge to make the final plunge.

So was my experience successful?

Well, yes and no.

Initially, I struggled with reading the story onscreen. The PDF format was advantageous as I could change the font to my requirements but my concentration wandered and I found myself having to reread passages. Many of my distractions were the same as I have when I read a paper book; noise, children, husband, biscuits, coffee, prescription drugs…but eventually I buckled down and rocketed through it. However, I unashamedly admit, I missed holding a book in my hands. For a book lover the scent, the feel of a book is both intoxicating and addictive and I'm no exception.

Whatever my personal reservations, there is obviously a future in e-books and serialization in the manner of McCall Smith. But will technology ever totally eliminate the need for traditional books? I don’t think so. It’s a big, wide world out there and there’s room for everything and everyone. McCall Smith is the perfect example of how successful an online book can be but his brief chapters and simple writing style are ideally suited to the electronic format. Somehow, I can’t see me reading Zadie Smith or for that matter even the great man himself, Dickens, on an e-reader. But others will, especially the young. And who’s to say they shouldn’t?

Time and time again, history demonstrates how people are often afraid of change. They may abhor it, even refute it, until such time as the whole process becomes bloody and cruel. But change can be embraced and that means moving at a pace which considers what we value of our past and how much of it we need or want to take forward into the future. In literary terms, I have more concerns about the state of the English language and the effect of texting and “twittering” than whether or not e-books will kill off traditional books or if McCall Smith publishes his work online. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if e-books were delivered free directly to young adults to encourage them to read? Who knows, maybe by providing such material authors might boost their subsequent sales and help to preserve the English language at the same time?

There’s a whole host of issues we need to think about with the way technology is affecting our literary lives but it’s inevitable; change is coming. It’s already here. It’s not going to be an easy ride for some but once the dust is settled on publishing and copyright laws, remuneration for authors, and other such dilemmas, the world of literature might be even richer and diverse.

And maybe, just maybe, with the likes of Dickens and McCall Smith leading the way, the path of change might be easier than we expect.


Corduroy Mansions is currently available in hardback; the paperback version will be available in May. The sequel The Dog Who Came In From The Cold can be read on the Telegraph website where it is also available in audio form, read by Andrew Sachs. It will be released as a hardback in May.


Have you got an e-reader or a Kindle? Has it changed your reading habits or is it still in your drawer? Why not drop me a line with your opinion at Jane@viewfromheremagazine.com or leave a comment and we'll select the best for publication.


gary davison said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this, Jane. I was a fan of the first Ladies Detective Agency novel, but not so much after that.

I think your point about reading books on a screen is very valid, unfortuantely, and it would be interesting to see a survey of 25-30 year olds in a few years time to see how they prefer to read a story. My generation of book lovers will go down with their ship, I think.

Jane Turley said...

Glad you enjoyed it Gary:)

We'll have to wait and see if it's sink or swim:)