Gerard Saylor is the Director of Lake Mills Library in Wisconsin.
Barna William Donovan is a professor of communication and media studies. He is the author of the film history books "The Asian Influence on Hollywood Action Films" and "Blood, Guns, and Testosterone: Action Films, Audiences and a Thirst For Violence." His third nonfiction book, "Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious," will be released in the summer of 2011 by McFarland & Company.
THE LIST OF 7, Mark Frost
There are three rules to success in entertainment: timing, timing, and timing. The key to hit novels or movies, television programs or musical acts is not merely what the artist produces but the timing of the release of the work. An unfortunate bit of timing must just have doomed Mark Frost’s Sherlockian occult/mystery/thriller, “The List of 7” to a forgotten read rather than a smash hit success it deserved to be.
Released in 1993, the novel, penned by the co-creator of the cult TV series “Twin Peaks,” is a sort of genre mash-up mixing paranormal and occult horror with conspiracy thriller elements, all wrapped up in a historical mystery starring Arthur Conan Doyle. With a supporting cast of colorful fictional and real historical figures – from occultist Helena Blavatsky to Queen Victoria, Prince Edward, Duke of Clarence, and Bram Stoker – the fast paced story careens through a plot that begins as a murder mystery and ends up in the middle of a grand political conspiracy that might or might not involve otherworldly manifestations. In the 1990s, a decade that would see a glut of conspiracy theorizing in the wake of “The X-Files” TV series, “The List of 7” is an extremely colorful early forerunner of such paranoid entertainment.
The story begins on Christmas day in 1884 when a young Arthur Conan Doyle, physician and part time writer bedeviled by the endless rejections of his fiction, receives a cryptic invitation to investigate what might be a ring of charlatans using séances to fleece the grief-stricken. Doyle, while committed to science and possessing a keen, highly logical mind, is, nevertheless, fascinated by the possibility of tangible proof of the paranormal. A lapsed Catholic, Doyle still feels a “hunger for belief.” Needing science to bolster this belief, he has been researching the burgeoning fad of spiritualism. More often than not, he winds up uncovering a string of frauds preying on the gullible and vulnerable. Things, however, take a turn for the chaotic and violent on this particular investigation.
At the séance held in London’s seedy East End, Doyle encounters the attractive, grieving Lady Caroline Nicholson, trying to seek psychic advice about the whereabouts of her missing three-year-old son. Then, just as Doyle thinks he has the means of the undoubtedly crooked medium’s methods for trickery figured out, very real-looking apparitions and demonic manifestations intrude on the event. This is followed by the apparent murder of Lady Nicholson. Doyle himself barely escapes an attack by a mysterious Dark Man and his grey-hooded minions, one of whom appears to be little more than an animated corpse. While fleeing for his life, Doyle is suddenly aided by the well-timed appearance of a man calling himself Armand Sacker, professor of antiquities from Cambridge University.
Although Sacker disappears as quickly as he had shown up, Doyle soon finds that his life has been turned upside down by the investigation. His flat has been trashed, all of his belongings dissolved in an unexplainable film of crystalline ooze. Moreover, he soon receives a letter from famed spiritualist Helena Blavatsky, urging him to travel to Cambridge for help in sorting out the ongoing threats facing him.
As Blavatsky reveals, Doyle’s troubles are the result of the writing he has been doing. One of his oft-rejected manuscripts, an occult conspiracy thriller called “The Dark Brotherhood” – liberally based on Blavatsky’s own “Theosophical” theories – has apparently attracted the attention of a very real cabal of shadowy, politically connected criminals. Doyle’s fictional adventure story, it seems, has gotten too close to the truth for a real dark brotherhood.
In Cambridge, Doyle is once again aided by the mysterious figure who saved him in East End. The man, as it turns out, is not a professor but a secret operative for the crown, named Jack Sparks. Sparks, in fact, confirms that Doyle really has stumbled onto a massive conspiracy where a secret society, headed by the Dark Man, has been attempting to orchestrate a far-reaching plot that would have dire consequences for the political future of England, if not the world itself.
“The List of 7” functions as a perfect example of every conspiracy theorist’s fondest fantasy. A seemingly random crime, what appears to be little more than a scam gone violently awry, ends up leading to a trail of high crimes and intrigue threatening the very power structure of society. A wild conspiracy theory few would ever take seriously, or in this case Doyle’s outlandish potboiler novel that every publishing house in London has rejected, also becomes the key to foiling the schemes of an evil cabal.
For Sherlock Holmes fans, of course, “The List of 7” is also a series of sly homages and nods to the Holmes cannon. The brilliant, fearless, eccentric Jack Sparks becomes Doyle’s inspiration for his intrepid investigator.
While “The List of 7” was released by William Morrow in 1993 to a great deal of marketing fanfare, it, unfortunately, did not become the success hoped for. One might attribute bad timing for the book slipping past readers’ attentions in the early half of the 1990s. Only two years later, TV’s “The X-Files” would rise from a short period of low ratings to become one of the most influential pieces of entertainment of that decade, making paranoia, cynicism, and conspiracy theorizing hip. Had Frost’s novel come along a little later, perhaps in the second half of the 90s as “Roswell” and “Are 51” became a part of the cultural lexicon and “I want to believe,” “Trust no one,” and “The truth is out there” were the most iconic catch phrases, or perhaps in the early 2000s when Dan Brown and his imitators inundated the bestseller lists with ancient secret-society conspiracy fantasies, “The List of 7” might not have faded into unfortunate obscurity.
For fans of Sherlock Holmes – especially fans of the 2009 Robert Downey, Jr. film – Victorian-era mysteries, horror, and conspiracy theories that leaven their heavy plots with just the right dose of subtle, tongue-in-cheek humor, “The List of 7” should definitely not be forgotten.
As a post-script, in 1995 a sequel called “The Six Messiahs” was released. Although at the time I read the book I wondered whether – and wished – other entries might have been conceived as a sort of countdown series, “The List of 7” is a self-contained and highly enjoyable read that stands well on its own.
Håkan Nesser’s Borkmann's Point, named best novel by the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy when it was published in 1994, is a smoothly written, intelligent police procedural. While not the first in Nesser’s ten-book series, it’s a fine introduction to Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, who’s assigned to assist the local police when an ax murderer strikes for the second time in the seaside town of Kaalbringen.
Van Veeteren—philosophical, often depressed (de rigueur for Swedish cops, apparently), but with a dry sense of humor—finds a friend in the local chief of police. The two enjoy wine from the latter’s fine cellar while playing chess and analyzing the facts of the case. When the killer strikes again, this time leaving his ax lodged in the victim’s body, the townspeople are terrified. The investigation appears to be stalled, with the police unable to find a connection between the three victims: an ex-con, a wealthy business man, and a doctor. Tension escalates when a young police investigator, on the verge of discovering that link, disappears.
For Van Veeteren, forensics and police legwork have their place, but what he relies on most, while walking the beach or soaking in his bath with a dish of olives at hand, are his intellect and intuition. As the police accumulate data and the killer continues to elude them, Van Veeteren reminds himself of the rule formulated by Borkmann, his former mentor: There comes a point in an investigation when more information only serves to hide the truth. He knows that in this investigation he’s reached Borkmann’s point, and the information he needs to flush out the killer must already be hidden in the recesses of his mind. And that indeed turns out to be the case as Van Veeteren leads the reader to a highly satisfying and unexpected conclusion.
Nesser, the only writer to have won the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize three times, isn’t nearly as well-known in this country as he deserves to be. To date only five of his books have been translated into English. But perhaps with American publishers now seeking the next Swedish blockbuster that will change.
Toby Ball is the author of THE VAULTS. You can find him here
A Tremor of Forgery, Patricia Highsmith
Ed Gorman is the author of STRANGLEHOLD, TICKET TO RIDE and other fine novels and short stories. You can find him here.
Let’s see. Sharp Practice by John Farris is a slasher novel. And it’s also a police procedural of a very British kind (though written by an American). A love story (the long-suffering wife of a cheating husband; the brother and sister who just can’t keep their hands off each other; numerous people lonely and neurotic in very modern ways). A gentle spoof of the hierarchy of academia. A look at the frustrations of a writer trying come up with another novel as good as the first one. And of course a look at one of the most savage murderers in modern suspense fiction, though Farris is wise enough not to give us an autopsy. He’s Hithcockian in his belief that less is more. Praise the Lord.
And that’s just a partial list of the novel's elements.
It is also one of the most sophisticated, elegantly told and perverse novels of terror ever written. The surprises are so stunning that two or three times I had to put the book aside and take a little rest. There are three twists in this novel that are so cunningly wrought they will shock even the most jaded reader.
That’s all I’m going to say about Sharp Practice. Read it and you’ll see that I’ve understated my enthusiasm for its suave brilliance.
So instead of a book report I’d like to turn to Mr. Farris himself.
Here's a quote from Steve Lewis that introduces Farris very well:
"It has just occurred to me that John Farris has one of the longest careers of any mystery writer still active. His first novel, The Corpse Next Door, was published by Graphic Books, a small but solid line of mostly paperback originals, in 1956. Farris was born in 1936, so if the book wasn’t published until he was 20, the odds are the most of it was written when he was still nineteen.
"He switched to the pen name of Steve Brackeen for his next few books, typical Gold Medal thrillers, except that Gold Medal didn’t do them. One of them, Baby Moll (Crest, 1958), will be reprinted by Hard Case Crime later this year under his own name, a mere 50 years later.
" Farris eventually became the author of the “Harrison High” books, which sold in the millions, and he became an even bigger seller once he started writing horror fiction that was invariably tinged with the supernatural. Books like The Fury (1976) and All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes (1977) are as close to classics in the field as you’re going to get, and yet … even though Farris has averaged close to a book a year since those two books, unlike Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz and mystery-wise, Ed McBain, who came along about the same time he did, it is as if no one’s ever heard of him. Nobody knows his name."
If you were a reader in the early 1960s it was impossible not to know the name of John Farris. Harrison High, the novel Lewis refers to, was popular for two reasons. First because it was a fine true novel about high school life. The aspects that were judged scandalous by some critics were in fact the truest parts of the book.
What set it apart from all the other high school novels was that it was very much like the literary novels of the time, especially those of the unjustly forgotten Calder Willingham. Harrison High remains rich in dealing with its era (the late 1950s), its people (generally middle-class whites) and its social problems (back alley abortions were still common). But with all that it's the characters I've kept with me. And having gone back to the novel several times over the years I'm aware of how carefully and honestly Farris drew them.
The second reason for the book's popularity was that it was written by an ambitious young man who wasn't long out of high school himself. The Dell paperback edtion (much like Peyton Place just before it) seemed to be everywhere. Farris' photo on the back cover depicted a thoughtful man who might have played football at one time or another.
Steve Lewis/Tina Karelson