Andrew Marr deconstructs detective fiction, fantasy epics and spy novels - the books we really read. He unpicks their conventions to show how these books keep us turning the page.
In the first episode of a series that explores the books we (really) read, Andrew Marr investigates the curious case of detective fiction. This is a genre that been producing best-sellers since the 19th century, and whose most famous heroes - Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Rebus - are now embedded in our collective psyche. But how does detective fiction work- and how do the best crime writers keep us compulsively turning the pages? Andrew deconstructs detective stories by looking at their 'rules' - the conventions we expect to be present when we pick up a typical mystery. Because detective fiction is an interactive puzzle, these rules are the rules of a game - a fiendish battle of wits between the reader and the writer. What is remarkable is that instead of restricting novelists (as you might expect), these rules stimulate creativity, and Andrew reveals how clever writers like Agatha Christie have used them to create a seemingly infinite number of story-telling possibilities. The fictional detective is a brilliant invention, a figure who takes us to (often dark) places that we wouldn't normally visit. While we are in their company, no section of society is off-limits or above suspicion, and Andrew shows how writers have used crime fiction not merely to entertain, but also to anatomise society's problems. Andrew interviews modern-day crime writers including Ian Rankin, Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid, while profiling important pioneers such as Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Ruth Rendell. Along the way, he decodes various great set-pieces of the detective novel such as Hercule Poirot's drawing room denouements, and the 'locked room' mysteries of John Dickson Carr.
What is it about stories of magic, epic adventure, and imaginary worlds that has turned fantasy fiction into one of the world's most popular forms of storytelling, regularly filling the bestseller lists and entrancing adults and children alike? In the second episode of his series that deconstructs the books we (really) read, Andrew Marr argues that these stories are filled with big ideas. Yes, there may be wizards with pointy hats as well as the odd dragon, but what fantasy novels are really good at is allowing us to see our own world in a surprising way, albeit through a twisted gothic filter. The current leading exponent of fantasy fiction is a bearded Texan, George RR Martin, whose A Game of Thrones began a bookshelf-buckling series of novels, and spawned a vast TV empire. But Andrew reminds us that this is a genre whose origins are British, and at its heart is still a quest to reconnect readers with the ancient ideas and folk beliefs of the world before the Enlightenment. Andrew breaks down fantasy books into a set of conventions that govern the modern genre - he looks at the intricacy with which imaginary worlds are built (as seen in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series), the use of portals that are able to bridge this world and another (most famously, the wardrobe in CS Lewis's Narnia books), as well the concept of 'thinning' - these novels are typically set in a world in decline. In fantasy fiction, winter is always coming. To help him understand these books, Andrew meets bestselling fantasy writers and the programme includes interviews with Neil Gaiman, Alan Garner and Frances Hardinge. As well as profiling key figures such as CS Lewis and Sir Terry Pratchett, Andrew considers the spell that medieval Oxford has cast on generations of authors from Lewis Carroll to Philip Pullman. And he gets to grips with the legacy of JRR Tolkien, a figure so important that his influence pops up everywhere 'like Mount Fuji in Japanese prints', according to Pratchett. Tolkien's predominance would not go unchallenged, and Andrew shows how writers like Ursula K Le Guin confronted Tolkien's rather European notions of what an imaginary world should be.
What is the allure of the classic espionage story? As Andrew Marr argues in the conclusion to his series about the books we (really) read, the British spy novel is much more than a cloak and dagger affair. Rather, these books allow readers to engage with some pretty big questions about the human condition - principally, who are you? What or who would you be willing to betray? And for what cause would you lay your life on the line? To help him decipher the rules of the classic espionage story, Andrew travels to Berlin in the footsteps of master spy novelist John le Carre, whose experience of witnessing the Berlin Wall being erected in 1961 inspired him to write the 20th century's greatest spy novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Andrew uncovers the various conventions that have governed the genre since it began. He shows how early spy novelists created a climate of fear, how they introduced the debonair gentleman spy, and how through the works of former secret agents such as Somerset Maugham they translated the often mundane details of espionage into their stories. The tradecraft of spywriting is gleaned from writers Frederick Forsyth, William Boyd, Gerald Seymour, Charles Cumming as well as novelist (and former director general of MI5) Dame Stella Rimington. And Andrew considers the future of the fictional spy in an age when the agent on the ground is being superseded by electronic surveillance.