Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Read a Rainbow: Red

On this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I was seeing red. In the first of what I hope will be a semi-regular series of colour-themed shows over the coming year or so. I’ve ambitiously decided to follow the colours of the rainbow with this (and yes, I do know that means orange is next… argh!), so that meant starting off with a red-themed show this week.

You can listen to the show on the player below, but as promised, here’s a list of the books I talked about on the show.

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

I started off today’s show with a classic, and perhaps one of the best-known books with a shade of red in the title. That said, it’s also one of those books that people always imagine that they’ve read, even when they haven’t!

A Study in Scarlet is the book that introduces Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, and it’s where we’ll find a description of their initial meetings, their decision to share rooms at 221B Baker Street, and the first investigation they carry out together. The meeting is so iconic now that it pretty much eclipses the actual case Holmes solves in the novel, and the slightly strange turn the book takes in its second part. Holmes is consulted on a baffling case of murder by Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade of Scotland Yard. An American has been found dead in an abandoned house, and a number of clues around the body point to a cryptic puzzle. The book’s second part flashes back – seemingly without explanation – to Utah in the 1840s, and it’s a good while before the reader starts to work out how the pieces fit together. If you haven’t read it, A Study in Scarlet is likely not the book you’re expecting, but it’s a must-read for any fans of Holmes and Watson.

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981)

Like the previous book, this next one introduces an iconic character, though a very different type of character to Sherlock Holmes. Harris’s 1981 novel introduced the reading public to his monstrous villain (anti-hero?) Dr Hannibal Lecter.

Red Dragon is the first novel that includes Lecter. It’s set five years after the serial killer was discovered and apprehended by FBI profiler Will Graham, and it sees the investigator come out of retirement to investigate another brutal set of crimes. And it looks like he’ll need Lecter’s help to bring the perpetrator to justice. While the character of Lecter is probably best known now from Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film adaptation of Harris’s follow-up novel, The Silence of the Lambs, and Will Graham’s relationship to the killer is possibly known mostly from the TV series Hannibal, this is the book that started it all. It was adapted into a film, Manhunter, in 1986, and then again as Red Dragon in 2002.

Red Rum: The Story of Ginger McCain and His Legendary Horse (2005)

This next book was a bit of a personal indulgence. I’ve never been particularly interested in horse racing, or in horses generally, but during a recent holiday in Southport I became quite taken with the story of Red Rum.

Ivor Herbert’s book tells the story of the horse that became a national treasure. The focus is really on trainer Ginger McCain, the man who took a horse that had been unsuccessful (and possibly mistreated by previous trainers) and transformed it into the three-times Grand National winner that the nation loved. One of the things I was most taken with about Red Rum’s story was his post-retirement life as a celebrity horse. However, if you’re more interested in Red Rum’s life as a racehorse, this book goes over a lot of the detail of the story, with a lot of background to McCain’s role as the trainer of the nation’s most successful horse.

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy (1984)

And another book now that introduces a famous character – something of an accidental theme on today’s show. The Hunt for Red October is Clancy’s debut novel, and it introduces his best-known character, Jack Ryan.

The novel is a Cold War thriller about a Soviet ballistic missile submarine, the Red October, and the various machinations of the Russians (who don’t want the submarine to fall into the hands of the Americans) and the American (who very much do want the submarine to fall into their hands). There’s a lot here you might expect from a Cold War thriller, but that’s partly because Clancy’s fiction help set the template for this type of novel. In the three decades after The Hunt for Red October came out, Clancy was hardly ever off the bestsellers lists after all. As I said on the show, the book is also significant for introducing the character of Jack Ryan, who is working as a CIA analyst at this point in his career. This character is perhaps the one we associate most with Clancy’s writing, and he has been portrayed on screen by a number of actors, including Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford.

Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley (1991)

The next book on today’s list is sort of the opposite of some of the others. This isn’t a book that introduces an iconic character, but rather one that revisits an iconic character, in a sequel/continuation of a much older and well-loved novel.

Scarlett is a sequel to Gone With the Wind, picking up Scarlett O’Hara’s story at the point where Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel finishes. While many critics felt that Ripley’s continuation of the story was unnecessary – unwanted, even – the book was hugely successful on its release. It’s a curious mixture of fidelity to the original and interventions in the story, partly due to the different time and context of its release. The book was adapted in 1994 into a mini-series starring Joanne Whalley (as Scarlett O’Hara) and Timothy Dalton (as Rhett Butler), which was also popular on its release, though it might be a bit forgotten now.

The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers (1931)

And finally, a book that neither introduces nor revisits an iconic character. That’s not to say it doesn’t include a well-loved character – Sayers’s series detective Lord Peter Wimsey – but as it’s the sixth book to feature him, he’s pretty well-established at this point.

The Five Red Herrings has been described as a ‘puzzle book’. Although some of the other Lord Peter Wimsey novels have more about the consulting detective’s life (and opinions) or his relationship with Harriet Vane, this novel is much more focused on the case at hand, the death of artist Sandy Campbell, which occurs in Galloway where Peter Wimsey just happens to be on holiday. There are six suspects in the case – though, of course, only one of them is the murderer, and the others are the titular red herrings. Each of the suspects has an alibi, and a big part of the puzzle here is working out how a false alibi might have been constructed (and there’s quite a bit of info about train timetables to help the reader along here). Although some might consider the book dry – Sayers seems to be actively testing the reader, even directly addressing them at times – the depiction of the artists colony in Galloway has some great character details, and the setting is really evocative as well.

To hear more about these books and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show again here:


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