One of my readers thoughtfully sent me a copy of "Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes" a while back (in Kindle format, so I will never have to load it into a box and drag it to another apartment, THANK YOU). I reserve comment on the content until I've finished the entire thing, which I haven't yet, but after maybe a dozen pages I can already make at least one interesting observation:  English is not the first language of the author, and possibly not the first language of the book, either. Specifically, even the introduction sounds extremely Russian.

I have a lot less trouble spotting these things than I do articulating them. I'm extensively and sometimes weirdly cross-wired, so the amorphous patterns of different languages bring up a lot of synaesthetic comparisons that are awkward to explain to other people. Russian has a very distinct one, common also to authors like Vladimir Nabokov, which persists even when they're writing in French or English. The feel of it always brings to mind private libraries, enclosed with leather-bound books, lit with yellow incandescent bulbs and smelling of pipe smoke. It tends to be dense with sensory description, and Russian authors have a peculiar habit of clarifying them by alluding to a very specific secondary set-piece that has little or nothing to do with the main text, but bears the same ineffable atmosphere, much as I did above.

It's also wordy in comparison to modern English, with relatively long sentences, and fond of things like rhetorical questions to the reader and stuffing a lot of the in-line descriptions into subclauses set off by commas. The format isn't unknown in other languages, but it often strikes readers -- particularly Americans -- as old-fashioned, as it comes close to a writing style that fell rather abruptly out of favor with Anglophones in the 1920s. It hung around a wee bit longer in languages like French, whose structure requires a lot of description to be done in full noun phrases rather than adjective-noun like English does, or quasi-polysynthetic compounds in German.

Checking the cover, I note that the author's name is Maria Konnikova, which suggests that I'm right. Russian surnames have gendered variations; common ones inclue -skiy/-skaya, -ov/-ova, and -ev/-evna. Anna Karenina was married to a man named Karenin. Americans are generally rather befuddled by this, historically not having had a lot of success at grokking the intricacies of foreign cultures or languages. When immigrants came through Ellis Island (or Liberty Island, or the Port of Boston, or wherever) in the late 19th or early 20th c., they were registered by a clerk who "helpfully" Anglicized their surname for them. At that point, women, particularly married women, didn't have a lot of rights here -- they could own their own businesses and inanimate possessions and so forth, but documentation-wise, they were basically self-locomoting property. An American registrar asking for the family's names would invariably put down the husband's surname as the family surname, on the grounds that obviously Papa was going to be the one in charge; consequently, the majority of Russian surnames you run into here are the masculine variation, regardless of the gender of the Russian-American in question. The fact that she retains the -ova ending suggests that she is, or is the child of, a recent immigrant. 

(I have actually known a couple of Russian women who use the feminine variation. All of them were either direct from Russia, or the daughter of a woman who was. Most of them are so recent that they still have Cyrillic handwriting, which is in and of itself a fascinating subject. They get really startled when I take a look at their cursive and inquire where in the former Soviet bloc they went to grade school.)

It would not be particularly unusual for a Russian author to claim, as Konnikova does, to have loved Sherlock Holmes as a child. Holmes was ridiculously popular in Russia, to the point of being one of the few Western fictional characters to remain well-known there even through the communist days. Aside from the Russian translations of the books -- which are legion -- if she's about my age she probably remembers Vasiliy Livanov as Holmes (and Vitaly Solomin as Watson) from a much-loved series of TV movies produced in the late '70s and early '80s. Contrary to what you'd expect from the grim, gloomy American propaganda of the era, the Russian Holmes is a bit on the impish side. They're also about to air a new TV series that seems to have taken much of its inspiration and atmosphere from the Guy Ritchie films and the Moffatt/Gatiss production done by the BBC.

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