A while back I discussed some of my reservations about the Tintin books. I found the slapstick precious, the characters caricatured, the art lacking in visceral appeal, and the layouts consistently boring.
Numerous folks stopped by to tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about or (more kindly) to suggest that I should try some of the later Tintin books. In particular, several commenters recommended The Castafiore Emerald.
As it happens, my son has become a little obsessed with Tintin, so I thought I’d use that as an excuse to buy The Castafiore Emerald and see if it changed my opinion of the series. My boy, as expected, loved it…but I still wasn’t convinced.
That isn’t to say that the story is without interest. In fact, it diverges from earlier books in the series in a number of intriguing ways. Herge (according to trusty Wikipedia) was tiring of the series, and wanted to try something new. And what he tried was abandoning the adventure book format. In Castafiore Emeralds, Tintin doesn’t head for any exotic locale (as is the case in almost all the other books in the series), and he doesn’t encounter criminals, danger, or excitement of any sort really. Instead, he participates in a drawing room mystery/farce, in which every crime isn’t, every suspect is innocent, and the only real suspense is how Herge will manage to spin the plot out for a full 62 pages without ever having anything happen.
As a formal exercise, this is undeniably masterful; you only really appreciate Herge’s narrative genius when you see him turn all his tricks back on themselves, so that all the careful foreshadowing ends in blind alleys and the characters spin around and back on themselves, endlessly chasing their own slapstick-bruised backsides.
But as with Herge’s work in general, while I can appreciate the achievement on an abstract level, I can’t love it. Like Herge’s drawing, The Castafiore Emerald is almost too polished — and definitely too pat. You can feel the audible “click” as each false lead is resolved, and you can hear the laugh track rev up as each character is wheeled out (literally in the case of the wheelchair-bound Captain Haddock) to perform their schtick. And throwing in some gypsies so that Tintin can demonstrate his liberal bonafides by not suspecting them of theft…well, let’s just say I wish Herge had resisted the temptation.
Again, my son adores it when Calculus misinterprets what someone told him yet again because he still can’t hear and deaf people are always funny; or when Haddock splutteringly shouts “Billions of blue blistering barnacles” for the umpteenth time, or when the fiftieth person trips over that broken step and falls on their butt. Kids like to see the same joke over and over. And it’s not like I’m totally opposed…but the predictable surprises and even more predictable characters, the preciousness and the bloodlessness, the relentless clockwork perfection of it — it leaves me cold, and kind of irritated. Certainly, if I have to read something to my son, I could do (and have done) a lot worse. His current fascination with the Narnia books is giving me a lot more pleasure than his Tintin kick, though.