Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Handful of Thrillers, Most from the Seventies

MADONNA RED -- James Carroll

Exceptionally odd thriller tries to marry the “Catholic Problem Novel” (which always seem to down to “Those Mean Old Priests Are Trying To Stop Reform, Dammit”) with, ah, um, a thriller.

I don't know what to say. I suppose it's better than marrying the thriller with the “Jewish Writer Problem Novel”, which would probably end up with a lot of scenes of the hero masturbating fiercely in the bathroom. But it still seems like a really strange thing to do. Also a lot of genuflecting Irishims, the kind of book where JFK is mentioned and we're all supposed to bow our heads in prayer. Ridiculous, avoid.


I only read a few pages into this, so maybe I'm missing some tremendous payoff down the line, but I kinda doubt it. For one thing I've been around, y'know? I know how stories work, pretty much, and I'm pretty sure I know where this is headed. Secondly, I kinda skimmed ahead and what I saw didn't surprise me none, yo.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I can live with that.

And anyway, I decided years ago I wouldn't put up with books that weren't good. Life is short, you'll never read half of what you promised yourself, let alone what's out there, don't waste your time on crap. At it's heart book reading should be fun, not a chore. This isn't 11th Grade English and you do not have to make a report on this when you're done.

Anyhow, the general concept here is this the “spy in deep cover who has to juggle his mission against the friends and connections set up in his new country”. I have never bought this notion from the start, at least in any serious way. In it's more entertaining gonzo variants it's a plot right out of a Nick Carter: Killmaster novel, basically it transfers the “invasion of the body snatchers” type story to the spy novel. Fred the kindly old barber is really a Chinese Commie Spy? Really?

In it's more serious variants I think it's trying to move the “undercover cop in danger of losing site of his mission” trope to the spy arena. This is a more serious variant and I suspect that's the inspiration, particularly because I suspect “R Wright Campbell” is really “Robert Campbell” a guy who was once well known for tough guy novels. Like IN LA-LA LAND WE TRUST. So it would make sense, see, this would be a logical move for him.

In it's more serious variants it runs into problems immediately, though. To begin with, people do not leave their home, stay deep within another culture, and then at a predetermined time rise up and start blowing up bridges or whatever. Psychologically it doesn't work that way. The environment is too strong, the pressures to great, in the absence of careful mentoring (and it's made quite clear early on that there's no careful mentoring here) the subject will just join the new culture.

Yes, of course, moles have existed in the past and continue to do so, but don't miss the thread – these guys are converts. That's the point, and actually the interest of them. See TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY on this – the point is the mole wouldn't be so interesting if he actually WAS a Russian citizen, would he?

So, I don't really buy the premise. But let's set that aside, as much as we can, anyway, and look a little at where this comes from, like I said up top....probably the undercover cop story.

There's really only a couple of ways those kinds of stories can go. One is the “guy infiltrates Bad Guys to Bring Them Down, all the while Suffering Emotionally/Mentally/Physically”. Think Scorcese's THE DEPARTED, if you need an example. In that case, our hero is definitely an outsider, has a mission, suffers but in the end completes (or at least tries to complete) the mission.

The other way is the “both sides are rotten” kind of story, the undercover cop tale as social commentary. This is much harder to pull off, because it's a lot less clear who to root for in such stories, but usually you end up just focusing on the viewpoint character himself, who usually comes to embody all that is Good and Pure and Noble in the writer's mind. Laurence Fishburne in DEEP COVER was a version of this.

Now, it's kinda dicey in a crime story, but if you got skills you can sometimes make it work there. In a spy story? Particularly a WW 2 spy story like the above? Never.

Think about the problems Campbell set for himself. He can't make it a battle between two equally bad systems, Nazi Germany and Great Britain, because, even setting aside the fact that it WASN'T in fact, it's going to be a helluva tough sell in the story proper. WW2 stories always occur in a context, they can't help it, it's a mediated war, and one of those contexts is “Nazis are evil bastards”. If you're gonna challenge that context well.....well, good luck, I guess. It might even be an interesting book. It certainly would have a hard time out there, though. Probably.

So Campbell can't do that, he's a consummate pro and he realizes that trying to disengage the message of the 400 WW2 movies his readers have seen is a losing battle. So the Brits (actually, here the Scots) are good and the Nazis are bad. So.

So, why doesn't this guy just make a new life for himself in Scotland?

Because mind, this is a sensitive, caring, intelligent guy. This is part of the point too. A guy in his absurd position who really stayed loyal to Deutschland through all of those years, resist all the normal psychological pressures working against it, would almost certainly be some kind of weirdo – he certainly wouldn't be able to blend in under “deep cover”. But since we ill-advisedly are in this guy's head, we see that he's a pretty decent chap, all in all. So why doesn't he just give up Germany? We're even told he has nothing to keep him loyal to the country. He doesn't seem to obsess over it much, except for periodic reminders that I feel are more authorial intent than anything. So why not?

Campbell never really gives me a good answer to that, in the pages I read, and I felt no need to read further. THE SPY WHO SAT AND WAITED is the kind of bad popular book that is sometimes mistaken for good. On some level it's very carefully written: it's a pro's job, the scenes are very carefully delineated, I wouldn't say the prose ever really distinguishes itself but it's fussy in a reliable craftsmanlike sort of way, intelligent as far as it goes, you won't hate yourself reading this. But taken as a whole it's a badly written book, and that's because the whole idea is, to put a fine point on it, stupid. It's a stupid premise. I could never suspend my disbelief that it could ever work, and the bad choice of viewpoint character ensured that the whole setup was just insane. When you're sneering at the book's main character that's not a good sign.

THE THREE JUST MEN – Edgar Wallace

THE FOUR JUST MEN is that rarity, a political thriller which is literally about politics – that is, about the ways we organize, decide, and conduct ourselves politically. It's a very unique book and if there's only one Wallace you read, it definitely should be that.

The sequels really do not match it. THE COUNCIL OF JUSTICE is a political thriller in the more standard tradition of the time – “basic action thriller with political overtones that skews conservative and does have some fascist overtones, frankly, like it or not”. BLACK GANG sort of stuff. While not nearly as snazzy as THE BLACK GANG, COUNCIL is good on that level and worth reading. THE JUST MEN OF CORDOVA I don't remember a gosh-durned thing about, except that it's set in Spain and Wallace apparently really liked Spain. I wouldn't take my failure of memory as a recommendation. THE LAW OF THE FOUR JUST MEN is a collection of stories, and they vary in quality as most short story collections tend to do. I would describe the book as “pleasant, but minor”.

Leaving THREE, the last one. And apparently Wallace decided to leave the characters with a bang. We're pretty far afield here of the mysterious grim men of FOUR, here the remaining three (one of 'em dies in FOUR...oh crap, is that a spoiler?) have been pardoned and actually work a detective agency in their spare time, where, as this book opens, they are apparently just sitting around waiting for the plot to start.

Yes, this is a straightforward pulp adventure novel, and on that basis it's quite entertaining. It has all of the standard Wallace elements: damsels in distress, a corrupt member of the aristocracy, a fiendish plot to defraud said heiress, a mysterious murder full of mysterious mystery, and best of all a memorable villain. The problem with turning the Just Men into just pulp heroes is that they were most effective in narrative terms when they were mysterious – Wallace, to keep the series going, ultimately had to characterize them, and while he did a professional's job they do lose some of their luster in comparison.

But accepting that, it's very entertaining. The best thing Wallace does here is two fine villains – a henchman who on the run from ahem “certain unspecified things” in Germany and, when he's not a psychopathic killer, is a master of disguise, and, best of all, the lead bad guy, Oberzhon, a guy who's just a marvelously entertaining collection of tics: he only sleeps in a chair; he rarely eats solid foods – there's a reference to him boiling down an entire ox and sipping that and there aren't enough exclamation points in the universe to indicate how awesome that is; he relaxes by reading the lesser Germanic philosophers (extra special points to Wallace by making sure we understood – the lesser.) There's a priceless sequence where he attempts to court a woman he, uh, kidnapped (don't ask) and he does it in a ponderous Germanic way which is the kind of thing they really gotta film, it's crying out for the movies.

Add to that a good-for-the-time mystery, for once; some cool stuff from the Just Men; and one really excellent fight sequence – we've spoken here before about how hard it is to do action properly, the fight with the snakes in the cellar is really masterfully done, very well choreographed. Not a necessary book like FOUR JUST MEN, but if you like Wallace this is one of his better efforts, and is the only other installment of “the Just Men” series that I would recommend.


Earlier we talked about one classic kind of bad book, THE SPY WHO SAT AND ATE A HOAGIE or whatever it was called, which was “the character study that springs from false assumptions, and thus is unbelievable on it's face”. RIMRING is another classic kind of bad book, “the thriller which is really a travelogue”.

The bio in the back of the book tells me that Hart-Davis spent time in the Himalayas, which I guess accounts for his setting, yo. He obviously loves the area, and the descriptions are nicely done. But this is all done in the service of an extremely hackneyed thriller plot: The Ex-Spy Who Is Roped Back Into The Business, The Evil Commie Opposition, The Simple But Good Natives, The Evil Cutthroat, The Love Interest, The Secret Idol, etc. The intent, I'm pretty sure, was to do a classic adventure, but you don't do a classic adventure by forcing the tropes of a classic adventure onto a modern setting: this ensures laborious stage-setting (where you're carefully told how sheltered the native populace is, how rural the environment is, where the Improbable Throwback From Another Era is carefully placed, etc.) and in general just makes the whole thing seem as contrived as it really is. Instead, you need to just move the tropes into the modern era. They're hardy things, they can stand them. To not do that is to betray a lack of faith in your story telling ability proper, it suggests that really you don't think you can TELL a good adventure story by itself, that you gotta rely on the old tropes to stand in and deliver for you. (Ie, the Mysterious Idol is now code for “the prize”, instead of being, well, the prize.)

There's two ways to look at a book like RIMRING. Either the thought was “hey, man, you know the Himalayas and that's a classic setting for an old timey adventure story” (that's what I think happened) or “I want to tell a classic adventure – hey, I know the Himalayas! – wait, where's the typewriter...” (the old “tell what you know” fallacy). Either way it results in bad books, and any given installment of Edward S Aarons's “Assignment” series, which almost always took place in exotic parts of the world that he knew only through the local library, is simply superior to this kind of well-intentioned mediocrity.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


THE MYSTERY OF ORCIVAL (1867) – Emile Gaboriau

I want to show how to approach an older book properly, and I'll use this as my model, partly 'cause I've just finished it and it's great, partly because some of the great things about it directly relate to Doyle and some of the point I raised with him, partly because it's a good model to talk about how to approach books like these aesthetically.

Gaboriau is a forgotten author nowadays, but it wasn't always the case. He was once so famous that in A STUDY IN SCARLET Holmes feels like he needs to measure himself in part against Lecoq, Gaboriau's detective hero. He's dropped as a peer of Poe, for Chrissakes. And I ought to take the moment here to acknowledge that some of the things I laid at Doyle's feet last time I was wrong about. I implied that many of the shifts in tone in Doyle were there because basically he didn't care much for the mystery part of what he was writing, that wasn't where his action was. I still think that's at least partly true, but there's a much simpler explanation for it as well – one that ironically shines a much harsher light on Doyle.

He's simply copying Gaboriau. The structure of many of the Holmes stories, particularly the longer stories, apes the structure of things like ORCIVAL, where the detection is contained and then there's a flashback explaining what the hell happened. Sorry, Emile.

Doyle owes a hell of a lot to Gaboriau, in fact, which we'll touch on in a sec, but for now all I want to point is that this is an early detective novel, arguably the first one (it came out the year before the usual contender, Wilkie Collins's THE MOONSTONE). I think this endless chasing of who's first is ultimately counterproductive, aesthetic ideas tend to just be in the air, the detective novel is as good an example of it as any, but it IS interesting that I can go into my failing-Borders and buy a copy of Collins (actually his complete output, including now unreadable novels like ARMADALE) in classic additions, whereas Gaboriau is forgotten to all but the hardest-core mystery fans.


I picked this up free for my Kindle app on my personal computer. I remain convinced that right now the best function of ebooks is old titles like this. There's no financial incentive for most presses to reissue them, the print on demand or old stuff is pricey. Why not? (I do try to support places like House of Stratus who are reissuing in nice pb editions guys like Wallace, or R. Austin Freeman, or Orczy.) I didn't have overwhelming expectations for it, I had read in the past Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq, which I remember generally liking but not thinking was all that. That's a big book, though, with an entire second volume devoted to “why it happened”.

This is an extraordinary book on a number of levels. Without overdrumming the historical stuff to death, it ought to be said that ORCIVAL contains, at least in embryonic form, the following tropes which would reappear in mystery fiction for years to come:

a murder at a country house
a detective who is a genius, associated with the police but in some ways is not “of” the police. (Lecoq almost seems like a police organization within a police organization, he has his own men, investigates crimes his own way, has his own enemies, sees himself as a seperate force that can sometimes act autonomously, to the dictates of his conscience.
In very embryonic form a Watson, a helper who's the readers gateway into the world of the story.
The mystery novel used for social criticism.


a femme fatale
a noirish plot (second section of book) that feels transposed directly from, I kid you not, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE.
A concentration on police procedure, on the “how catch 'em?” question
A meditation on the difference between “law” and “justice” (a common theme of the crime novel)

And that's just off the top of my head. Now, mind, none of this makes the novel good – but it sure makes it interesting, and for this reason alone this book and author deserve to be rediscovered alongside Collins.

So we acknowledge the historical importance, but we put that aside. Does this book work as a novel? And amazingly, the answer is yes.

Doyle is an important comparison here. Reading ORCIVAL makes me regard the Holmes stories in an even darker light, Doyle quite evidently owes Gaboriau a hell of a lot, not just in plot structure but in characterization as well. Holmes now feels to me like a transposition of Lecoq with the personality removed.

But anyway. Compare the structure of ORCIVAL alongside SCARLET and we immediately see the structure pays off for Gaboriau in ways it just doesn't for Doyle. If there's a theme to the book, it's something like “things are not always what they seem” and the structure of the book is that of an onion, there is a concerted effort to peel things away, layer by layer, until we get at the truth. That's the plot as we the reader experience it: the plot as the viewpoint character understands it (ie, the story's timeline once all the pieces are known) is that of a circle: he fails to take an action, is sent on a nightmarish journey, and ends failing again to take the same action, although this time the figure who prevented him now aids him.

I'm talking elliptically because I don't want to spoil any of the pleasures of this very good book, but let's just say it is very cunningly plotted, and things that seem somewhat awkward at first have a reason for being where they are. It's also unified: the second section is told in flashback, but there's a reason for it to be told that way, and the audience still participates in the story even as the backstory is being told to them. Similarily the final layers of the onion do not fall away until the final pages, there are final motivational revelations in the concluding chapters of the book.

Lecoq is a genuine stab at a character, too, which already makes him more interesting than the jumble of neurotic tics which is Holmes. He's self-pitying at times, boastful, proud, quick to anger when certain sore subjects are brought up, capable of making mistakes and willing to fess up to them.

And there's some genuine suspense in the book. The section where Lecoq reconstructs the murder is as good as this kind of thing gets, the fact that it was written in 1866 is a revelation. The second section has a doom-laden, noirish atmosphere and while the ending is never in doubt, there's a twist there that I didn't really see coming and rather enjoyed. The third section, more police-procedural, even has it's moments, it leads up to a final confrontation in a rooming house that's very well orchestrated.

All in all, a great book even if it had all been done before, I think. The fact that it hadn't makes this a classic, well worth anyone's time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lawrence Schoover: THE BURNISHED BLADE

Lawrence Schoonover – THE BURNISHED BLADE (1948)

The next big push after Doyle will be a bunch of once-bestselling, now fairly forgotten authors of historical fiction. This was a genre that was once so associated with “bestseller” that when Chandler needed to create a bestselling writer for THE LONG GOODBYE he made him a historical fiction writer.

We'll be looking at Samuel Shellabarger (CAPTAIN FROM CASTILLE, PRINCE OF FOXES, LORD VANITY); Thomas Costain (probably THE BLACK ROSE)' Frank Yerby (THE GOLDEN HAWK, ODOR OF SANCTITY, either FOXES OF HARROW or JUDAS MY BROTHER, depends on what I can find); one of the big female writers of the era (either Kathleen Winsor's FOREVER AMBER or Anya Seton's DRAGONWYCK, probably DRAGONWYCK if I can find it inexpensively), and the most lionized of the bunch, Kenneth Roberts (NORTHWEST PASSAGE, ARUNDEL, RABBLE IN ARMS). I don't know if I'll do a whole big post on any of these just yet, I don't know if the subject allows for it, although Yerby is an interesting writer to look at and Roberts maybe, just by virtue of his success.

But anyway, Schoonover. If you read online reviews of this book (at Amazon, or wherever) you'll read a lot of indications that essentially it's bowdlerized, that the publication date indicates Schoonover couldn't be as, er, “frank” about the era as he might've wanted.

Eh. Yeah, there's no graphic sex scenes or disembowelment scenes, if that's what you mean, but I wouldn't exactly say the book wasn't, you know, “up to speed”, like all you crazy kids say nowadays. There's a graphic bit about the hero's parents being burned in a fire, an unstated, but very real bit where he gets laid by a slut, a reference to what we'd call now a serial killer (and the implication that he's also a pedophile), and the whole tone in general is sort of hand-me-down hardboiled, that is, it has a feel of light cynicism about it all (the tone taken toward nobility, religious authorities, etc.). I mean, given it's era and all, it doesn't feel to me especially cloistered.

The other criticism I've read of this book is that it's very pulpy, and there you might have something, although I think it's useful to step back and explain what you mean by it. It is very pulpily plotted, if that's what you mean, although if you say that you're relying on a very limited definition of “pulp” that not many people use anymore. That is, the classic pulp “plot” is “this happened, and then this, and then this, and then this” a string of beads continued until the somewhat arbitrary conclusion. (A lot of Burroughs, particularly the Tarzan books, are plotted this way.) .

There's no denying that this kind of rough-and-ready storytelling is a hallmark of “pulp plotting”, although you can just as easily find complete fully formed novels in the “pulp” world (just about all of the Gold Medal guys, for instance), as well as a lot string of beads plots in middlebrow books aiming for the big time (THE CARDINAL, say.)

It's not like it's restricted to pulp fiction and so hardly a characteristic of it. Maybe it'd just be better to call it “a rough form of plotting” and leave it like that.

The other big aspect to pulp writing, it seems to me, is that the incidents have to be evocative, they have to be sensational and capture the reader's interest straight out. Like Sax Rohmer, say. Even Rohmer's best books are full of nonsense – killer insects, killer fungus, mind control, evil black sabbaths in the pyramids at midnight, etc. This seems to me to be a primary aspect of pulp fiction, the constant attempt to keep the reader entertained. Such is not the case with Schoonover, this is a pretty tepid book for a'that, like a lot of historical romances it's a big tease, a lot “happens” but not a lot actually happens, the actual number of incidents in the damn thing is quite low, and while you might grab a copy thinking you're gonna get a lot of adventure, you're not. I hate to tell you this, but you're not.

So not recommended, although I have hopes that the movie version is better. Because they'd, like, put some exciting scenes in it.

Other things I've been reading:

Edgar Wallace – THE LAW OF THE FOUR JUST MEN (1921) – I like Wallace, and have been reading a fair amount of him lately, currently the Four Just Men series. The first remains the best, and is a genuine oddity, if it's anything it's sort of a philosophical story couched in thriller terms. It's a classic and highly recommended. THE COUNCIL OF THE JUST is not as good but is not bad, these guys become relatively straightforward vigilante heroes ala Sapper's THE BLACK GANG, albeit not as well told. I don't remember much about THE JUST MEN OF CORDOVA, except that it wasn't all that good and that Wallace obviously liked Spain.

And then there's this one – this is a collection of short stories, about half of them recast the remaining just men as amateur private detectives, with middling success (this is not a strong suit of Wallace's) and half of them in the older vigilante form (which work much better, with a lot of “biter bit” sort of payoffs). I think Wallace is actually better in other venues, but LAW is not bad, and worth reading for anyone with a tolerance for this sort of stuff.

Guy Boothby – A BID FOR FORTUNE (aka ENTER DR NIKOLA) (1895) – I really wanted to like this, as the setup – early decadent supervillain ala Fu Manchu, Victorian themes, wildness, globe hopping, is pretty much crack to me. He even has a pet cat he has unnatural relations with. (I kid.)

This is really almost outrageously bad, though, almost written at a rough draft level. Stuff that you would never countenance today – outrageous coincidences, longwinded digressions, a lack of payoff, a lack of suspense, convenient plotting, you name it – is countenanced here because, well, it's old, man, huh?

I find this fandom worship disconcerting and disheartening: I have a taste for this genre because I like it but looking to the past doesn't relieve you of your critical precepts, my friends, and if you excuse the manifold faults of FORTUNE because you just like the idea of this kind of stuff, then you're not a true admirer of the work, you're just a fetishist.

If the work can't stand up today it's not good. No amount of excuse-making will change that salient fact.

Doyle -- the books


Let's be brief, because as is often the case the time lag between the last post on him and this one is a bit much, and the inspiration is a little flagging.

Sherlock Holmes: I don't hate these stories, but I do think they're flawed and grossly overpraised. As my last two posts have pointed out (let's recap!) I think their reputation really rests on two fallacies: (a) their historical importance (too often conflated with quality), and my sense that what people really like about the Sherlock Holmes stories are not the stories themselves, but rather the consensus universe of “late Victorian England” that surrounds them.

Doyle is always acting against himself in these stories. They're presumptively mysteries but they're not, in essence. In essence they're romances, and have much more in common with THE PRISONER OF ZENDA than they do THE MOONSTONE, say. This is the secret why half of A STUDY IN SCARLET and THE SIGN OF THE FOUR are adventures that have only the most tenuous connection to the main plot; this is why Doyle gets rid of Holmes for about half of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, because he flat out could care less; this is why so many of the stories are structured with Holmes as the framing device around an actual story-story, the flashback (see, oh, “The Adventure of the Crooked Man”). This is why so many of the other “mysteries” are not really mysteries at all, but rather adventure tales, see say “A Scandal in Bohemia” or “The Final Problem”.

Again, that doesn't mean they're awful or the reader will find no pleasure in them I just think that this internal tension is detrimental to the work's effect as a whole. Stories should be what they are. When they are actually two completely disjointed things at the same time, that's a problem. Aesthetically.

There's “Complete” collections all over the place, most quite cheap – pick 'em up and decide for yourselves. For what it's worth, my absolute favorite Holmes stories are the first part of “A Study in Scarlet” (introduces the character, who seems quite fresh here) and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” (more for the setting, Victorian Xmas). And maybe “The Naval Treaty”, just because I like the joke at the heart of that one. The rest I can more or less take or leave; he's not a necessary author for me the way Chesterton is.

THE LOST WORLD and THE POISON BELT: I actually think, along with Doyle himself, that his real reputation rests here. Easily my favorite Doyle work – by far – is THE LOST WORLD.

For one thing it's more clearly what it's supposed to be, if that makes any sense: it's not a romance cut by mystery, or (as we'll see in a second) history, it's just a straight Haggard-like adventure to a, um, “Lost World”. Challenger is far more believable than Holmes, I think: a more straightforward Thoughtful Man of Action. Albeit comically portrayed – the point is he seems like a real person. (Holmes never has to me, sorry. Holmes is a slapdash collection of tics. Holmes is so much over the place that the definitive portrayal of him, Jeremy Brett in the BBC series, turns him into something like a quivering neurotic.) The ability to step away from the mystery plots that evidently bored him to tears allowed Doyle to do the stuff that he obviously really liked, which is adventure writing (some very nice setpieces in WORLD) and some really nice descriptions (there's a final sequence in LOST WORLD which is absolutely classic in this regard, and in fact in my humble opinion is the single best stretch of writing Doyle ever did.) POISON BELT is less known and less interesting, as it's an early “it's all coming to an end, man” armageddon tale, but is still worth a look for some truly evocative descriptions of London after the “apocalypse” (which isn't quite that, Doyle wussed out although there are problems with writing about the end of the world with a viewpoint character, I would suppose. They're usually bound togeter.

THE EXPLOITS OF BRIGADIER GERARD – This is fairly obscure historical fiction, short stories written from the French point of view during the Napoleonic Wars. Of course, as a loyal Brit Doyle couldn't ever really have a character be a completely believable Frenchman, which would in this context necessitate a hatred of the British. So it's kind of compromised from the outset. The other big thing about it is that it's obviously the major inspiration for Flashman, all well and good except Flashman is better because (horrors of horrors) Fraser was just a better writer than Doyle, and knew how to handle this kind of device much better. Plus, to be fair, the debut novel FLASHMAN appeared at a more fortuitous time, the anti-establishment Sixties.

THE WHITE COMPANY and SIR NIGEL – These were the novels that Doyle actually thought were his best. They are “young hero comes of age” kind of things, very long, and set in the Middle Ages. They have their moments, particularly Doyle's knack for description, although I think both books suffer from the same thing that Schoonover's BURNISHED BLADE suffered from, which is the “string of pearls” kind of plot, where the story is really just a succession of incidents in the narrative. These kind of books really lack internal narrative drive, you spend half your time looking up and around wondering exactly why you're reading the damn thing. Something of a minor classic, although I bet it's just the Doyle authorship more than anything being particularly good about the novels themselves. Well described, I guess, and you might actually learn a little history if you read these, but I know of another place you can learn about history. It's called “history books”. Don't tell nobody, no, it's a big secret.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

More on Doyle: The Second Aesthetic Trap

My second post on the aesthetic traps people fall into that Doyle embodies won't be as long as the first, because I think it's something that most people at some level recognize anyhow, even if they don't phrase it the way I phrase it or to the extent I do. In fact, it was first suggested in a comment by my long time reader “anonymous” – and a very astute anonymous anonymous is, too.

Anyway, anonymous anonymously yet very astutely (okay, I'm done) pointed out that it was the movies that made Sherlock Holmes big. Well, yeah, sorta, although I want to develop this a bit, 'cause I think it's a bit bigger/more interesting here than, say, Tarzan or James Bond. (Full disclosure, not an admirer of Edgar Rice Burroughs although I think he had a wonderful imagination; I do respect Ian Fleming a great deal, though.) Your general populace's idea of Tarzan or James Bond is taken pretty much direct from the movies, so much so that a favorite technique of the geek is to sniff haughtily and remind said populace that they'd might be surprised to learn that Tarzan was an educated British Lord in the books, say, or that Bond pursued hedonism as a way to distract himself from his empty lifestyle. (Like this is some rarefied experience known only to the few, not the province of anyone who can cough up $7.95 for a paperback edition of TARZAN OF THE APES or CASINO ROYALE. Sorry, pet peeve.)

I don't think that's exactly the case with Holmes, for while there's certainly been many movie/tv versions of Holmes down over the years Holmes as a phenomena wasn't created by the movies, in the way that Bond certainly was and Tarzan kinda sorta was. The only thing I'm sure that Hollywood really bestowed upon the Holmes series was Watson as a dumbass – think back to Nigel Bruce and his constant sheepdog look – although especially in recent times that 'tradition' has been observed more in the breach as it were. (It never made much sense, anyway. Why would slick brilliant gentleman Basil Rathbone be hanging around with a guy who, um, ah, is a little slow, to be kind about it? What does he bring to the table? Other than comic relief?)

But they still make movies of Holmes, you know. There was that Xmas thing last year with Robert Downey Jr., and on streaming Netflix right now you can watch YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, although I'd really recommend that you don't. So what's the constant appeal, then?

My thought is that people aren't attracted to Holmes himself, per se, they're attracted to the world. They're attracted to that gaslight world of late-period Victorian England: top hats, canes, horse-drawn cabs, country manors, royalty getting into trouble, Jack the Ripper, mist-strewn streets, British Imperialism, etc.

Now the whys of that are a long complicated subject certainly outside the scope of this post (and hell, maybe of this blog). For now, let's just state that it exists. People are drawn to Holmes not really because they're drawn to Holmes, they're drawn to that world, in the way that people are drawn to the Wild West, or Shogunate era Japan, or whatever you want to cite. People are fans of an environment.

It explains a lot. Next time I'll finally talk about Doyle's work as a writer, but for now let's just suggest that it explains why Doyle has kept such a large fanbase, even though his work in the mystery field does not provide the reader with the presumed pleasures he or she would presumably want. It explains the persistence of Holmes in popular culture – the repeated movies (with versions of Holmes often at wild variance to what's in the work), the games, the cartoon characters, the pastiches, the clubs, etc. Holmes is best understood, I think, as an early, smaller version of something like “Star Trek” or the STAR WARS series – it's a consensus universe. Like these things you have people doing “scholarship” in Holmesiana, like these things you have a persistent cult fanbase, like these things you have ongoing contributions to the world., and so on.

This is mistaken for appreciation for Holmes as a character or Doyle's work as writing, and I understand why that is, but I think this is the best explanation of his continued persistence. It's really not about him at all. What makes Doyle interesting in this regard is (a) he was the first to experience this, I'd wager and (b) unlike, say, “Star Trek”, a created universe, Doyle's work is at least presumably based on actual reality – ie, there really was an England during that time. Seems a very simple point, but it's worth pondering – I'm ducking the question I raised up above as to why we focus on this era, but we obviously do, especially visually – there's something appealing to us, especially visually, about late-period Imperial Britain, and we derive pleasure from watching simulcra of it.

In that respect, yeah, Anonymous, you're right. It was the movies.

Other things I've been reading:

“Sapper” – THE THIRD ROUND (1924)

I'm beginning to think these Bulldog Drummond books are really built around “peaks”, as it were. I'm beginning to think Sapper had part of the story pretty much firmly in mind, went with it, and then basically vamped his way to fill out whatever needed filling out.

#1 had a great first 2/3, sort of died at the conclusion. #2 oddly went the other way, it took about a 1/3 to get going, but once it did it just romped like crazy, with a fantastic slam-bang conclusion.

#3 is more like #1. It has a wonderful start: an old doddering scientist type discovers a process for making artificial diamonds indistinguishable from the real ones, and foolishly tells this to the diamond masters of London, who of course promptly arrange for his death. The first two thirds of this are really great: Carl Peterson is in it again, is brought in believably and the coincidence is accounted for satisfactorily (The fact that he keeps bumping into Drummond becomes an actual plot point and characterization element.) And we for once get a serious glimpse into his psychology (this is the best portrayal of Peterson so far). The plot is ridiculous but absolutely believable in it's ridiculousness, if that makes any sense – I mean, do you really doubt that if someone actually developed something like this, he wouldn't be killed? There's a lot of very amenable back and forthing, as someone said somewhere Sapper knew how to tell a story and given that not a tremendous amount actually happens in THE THIRD ROUND, it's amazing how compulsive reading most of this is.

And then we hit the final third, where Sapper vamps. I won't give anything away, but despite the big slam bang conclusion not really being all that slam-bang, it suffers from two major devices that wouldn't fool a senile chimp on holiday, let alone a master villain.

So it falls apart at the end, as thrillers often do. I can't put this one at the level of the first two, mostly because it's curiously uneventful in a lot of ways and the one big event in it doesn't make any sense. But it's good, so far all of the Sappers have been well worth reading. Make allowances and you'll like this one too.

Neil Albert - THE JANUARY CORPSE (1991)

Routine PI novel that I picked up in a used bookstore because somebody somewhere recommended it. Not very good, with paint-by-numbers plotting you've seen a million times, me most recently in an episode of “Bones” I caught in the laundromat a ways back, and ham-and-eggs prose typical of millions of recently published popular novels (I don't know quite when the rot in popular literature set in, but it was certainly locked in place by 91, that's for sure.) The only real interesting thing about it, in fact, is that it has a twist ending.

A few words on twist endings. It might be enjoyable to do a whole post on these, one of these days, but one kind of twist ending you want to avoid is “writer introduces an edgy piece of information into the reader's world”. Why? Because yesterday's edgy is today's blasé, and this sort of thing dates very badly. Spoilers for a couple of novels follow, if you care about such things.



So, like, here. The setup is “PI looking for mysterious missing man.” The answer is “missing man has actually become woman” – ie, sex-change. Well, that's a twist! But nowadays it just seems cheesy, we're a lot more amorphous sexually, for better and worse, than we were in 1991, even.

Not that it's limited to relatively recent novels. Howard Browne's HALO IN BRASS, one of his Paul Pine novels, ends with the revelation that it's a lesbian affair we're talking about here. Again, that must've been really wild stuff in the mid-Fifties, when the book was written. Now? Not so much, eh?

Edgar Wallace – THE BLACK ABBOT (1926)

I've been reading more Wallace recently, and enjoying them. I got a list of recommended novels from an old Usenet post lurking out there somewhere – thank you old Usenet poster out there wherever you are, your words reverberate into eternity.

Anyway. Wallace is a good example of how popular fiction has degenerated, he was the closest thing to the James Patterson of his time but he remains very readable. He wrote a clean, straightforward prose line, he could build suspense with a relative modicum of horseplay (always a hard thing for writers of this era, they were sort of inventing the thriller genre as they were writing it and it wasn't always clear to them how best to string the reader along), and best of all his books – at least the ones I've read so far – are all very different. THE FOUR JUST MEN and THE COUNCIL OF JUSTICE are straight-up “race against time” thrillers with a political edge to them. JACK O'JUDGEMENT is a “crime syndicate taken down by a masked vigilante” sort of thing. And this is frankly a Gothic, complete with a forced marriage, unscrupulous blackguards, hidden treasure, ruined abbeys, and the ghost of the Black Abbot himself, now seen parading around. I shit you not. It's great, highly recommended if you have a taste for pulp literature of this era. I can understand why Wallace was the monster seller he was, his books are ridiculously readable, he could play the conventions of his era masterfully. But be warned, it is what it is, and it does have all of the faults inherent in that word “pulp”: it's feverishly melodramatic (although I pretty much consider that a feature, not a bug), it relies overmuch on coincidence, there's a bit of vamping here and there. It doesn't have Sapper's inventiveness or Buchan's fundamental seriousness. But it ain't bad, and Wallace deserves another look.

Edgar Wallace , THE CRIMSON CIRCLE (1922) – Like, say, here: this one is a “search for a Jack the Ripper” type, which is fairly routine except it has an absolute killer twist toward the end. (One of the few I think worth preserving, so I ain't tellin'.) I'm an old hand at such things and it caught me off guard (I had considered the possibility, but dismissed it as outlandish); I think those who are less jaded – including presumably his entire audience at the time – would've been/would be rocked completely by it.

Ib Melchior, CODE NAME: GRAND GUIGNOL (1987): Not very good WW2 thriller shows the defects of the simple-minded suggestion “write what you know” or the slightly more complicated “go out and experience life and then write about it”, because by all accounts Melchior did just that, he actually was an actor associated with the Grand Guignol theater troupe, and he actually had WW 2 experiences with the OSS, and yet his book is still awful, written at about the level of a Forties Superman comic (complete! With a lot! Of exclamations! What fearsome terror awaits those who would dare cross the forbidden threshold?! Would Marge and Stevey escape Lex Luthor's clutches?! Can Superman destroy the killer Robots of Alpha Centuri and bring back their leader to face justice?!). It seems a simple point, but the simple points are always those worth repeating – you gotta have talent too, y'know.

PD James , AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN (1972) – Most famous probably as one of the first female PI's – there were others, of course, the Honey West series in the Sixties, say, but this one is probably the first of the modern era. I think James is much better with women than men and Cordelia Gray is appealing as the lead, but this novel suffers from the same faults that James's works all tend to suffer, this odd artificial portentiousness which inflates the relatively grubby murders she chronicles with a gassy self-importance. I am not sure, honestly, that the classic mystery form (the pure whodunit) is capable of the kind of weight James wants to put on it: the obvious inspirations here are Marsh, Allingham, and Sayers, but at their utmost ultimate best they're really not much more than gifted social novelists – not that that's a bad thing, of course it isn't, but it ain't THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV either. It would be interesting to ponder why and how Hammett and Chandler avoided that trap. (It may have to do with them actually creating the form themselves; certainly later PI novelists have had much the same problem as Ms. James, although there are differences between the two genres that protect the PI writer, somewhat). The more insular worlds of Christie and Carr, the pure puzzle, start to look much better seen in that light. Anyway, there's one other James novel I'm curious about, INNOCENT BLOOD, and I'll check that out sometime here.

George MacDonald Fraser, FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS (1982): Most interesting I think as yet another example of Fraser experimenting within the formula of Flashman, here we see history as a force within Flashy's own life, as things he does in the 1840's West come back to haunt him in the 1876 West. Very ambitious novel is trying to tell a story of the American West in general, with the short period related here suggesting the actual sad briefness of the American West's heyday. Fraser is also trying to introduce real depth to Flashman, suggesting here a man who's become haunted by his earlier misdeeds. While I respect the intent, I'm not at all sure it works: for one thing Flashy as a character is something of a slender thread to hang this kind of tale on, and on more pragmatic grounds I'm not sure I buy him at the Battle of the Little Big Horn: I mean, Fraser tries, and does a pretty solid job of laying the groundwork (one of the best of the Forrest Gump style historical novelists – yeah, I guess you gotta call him that – because he always strives for plausibility, in his own oddball way), but it still feels kind of off. And maybe that's because I'm not sure I buy Flashman in the American West at all: the temptation must've been unbearable for Fraser, but the American West is the one historical moment of that century that's widely known, putting Flashman in there directly makes this a Western, which inherently calls to mind all of the other Westerns one has seen, and implicit comparisons are inevitably made.

I suppose that's my biggest problem with it, really: as ambitious and admirable as it is, in some ways, I just don't think it was a good idea. It's a cross-pollination that probably sounded better on paper; I would've been much more interested in Flashy at the Civil War. Still, by no means a bad book – there are no bad Flashman books, as far as I know.

Currently reading: THE BURNISHED BLADE, Lawrence Schoonover; DR. NIKOLAI, Guy Boothby

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pt. one

When you're talking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle you're talking about Sherlock Holmes, first and foremost, which I think is a mistake right out of the gate because I think his best creation by far is Professor Challenger, not Holmes. But I'll get to that later. More importantly, the moment you say “Sherlock Holmes” a bunch of associations will, as if by magic, appear in your head – see, it happened just now, didn't it? – and I think we need to pick these apart right from the get-go before we get to the meat of things, as it were.

So let's start here, later I'll get to the books themselves.

Doyle carries with him two of the great fallacies of art appreciation. They're often not thought of as such, but they are, believe me boyo, and if you can get your head around these two you'll already be 50% ahead of everybody else. This post will deal with the first one. Ready?

  1. Some things that are historically important in art are not necessarily good. There's a different between understanding art and appreciating it.

This is a big one that some people never get past, especially those who paid too much attention to their teachers in high school English. But the actual concept ain't all that hard to grasp: some things can be historically important in art without being all that intrinsically interesting in themselves. Art develops, and it has a history behind it's development. The first color movie (I have no idea what that is, just an example) is historically important, and if you were in a class about the history of movies you should definitely watch it. That doesn't necessarily mean it's a good movie though, yo.

Holmes is historically important, you can't gainsay that. It was Holmes that really drove the idea of a private detective into popular consciousness, along with a lot of the tropes we now take for granted in traditional mysteries but at the time were rather new: the “Watson”, the intermediary for the reader (actually, Doyle's finest achievement in the Holmes series, I think); the private detective as odd, withdrawn, somewhat apart from society; the notion of people coming to see him looking for help “outside of normal channels”, with the implicit social commentary that brings (this would later be better developed by the hardboiled gang in America, but I think it pops up here first); the notion of a master criminal opposed to the detective that is, in some sense, a reflection; the notion that there's some kind of competition between the detective and the police. And probably fifty trillion other things, these just occurred to me right now.

But all that said, that doesn't tell you anything about whether you should read The Valley of Fear. (Short answer: no.) It just tells you Doyle was the first. It sort of implies that because he was the first he was obviously pretty friggin' good at all of this stuff, but I assure you that these are unexamined assumptions.

This is going to be a hard argument to make in some ways, because it's not really an argument, it's based on my knowledge of the genre during that time, which is hard-earned knowledge I got one used Dover pb at a time and is pretty much purely experiential. If you've never read Ernest Bramah's "Max Carrados" series of mystery short stories you won't immediately nod your head in agreement with me when I tell you that in many respects they're better than most of the Holmes tales.

But all that said, the truth is the truth and will out. There were mystery writers before Doyle: Poe of course but consider, I dunno Emile Gaboriau (Monsieur Lecoq, etc.) There were certainly a bunch of writers doing the same thing around the same time, too – no doubt inspired by Doyle's success, but arguably just as good if not better: I'm thinking particularly of Bramah's Max Carrados series, and maybe Jacques Futrelle's “the Thinking Machine” (“The Problem of Cell 13”) and maybe Gaston Leroux (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, The Perfume of the Lady in Black) . And others – I would have to look up the timelines to see who did what when, the point is there were predecessors, and contemporaries, and the fact that Doyle hit it big while these guys (and one girl, I'm fond of Baroness Orczy's "The Old Man in the Corner") only had modest success isn't a testament to Holmes's innate quality, it's just a testament to the troubling, yet nonetheless enduring (alas) fact that history is a motherfucker, and that monster artistic success in worldly terms is more akin to hitting the lottery than the rising of “innate quality”.

If Doyle had never existed some other figure would've taken his place, the threads in Western culture were too strong to be denied. Eugenie Sue and Dumas were playing with the concepts in mid-nineteenth century France, as was Dickens and Wilkie Collins in England. Read any good history of mystery fiction, you'll see what I mean.

Later, when I'm talking more specifically about the stories I'll talk more about where I think these guys shine and Doyle fails, but for now I'd urge anyone to poke their nose around and try some of the contemporaries for themselves -- they're all over used bookstores and a lot of this stuff is free online -- and see for themselves what the tradition Doyle was operating in really was. (Again, it's always useful to think of art in terms of traditions, of ways of expression that develop over time. Doyle didn't spring fully-formed out of the head of Zeus, he came out of and participated in a certain "folkway", if you like, a certain way of telling certain kinds of stories.)

(Actually my favorite of this era is probably Hornung's Raffles, the "inverse Holmes", although he really deserves to be considered by himself.)

Other things I've been reading:

Emilio Salgari – The Tiger of Momprasan: I think if I'd have hit this at, say, 12 or 13 I would've loved it. I read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs around that time and loved it then. But, like with the Burroughs (and I don't say this really happily) I've gotten to the point where a straightforward kid's adventure tale really can't hold my interest by itself. I need something...really better writing, to be honest, although it's maybe unfair to say that of this stuff since it was translated from the Italian. Nonetheless, this is melodramatic as all get-out: I've always thought I had a high tolerance for such things but this was a bit too much even for me.

This is the start of a long-running series of adventures about a South Seas pirate fighting the English and Thugees and Lord knows who else. It is most memorable, to my mind, in that the guy seems like a functional psychopath, always running around one hair's breadth away from hacking everything to pieces with his scimitar. Like I said, at 12 or 13 I would've eaten this stuff up – now? Not so much. Suggested for bright shy preteens, though.

John D. MacDonald – Bright Orange for the Shroud: I think nowadays I need at least Travis McGee level of sophistication in my adventure tales before I can buy 'em. I'm not saying this is the peak by any means --if they can do better, great, but they gotta at least be able to do this.

The McGee series means a lot to me sentimentally, I read these books compulsively as a teenager and they really served the role that earlier generations probably filled with Tarzan or Doc Savage. Just one of those odd things.

This is an above-average entry in the series which revolves around con men and a crooked land deal in South Florida (many of MacDonald's books are about crooked land deals, the details of which he always lovingly describes and which I can never figure out). For fans, this episode is best remembered for one of MacDonald's best villains, the atavistic throwback Boone “Boo” Waxwell, who basically dominates the story the moment he opens the door of his house “holding a shotgun like a pistol”. MacDonald took innumerable cracks at this type throughout his career, it was a type he was obsessed with. They vary in quality, this isn't his best portrayal (who is? Maybe Dirty Bob in Free Fall in Crimson) but it's up there. The title is very sadly ironic.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Current Update

Yay, I'm back.


F. Paul Wilson – CONSPIRACIES (2000) – There is such a thing as a “house American style” in popular fiction nowadays. I don't know if it's ever been catagorized as such, but it exists, and boy, you know it when you see it.

Some aspects of it include:

A kind of carefulness with the plotting, as though the writer was following a very detailed recipe for crepes suzette or something, and wanted to be sure he got just the right amount of baking soda in there and not a touch more.

A very simple, plain style that reads like a vanilla pudding pack tastes – that is, it goes down easy but doesn't really leave much by way of memories.

Always careful to throw in modern cultural references, this is a lesson learned from Stephen King, who back in the day was criticized to hell and back for it. Your hero drinks Heineken, eats at Taco Bell, wears Old Navy painter's pants and Doc Martens.

Always careful to teach us a little something about something, we learn in “Popular Fiction 101” that the reader likes to learn a little something while he's reading. Best if it's germane to the plot, but if not toss it in anyway, it's the fact of the lesson that counts.

(Its generally an American thing, incidentally. Bad British popular fiction I've read generally tries to ape tough-guy Americanisms, and is frankly pretty silly – see Reginald Hill and Peter Lovesey – or just kind of drones on and on in a monotone, similar to the above I guess but much greyer and wetter, like a cold November rain after a snowstorm and before another one – see [and I know it's not the mainstream opinion] P.D. James.)

CONSPIRACIES is like this. It's part of a series, an attempt to establish a pulp hero in Repairman Jack, who goes around essentially fighting for truth and justice while all the while battling scary supernatural creatures and the like. It's not awful, it's obviously selling well (judging from the books I saw at Borders) and people are obviously digging it.

But to my mind it's just intolerably blah, and that's death to this kind of thing. You read this thing and you feel embarrassed by the fact that you're reading it, like you're wasting your time in the kind of brutal serious way that only, I don't know, an all-day marathon of “Everybody Loves Raymond” can. It doesn't stick, there's nothing there. It feels like product: entertainment, like a computer spat it out somewhere as a simulcrum of what humans do. There's no distinctiveness to it, no personality...Repairman Jack likes junk from the Twenties/Forties, is really something of a geek, but that seems planned too, like the computer program that wrote this thing had to input that just there – “Insert lovable quirk to humanize hero”.

Look, pulp gotta be interesting. It can be great or awful in every other respect, but the one thing it can't do is bore you. I read into some of Sax Rohmer's BAT-WING (1921) and I found it pretty incoherent, tell you the truth, but the one thing Rohmer is not is boring, and his books are intensely distinctive – once you know Rohmer's style, you never miss it for anything else.

Not the case here, you'll forget about CONSPIRACIES ten seconds after you read it. Like I said, Wilson is evidently making a living at this stuff – there's even a young adult novel about Repairman Jack, LOL, but my prediction is that he'll never make it out of the midlist. Why? It's rough to say it bluntly – he's just not good enough.

“Sapper” - BULLDOG DRUMMOND (1923) – Now, see, this is what I'm talking about. As straight ahead pulp as anything F. Paul Wilson puts out, and really for it's time pretty much of it's time as well, but you'll remember it a hell of a lot more.

It's a lot of fun, if you have any toleration for Thirties pulp of this era (the Saint, Edgar Wallace, even Lord Peter Wimsey, really) you'll like it. It is written very, er, “archly”, one eyebrow cocked, like a lot of popular fiction of this time, and I could easily imagine wading through a lot of it back then and just getting sick of the preciousness of it all. But it works nowadays, if only by way of contrast. And whatever else it was it was definitely a style, something extra you were getting, man.

This is the first of the series, I ain't gonna summarize it, go look it up in Wikipedia if you're interested. The current slap against ol' Sapper is that he's a racist an anti-Semite, which is no doubt true, I don't know, I've only read two of the books (this one and THE FINAL COUNT) and neither of them did, that I can remember, anyway. These are, though, legitimate things to point out in popular fiction of this time, my own take is just to say that it was in the air, it has whatever power you want to lend it. I am more interested in the story mechanics than anything else, so it doesn't particularly bother me. Of course I'm a white male Protestant, take that for what it's worth as well. I don't feel impassioned enough about the subject to really berate anyone who feels strongly enough about this sort of thing to avoid it; I think it's a mistake to be a contrarian and praise stupid racism/anti-Semitism/whatever just because the PC contingent is voting against it, as well. I think you're missing out if you let Chandler's racism ruin FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, one of the most beautiful books ever written, but on the other hand maybe I'm missing out too somehow for not letting it bother me, either. Fair point.

That's all I'll ever say about this sort of stuff.

For me the fun of BULLDOG was the fact that this is the most unimaginative hero ever. No tricky plans/escapes for ol' Bulldog, unlike the Saint or Richard Hannay – basically he just does the obvious straightforward thing, and screws everybody else up as a result. There's something deeply winning about this, the cool awesomeness of Common Sense and stellar British virtues – gussied up with a “hip” sheen for those crazy kids of the Twenties, but you know what I mean. Anyway, a great book, the ending falls apart a bit as these things tend to do but mostly a stellar performance throughout. Check it out.

Marc Olden – POE MUST DIE (1978)

This is a Forrest-Gump style book, which is probably the most tiresome of historical novels, generally. In a Forrest-Gump book, the protagonist interacts with historical figures, and it generally becomes an episode in trying to keep your sense of disbelief suspended, as really, how many historical figures have you ever met? Or even celebrities? (I have met two minor writers and one minor celebrity in my time, and I actually had to go out hunting for the writers.)

As is often the case I think people misunderstand the work of the real greats, here Dumas. Dumas studs his work with actual historical figures, but it never gets in the way because that was never the point, dammit. You don't go to Dumas to learn about French history, or at least you shouldn't, because he was awful at French history. The historical figures are just there for atmosphere. Duh

Anyway, a Forrest-Gump book too often becomes a tiresome history lesson with the story just kinda sorta attached (Gary Jennings's AZTEC ) or becomes unadulterated hackwork, pure fantasy projection as our hero is deferred to by the greats of his age (Max Allan Collins's TRUE DETECTIVE). But I have read two books of this sort which I do like. One is THE CROOK FACTORY by Dan Simmons, which is actually my favorite book of this type ever, and one which I'll revisit here one of these days. The other is this.

This is a supernatural adventure novel in which Poe's basically shanghaied to help defeat a black magician in 1840's era New York. It has it's faults, basically it never really escapes it's pulp roots. There are points here and there, particularly in the final quarter, where the clockwork mechanisms of the plot are pretty obviously revealed. Also, while Olden is definitely sympathetic to Poe, he never really coalesces the analytic side (necessary to solve the mystery) with a Poe believing in all sorts of occult stuff. Of course, the interest of Poe is that the two disparate sides were joined together in one person (this is why mystery and horror bump up against each other much easier than fantasy and horror), but Olden never really penetrates anything in Poe's character that would explain how this would work.

That said, there's a lot to like here. The picture of 1840's era New York – America does indeed have trouble recalling it's history, and to the extent even knowledgeable Americans think about the period from about 1800-1850 it's probably Poe and Hawthorne and Melville they're thinking about. People forget what this country was truly like, back in the day, and Olden obviously devoted a fair amount of research to telling us.

In fact, the book is well-researched in general, there's also a lot of good stuff on the occult and on Western fighting styles that generally unknown (well, I didn't know it, at least) and interesting reading. It's true, one of the reasons we read a novel is to learn something. It's often handled exceptionally badly by the writer, but that doesn't change the fact.

The characterizations generally work, the main protagonist, the British ex-boxer Figg, is an interesting one, rather older than you usually see in books like this, and Olden nicely implicitly parallels both his and Poe's sense of chivalry. Even the bad guy gets a moment. Like most pulp writers trying to box above their weight the book huffs and puffs after awhile (interesting, it's often thought that pulp work is “training” for the major leagues but it strikes me that there are plenty of pulp writers who never climb above their station) but it's good enough long enough to make it generally recommendable.

JACK O'JUDGEMENT – Edgar Wallace (1920)

I recently downloaded the Kindle app for my PC – it's free! My take on electronic books is that they will not supersede regular old-fashioned printed books anytime soon, likely not within the lifetime of anyone reading this thing. Books, as a technology, are one of the most brilliant inventions of man, perfected over the ages. Sorry, geeks, but some sweaty guy with bad skin and a World of Warcraft complex ain't gonna change that anytime soon.

What they are good for, though, is as a supplement to regular books. They are particularly good at allowing a lot of back catalog stuff that nobody's reprinting to become available. Wallace up above here is a good example. The House of Stratus has reprinted a bunch of his stuff and the titles I'm interested in of Wallace's that they have I'm gonna get from them. On the other hand they didn't do JACK O', there, and so my choice is rather overpriced print on demand things that really just reproduce electronic scans – a used copy the prices of which seem to range from ten bucks to about sixty (ridiculous price, that) – or I can get it on my Kindle for nothing.

Lesson? Ebooks have their place.

Anyway, the title under discussion is an enjoyable piece of Wallace fluff. A criminal gang meets it's end at the hands of a masked vigilante (the aformentioned “Jack”). Much running around trying to figure out who the guy is. Some damsels in distress, a bit of action but really not that much. The book works partly because it's written very clearly and snappily, partly because Wallace is a real master of melodrama and knows how to sculpt his plot. Chapters end on mini-cliff hangers. There's genuine pleasure in seeing a house of cards collapse, it's satisfying, in some primal way, to the human soul. The mystery is silly really (and I'm not sure I buy the reveal at all) but it's handled well. I was surprised, I'll tell you that. There's a bit of action, but very restrained (rather unbelievably restrained, honestly), a bit of love story. It's a highly enjoyable piece of fluff that reads like the wind and is certainly worth the effort it took to get it on my Kindle.

WATERMAN – Doug Hornig (1987)

Small town thriller, a sub-genre I've always been interested in, founders on it's own cliches: Girl Who Wants To Get Out of Here, Hero With Mysterious Past, Corrupt Small Town Cops, Old Man Who Owns Town And Is Involved In All Sorts of Stuff, Organized Criminals Who Go In And Wreak Havoc. Etc. It'd be interesting to read a book like this where the cops are honest, the girls slatternly, the heroes come from the town, the town elders innocent, etc. For one thing, it'd be more believable.

THE RULE OF FOUR – Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason (2004)

Oddball attempt to capitalize on Dan Brown was unaccountably a small bestseller, even though it doesn't really have a story at all. A lot of interesting backstory, though, about a strange, real Medieval book that goes into a lot of interesting things about how some of these things were really complicated puzzles, etc. (One of the interesting byways of scholarship. THE RULE OF FOUR is also another example, if you needed it, on how people read novels in part to learn things.)

Unfortunately as a story it's pretty bad, pretty dull and contrived because, let's face it, scholarship ain't all that sexy. Personally this one lost me at the beginning, where it asked me to posit a bunch of Princeton youth obsessed with scholarship, to the extent of taking their summers in Rome to pursue it, etc. My sense of disbelief cannot be stretched that far, sorry. Taking your summer off to follow Tucker Max around, yeah, I'll buy that.

THE BLACK GANG – 'Sapper' (1922)

Well, I said my piece up above about cultural differences in the past and how they are reflected in fiction and what I think about such things (I'm not really interested, personally, though I'm not going to get my knickers in a twist if somebody is bothered by such things.) I do think “experts” in literature need to be more catholic about such things, though – I'm not going to yell at some poor Jewish guy who's offended by the offhand anti-Semitism of THE BLACK GANG, but anyone who claims to some expertise about pulp fiction, or this era of British fiction, needs to make their peace with such stuff, I think. Anti-Semitism pervaded the air, in those days, a critic needs to get their head around such things or they're never going to fully understand what they think they understand.

This is the most notorious of the Bulldog Drummond books, although actually I found the anti-Semitism no worse than all sorts of other examples, to be honest. Often painted as proto-Fascist with it's illegal group of vigilantes going around silencing Commies – and hell, it really does sound a lot like what happened in Latin America in the Seventies and Eighties – it obviously takes it's inspiration from THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, with Drummond as Sir Percy Blakeney. Sapper even goes to all the trouble of saying Drummond's pretending to be an idiot, but it's all just a cunning dodge.

I thought it was pretty kick-ass, actually. It starts out very sloppy, it sounded very much like the first installment, actually, but once it gets going it really starts bouncing along. Sapper was particularly good at action sequences, no small thing for as we've seen prose it not inherently well-suited to conveying action. I particularly want to praise the whole involved bit with the mysterious paralyzing drug and Drummond almost drowning – that's a very old chestnut very well portrayed. The whole fight in the darkness is also very well done, with the prop of the then very-new electrified fence well integrated into it.

I'm beginning to think Bulldog Drummond is a key figure in popular fiction – as much as I like Buchan, and he is to be sure just a better writer than 'Sapper' – “Sapper” seems to be a much more modern creation, much more of our time. If you could jettison the objectionable parts he'd translate well to screen today, honestly.

NEXT TIME: my piece on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, wherein I suggest he ain't all that.

What I'm currently reading


Dorothy Dunnett – THE GAME OF KINGS (part one of the Lymond Chronicles)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Well, what I've been doing lately


Yeah, I know it's been a long time. But hey, I have the time now, y'know? And I'm getting tired of seeing all these spam comments on the blog.

I'm not sure if I really have time anymore to do full-on considerations of authors, but I do like the idea of this blog as a place where I can work out my thoughts on other writers. So I may shift to more of a diary approach – for the ten of you who read this thing, I know, dry your tears. Life is all about change, eh? Isn't that what DEAD POET'S SOCIETY all taught us?

Anyhow, start out with a recommendation. This blog:


Probably the best of the New Criterion boys, I stumbled on this blog recently and have been gratefully reading through it ever since. The pieces on the evident Raymond Carver/Gordon Lish mishmash and a very funny evisceration of a take on Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop that posits it's all a big homoerotic love story are worth the effort to pull the damn thing up on your computer by itself.

Professor Myers is not perfect. I admire Charles McCarry as much as anyone and more than most, but I do find curious any appreciation that names the good-but-at-times shrill Shelley's Heart as his best book; I suspect this is a (for the good Professor, thankfully quite rare) instance of his political inclinations overwhelming his aesthetic sense. To my mind the best, by far, of McCarry's books is The Last Supper, although here's a good instance where it helps to read widely both within the author and within the genre. To take the last one first, spy novelists have taken cracks at the “big historical novel that tries to tell America's (or the UK's) story through the story of it's spies” for a good while, this I think is easily the best/most persuasive of the batch, if only because it doesn't have, say, the agenda of Le Carre's A Perfect Spy. As for McCarry's own oeuvre, it's hard not to read The Miernik Dossier and especially The Secret Lovers and not feel like these were test runs for The Last Supper, Supper feels like the culmination of something, and I'm very interested in seeing an author's career as the pursuit of a vision.

Still, decide for yourself. I could be full of crap, who knows. And I am the proud owner of a hb first edition of Shelley's Heart.


He also seems to have, well, not exactly a wrong take on George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman, but not exactly the right take, either. He is, I think, correct in positing Flashman here as an antihero who's presence is meant to show up the virtue of others around him. Although I don't know if it's always as complex as that, remember Flashman came out in the late Sixties and a lot of this “war is hell and cowards are heroes” stuff was just in the air, it's what makes so much of that era's work so campy.

I don't think it's any slight to Fraser's memory to posit that he was writing for market, particuarly remember that a straight up swashbuckler in that era probably couldn't have seen light any other way. Again, it's useful to take a writer's work as a whole, it helps you avoid these kind of pitfalls, and by the second volume, Royal Flash (an amusing knockoff of The Prisoner of Zenda) it becomes quite clear that Fraser was just interested in writing classic swashbucklers with a slightly modern touch. Most fans of the series will concede, I think, that Flashy's character softens significantly as the books go on – actually all to the good, I'd say, as I'd get tired of all the heavy-handed “critique” after a bit.

It's not exactly that Fraser wasn't interested in social critiques after Flashman, just that he did them more subtly – better. An interesting volume for instance is Flash for Freedom!, where Fraser very cunningly inserts Flashman in all aspects of the slave trade, from slaver to slave. It's Flashy's resoundingly immoral-but-in-really-a-kind-of-jovial-way nature after the first book that makes the critique work, it's all implication. Actually, as I type this, it occurs to me that's the secret, all reflected light. Compare the superb opening section of Flashman at the Charge (deals with Balaclava) to anything in Flashman and tell me what works best.

Anyhow, here's Myers's take:


I actually have been trying to read through Fraser's work complete, right now I'd venture to say the best Flashman novel is either Flashman at the Great Game or Flashman's Lady.

What else have I been reading? Some Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner, and it's interesting to compare the two – why do we read Stout still while Gardner is almost assured of being forgotten? (Once one of the biggest bestselling authors in the world, even – ah, the vagaries of literary fame.) I think it helps that Archie and Nero Wolfe are such strong, exaggerated characters – tell me, what is Perry Mason like? I mean, as a person? Once can read a whole adventure and not know. On a general level I'd venture to say Gardner was at least as competent a storyteller as Stout, but there's a kind of distinctiveness in Stout's prose – mainly because there's distinctiveness in the characters, and most of a Stout novel is dialog – whereas Gardner is the equivalent of a fast food meal, eat it and forget it ten minutes later.

I think the big difference between them is that for Stout plots are not a big thing. Yeah, they are nominally “mysteries” but very lightly told/plotted, hell Chandler wrote more complex plots than a typical Stout. (This is one reason devotees of the classic mystery story often dislike Stout, or at least approach him warily.) Plots are a big big thing to Gardner, indeed they are the whole game. You read a Perry Mason for the plot.

But the Masons suffer from the same thing that I think Ellery Queen suffers from, a very glib superficiality. None of the books stick. You don't remember the twists and turns at all. Compare with Agatha Christie – I'm no great fan of Christie's, either, but you remember those plots. Once you read Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Ten Little Indians, you remember 'em. (This is one of the secrets of her success, she was an artist with the mystery plot, if you define “artist” as “somebody consciously manipulating stuff for an aesthetic end”.)

In general, American writers who tried to write classic mysteries (as opposed to hardboiled) failed, though, not because they weren't clever (Queen and Gardner were both quite clever) but because the other main reason we appreciate the Golden Age of Detective Stories isn't for the plot – it's because they're British. Yeah, it's that specific world of small villages, dowdy spinster-detectives, tea, Lords, cads, estates, etc. (This is why Dorothy Sayers is the important classic mystery writer, not Christie – she understood this fundamentally, which is why she signaled the ultimate direction British mystery fiction would take – the world of the social novel.) The best American writer of classic mystery stories was John Dickson Carr – all of his tales are set in Britain and are elaborate Gothics, specifically for this reason, I'd venture. He understood the central unreality of the classic mystery novel, the importance of setting, and played up on it.

But Carr was a smart cookie.

I've read some Harold Lamb, only to decide that there's really nothing there that you're not getting, better, from Robert E. Howard. (Who I am convinced is a great American writer, and thankfully widely available now, in rather expensive Del Rey editions.) And I've started reading some Peter Straub again, and while I'm not sure the generally accepted “good books” (Ghost Story, Shadowland, Floating Dragon) are really all that great (I mean, I don't know, we'll like see, yo. Shadowland isn't too bad right now.) I am absolutely convinced that the later thrillers (Koko, The Throat) are genuinely awful, overwritten straining-for-profundity crap. I think in essence Straub doesn't have the temperament for the mystery genre, he is all about overwhelming Gothic bursts of effect and sweeping romanticism, which is not conducive to a good mystery tale – they are deliberately restrained, almost sentimental in their construct, when they are most effective.