Abandoned Books

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

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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)