Abandoned Books

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

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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.