Book Review: Enchantment Lake

Book Review: Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus

Francine Frye isn’t a detective.  She played a detective on TV.  On a children’s show.  For a few episodes.  But that still makes her the closest thing to a detective Francie’s eccentric aunts Astrid and Jeannette know.  So when a series of perfectly explainable but statistically improbable deaths strike around their cabin home on Enchantment Lake, they make a (badly worded, static-filled) call to their great-niece which cuts off abruptly.

Enchantment Lake

When Francie can’t get the authorities or even her grandfather to investigate, she decides to head to Walpurgis, the small town in northern Minnesota Enchantment Lake is closest to.   She’s relieved to learn Astrid and Jen are alive and well, but now that she’s here, the aunts suggest the young actor snoop around some.  Especially as there’s been a new death, the most suspicious yet.

This middle-grade mystery is the first in the “Enchantment Lake” series, which does make certain developments in the story pretty obvious.  Francie’s on the lower end of seventeen, which allows her to be fairly mature (she was living in New York City on her own while trying to continue her acting career) but still be viewed as a child by most of the adults around her.  This includes her grandfather, who makes use of his control of Francie’s trust fund to order her around.

Francie is perhaps a little too ready to believe there’s a connection between all the seemingly unrelated deaths, as there’s plenty of mystery in her own life.  Her father died in a statistically improbable car crash, her brother moved to Europe a couple of years ago and never communicates with Francie, and absolutely no one will tell Francie anything about her mother.

This last one comes up more than the others, as a couple of the suspects seem to know more about Francie’s mother than she does, and a clue pops up suggesting the woman may be alive.  This plot hook is left dangling for a future volume, alas.

Not being a detective, Francie (known to the older locals as “French Fry”) makes several rookie mistakes, including being alone with murder suspects without having told anyone where she’s going multiple times.  And several people who have information that would be relevant either don’t bring it up or are refusing to tell Francie for their own reasons.

The language is suitable for middle-schoolers, but not so simple that young adult readers would be embarrassed to be seen reading this book.  Romance is limited to Francie noticing certain boys are attractive and being mildy jealous of one paying attention to another girl.  Suicide is mentioned.

The small town Minnesota setting will be familiar to most Minnesotans and many other people from the upper Midwest.  It allows for a quirky cast without going into demeaning “hick” stereotypes.  (The most stereotyped person is actually a spoiled city girl who sees no attraction in a lakeside vacation.)

The solution to the mystery is pleasingly complex, and younger readers should be pleased if they figure most of it out in advance.

Recommended for young mystery fans, and older mystery fans with a love of small town Minnesota.

Since the book mentions the sound of loons several times, here’s a video set on Loon Lake, not far from where Enchantment Lake would be:

Magazine Review: Detective Fiction Weekly April 8 1939

Magazine Review: Detective Fiction Weekly April 8 1939  (Formerly Flynn’s) by various

Detective Fiction Weekly started publication in 1924 as “Flynn’s”, after its first editor, William J. Flynn, who had previously been director of the Bureau of Investigation before it became the FBI.  It ran regularly under various titles until 1942, when it became a monthly, ceasing publication in 1944 and with a brief revival in 1951.  It primarily printed short action-mystery stories, with a serial or two in each issue.

Detective Fiction Weekly April 8 1939

The issue leads off with “Death of a Glamor Girl” by Richard Sale, starring his series characters “Daffy” Dill (crime reporter with a silver tongue) and “Candid” Jones (tough-guy photographer.)  The story is told through a series of phone calls, telegrams, newspaper articles and letters.  Hollywood starlet Carol DuQuesne has been found murdered, floating naked in her pool with ritualistic knife wounds.  The studio is pulling a cover-up, so Dill and Jones are assigned to the story.

The LAPD does not come off that well, with the implication that they are completely owned by the movie industry (except for one honest cop our heroes befriend.)  The cover painting is a scene from the story, accurate except that Satan is not visible (or mentioned) in the story itself.  I am reminded of the “Crime Does Not Pay” comic book, and the sinister Mr. Crime.

“According to Hoyle” by Hugh B. Cave has a young police detective being disappointed by his latest case.  A two-bit huckster has been murdered, and the primary suspect is another two-bit huckster who might have resented the first one impinging on his territory.  Except he claims to have been in Florida for the last couple of weeks, and has the tan to prove it.  (This was back before tanning beds or good fake tans.)

The detective was hoping for something more like the mystery stories he read as a kid, with rich people, black sheep brothers, and missing love letters.  To his partner’s surprise, the detective manages to find an angle that provides these elements.  (The partner’s more mundane investigation also brings him to the solution.)  This story is very much a period piece, as Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia is a plot point.

“Jongkovski’s Wife” by Howard Wandrei starts with “Junk” Jongkovski being sentenced to prison for a crime he most certainly did commit.  He’s absolutely silent on where the money is, but has publicly declared his intention of murdering his wife Leanna should he ever be free to do so.  This may have something to do with the fact that she was the one who encouraged him into a life of crime in the first place, and promptly absconded with the money and a new boyfriend when Junk got caught.

A big, strong man with a weak ticker, Junk is a stand-up guy for a criminal, and was well-liked in the underworld.  He becomes a model prisoner, and waits patiently for his chance to escape the nigh-inescapable prison he’s in.  Meanwhile, Leanna can find no rest, as Junk’s friends keep finding her.  It gets worse when Junk finally does escape, and disappears without a trace.  He will certainly get his revenge!

The story ends with a chilling double twist which makes it the best in the issue.  You can find it in the anthology The Last Pin, though it was a small press book so good luck on that.

“The Doom Chaser” by William Edward Hayes concerns an association of trucking companies that are being extorted by a voice over the telephone, which becomes known as “The Voice of Doom.”  Private eye Pitcarn is a former FBI man, and could use a break in the case to boost his business.  But the calls have been untraceable, and the Voice is always one step ahead.

“The Eye of the Pigeon” by William R. Cox has Police Chief Buck Harsh being raked over the coals by the new Police Commissioner for not yet solving a bank robber’s murder and the subsequent disappearance of his loot.  The commissioner is convinced it was a gangland affair, but Captain Harsh isn’t so sure, as the deceased man wasn’t the type who worked with gangsters.  Commissioner Tarpoon is a political appointee who is not familiar with police work, and despises the department’s reliance on stool pigeons.

The commissioner may have a point.  Captain Harsh’s informants have come up with nothing.  The commissioner gives Harsh just 72 hours to crack the case, or he’ll be busted down to patrol duty in the goat farm district.  Things are looking dire, until finally Captain Harsh realizes he’s been asking the wrong questions, and the eye of the pigeon is useful after all.  Warning: police brutality.

“Illustrated Crimes” by Stookie Allen is a true-crime feature told in captioned illustrations.  In this case, a mysterious stranger who guns down a man turns out not to be that mysterious.  Or a stranger.

“Red Racket” by Dale Clark surprisingly has nothing to do with Communist agents.  Instead, a tennis player is poisoned on the court, and the only person who could have done it is his opponent, the brother of the detective’s girlfriend.   Nick Carver had better come up with a better solution, or it’s curtains for his love life!

“Sabotage” by Cleve F. Adams is part 5 of 5, and has no “previously” page to orient the reader.  As near as I can make out, “heel” private eye Rex McBride has been called in to deal with sabotage at the dam being built near Palos Verde, a wide open gambling town.  (Pretty clearly inspired by Boulder Dam and Las Vegas.)  It’s a confusing mess without all the setup.  This has been reprinted as its own book, most recently in 2016.

“They’re Swindling You!” by Frank Wrentmore is another regular feature.  This time it talks about fake correspondence schools that supposedly train you in how to get government jobs.  One of the tipoffs is that the courses came with an admonition not to tell anyone that you were taking the course so that they would not sabotage your efforts out of jealousy.  (In reality so they wouldn’t let you know it was a scam.)

There’s a cipher puzzle page, followed by “Flashes from Readers”, letters from the subscribers to the magazine.  The most interesting is from Marian Pattee, who describes herself as a “militant feminist” and asks for more competent female leads.

Fun, but often dated, stuff.  Keep an eye out at garage and estate sales!

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1 written by Bill Finger & Gardner Fox, art by Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff

Batman was the second full-fledged superhero published by National Periodicals, soon to be better known as DC.  The kernel of the idea was proposed by artist Bob Kane, and fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, with a first appearance in Detective Comics #37.  As the Shadow was to Doc Savage, so Batman was to Superman, a skilled man operating in the shadows, rather than a superhuman operating in the light of day.  But both, of course, dedicated to justice in their own ways.

Batman Archives Volume 1

This “Archives” edition is a hardbound full-cover reprint of the Batman stories from Detective Comics #37-50.  I believe this was the first of this collector’s bait format, thus the “introductory price.”

We open, of course, with “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate.”  Police Commissioner Gordon is chilling with his young socialite friend Bruce Wayne, talking about rumors of a mysterious “Bat-Man.”  Gordon is informed of a murder among the wealthy citizens of the city, and Bruce tags along as he hasn’t got anything better to do.  Chemical syndicate head Lambert is dead, and the most likely suspect is his son.

The son claims he didn’t do it, and to lend credence to this claim, a call comes from Crane, one of Lambert’s three partners, explaining that both of them had threats made against their lives.  Bruce Wayne becomes bored and goes home.  Crane is murdered too, but before the murderer escapes with a certain paper, a mysterious Bat-Man appears, beats up the murderer and his partner and takes the paper.

From this, Batman is able to figure out which of the two remaining partners is the mastermind.  He saves the fourth partner, and punches the villain into a tank of acid.  Commissioner Gordon explains the plot to Bruce, who finds it all highly unlikely.  But in the last panel, we learn that Bruce Wayne himself is in fact the Batman!  What a twist!

The hyphen was quickly dropped, but Batman’s habit of killing opponents in the heat of battle took a bit longer to disappear.   The art is kind of crude, and the plot borrowed heavily from a Shadow pulp story, but the creators were on to something new in comics, and rapidly improved.  (Plus Bob Kane started having assistants to keep up with the work.)

#29 brings us “The Batman Meets Doctor Death.”  The title opponent is Batman’s first opponent with a catchy nom de guerre (his actual name is the pretty nifty Dr. Karl Hellfern), his first mad scientist enemy, and his first recurring enemy.  In the following issue, Doctor Death also becomes Batman’s first hideously disfigured villian, as his face is burnt off.  These two stories have unfortunate ethnic stereotypes as Doctor Death’s henchmen, and Gardner Fox’s lack of research into authentic ethnic background information is obvious.

Batman is also pretty careless with his secret identity of Bruce Wayne in this story; if Doctor Death had been just a little sneakier Batman’s double life would have been over only a few months after his debut.  There’s a cameo by the man who will become the Crime Doctor much, much later on, Bruce Wayne’s personal physician, who wonders how the lazy upper-class twit managed to shoot himself with no powder burn.

#31-32, “Batman Versus the Vampire” introduces Batman’s first full-fledged supervillain, the Monk, who wears a distinctive costume (red monk’s robes and a red hood with a skull & crossbones sigil), and as a vampire/werewolf has supernatural powers.  He and his sidekick (lover?) Dala kidnap Bruce Wayne’s fiancee Julie Madison (also appearing for the first time) for reasons never fully explained, and after much action and scary stuff, Batman puts silver bullets through their hearts.

This story also makes it clear that Batman operates in New York City, which was changed to Gotham City later for ease of fictionalization.

#33, “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom” is most notable for finally getting around to telling us why Bruce Wayne runs around in a bat costume fighting crime.  This simple two-page origin would eventually be vastly expanded upon and become an important part of the mythos.

#34, “Peril in Paris” has Bruce Wayne run into a man without a face.  Who is not the villain of the story.  That’s the fellow who stole his face.  It’s still not back by the end of the story (and the flowers with women’s heads are not explained either), but this faceless fellow and his beautiful sister are the first people Batman reveals his true identity to.  And then are never seen again.

#36, “Professor Hugo Strange” introduces the title character, another mad scientist, who takes part of his inspiration from Professor Moriarty, but is also large and muscular, able to give Batman a good tussle even without his fog machine, monster men and other gimmicks.

#38 “Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder” does just what it says.  Circus acrobat Dick Grayson loses his parents to criminals, and is taken in by Batman, who gives the lad a costume and training to become a crimefighter.  (He also reveals his identity to Dick off-camera.)  Thanks to this, Robin gets the quick closure that Batman never did by tracking down and convicting his parents’ killer.

Robin was the first superhero’s boy sidekick in comic books, and soon the market was flooded with them.  He lightened up the Batman character and gave the Caped Crusader someone to have dialogue with rather than think out loud to himself.

Also about this time, Batman got his own solo comic book series, but that’s another volume.

#40, “Beware of Clayface!” introduces the first villain to wear that name, crazed horror actor Basil Karlo (a riff on Basil Karloff, who was a swell guy in real life.)  Julie Madison begins her career as a movie actress.  In #49, the Basil Karlo Clayface returns (and then would not be seen again for decades) and Julie decides to break her engagement to Bruce for his fecklessness.  (Little realizing it’s only a cover for his activities as Batman.)

#44, “The Land Beyond the Light!” is the first full-on fantasy story for Batman, as the Dynamic Duo is transported to another dimension and interfere in a war between giants and little people.  It’s all Dick Grayson’s dream in the end, but soon such stories would become a regular thing.

#50 ends this volume with “The Case of the Three Devils.”  Three circus acrobats have turned to crime using devil costumes and their ability to pull off outrageous physical stunts.  They give Batman and Robin quite a chase before the Caped Crusaders can finally corner them.  Batman’s superior use of terrain gives him the victory.

Again, lots of exciting action portrayed in a new way for 1939-40.  Some plots are overly simplistic, while others become nonsensical if you think about them too carefully, but the writing gets much better as it goes along.   There’s also an illuminating foreword by comics scholar Rick Marschall.

This is a must have for the serious Batman collector; other Batman fans should check it out at the library to see the early development of the classic characters.

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Magazine Review: If May 1961

Magazine Review: If May 1961 managing editor Frederik Pohl

If was a science fiction magazine that ran from 1952 to 1974.  It was considered a “second tier” magazine due to frequently low sales, but that should not be confused with “second-rate.”  By 1961, If had become a sister magazine to Galaxy, publishing in alternate months.  Under editor Frederik Pohl, this magazine tended to publish newer writers and more experimental stories, while Galaxy on average worked more with popular established authors.  The cover for the May 1961 issue is “The Commuters” by Jack Gaughan, which has nothing to do with any of the stories.

If May 1961

The lead story is “That’s How It Goes” by J.T. McIntosh.  An overpopulated Earth needs millions of colonists for new worlds.  But it’s only hundred thousands who volunteer.  So most colonists are those who’ve broken laws or rules.  Serious criminals are sent to hellholes like Roc, which is almost certain death.  But for relatively pleasant worlds like Aperdui, which just needs a lot of hard work, any rulebreaker will do.

Thus the seven candidates in the colony office are an actress who wore a see-through nightie on screen, two gluttons, a man who made too many shoes for his quota, a fellow who took a call from his girlfriend and let a food vat die, his girlfriend and the phone operator who let the call go through.  The operator gets a temporary stay, but the rest are shipped off to the new planet to start a farm.

One of the gluttons kills himself because he can’t face life on just enough food to work, and is replaced by an experienced farmer.  We follow the fortunes of the group through their ups and downs, some succeeding and making Aperdui a decent place to live, others dealing with heartbreak.

At the end, one of the colonists becomes a recruiter back on Earth, facing the same sort of involuntary exportees he once was. There’s a picture of a woman skinny-dipping in the distance, her back turned towards the “camera.”  Notably absent from the story is the notion that Earth should perhaps limit its population by other means than emigration.

“Out of Mind” by William W. Stuart concerns a control freak bureaucrat who takes a “vacation” on a planet where the natives have illusion powers that make the place seem ideal, whatever that means to the individual viewer.  Many visitors never leave.  But Screed is ready with anti-illusion pills and a satellite that will disrupt the natives’ powers.  He’ll soon have them whipped into shape as a proper member of the galactic civilization!

Much of the story is Screed being set up to think it’s his idea to go to the planet.  It’s pretty clear his wife (who he allots fifteen minutes of scheduled sex a week) is in on the scam.  It’s a well-deserved fate, but the ending is telegraphed.

“A Science Faction Story” by Theodore Sturgeon is an article on making money from going to space.  Specifically, the then-new idea of communications satellites, a business opportunity that can only be achieved through spaceflight, as opposed to being (Earth activity) in SPACE!

“The Connoisseur” by Frank Banta is set on a generation ship that has forgotten its past, and its goal.  A collector of rare items barters for a child bride with such things as the control knobs which used to be on the navigation panel…before the ship inhabitants killed the last navigator.  No happy ending here, kids.

“Seven Doors to Education” by Fred Saberhagen is an interesting piece about a  swimmer who finds himself undergoing a series of tests to unlock doors to escape wherever it is he’s trapped.  Pete Kelsey’s family didn’t believe in education, and he’s wound up with a steady but dead-end job sorting letters in the Chicago post office.  Now he has to learn, and learn fast if he wants to avoid drowning.  A bit of an infodump at the end, but Pete is faced with a decision that feels meaningful.

“The Useless Bugbreeders” by James Stamers has some interesting features.  The narrator is an advocate for alien species who don’t want the expansionist Earthlings to destroy their homes for the ease of space travel.   He must defend them to a panel of judges who are none too thrilled considering the wacky things that happen.

In this case, his clients are the Bugbreeders, who are masters of creating specialty microbes.  He’s brought along one of their scientists to perform some demonstrations.  Unfortunately, poor prior planning causes each of the demonstrations to have predictable bad consequences.  It looks like the Bugbreeders may lose their asteroid home, but there’s one last twist.  This is one of those stories where the advocate and the client should have gone over the testimony in advance.

“Science Briefs” is a set of short science fact developments as of 1961, including a look at radiation therapy to treat cancer.  Fascinating stuff for science fans!

“Cinderella Story” by Allen Kim Lang concerns Orison McCall, a Treasury agent infiltrating a bank where weird things are going on by being hired as a secretary.  Such things as most of the bank’s employees wearing earmuffs in mid-summer and the invertebrate farm upstairs.

Eventually, Orison learns that she’s stumbled onto an alien power struggle.  The story is marred by most of the male characters treating Orison as a romantic target (and the other major female character assuming Orison is her romantic rival on the strength of Orison being pretty.)  This is especially irksome with the male lead Dink Gerding, who very specifically will not accept that “no” means “no”, orders for his date at restaurants, and jumps straight from first date to marriage proposal.  Naturally, Orison is deeply in love with him by the end of the story.

“The Flying Tuskers of K’Niik-K’naak” by Jack Sharkey rounds out the issue.  It’s a comedic tale about a pompous Great White Hunter being outfoxed by his native servant…in SPACE.  It’s overdone, the narration pushing the hunter character well beyond pompous into actively abusive.

The Saberhagen story is the best in this issue, but the McIntosh story is also pretty good.  You can find all the issues of If on the Internet Archive.

 

 

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6 edited by Julius Schwartz

By 1971, the Batman television show had been off the air long enough that its sales boost to the Batman and Detective Comics series had faded, and with it, the incentive to model the magazines on the show.  Bruce Wayne moved from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse in downtown Gotham City and started a charitable organization for victims of crime.  Dick “Robin” Grayson went off to college on the other side of the state, and guest-starred infrequently.  And most of Batman’s regular rogues’ gallery took a vacation.

Showcase Presents: Batman Volume 6

This freed up space for a more somber tone, although this run certainly had its own silliness, such as a return engagement by the Ten-Eyed Man, whose optic nerves had been transplanted into his fingers.  And Two-Face made an appearance for the first official time since the 1950s.  But quite a few of the stories had Batman facing off against ordinary murderers and organized crime…as well as what appeared to be ghosts and psychic powers.

This volume covers Batman 229-236 and Detective Comics 408-416.  The first story, “Asylum of the Futurians” pits the Caped Crusader against a group of apparent lunatics who’ve captured a photographer in the mistaken belief he possesses psychic abilities that will make him their leader.  (It’s never clear that the Futurians actually have ESP; it certainly doesn’t help against Batman; but then how do you explain the sudden impulse he had to investigate the neighborhood?)

Several stories are topical to the 1970s.  Thinly veiled versions of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and “participatory journalist” George Plimpton make guest appearances.  Stories featuring youth activism and black radicals have aged poorly; the latter mixes in a police corruption subplot, the end of which supposedly fixes injustice in the legal system of Gotham City.  Batman’s platitudes towards the radicals he’s fighting/helping come off as tone-deaf.

Other stories focus on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, revealing at the end the one clue he noticed where the criminal slipped up.  One, taking place at a production of Macbeth, involves the literal pricking of Batman’s thumbs.

The most notable plotline was the first appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia.  Talia appeared first, helping Batman bring down Dr. Damien Darrk of the League of Assassins, who had fallen out with her father.  Then Ra’s contrived a scenario where both Robin and Talia were kidnapped in order to test Batman’s fitness to marry Talia (who had fallen for Bruce) and eventually take over his shadowy empire.

As created by writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul was a mastermind in the Fu Manchu style (particularly the later novels.)  He controlled a vast criminal network, but did not consider himself a criminal, but rather humanity’s eventual savior.  Over his long life, Ra’s had become convinced overpopulation was the root of all the Earth’s problems.  Therefore he was going to do something about that.

Like Fah Lo Suee before her, Talia was conflicted between loyalty to her father and the desire to jump the hero’s bones.  Ra’s respected Bruce’s intelligence and skills enough to allow them to be mated, but only if Batman accepted a place as the Demon’s Head’s heir presumptive.  And no, Batman was not impressed by the “kill most of humanity to save the rest” plan.

After several encounters, Batman decides to take down Ra’s al Ghul once and for all, assembling a small team of specialists to help.  (This was the first appearance of the Matches Malone disguise, as Batman’s attempt to recruit the hitman went awry.)  After much ado, they finally catch up to the mastermind, or rather his corpse.

Except that it turns out Ra’s has access to something called the Lazarus Pit, which allows him renewed life and vigor at the cost of temporary insanity.  (This puts a different cast on an earlier story where Talia had supposedly believed her father dead.)  Eventually, Batman and Ra’s al Ghul must duel in single combat to determine which of them shall triumph in the last story of the volume.

This is nifty stuff, with some crackerjack writing and excellent art.  On the other hand, Talia’s personality is entirely defined in this storyline by her relationships with men, and she wavers back and forth between them as the plot demands.

Overall, this is a good run of Batman, and well worth requesting for the library, or even buying if you are a big Batman fan.  (Batgirl has a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.)

Book Review: Merton of the Movies

Book Review: Merton of the Movies by Harry Leon Wilson

Simsbury, Illinois might just be a wide spot in the road, but twice a week, the Bijou Palace shows movies made in far-off Hollywood.  Perhaps the most fanatical attendee of these showings is young Merton Gill, assistant shopkeeper at Gashwiler’s Emporium (general store.)  Merton has studied these film stories carefully, subscribes to several photoplay magazines, and has taken a correspondence course in acting.  (With a specialization in face journeys.)  While ordinary folks only idly think of going to Hollywood to be in movies, Merton (aka Clifford Armytage) is going to actually do it!

Merton of the Movies

This comedic novel is by the author of Ruggles of Red Gap and was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1919.  It was rapidly turned into a hit play, then released as a book in 1922.  There have been three movie versions, the 1947 one starring Red Skelton.

Merton arrives in California at the height of the silent era, woefully unprepared for the realities of the movie business.  He only wants to work for one studio, the ones that put out a Perils of Pauline style adventure serial starring his favorite actress, Beulah Baxter.  An idealist, he hasn’t noticed how sanitized the magazine articles about the stars of Hollywood are.  (One of the running gags is the stock phrases used in every interview.)  For quite some time, he doesn’t even make it past the casting office’s waiting room.

While cooling his heels day after day, Merton becomes acquainted with (quite against his will) “Flips” Montague, a sassy, irreverent young woman who’s been in show business all her life.  She’s not exactly film-heroine pretty, and far too familiar in her manner.  Merton can’t quite fathom why she insists on acting as though they were warm acquaintances.

I should mention here that Merton has no sense of humor; he recognizes that such a thing as comedy exists, but doesn’t grok it.  Slapstick, insults, wordplay, none of them seem funny to him, and he goes through life entirely seriously.

Finally, just as his monetary situation was looking grim, Merton gets a chance to be an extra in a cabaret scene.  He’s supposed to be suffering from ennui due to the Blight of Broadway.  As it happens, Merton is very uncomfortable in the scene, especially as he’s being forced to smoke cigarettes even though he detests the habit.  This makes him look perfect for that scene, and Miss Montague takes notice.

After that, there’s a long dry spell until a day’s extra work gives Merton just enough money to choose between paying rent and eating.  He chooses eating, then ingeniously uses the studio’s backlot resources to have shelter for the next week.   Down to his last nickel, Merton is stunned to run into Flips again at her part-time job as stunt double for Beulah Baxter.  (Ms. Baxter had claimed to do all her own stunts.)  He’s even more stunned to learn that Beulah is married…for the third time.

Flips (who prefers not to use her given name of Sarah Nevada Montague) treats Merton to breakfast and learns his life story…and realizes she’s found a gold mine.  She stakes Merton a couple of weeks rent, then contacts a director friend of hers.  She and Mr. Baird agree on a plan.  Merton will star in a movie, being told he’s playing a straight role, and not being allowed on the set for any scenes not involving his character.

Baird fibs to Merton that he wants to move up from comedy to serious films, and our hero buys it.  Clifford Armytage is on the rise at last!  Before the first film is released, Baird has Merton in a second movie with the same conditions.  Merton does have some suspicions…if this is a serious movie, why is the notorious funnyman with the crossed eyes involved?  But he puts them aside, after all he’s still a rookie and the director surely knows what he’s doing.

Shooting wrapped up, Baird signs Merton to a three-year exclusive contract (carefully looked over by Miss Montague.)  Merton realizes he’s fallen in love with Flips, and she likes him a whole bunch too…but the first movie with Clifford Armytage as straight man in a slapstick comedy is about to hit theaters.  Will this make Merton a star, or break his heart?

Good stuff:  There are many genuinely funny bits, and it’s fascinating to have a window into the Hollywood of the silent era.  There are things that are very much the same: Merton overhears as a worthy film idea is watered down and butchered to match what the moneymen think the audience wants, until the final product is unrecognizable.  There’s also bewailing the intelligent movies that don’t get made because there’s no money in them.

Not so good:  Period racism, sexism and ethnic prejudice.  One of the standout lines here is “He knows all about money, even if he doesn’t keep Yom Kippur.”  Flips is kind of an early version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope some folks are tired of.  And there’s animal abuse by a film crew, true to the period.

Recommended to movie fans, especially those interested in the silent era.

And now, the trailer for the 1947 film:

Magazine Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016 edited by C.C. Finlay

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction started publication in 1949.  According to Wikipedia, it was supposed to be a fantasy story version of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as it was at the time, classic reprints mixed with new material of a higher literary quality than was common in the pulps of the time.  Science fiction was added to expand the possible pool of stories.  F&SF has managed to publish fairly regularly ever since, though in recent years it’s bimonthly.  It has a reputation for literate fiction.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The cover story is “The Cat Bell” by Esther M. Friesner.  Mr. Ferguson is a successful actor in the early Twentieth Century, even having a fine house with servants.  One of those servants, Cook, greatly admires Mr. Ferguson.  Mr. Ferguson greatly admires cats, and has nineteen of them that Cook must feed every day.  One day there are twenty cats, and Cook finds herself in a fairy tale.  Content note:  Cook suffers from several of the less pleasant “isms” and isn’t afraid to say so.

“The Farmboy” by Albert E. Cowdrey is set on a distant planet being surveyed by a scout ship.  The crew has discovered a massive deposit of gold, but even if they had room to take it with them, the government would simply confiscate the wealth, giving nothing to the survey crew.  Several of the crew members come up with a scheme to make themselves very rich at the expense of the rest of the crew.  But if you can’t spot the sucker at the poker game, it’s probably you…some unpleasant sexism.

“Between Going and Staying” by Lilliam Rivera takes place in a future Mexico even more dominated by the drug cartels.  Dolores is a professional mourner using the newest bodysuit technology.  She’s been making very good money performing for the wealthy, but this funeral is personal.

There are two book review columns, one by Charles de Lint, in which he admits not being fond of psychological horror.  The other is by Chris Moriarty and focuses on books about human survival.

“The Vindicator” by Matthew Hughes is the last story in his current cycle about Raffalon the thief.  Raffalon is a mediocre burglar in the sort of fantasy city that has a Thieves’ Guild.  For some reason a Vindicator (assassin) is after Raffalon, and the Vindicator’s Guild isn’t being helpful for calling it off.  Raffalon hires a Discriminator (private investigator) and the truth turns out to be explosive.

A relatively rare Gardner Dozois story follows, “The Place of Bones.”  A scholar and his companion discover the Dragonlands, where dragons go to die.  More of a mood piece than a proper story.

“Lord Elgin at the Acropolis” by Minsoo Kang involves a police officer and writer meeting to consider the problem of a museum director who believes that one of the paintings in the museum is fake, despite no other evidence.  Is he just crazy, or is there another explanation?

“Special Collections” by Kurt Fawver is a horror story about a library with a section you must never enter alone, which is the first rule.  And then there’s the second rule….

David J. Skal reviews High-Rise for the film section, and compares it to the J.G. Ballard novel.

There’s the results of a contest for updating older science fiction works to today’s world.  Including a “Dishonorable Mention” update of 1984.

“A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley is set in a city where all disputes between the two major parties are settled by specially trained duelists.  Except that one side doesn’t want to play by those rules any more.  Very satisfying story.

“Passelande” by Robert Reed takes place in a depressing near future with electronic backups for people who can afford them.  Backups who have their own feelings and motivations.  This one grated on me, as I felt the characters had their motivations poorly explained/depicted.

“The Rhythm Man” by James Beamon is a variant on the legend about talented musicians selling their souls for skill or fame.  A lot of set-up for one great scene at the end.

And the stories wrap up with “Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You” by Sandra McDonald.  It’s a dystopian tale of a gift-making community that ensures none of its children can truly escape.  But perhaps there is a ray of hope?

There’s an “Easter egg” in the classified ads, and then an index of stories and features that appeared in 2016’s issues.

I liked “The Vindicator” and “A Fine Balance” best, though “The Cat Bell” was also quite entertaining.  “Passendale” was the weakest story for me.

This magazine has consistently high quality stories and some nice cartoons; consider a print or Kindle subscription.

 

 

Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4 edited by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas

Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer.  He was struck in the face with radioactive material as a teen while shoving a blind man out of danger, which both blinded Matthew and gave him extraordinary senses.  When his father “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock was murdered for refusing to throw a boxing match, Matt donned a bizarre devil-themed costume to avenge him.  He then continued to use the Daredevil identity to fight crime and help people.

Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

This volume contains Daredevil #75-101, plus an important issue of the Avengers, #111.  Gerry Conway wrote most of these issues with Gene Colan on pencils.  (As usual, Colan’s work looks great in black and white.)

We open with Matt having mostly broken up with his long-time romantic interest, Karen Page, who is pursuing an acting career.  They’re both having second thoughts, so it’s several issues before they move on and Daredevil can devote his full attention to Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow (who got to share the cover title for a while.)

#75 seems to be a filler issue, with Matt and his law partner and best friend Foggy Nelson visiting South America.  Daredevil battles a revolutionary calling himself “El Condor” after a local hero.  It’s an interesting story because it’s clear that El Condor’s identity was supposed to be a last-page reveal (always wears a mask, the one person who sees his face reacts with shock, and there’s a character who the story logic says it had to be) but El Condor simply dies (crushed by a statue of the original!) and then Matt leaves the country without El Condor’s true identity even being mentioned.

Then begins a long sequence with the mysterious “Mr. Kline” acting against Daredevil and Matt Murdock in various ways.  First he sponsors a mad scientist’s experiments that wind up turning a man named William “Bull” Taurus into the Man-Bull.  A nice touch in this story is that Bull has his own mini-gang and a character named “Freakface” explains why he’s personally loyal to Bull.  At the same time, Kline begins to blackmail Foggy, who at this point is New York City’s district attorney.

Then Kline frees the Owl from prison and provides the gliding financier advanced technology to attack Daredevil.  At the same time, he manipulates the Black Widow into meeting Daredevil as part of a long-term backup plan.  As well, the reader learns that “Mr. Kline” is not as we might have thought one of Daredevil’s old enemies, but an android (MK-9) controlled by an even more mysterious master which codenames it “Assassin.”

Kline’s next maneuver is sending out the Scorpion, who acts somewhat out of character (actually an android), and is apparently killed by the Black Widow.  The Assassin then has Foggy insist on prosecuting Natasha for murder (her background as a Communist spy prejudices people against her.)  The trial is rigged further by Mr. Hyde (another android) murdering the coroner and replacing him with a duplicate.

The trial ends when all the evidence is destroyed by an explosion, but Black Widow is still under suspicion.  She heads to Switzerland, where the Assassin springs the backup plan of having her convince Matt Murdock to undergo an operation to restore his eyesight.

The secret boss is finally revealed to be…no one we could have reasonably guessed.  Baal, a computer from the far future, is trying to avert a disaster in the past that Daredevil (and Iron Man of all people) will eventually cause.  Trying to kill him has failed, though they have managed to prevent Foggy Nelson from eventually becoming the president of the United States.  But restoring Matt’s eyesight will also eliminate Daredevil.

The plan doesn’t work because too obvious, and a deus ex machina prevents Baal from reverting to the “kill Daredevil” idea.

After a couple of transitional issues which resolve the Karen Page subplot, Matt Murdock moves to San Francisco with Black Widow and her chauffeur Ivan, taking a set of rooms in her house there.  At this point in time, the Comics Code prevented unmarried characters from sleeping together.

The local police are less than enthused about their new vigilantes, especially Commissioner “Ironguts” O’Hara.  It takes him a long time to warm up to the colored longjohns  set, even though they’re a big help against powered criminals like Electro and the Purple Man.  (The latter has a flashback sequence to explain how he escaped from jail–which is missing a crucial panel.)

Another lengthy plotline involves Project Four, the very first case Natasha ever worked on as a spy, and the return of her first partner, Danny French.  Danny is ethically bankrupt (he’s now a private detective introduced working both sides of a blackmail case) but winds up having some redeeming qualities.  A new Mister Fear also shows up, but is a red herring.

Gerry Conway wraps up his run with the return of the Man-Bull, and Steve Gerber takes up the writing chores as of issue #97.  He introduces another mysterious mastermind who is empowering seemingly random people for unknown purposes, starting with Mordecai Jones, the Dark Messiah.

This plotline is interrupted by a guest appearance of Hawkeye, Black Widow’s former love interest, who wants to see if he can rekindle the relationship.  No, but it does lead into an Avengers crossover.  They need DD and BW’s help against Magneto, who has managed to mind control the X-Men and most of the Avengers, and is trying to seize the United States’ nuclear arsenal.  (This includes a really skeevy scene of Magneto compelling the Scarlet Witch to dance for his pleasure, which would get even skeevier in hindsight once she was retconned into being his daughter.)

Daredevil turns down an Avengers membership (at this point his supersenses are not sufficiently tuned to allow him to work in a large team) but Natasha accepts.  He thinks that means she’s leaving him.

Issue #100 has Daredevil being interviewed by Rolling Stone and recapping his origin for the readers, in between bouts of mass hallucination.  The latter turns out to be the work of Angar the Screamer, an aging hippie being controlled by the mysterious mastermind previously mentioned.  Black Widow returns (she plans to commute to Avengers meetings) and they manage to drive Angar off…for now.

The good:  Gene Colan art, some nifty villain appearances, Black Widow getting to be competent most of the time, random civilians getting the gumption to fight back against criminals on their own.

Less good:  Matt Murdock’s internal monologues tend to the verbose at best, Daredevil too often feeling he needs to protect Black Widow from danger even though she’s repeatedly shown her competence, gratuitous scenes of Natasha dressing/undressing/showering in a way we don’t see Matt doing, Marvel’s writers just not “getting” the counterculture or feminism despite theoretically catering to them, and the Marvel soap opera formula meaning that Matt can never just be happy for an entire freaking issue without finding something to angst about, often completely unnecessarily.

That said, this is a decent run on the title (though nowhere near the quality of Frank Miller’s first run) and worth checking out at the library.

 

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