Book Review: The Black Bat #1: Brand of the Black Bat & Murder Calls the Black Bat

Book Review: The Black Bat #1: Brand of the Black Bat & Murder Calls the Black Bat by Norman Daniels (writing as G. Wayman Jones)

Tony Quinn was a handsome, wealthy and highly competent district attorney until the day of Oliver Snate’s trial.  This time he had proof of the gangster’s illegal activities, actual recordings of Snate openly talking about his crimes.  But Snate had a plan to destroy the evidence.  Out-of-town criminals infiltrated the courtroom, and when the recordings were brought out of their protective cover, the thugs caused a riot.  One of them hurled a bottle of vitriol on the recordings, incidentally also hitting D.A. Quinn, who had moved to protect the evidence.

The Black Bat #1

The acid hit Tony’s face, horribly scarring him, and more importantly, rendering him blind!  With the key evidence destroyed and a less effective prosecutor filling in, Snate’s slick lawyer was able to get the case dismissed.  Without his sight, Mr. Quinn thought his career was over, and the medical experts told him there was nothing they could do.  Tony became a hermit, aided only by his manservant “Silk” Kirby, a former conman who’d reformed to help Tony against an earlier assassination attempt.

Then a mysterious woman arrived, who told Tony that if he secretly went to a certain town in Illinois, there was one doctor that could cure his blindness.  After a period of recovery, not only could Tony Quinn see again, but he now possessed the ability to see in the dark!  Remembering how Snate had mocked him as “blind as a bat”, Tony decided to conceal his new abilities, and operate as the mysterious vigilante, the Black Bat.

In one of those interesting coincidences comic book history is littered with, the Black Bat first appeared in Black Book Detective about the same month that Batman first appeared in Detective Comics.  And it very much was a coincidence–the pulp character was called “the Tiger” in the original draft, from the striped facial scars.  But the publisher of Black Book Detective wanted him to be the lead character in that magazine, so he was rewritten into a darker mode, drawing on much the same cultural influences that Bob Kane and Bill Finger used to create Batman.

The two very similar characters brought about mutual threats of lawsuit–but the companies settled on an agreement that Batman would appear in comics only, while the Black Bat would stick to prose.  We’ll get back to that later.

Back in the story, Oliver Snate has graduated to making armored cars vanish on a regular basis.  He’s smart, but not that smart, so the Black Bat suspects a criminal mastermind at work.  The Black Bat begins his plan by interfering with a bank robbery.  A ex-boxer named Jack “Butch” O’Leary and the mystery girl, Carol Baldwin, get caught up in this and join the Black Bat’s team.  The Black Bat also makes an enemy of Detective Sergeant McGrath, an honest policeman who wants to arrest the vigilante for breaking the law.  McGrath catches on to the connection between the Black Bat and Tony Quinn quickly, but is never able to prove they’re the same person.  (Police Commissioner Warner also suspects, but is much less motivated to catch the Bat.)

It turns out that Carol’s father was a police officer who’d been blinded by Oliver Snate in a different way some years before.  Dying, he convinced Dr. Harrington, a brilliant surgeon living in obscurity for reasons never discussed, to transplant his intact corneas and other vital bits into Tony Quinn’s eyes.  (Dr. Harrington is declared dead offstage at the beginning of the second story, so we never follow up on him.)  Carol and Tony are strongly affectionate towards each other, though they both know romance is out of the question.

Now that all the pieces are in place, it’s time to run Snate to earth, and expose the true villain behind him.

Our heroes are pretty cold-blooded about killing; Tony and Silk don’t hesitate to shoot criminals even before they become vigilantes, and the team racks up quite a body count by the end.  Perhaps the most brutal moment is when the Black Bat straight up murders a parked getaway driver so that bank robbers will be forced to use a car he’s gimmicked to record their voices.

The Black Bat’s double life is a recurring problem; he must often cut investigations short and hurry home so that poor, blind Tony Quinn can be seen to still be blind and most certainly not running around in a hood and cape.

Carol’s backstory has her be an effective solo operator until she joins the team, at which point she never takes initiative any more, just doing whatever the Black Bat assigns.  Yes, she does get into peril a lot and need to be saved, but Silk and Butch are about equally peril-prone.

In the second story, several elite jewelry emporiums discover that large portions of their stock have turned counterfeit, seemingly overnight.  One owner is apparently driven to suicide, while another consults Tony Quinn (who used to be his lawyer before being elected district attorney) before apparently driving off a cliff in an exploding automobile.  When a hitman shows up to kill Tony, he realizes that the crooks behind this bizarre series of events must think he knows more about what’s going on than he really does.  Time to become the Black Bat!

Freed of having to do a lot of set-up, this story is more of an action-mystery with plenty of suspects.  There’s a nasty torture scene, though the cover switches Silk with Carol for the equivalent peril.   The bad guys’ major weak point turns out to be that the field leader of the thieves is obviously planning to betray his boss just as soon as he has the loot.  There’s some ethnic stereotyping.

One neat bit that comes up is that Tony’s scars make the Black Bat not be a master of disguise.  He can disguise himself a bit, but he’s no man of a thousand faces, leaving that to the clever Silk.

Now, remember that deal I mentioned a few paragraphs ago?  Eventually, the publisher of Black Bat wanted to adapt some of the magazine stories to comic book form.  But they couldn’t use the name “Black Bat,” so he was changed to the Owl.  Oops, by the time the art was finished, someone had started publishing another superhero named “the Owl.”  So the script was quickly changed by Raymond Thayer to call the main character “the Mask.”  “The Mask Strikes” from Exciting Comics #1 is the first half of “Brand of the Black Bat” with a few names changed, and the hero wearing a noticeably bird-themed hood.  Very compact art that gets a lot done in a few pages.

The Black Bat’s origin went on to inspire comic book characters Dr. Mid-Nite and Two-Face.  Batman-related character Cassandra Cain took up the name Black Bat for a few issues before a reboot made her vanish (the latest version of her is now called “Orphan”), and the Tony Quinn Black Bat finally got to appear in comics in a series from Dynamite.

Recommended for pulp fans, and fans of two-fisted vigilantes who don’t pull punches when dealing with criminals.

 

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Manga Review: Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2

Manga Review: Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2 by Jiro Kuwata

To briefly recap:  When the Batman television series was brought to Japan in the 1960s, it was decided to do a manga tie-in using the talents of Jiro Kuwata (creator of 8-Man).  Rather than being based on the TV show directly, Mr. Kuwata was given a bunch of recent issues of the American comics (which were slightly more serious) and based his interpretation on those.  Please see my review of Volume 1.

Batmanga 2

The first story in this second volume is the return of Clayface, a shape-shifting villain who gained his ability from a pool of water in a cave.  The criminal is dismayed to find the cave has been collapsed with explosives, but is eavesdropping when Batman mentions that a scientist took some of the water to analyze it.  He then apparently kills the scientist to get his hands on the transformation fluid and starts a crime wave again.  A great moment is when Batman realizes that the person complaining of toothache is actually Clayface, as the real person wears dentures.

Next is a professional wrestling based story.  Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson witness a match between popular “face” (good guy) wrestler Apache Arrow, and despised “heel” (bad guy) wrestler the Hangman.  Despite the Hangman using illegal moves, he wins the match handily.  Afterwards, Batman and Robin go on patrol.  They spot the Hangman robbing a jewelry store, but before they can catch up, another Hangman appears and defeats the robber!

Turns out that in this continuity, pro wrestling is real, but the Hangman is working an angle anyway.  He and Batman engage in a mask-off match, where the loser has his true face revealed.  Or does he?

The third story (each of these is told in several weekly chapters, by the way) is set at a masquerade carnival that moves from city to city, happening to be in Gotham City this week.  Batman is looking for an escaped convict, which is a trifle more difficult when everyone in the fairgrounds is disguised.  When the Dynamic Duo do catch up with the crook, he’s been murdered.  Some clues are provided by photojournalist and sometime Batman love interest Vicki Vale, the best showing of a female character in the manga.

Next up is “The Mystery of the Outsider.”  In the American comics, this was a plotline that went on for several months as the unseen but insanely powerful Outsider used his uncanny knowledge of Batman and Bruce Wayne to try to kill them.  It’s considerably condensed here, and for the readers there is no mystery.  U.S. readers might be shocked to see Alfred on the phone with Police Chief Gordon, casually mentioning that he’s Batman’s butler.  This is explained later when we learn that in this continuity, Chief Gordon is fully aware of Batman’s double identity.

The storyline loses some of its impact here because this is the first time the person who is secretly the Outsider appears in the manga at all; we’re not as shocked as the original readers would have been.

This volume concludes with a complex tale of a missing scientist, a robbery gang, and the Monster of Gore Bay.  Robin gets to be more of a teenager here, getting overenthused about investigating a sea monster, and dealing with the scientist’s tsundere (ill-tempered on the outside, sweet on the inside) daughter.

The writing is decent enough, remembering that this manga was aimed at elementary school boys, and there are some clever twists.  The art is old-fashioned and looks stiff compared to many modern manga.  Every so often there’s a great splash page where the artist cuts loose.

This volume is primarily for Batman completists, while casual Bat-fans may want to check it out at the library.

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler

The title of this volume is slightly misleading; “locked room” stands in for the general idea of impossible crimes in mystery stories.  A man  is found stabbed in the back in a windowless room with the door locked from the inside.   A woman is strangled in the middle of a snowy field, but the only tracks are her own.  Precious jewels disappear from a safe that hasn’t been opened.  It’s a thriving subgenre of the mystery field.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

This book starts with a selection of the most reprinted stories of this type, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and G.K. Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man.”  After these, which most readers will already know the endings to, the remaining stories are grouped by category, such as stabbings or impossible thefts.   A wide swath of famous mystery authors is included, and some more obscure writers with particularly good stories.    At least one of these stories has not been reprinted before.

Not all of these stories are “fair-play” mysteries where the reader can figure out the solution from the clues given, but they all play by the important rules of the subgenre.  It’s never as simple as “there’s a secret passage” and the murder itself is never accomplished by the paranormal.    Some of the stories are tinged with the possibility of the supernatural (Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case” is not one of them, surprisingly), but the solution is always possible, if highly implausible.  (Seriously, random Ourang-Outang attack in the middle of Paris?)

The genre-savvy reader will be able to figure out many of the stories before they end, especially as a couple of them use the same dodge as earlier ones in the volume.  Still, there are often other twists that distinguish the story, such as “The Wrong Problem” by John Dickson Carr, where solving the murder isn’t the real mystery; and “The House of Haunts” by Ellery Queen, which features the overnight disappearance of a three-story stone house, foundations and all!

The stories were mostly written in the Twentieth Century, and the first half of it at that, so there’s some period racism and sexism.  (The Flying Corpse” by A.E. Martin relies a lot on the narrator being unable to follow his wife’s “woman logic” )   I should also mention that at least one of the stories has the “it was suicide disguised as murder” solution, which may be triggery for some readers.

This book would make a terrific gift for the mystery-lover on your holiday list, or for yourself if locked-room mysteries are your thing.  I do have one caveat; the cover is a bit flimsy for the size of the book, and will not stand up well to more vigorous transportation.

Book Review: The Jail Gates Are Open

Book Review: The Jail Gates Are Open by David Hume

Cardby and Son is a detective firm comprised of ex-Chief Inspector Cardby (late of Scotland Yard) and his son Mick.   They’ve been engaged by a consortium of banks to discover where a recent flood of “slush”, counterfeit money, is coming from.  Nick realizes that one way of tracking down forgers is to consult an expert.  As it happens, a former forger of note is being released from Dartmoor Prison, and owes the Inspector a favor.

The Jail Gates are Open
Dust cover image snaffled from seller on Amazon.com

 

While on his way to pick up the soon to be ex-convict, Mick runs into (nearly literally) a man named Milsom Crosby.  Mr. Crosby is a wealthy man who interests himself in the rehabilitation of criminals, especially those who have committed particularly brutal or violent crimes.  He’s at Dartmoor to pick up Bonny Slater, a hard man who’d done time for assaulting a police officer.  Mick is intrigued, but has other business to attend to.

Back in London, Cardby and Son soon have a new client, a Mr. Carter.  It seems his son Kendrick had served a term for bank robbery and recently been released, but failed to come home.  His only communication has been a letter saying that he was under the care of…Milsom Crosby.  When the father tried to visit, he was told that Kendrick was on holiday in south France, but he smells a rat.

Shortly thereafter, a beautiful woman tries to engage the firm for a lengthy but lucrative embezzlement investigation in Barcelona.  The Cardbys point out that this would be better accomplished by a forensic accountant that speaks Spanish, and she is forced to reveal that she is Iris Crosby, and the person she’s speaking on behalf of is her father, Milsom Crosby!

This is a thriller, rather than a mystery, and it’s soon obvious that Milsom Crosby is behind the counterfeiting ring and sundry other crimes.  But this cunning criminal mastermind will stop at nothing to punish those that get in his way–can Cardby and Son save their beloved wife and mother, let alone themselves?

The Tired Business Man's Library logo. The hilt of the knife has "AC for Appleton-Century" and the skull's teeth spell out TBML.
The Tired Business Man’s Library logo. The hilt of the knife has “AC for Appleton-Century” and the skull’s teeth spell out TBML.

 

This 1935 novel is part of the Tired Business Man’s Library, published by D. Appleton-Century Company, and “David Hume” appears to be a pen name (certainly not the famous philosopher!)  There’s a prologue in which the author explains some of the British criminal slang that is used in the book for “authenticity.”

Mick Cardby is very much the protagonist of the story, a young clean-cut fellow who’s athletic, clever and formidable.  We don’t get any background on him except that he has worked with his father in the firm for some years to great success.  His father, as noted above, retired from Scotland Yard, and his old partner Chief Inspector Gribble (a hardened pessimist) is scheduled to join the firm on his own pending retirement.  Both of them, and the various other policemen who show up, are primarily extra hands when Mick is outnumbered or busy doing something that needs concentration.

Milsom Crosby is a clear forerunner of the Bond villain–wealthy, powerful, a veneer of respectability, but a tendency to gloat and not quite as clever as he thinks.  Genre-savvy readers will see his repeatedly taking the choice that will least accomplish the goal of deterring the Cardbys and shake their heads.

As is sadly common in adventure fiction of the period,  women’s roles are limited.  Mrs. Cardby is taken hostage, rescued and otherwise not in the story at all (she has zero knowledge of or interest in her husband and son’s business other than fretting).  An engraver’s pretty daughter, taken hostage to ensure his cooperation with the counterfeiters, is only marginally more useful and mostly serves as a mild romantic interest for Mick.

And then there’s Iris Crosby, who tries to act the femme fatale but is easily thwarted by locking her in a room.  There’s a couple of nasty twists involving her in the final chapter, just so Mick can drive home how completely she’s failed.

Mick is pretty callous about usng violence, and sheds not a tear for a man he sends to his death (even cutting a deal with his murderer later on!)  He’s also willing to use a veiled homophobic slur, Mr. Crosby being quick to take offense at it being directed at him.

This book doesn’t seem to ever have been reprinted, so your chances of finding it outside of hole-in-the-wall used bookstores are slim.  Still, it’s a fun read suitable for unwinding after a long day at work.

TV Review: Dick Tracy

TV Review: Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy has had many incarnations over the years, but the actor most associated with the character is Ralph Byrd, who played him in serials, movies and eventually a television show in 1950.  Unfortunately, Mr. Byrd was not in good health by this point, and the fast pace of TV production and stunt double-less action scenes took a toll on his heart.  He passed away in 1952 at age 43, and the TV series died with him.

Dick Tracy

I watched six episodes of the show on a Mill Creek DVD.  The series was very low-budget, and it shows in the sets and attempts to keep the cast of any episode as small as possible.   There’s no Junior, and public places are eerily empty.  The writing varies vastly in quality; the Hi-Jack episode is the worst for this, with five minutes of the running time eaten up by Sam Catchem recapping the events of the previous episode for Officer Murphy.

Much better is the Heels Beals episode, which features Mrs. Varnish, an indomitable woman with a dry sense of humor.

While several villains from the comics appear, the physical deformity angle is played down; Flattop is called that in this version because he wears a stupid-looking flat cap.  Heels Beals is merely short, rather than a little person.

Surprisingly, despite the usual death toll for a Dick Tracy spinoff, there are a couple of loose ends in these episodes.  At the end of the Mole two-parter, Tracy has killed two of Mole’s henchmen, but doesn’t mention even suspecting Mole of anything, let alone capture him.  Likewise, Hi-Jack just sort of disappears from his own episode, and one of his henchmen bites the dust.

Ralph Byrd continues to be a good Dick Tracy, but the uneven writing and plot holes make this not a series I’d recommend to anyone but Dick Tracy fanatics.

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business by Lan Bercu

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Beginning some time in the late 1970s, when it became obvious that Japan had become an economic powerhouse, American businesses began taking an interest in Asian philosophies that might explain why companies from those areas were doing so well, especially in industries where America was faltering.   Thus, books for business explicating on The Five Rings, The Art of War and so forth have been written and often sold well.

This is the latest book in that tradition.  The author was born and raised in Vietnam, where The 36 Strategies, a text on warfare believed to have been compiled during China’s Warring States period, is read by schoolchildren.  She has since found the information included helpful in her career as a speaker on business and international matters.

The main text is divided into thirty-six short chapters, one for each strategy.  Each starts with a short story about ancient Chinese warfare, then one or more examples of how modern businesses have implemented these strategies, whether by name or by chance.  This is followed by translation into more basic tips, and questions for the business to ask itself based on the strategy.

Some of the strategies have poetic sounding titles, like “slough off the cicada’s golden shell” or “borrow a corpse to resurrect a soul”, while others are more plain-spoken, like “kill with a borrowed knife.”   The strategies themselves, however, tend to be simple to understand, if sometimes difficult to apply to a given situation.  That last bit is why they’re arranged by type; some are better when you have a clear advantage, others when you’re on the defensive or in a losing position.

It should be noted that the more literal applications of some of these strategies to business, such as “replace the beam with rotted timbers” and “deck the tree with false blossoms” may be considered unethical, and in some cases are outright illegal.  The author points out that businesses (and customers) should be aware of these strategies anyway, to help defend against them.

The short chapters and copious examples make this a good read for the busy person on the go; this is one time I would suggest buying the e-book version.  The book comes with an ad for the author’s services, bibliography and an index.

The utility of this book will depend on whether you already have another of the books relating the 36 strategies to business.  If so, you may not need this one.  This book also has a lot of synergy with The Art of War, so you may want to invest in one of the business books that concentrate on that text as well.

In war, do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory.  Rather, let your methods be determined by the infinite variety of circumstances. — Sun Tzu

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