Book Review: Fire-Tongue

Book Review: Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer

If there’s one thing a detective hates, it’s when their client hems and haws about explaining basic details of why they need a detective, only to die just as they make up their minds with only a cryptic last utterance as a clue.

Fire-Tongue

But that’s the situation Paul Harley is in with his latest case.  Sir Charles Abingdon, noted osteologist, suspects he may be in danger, but is so vague about the circumstances that it’s impossible to tell why.  He promises to make more explanations at dinner, but collapses just after drinking a bit of water, uttering only “Fire-Tongue…Nicol Brinn” before passing.

Nicol Brinn is an American millionaire who happens to be in London just now, but what possible connection could he have to Sir Charles?  And the phrase “Fire-Tongue” is a complete mystery.  Oh, and neither the water nor the glass itself were poisoned, so how did Sir Charles die?

Brinn appears to know something about “Fire-Tongue” but is evasive at best on that matter, and claims to know nothing about Sir Charles’ death or why he might have felt threatened.  He does promise to let Harley know if he has any definite leads.  Very suspicious.

However, Harley learns that Sir Charles’ daughter, Phyllis “Phil” Abingdon has been receiving “attentions” from Ormuz Khan, a Middle Eastern banker.  And since certain features of this case suggest the “Oriental”, that’s worth looking into as well.

Readers familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work will fnd little mystery here.  Once there’s a “mysterious Oriental” in the case, it’s obvious he’s guilty somehow.  From there on in it’s secret societies, poisons unknown to Western science, subtle mental powers and lots of peril.

This isn’t Rohmer’s best work by a long shot.  He divides the role of hero up between three male characters poorly, has characters make stupid decisions to keep the happenings mysterious, and the backstory is given in four straight chapters of infodump at the end.  Exciting but incoherent.

And that’s before we get to the racism, sexism and making the villain effeminate in appearance to indicate that he’s somehow unnatural.  Perhaps the weirdest bit in this direction is that Brinn’s face is repeatedly described as “Sioux-like” without any indication of Native American heritage.

This is, by the by, the second Paul Harley book; the first, Bat Wing, was apparently more of an actual mystery.  Mr. Harley is an ex-barrister who has turned to political consulting and detection as a more interesting career.  He’s apparently psychic, able to detect auras of evil or danger.  Which would be more helpful if this sense were directional, and didn’t sometimes interfere with his ability to make rational observations.

Like many pulp heroes, Mr. Harley is also a master of disguise.  Pity the baddies were specifically looking for someone in disguise!

Mr. Brinn is a harder-edged sort, and rather cold-blooded.  He has a sense of honor that allows him to dally with other men’s wives, but not break his word.  It’s a good thing he’s a millionaire, or he’d never get away with this stuff.

And then we have Detective Inspector Wessex of Scotland Yard, a bright (but not too bright) fellow who fills in chapters when neither Mr. Harley nor Mr. Brinn is available on-screen.

Overall, only recommended to Sax Rohmer completists.  It’s in the public domain in the U.S.–my copy was from a print on demand publisher, but you should be able to find the text on the internet.

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: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Martin J. Dougherty

The Arthurian mythos is a familiar one to just about everyone in some form or another.  But unless you’re a scholar of the subject, you might not know where all the pieces came from and how they got put together.  This “coffee table” book gives an overview of basic information about King Arthur and his knights.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

This generously illustrated tome begins with a look at what we know of early British history, and historical figures that might have inspired the tales of Arthur, even if no actual King Arthur ever existed.

Then it moves on to the major sources of the Arthurian stories.  The first written account we still have is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Arthur is just one in  a line of probably fictional rulers.  The book also covers the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (who was big on graphic violence and courtly love), the Grail Quest (heavy on the preachiness and religious allegory), and of course Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which pulled material together from multiple sources and added some of his own touches.

A final chapter touches on modern retellings of the Arthur cycle, from Mark Twain’s satirical proto-science fiction work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, through the musical Camelot to the recent television series Merlin.  The author also talks a bit about what might be called tertiary Arthuriana, where a character could say, “this bell was enchanted by Merlin” with no other references to King Arthur, yet the audience will immediately know what’s being talked about.

This book is for the layman, and should be suitable for tweens on up.  (Parents of younger readers might want to discuss the theme of marital infidelity that comes up in the relationship of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, as well as other places in the Arthurian cycle, not least Arthur’s own birth.)  There is an index, but no bibliography, so serious scholars will want something more advanced to work with.

The author also talks a bit about the enduring appeal of King Arthur and his stories.  Heroic knights and chivalry, a struggle of good against evil, a kingdom where right is more important than might, even if it is doomed to fall and be followed by a darker age.  “A moment so bright it will be seen on the far side of that darkness.”

This book would make a good gift for the casual fan of things King Arthur, especially bright teenagers.  Did they like the recent movie?

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2 edited by John Denning

Quick recap:  In the 1970s, Marvel Comics started doing larger magazines for newsstand distribution, most of them in black and white.  One of these was The Rampaging Hulk, which originally featured adventures taking place between the Hulk’s appearances in the first year of his existence.  But then it was renamed just The Hulk and retooled to more strongly resemble the then-hot television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, as well as now being published in color.

The Rampaging Hulk Vol. 2

This volume continues the run with issues #16-27, which were published 1979-81.  It’s a curious mix of the television series and the comics continuity.  The usual supporting cast is not seen or mentioned outside of a brief flashback to the Hulk’s origin, and a mention of Doctor Strange in the narration.  Nor are there any of the usual supervillains–the closest we get is Rypel, who is more of a Bond villain type that wants to trigger World War Three so his underwater utopia can inherit the Earth.  Most of the time, it’s just Robert Bruce Banner wandering from town to town and getting involved with relatively ordinary people’s problems.  Interspersed with the Hulk smashing things, of course.

The opening story, “Masks”, has Dr. Banner lured from New Orleans (the night after Mardi Gras, just to be different) to the Florida Keys to participate in a wealthy eccentric’s treasure hunt.  Of course, the eccentric has ulterior motives,  The final story in the volume, “One for My Baby…and One More for the Hulk!” takes place in Las Vegas, as a past-his-prime crooner tries to get out from under the mob with the help of his new green bodyguard.

This is a real nostalgia blast for me, not just because I read many of these stories when they first came out, but because the writers couldn’t use their usual costumed weirdos to move plots, and thus tended towards topical stories.  Three Mile Island, snail darters, the last days of the Cold War, Native American  struggles, Hare Krishnas…takes me back.

Of course, not all of these stories have aged well.  “A Very Personal Hell” by Jim Shooter has the notorious gay panic scene where Bruce Banner is threatened with rape by a lisping stereotype at the “Y.”  (He saves himself by informing the would-be rapist that he is, in fact, Bruce Banner, y’know, the Hulk, you wouldn’t like him when he’s mad?)

And sadly, the ambitious color usage in some of the stories is completely ruined in black & white reprint–it looks muddy, and some of the captions are borderline unreadable.  Artists like Gene Colan, on the other hand, make it work.

A couple of the stories deal with attempts to cure Banner of turning into the Hulk, or at least lessen the rift between them.  The most striking of these is “Master Mind” in which the Hulk persona winds up in Bruce Banner’s body and goes on a rampage–which could be deadly to the much more fragile scientist.

A couple more stand-out stories:  “Heaven Is a Very Small Place” with great art by Herb Trimpe and John Severin is a sad tale of the Hulk finding a peaceful place at last, only to have the illusion fade.  “Dreams of Iron…Dreams of Steel” has Bruce Banner getting a job at a care facility for children with developmental disablilities (back then the word “retarded” was acceptable, but the shortened form is also hurled as an insult) and the Hulk bonds with an adult graduate of the facility that works at a steel mill.

Recommended with reservations for fans of the 1970s Hulk show and Hulk fans in general–check your library unless you’re a completist who has to own every Hulk story.

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.

Book Review: The Cavaliers of Death

Book Review: The Cavaliers of Death by Rosita Forbes

Lois Gilmour is a pretty nineteen-year-old and ready to be a bit independent, so she is less than thrilled when her father Charles, a wealthy importer, has arranged her marriage to middle-aged Philip Wingate, a man with a sinister reputation.   It’s especially irksome, as the year is 1930, not 1830.  Time to blow off some steam at a masked ball.

Rosita Flores
My copy has long since lost its dust jacket, and I can’t find a good picture of it, so here’s a photograph of the author.

At the ball, Lois meets a mysterious grey-eyed man in concealing robes, who promises that she will never marry Wingate, and may be a member of the “Cavaliers of Death” who operate in Syria.  He may also be responsible for a murder at the party of a man no one claims to recognize.

Soon, Lois is enmeshed in the clashing schemes of Jim Rattiker (the grey-eyed man), Wingate, the Cavaliers, a devil-worshipping cult, and the true mastermind behind all the events.

Ms. Forbes was a travel writer who specialized in the Middle East, and there are some vivid passages of description once the action in this romantic adventure reaches Syria.

There’s also plenty of action, and a guest appearance by the last of the Romanovs.  Naturally, Lois and Jim quickly fall in love, but his vow of celibacy and secretive nature keep them apart for most of the story.

Lois is a damsel in distress, somewhat improved by being the viewpoint character, but a little too prone to running directly towards danger rather than away from it due to her innocence.   She’s often frustrated with the men in her life refusing to explain what’s going on, even when it directly affects her.  (Most of them do so in an effort to “protect” her, yes, even the antagonists.)  Especially the last third of the book’s danger to Lois could have been avoided if anyone had been straight with her earlier.

The biggest fault of the book to a modern reader is its outright libel of the Yazidi people, who have never had the habit of sacrificing white women to the Peacock Angel every full moon.

There are some fun twists, but a major character dies off-stage in an anticlimatic fashion, and the suspense must be made up in other ways.

Still, if you like romantic adventure and can look past the horribly untrue depiction of minority people, this is a rarity to seek out.

Book Review: Creatures from Beyond

Book Review: Creatures from Beyond edited by Terry Carr

This 1975 speculative fiction anthology has the theme of monsters from outside human experience.  The question of what lies in the outer darkness has haunted humanity since we developed imaginations.  These nine stories look at the possibilities, from implacable enemies, to beings a lot like us in the end.

Creatures from Beyond

“The Worm” by David H. Keller is set in a remote Vermont valley that has become depopulated, leaving only an old miller.  He no longer runs the millstone, but one night he notices a grinding vibration…A canny and stubborn man against a seemingly inevitable devourer, with a mounting feeling of dread.

“Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim involves insects that have evolved protective camouflage to live among humans.  This story doesn’t have much actually happen in it (unlike the 1997 movie very loosely based on it) with the really chilling moment being when the narrator realizes that the insects aren’t the only creatures that have learned new mimicry tricks.

“It” by Theodore Sturgeon has the distinction of being the inspiration for no less than four independently created comic book characters (Solomon Grundy, the Heap, Man-Thing and Swamp Thing.)  It’s a horrific tale of a human corpse that somehow has been animated by hot molds and unknown factors; it stumbles around the woods trying to satisfy its curiosity in destructive ways.  And now it wants to learn about humans….very strong last sentence.

“Beauty and the Beast” by Henry Kuttner has a greedy, small-minded man discover the wreck of a spaceship that’s been to Mars.  Inside, he finds some seeds and a jeweled egg, and decides to try them out to make a profit.  This is of course not the best idea he’s ever had.  Genre-savvy readers will spot the twist coming a mile away.

“Some are Born Cats” by Terry and Carol Carr was chosen, as the editor admits, because it’s a sentimental favorite, the first he co-wrote with his wife.  Two teens realize that the girl’s cat is not actually a cat, but an alien.  Happy ending all around.

“Full Sun” by Brian W. Aldiss takes place in the far future, when humanity, served by its faithful robots, has retreated to shining cities, and the wilderness areas are infested with werewolves.  A hunter from the city is tracking down a particularly dangerous werewolf, but he may have more than one enemy in the forest.  Interesting last minute perspective twist.

“The Silent Colony” by Robert Silverberg is told entirely from the viewpoint of the creatures, aliens who’ve occupied the outer planets, and now notice that some of their kind are on Earth already.  But why won’t the colonists communicate?  Short.

“The Street That Wasn’t There” by Clifford D. Simak and Carl Jacobi is their only collaboration.  A retired professor suddenly notices that his daily walk took a few minutes less than usual, and discovers that an entire street has vanished from the town.  The “creature” in this case is an entire alternate universe that’s trying to superimpose itself over ours.

“Dear Devil” by Eric Frank Russell closes out the volume with a friendly Martian exiling himself to Earth.  Humanity has nearly wiped itself out with nuclear and germ warfare, and the few survivors have reverted to tiny tribes at best.   Fander, despite his fearsome appearance, is a poet, and moved by a thing of beauty, helps the humans bring themselves back from the brink of extinction.  The Fifties sexism is strong in this story.  Boys are naturally interested in mechanics, engineering and exploring; girls are delicate, and naturally interested in dolls.  This holds true across species lines here!  It weakens an otherwise decent story.

The Silverberg story is the weakest, and I suspect it was included to fill an exact number of pages.  The Wollheim and Sturgeon stories are the best here.  Check your library or used bookstore.

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