Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1 Phantom Blood 01

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1 Phantom Blood 01 by Hirohiko Araki

Centuries ago in Mexico, an offshoot of the Aztecs discovered a method of attaining eternal life through the consumption of human blood.  They ruled supreme for a while, then abruptly vanished from the pages of history.  One of their mysterious stone masks was excavated in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, and made its way to Britain.  There, it became the catalyst that altered the fate of two young men and their descendants.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventures Part 1 Phantom Blood 01

In 1868, lower-class ne’er-do-well Dario Brando was returning home from the pub in a storm when he came across a carriage accident.  The driver and the female passenger were dead, and the male passenger looked dead, but an infant was alive.  Dario was going to loot the bodies, but the man woke up and mistakenly believed that Dario had saved his life.  He rewarded the rascal handsomely.

Dario used the reward money to open his own pub, but his alcoholism and general mismanagement drove it into the ground.  He also abused his wife and child, sending the former to an early grave.  By 1880, his health was completely failing and Dario realized he was about to die.  Despite his behavior, Dario did love his son Dio, and decided to prevail upon the rich man in a letter to take care of the boy.

And so it was that Dio Brando came to live with the Joestar family.  A cunning lad, and already a skilled manipulator at age twelve, he swiftly ingratiated himself to everyone but the Joestar heir, Jonathan Joestar, who was nicknamed “Jojo.”  Dio’s plan was to estrange Jojo from his family and friends, cutting him off from all positive human contact.  He meant to drive Jojo to suicide, allowing Dio to become the new heir to the Joestar fortune.

This plan doesn’t quite work, and Dio switches to biding his time, but not before committing a horrific act of animal abuse.

In 1888, with the boys graduating school (Jojo taking a degree in archaeology, and Dio in law), Mr. George Joestar is ill and sinking fast.  Jojo finds the letter Diego Brando sent introducing Dio, and discovers that Diego’s symptoms exactly match those of George.  He swiftly realizes that Dio is somehow responsible.

Jojo heads to the slums of London to get the evidence he needs, and the antidote for his father.  Meanwhile, Dio has filched the stone mask from George’s collection, and is about to find out what it really does.  When these two meet again, the true nature of their fate will be revealed!

This was the first installment of Araki’s series of series about the adventures of the Joestar family and those connected to them.  After the initial color pages, which assure the audience that weirdness is coming, the story switches to a somewhat more realistic tale of a charismatic social climber using any method at his disposal of getting wealthy without getting caught.

Until Dio’s cornered and decides to find out what the stone mask actually does, of course.  The volume ends as he uses the mask himself–the amazing battles that this manga is known for begin with the next volume.

Araki’s character designs are bulkier here than in later installments.  As he mentions in the author’s notes, this was created in the age when Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the big movie stars, and overgrown musculature was all the rage.  Jojo and Dio can barely fit into their somewhat fanciful Victorian suits.

This volume also has the one combat scene where Speedwagon, a former slum dweller who becomes Jojo’s sidekick and a good ally to the Joestar family, does anything of importance.

This is a violent series, and there are often grotesque results fully shown on-panel.  Especially disturbing is what happens to the dog Danny.

As was the custom with shounen (boys’) manga of the time, female roles are at a minimum.  Erina is there to be a romantic interest for Jojo, and to be forcibly kissed by Dio as a way of hurting his rival.  (This scene also shows how abusers can be enabled by their friends; Dio’s hanger-ons admire him for doing things they’re too chicken to actually try.)

This is also very much penny dreadful England, not a meticulously researched historical fiction.  The Chinese character is particularly stereotyped.

The characterization is very shallow, with most of the good bits going to Dio, who would become one of manga’s and anime’s defining villains.  Araki has since gotten much better at writing.

Recommended to anyone who’s enjoyed the Jojo anime series.

Book Review: Oliver Twist

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An anonymous woman stumbles into a village about seventy-five miles from London, heavily pregnant and with her shoes in tatters.  She collapses in the street, and is taken to the parochial workhouse.  There, she gives birth to a boy and then perishes, seemingly leaving no clue to who she was.

Oliver Twist

The boy is named Oliver Twist, the surname being because he is the twentieth nameless foundling in the parish since Mr. Bumble, the parochial beadle (a sort of petty law enforcer) took up the office and started using alphabetical naming.  He is shuffled off to an “orphan farm” to be neglected until old enough to start picking oakum in the workhouse.  At the workhouse, Oliver is labeled a troublemaker when he dares ask for more gruel.   Is it possible for things to get worse?  Probably.

This was the second novel length work by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).   He moved from the straight-up comedy of The Pickwick Papers to a dramatic plot with comedic undertones.  Much of what happens to young Oliver in the early parts of the book is drawn from what Dickens remembered from his own poverty-stricken childhood.  In the preface to the Third Edition (the one used for the reprint I read), Mr. Dickens defends his use of what we’d call “gritty realism” compared to the usual treatment of poverty and crime in that time’s literature.    Then he admits to toning the language way down to avoid having the book be banned for cuss words.

Once the adults in the charity system have decided that Oliver is a bad child, they proceed to behave as though this is the case while completely ignoring the lad’s actual behavior and character.  (Consistent with the general treatment of poverty as being the result of moral failings, and therefore the poor being undeserving of better treatment, and indeed an excuse to treat them horribly.)

The first adult we see even momentarily show some concern for Oliver is a magistrate that refuses to apprentice the boy to a chimney sweeper that routinely works his apprentices to death on the grounds that Oliver is clearly terrified by the man.   The workhouse managers blame Oliver for failing to look properly grateful.  A second apprenticeship application by undertaker Mr. Sowerberry goes better.

Mr. Sowerberry cannot be described as a good person; there’s too much petty greed and schadenfreude in his character.   But he’s not actively hostile to Oliver and sees a way to make the boy useful and good for the business.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Sowerberry,  older apprentice Noah Claypole, and serving girl Charlotte are hostile and make life miserable.  Noah, whose living circumstances are barely above Oliver’s, has always wanted someone to punch down at.

Oliver finally snaps after one too many insults to his dead mother, and punches Noah back.  This gets Mr. Bumble called in, and it appears that Oliver will be sent back to the workhouse, if not prison.  Understandably, Oliver decides to run away.  Life is not easy for a penniless child alone on the road, but a day’s coach ride out of London, Oliver meets someone who likes the cut of his jib.

This is Jack Dawkins, known on the street as the Artful Dodger.  A bit older than Oliver, and good-natured for a hardened criminal, the Dodger brings Oliver home to meet a gentleman who would be willing to teach Oliver a trade.  This gentleman is Fagin, a “kidsman” who trains children to steal for him.  At first, Fagin pretends that he teaches the boys hanging out in his shelter how to make handkerchiefs and wallets.

Oliver learns the truth when he’s sent out on his first mission with Jack and his amiable partner Charley “Master” Bates.  When he sees the pair steal an old man’s silk handkerchief, Oliver runs away from them, making it appear that he is the pickpocket.  The victim, Mr. Brownlow, quickly realizes the truth and does not press charges, instead taking the seriously ill boy home to tend him.

Mr. Brownlow realizes that Oliver Twist looks a lot like someone he used to know, but keeps that information to himself to avoid raising the boy’s hopes.   The lad grows well again, and for the first time in his life experiences enough to eat and decent clothing.  (Fagin provided minimal food and shelter.)  Unfortunately, Fagin’s gang, including Nancy (whose job is mentioned in the preface as prostitution) and Bill Sikes, a brutal burglar, have managed to track Oliver down.

The very first time Oliver is alone outside the house, he is abducted by the gang.  Fagin worried that Oliver might be induced to give evidence to the police, and also has been engaged by the mysterious Mr. Monks to make sure Oliver returns to a life of crime.  After they think that Oliver’s will has been broken enough, Sikes bullies Fagin into giving him the boy for a job in the country.

This crime goes south quickly, and things look bad when Oliver is shot.  But this is where Oliver’s fortunes truly turn, as he is taken in by generous householders, one of whom feels a certain kinship towards him.

The villains, however, are still at large, so Oliver’s trials are not yet done.

The last third of the novel moves the focus away from Oliver as the various schemes and plans of the adults in the story play out for good or ill.  Only at the end do we return to the boy as his true heritage is revealed.

Good:  Dickens had a way of language, and a saucy narrative style.  One character has the habit of exclaiming “I’ll eat my head!” and the narrator points out that even if science devised a method by which eating one’s own head was physically possible, the appendage in question is too large for him to devour in one sitting.

Many of the characters are comical even while being horrible, as with Mr. Bumble, who talks up his virtuous charity while doing nothing of the sort.  Bill Sikes is a notable exception, with no punches pulled as he abuses pet and lover alike, before slipping into outright murder.

Plus, Mr. Dickens was good at pulling on heartstrings.  Thus it feels earned at the end when the good people mostly are rewarded, while the bad people tend to meet stickier ends.  (Though I do kind of hope that the Artful Dodger makes good in Australia.)

Not so good:  Mr. Dickens was paid by the word in monthly installments, and you can spot passages where he’s using more verbiage to fill out his pagecount, and plot twists thrown in where the monthly installment would have ended to make sure the readers would come back.

And then there’s the antisemitism.  Fagin really gets hit with the stereotype stick in earlier editions, in addition to being referred to as “the Jew” in the narration.  Mr. Dickens claimed that he hadn’t done this because he thought Jews were criminals, but because he was given to understand that the type of criminals that Fagin was tended to be Jewish.  But that doesn’t change that the entire Jewish representation in the book is Fagin (a fence and pimp who exploits children), Barney (a henchman of Fagin’s with a speech impediment) and an unnamed rag dealer who does business with Fagin.

Later in life, after Charles Dickens actually met some Jewish people and got to know them better, he revised the book to lessen the emphasis on Fagin’s Jewishness and excise a few of the physical stereotypes.

There’s also some period sexism, with the villains sliding into outright misogyny.  Mr. Bumble falls afoul of the down side of patriarchy for men when he learns that the law will consider him responsible for the crimes of his wife.  (“The law is a ass.”)   The actual women in the story range from saintly (Rose) to wicked (Mrs. Bumble).  It’s worth noting that Nancy, despite her never-explained day job and criminal behavior, for which she feels she can never atone, is still a better person than say Mrs. Sowerberry, who never breaks the law, but has no charity in her heart.

And of course, there’s some pretty contrived coincidence involved, as Oliver just happens to run into the only two people in England who have personal reasons to help him…and the only person in England who has personal reasons to make sure he never reaches adulthood.

This is a classic novel which has had considerable influence on popular culture, and is well worth reading once.

And a trailer for the musical, perhaps?

Giveaway: Nine Lessons!

Giveaway: Nine Lessons!

Update:  This giveaway is now closed.  Congratulations to Barbara, who didn’t quite grok the rules, but at least made an effort!

Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Crooked Path, I have an extra copy of Nicola Upson’s mystery novel Nine Lessons, which I reviewed earlier.  And as I have not done a giveaway in quite some time, I’ve decided to let you lucky folks have a shot at winning it!

Nine Lessons

Rules 

  1. This contest will run until midnight 11/13/2017.
  2. You must be at least 18 years old as of the end of the contest and have a mailing address within the United States of America.  (Sorry, teens and overseas fans.)
  3. To enter, first choose a post from this blog (doesn’t have to be this one) and share it on your own blog or social media account.  Then post a comment to this post with the post you shared and to where.  Multiple shares would be nice, but won’t get you extra entries.
  4. The winner will be randomly chosen from among all entries.

Good luck, and may you never be entombed alive!

Magazine Review: Saucy Romantic Adventures August 1936

Magazine Review: Saucy Romantic Adventures August 1936 by various

This was one of the “spicy” pulp magazines, sold “under the counter” to readers wanting something more titillating than the standard action fare.  By modern standards, this is pretty tame stuff, mostly consisting of descriptions of women’s naked bodies (minus genitalia) and strong hints that the characters engage in extramarital sex.  The reason this particular issue was reprinted by Adventure House is because the Domino Lady is on the cover (painted by Norman Saunders).  But we’ll get back to her.

Saucy Romantic Adventures August 1936

The lead story is “Yeomen of the Woods” by Armstrong Livingston (almost certainly a psuedonym.)  It takes place during the Anarchy, the war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in 12th Century England.  Four people traveling through the woods are set upon by bandits led by John o’ the Glade.  John, it turns out, is in the style of Robin Hood (who traditionally is said to have lived some decades later.)

The wealthy knight is held for ransom, and his squire set to fetch it.  A poor monk returned from the Far East is treated with a bit more respect.  As for the stripling lad, it turns out to be a maiden in boy’s clothing.  Alais has in fact come to the woods to find John and request his help.  Her father is a craftsman, and false rumors of his wealth have reached the ears of Baron Raymond de Gondrecourt.

As a result, the wicked baron has captured Alais’ father and is trying to compel the old man to tell where his treasure is hid.  Since there is no treasure, the baron will no doubt resort to torture unto death to force the old man to speak words he does not have.

John doesn’t have the forces to invade Gondrecourt Castle, but comes up with a plan to trick the baron and one of his neighbors (who the baron is at odds with) into fighting each other away from their castles, then have a third lord of better character mop up the survivors while John and his men use a ruse to take the small garrison that will be left at Gondrecourt.  This works, up to a point, but it turns out that Gondrecourt’s castellan is a wily old fellow and more than a match for John’s strategy.

The monk turns out to have brought gunpowder back from China, a very useful item.  Too bad that history must be preserved!

Honestly, this story contains no “spicy” bits whatsoever and could easily have been printed in any of the standard adventure pulps.  There’s period ethnic prejudice between the Normans and Saxons, and the monk uses some unfortunate language to describe the Chinese.

“Emeralds Aboard” by Lars Anderson is the Domino Lady tale.  Ellen Patrick was a California socialite until her father was murdered by the crooked political machine.  To avenge her father and maintain her lifestyle, Ellen donned a domino mask, cape and backless white dress to become the Domino Lady.  She steals from the rich (particularly corrupt politicians) and takes a cut for herself before giving the rest to the poor.  She was one of only a handful of masked mystery women in pulp fiction.

In this story, Ellen is returning from vacation in Hawaii when she learns that the snooty wife of a corrupt politician is aboard, and sporting some valuable emeralds.  Also aboard is “Fingers” Deshon, a known jewel thief, and part of a gang that has a grudge against the Domino Lady.  Ellen must find a way to lift the gems and deliver her rival to justice, with the unwitting assistance of a handsome ship’s officer.

The cover depicts a scene from the story, as Fingers (disguised as a ship’s officer) whips the concealing deck chair blanket off Domino Lady.  The clown in the background is seasick and doesn’t see any of this.  Later, Ellen starts a striptease to distract Fingers, but he doesn’t get to see much before she knocks him out.

An amusing but slight story.

“Cupid By a Nose” by Ernie Phillips takes us out West, to a young farm girl hoping to make some money by competing in a rodeo.  What Clara Lou doesn’t know is that the women’s competitions in this particular traveling rodeo are fixed to make sure that the owner’s daughter Vesta always wins.

Vesta’s fiance Bob Carter takes a shine to Clara Lou pretty much instantly–he’s telling her that he loves her later that night.  Vesta understandably reacts badly to this, framing Carter for running off Clara Lou’s handsome trained horses.  That leaves Clara Lou with just Cupid, a scarred, scrawny-looking cayuse.

This being an underdog tale, Clara Lou and Cupid outperform expectations, even winning the big race.  The crooked judges try to disqualify Clara Lou in favor of Vesta, but Carter shows up with Clara Lou’s other horses and the proof of wrongdoing just in time to save the day.

The insta-love thing aside, I liked that both the male and female leads got to shine and contribute to the solution of the story’s problem.

“Aloha Oe” is set in Hawaii.  Bim Arlen, recent Annapolis graduate, is on shore leave on the big island.  Taking a walking tour, he’s shocked yet intrigued when he spots a young woman skinny-dipping on a remote beach.  After waiting for her to put her clothes back on, Bim introduces himself to Kee.

Kee is a local mixed race girl, who is “white-passing” at a small distance.  She works as a schoolteacher in Honolulu, but is on vacation here in her tiny home village.  Bim and she fall in love almost instantly and are soon engaged with the blessing of her father.

Except that then Bim remembers that all his relatives are racist, and the Navy officers’ wives society isn’t much better.   He’s not sure he has the moral courage to stand up to them, nor does he want to subject Kee to their scorn.  Bim’s cold feet lead to an apparent suicide.  You suck, Bim.

“The Lover of the Moon Girl” by Hector Gavin Grey, is schlock science fiction.  Zane Hansard, an unusually handsome and strapping astronomer, discovers that a spaceship from the moon is about to land near his Pasadena observatory.  He rushes to tell his boss, only to discover that said boss is in league with the moon invaders–indeed, he was the one who invited them here!

Cecelia, the moon girl, comes from a society that uses artificial wombs, and knows not the concept of love between a man and a woman.  (Or any of the variants you might have thought of.)  One hot kiss later, Cecelia has converted to the Earth cause, and winds up pumping babies out the old-fashioned way.

It’s exactly the sort of thing that gives pulp SF a bad reputation, with bad science, plot holes galore and a terrible romance plotline.

“Dark Lady” by Mohammed El Bey is set in Egypt.  Archaeologist Nelson Cliff bears an amazing resemblance to the statues of Amen-Ra the Second, whose tomb he is excavating.  His headman Abu has been acting suspiciously of late, far less efficient and effective than when they started.

Things come to a head when a young woman from a nearby city comes to the dig claiming to be Ayesha, wife of Amen-Ra.  Nelson is not amused, but a series of incidents indicates that even if she isn’t a reincarnation of the ancient queen, the girl has some peculiar gifts.  Abu’s trap works, but not before he himself is destroyed.

Murky story, and the villain is ill-defined.

“Mockery” by Marie Forgeron is a short-short.  A man meets his ex-wife on a cruise ship back from Hawaii.  It turns out this was deliberate; she’s gotten divorced from the man she dumped him for, and is ready to let bygones be bygones.  Unfortunately for both of them, the man has a subtle and horrific plan for revenge.  An effective little chiller.  (Some offhand racism.)

The issue is rounded out with “Our Days are Numbered” by Patricia Peabody.  It’s a numerology column, which strikes first with the note that it’s hard to get any pleasure out of numerology if you don’t believe in it.

This is a nifty little reprint.  If you’re just interested in the Domino Lady, her stories have been collected into their own book.

Book Review: Nine Lessons

Book Review: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

A churchyard in a village not too far from Cambridge in England has one too many bodies in its graves.  The victim, a respected organist, was entombed alive, and odd details about the scene make it clear that this was murder most foul.  Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose is called in from Scotland Yard to investigate.

Nine Lessons

One of the clues brings DCI Penrose to Cambridge itself, where the victim was a student at King’s College before World War One.  As it happens, Penrose’s good friend, mystery writer Josephine Tey is in town, house-sitting for her very good friend Marta.  The days are turning chill as Armistice Day approaches, but there’s something else that is bringing fear to the university town–a series of sexual assaults on young women.

This is the seventh in a series of mystery books starring a fictionalized version of author Josephine Tey.  For starters, in the books this is her actual name, rather than being a nom de plume  for Elizabeth MacKintosh (1896-1952).  The real author is perhaps best remembered for her 1951 novel, The Daughter of Time, in which a hospitalized police detective amuses himself by investigating the supposed murder by Richard III of his nephews.  But this story is set in approximately 1937, as it’s mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock is loosely adapting one of Tey’s books into a movie.

But Mr. Hitchcock is only mentioned; the primary literary influence here is M.R. James, once Dean of King’s College, and famous for his chilling ghost stories.  The murderer seems to be taking inspiration from those stories, and all the victims were once in the King’s College Choir (which sings the Nine Lessons and Carols from whence the title derives.)

The subtitle on the cover is “some wounds never heal”; Inspector Penrose and some of the other characters are still carrying the scars from the War, while others are dealing with more personal wounds.  Another theme of the book is kindness, given, withheld, found in unusual places and the devastating effects if kindness is taken away.

An important subplot is the romantic relationship between Inspector Penrose and his current (and former) lover Bridget.  She’s been keeping a large secret from him that Marta (and thus Josephine) have learned about.  Keeping this secret is a betrayal, but it’s not theirs to tell.

There’s a lot of glowing description of Cambridge’s architecture.  I’ve only been there one day many years ago, so cannot speak to the accuracy of the descriptions, but the author lives there so presumably knows what she’s talking about.  The author deliberately moved some 1970s events into the 1930s to fit them into this novel.

The murder mystery part of the book wraps up several chapters before the end, allowing the other plotlines to take the foreground.  The ending is bittersweet at best; criminals have been found and taken off the streets, but the wounds they caused remain.  (Content warning: rape, suicide.)

Some bits made me cry, but then I’m the sentimental sort.  Recommended to fans of historical mysteries.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Here’s a video of the King’s College Choir and the Nine Lessons:

 

 

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

Sir Hubert Handesley’s weekend entertainments are to die for, so young reporter Nigel Bathgate has been told.  And now, thanks to his well-to-do older cousin Charles Rankin, Nigel will have the chance to participate in one himself.   The game is “Murders”, which should be jolly good fun for the middle-upper crust guests.

A Man Lay Dead

As it happens, Charles has brought along a new toy, a Mongolian dagger said to have associations with a Russian secret society.  That knife ends up in his back when the lights go out.  Did the mysterious brotherhood take revenge for learning their secrets?  Did the two affairs he was having, one with a married woman, create the motive?  Or did Nigel, who will inherit a pile of money from his cousin, decide to speed up the process?

Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard will need all his wits to unravel this puzzle!

This was the first Alleyn mystery published by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), a New Zealand author who cleverly left off her first name of Edith to stand out on the bookshelves.  She spent a fair amount of time in Britain, but New Zealand was her home, and several of the Alleyn books take place there.

As is par for the course with British detective stories, Inspector Alleyn is a bit eccentric.  He carries a notebook which he uses constantly, and claims to have a “filthy memory.”   (His memory is superior to most people’s.)   He’s somewhat upper-class, has an appreciation of the arts, and had originally been in the Foreign Service until an incident (unexplained in this volume) diverted him into police work.

After establishing that Nigel is almost certainly not the killer, Alleyn begins using him as a “Watson” to bounce ideas off of and explain his thought processes to.  (This continues in later stories.)

There’s some exciting scenes involving the secret society, which yes, really exists and endangers several characters.   The solution to the main mystery is a bit unlikely, but well established by clues in the lead-up.   Unlike some other mysteries of the period, the servants in the household are noticed and have roles to play, if only minor ones for most.  (A staff of about a dozen to support two members of the nobility!)  I also like that Inspector Alleyn gets on well with his Scotland Yard subordinates.

One glaring thing:  A use of the N-word by Nigel–keep in mind that this was written in England in the 1930s, so there’s a slightly different context.

If you enjoy Christie and Sayers, you will probably like Marsh as well.   (But the volumes set in New Zealand might be of more interest to someone looking for variety.)

Here’s a TV adapation (some liberties have been taken):

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 9: The Millennium Express (1995-2009)

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express (1995-2009) by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg (1935-still alive as of this writing) is one of the longest-running science fiction authors, having made his first sale in 1953.  Especially in his early years, Mr. Silverberg has been prolific, with his non-series short fiction alone filling nine sizable volumes.  This is the last in that series, but not necessarily the last collection of his short stories.

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express, (1995-2009)

As the author explains in his foreword and the story introductions, he’s slowed down some as he’s aged, for various reasons.  There’s “only” sixteen stories from fourteen years presented here, but most are longer, a few up to novella length.

The opening story is “Diana of the Hundred Breasts” originally written for sale to Playboy, but turned down by them.  A wealthy layabout goes to visit his brilliant archaeologist brother at his dig in Ephesus, Turkey.  They meet a retired minister who’s touring the area, and the brother takes the other two to see the famous Diana statue of the title.  A little later, the archaeologist uncovers what may be the true meaning of the statue, but the brothers are left with more questions than answers.

I found the story so-so.  Mr. Silverberg uses tourists as main characters in many of his late period stories, something the Playboy fiction editor chided him for.  Even when the characters aren’t tourists as such, the stories often include long sightseeing sections.

He also favors the setting of the very far future and having characters realize just how very old the universe is.  Of these tales, I liked “The True Vintage of Eruzine Thale” the best.  It’s set in Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” cycle.  Poet and wine connoisseur Puillayne is pulled out of his ennui by three suspicious looking men who claim to be fans of his work.  They turn out to be far more interested in Puillayne’s collection of rare treasures, especially the title liquid.

“The Millennium Express” is set in the relatively near future of 2999.  Four clones of great men have suddenly begun destroying the remaining treasures of the past.  A witness of one of their crimes becomes their pursuer, trying to discover their motivations and prevent them from wiping out the Louvre.  It’s a story about letting go of the past.

My choice for the strongest story in this collection is “Defenders of the Frontier” which first appeared in the Warriors collection, which I read previously.  A squad of soldiers man a forgotten outpost between their Empire and “the enemy.”  No orders or supplies have come to them in years as their numbers dwindled.  The enemy, too, has dwindled–they seem to have killed the last one in a thousand mile radius some weeks ago.  The soldiers can’t leave their post without orders, but if the enemy is truly gone, then there is no point in remaining.

I was reminded of the anime series Sora wo Oto, also about a small group of soldiers at a seemingly pointless outpost, though its mood is very different.

The final story is “Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar”, set in India as the British Empire is building railroads there.  Young Smithers learns of a legendary sound in the desert, as though there were invisible people there, or perhaps ghosts.  He drags his friend Brewster off on an adventure to investigate.  They learn the truth behind this mystery, but at a terrible cost.

Several of the stories have scenes of extramarital sex.  (Apparently, at one point Mr. Silverberg concentrated on soft porn when the science fiction market was in a slump.)  “Beauty in the Night” has rape, child abuse and general physical abuse.

Overall, a high quality collection.  Robert Silverberg is a fine writer who has honed his craft over decades, and took his time with these stories.  However, I think this volume might do best for older readers who have some life experience to fully appreciate the nuances.  Beginners might want to start with one of the earlier volumes.

Disclaimer:  The version I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and the final contents might be slightly different–at the very least, the typos fixed.

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.

 

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.

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