Book Review: The Tuesday Club Murders by Agatha Christie
Author Raymond West has what he thinks is a smashing idea. A series of Tuesday night gatherings where the six people present discuss mysteries they’ve run across, particularly juicy murders. In addition to himself, there’s an artist, a lawyer, a clergyman, a retired Scotland Yard commissioner, oh, and his Aunt Jane. She’s a darling maiden aunt who has seldom left her home village, and is obsessed with knitting, but she might have an insight or two. But he needn’t have worried about her falling behind, for Miss Marple knows a thing or two about human nature.
Agatha Christie’s beloved elderly lady of detection first appeared in these short stories beginning in 1927. The collection of them in a book (originally titled The Thirteen Problems) didn’t happen until 1932, so The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is the first Miss Marple book. The format of the first six stories is the Tuesday night meetings, beginning with “The Tuesday Night Club” and ending with “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter.” Then Sir Henry Clithering, the retired Scotland Yard man, gets Miss Marple invited to a dinner party where six more mysteries are told, from “The Blue Geranium” to “The Affair at the Bungalow.”
The last story, “Death by Drowning” has Miss Marple ask Sir Henry to look into a young woman’s apparent suicide–she’s figured out what actually happened, but has no proof.
Miss Marple’s primary method is finding analogies. Although she has seldom left her largish village of St. Mary Mead, Aunt Jane has had a long life and a keen interest in the people around her (and an ear for gossip.) Thus she can almost always find something in her past that is reminiscent of the case at hand, and gives her the clues she needs.
Despite the title, not all of the stories involve a murder; “Ingots of Gold” for example is about a robbery. Some of the tales may be more difficult for a reader to unravel due to them becoming dated; one relies on older British slang, while another requires a knowledge of obsolete work practices. On the other hand, one of the tales has a trick ending of the type that made Ms. Christie’s work famous. There’s some period sexism and classism, and one story involves domestic abuse.
While not Agatha Christie’s best work, and Miss Marple would have some character development in later books, (she’s kind of smug here) these are fun short mysteries that are very much of a time and place.
Barry Martin is not as young as he looks. He’s had three years of engineering in college, and two years training as a pilot. But he looks like a teenager, and a perception that he was too young to handle a man’s job caused him to wash out of the Navy’s pilot program. Now Barry is trying to get a job at Starwing Airplane Company as a test pilot, but things are not going well. The owner, Porter J. Hamlin, has banned Barry from his office! But Barry isn’t licked yet.
This 1939 boys’ air adventure novel (my copy is a Comet Books reprint from 1948) originally appeared as a serial in Boy’s Life magazine, the house organ of the Boy Scouts of America. Starwing is pretty transparently a fictional version of Boeing, with a touch of Hughes Aircraft. Mr. Brier set the story in the Pacific Northwest, as he did with most of his books, being most comfortable where he lived.
When Barry’s mentor becomes ill, the young man is able to use a contract loophole to demonstrate his test pilot skills to Mr. Hamlin, and seeing Barry in action is enough to overcome the older man’s objections. Barry is hired as a junior pilot, but then experiences difficulty winning over the senior pilots. Not only do they resent the implication that they’re over the hill (a media report on Barry doesn’t help) but the last junior pilot they had turned out to be crooked.
The Skycruiser of the title turns out to be an experimental aircraft Mr. Hamlin wants to build, an enormous passenger plane that will be the equivalent of a luxury liner. Rival companies would like to steal the plans for the Skycruiser, as it requires several innovative designs just to handle minor functions, let alone get the thing to fly; and if they can’t get that, sabotaging the prototype would work too. There’s an ever-present threat of industrial espionage.
But there’s plenty of work for Barry even in his regular job, as he tests planes and flies rescue missions. Barry’s pretty much married to his work–when he isn’t flying airplanes, he’s maintaining them or reading about them, and seems at something of a loss when he has to kill time without access to airplanes.
After a trip to Canada to deliver a cargo plane and demonstrate its features, Barry is approached by a smooth-talking man who offers him a job at double the salary. This turns out to be crooked pilot Deat Proctor (yes, that’s as phony a name as it sounds). Barry plays it cagey with Proctor, not promising anything in hopes of discovering what the criminal is up to. Unfortunately, this convinces Starwing senior pilot Steve Cline that Barry is in cahoots with Proctor, and every step Barry takes to try to prove himself innocent only puts him further under suspicion.
By the end of the book, Barry’s brave and intelligent actions allow the criminals to be captured, and he is now friends with the senior pilots. (There’s a sequel titled Skyblazer in which Barry has South American adventures.)
The writing is direct and free from frills, and there’s little objectionable subject matter, so this book would be suitable for middle grade readers (with a dictionary for a bit of technical vocabulary) on up. There’s no romance, but the only women seen are wives and have tiny roles at best. The primary and recommended audience, though, is boys with an interest in air adventure stories. There appears to have been a 2007 reprint which should be affordable, but the collector will probably want this heavily illustrated edition.
Comet Books was evidently a short-lived imprint of Pocket Books that issued reprints of popular juvenile fiction, both boys’ and girls’ (one of the volumes listed in the back is the first entry in the Sue Barton, Student Nurse line.)
Overall, this is a well-written boys’ adventure book; a little dated, but well worth looking up.
Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years. Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within. Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.
The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.) It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again. After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists. They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies. Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.
Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets. Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest. Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.
Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks. He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department. It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in the process. For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)
There are time travel shenanigans involved, and one character seems determined to produce a specific future. The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board. The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.
A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims. There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”
Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends. The cliffhanger is neat: “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips. And kissed him.”
“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova. He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot. (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.) As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.
“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.) A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human. Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.
The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch. While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for. A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.
The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day. (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.) Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.
The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.
“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel. A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans. They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.” Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.
All that is background. A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky. There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell. Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.
It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story. It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while. Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)
Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later. (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)
“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life. Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens. Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet. Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants? A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.
“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece. It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop. A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain. The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.
Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet. But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes. He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.
Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries. Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.
The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted. It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)
John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.
There are two science fact articles. “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses. “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained. Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.
I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.
Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.
Book Review: The Four False Weapons by John Dickson Carr
Richard Curtis, junior partner at the law firm of Curtis, Hunt, D’Arcy & Curtis, is beginning to regret his career choice. The office-bound life of a solicitor is dreadfully dull for a young man that longs for adventure and secret missions! Just as he is about to succumb to utter boredom, Mr. Hunt, the acting senior partner, calls Richard in for a conference. It seems that Ralph Douglas, a wealthy young client of the firm, has noticed odd things going on at a villa near Paris that he rents but does not live at. It’s probably nothing important, but can Richard dash across the Channel to check in with Mr. Douglas?
As it happens, Ralph is in a bit of a delicate situation between his fiancee Magda Toller, her overprotective mother, and his ex-lover Rose Clonec. The villa in question was where he put up La Clonec while they were together; it’s supposed to be shut up tight, but someone’s been there recently and turned on the electricity and laid in a supply of champagne. Ralph can’t contact Rose directly to ask if she’s responsible without arousing the suspicions of Mama Toller.
When the men drive out to the villa, they find a maid who claims that Ralph was there last night (he claims he wasn’t.) Worse, they find the corpse of Ms. Clonec in an upstairs bedroom. There are multiple potential murder weapons in the room, but are any of them what actually caused her death? If Ralph’s telling the truth, then it’s a pretty sweet frame job, but who would do this, and why? Good thing famous police detective Bencolin has been called out of retirement for this one last case!
John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was considered a master of the “locked room” mystery, where a crime seems impossible, but this one (the fifth and last Bencolin book) isn’t so much a locked room, as one with too many and contradictory clues that Bencolin must sift through. At one point early on, he declares that he knows who done it, but not why or how–a couple of chapters later, new evidence turns it upside down, and now he claims to know why and how, but no longer who!
While the puzzle pieces are being assembled, Richard tries to act in the best interests of his client while falling in love with Magda. This romance subplot is possibly the least necessary element of the book, and comes across rushed and forced. Much more fun are the antics of newspaper reporter and amateur sleuth Jean-Baptiste Robinson, who keeps guessing almost right. (He also sports a Hitler mustache, which in 1937 was just eccentric, but a couple of years later would have gotten him lynched.)
The climax is a high-stakes card game where Richard must play Basset, a lost game of kings, to reveal the final clue Bencolin needs to prove who murdered Rose Clonec. This ramps up the suspense considerably as Richard doesn’t know whether he needs to win or lose to achieve the detective’s goal.
This isn’t Carr’s best work, but is a fun, light read; worth looking up at your local library if you enjoy older mysteries.
Comic Book Review: The Fix, Volume 1: Where Beagles Dare written by Nick Spencer, art by Steve Lieber
Disclaimer: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was requested or offered.
Roy and Mac are crooked cops in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, they’re not very good at being crooked. Or cops. They’ve gotten themselves deep into debt with the Mob, and now the local crimelord wants them to do him a favor. A large favor that’s going to take more smarts than these two have put together…and involves a beagle named Pretzels.
Of course, the actual plot is much more complicated than that, and most of this first volume of the comic book series is dedicated to setting up the many moving pieces of the story, some of which Roy and Mac have no clue about. There’s at least one scene which makes me wonder if there’s going to be a sudden genre change in the next volume. This does create the problem that my opinion of the series might drastically change based on how well all the pieces fit together in the back half of the story.
Roy is our narrator, a sleazy grifter who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and tries to project a “lovable rogue” image without being likable. His schemes succeed less often because they’re well thought-out than that they are so stupid and audacious that people don’t realize it was an actual plan. That, and a crooked Internal Affairs officer is covering for him. Roy doesn’t learn from his mistakes, and operates under the assumption that everyone else is secretly just as awful as he is, but covering it up better, or stupid.
Mac is slightly more sympathetic, being the follower type–he could have developed some decency if he had a better friend than Roy. Mac is vaguely aware that following Roy’s lead always gets them in worse trouble, but doesn’t know any other way of doing things.
I should mention that this is a comedy, with riffs on Hollywood option deals, anti-vaxxers and celebutantes, among other targets. Most of the humor is vulgar, with body fluids, sexual references and foul language, as well as some gory violence played for laughs. It’s got a “Mature Readers” rating for a reason.
The art is okay, but I really want to point up Ryan Hill’s coloring job as his work carries several sequences where pencils & inks just aren’t enough.
Overall? Again, a lot will depend on the conclusion of the series and how well all the moving pieces mesh together. I don’t really care much what happens to Roy or Mac, but at this point I do want to know what is up with Pretzels and hope he succeeds at bringing down the criminals.
Recommended to fans of the creators–others should wait until the second volume is confirmed up to snuff.
Book Review: The Sculthorpe Murder by Karen Charlton
Disclaimer: I received a Kindle download of this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was offered or requested.
The year is 1810, and Bow Street Runner Detective Stephen Lavender has been called from his native London to Northamptonshire. It seems that an elderly man, William Sculthorpe, has been robbed and murdered. The most likely suspects are a gang known as the Panthers, whom the local authorities have been unable to put their hands upon. But when Lavender and his friend Horse Constable Ned Woods investigate at the request of a wealthy noblewoman, they find clues that suggest otherwise. Most notably, the testimony of Sculthorpe’s son Billy who actually saw the murderers. But he’s an unreliable witness who talks about “dark elves”, so has been mostly ignored.
This is the third Detective Lavender mystery, and I have not read the previous volumes. According to the author’s notes, her main character is loosely based on the life and activities of a real Stephen Lavender, who was an officer of the Bow Street magistrates. Likewise, this book’s case is based on one Mr. Lavender actually solved, though Ms. Charlton took liberties with even the bare bones account provided by historical records.
Billy Sculthorpe has Down syndrome (called “cretinism” in the story because Dr. Down hadn’t even been born yet, let alone started studying the condition.) Lavender quickly realizes that despite his moderate mental disability, and a vivid imagination fed by spooky stories his recently deceased Mum had told him, Billy is a talented artist and has a good memory. Billy’s testimony leads the detectives to discover clues about William Sculthorpe’s actual past and other possible motivations for his murder.
The sleepy village of Middleton and its surroundings turn out to have many dark secrets that get turned up by the murder investigation, multiplying the number of suspects. There are even ties back to London, which allows Lavender’s love interest Magdalena and other city-bound characters to make an appearance. Meanwhile, Constable Woods finds his own past catching up with him.
As often happens with historical mysteries, Stephen Lavender as the protagonist is perhaps just a little too enlightened for the times he’s living in, believing in religious tolerance and treating the women in his life with respect for their intelligence and opinions. Woods is a bit more believable as a person of the early Nineteenth Century, but not so much so as to make him unsympathetic.
I found the solution to the mystery satisfying; genre-savvy readers will spot one of the murderers very early on, and clues as to how it was done are abundant. Much of the last part of the book is Detective Lavender negotiating just how many of the crimes he’s uncovered must come to light, and which must face justice of a more subtle sort.
Possible trigger issues: There’s some discussion of spousal abuse and animal abuse in the backstory, including the fact that it was even more difficult to get out of an abusive marriage in the Eighteenth Century than it is today. There are some slurs hurled by less sympathetic characters towards Billy because of his condition, a bit of slut-shaming, and anti-Catholic slurs.
Recommended to fans of the historical mystery sub-genre.
Comic Book Review: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2 by various creators.
Back in 1967, Marvel Comics became aware that the name “Captain Marvel” for a superhero had fallen out of trademark status. It was too good a name for Marvel to pass up, so Stan Lee quickly came up with a character to appear in Marvel Super-Heroes #12, who then appeared in his own series. Captain Mar-Vell was a representative of the alien Kree Empire, sent to spy on the Earth for potential conquest. He was chosen for the job because of being of the oppressed minority “Pink Kree” who happened to look like Caucasian humans, as opposed to the majority “Blue Kree.” (This allowed Marvel Comics to play him as an underdog who faced prejudice, while still having a “white” character as the hero.)
Mar-Vell assumed the identity of recently deceased scientist Walter Lawson and began working at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the better to spy on the space program. When danger threatened his co-workers, Mar-Vell put on his Kree uniform (with its face-hiding helmet), and due to accidentally revealing his name became known as the superhero Captain Marvel. Unfortunately, Mar-Vell’s commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg wanted to steal his subordinate’s girlfriend, Nurse Una, and proceeded to try to get Captain Marvel killed.
Several issues in, Mar-Vell’s powers were reworked, and he was bonded with perennial sidekick Rick Jones–only one of them could be in the positive universe at a time, which the other floated around in the Negative Zone, swapping places with power-enhancing bracelets called Nega-Bands. (And yes, this was a riff on the original Captain Marvel’s relationship with Billy Batson.) Sales were never particularly good, and the series went on hiatus for several years while the character guest-starred in other heroes’ books.
Which brings us to the volume at hand. Issue #22 starts with Captain Marvel apparently dead, having given up his lifeforce to save Rick Jones at the end of the Kree-Skrull war. But no, he was just “hiding” and a mad science treatment allows Mar-Vell to return to trading places with Rick. The first few issues are standard superhero stuff, but then comes the Starlin run. Jim Starlin was new to Marvel Comics at the time, but had big ideas for a cosmic plotline involving several characters he’d designed, and he convinced Marvel to let him anchor it with Captain Marvel.
This involved Thanos, one of a race of godlike beings that inhabited Titan, a moon of Saturn. In love with Death (literally), he rejected the peaceful ways of his people to become a conqueror, gathering an army of outcasts and criminals from across the galaxy. Along the way, he inspired the creation of Drax the Destroyer, a golem-like creature whose sole purpose was killing Thanos. (This version was very different from the one most of you will have seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, among other things being a formidable telepath.)
Thanos’ plans to conquer Earth accelerate when he learns that Rick Jones (unknown to himself) knows the location of the Cosmic Cube, a device that can reshape reality to the holder’s whim. The mad titan plans to use it to elevate himself to true godhood, making him omnipotent. While Captain Marvel and his allies manage to defeat some of Thanos’ minions and slow down his plans a bit, it is not until Mar-Vell is granted “cosmic awareness” by a being called Eon that he is finally able to save the day, resulting in Thanos’ first death.
The high-stakes action and some trippy visuals impressed the heck out of 12-year-old me, and a lot of other kids, and Jim Starlin became a favorite creator. After the end of the Thanos Saga, Starlin stayed on only long enough for a transitional issue to Steve Englehart’s run. #34 had Mar-Vell go up against a C-list villain named Nitro, whose power was exploding himself. At the end of the issue, Mar-Vell was exposed to experimental nerve gas, (Much later it would turn out he had developed inoperable cancer from this exposure, resulting in the classic story The Death of Captain Marvel.)
Nitro turned out to be a minion of the Lunatic Legion, Blue Kree purists headquartered on Earth’s Moon. They in turn turned out to be pawns of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, who had been orchestrating events for years to turn Rick Jones into a jump-start for Kree evolution (this is not how evolution works; just roll with it.) This volume ends with Mar-Vell and Rick defeating the Supreme Intelligence’s plan, but not without cost.
There are a couple of appearances by Carol Danvers (who’d been chief of security for Cape Canaveral during the early issues of the series) who has been demoted due to the events surrounding Lawson. She doesn’t get to show off her competence, alas. Things would look up for her a couple years later when she became the superhero Ms. Marvel, and Carol is now the Marvel Universe’s Captain Marvel.
Englehart’s run was also pretty good, but not up to the level of Starlin’s; some good art by Al Milgrom helps.
Trivia note: A black singer says that she wants to be “Tina Turner–without Ike” two years before Ike’s abuse of Tina became public knowledge.
In addition to general superheroic violence, there’s the “fantastic racism” previously mentioned. In addition to the skin color issues of the Kree, the Kree and their long-time enemies the shape-shifting Skrulls regularly hurl slurs at each other. (Even Mar-Vell himself indulges in this before gaining cosmic awareness.) There’s also an issue where Rick takes a hallucinogenic drug a friend gave him without consideration of what that might do to his mental link with Mar-Vell.
The art suffers some from the lack of color (Starlin did his own colors, which made his issues really pop.)
Recommended to Captain Marvel fans on a budget and Starlin fans in particular; check your lending library.
The generation ship known to its inhabitants as The Ark holds the last fifty thousand humans in the universe. Er, make that 49,999…and falling. When brilliant geneticist Edmond Laraby goes missing only a few weeks before the Ark is finally going to reach humanity’s new home in Tau Ceti (which should be impossible due to the tracking device implanted in everyone’s skull when they’re born), it’s up to Detective Bryan Benson to discover what happened.
Benson must find out what happened to Laraby, and puzzle out the motive. Was it his taste in stolen art? Something to do with his work on adapting plants to the conditions on the new planet? A personal dispute? Or something more sinister? Benson needs to find out fast, or more people are going to die, and failure could mean the end of the human race!
A couple of centuries from now, it’s discovered that a black hole is headed for Earth; there was just enough time to build a huge ship to take fifty thousand humans (chosen for genetic stability and general usefulness) from around the world to the nearest inhabitable planet. This universe doesn’t have faster than light travel, so it’s taken some more centuries to get there, with generation after generation being born and dying.
Benson’s direct ancestors faked their genetic records to get aboard, and got caught harboring a deadly inherited condition. The disease was excised, but the scandal has tainted the family line ever since, resulting in a tradition of being the lowliest of hydro-farmers. But Bryan Benson managed to break out of that by becoming a star athlete at the future sport of Zero, and then becoming the chief security officer of the Avalon half of the Ark.
It’s been something of a sinecure up until now; the Ark’s population is much better-behaved than an equivalent number of people on Earth That Was. So Benson has been pretty relaxed about the job, having an affair with an subordinate and taking time out to watch the final Zero series before the ship arrives. He has a lot of catching up to do when there’s a serious crime to investigate.
It’s interesting to compare this book to One in Three Hundred, the last story I reviewed about the remnants of humanity fleeing a dying Earth. In that one, the governments of Earth decided to go with the cheapest mass-produced ships possible and let the pilots decide which people to bring based on their own values and circumstances, with a low probability of individual success. So the population of the new world was essentially random. Here, the governments decided to build one ship with the maximum probability of success and hand-pick the survivors (with about the same numbers who actually make it through.)
As Benson’s investigation continues, he learns to his great surprise that there are a few secrets that have managed to survive the centuries; but murder investigations tend to turn up things people would prefer to stay buried, even if they’re not directly connected to the mystery. Some of the characters have surprising depths, while others are exactly what they appear.
Benson is a decent viewpoint character, sarcastic and fallible. In a hard-boiled mystery, he’s a detective that hasn’t finished cooking. The romantic relationship subplot is okay, but nothing to write home about.
There’s some good lines, too. My personal favorite is “The last time this gun was fired, sixteen million people died.”
Recommended for people who enjoy SF-flavored mystery stories, and fans of generation ship stories.
Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima
Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate. He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good. But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason. Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire. If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.
This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga. It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.) As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.
This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point. It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.
Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face. This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan. Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read. He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life. It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.
The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature. There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.
As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death. In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki (“killing intent”). This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.
There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene. Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.
Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading. Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.
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 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.