Magazine Review: Short Stories May 25th, 1939

Magazine Review: Short Stories May 25th, 1939 Edited by Dorothy McIlwrath

Short Stories started life in 1890 as a literary magazine, but switched to being a “quality pulp” in 1910, featuring stories of adventure and crime a cut above many of its competitors.   Like many of the pulps, it lost sales badly after World War Two, featuring mostly reprints towards the end of its run in 1959.  But this issue is the magazine in its twice-monthly prime.

Short Stories May 25 1939

“Winds of the Llanos” by Arthur J. Friel is a long story set in Venezuela.  James Patrick Dugan is an Irish-American with powerful fists and a dislike for authority.  Unfortunately, he also has a habit of going berserk in fights, which has ended in more than one death.  Which is why he’s in South America instead of the States.   He’s gotten into some trouble down here, too, and is up before a military tribunal.

As it happens, however, one of the officers believes Mr. Dugan is not irredeemable, which is why they are going to give him a chance to clear his record.  It seems there is a bandit nicknamed El Rabioso, the Mad Dog, who is a bad hombre even by South American standards.   His prisoners never turn up alive, and they need closed casket funerals.  El Rabioso has been able to evade the military so far, but a lone operative with no ties to the government, a man with the skills of Mr. Dugan, well….

Sure enough, Dugan manages to stumble into El Rabioso’s band of malcontents, who have disguised themselves as soldiers.  The bandit has decided to try his hand at tax collecting.  Dugan infiltrates easily, tricking El Rabioso into killing some of his own men, but when the big fellow learns that the next target is Senor Monteverde, one of the few people Dugan actually kind of likes, things get tricky.

Dugan is a violent antihero, who is only the protagonist by virtue of being the viewpoint character.   He has little regard for human life or the rules of society.  His best trait is not going out of his way to hurt people who aren’t out to hurt him.  As part of the package, he is ethnically prejudiced and a bit racist.  Maybe he’s gotten a touch better at the end of the story, maybe not.  If you’re a big fan of violent antiheroes, you’ll probably enjoy this tale.

“The Last Grain of Sand” by Allan Vaughan Elston takes place in Idaho, but the backstory is up in the Yukon Territory.  Three men went gold mining, there was a boat accident that killed one of the men, and cost them all their gold.  Except that a couple of years later, Jeff Ballard arrived in Buffalo Falls with enough money to start the largest dry goods store in town.  His surviving partner, and the son of the dead man, suspect something is up by the way Ballard has been avoiding them.  But of course they have no proof.

The son was studying psychology in college until he had to drop out due to lack of money.  He has a plan, and the partner has plenty of sand.  They might just be able to bring Ballard to justice after all!  Very satisfying ending.

“A Pair of Queens” by Karl Detzer takes us to Lake Michigan, where a boat captain is about to take his employer’s daughter to the island where her late father had orchards, as it is time for the apple harvest.  She gets in the way a lot, but the captain soon realizes that the young woman knows her apples!  Light sexism.

“Murder Wanted” by George Armin Shaftel is a Western, as a Texas Ranger realizes that a bounty for bank robbers has become an invitation to slaughter.  Things are made more difficult as he must also deal with a young man who he sent to prison for a crime the young man did not commit.  Ending is a little sloppy.

“Edge of Beyond” by James B. Hendryx is part two of four.  A young prospector, swindled by the man he thought was his partner, ventures off into the Beyond, a territory in the North unexplored by white men.  Or so he thought.   Turns out there is in fact one white guy and his daughter living a pretty comfortable life up there.  They rescue Jack when his sled crashes.

Jack falls in love with Jules Beloit’s daughter, Helene, and she with him.  But when Jules is wounded in a hunt with the nearby First Nations people, Jack learns that the supply situation is dire.  He must head back to civilization to fetch the medicine and supplies the Beloits need before the full winter sets in!

What the reader and Helene know that Jack does not is that Jules Beloit was married to a native woman.  (The narrative does not explicitly state that Mrs. Beloit was Helene’s birth mother, but that’s what Helene believes.)  The ensuing conversation makes Jack look not just racist, but stupid.  Helene asks him if he could ever marry an “Indian” and he says no in a racist way.  She then raises the question of a mixed race woman, and Jack avers he would be able to tell there was a racial taint, and of course he couldn’t marry such a woman.  Jack completely fails to grasp why Helene is asking him these strange hypothetical questions, even after she becomes distraught at his answers.

Of course, he might be fooled by the fact that Helene herself is prejudiced against First Nations people, stating how much she hates them, and how stupid they are, needing a white man to show them how to do everything.

Also of concern is Gauche, a ward of the Beloits, who is physically deformed and has some form of cognitive disability.  He seems to be a good guy (though Jack is repulsed by him) but there’s still two parts left to go.

This story was reprinted as a standalone book, but is long out of print, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like the ending.

“They Usually Do” by Gene Van is a Western, starring series character Red Harris.  The lad is out hunting arrowheads and such with his friend Little Pardner, when their riding animal is stolen by a criminal.  They find shelter from a rainstorm, but the criminal (who lost the mount a little later) returns to reclaim his loot hidden in the cabin.  Red must use his wits to lead the crook into a trap.

“Singapore Secret” by Alfred Batson is another series character outing.  Charleston Charley, a con artist who normally impersonates British nobility, has been tapped by the government to track down stolen defense plans.  He tracks them to the yacht of another phony nobleman, and signs on as a sailor.  The plans are concealed in a particularly clever manner.

“No Evidence at All” by H.S.M. Kemp brings us back to the North as Corporal Joe Briggs sits in on a poker game that turns deadly.  There’s just not enough clues to solve the case, so Corporal Briggs has to run a bluff.

The “Adventurers All” column was a reader-written feature where they submitted allegedly true adventures.  This time it’s a bit about jaguar hunting in Central America.

“The Story Teller’s Circle” column is the “odd facts” section; in this issue it’s about Australian Mounted Police.  There’s some racism towards aboriginal people.

And “Sez You!” is the letters column.   A W. Tip Davis writes in to tell of his own globetrotting past, and enjoyment of the magazine’s exotic locations.

A solid enough collection of stories spoiled by excessive racism in a couple.  The Allan Vaughan Elston story is the best, but I don’t know if it’s been reprinted.

 

Manga Review: Case Closed (Detective Conan) Vol. 63/64

Manga Review: Case Closed (Detective Conan) Vol. 63/64 by Gosho Aoyama

Quick recap:  When teen genius detective Shinichi Kudou (Jimmy Kudo in the American version) is shrunk to a childlike form in a botched assassination attempt, he takes the name Conan Edogawa and is taken in by bumbling private eye Kogoro Mouri (Richard Moore) and his daughter Ran (Rachel), who happens to be Shinichi’s sweetheart.  Conan must hide from the international crime organization that changed him, but also finds himself having to solve crimes, despite the fact that first-graders aren’t supposed to be that great at detection.  See my reviews of earlier volumes for more details.

Case Closed Volume 63

In the previous volume, Shinichi had taken an experimental antidote that allows him to assume his normal appearance for a few hours–only to spend most of that time separated from his friends.  As Volume 63 opens, he finally has an hour or two to spend with Ran as himself…or he would, except that they’ve stumbled across a man strangled to death while alone in a moving automobile!  Can Shinichi solve the crime before he shrinks again?

Then Professor Agasa takes the Detective Boys out for sushi on a revolving conveyor belt, only to have an obnoxious food critic be poisoned right by them.

This is followed by a story that the Americanized names makes not make much sense.  Genta Kojima’s (George Kaminski in the dub) father is enrolled in a special televised tournament only for people who write “Kojima” with a specific set of kanji (ideograms).  In the English version, it’s a contest for people who spell the name “Kaminski” that way.  Conan must figure out which of the contestants murdered the organizer of the tournament and why.  He’ll just hope it’s not Genta’s never before seen father!

The last story in the volume is the hunt for the “Silver Witch”, a legendary drift racer.  She seems to be back from wherever she disappeared to a few years ago, and luring mountain racers into auto accidents in the fog.  Has a big twist at the end!

Case Closed Volume 64

Volume 64 opens with the Detective Boys visiting Horn Rock, an isolated islet shunned by fisherfolk due to bad luck (unless you have a child on board.)  They find a scuba diver there, dead of starvation, and a curious inscription she wrote.  The complication this time is that they are accompanied not by Professor Agasa, but grad student Subaru Okiya, who is not in on Conan’s secret, and on whom Ai (Anita) sometimes detects the scent of the Black Organization.  Is he an enemy, or is there something else going on?  This is another case that you need to know kanji to solve.

After that, Kogoro Mouri is called in to help a blind heiress discover which of two scarred men is the boy who saved her life as a child.  Making matters more urgent, the police believe the one who’s an impostor may in fact be the Whistling Killer one of the cops managed to scar years before.

Once the mystery of the scarred boy is solved, the story flows into the Whistling Killer case proper.  The killer did several murders years ago, but seemingly comes out of retirement to kill a man who taunted him on television.  Why now, and what is the significance of the song “Let It Be”?

The final chapter is the setup for a Kaito Kid story.  The flashy thief has again challenged Sonoko’s (Serena) wealthy uncle by claiming he will steal something from a supposedly theft-proof safe.  Or has he?  The challenge letter looks wrong, and Conan smells a rat.   Just who is the real villain here?  Wait for Volume 64 to find out!

Of these stories, I liked the Whistling Man tale the best as it’s good and atmospheric.    The two cases that rely on ideograms for clues suffer badly from the erasure of Japanese language for the American version.   There’s no movement on the myth arc, other than the suspicious behavior of Subaru Okiya.

Recommended if you are a fan of the series; more casual fans may want to wait for the next volume that has actual plot developments.

 

Book Review: Respectable Horror

Book Review: Respectable Horror by K.A. Laity

Horror is a wide-ranging genre, which can be tailored to a variety of tastes.  Some folks prefer their scary fiction with a maximum of gushing blood and sharp objects being plunged into soft flesh; others like a more genteel approach that emphasizes the subtle wrongnesses and growing atmospheric dread that comes before the end.  This collection is geared towards the latter audience, with one of the inspirations being the work of M.R. James.

Respectable Horror

There are seventeen stories in all, starting with “The Estate of Edward Moorehouse” by Ian Burdon.  The title character went missing in a remote section of British coastline seven years ago.  He’s been declared dead, and a relative is looking through his estate and discovers that Mr. Moorehouse was searching for traces of a buried village on a beach mentioned in an old text.  He decides to honor the man by visiting the same beaches.

This is a thoroughly modern story with Facebook ™ and SIM cards, but ancient evil has adapted to the new technology.

The final story, “The Astartic Arcanum” by Carol Borden, is more of a period piece.  A Cthulhu Mythos tale, it pits poet Nita Sloan against a cabal of wealthy old men in Detroit who want to change the world.  It would appear that her latest work might be the only thing that can stop them–provided they don’t manage to sacrifice her to their dark god first!

Some other standouts include: “The Feet on the Roof” by Anjana Basu.  Set in 1960s India, there is culture clash between a wealthy widow and her daughter.  The daughter just up and vanishes one day, but then mysterious footprints begin to appear where no footprints should be.  It’s nice to see a horror story set in India that is by someone who actually comes from there.

“Miss Metcalfe” by Ivan Kershner is a Bradburyesque story about a substitute teacher.  It is the day before Halloween, and there’s a new substitute teacher, with a radically different lesson plan.  It involves bats.  Nicely spooky, and dances right up to but not past the line.  Read it to your kids.

“The Well Wisher” by Matthew Pegg concerns a series of poison pen letters.  One target of the letters has already been driven to suicide.  A governess may be able to unravel the mystery of the “Well Wisher”, but can she do so without revealing her own dark secrets?  Innovative, but also comfortably period.

My least favorite story was “Recovery” by H.V. Chao.  An author with writer’s block has moved to a small French village in the hopes it will help.  It hasn’t, but he’s enjoying listening to the guest next door speak to a lover who never answers.  The story never reaches spooky, just barely making it to odd.

Most of the other stories are decent to quite good; this would make a fine Halloween present for a sweetheart or other book  lover.

Magazine Review: Detective Fiction Weekly April 8 1939

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

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

Detective Fiction Weekly April 8 1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: One Night in Sixes

Book Review: One Night in Sixes by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

Island Town used to be known as Sixes, when the Eadan Confederacy controlled this area.  But a decade or so back, the indigenous peoples pushed the Confederacy across the river.  Now Island Town is on the border, with only a handful of the old inhabitants providing continuity.  Like many border towns, the former Sixes is a mix of various peoples with different customs and languages, who cooperate or clash in many ways.

One Night in Sixes

Sil Halfwick knows nothing of conditions in Island Town–not even its new name.  The sickly displaced Northerner was hoping to sell some horses at the County Fair to show his business acumen and earn enough money to move back East.  That didn’t work out, so he gets the hare-brained idea to go across the border to Sixes, where horses are scarce.  He drags along mixed-race ranch hand Appaloosa Elim, who Sil is nominally in charge of, but considers himself Sil’s babysitter.

Elim has good reason to worry.  Across the border, “mules” such as himself are regarded with extreme suspicion due to the belief they carry disease. And if that wasn’t enough, certain people in Island Town have cause to be on the outlook for someone like Elim.

Sil is oblivious to all this.  He samples the local nightlife and becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.  He seems to win big, but a series of coincidences and petty cruelties result in a man being dead in the morning.  Now the two outsiders are in deep, deep trouble.  And it looks like neither Sil’s fast talking nor Elim’s steadfast endurance is going to get them out of it.

This Western-flavored fantasy is the first in the “Children of the Drought” series.  Despite many similarities, this is not Earth as we know it.  The various kinds of humans have supernatural talents, and some of the people in Sixes aren’t strictly speaking human.  The “white” people speak Ardish, which is not quite English, while the trade language is the not-exactly Spanish tongue Marin.  (There’s a glossary and list of characters in the back.  The latter is mildly spoilery.)

One of the big differences is that it’s much harder for mixed-race people to “pass”, as instead of melding features, they wind up with vitiligo-like mottled skin.  Elim has a very conspicuous eye-patch marking.

The story is told in tight third-person, with switches in viewpoint character revealing new information and making motivations clearer.  We see that much of the tragedy in the story comes from people’s biases blinding them to the good intentions or full humanity of others.

In addition to Sil and Elim, we hear the thoughts of:

Twoblood, the other mixed-race person in town.  She’s Second Man (effectively sheriff) and feels the need to be seen to enforce the law rigorously  to offset the suspicion against her because of her ancestry.

Fours, the livery owner who is not what he seems and has conflicting loyalties.  As a result, Fours has to work against his personal agenda from time to time.

Dia, the only Afriti (black person) in town.  She’s a grave  bride of the Penitent religion (roughly Catholic nun) and wants to give mercy where she can, but the wickedness in Island Town often thwarts her.

And Vuchak, a member of the a’Krah tribe (followers of Crow) who works in the local den of sin.  He’s poor-tempered, even with his partner Weisei (who’s a trifle addlepated.)  Vuchak takes his tribe’s honor very seriously, and doesn’t like compromises.

There’s quite a bit of world-building and examination of culture clash.  The book ends as several characters leave Sixes/Island Town for a long journey that will presumably be the focus of the next book, but there are indications that those who died in this book will still have an effect.

There’s some rough language, and discussion  of slavery.  (Sil claims Elim is a slave at one point, but Elim’s situation is more complicated than that.)  The fantastic racism may strike some readers as too close to real racism for comfort.

I found this book well-written and look forward to the next volume.

Book Review: Black Hat Jack

Book Review: Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale

Nat Love is better known to some as “Deadwood Dick” as he did some fancy shooting in Deadwood, and “Deadwood Nat” just sounds wrong.  Nat was a ex-slave, a gunslinger, a soldier, a cowboy and all-round troublemaker.  You may have seen those “dime novels” with his nickname on the cover; them Eastern writers cleaned up his language considerable, his behavior some, and worst of all bleached his skin.

Black Hat Jack

But this here story is told in Nat Love’s own words, all about how he and mountain man Black Hat Jack decided to try their hand at buffalo hunting but wound up fighting in the Second Battle of Adobe Flats.  Now, this is a thing that really happened and the way Nat tells it is true…mostly.  Lyin’, well, that’s just something people do.

Joe R. Lansdale is a noted author of crime, horror and yes, western books.  He was a big name in the splatterpunk movement, and his stories often include plenty of gory violence, strong language and assorted bodily fluids.  This novella is no exception.  It’s part of Mr. Lansdale’s series about “Deadwood Dick.”  There have been relatively few stories written about African-Americans in the Old West, certainly disproportionately few in comparison to their actual numbers.

In some ways, this story is very much like the old dime novels, full of fast-paced action, flying lead and a casual relationship to historical fact.  Yes, there really was a Second Battle of Adobe Flats that Bat Masterson was present for.  And one of the defenders did pull off an amazing shot.  After that, the accounts tend to contradict each other, and Mr. Lansdale has put them together to tell the story he likes.

Where the book is unlike a dime novel is the extended coda after the battle, as Nat Love starts a relationship with a young woman he rescued during the fighting.  This plays out in a disappointing but entirely realistic manner.  It’s surprisingly melancholy for the genre.

In addition to the grisly violence mentioned above, Nat and Jack stumble across the results of torture, described in detail, and there is frequent talk of rape.  Period racism is unsurprisingly present, and Nat points out that it’s better out in the lawless West where it’s a man’s achievements that matter, than back East where you have to fit in to society.

The heavy use of obscene language made this book thick going for me; this book is not for children.

For fans of spaghetti westerns ready for a bit of diversity in the protagonists.

Note: The copy I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof and small changes may have been made in the final product, like fixing a couple of typos.

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: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany

Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth.   But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow.  And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?

The Fall of the Towers

This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany.  I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first.  To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity.  This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.

The Towers of Toron:  It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume.  The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return.  The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.

The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance.  Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding.  She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone.  Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.

Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war.  Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here.  Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.

While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war.  That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.

The City of a Thousand Suns:  A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.

On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe.  The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors.  That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.

One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy:  poet Vol Nonik.   He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge.  He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman.  This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe?  He’s not so sure.

This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy.  Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life.  One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears  as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.

There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with.  There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.

The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book.  The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.

But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: Out of the Dead City

Book Review: Out of the Dead City by Samuel R. Delany (originally published as “Captives of the Flame”)

It has been about five hundred years since the Great Fire wiped out the old civilizations.  On the island of Toron, however, enough humans and records survived to begin again.  A settlement became a village became a town became a city.  And when the people of Toron regained the ability to sail the sea, they found a fairly large section of the mainland was still livable, though the people living there were relatively primitive, and proximity to radiation had created two mutant races, the short neo-Neanderthals and tall forest guards.

Out of the Dead City

The people of Toron were able to dominate the mainlanders, and became the Toromon Empire; but by the standards of history, it was a small empire.  A belt of deadly radioactive land cut off further expansion on the land, and dangerous currents likewise circumscribed oceanic exploration.  To increase their scientific knowledge and study the radioactive death belt, the Empire built a new city nearer to it, Telphar.  But not too long after it was constructed, the radioactive area expanded to include Telphar, making it a dead city.

Now the Toromon Empire has air vehicles powered by tetron metal, and has tried flying them over the radioactive barrier–but something is making the engines fail.  It’s becoming more obvious that there is someone on the other side of the barrier, someone that certain government officials want to go to war with.  But none of them are in the small group of people who know the truth about The Lord of the Flames.

This was Mr. Delany’s second published novel (see my review of The Jewels of Aptor,) and the first of The Fall of the Towers trilogy.  (I’ll be following up with the rest at a later date.)  This is revised from its earlier publication, as Mr. Delany explains in an author’s note for the trilogy.  He thinks it an improvement, but decided not to meddle further after that.

There are a lot of characters for what is a pretty short novel, and it takes a while to work out which ones are important (some come more into focus in later volumes.)  Mr. Delany seems to have noticed this, at one point telling the reader to remember a name, and at another point letting us know that another character will play no further role in the story.

Eventually, it shakes out that our male lead is Jon Koshar, a merchant’s son who has escaped from the tetron mines, where he was sentenced for a crime he most assuredly did commit.  (The person who instigated the crime refused to come forward and Jon was honor-bound not to expose him.)  Jon has come too close to Telphar, and been changed.  He is now in communication with a disembodied intelligence known as the Triple Being, which has made him resistant to radiation at the cost of becoming transparent in low light.

It seems that Earth has now become part of the battleground between the Triple Being and their enemy, The Lord of the Flames.  The Lord meddles with less evolved beings by puppeteering one of them, evidently for its own amusement, while the Triple Being tries to drive it off while causing the minimum of disruption to the hosts’ civilizations.  The being currently being possessed by The Lord of the Flames is behind the strange things happening around the radiation belt, and Jon and the other two humanoids contacted by the Triple Being must stop it.

Since the struggle is happening simultaneously at multiple points in space-time, this involves some trippy scenes where the protagonists inhabit alien bodies for short periods.

There’s also some relatively mundane action going on, such as the abduction of the empire’s heir presumptive, and a series of business competition actions that result in “accidental” mass poisoning.

For 1963, the novel comes off as surprisingly non-sexist beyond the typical occupations of men and women.  Content note:  there’s a short torture scene.

With so many plot threads, several of which are still dangling at the end of the story (thus the trilogy), this novel feels overstuffed and sometimes lacks focus.  As a standalone, it’s a bit lacking, so check back next year for my opinion of the complete product.

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