Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Book Review: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 14: 1951-1953

Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 14: 1951-1953 by Chester Gould

Another of the fine IDW reprints which are trying to cover the entire Chester Gould run of Dick Tracy, moving into the early 1950s.  As mentioned in the Max Allan Collins introduction, the stories shifted focus a bit.  Dick Tracy is a full time father now, and those concerns take up some of his time.  As well, forensic science was beginning to catch up with the comic strips, so more of that was included as part of the action.

Dick Tracy Volume 18 1951-1953

The volume begins with Crewy Lou’s flight from justice, which is complicated by the fact that she’s accidentally abducted Bonny Braids, Dick and Tess’ infant daughter who started the whole plotline when Crewy Lou photographed her.  They go deep into the mountains, and the desperate woman finally abandons the baby in the smashed-up car.  It’s late fall, and the temperatures are dropping…Bonny Braids is turning blue…would Chester Gould really go ahead and kill the baby?

With his family reunited, Tracy then finds himself the subject of investigation–evidence has gone missing from the police station, evidence Dick was the last to touch.  It didn’t help that Dick Tracy had just built a fine new house and had a brand new car on a cop’s salary.  The main villain this time is “Spinner” ReCord, an electronic entertainment and record store owner.  He was especially cold-blooded, crating himself up with a corpse for hours on a train.  But not, as it happened, quite cold-blooded enough as he is eventually caught due to his body heat.

The supplemental article in this issue talks a bit about how this sequence was modified for comic book publication a few years later when the Comics Code was in force.  A girl’s arms were crudely erased to avoid showing bondage, and a particularly brutal beating was replaced with a text panel that skips over that.

This is followed by one of the most striking Dick Tracy sequences, as Junior Tracy falls in love for the first time (and is now established as a teenager.)  Model Jones is a lovely young woman of decent character, but saddled with drunkard parents and a juvenile delinquent brother.  Gould’s point here is that neglecting your children for alcohol will destroy the family.  Model is killed by her brother (mostly accidentally) and he and their parents mourn the wasted lives as he is sent to prison.

Junior mourns as well, but the world moves on with the initially kind of silly Tonsils story.  Tonsils is a young man with a loud clear voice and a strange way of moving his hands when he “sings.”  He has a poor memory for lyrics, and can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but his manager Dude thinks Tonsils is the next sensation.  Dude wants to quit the rackets, but still has a racketeer’s way of doing things, using a gun to coerce people into giving Tonsils a shot.

Surprise!  Tonsils is exactly the sort of giftedly bad novelty singer the American public wants, and he becomes locally famous.  Unfortunately, Dude’s old racketeer buddies decide that he should not have left the rackets, killing him and nearly killing Tonsils.  This unbalances the lad, and he winds up getting himself on the run from the law due to his mistaken belief that he’s been betrayed.

At this point, Tonsils is picked up by a far more dangerous villain, Mr. Crime.  From his hidden lair beneath a barracuda-infested swimming pool, Mr. Crime is the current leader of the rackets.  He coerces Tonsils into making an assassination attempt on Dick Tracy, and then starts moving against the detective himself.  Mr. Crime is ably assisted by Newsuit Nan, a fashion plate biochemist who has a fascination with blood.

With Mr. Crime and his gang out of the way, there’s a power vacuum in the underworld, which gambler Odds Zon plans to fill.  He tries a combination of torture and bribery to get Dick Tracy off the case, but it obviously doesn’t work.  Things get more complicated when the Plenty family takes in his daughter Susie, who becomes known as Little Wings due to her hair looking like a pair of angel wings.  And this angel glows in the dark!  Uh-oh.

This volume holds off on the truly grotesque looking villains; the most odd appearance is Tonsils’ habit of squinting one eye and bugging out the other.  The Model Jones story is the most “real” seeming due to its down to earth nature.  There is of course considerable violence, and some torture.

This isn’t the most famous period of Gould’s work, but it’s good solid adventure strip territory.  The end piece talks (in addition to the bowdlerization of the comic books) about what Mr. Gould was up to in real life in those years, and the strip’s effects in real life.

Recommended to fans of classic newspaper comics.

Book Review: The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition

Book Review: The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition edited by Judith Merrill

This 1960 book features a selection of speculative fiction short stories published during the 1958-60 time period.  Editor Judith Merrill provides an introduction about the concept of wonder, chatty introductions to each story (she doesn’t think much of Kingsley Amis as a literary critic) and an ending summary (as well as a listing of “honorable mention” stories.)

5th Annual World's Best SF

The 22 stories themselves begin with Damon Knight’s “The Handler”, which is a metaphor for Hollywood phoniness, and end with “Me” by Hilbert Schenk, Jr., a humorous poem about the difference between machines and humans (which is as of now, still true.)

The absolute standout in this volume is the original novella version of “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.  Charlie Taylor, a man with developmental disabilities, volunteers for an experimental surgery that increases his intelligence.  Told through Charlie’s own journal, the use of changing vocabulary, literary style and attitude is masterful.  The dawning of a new intellectual world, the disappointment when Charles learns that being smart doesn’t in itself make you happier, and the sinking horror when he discovers that it’s all going away make for a powerful gut punch.

The story is also commendable for the sharply drawn minor characters, like Fanny Girden, who fears what has happened to Charlie and considers it evil, but refuses to sign a petition to fire him because discrimination is against her principles.  The novel version is also excellent but contains more sexual content (sometimes published as Charly because of the Cliff Robertson movie.)

Also interesting is an editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr. titled “What Do You Mean…Human?”  It asks the perennial question of what precisely the definition of “human” is, and how to explain it to something that is not human, such as an intelligent robot.  The question remains open at the end, but it’s a good starting point for late night discussions.

“Mariana” by Fritz Leiber turns out to be about clinical depression, and a failed treatment program.

Mark Clifton’s “What Now, Little Man?” is a question about the nature of intelligence, and an uncomfortable look at colonialism.

“The Other Wife” by Jack Finney details how one man learned how to travel between alternate universes, and how he exploits this fact.  Kind of sexist, as he doesn’t let either wife in on what’s going on, but decides for them that this is the best use of his time.

Most of the other stories are readable, but also a bit forgettable.  As is common with books of this vintage, “World’s Best” means the English-speaking world at maximum, and there’s a heavy tilt towards white male protagonists.  The New Wave hasn’t quite hit in this volume, although there  is a hint of it in J.G. Ballard’s “The Sound Sweep” which focuses on the social effects of new acoustic technology.

Well worth looking up at your library or picking up if you see it at the used bookstore.

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