Book Review: The Black Stallion Challenged

Book Review: The Black Stallion Challenged by Walter Farley

Alec Ramsay and his faithful trainer Henry Dailey are wintering in Hialeah, Florida, where they hope to race their prize horse, the Black Stallion.  Provided, of course, that the Black has fully recovered from the hoof injury he received some months back.  One day Alec receives a piece of fan mail asking for his help.  It seems that young Steve Duncan has a horse he’d like to race, a stallion named Flame…if he can convince the racetrack officials to let him.

The Black Stallion Challenged

Unbeknownst to Alec or Steve, Flame and the Black have met before, and feel a strong rivalry towards each other.  Plus, Steve needs to make a lot of money very quickly, in order to save Flame’s island home.  The stage is set for a thrilling match between the two great stallions!

This is the sixteenth in the Stallion series penned by Walter Farley, and the last that’s a straight-up horse racing story.   There’s some time compression involved; the first book, The Black Stallion, clearly takes place in 1940 when it was written, and this volume takes place in 1964, but the Black is most assuredly not twenty-four years older.

However, the main attraction of the series is less the plausibility of the setting (one book had aliens!) and more the detailed descriptions of horse care and racing, and Mr. Farley delivers well in this volume.  (Some details are different–the rules of horse racing have changed since the 1960s, let alone the 1940s.)  The final race in particular is exciting as the outcome is in doubt until the horses pass the finish line.

The Stallion series is nominally children’s books, so I should mention that there is an operation on an injured horse that may be too intense a scene for sensitive readers.  Several characters smoke; one specifically mentions that he neither smokes nor drinks alcohol for his health.  I am told there’s period racism and sexism in some of the volumes, but this one manages to avoid that.

The book starts slowly; a one-page letter gets stretched over an entire chapter in a manner that does not build suspense in the mind of anyone who read the back cover copy.  A couple of scenes stuff a lot of telling about the personalities of supporting characters in, rather than showing by their actions.  And to be honest, Alec, Henry and Steve are not deep characters.  (Steve’s a bit more of a hothead here than in his solo appearances.)

But all of that pales compared to the exciting race scenes and the bond between the riders and their horses.  The hardback edition with illustrations by Angie Draper may be hard to find, but there are inexpensive paperback reprints which you can probably get through interlibrary loan.  Recommended to young horse lovers and horse lovers young at heart.

And now, the trailer for The Black Stallion movie, starring Mickey Rooney as Henry Dailey.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GlZJ4wVLdA

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

TV Review: Racket Squad

TV Review: Racket Squad

First, a bit of news:  I have completed my coursework for an Associate’s Degree in Business Management, and should soon have the official recognition.    It’s been a rough couple of years, so I am relieved.

Racket Squad ran on television from 1950 to 1953, telling fictionalized versions of actual cases where confidence artists and other racketeers bilked Americans of their money.  Reed Hadley played Captain John Braddock, who narrated the episodes and provided tips on how to spot con games.  (He would go on to star in the previously-reviewed Public Defender, which had a very similar format.)  Each episode opened with a “City Police” car pulling up to “City Hall” and a police dispatcher intoning “rrRacket Squad!”

Racket Squad

I watched six episodes on DVD:

  • “Kite High” stars a funeral director whose odious mother-in-law is poisoning his wife against him.  In fairness, he’s the kind of dope who goes off to a convention, changes hotels without telling his wife, and then decides to go hunting with a buddy for three days after the convention, also without notifying his wife.  Rather than try to hash things out with his spouse (her mother is living with them due to a mild disability), he goes off to Las Vegas.  While there, he is snookered into playing at a “private” casino that alters (“kites”) the checks he uses to pay for chips to much higher amounts.  Once he figures this out, the funeral director confronts the racketeers and it goes badly for him.   Just as he’s about to be killed, the Racket Squad just happens to bust in, as they were pursuing related leads.
  • “The Bill of Sale Racket” involves two men that “buy” gas stations for far more than they’re worth, using a thirty-day promissory note.  They then turn around and sell the stations at rock-bottom prices to third parties who are unaware that the bill of sale has been received fraudulently.  A man whose wife was taken advantage of this way while he was off in the Korean War sets a trap for the conmen, and there’s an extended shootout in which no one actually gets hit.  (Surprisingly realistic!)
  • “Desperate Money” focuses on a aging tailor with fading eyesight who’s having a bad season.   Faced with eviction, he turns to a loan shark operating out of a boxing gym.  When the bad season lasts two weeks longer than expected due to hot weather, the loan shark starts ramping up the interest and getting increasingly violent.  The tailor is not stated to be Jewish, but there are really unsubtle clues.  Also notable in that the bartender who steers the tailor to the loan shark doesn’t realize how violent the man is, because he’s always made his payments on time.  He learns the hard way when he asks the shark to have mercy on the tailor.
  • “The System” has a man on vacation meet an attractive young woman and her invalid father.  Several weekend dates later, the father reveals that he, his daughter and their manservant live comfortably because the father has a near infallible betting system.   Using a trick to confuse the mark about the time, the con artists make it look like they can predict the outcome of horse races.
  • “His Brother’s Keeper” is a tearjerker of a story about a bum named Longshot who hits upon pretending to be deaf to beg for money for his gambling habit.   This works great, except that it turns out all the deaf beggars in the city have been co-opted by a fake charity that sends them out to beg, then confiscates their earnings in exchange for miserable bunks and thin soup.  Initially, Longshot just plans to hide enough money away to escape on, but when one of the actual deaf people becomes ill due to the poor treatment, Longshot decides he has to step up and help Captain Braddock smash the racket, regardless of personal cost.  One of the villains also played the loan shark in “Desperate Money”, and there’s a particularly good transition shot from the beggars’ miserable fare to the fine steak that the head of the “charity” enjoys while urging his henchman to cut expenses.
  • “Take a Little, Leave a Little” involves a particularly smooth operator that poses as an oil geologist.  That is, he uses the name of a real geologist with a good record, so when people do credit checks and backgrounds on him, they find the good news and are more likely to believe his story about a rich oil deposit near town.  He’s so slick, in fact, that his victims don’t technically lose money, and thus usually won’t call the cops.  However, under RICO, if it’s possible to prove a pattern of racketeering behavior, that’s enough to catch you on, and he goes to the well once too often.

While some of these scams are dated and wouldn’t work as well any more, others have been able to adjust to modern times.   Altering checks has given way to altering credit card charges.  Payday loan offices do much the same work the loan sharks did.   And some rackets work the same as they ever did.  As Captain Braddock often reminds us, “It could happen to you.”

“Kite HIgh” relies heavily on old-fashioned stereotypes about marriage and mothers in law–younger viewers may find the family’s behavior baffling.  The most affecting story is “His Brother’s Keeper,” thank goodness it’s much easier for deaf people to get work these days.  It’s a well done series for its time.

TV Review: Decoy | The Shadow

TV Review: Decoy | The Shadow

Decoy is a 1957-58 series about Casey Jones (Beverly Garland), a female police officer in New York City.  She often goes undercover, thus the series title.  This show is noteworthy as the first TV cop series to star a woman in the lead role.  Like Dragnet, the series fictionalized real cases.

Decoy

As an undercover cop, Officer Jones often deals with the very human side of the suspects–many of them come off as sympathetic, or at least their friends and relatives do.   Jones narrates the episodes, and frequently addresses the audience directly at the close of a case.

Many of the episodes are in the public domain, and I watched six on DVD.

  • “To Trap a Thief”  After a robbery suspect is caught and the money recovered, it’s discovered that over half the money in the satchel isn’t there.  The arresting officer is one of several suspects, and Officer Jones goes undercover as a blackmailer to see which one has a guilty conscience.  The ending is happier than expected.
  • “High Swing”  A mysterious series of muggings takes a lethal twist when one of the criminals dies of a drug overdose.  Officer Jones attempts to take her place in the small gang.  Notable for its portrayal of a marriage that is both loving and extremely bitter.
  • “The Sound of Tears”  The only episode where we learn something about Casey’s personal life.  A man is shot six times by an unidentified woman,  and Officer Jones must work through the reminder of her own slain beloved.  It’s suggested that the remaining pain from this is why she never shows interest in any of the men who hit on her during the series.
  • “Night Light”  A ruby necklace is stolen, and Officer Jones poses as a representative of the insurance company trying to buy it back.  But the real story is that one of the criminals has a young son who he is putting on the path to crime, whether he means to or not.
  • “Fiesta at Midnight”  A recent arrival from Puerto Rico is mistakenly identified as a robber and murderer.   His only alibi is a young woman he talked to at midnight, who said she was getting married on Sunday.  Too bad she seems to have disappeared!  The solution to the mystery was fairly obvious to me, but it takes Officer Jones longer to catch on, in large part because one of the witnesses is outright lying to protect the real killer.
  • “The Come Back”  Counterfeit winning tickets are being passed at the racetrack, so Officer Jones poses as a crooked cop muscling in on the racket.  The criminal operation turns out to be bigger than suspected.  This episode is most notable for its guest star, Peter Falk, as a crooked racetrack cashier.

This is an interesting little series, and I especially recommend “The Sound of Tears” and “The Come Back.”

 

The long-running Shadow radio show and pulp magazine inspired an attempt at a television show as well, but only a pilot for The Shadow was made, “The Case of the Cotton Kimono.”

The Shadow

Lamont Cranston (Tom Helmore) is a criminal psychologist who is an on-call adjunct to the police.  He’s kept very busy, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Margot Lane (Paula Raymond.)  In this instance, Commission Weston is calling Cranston in on the murder of a woman who was dressed in a cotton kimono at the time.

The police have gotten nowhere, even having an officer from the woman’s home town come in to assist them.  Cranston is able to locate two likely suspects, the boyfriend and the woman’s music teacher, but not enough to positively link either of them to the crime.  So he calls on “our old friend” the Shadow.  Interestingly, the story never actually establishes that Lamont Cranston and the Shadow are the same person (though they have similar voices and never “appear” at the same time.)

The Shadow’s arrival is indicated by a flashing light, and those whose minds he clouds not only don’t see him, but become distracted and lose focus.  it’s a nice touch.

The leads are good, but the story is kind of plodding.  With the state of special effects on television being what they were in 1954, it might have been just as well this never made it into a full series.

Book Review: The Saint: The Man Who was Clever

Book Review: The Saint: The Man Who was Clever by Leslie Charteris, with art by Dave Bryant

Simon Templar, the Saint, was created by Leslie Charteris in the late 1920s and went on to become a major franchise.  Mr. Templar (not his birth name) was a roguish young man with a murky past, and a fondness for sticking it to wealthy criminals he considered “ungodly.”  He and his associates used confidence tricks, disguise and good old fisticuffs to deliver a form of justice, stealing from the crooked rich to give to the poor–minus a percentage to keep them in the style to which they were accustomed.

The Man who was Clever

“The Man Who was Clever” is the earliest Simon Templar story by internal chronology; there had been others published first, but Mr. Charteris was dissatisfied with them.   Although he already has the nickname of “the Saint” and his band of friends, this is the first time he publicly operates under the Saint brand, complete with his calling card stick figure.

It begins with Simon witnessing an act of brutality by a gang of small-time extortionists.  But rather than jump in immediately, he investigates the gang and learns the full extent of their organization, then begins a campaign to bring not just them, but their backers as well, down.  As part of this, the Saint locates the one member of the gang who’s redeemable, a basically decent fellow who has racked up gambling debt, and recruits him as a double agent.

Simon Templar is a cool customer, looking innocent (but sexy) and calm, even in the worst circumstances.  He’s also a cunning planner, with only a stroke of bad timing causing any difficulty with the gambit he has in play.  He’s also a good fighter, able to take down five hoodlums alone with little difficulty.  (And a swordcane.)

This being written in the time period it was, Mr. Templar smokes and drinks, but is down on the harder drugs.  (The villain of the piece considered himself no worse than a bartender in this regard.)   There’s a bit of the xenophobia common to pulp stories of the period, with the main criminal being a foreigner who has changed his name to sound more English, and his insidious contact in Greece.  The main female character, the double agent’s sweetheart, is a damsel in distress type, while Simon’s love interest Pat barely appears before being bundled off to avoid being distressed.  (In other Saint stories, Pat is much more useful.)

Charming though Simon Templar is, I think he’d be hard to put up with for long in real life, with his bad poetry, annoying nicknames and endearments, and general smugness behind an innocent looking face.

The advertising calls this a “graphic novel”, but it’s really more of a heavily illustrated novella with all the original words.   The illustrations are quite nice (more comic book than pulp magazine style art) but like the pulps of yore, the pictures are often nowhere near the part of the story they’re illustrating.

This is a short read (81 pages even with copious illustrations.)  It’s best suited for people who are already fans of Simon Templar or other pulp characters–new readers will want to perhaps check out Enter the Saint or any of the other Simon Templar books (make sure it’s one of the ones actually by Leslie Charteris) from the library to see if they like the character before making the plunge.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...