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:

Comic Book Review: Headache

Comic Book Review: Headache written by Lisa Joy, art by Jim Fern

Sarah Pallas is a 19-year-old girl who’s been institutionalized due to recurring nightmares in which her mother is murdered.  She’s also Athena, goddess of wisdom and strategy.  Her relatives are the Greek gods, and they want her out of the way while Zeus plans the end of human civilization.  Sarah must escape from the asylum, recover her memories and thwart her father’s plans–but whose side is her uncle Hades really on?

Headache

This graphic novel reimagines the Greek gods as a secret family of immortals who change with the times, blending in with each new era, and currently residing in Manhattan.  (Apollo’s a movie star.)  They squabble and feud, but most of them are down with the coming world war for one reason or another.  Athena objected, so she was given amnesia and locked away–now that she’s back, it’s necessary to kill her.  Death isn’t permanent for gods, more like a long quiet vacation, but it would put her out of the way long enough for Zeus’ plan to succeed.

To be honest, this is more of a graphic novelette, and feels very stripped down.  Events happen bang bang bang, and characterization is sparse.  (Surprisingly to me at least, Aphrodite is the most complex character in the story, resentful of her position as the goddess of love and beauty–indeed, sick unto death of it.)  Sarah is more action film heroine than anything else, with her ability to kick butt in hand-to-hand combat prioritized more than her brains.  (The author’s prior work is in action TV.)  And then there’s her “bad boy” thing for Hades….

Persephone shows up just long enough to explain that her marriage to Hades is in name only, which theoretically makes Sarah and his mutual attraction okay as long as you ignore the part where she’s sleeping with her uncle.  Erm.  Diana’s characterization is reduced to being sexually attracted to her twin brother Apollo and resentful that he doesn’t reciprocate.

The art is decent, but feels pedestrian; the fantasy sections could use a little more “pop.”

Mildly recommended to fans of modern retellings of Greek mythology, especially if you preferred the “fighty” bits of Buffy to the “talky” bits.

Book Review: The Sculthorpe Murder

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 Sculthorpe Murder

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.

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition edited by Julie Schaper & Steven Horwitz

Like the previously reviewed USA Noir, this is a collection of grittier crime stories from Akashic Books with a regional focus.  In this case, the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, and the surrounded metro area, plus one up north in Duluth (“Hi, I’m God” by Steve Thayer; a teenager drowns in Lake Superior…or does he?)

Twin Cities Noir

This is the “expanded edition” released in 2013 with three new stories, bringing it to a total of eighteen.   The new ones are conveniently all in the front in the “Star of the North” subsection, starting with John Jodzio’s “Someday All of This Will Probably Be Yours”  about a speed dating scam gone wrong.  The other sections are “Minnesota Nice”, “Uff Da” and “Funeral Hotdish.”

Each of the stories is set in a particular neighborhood, several of which I’m familiar with.  One scene takes place less than a block from where I live!  This makes it easy for me to picture the action in my mind.  This may not be as evocative for non-locals, but will please readers in the Twin Cities area.

Some standouts:  “Skyway Sleepless” written and drawn by Tom Kaczynski takes place in Minneapolis’ extensive skyway system.  The art uses the rectangular boxes of the skyway to indicate the maze-like architecture of the story, as people are found filling chalk outlines and no memory of how they got there.

“The Brewer’s Son” by Larry Millett is a period piece set in 1892 Saint Paul, and starring his series character, saloonkeeper and amateur detective Shadwell Rafferty, acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes.  The title character has been kidnapped, supposedly by the Black Hand, and Mr. Rafferty is called in by the concerned father.  This is noir, so expect some darkness.

Mary Logue’s story “Blasted” takes place in upscale Kenwood, as a police officer tells her daughter about a domestic dispute call that was the most frightening experience of her life.  The officer is still alive, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t good reason for fear.

The final story is “”Chili Dog” by Chris Everhart.  A small time crook stops in downtown Saint Paul for lunch, and things go very wrong for him.

As a crime story anthology, there’s a fair bit of violence, one story features domestic abuse, and there’ mention of suicide.

If you are local to Minnesota, or have lived here in the past, highly recommended.  The book’s pretty good if you’re not local, but you might miss some of the nuance.  Akashic may have a volume set in your area; check their catalog.   If you own the previous version, you might want to save money by going with the e-book, so you can check out the new stories without shelling out the big bucks.

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