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.
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.
Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Once, Mars was a place of mystery. Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky. Were there canals filled with water? Bloodsucking tripod operators? Beings that had never fallen from grace with God? Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.
Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative. The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad. It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians. In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.
The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been better prepared. But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.
Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets. In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars. (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.) One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress! There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book. Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.
Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless. “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code. He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451. As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.
Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation. “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home. He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.
Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them. Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story. Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written. After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.
One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.
Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through. Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long. And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.
Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.
The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.
Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1 written by Marc Andreyko
Back in the 1970s, live-action television series with a woman in the lead were rare creatures indeed, and one of the best was Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter. It migrated from ABC (where it was set during World War Two) to CBS in 1977, and it is this “modern day” series that this comic book series is based on.
In this version, Wonder Woman works for the Inter-Agency Defense Command in her secret identity of Diana Prince, along Steve Trevor, Jr. Steve may or may not know that Diana is also Wonder Woman, but at least in these issues, he doesn’t officially know or make a fuss about it. They have access to the latest 1970s technology, including the advanced computer IRA, but Wonder Woman’s powers and compassion are usually the main key to victory.
Where this comic book series varies from the TV version is that the live-action version used none of WW’s comic book supervillains, so versions of these compatible with the show’s look and feel are inserted.
The first story takes place mostly at a disco, where a Soviet defector scientist must be protected from mind-controlling songstress Silver Swan. Diana’s outfit for this is based on the “white pantsuit” look she had during a brief period where the comics depowered her (to make her more “relevant.”)
The second story opens with Diana waking up in a world where she is not Wonder Woman or Diana Prince, but a mentally ill woman named Donna Troy. There are some nifty references to the Cathy Lee Crosby TV movie, and the post-Crisis WW continuity. Diana must figure out what’s going on and fight her way back to the reality she knows.
Next, there is a story that uses the Barbara Minerva version of long-time supervillain the Cheetah. It brings in elements of the Priscilla Rich version of the character as well–Dr. Minerva is driven by jealousy when the museum she works for dismantles her prize exhibit involving years of scholarship and hard digging for a Wonder Woman-centric publicity grabber. This allows the Cheetah spirit to take over her body so that Barbara can try to get her revenge. The climax is a showcase for Diana’s gentle spirit being able to overcome Cheetah’s command of great cats.
Original (so far as I know) villain Celsia takes center stage next. Due to a nuclear power plant accident that killed her home town, Celsia can project both heat and cold. She is determined to punish the men who placed profit over life and safety. We also get a version of the Atomic Knights, including a not-named Gardner Grayle.
And finally Diana has an encounter with the swamp monster Solomon Grundy on Halloween. Grundy may not be the real monster here… (Warning: domestic abuse.)
The issue is filled out with an essay by Andy Mangels about the television show, plus a gallery of covers and concept art.
One of the things I really like about this series is Wonder Woman’s dedication to non-lethal force, something that has largely been lost in recent years. Yes, punching bad guys is an important part of her problem-solving style, but whenever possible, she uses truth and compassion to bring about resolutions. This Wonder Woman smiles a lot, and inspires others to be better people.
Some of the 1970s elements do come across a bit cheesy, but this is not entirely a bad thing, as they fit with the feel of the show. On the other hand, the very episodic stories mean that there’s no character growth or deeper characterization–what you see is all you are going to get.
The art is okay, with Diana and Steve being on model most of the time.
Recommended to fans of the TV show, Wonder Woman fans who prefer a lighter style and younger readers. (It should be okay for tweens with a little parental guidance.)
Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch
Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry. (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.) It was digest-sized and relatively thin. Let’s look at the contents!
“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss. He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.) Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear. This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from? Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?
Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out. Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)
Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell. He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.
“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work. For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do. This extends to writing as well. Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors. Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim. And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.
Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place. Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene. If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.
“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times. His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits. His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates. He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying. Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced. It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people. There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story. (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)
“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible. He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope. It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle. There is an attempted suicide in the story.
“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life. These planets are exceedingly rare. It looks, however, like this one might be ideal. Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….
In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species. The twist ending is suitably bizarre.
“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective. See how long it takes you to figure out which one!
“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system. Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed. But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence. There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.
“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager. He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray. Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold. The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.
The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith. This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.
Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.
There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s. He declined to have his real name published for security reasons. Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years. Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction. (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)
The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective. Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.
Satoshi Kon (1963-2010) was an acclaimed anime director, making a handful of movies (including Paprika) and one television series, Paranoia Agent. His themes of confusion of dreams and reality, and madness lying just below the surface of society, made his works fascinating. He also spent some time as a manga creator, creating several stories in the 1980s before going into anime full time as an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira). This volume collects his short works.
The lead story is “Carve.” After a war polluted the old places of habitation, most of humanity moved to “The City”, a haven of high technology. However, when a minority of humans started developing psychic powers, they were kicked out of The City, and scrape by in the now less toxic old cities. Sculptor Kei and his female friend/model Ann notice that Specials are starting to disappear from their neighborhood. Are The City people up to something?
The fifteen stories cover a range of genres. There’s a couple of baseball stories, some slice of life, a samurai thriller, and some more speculative fiction. The characters tend towards the realistic, even if the circumstances are often bizarre.
One standout is “Kidnappers”, about a car thief who discovers that he has a small child in the back seat. He wants to get the kid back to the parents, but doesn’t want to go to jail for swiping the vehicle–and the actual kidnapper is after him too. The main character is well drawn as a bad person, but one that doesn’t want to be that bad.
There’s also “Waira”, the samurai thriller I mentioned. A feudal warlord has been betrayed by his vassal/brother-in-law, his troops massacred, and now he and a handful of surviving followers are fleeing through a mountain forest in the middle of the night. The brother-in-law and his troops pursue, but their guides warn them that the mountain is haunted by a murderous creature named “Waira.” Who will survive? The nature of Waira comes as a bit of a surprise–it’s so out of place that it might as well be supernatural.
I can really spot the Otomo influence in several of these stories. The art and writing are decent, but Kon doesn’t sparkle here the way he does in his animation work. A couple of the stories are photocopied from magazine appearances as the original art is lost; this affects the print quality.
The last story in the volume is Kon’s debut work, a two-parter titled “Toriko” (prisoner). It’s very YA dystopia. Yuichi, a teenager, lives in a future society ruled by implacable robot police, and in which you must have your identity card ready at all times for any transactions or even just walking down the street at the wrong time. When he and his friends break curfew, they are remanded to The Center for “rehab” to become “productive citizens.” Good thing Yuichi managed to snag a weapon! Downer ending, depending on your point of view.
In addition to a few color pages, there’s also an interview with Susumu Hirawara, a composer who worked with Satoshi Kon on musical scores for the anime projects. (One last film, Dreaming Machine, is being slowly finished.)
The intended audience varies, a couple would be suitable for young readers, but overall this anthology seems to be seinen (young men’s.) Several of the stories have lethal violence, there’s some nudity, underaged drinking and smoking, and one story has an attempted rape.
Fans of Satoshi Kon’s other work will want to own this anthology; others will be better served by checking it out via library loan.
Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts Volume 2 by Go Ikeyamada
Recapping from Volume 1: Megumu and Mitsuru Kobayashi, fraternal twins, have been impersonating each other at their respective schools in an effort to get Mitsuru to not fail history. As a side effect, each of the twins has fallen in love with someone at the other school but cannot reveal this without admitting the deception. In addition, other complications are arising.
In this volume, the twins learn that their love interests are coincidentally more closely connected than they had realized. In addition to that, Megumu learns that her romantic interest Aoi Sanada (who looks like her favorite historical hottie, Date Masamune) is allergic to girls. Oh, and several characters are beginning to question their sexuality due to the twins’ shenanigans. It ends with a cliffhanger, as the twins accidentally expose themselves to (perhaps) the wrong people.
It looks like this may be the last volume with the initial premise (which wasn’t going to stand up long in any case.) But the light comedy and romantic hijinks are complemented by the adorable art. The most innovative part of the manga is still the use of sign language to communicate with deaf schoolgirl Shino Takenaka. (The end notes section has some explanation as Japanese Sign Language is somewhat different than ASL.)
The heavy use of coincidence may be off-putting to some readers; it gets highly improbable that the twins always face the same sort of crisis at the same time. There is some partial female nudity for plot reasons.
Still recommended to fans of light romantic comedy.
Jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway (Cab Calloway) has a new manager named Nettie (Ida James). His girlfriend Minnie (Jeni Le Gon) becomes insanely jealous, despite the relationship being purely professional. When Nettie lands Cab and his orchestra a gig at the ritzy Brass Hat Club, Minnie hies herself over to a rival nightclub run by mobster Boss Mason (George Wiltshire).
Minnie convinces Boss Mason and his triggerman Mo the Mouse (James Dunmore) to try and lure Cab away from the Brass Hat Club and Nettie, or failing that kill him. Just as the hit is about to go down, Minnie overhears a conversation between Cab and Nettie that reveals the truth of their relationship. But is it too late to prevent tragedy?
This is another “race picture”, filmed with an all-black cast for showing in movie theaters catering to African-American audiences. Even the cops are black! As one might expect from a movie starring Cab Calloway, it’s a musical.
Good: Cab Calloway was a national treasure and backed by some really wonderful jazz musicians and dancers in this film. I’m not too keen on this particular rendition of “St. James Infirmary” but otherwise the musical numbers are excellent.
I also like the running gag of the one character who hangs around Cab all the time reading Variety and making smart remarks, but never takes place in the action and seems to have no actual job he does for Cab.
Less good: The plot, thin to begin with, resolves halfway through the movie, with the romance subplot resolved in a montage sequence no less. The remainder of the film is a long performance by the now world-famous Cab Calloway and his Orchestra in a club…somewhere.
Problematic: Cab is callous towards Minnie, and even slaps her to the floor when she backtalks him. Later, Boss Mason does the same thing, and in both cases we are meant to think she had it coming. Minnie having implied sexual needs is treated as a flaw in her character. Nettie is subjected to a “you’re beautiful without your glasses” scene, though this is done without the dialogue. On the other hand, Nettie is shown to be an effective manager for Cab in his early career.
Some viewers may want to skip straight to the last half of the film for the musical numbers. Parents watching the movie with younger children may want to remind them that slapping around your girlfriend is no longer accepted practice, even if she’s being obnoxious.
Apparently, there’s also an earlier film short titled Cab Calloway’s “Hi-De-Ho” which has a different plot. And here it is!
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.
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.”
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.