Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1 written by Bill Finger & Gardner Fox, art by Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff

Batman was the second full-fledged superhero published by National Periodicals, soon to be better known as DC.  The kernel of the idea was proposed by artist Bob Kane, and fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, with a first appearance in Detective Comics #37.  As the Shadow was to Doc Savage, so Batman was to Superman, a skilled man operating in the shadows, rather than a superhuman operating in the light of day.  But both, of course, dedicated to justice in their own ways.

Batman Archives Volume 1

This “Archives” edition is a hardbound full-cover reprint of the Batman stories from Detective Comics #37-50.  I believe this was the first of this collector’s bait format, thus the “introductory price.”

We open, of course, with “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate.”  Police Commissioner Gordon is chilling with his young socialite friend Bruce Wayne, talking about rumors of a mysterious “Bat-Man.”  Gordon is informed of a murder among the wealthy citizens of the city, and Bruce tags along as he hasn’t got anything better to do.  Chemical syndicate head Lambert is dead, and the most likely suspect is his son.

The son claims he didn’t do it, and to lend credence to this claim, a call comes from Crane, one of Lambert’s three partners, explaining that both of them had threats made against their lives.  Bruce Wayne becomes bored and goes home.  Crane is murdered too, but before the murderer escapes with a certain paper, a mysterious Bat-Man appears, beats up the murderer and his partner and takes the paper.

From this, Batman is able to figure out which of the two remaining partners is the mastermind.  He saves the fourth partner, and punches the villain into a tank of acid.  Commissioner Gordon explains the plot to Bruce, who finds it all highly unlikely.  But in the last panel, we learn that Bruce Wayne himself is in fact the Batman!  What a twist!

The hyphen was quickly dropped, but Batman’s habit of killing opponents in the heat of battle took a bit longer to disappear.   The art is kind of crude, and the plot borrowed heavily from a Shadow pulp story, but the creators were on to something new in comics, and rapidly improved.  (Plus Bob Kane started having assistants to keep up with the work.)

#29 brings us “The Batman Meets Doctor Death.”  The title opponent is Batman’s first opponent with a catchy nom de guerre (his actual name is the pretty nifty Dr. Karl Hellfern), his first mad scientist enemy, and his first recurring enemy.  In the following issue, Doctor Death also becomes Batman’s first hideously disfigured villian, as his face is burnt off.  These two stories have unfortunate ethnic stereotypes as Doctor Death’s henchmen, and Gardner Fox’s lack of research into authentic ethnic background information is obvious.

Batman is also pretty careless with his secret identity of Bruce Wayne in this story; if Doctor Death had been just a little sneakier Batman’s double life would have been over only a few months after his debut.  There’s a cameo by the man who will become the Crime Doctor much, much later on, Bruce Wayne’s personal physician, who wonders how the lazy upper-class twit managed to shoot himself with no powder burn.

#31-32, “Batman Versus the Vampire” introduces Batman’s first full-fledged supervillain, the Monk, who wears a distinctive costume (red monk’s robes and a red hood with a skull & crossbones sigil), and as a vampire/werewolf has supernatural powers.  He and his sidekick (lover?) Dala kidnap Bruce Wayne’s fiancee Julie Madison (also appearing for the first time) for reasons never fully explained, and after much action and scary stuff, Batman puts silver bullets through their hearts.

This story also makes it clear that Batman operates in New York City, which was changed to Gotham City later for ease of fictionalization.

#33, “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom” is most notable for finally getting around to telling us why Bruce Wayne runs around in a bat costume fighting crime.  This simple two-page origin would eventually be vastly expanded upon and become an important part of the mythos.

#34, “Peril in Paris” has Bruce Wayne run into a man without a face.  Who is not the villain of the story.  That’s the fellow who stole his face.  It’s still not back by the end of the story (and the flowers with women’s heads are not explained either), but this faceless fellow and his beautiful sister are the first people Batman reveals his true identity to.  And then are never seen again.

#36, “Professor Hugo Strange” introduces the title character, another mad scientist, who takes part of his inspiration from Professor Moriarty, but is also large and muscular, able to give Batman a good tussle even without his fog machine, monster men and other gimmicks.

#38 “Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder” does just what it says.  Circus acrobat Dick Grayson loses his parents to criminals, and is taken in by Batman, who gives the lad a costume and training to become a crimefighter.  (He also reveals his identity to Dick off-camera.)  Thanks to this, Robin gets the quick closure that Batman never did by tracking down and convicting his parents’ killer.

Robin was the first superhero’s boy sidekick in comic books, and soon the market was flooded with them.  He lightened up the Batman character and gave the Caped Crusader someone to have dialogue with rather than think out loud to himself.

Also about this time, Batman got his own solo comic book series, but that’s another volume.

#40, “Beware of Clayface!” introduces the first villain to wear that name, crazed horror actor Basil Karlo (a riff on Basil Karloff, who was a swell guy in real life.)  Julie Madison begins her career as a movie actress.  In #49, the Basil Karlo Clayface returns (and then would not be seen again for decades) and Julie decides to break her engagement to Bruce for his fecklessness.  (Little realizing it’s only a cover for his activities as Batman.)

#44, “The Land Beyond the Light!” is the first full-on fantasy story for Batman, as the Dynamic Duo is transported to another dimension and interfere in a war between giants and little people.  It’s all Dick Grayson’s dream in the end, but soon such stories would become a regular thing.

#50 ends this volume with “The Case of the Three Devils.”  Three circus acrobats have turned to crime using devil costumes and their ability to pull off outrageous physical stunts.  They give Batman and Robin quite a chase before the Caped Crusaders can finally corner them.  Batman’s superior use of terrain gives him the victory.

Again, lots of exciting action portrayed in a new way for 1939-40.  Some plots are overly simplistic, while others become nonsensical if you think about them too carefully, but the writing gets much better as it goes along.   There’s also an illuminating foreword by comics scholar Rick Marschall.

This is a must have for the serious Batman collector; other Batman fans should check it out at the library to see the early development of the classic characters.

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Book Review: The Pavilion

Book Review: The Pavilion by Hilda Lawrence (also published as “The Pavilion of Death”)

When Regan Carr’s mother passes away from illness, the young woman is hard-pressed.  Her part-time job as a small town librarian for $25 a week (roughly equivalent to an $8/hr job in 2017) is not sufficient to cover the doctor’s bills and other expenses of her mother’s final days, let alone allow her to live in any sort of comfort.  So when a letter arrives from her distant (and wealthy) cousin Hurst Herald, asking her to live with him, Regan decides to give it a try.

The Pavilion

But when Regan arrives with her meager possessions, Hurst Herald is dead.  And he evidently hadn’t told the rest of the family she was coming, so the relatives view Regan with suspicion.  There are those who seem glad to see her; Miss Etta, a kleptomaniac pensioner who was an old friend of Hurst’s, and the Crain sisters, elderly maids who appreciate Regan’s kindness.  The relatives warm up a bit when she proves her arrival was expected, and Regan is given an out-of-the-way room for the moment.

This novel is in the Southern Gothic tradition, featuring a dysfunctional family with dark secrets living in a fine mansion that is beginning to decay.  It’s a slow burn in many, many ways–it’s halfway through before Regan realizes that the family’s history of tragic accidents doesn’t include any actual accidents.   Much depends on her suppressed memories of what happened in the pavilion out back of the house during her childhood visit.

Regan is a petite woman, who looks even more childlike than her age of twenty-two.  A running gag is her bunny slippers, a rare splurge purchase for the poverty-stricken lady.  In a more action-packed story, she would be the damsel in distress type, but the menace here is more subtle, hidden between the lines of seemingly innocuous conversations.

The slow burn serves the story well most of the way through.  There’s a particularly chilling scene where one character’s previously comical behavior is revealed to be the result of psychological abuse as a child.  This does, however, mean that the last chapter needs to wrap everything up in a bit of a rush, with the murderer’s identity confirmed by elimination in the final paragraphs.

The viewpoint is mostly Regan’s, but we do have moments seeing the thoughts of other characters.  For example, one of the maids daydreaming about working for a less strict employer so she wouldn’t have to set her alarm clock an hour ahead to keep her job, and worrying every day that they will notice the difficulty she has getting up the stairs.  (Towards the end she talks about her and her sister’s fear of ending their days in a charity ward.)

There’s a touch of period racism; the family has no black servants because (the housekeeper thinks) they’re superstitious and don’t react well to summons from empty rooms.  African-Americans appear in scene descriptions, but none are relevant to the plot.

This is an atmospheric book that will reward the patient reader.  My 1960s copy is in rough shape; you might be able to find the 1980s reprint in better condition.

Book Review: Fire-Tongue

Book Review: Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer

If there’s one thing a detective hates, it’s when their client hems and haws about explaining basic details of why they need a detective, only to die just as they make up their minds with only a cryptic last utterance as a clue.

Fire-Tongue

But that’s the situation Paul Harley is in with his latest case.  Sir Charles Abingdon, noted osteologist, suspects he may be in danger, but is so vague about the circumstances that it’s impossible to tell why.  He promises to make more explanations at dinner, but collapses just after drinking a bit of water, uttering only “Fire-Tongue…Nicol Brinn” before passing.

Nicol Brinn is an American millionaire who happens to be in London just now, but what possible connection could he have to Sir Charles?  And the phrase “Fire-Tongue” is a complete mystery.  Oh, and neither the water nor the glass itself were poisoned, so how did Sir Charles die?

Brinn appears to know something about “Fire-Tongue” but is evasive at best on that matter, and claims to know nothing about Sir Charles’ death or why he might have felt threatened.  He does promise to let Harley know if he has any definite leads.  Very suspicious.

However, Harley learns that Sir Charles’ daughter, Phyllis “Phil” Abingdon has been receiving “attentions” from Ormuz Khan, a Middle Eastern banker.  And since certain features of this case suggest the “Oriental”, that’s worth looking into as well.

Readers familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work will fnd little mystery here.  Once there’s a “mysterious Oriental” in the case, it’s obvious he’s guilty somehow.  From there on in it’s secret societies, poisons unknown to Western science, subtle mental powers and lots of peril.

This isn’t Rohmer’s best work by a long shot.  He divides the role of hero up between three male characters poorly, has characters make stupid decisions to keep the happenings mysterious, and the backstory is given in four straight chapters of infodump at the end.  Exciting but incoherent.

And that’s before we get to the racism, sexism and making the villain effeminate in appearance to indicate that he’s somehow unnatural.  Perhaps the weirdest bit in this direction is that Brinn’s face is repeatedly described as “Sioux-like” without any indication of Native American heritage.

This is, by the by, the second Paul Harley book; the first, Bat Wing, was apparently more of an actual mystery.  Mr. Harley is an ex-barrister who has turned to political consulting and detection as a more interesting career.  He’s apparently psychic, able to detect auras of evil or danger.  Which would be more helpful if this sense were directional, and didn’t sometimes interfere with his ability to make rational observations.

Like many pulp heroes, Mr. Harley is also a master of disguise.  Pity the baddies were specifically looking for someone in disguise!

Mr. Brinn is a harder-edged sort, and rather cold-blooded.  He has a sense of honor that allows him to dally with other men’s wives, but not break his word.  It’s a good thing he’s a millionaire, or he’d never get away with this stuff.

And then we have Detective Inspector Wessex of Scotland Yard, a bright (but not too bright) fellow who fills in chapters when neither Mr. Harley nor Mr. Brinn is available on-screen.

Overall, only recommended to Sax Rohmer completists.  It’s in the public domain in the U.S.–my copy was from a print on demand publisher, but you should be able to find the text on the internet.

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: The Baker Street Peculiars

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars written by Roger Langridge, art by Andy Hirsch

It is 1933 in the city of London, and what appears to be a stone lion from Trafalgar Square is running wild in the streets.  Three children from different walks of life (and a dog) have separately decided to chase down the lion to learn what’s going on.  They eventually lose the trail, but meet the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, who engages them for a shilling each to be his new Irregulars.  They’ll investigate the supposed living statue while he’s busy with other cases.

The Baker Street Peculiars

But wait; assuming Sherlock Holmes wasn’t just made up by Arthur Conan Doyle, didn’t he retire to a bee farm in Sussex before World War One?  There’s more than one odd thing going on here!

This volume collects the four issues of last year’s children’s comic book series of the same name.  As a modern period piece, it’s a bit more diverse than the comic papers that would have been published back in the day.

Molly Rosenberg is a whip-smart girl, who wants to be a detective.  Her kindly but conservative tailor grandfather has forbidden her formal education as he’s afraid she’s already too learned to attract a good husband.

Rajani Malakar is an orphan of Bengali descent who was raised (when not confined to juvenile institutions) by professional thief Big Jim Cunningham.  Big Jim had an alcohol-related fatality a bit back, and she’s had to make her way alone with petty theft.  Rajani is probably the oldest of the children, as she’s hit puberty.

Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport is the youngest son of a large upper-crust family.  Evidently he was unplanned and unwanted, as he was shipped off to a harsh boarding school as soon as possible, with only a golden retriever named Wellington as a valet.  (Wellington doesn’t talk, so his level of intelligence is difficult to gauge.)  Over the course of the story, Humphrey learns to weaponize his class privilege (within his own class, of course, it’s never done him any good, so he didn’t even realize he had it.)

As it happens, Molly’s cultural background is especially useful in this case, as the villain is Chippy Kipper, the Pearly King of Brick Street, a self-willed golem.  Chippy has the mind of a small-time protection racketeer, but has realized that the ability to bring statues to life gives him an army with which he could take over the city–maybe the world!

The kids are on their own through most of the adventure.  The sole representative of the law enforcement establishment is PC Plank, who’s intellectually lazy, and would rather arrest known riffraff Rajani than investigate any other possible criminals.  Sherlock Holmes is…elsewhere…much of the time, and Daily Mirror reporter Hetty Jones is well behind the children in her investigations.

The art is cartoony, with several Sherlockian in-jokes hidden in the background.  This serves to soften somewhat the several off-screen deaths.

This volume should be suitable for middle-schoolers on up.  Parents may want to be ready for discussions on period sexism and ethnic prejudice.  (There’s also a subplot about dog farts.)

It appears that this may be the first in a series about the kids–I should mention that despite the Holmes connection, this and potential future volumes seem more about the “weird adventure” than mysteries.

Audio Review: If We Were Villains

Audio Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Eleven years ago, seven drama students entered their fourth year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory.  Now, a decade after the end of that school year, one of those students, Oliver Marks, is being released from prison.  Former police detective Colborne has never entirely bought the official version of what happened, and Oliver agrees to finally tell the truth of that year.  Or at least a truth.

If We Were Villains

The highly competitive nature of the school and constantly interacting with each other have made the seven students their own little troupe with defined roles.  But a couple of the students have begun resenting their typecasting, and natural born star Richard is on the verge of snapping.  Even when Richard is removed from the picture, the fractures in the group widen until the tragic climax.

This is a debut novel from Shakespearean scholar M.L. Rio, and is full of William Shakespeare’s words and ideas.  The theater kids often quote (or misquote) Shakespeare’s plays to each other in their dialogue, and sometimes to confused or annoyed outsiders.  A basic familiarity with the Bard of Avon will vastly enhance your enjoyment of the story.

The main characters are the kind of “party hearty” kids I did not get on well with in college; their substance abuse is a large factor in how badly their actions go off the rails, and the sexual shenanigans certainly didn’t help.  And of course, keeping secrets from the adults on campus who could have solved many of the issues early on makes things even worse.  (While I am on content issues, warning for rough language, slut-shaming and domestic abuse.)

Oliver has pressures outside school as well, as his parents are unsupportive of his career goals and one of his sisters has an eating disorder that needs them to redirect their limited financial resources.  (Oliver is alas completely unempathetic towards his sister’s problems.)  And some of the other students have even worse family situations, one of the reasons they’ve bonded with each other instead.

Once having established that the main characters are not the kind of people who make smart choices, the stage is set for the inevitable spiral into tragedy, mirrored by the plays they’re performing.

The version of the novel I’m reviewing is the audiobook from Macmillan Audio, and read by Robert Petkoff, himself an actor experienced in Shakespearean drama.  His voice is well suited to the text (though there were times when I could not distinguish between female characters) and conveyed emotion well.

However, the audiobook experience was sometimes difficult for me.  I sometimes missed important words, especially early on, and “rewinding” the CD was trickier than simply turning back pages to recheck lines.  On the good side, portions of the book are written in a semi-script style that made it clear who was speaking, very helpful when all the main characters are in the same room.

The physical presentation of the audiobook is barebones, just a box containing plain white sleeves for the ten CDs.  There are no liner notes (it would have been both helpful and apropos to provide a dramatis personae), nor a quick bio of Mr. Petkoff.

While this novel has mystery elements, it fits more comfortably into the “contemporary” subgenre.  Perhaps that New Adult category I’ve heard of.  Recommended to Shakespeare buffs, theater kids and fans of last minute twists.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested nor offered.

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Book Review: Minnesota Vice

Book Review: Minnesota Vice by Ellen & Mary Kuhfeld

As I have mentioned before, Minnesota has many fine mystery and crime writers.  Mary Kuhfeld is probably best known under the pen name Monica Ferris, under which she has written nineteen Betsy Devonshire Needlework Mysteries.  (Thus the subtitle “Monica Ferris Presents” for these self-published books.)  Ellen Kuhfeld is also an experienced mystery writer, and they collaborated on several stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the 1980s.

Minnesota Vice

Of the ten stories in this collection, the first six are collaborations, and the first four are set in Hedeby, Minnesota, a largish town in the fictitious Hedeby County.  The police detective team of Jack Hafner and Thor Nygaard is introduced in “An Ill Wind.”  A sudden blizzard snows in the town, making Hafner and Nygaard the only officers able to respond to a report of murder.  With all the outdoor clues buried under new-fallen snow, how will the detectives figure out which of the obvious suspects is guilty?

“Allergic to Death” takes place in a warmer season, as a man with lethal allergies apparently decides to take a walk in a pollen-laden garden.  Simple enough, but one of the relatives insists on a cremation before an autopsy can be ordered.  Honoring the wishes of the deceased, or covering up something more sinister?

“The Scales of Justice” concerns a traveling salesman who gets caught cheating at poker.  Since the game itself was unlawful, the man can’t be arrested.  Nygaard decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  This story will be funnier if you’re familiar with Norwegian-American customs.

In “Night Light”, there’s a UFO, leading to suspicions that a murder and disappearance may have alien involvement.  This is Hafner and Nygaard’s toughest case yet!

“Timely Psychiatric Intervention” features a government think tank that actually has a counselor handy to head off any of their scientists going mad.  But the nature of McCain’s project may make Dr. Bach’s repeated attempts to help him moot.

In “A Specialist in Dragons”, Baron Halfdan’s daughter has been abducted by a dragon.  He seeks the help of his local wizard, Wulfstan.  Unfortunately, Wulfstan’s not up to the task of tracking a dragon, and a series of increasingly expensive specialists needs to be called in.  Can Halla be rescued before the Baron runs out of gold?

The next four stories are solo efforts by Ellen Kuhfeld.  “The Old Shell Game” concerns a museum curator that notices a valuable fossil has gone missing.  It’s not anywhere on the grounds,  but it’s impossible for this large item to have left the premises without being seen.  How did it vanish?

“Thorolf and the Peacock” stars a Viking merchant (who is also the star of Ellen Kuhfeld’s book, Secret Murder) who is insulted by a flamboyant trader.  Thorolf decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  (In a slightly different manner than in “The Scales of Justice.”)

The next two stories were printed in speculative fiction magazines in the 2000s.  “Dances with Werewolves” has the investigative team of Scott & Scott hired to determine if a man’s new girlfriend is a Were.  This one contains a twist genre-savvy readers will spot quickly.

“Cycles of Violence” is a sequel to that tale, in which Bjorn the bartender must deal with a Wendigo invasion.  It’s easier to do that when you’re a werebear!

The bane of self-published works, there are a few typos, including an error in the table of contents.

As a hodgepodge of previously un-reprinted stories, this volume may not satisfy mystery purists (even though most of them were printed in a mystery genre magazine.)  That said, these are fun stories of which I liked “Allergic to Death” best.  I felt “Dances with Werewolves” was the weakest, probably because I spotted the twist far too early.

Recommended to Minnesotans (especially mystery fans) and fans of the Monica Ferris books.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the authors to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

 

 

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