Comic Strip Review: The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume Two 1937-1939

Comic Strip Review: The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume Two 1937-1939 written by Lee Falk, art by Ray Moore

Almost five hundred years ago, a sailor named Christopher Walker was accompanying his father on that man’s last voyage when they were attacked by the Singh Brotherhood, a bloodthirsty band of pirates.  The pirates killed the rest of the crew, but Christopher survived and washed up on a beach in Bangalla.  The native Bandar people, pygmies who were known as the Poison People because of their knowledge of botany and chemistry, healed the young man and brought him to the Skull Cave, supposed home of their god.

The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume Two 1937-1939

Donning ceremonial garb modeled on that vengeful spirit, young Walker became a Phantom, a Ghost Who Walks.  He destroyed that iteration of the Singh Brotherhood and vowed on the skull of his father’s murderer to oppose all forms of piracy and injustice.  When the Phantom died, his son took his place, and in each generation, another son takes over the role, creating the illusion  that the Phantom cannot die.

This long-running comic strip was created by Lee Falk in 1936, two years after creating the also-successful Mandrake the Magician.  Skilled artist Ray Moore brought the characters to life.  In the first story the proto-superhero succeeds his father, who has been treacherously slain by a member of the Singh Brotherhood.  (In the early stories, Bangalla is near India, but has wildlife and native customs closer to Africa at times–later on the country would move to sub-Saharan Africa.)  Also early on, the Ghost Who Walks also meets Diana Palmer, who becomes the love of his life.

This volume opens with the Phantom engaging in a bit of stagecraft (with the connivance of the local witch doctor) to perform his annual duty of acting as judge for a village’s disputes.  The witch doctor turns out to be aware that the Phantom is actually a series of men, but finds it useful to pretend otherwise to keep the superstitious natives in line.  During his visit, the Phantom realizes that village boy Toma is actually a white kid who’s been disguised as a native via skin dye by his purported father.

Somehow, the other villagers had never cottoned on to this, but in retrospect they admit having some suspicions about Beeli’s behavior and excellent cash flow despite being the laziest man around.

The Phantom takes Tommy Reynolds to England, to search for answers as to why he was sequestered in that native village for years.  There turns out to be a convoluted reason  for the bizarre events, but justice is served and there’s a bittersweet ending.

After that, Diana’s meddling mother pressures the young woman into marrying one of her more suitable suitors, as it’s unlikely the masked man Diana loves will ever turn up again.  Diana’s mother is wrong, but before the Phantom and Diana can tie the knot, the British government alerts the Phantom to an emergency situation in the Himalayas that only he can solve!  (The star-crossed lovers wouldn’t finally get hitched until the 1970s.)

The Himalayas situation resolved, the Phantom is on his way back to Diana when he’s waylaid in Algiers.  Mrs. Palmer successfully meddles by preventing the lovers’ communications from reaching each other, making each think the other has broken off the relationship.

The next story introduces Baron Grover, a modern-day pirate who would become a recurring foe of the Phantom.  Grover is an actual nobleman who began piracy as a lark, only to lose all his money and thus take up the profession seriously.  The Phantom has a lot of fun making it appear that he truly is immortal; this is also the first time we learn that supposedly seeing the Phantom’s real face is lethal.

Back in Bangalla, a white trader is forcing natives to become pearl divers for him, overworking them and ruining their health.  Roark turns out to be trickier to deal with than he should be, as he has not only bought off the local law, but the Phantom becomes mistakenly convinced that Diana is now Roark’s wife!

The final story in this volume has the Phantom saving Diana from slave traders in North Africa–in a story where they never actually meet!  Comic relief is provided by an elderly hermit who is getting more visitors in a few days than he’s had in the last forty years; and could probably resolve the romantic subplot in seconds if he were told a few pertinent details.

This is great adventure strip stuff, with Lee Falk working out just how this masked hero thing works, and getting the balance of action, humor and romance right.  Over the short term, the separation of the Phantom and Diana creates a nice tension, and the misunderstandings and missed connections draw out the relationship nicely.

Because of the period it was written in, there’s some unfortunate stereotyping of native peoples,  a certain amount of presumed white superiority and a bit of period sexism.  (Played for laughs in the case of the hermit–“women get fat when they have children, therefore I do not regret escaping the bonds of matrimony!”)

Recommended to adventure lovers, those interested in the roots of costumed hero comics, and well worth checking out at your library!

 

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Book Review: The Edge of Tomorrow

Book Review: The Edge of Tomorrow by Howard Fast

There have been several books titled The Edge of Tomorrow, none of which have anything to do with the recent Tom Cruise movie, which borrowed most of its plot from the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill.  (I think you can see why there was a title change.)   This particular volume contains seven science fiction stories by the author of Spartacus and other fine historical novels.

The Edge of Tomorrow

“The First Men” starts in 1945, as Harry Felton is discharged from the Army following World War Two.  His anthropologist sister sends a request for him to stay in India for the purpose of finding a child allegedly raised by wolves ala Mowgli.  He finds her, but she is mentally unable to function except as a very smart wolf.  Similarly, the South African boy raised by baboons is essentially a furless baboon.

Then the actual idea behind Jean’s research is revealed.   Children at an early level of development raised by animals can never be more than animals.  Children raised by flawed human society will never surpass ordinary humans.  But what would happen if a group of highly intelligent infants from around the world were raised under utopian conditions by enlightened scientists?

Harry helps gather the children for this experiment, which must be carried out in complete isolation from the outside world.  In 1965, he is called in by the government.  It seems all communication with the creche has been lost, and a zone of nothingness has sealed off the area.  Does he know what’s going on?

As it happens, Harry has a sealed letter from his sister for just this moment.  In it, she reveals that the experiment was highly successful, and the children have taken the next step in mental evolution.  Hyperintelligent and telepathic, they are preparing to bring the children of humanity up to their level as fast as they can expand their zone of influence.

Harry’s government contact reacts badly.  Not that I can blame him, given the implications.

Some readers may be squicked by discussion of sex among the upraised youngsters.  At the time this was written, 1959, certain readers might have been more upset with the idea that all the races of man were equally capable of being uplifted.

“The Large Ant” has a writer on vacation instinctively swatting what appears to be an oversized insect to death.  Upon realizing it’s no ordinary insect, he takes it to a museum.  It’s not the first specimen they’ve gotten of this type.  And given that every human that’s encountered them has immediately defaulted to killing them, we can no longer assume that peaceful contact is possible.  Heavy on the infodump.

“Of Time and Cats” has Professor Robert Clyde Bottman, who teaches physics at Columbia University, help out a fellow professor with a defective experimental circuit.  As a result, he ties a knot in time, and multiple iterations of himself keep appearing.  That gets fixed, but not before his friend’s cat also ties a knot in its own timeline.  The best story in this volume, with a humorous touch.

“Cato the Martian” posits a civilization on Mars that has become aware of Earth due to the radio and television waves of the last few decades.  One of the members of the Martian Senate is alarmist about the potential for the violent Earthlings to escape their home world and invade Mars.  He’s been saddled with the insulting nickname Cato, after the Roman politician who wanted to destroy Carthage.

But Cato has taken the name as his own, and gradually won over most of the Senate to his cause.  His plan is to drop atomic bombs on the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to make them think the other has attacked, and start World War Three.   Turns out the plan has one fatal flaw….

“The Cold, Cold Box” is a chilling tale of a Board of Directors meeting where they discuss whether or not to continue committing the crime that has brought them to be de facto rulers of the world.  By rights, they should turn over power to the person they act on behalf of, but things are running so smoothly without that person.  And to be honest, that person was kind of a jerk anyway.   A look at how easy it is to salve your conscience with the other good you’ve done.

“The Martian Shop” concerns the opening of three stores allegedly selling products from Mars.  It’s really more of a vignette than a story, going into great detail about how the shops were set up, the merchandise they had, how bizarre the shop personnel were, etc.  Then there’s a couple of paragraphs at the end revealing what the shops actually are.  Between this story and the Cato one, I’m beginning to see where Alan Moore gets his ideas.

“The Sight of Eden” is the final story.  An exploratory mission from Earth lands on what appears to be a paradise planet.  One that is mysteriously empty.   Still, this is the first sign of an inhabitable world they’ve found, and the first sign of other inhabitants of the universe.  Then they meet the caretaker and learn why the place is empty.  Downer ending.

Overall, decent writing but too reliant on infodumps, and I’ve seen most of these ideas done better.  But if you enjoyed Spartacus and want to see what else Howard Fast wrote, this is a handy start.

Book Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness

Book Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord

Once upon a time, there was a psychiatrist named Hector, who was very good at his job.  But he didn’t feel that he was as good as he needed to be, because he had patients who were unhappy, and he didn’t know how to make them happy.  So he did what any sensible person would do, and went on a round the world trip to learn more about happiness.

Hector and the Search for Happiness

This is the first novel by M. Lelord, which was a big hit in France, then Europe and then did well enough in the United States to be turned into a movie.  It’s spawned two sequels as well.  The book is essentially a self-help book written as a children’s story.  The language used is simple, and it should be readable even by people who aren’t strong readers, with short chapters.

Hector travels from country to country, meeting up with old friends who now live in those countries, and learning something about happiness in each place.  He also spends time “doing the thing that people in love do” with several different women, which is not something I’d put in a children’s book, and I have to wonder if they’d even do it in France.

If you take the book as a series of events designed to introduce different concepts about happiness, it’s mildly amusing and has some good points.  However, the language sometimes comes off condescending (perhaps a translation problem?) and there’s a lot of male gaze going on here when the narrator talks about Hector’s interactions with pretty women.

The story plays coy with the reader by not naming countries except China; most of them will still be recognizable from context.  They’re mostly seen from Hector’s very privileged viewpoint  (sometimes he even admits it).  And perhaps one of the inadvertent lessons of the book is “happiness is easier if you’re friends with a powerful crimelord.”

All that said, I can see why this book was a hit with certain audiences.  If you like your self-help tips mixed with an actual story, this  is one with plenty of interest-holding events.  If, however, you react badly to perceived condescension, this book may not be your best choice.

Disclaimer:  This book review was sponsored through GoFundMe as an incentive reward.

And now, here’s the trailer for the movie.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWFVAIbIkS4

 

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 Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

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

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Last Hope Island

Book Review: Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Review Copy as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.   Some changes may be made before the final publication date of 4/25/17–for example, the index isn’t included in this version.

Last Hope Island

This book opens with Movie Night at the German embassy in Norway, April 1940.  The film shown to Norwegian government officials was Baptism of Fire, a documentary about the invasion of Poland in 1939.  Afterwards, the German ambassador made a speech that roughly translates into English as “Nice country you Norwegians have here.  It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”  Four days later, the Nazis invaded.

Rather than turn over the reins to local fascist Vidkun Quisling as the invaders wanted, King Haakon VII and the remnants of the Norwegian government fought a running battle until they could be evacuated to Britain, where they joined other European governments in exile.  Soon, this “Last Hope Island” and the embattled people sheltered by it were the only thing standing between Nazi Germany and complete victory on the Western Front.

This volume discusses various aspects of the joint efforts of Occupied Europe and the British against the Nazis.  From the early gift of an ULTRA machine by Polish cryptographers so that the British could read German codes, through the contributions of combat-experienced Polish and Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain, the Norwegian gift of its merchant marine, and Resistance fighters of all descriptions, the governments in exile (and General de Gaulle’s Free French) gave invaluable help.   The BBC’s transformation from a stuffed-shirt government branch to a voice of truth and freedom that brought words of encouragement from exiled leaders is detailed.

But all was not beer and skittles.  Pre-War resentments and cultural attitudes often caused misunderstandings and in-fighting.  As it turned out, the British didn’t have the world’s best spy agency, just the world’s best spy novelists, with both MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (who were supposed to be creating and working with Resistance networks) making bungle after bungle.  And once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, Britain’s focus shifted to appeasing these powerful allies even when it went against the interests of the occupied countries.  (This culminated in the shameful betrayal of Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Russians.)

After the war, while the formerly occupied countries of Europe were and remained thankful to Britain and its people for all the help given, they also knew that they couldn’t rely on the island nation to protect them.  So new alliances were formed, and greater cooperation established, eventually leading to the creation of the European Union.

Quite a bit of this is material I had not known before, partially because much of my WWII history reading was done in the 1970s, while some of the source documents were still classified, and partially because my sources were USA-centric.  Various people involved get a stronger focus because they survived the war and became famous, such as Audrey Hepburn, who was trapped in occupied Holland.

There are scattered illustrations (possibly more in the finished product), extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and the full book will have an index.  The writing is clear, and this book should be suitable for bright high school students and up.

The benefits of hindsight are very evident throughout (the end material may or may not be updated to reflect Brexit.)  I do recommend this book to those curious about the relationship between Britain and Occupied Europe; however it is at the same time a fairly narrow subject, but covering a multitude of intersecting fields.  I would recommend having to hand a more general WWII history for reference, and checking the bibliography for more specific works on individual people and incidents.   (The author explains in her foreword that Greece and Yugoslavia were completely cut out of the book due to their different circumstances, so readers with an interest in those countries will definitely need to seek out other material.)

Book Review: The Four False Weapons

Book Review: The Four False Weapons by John Dickson Carr

Richard Curtis, junior partner at the law firm of Curtis, Hunt, D’Arcy & Curtis, is beginning to regret his career choice.  The office-bound life of a solicitor is dreadfully dull for a young man that longs for adventure and secret missions!   Just as he is about to succumb to utter boredom, Mr. Hunt, the acting senior partner, calls Richard in for a conference.  It seems that Ralph Douglas, a wealthy young client of the firm, has noticed odd things going on at a villa near Paris that he rents but does not live at.  It’s probably nothing important, but can Richard dash across the Channel to check in with Mr. Douglas?

The Four False Weapons

As it happens, Ralph is in a bit of a delicate situation between his fiancee Magda Toller, her overprotective mother, and his ex-lover Rose Clonec.  The villa in question was where he put up La Clonec while they were together; it’s supposed to be shut up tight, but someone’s been there recently and turned on the electricity and laid in a supply of champagne.  Ralph can’t contact Rose directly to ask if she’s responsible without arousing the suspicions of Mama Toller.

When the men drive out to the villa, they find a maid who claims that Ralph was there last night (he claims he wasn’t.)  Worse, they find the corpse of Ms. Clonec in an upstairs bedroom.  There are multiple potential murder weapons in the room, but are any of them what actually caused her death?  If Ralph’s telling the truth, then it’s a pretty sweet frame job, but who would do this, and why?  Good thing famous police detective Bencolin has been called out of retirement for this one last  case!

John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was considered a master of the “locked room” mystery, where a crime seems impossible, but this one (the fifth and last Bencolin book) isn’t so much a locked room, as one with too many and contradictory clues that Bencolin must sift through.  At one point early on, he declares that he knows who done it, but not why or how–a couple of chapters later, new evidence turns it upside down, and now he claims to know why and how, but no longer who!

While the puzzle pieces are being assembled, Richard tries to act in the best interests of his client while falling in love with Magda.  This romance subplot is possibly the least necessary element of the book, and comes across rushed and forced.  Much more fun are the antics of newspaper reporter and amateur sleuth Jean-Baptiste Robinson, who keeps guessing almost right.  (He also sports a Hitler mustache, which in 1937 was just eccentric, but a couple of years later would have gotten him lynched.)

The climax is a high-stakes card game where Richard must play Basset, a lost game of kings, to reveal the final clue Bencolin needs to prove who murdered Rose Clonec.  This ramps up the suspense considerably  as Richard doesn’t know whether he needs to win or lose to achieve the detective’s goal.

This isn’t Carr’s best work, but is a fun, light read; worth looking up at your local library if you enjoy older mysteries.

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