Movie Review: The Chinese Cat (1944)

Movie Review: The Chinese Cat (1944) directed by Phil Rosen

Six months ago, Thomas P. Manning, businessman and chess expert, was shot to death in his study, the door locked from the inside.  The police have been unable to solve the case.  Daughter Leah Manning (Joan Woodbury) is dismayed to discover that a new book has come out, a roman a clef that accuses her mother of the murder.

The Chinese Cat

Leah learns that famous detective Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is in town, and rushes to his hotel.  She instead finds his #3 son Tommy (Benson Fong) there, which turns out to be a good thing.  Tommy’s a sucker for a pretty face, and convinces his father to take the case.   However, the elder Chan must catch a flight out of town in 48 hours, so there’s no time to lose!

Charlie Chan was invented for the 1925 novel The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers.  He was inspired by real life Honolulu police detectives Chang Apana and Lee Fook.  Mr. Biggers did not like the stereotyped “evil Chinaman” so common in media of the time, so wrote Chan as a hero and clever detective.

Because of the way Hollywood worked back then, movie adaptations of Charlie Chan did not succeed until a white actor wearing heavy “Oriental” makeup was placed in the central role.  Chan was also made somewhat more “stereotypical” by spouting fortune-cookie aphorisms, a move Mr. Biggers did not like.  Nevertheless, Warner Oland’s performance was big box office, and Asian actors were allowed to be in lesser roles, such as Keye Luke as #1  Son Lee Chan.

When Mr. Oland died, the role was taken over by Sidney Toler, who played Chan with a bit more bite to his personality.  He enjoyed the role so much that when Fox stopped making Charlie Chan films, Mr. Toler purchased the rights and got Monogram to continue the series.

The Chinese Cat is one of these late-period films.  The budget had been slashed, and fog is used to minimize the amount of detail needed in outdoor scenes.   Much of the runtime is taken up by the comedy antics of feckless Tommy Chan (who is away from college for reasons he never actually explains) and chauffeur/taxi driver Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland.)  The latter character has also been somewhat controversial, as he plays into stereotypes about African-Americans at the time, servile and superstitious.  The act doesn’t come off as badly as in some of the other Chan films I’ve seen.

Ian Keith has a nicely sinister turn as Dr. Paul Recknik, the criminologist who wrote the accusatory book, and believes that police detective Harvey Dennis (Weldon Heyburn) is shielding Mrs. Manning because he’s sweet on Leah.

Charlie Chan, of course, quickly realizes the importance of a couple of clues the police overlooked, and uses his Chinatown connections to establish the real motive for the murder.  Then there’s a big showdown in a fun house that’s been closed down for the duration of the war.  (The World War Two setting is also reflected in the tight transportation schedule Chan has, and a mention of the Chinese War Relief Fund.)

Keeping in mind the time period in which this film was made and the cultural milieu, this is a fun, light entertainment piece.  Parents of younger viewers may want to explain the concepts of “yellowface” and limited roles for minority actors to their offspring.

Comic Book Review: Daring New Adventures of Supergirl Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Daring New Adventures of Supergirl Volume 1  written by Paul Kupperberg, pencils by Carmen Infantino, inks by Bob Oksner

In the late 1950s, DC Comics decided to protect its “super” trademark by creating a character named Supergirl.   (“Superwoman” had been used in individual stories as Lois Lane’s codename when she temporarily gained superpowers.)  There was a test-run story in which Jimmy Olsen wished a “Super-Girl” into existence to help Superman, and that story was well received by the readers.

Daring New Adventures of Supergirl Volume 1

So it was that in 1959, Superman investigates a crashed rocketship to discover a girl in her teens, who possesses all the same powers he does!  She explained that she was his cousin Kara.   It turns out that Kal-El’s father Jor-El had a previously unmentioned brother named Zor-El who was married to a woman named Alura.  Faced with the destruction of Krypton, instead of building a rocket to escape as Jor-El had, Zor-El had put a protective dome over his home of Argo City.

The dome held, and Argo City was blasted off Krypton in one piece with many survivors.  Unfortunately, the chain reaction that destroyed Krypton also turned the bedrock under the city to deadly Kryptonite.  Lead sheeting was laid down, and the citizens carried on with their lives.  Kara was born some years later.

A meteor shower damaged the dome and the lead sheeting irreparably, and Kryptonite poisoning swiftly began killing the people of Argo City.  Knowing that Kal-El had survived and become Superman on Earth, Zor-El constructed a spaceship from the few remaining uncontaminated materials, and sent Kara to join her cousin.

Superman wasn’t ready to be raising a teenager full-time,  plus he thinks having Clark Kent’s cousin around on a regular basis might compromise his secret identity’s lifestyle.  So Superman has Kara placed in an orphanage under the name Linda Lee, and tells her to lay low–for now Supergirl will be his secret weapon.

Showing considerable faith in the character concept, Supergirl was given her own solo stories as well as guest appearances in her cousin’s comics.  She joined the Legion of Super-Heroes, was adopted in her secret identity and became Linda Danvers, and eventually revealed to the general public.

Supergirl bounced around the DC Universe for years, doing guest appearances, being a back-up feature and eventually having her own series, that was then folded into Super-Team Family.   In 1982, it was decided to put her back into a solo comic, which brings us to the present volume, reprinting issues 1-12 of Daring New Adventures of Supergirl.

As the story opens, Linda Danvers is on a cross-country train from New York (her job there as a soap opera actress is never mentioned) to Chicago, where she has enrolled in Lake Shore University as a freshman.  (This is her third time as a college freshman; her previous schools are also never mentioned.)

Linda meets her new best friend Joan Raymond, who works in the registration office and happens to know of an empty apartment in her building.  Also introduced are new landlady Mrs. Berkowitz (a Holocaust survivor) and handsome but dim neighbor John Ostrander, an aspiring actor.  (No relation to real person comic book writer John Ostrander, who wouldn’t start working in the field until the next year, and not at DC until 1986.)

Another student at the college is Gayle Marsh, a troubled young woman with psychic abilities.  This would be difficult enough, but she’s fallen under the influence of a Mr. Pendergast, who is obsessed with removing “decay” from society.  He browbeats Gayle into mindlinking with him so that their combined intellect becomes a supervillain named Psi.

Psi starts destroying Chicago, and battles Supergirl.  Supergirl makes some good points about the nature of Psi’s actions, and Gayle turns on Mr. Pendergast, transforming him into a misshapen monster that calls itself Decay for its ability to absorb life force and accelerate decay.  Decay rampages until Psi recovers and turns him back into a human, vanishing in the process.

Meanwhile, John Ostrander is given a courier job by a shady businessman, which leads into the next plotline.  A group of people with special abilities calling itself the Gang has just stolen a prototype satellite.  Supergirl interfered, but was stymied by Ms. Mesmer, who has hypnotic talent.   The Gang discovers that their payment was in the hands of Johnny, who failed to deliver as he learned of an audition, and lost the package there.

The Gang abducts Johnny, and this allows Supergirl to track them down, despite the fact that she’s been given a post-hypnotic suggestion that makes her think she’s flying around in her Linda Danvers identity.  (Kara’s identity issues would keep cropping up in this series.)

A nice touch is that the Gang grew up together in the slums of Chicago, and truly care for each other to an extent.  One member, Brains, manages to escape and becomes a recurring problem.

The secret organization that had hired the Gang, the Council, next sends out a robot called Matrix-Prime to do their bidding.  It’s called that because Matrix-Prime can create new, smaller robots and weapons from inside itself to adapt to different situations.

Supergirl manages to smash the Council’s underwater base in Lake Michigan, but the trail goes cold there.

Taking a break at a park concert, Linda suddenly hears a weird noise just before a woman in bandages is attacked from above.  This woman turns out to be Valentina Vostok, the Negative Woman of the New Doom Patrol.

This iteration of the superhero group known for being freaks and misfits is after Reactron, a former military man who was exposed to atomic testing, then exposed to Tempest’s kinetic blasts in Vietnam.  As a result, Reactron can absorb, create and control various forms of radioactivity, including, as it turns out, at least one that can harm Kryptonians.

Supergirl manages to get Reactron out of Earth’s atmosphere, but ill with radiation poisoning, she makes an enemy of a Chicago police detective.  More worrying, she is captured by the Council and subjected to a mad science process that creates six tiny duplicates of her.

Even though weakened, Kara’s Kryptonian physiology prevents her from fully dying from the duplication process.  The Council sends the duplicates after her, and the seven beings have a battle royale inside the Fortress of Solitude.  The duplicates accidentally cure Supergirl of the radiation poisoning and she then defeats them.

But by the time Supergirl returns to the Council hideout, the mad scientist is dead (“you have failed me”) and the trail is cold again.  Her costume is in tatters, which will trigger a change of outfit in the next issue.

This is considered one of the best runs for the character, thanks to being more philosophically nuanced than most while not losing that essential fun aspect of superhero comics.  It was also the last run  for this particular version of the character, as Kara Zor-El was killed off in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The supporting cast is well-used, and the stories flow organically into each other.

Carmine Infantino used his years of depicting the Flash to give Supergirl an impression of speed in her actions.  Linda’s civilian clothes are remarkably frilly, but suit her personality, and give the impression of being selected from a relatively limited wardrobe that would fit into a few suitcases.

Psi’s costume leaves a lot to be desired and raises some questions about Mr. Pendergast’s intentions towards his protege.  Decay may have been closer to the surface of his personality than he’d like to admit.  There’s also some peekaboo nudity with the miniature Supergirl duplicates before they are somehow clothed in identical costumes to their template.

This would be a good choice as a gift for young Supergirl fans who have only seen the TV show, and for the nostalgic Supergirl fan who was around in the early 1980s.

 

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster

While there were several precursors to Superman, he’s generally agreed to be the first full-fledged comic book superhero.  Superhuman abilities, a distinctive costume, and a dual identity, he had them all.   When Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the readers had not seen anything quite like him before, and the comic book flew off the shelves.

The Superman Chronicles Volume One

However, the fellow who appeared in those early issues wasn’t quite the Superman we’ve come to know after all these years.  The “Chronicles” series of reprints gives us full-color reproductions of the stories in order of publication, starting with the very first, plus the covers of the issues.

Action Comics #1 starts us off right with the classic scene of Superman smashing a car into a rock, which turns out to actually happen in the story.   The feature begins with an abbreviated version of Superman’s origin.  The dying planet that sent a single rocketship to Earth (not yet named Krypton), a passing motorist (not yet identified as the Kents) who takes the infant to an orphanage, his growing powers (strength, speed, leaping, nigh-invulnerability) and his determination to use his powers to help those in need.  Clark Kent’s powers are explained by his physical structure being far more advanced than Earth humans, giving him the proportionate abilities of an ant or grasshopper.

The story itself starts in media res, as Superman carries a murderer to the governor’s mansion.  Leaving her tied up nearby, the Man of Steel forces himself past the governor’s servant, and through a metal door to that worthy’s bedroom.  He produces proof that the woman about to be executed is innocent, and stays right there until the governor pardons her.

The next day, Clark Kent is pleased to see that the Daily Star did not print anything about Superman’s involvement.  But the rumor of a superhuman fellow in a bright costume has already come to notice, and the Star’s city editor puts his rookie reporter Kent on the job of discovering the truth.

Kent learns of a wife-beating in progress, but it’s Superman who appears at the scene and roughs up the abusive husband.  The cad faints, and it’s Clark who greets the police.

Next, it’s time to establish the “mild-mannered” part of Clark Kent’s persona.  Clark convinces fellow reporter Lois Lane to go dancing with him, but she’s showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  When Clark backs down far too easily to a hood named Butch who cuts in, Lois is disgusted at his cowardice and leaves the dance hall.

Butch is angered by Lois’ refusal to dance with him, and sets out to abduct her with a few of his criminal friends to teach Lois a lesson.  Naturally, Superman shows up and the cover scene ensues.  The Man of Tomorrow carries Lois home and advises her not to tell anyone.  Sure enough, the next day, no one will believe her wild story.  It will take her a couple of issues to fully process her reaction to Superman.

The Star’s editor has a new assignment for Clark Kent.  South American republic San Monte is having a civil war, and since the home front is getting so dull card games are front-page news (I am now imagining a 1930s version of Yu-Gi-Oh), Kent should go down there and file some war reports.  Oh, pictures would be good too.

Rather than head directly south, Kent first travels to Washington, D.C.  He spots a Senator Barrows being furtively contacted by lobbyist Alex Greer, who’s known to be connected to “dark money” but no one knows whose.  Eavesdropping on their next meeting, Superman learns that the bill Senator Barrows is pushing is designed to entangle America in European affairs.   (We never come back to this plot point.)

Afterward, Superman approaches Greer to find out who his backer is.  Naturally the lobbyist declines to state this information, so Superman picks the man up and starts leaping all over town with him.  He even finds time to impart a science fact about birds and power lines!   His last leap doesn’t quite make it to the next building, and the men begin to fall….

All that in thirteen pages!

Action Comics #2 does not have Superman on the cover; he would not make it back until #7, and thereafter would usually be mentioned in a text box even if the cover was of someone else.

The story picks up where #1 left off, with Superman and Greer landing on the sidewalk.  They survive, the sidewalk doesn’t.   Greer spills the beans on his boss, international arms dealer Emil Norvell.  Superman then uses his considerable persuasive powers to make sure that Norvell travels to San Monte and enlists in their army.

Lois is assigned to go along with Clark Kent to South America.  Lots of things happen, including Norvell learning what it’s like to be on the pointy edge of his munitions, Lois nearly being shot as a spy, Superman just straight up killing a torturer (oh sure, we don’t see him land, but being tossed several miles away?  He’s not going to have a soft landing) and the Man of Steel finding a creative way to stop the war.

The story is followed by an advertisement for the daily Superman comic strip, soon to come out.

#3 has Superman get a neglectful mine owner to improve safety conditions for workers.  (Some ethnic slurs by baddies.)    There’s also an announcement of the first Superman fan club, the Supermen of America.

#4 is Superman kidnapping a college football player for several days to impersonate him in order to prevent a game from being fixed.  As a side effect, it also improves Tommy’s love life.

#5 has Lois Lane get enraged by the editor’s sexism (“no job for a girl”) and trick Clark Kent into pursuing a fake story while she goes off to cover a bursting dam.  Superman saves Lois a couple of times and she admits her feelings for him while still despising Clark.

#6 is the first Superman impersonator story.  A crook dresses his henchman up in a Superman suit and has him do faked stunts of superstrength so that the crook can claim he’s got a legal license to sell Superman merchandise.  Lois easily sees through the fake, but still needs rescuing.  Also has the first Superman-themed song.

#7 has Superman join a failing circus to give it an attendance boost, and reveal the criminals that are trying to take it over.  This is a good spot to mention that Superman’s distinctive costume was partially based on a circus strongman outfit, including trunks worn over tights to keep certain body bulges smoothed out.  This story also introduces Curly, the first of what would be a recurring type of bully who also works at the paper and pranks Clark Kent.  By the end of the story, Clark finds a way to get some payback.

#8 is another classic moment for Superman as a social justice warrior.  He decides to tackle the problem of juvenile delinquency in slum kids–by tearing down the entire slum, thus forcing the government to build them new housing ala FEMA!

Of course, actions have consequences, and in #9, the police bring in Chicago cop Detective Captain Reilly, known as “100% Reilly” for always getting his man.  Reilly’s plan hits a significant snag when he attempts to chisel an informant out of the substantial reward money promised.   Clark Kent is barely able to escape detection, but at the end, the visitor is known as “99% Reilly.”

#10 is another social justice story–Superman goes undercover as a prisoner to expose inhuman conditions imposed by a crooked warden.  (Warning: torture.)

#11 continues Superman’s impersonations.  To expose a crooked oil company, he poses as investor Homer Ramsey and contrives a beautiful scam where he tricks the oil company executives into trading their real money for their own worthless stock.  Environmentalists may cringe at how he does it, though.  (Presumably Superman turns the money he made over to charity.)

#12 has an interesting Zatara cover with a nifty spaceship.  The Superman story has him getting angry at reckless drivers and automobiles that are unsafe at any speed.  So he imposes a reign of terror on the city.  (And admittedly, fixes a particularly bad stretch of road.)  You can just feel Siegel’s outrage boiling off the page as Superman refuses to use doors in his pursuit of strict traffic enforcement.  Also in this issue, an announcement of DC’s second superhero, the Batman!

New York World’s Fair #1 ties into that 1939 event.  Clark and Lois are sent to cover the opening, but Superman spends most of his time helping attractions open on time and thwarting a criminal plot.

Action Comics #13 starts its story with Superman fighting the “Cab Protective League”, a shakedown racket aimed at taxi drivers.  However, we soon meet the first ever evil mastermind to battle Superman.  The Ultra-Humanite is a bald scientist who has given himself super-intelligence (which may or may not have anything to do with his paraplegia.)  Moriarty-like, he’s been secretly behind some of the criminal schemes Superman has thwarted.

His vast knowledge of science allows the Ultra-Humanite to stun Superman, but not kill him.  The evil scientist then appears to die in a plane crash, but Superman is unable to find a body.   He’ll be back several times, until Lex Luthor takes over his ecological niche.

And the volume concludes with Superman #1, as Superman became the first superhero to have his own solo comic book.  Most of the contents were reprinted from Action Comics #1-4.

However, the first story had a new introduction naming Krypton and the Kents for the first time, and establishing that John and Mary Kent had passed away from old age after training Clark in American values.  We then see how Superman learned of the innocent person condemned for murder and where to find the murderer seen in the first story.

The explanation of Superman’s powers now explained that Earth’s lighter gravity aided his advanced body structure to perform his superhuman feats.

Finally, there’s a two-page text story.  These prose stories appeared in comic books to force the post office to classify them at a lower postal rate.  Usually, they weren’t very good.  No exception here.

The art is crude but dynamic, and it’s fun to watch Superman perform his many feats.  This is a rougher-edged fellow who very much has opinions, and isn’t afraid to take matters into his own hands.  Soon he’ll calm down a bit and become more authority-friendly (and develop a code against killing.)  No more random kidnappings!

Highly recommended to Superman fans and those who want to know more about the early history of superhero comics.  Check your library!

 

Manga Review: Case Closed (Detective Conan) Vol. 63/64

Manga Review: Case Closed (Detective Conan) Vol. 63/64 by Gosho Aoyama

Quick recap:  When teen genius detective Shinichi Kudou (Jimmy Kudo in the American version) is shrunk to a childlike form in a botched assassination attempt, he takes the name Conan Edogawa and is taken in by bumbling private eye Kogoro Mouri (Richard Moore) and his daughter Ran (Rachel), who happens to be Shinichi’s sweetheart.  Conan must hide from the international crime organization that changed him, but also finds himself having to solve crimes, despite the fact that first-graders aren’t supposed to be that great at detection.  See my reviews of earlier volumes for more details.

Case Closed Volume 63

In the previous volume, Shinichi had taken an experimental antidote that allows him to assume his normal appearance for a few hours–only to spend most of that time separated from his friends.  As Volume 63 opens, he finally has an hour or two to spend with Ran as himself…or he would, except that they’ve stumbled across a man strangled to death while alone in a moving automobile!  Can Shinichi solve the crime before he shrinks again?

Then Professor Agasa takes the Detective Boys out for sushi on a revolving conveyor belt, only to have an obnoxious food critic be poisoned right by them.

This is followed by a story that the Americanized names makes not make much sense.  Genta Kojima’s (George Kaminski in the dub) father is enrolled in a special televised tournament only for people who write “Kojima” with a specific set of kanji (ideograms).  In the English version, it’s a contest for people who spell the name “Kaminski” that way.  Conan must figure out which of the contestants murdered the organizer of the tournament and why.  He’ll just hope it’s not Genta’s never before seen father!

The last story in the volume is the hunt for the “Silver Witch”, a legendary drift racer.  She seems to be back from wherever she disappeared to a few years ago, and luring mountain racers into auto accidents in the fog.  Has a big twist at the end!

Case Closed Volume 64

Volume 64 opens with the Detective Boys visiting Horn Rock, an isolated islet shunned by fisherfolk due to bad luck (unless you have a child on board.)  They find a scuba diver there, dead of starvation, and a curious inscription she wrote.  The complication this time is that they are accompanied not by Professor Agasa, but grad student Subaru Okiya, who is not in on Conan’s secret, and on whom Ai (Anita) sometimes detects the scent of the Black Organization.  Is he an enemy, or is there something else going on?  This is another case that you need to know kanji to solve.

After that, Kogoro Mouri is called in to help a blind heiress discover which of two scarred men is the boy who saved her life as a child.  Making matters more urgent, the police believe the one who’s an impostor may in fact be the Whistling Killer one of the cops managed to scar years before.

Once the mystery of the scarred boy is solved, the story flows into the Whistling Killer case proper.  The killer did several murders years ago, but seemingly comes out of retirement to kill a man who taunted him on television.  Why now, and what is the significance of the song “Let It Be”?

The final chapter is the setup for a Kaito Kid story.  The flashy thief has again challenged Sonoko’s (Serena) wealthy uncle by claiming he will steal something from a supposedly theft-proof safe.  Or has he?  The challenge letter looks wrong, and Conan smells a rat.   Just who is the real villain here?  Wait for Volume 64 to find out!

Of these stories, I liked the Whistling Man tale the best as it’s good and atmospheric.    The two cases that rely on ideograms for clues suffer badly from the erasure of Japanese language for the American version.   There’s no movement on the myth arc, other than the suspicious behavior of Subaru Okiya.

Recommended if you are a fan of the series; more casual fans may want to wait for the next volume that has actual plot developments.

 

Magazine Review: Detective Fiction Weekly April 8 1939

Magazine Review: Detective Fiction Weekly April 8 1939  (Formerly Flynn’s) by various

Detective Fiction Weekly started publication in 1924 as “Flynn’s”, after its first editor, William J. Flynn, who had previously been director of the Bureau of Investigation before it became the FBI.  It ran regularly under various titles until 1942, when it became a monthly, ceasing publication in 1944 and with a brief revival in 1951.  It primarily printed short action-mystery stories, with a serial or two in each issue.

Detective Fiction Weekly April 8 1939

The issue leads off with “Death of a Glamor Girl” by Richard Sale, starring his series characters “Daffy” Dill (crime reporter with a silver tongue) and “Candid” Jones (tough-guy photographer.)  The story is told through a series of phone calls, telegrams, newspaper articles and letters.  Hollywood starlet Carol DuQuesne has been found murdered, floating naked in her pool with ritualistic knife wounds.  The studio is pulling a cover-up, so Dill and Jones are assigned to the story.

The LAPD does not come off that well, with the implication that they are completely owned by the movie industry (except for one honest cop our heroes befriend.)  The cover painting is a scene from the story, accurate except that Satan is not visible (or mentioned) in the story itself.  I am reminded of the “Crime Does Not Pay” comic book, and the sinister Mr. Crime.

“According to Hoyle” by Hugh B. Cave has a young police detective being disappointed by his latest case.  A two-bit huckster has been murdered, and the primary suspect is another two-bit huckster who might have resented the first one impinging on his territory.  Except he claims to have been in Florida for the last couple of weeks, and has the tan to prove it.  (This was back before tanning beds or good fake tans.)

The detective was hoping for something more like the mystery stories he read as a kid, with rich people, black sheep brothers, and missing love letters.  To his partner’s surprise, the detective manages to find an angle that provides these elements.  (The partner’s more mundane investigation also brings him to the solution.)  This story is very much a period piece, as Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia is a plot point.

“Jongkovski’s Wife” by Howard Wandrei starts with “Junk” Jongkovski being sentenced to prison for a crime he most certainly did commit.  He’s absolutely silent on where the money is, but has publicly declared his intention of murdering his wife Leanna should he ever be free to do so.  This may have something to do with the fact that she was the one who encouraged him into a life of crime in the first place, and promptly absconded with the money and a new boyfriend when Junk got caught.

A big, strong man with a weak ticker, Junk is a stand-up guy for a criminal, and was well-liked in the underworld.  He becomes a model prisoner, and waits patiently for his chance to escape the nigh-inescapable prison he’s in.  Meanwhile, Leanna can find no rest, as Junk’s friends keep finding her.  It gets worse when Junk finally does escape, and disappears without a trace.  He will certainly get his revenge!

The story ends with a chilling double twist which makes it the best in the issue.  You can find it in the anthology The Last Pin, though it was a small press book so good luck on that.

“The Doom Chaser” by William Edward Hayes concerns an association of trucking companies that are being extorted by a voice over the telephone, which becomes known as “The Voice of Doom.”  Private eye Pitcarn is a former FBI man, and could use a break in the case to boost his business.  But the calls have been untraceable, and the Voice is always one step ahead.

“The Eye of the Pigeon” by William R. Cox has Police Chief Buck Harsh being raked over the coals by the new Police Commissioner for not yet solving a bank robber’s murder and the subsequent disappearance of his loot.  The commissioner is convinced it was a gangland affair, but Captain Harsh isn’t so sure, as the deceased man wasn’t the type who worked with gangsters.  Commissioner Tarpoon is a political appointee who is not familiar with police work, and despises the department’s reliance on stool pigeons.

The commissioner may have a point.  Captain Harsh’s informants have come up with nothing.  The commissioner gives Harsh just 72 hours to crack the case, or he’ll be busted down to patrol duty in the goat farm district.  Things are looking dire, until finally Captain Harsh realizes he’s been asking the wrong questions, and the eye of the pigeon is useful after all.  Warning: police brutality.

“Illustrated Crimes” by Stookie Allen is a true-crime feature told in captioned illustrations.  In this case, a mysterious stranger who guns down a man turns out not to be that mysterious.  Or a stranger.

“Red Racket” by Dale Clark surprisingly has nothing to do with Communist agents.  Instead, a tennis player is poisoned on the court, and the only person who could have done it is his opponent, the brother of the detective’s girlfriend.   Nick Carver had better come up with a better solution, or it’s curtains for his love life!

“Sabotage” by Cleve F. Adams is part 5 of 5, and has no “previously” page to orient the reader.  As near as I can make out, “heel” private eye Rex McBride has been called in to deal with sabotage at the dam being built near Palos Verde, a wide open gambling town.  (Pretty clearly inspired by Boulder Dam and Las Vegas.)  It’s a confusing mess without all the setup.  This has been reprinted as its own book, most recently in 2016.

“They’re Swindling You!” by Frank Wrentmore is another regular feature.  This time it talks about fake correspondence schools that supposedly train you in how to get government jobs.  One of the tipoffs is that the courses came with an admonition not to tell anyone that you were taking the course so that they would not sabotage your efforts out of jealousy.  (In reality so they wouldn’t let you know it was a scam.)

There’s a cipher puzzle page, followed by “Flashes from Readers”, letters from the subscribers to the magazine.  The most interesting is from Marian Pattee, who describes herself as a “militant feminist” and asks for more competent female leads.

Fun, but often dated, stuff.  Keep an eye out at garage and estate sales!

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

Sir Hubert Handesley’s weekend entertainments are to die for, so young reporter Nigel Bathgate has been told.  And now, thanks to his well-to-do older cousin Charles Rankin, Nigel will have the chance to participate in one himself.   The game is “Murders”, which should be jolly good fun for the middle-upper crust guests.

A Man Lay Dead

As it happens, Charles has brought along a new toy, a Mongolian dagger said to have associations with a Russian secret society.  That knife ends up in his back when the lights go out.  Did the mysterious brotherhood take revenge for learning their secrets?  Did the two affairs he was having, one with a married woman, create the motive?  Or did Nigel, who will inherit a pile of money from his cousin, decide to speed up the process?

Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard will need all his wits to unravel this puzzle!

This was the first Alleyn mystery published by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), a New Zealand author who cleverly left off her first name of Edith to stand out on the bookshelves.  She spent a fair amount of time in Britain, but New Zealand was her home, and several of the Alleyn books take place there.

As is par for the course with British detective stories, Inspector Alleyn is a bit eccentric.  He carries a notebook which he uses constantly, and claims to have a “filthy memory.”   (His memory is superior to most people’s.)   He’s somewhat upper-class, has an appreciation of the arts, and had originally been in the Foreign Service until an incident (unexplained in this volume) diverted him into police work.

After establishing that Nigel is almost certainly not the killer, Alleyn begins using him as a “Watson” to bounce ideas off of and explain his thought processes to.  (This continues in later stories.)

There’s some exciting scenes involving the secret society, which yes, really exists and endangers several characters.   The solution to the main mystery is a bit unlikely, but well established by clues in the lead-up.   Unlike some other mysteries of the period, the servants in the household are noticed and have roles to play, if only minor ones for most.  (A staff of about a dozen to support two members of the nobility!)  I also like that Inspector Alleyn gets on well with his Scotland Yard subordinates.

One glaring thing:  A use of the N-word by Nigel–keep in mind that this was written in England in the 1930s, so there’s a slightly different context.

If you enjoy Christie and Sayers, you will probably like Marsh as well.   (But the volumes set in New Zealand might be of more interest to someone looking for variety.)

Here’s a TV adapation (some liberties have been taken):

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.

Book Review: The Buried Life

Book Review: The Buried Life by Carrie Patel

Centuries after the Catastrophe that made living on the surface of Earth too dangerous for most humans, Recoletta is a thriving underground city.  Conditions have improved on the surface enough so that there are farming communities up there, but the vast majority of people would rather stay safe, thank you.

The Buried Life

Inspector Liesl Malone of the Recoletta Municipal police force is one of the people keeping them safe.  She’s just finishing up a long case involving explosives smugglers when Malone is alerted to a murder.  It happened over in the wealthy part of town, so needs delicate handling.  The inspector is surprised to learn that the victim is a historian, and disturbed to find that whatever he was working on at the time of his murder was stolen.

Across town, Jane Lin is a specialty laundress for the well-to-do, hand-washing and mending the clothing and other fabric items the Whitenails (so called because they don’t have to do manual labor and can wear their fingernails long) can’t trust to ordinary servants.  Her best friend, reporter Fredrick Anders, informs Jane of the murder, but it has nothing to do with her.  Until, that is, a missing button enmeshes her in the case.

Recoletta is a city of secrets, especially as the Council has forbidden civilians from studying “antebellum” (apparently the Catastrophe was at least partially a war) history, and also banned various kinds of literature deemed unsuitable for the current civilization.  Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar find themselves stonewalled by the Directorate of Preservation, which has the monopoly on historical research, even as the death toll mounts.

Jane Lin, meanwhile, keeps stumbling on clues and finds herself becoming attracted to the suave and darkly handsome Roman Arnault, who has an unsavory reputation and may or may not have anything to do with the murders.  After all, not all dark deeds are connected.  But many are.

The setting has a vaguely Victorian feel, with gaslight and frequent orphanings.  The title comes from a poem by Matthew Arnold.  But this isn’t steampunk as such, and the author doesn’t feel compelled to stick to one era for inspiration.

In the end, this book is more political thriller than mystery, with an ending that upsets the status quo and paves the way for a sequel or two.

One of the things I really like about this book is that the underground cities are not completely isolated from the outside world.  You can go to the surface any time you want, visit farms and other cities, there’s even immigration!  The hermetically sealed civilization has been overdone in science fiction.

A jarring note for me was the infodump characters used at one point in the narrative.  They have names that are too referential to be a coincidence, and feel like the author is just trying to be cute.

Overall, a solid effort that I would recommend to the intersection of science fiction and political thriller fans.

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.

Magazine Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016 edited by C.C. Finlay

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction started publication in 1949.  According to Wikipedia, it was supposed to be a fantasy story version of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as it was at the time, classic reprints mixed with new material of a higher literary quality than was common in the pulps of the time.  Science fiction was added to expand the possible pool of stories.  F&SF has managed to publish fairly regularly ever since, though in recent years it’s bimonthly.  It has a reputation for literate fiction.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The cover story is “The Cat Bell” by Esther M. Friesner.  Mr. Ferguson is a successful actor in the early Twentieth Century, even having a fine house with servants.  One of those servants, Cook, greatly admires Mr. Ferguson.  Mr. Ferguson greatly admires cats, and has nineteen of them that Cook must feed every day.  One day there are twenty cats, and Cook finds herself in a fairy tale.  Content note:  Cook suffers from several of the less pleasant “isms” and isn’t afraid to say so.

“The Farmboy” by Albert E. Cowdrey is set on a distant planet being surveyed by a scout ship.  The crew has discovered a massive deposit of gold, but even if they had room to take it with them, the government would simply confiscate the wealth, giving nothing to the survey crew.  Several of the crew members come up with a scheme to make themselves very rich at the expense of the rest of the crew.  But if you can’t spot the sucker at the poker game, it’s probably you…some unpleasant sexism.

“Between Going and Staying” by Lilliam Rivera takes place in a future Mexico even more dominated by the drug cartels.  Dolores is a professional mourner using the newest bodysuit technology.  She’s been making very good money performing for the wealthy, but this funeral is personal.

There are two book review columns, one by Charles de Lint, in which he admits not being fond of psychological horror.  The other is by Chris Moriarty and focuses on books about human survival.

“The Vindicator” by Matthew Hughes is the last story in his current cycle about Raffalon the thief.  Raffalon is a mediocre burglar in the sort of fantasy city that has a Thieves’ Guild.  For some reason a Vindicator (assassin) is after Raffalon, and the Vindicator’s Guild isn’t being helpful for calling it off.  Raffalon hires a Discriminator (private investigator) and the truth turns out to be explosive.

A relatively rare Gardner Dozois story follows, “The Place of Bones.”  A scholar and his companion discover the Dragonlands, where dragons go to die.  More of a mood piece than a proper story.

“Lord Elgin at the Acropolis” by Minsoo Kang involves a police officer and writer meeting to consider the problem of a museum director who believes that one of the paintings in the museum is fake, despite no other evidence.  Is he just crazy, or is there another explanation?

“Special Collections” by Kurt Fawver is a horror story about a library with a section you must never enter alone, which is the first rule.  And then there’s the second rule….

David J. Skal reviews High-Rise for the film section, and compares it to the J.G. Ballard novel.

There’s the results of a contest for updating older science fiction works to today’s world.  Including a “Dishonorable Mention” update of 1984.

“A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley is set in a city where all disputes between the two major parties are settled by specially trained duelists.  Except that one side doesn’t want to play by those rules any more.  Very satisfying story.

“Passelande” by Robert Reed takes place in a depressing near future with electronic backups for people who can afford them.  Backups who have their own feelings and motivations.  This one grated on me, as I felt the characters had their motivations poorly explained/depicted.

“The Rhythm Man” by James Beamon is a variant on the legend about talented musicians selling their souls for skill or fame.  A lot of set-up for one great scene at the end.

And the stories wrap up with “Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You” by Sandra McDonald.  It’s a dystopian tale of a gift-making community that ensures none of its children can truly escape.  But perhaps there is a ray of hope?

There’s an “Easter egg” in the classified ads, and then an index of stories and features that appeared in 2016’s issues.

I liked “The Vindicator” and “A Fine Balance” best, though “The Cat Bell” was also quite entertaining.  “Passendale” was the weakest story for me.

This magazine has consistently high quality stories and some nice cartoons; consider a print or Kindle subscription.

 

 

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