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.

 

 

Book Review: Minnesota Vice

Book Review: Minnesota Vice by Ellen & Mary Kuhfeld

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

Minnesota Vice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977 edited by Ellery Queen

Having enjoyed a recent issue of this magazine, I decided to root around for an older copy.  This one was published in December 1976, but the cover date was a month ahead.  Frederic Dannay (half of the “Ellery Queen” writing team) was still editor at this point, as he would be until 1981!

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine January 1977

We open with “Jode’s Last Hunt” by Brian Garfield.  Mr. Garfield is better known as the writer of Death Wish,  which was turned into a hit movie starring Charles Bronson.  This story, his first in EQMM, stars Sheriff Jode, who was a big hero in his Arizona county when he first started.  But that was a couple of decades ago, and between  competent policing and a naturally low crime rate, Jode hasn’t hit the headlines in years.  When a former rodeo and movie star turns eco-terrorist, the near-retirement sheriff sees one last chance at fame.  This one was collected in Great Tales of Mystery and Suspense in 1985.

“The Final Twist” by William Bankier is set at a small advertising firm where the boss is a bad person who managed to offend each of his workers individually and as a group.  His employees decide he needs to die, but they want to make it look like suicide.  How can they best use their skills to this end?  This one was turned into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1986.

1976 was the year of the Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Thanks to that, there was a huge market for stories set during the American Revolution and 1776 in particular.  Fitting in one last story on the theme for the year is “The Spirit of the ’76” by Lillian de la Torre.  It details a bit of secret history when Benjamin Franklin’s grandson is kidnapped and Dr. Sam: Johnson is tapped to track the lad down, with the help of faithful Boswell, of course.  The story perhaps is too eager to have Mr. Boswell praise the inventive American, especially given the political situation.  This one was collected in The Exploits of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector in 1987.

“To Be Continued” by Barbara Callahan is about a young soap opera fan who discovers that she has an unexpected connection with one of the characters.  There’s a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a gay man for the time period, but the treatment of mental illness may strike some readers poorly.  I did not find any reprints of this one.

“C as in Crooked” by Lawrence Treat is a police procedural starring Detective Mitch Taylor.  He’s assigned to look into a burglary involving a very rich and important man (which is why a homicide detective is working a burglary case.)  Mitch quickly notices that the person in charge of security for that and several other robbed homes is an ex-police officer.  Personal problems for both Mitch and his boss delay the investigation until the next morning, when it has become a murder case.  Mitch cracks the case, but he may not get the credit.  I did not find any reprints of this one.

“‘Twas the Plight Before Christmas” by Hershel Cozine is a poem parodying the famous A Visit from Saint Nicholas and has Santa Claus being murdered by Ebenezer Scrooge.  Don’t worry, kids, there’s a happy ending.

There are two “Department of First Stories” (authors being professionally published for the first time) entries in this issue.  “After the Storm” by L.G. Kerrigan is a short piece about a murder during a rainstorm.  It’s vivid but slight.  “A Pair of Gloves” by Richard E. Hutton is a chiller about a man trying to buy a Christmas present despite the presence of a downer street person who seems to have a grudge against the store.  The ending is telegraphed.  Neither seems to have been reprinted.

Four brief columns follow, two of book reviews (one blatantly pushing items for sale by the magazine’s publisher), one of movie reviews (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and Marathon Man are highlighted) and a short interview with Dick Francis, former jockey and famous for his racing-related mysteries.

“With More Homage to Saki” by Isak Romun is a short tale of a wealthy gourmet who will do anything to keep his personal chef working for him, up to and including blackmail.  But the chef has prepared his own delicious dilemma.  Foodies will enjoy this one best, I think.  Another I cannot find a reprint of.

Next up is from “The Department of Second Stories”, where EQMM also bought the author’s second effort.  “The Thumbtack Puzzle” by Robert C. Schweik features Professor of Bibliography Paul Engle.  During a talk the professor is giving, the narrator (his bookstore-owning friend) discovers that a visiting chemist’s work has been tampered with, and perhaps stolen.  There’s only a handful of viable suspects, but which, and can it be determined with only a thumbtack as a clue?  The solution hinges on the peculiarities of German typewriters.  No reprint here, either.

“Raffles and the Shere Khan Pouch” by Barry Perowne has the gentleman thief (and devoted cricket player) and his sidekick Bunny visiting India.  There they run into Rudyard Kipling and Madame Blavatsky while attempting to steal rubies.  This is made more complicated by a British diplomatic pouch having gone missing, making the authorities more alert.  There’s perhaps a bit too much coincidence for the story to be plausible, and the epilogue spells out who Kipling is for particularly obtuse readers, but Raffles is always a delight.  This story was reprinted in Raffles of the M.C.C. in 1979.

“Please Don’t Help the Bear” by Ron Goulart is the sad tale of a Hollywood animator with a fur allergy and a penchant for another man’s wife.  Mr. Goulart is perhaps better known for his science fiction, but mostly for his humor, though this time it’s gallows humor.  The narrator is his “Adman” character who has a habit of meeting murderers and murder victims and never saving one.  This story may or may not be reprinted in Adam and Eve on a Raft: Mystery Stories published in 2001.

“Etiquette for Dying” by Celia Fremlin concerns a woman whose social climber husband has taken ill at a dinner party whose hostess is well above their class.  Is he just rudely drunk or is there something more sinister going on?  This one is reprinted in A Lovely Day to Die and Other Stories (1984).

And finally, we have a story by prolific author Edward D. Hoch, “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple.”  It’s a Dr. Sam Hawthorne story, as the retired physician remembers the winter of 1925.  A parson is found stabbed to death in a steeple, the only suspect being the “gypsy” chief found in the steeple with him.  But due to physical infirmity, that suspect could not have committed the murder.  The treatment of “gypsies” may rankle modern readers, but it’s a story written in the 1970s about the 1920s.  This story was reprinted in Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (1996).

There are also a couple of limericks by D.R. Bensen, typical of the genre.

This is overall a good issue, with some fine writers.  You can try combing garage sales, but you might have better luck contacting other collectors.

And now, an audio adaptation of “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple”:

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/eqmm/episodes/2015-12-01T09_27_41-08_00

 

Manga Review: Case Closed Vol. 59

Manga Review: Case Closed Vol. 59 by Gosho Aoyama

Quick recap:  When teen genius detective Shin’ichi Kudou (Jimmy Kudo in  the American edition) is targeted by a mysterious criminal organization, the experimental poison used shrinks him to child size rather than killing him.  Assuming the identity of Conan Edogawa, the pint-sized sleuth moves in with incompetent private eye Kogoro Mouri (Richard Moore) and his daughter Ran (Rachel), who is Shin’ichi’s love interest.  Now Conan solves mysteries, but must be more clever in how he lets the police know whodunit, as his true identity and capabilities must remain secret.

Case Closed Vol. 59

In the volume to hand, #59, the Rena Mizunashi subplot has a shocking conclusion…at least for now.  The Black Organization seems to be fooled, but for how long and at what cost?

Then Kogoro’s ex-wife Eri (Eva) keeps an appointment at the hairdresser’s, only to have the beautician’s ex-boyfriend turn up dead nearby.  Conan must break a seemingly perfect alibi.  There’s another near-miss for Eri and Kogoro getting back together.

The “Centipede” case follows, as two families’ sons are murdered in bizarre fashion, each with a centipede dropped near the corpse.  The parents initially suspect each other due to a long-standing feud, and Kogoro and Osakan teen detective Heiji (Harley) are called in on opposite sides.  Heiji and Conan quickly ally as more murders happen according to a pattern inspired by famous samurai Lord Shingen and his battle motto, “Fuurinkazan.”

This case also introduces a new police character, Kansuke Yamato of Nagano.  He’s crippled and scarred from an avalanche, which has the advantage of making him very distinctive and unlikely to be confused with the many other cops in this series.  He independently works out the identity of the killer, but the younger detectives are still very useful.

The volume concludes with Eisuke, Rena’s brother, returning to school and being talked into a karaoke party.  Conan spots an FBI agent tailing Eisuke, but when the agent then turns up dead, is Eisuke the killer, or is it the Black Organization…or someone with no connection to that case?  You’ll need to wait for the next volume to find out!

As always, the art is decent, and the writing fun.  I really appreciated that the new police detective was competent and didn’t need to be handheld by Conan as so many of the others do.  The only real flaw is that the first chapter depends so heavily on previous knowledge of the Rena subplot that it’s likely to be confusing to someone who picked up the book randomly.

The U.S. release is still years behind Japan, so it may be a while before we learn the next parts of the subplots.

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.

Book Review: The Black Bat #1: Brand of the Black Bat & Murder Calls the Black Bat

Book Review: The Black Bat #1: Brand of the Black Bat & Murder Calls the Black Bat by Norman Daniels (writing as G. Wayman Jones)

Tony Quinn was a handsome, wealthy and highly competent district attorney until the day of Oliver Snate’s trial.  This time he had proof of the gangster’s illegal activities, actual recordings of Snate openly talking about his crimes.  But Snate had a plan to destroy the evidence.  Out-of-town criminals infiltrated the courtroom, and when the recordings were brought out of their protective cover, the thugs caused a riot.  One of them hurled a bottle of vitriol on the recordings, incidentally also hitting D.A. Quinn, who had moved to protect the evidence.

The Black Bat #1

The acid hit Tony’s face, horribly scarring him, and more importantly, rendering him blind!  With the key evidence destroyed and a less effective prosecutor filling in, Snate’s slick lawyer was able to get the case dismissed.  Without his sight, Mr. Quinn thought his career was over, and the medical experts told him there was nothing they could do.  Tony became a hermit, aided only by his manservant “Silk” Kirby, a former conman who’d reformed to help Tony against an earlier assassination attempt.

Then a mysterious woman arrived, who told Tony that if he secretly went to a certain town in Illinois, there was one doctor that could cure his blindness.  After a period of recovery, not only could Tony Quinn see again, but he now possessed the ability to see in the dark!  Remembering how Snate had mocked him as “blind as a bat”, Tony decided to conceal his new abilities, and operate as the mysterious vigilante, the Black Bat.

In one of those interesting coincidences comic book history is littered with, the Black Bat first appeared in Black Book Detective about the same month that Batman first appeared in Detective Comics.  And it very much was a coincidence–the pulp character was called “the Tiger” in the original draft, from the striped facial scars.  But the publisher of Black Book Detective wanted him to be the lead character in that magazine, so he was rewritten into a darker mode, drawing on much the same cultural influences that Bob Kane and Bill Finger used to create Batman.

The two very similar characters brought about mutual threats of lawsuit–but the companies settled on an agreement that Batman would appear in comics only, while the Black Bat would stick to prose.  We’ll get back to that later.

Back in the story, Oliver Snate has graduated to making armored cars vanish on a regular basis.  He’s smart, but not that smart, so the Black Bat suspects a criminal mastermind at work.  The Black Bat begins his plan by interfering with a bank robbery.  A ex-boxer named Jack “Butch” O’Leary and the mystery girl, Carol Baldwin, get caught up in this and join the Black Bat’s team.  The Black Bat also makes an enemy of Detective Sergeant McGrath, an honest policeman who wants to arrest the vigilante for breaking the law.  McGrath catches on to the connection between the Black Bat and Tony Quinn quickly, but is never able to prove they’re the same person.  (Police Commissioner Warner also suspects, but is much less motivated to catch the Bat.)

It turns out that Carol’s father was a police officer who’d been blinded by Oliver Snate in a different way some years before.  Dying, he convinced Dr. Harrington, a brilliant surgeon living in obscurity for reasons never discussed, to transplant his intact corneas and other vital bits into Tony Quinn’s eyes.  (Dr. Harrington is declared dead offstage at the beginning of the second story, so we never follow up on him.)  Carol and Tony are strongly affectionate towards each other, though they both know romance is out of the question.

Now that all the pieces are in place, it’s time to run Snate to earth, and expose the true villain behind him.

Our heroes are pretty cold-blooded about killing; Tony and Silk don’t hesitate to shoot criminals even before they become vigilantes, and the team racks up quite a body count by the end.  Perhaps the most brutal moment is when the Black Bat straight up murders a parked getaway driver so that bank robbers will be forced to use a car he’s gimmicked to record their voices.

The Black Bat’s double life is a recurring problem; he must often cut investigations short and hurry home so that poor, blind Tony Quinn can be seen to still be blind and most certainly not running around in a hood and cape.

Carol’s backstory has her be an effective solo operator until she joins the team, at which point she never takes initiative any more, just doing whatever the Black Bat assigns.  Yes, she does get into peril a lot and need to be saved, but Silk and Butch are about equally peril-prone.

In the second story, several elite jewelry emporiums discover that large portions of their stock have turned counterfeit, seemingly overnight.  One owner is apparently driven to suicide, while another consults Tony Quinn (who used to be his lawyer before being elected district attorney) before apparently driving off a cliff in an exploding automobile.  When a hitman shows up to kill Tony, he realizes that the crooks behind this bizarre series of events must think he knows more about what’s going on than he really does.  Time to become the Black Bat!

Freed of having to do a lot of set-up, this story is more of an action-mystery with plenty of suspects.  There’s a nasty torture scene, though the cover switches Silk with Carol for the equivalent peril.   The bad guys’ major weak point turns out to be that the field leader of the thieves is obviously planning to betray his boss just as soon as he has the loot.  There’s some ethnic stereotyping.

One neat bit that comes up is that Tony’s scars make the Black Bat not be a master of disguise.  He can disguise himself a bit, but he’s no man of a thousand faces, leaving that to the clever Silk.

Now, remember that deal I mentioned a few paragraphs ago?  Eventually, the publisher of Black Bat wanted to adapt some of the magazine stories to comic book form.  But they couldn’t use the name “Black Bat,” so he was changed to the Owl.  Oops, by the time the art was finished, someone had started publishing another superhero named “the Owl.”  So the script was quickly changed by Raymond Thayer to call the main character “the Mask.”  “The Mask Strikes” from Exciting Comics #1 is the first half of “Brand of the Black Bat” with a few names changed, and the hero wearing a noticeably bird-themed hood.  Very compact art that gets a lot done in a few pages.

The Black Bat’s origin went on to inspire comic book characters Dr. Mid-Nite and Two-Face.  Batman-related character Cassandra Cain took up the name Black Bat for a few issues before a reboot made her vanish (the latest version of her is now called “Orphan”), and the Tony Quinn Black Bat finally got to appear in comics in a series from Dynamite.

Recommended for pulp fans, and fans of two-fisted vigilantes who don’t pull punches when dealing with criminals.

 

Comic Book Review: Noble Causes Archives, Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Noble Causes Archives, Vol. 1 written by Jay Faerber

Liz Donnelly is nervous about meeting her future in-laws.  After all, she’s just a normal bookstore manager, and they’re the Noble Family, celebrity superheroes, beloved across the world.  Her fiance Race Noble is nice enough, but Liz soon learns that behind the glitzy facade, the Noble family has severe problems that are tearing them apart.  When tragedy strikes, it could be the ending of Liz’s world, if not everyone’s.

Noble Causes Archives, Vol. 1

This Image Comics offering was a series of miniseries before getting approved for an ongoing (with a soft reset.)  It takes the soap opera aspects of modern superhero comics, and the idea of superheroes as celebrities, and runs with it.  Indeed, the soap opera is so central that it’s several issues before we see one of the family do something that matches the “hero” part of the genre.

At the beginning, the family consists of “Doc” Noble, an inventor/adventurer who has retreated into his laboratory more and more as the years have gone by, rather than interact with his brood; his wife Gaia, a nature mage from another dimension who craved the celebrity lifestyle and has crafted the family’s public image; Icarus, Doc’s robot assistant, who considers himself the dutiful son; Rusty, who recently suffered an “accident” that required transplanting his brain into a robotic body; Celeste, Rusty’s gold digger wife, who was unfaithful to him even before he became all metal; Race, a super-speedster who has the best emotional balance of the crew; Krennick, Race’s best buddy and son of family enemy Draconis, who has an unrequited thing for; Zephyr, only daughter and a rebellious teenager whose promiscuity has gotten out of hand; and Frost, Gaia’s son by a brief affair, who officially does not exist, and has been sleeping with Celeste.

Liz’s marriage to Race helps precipitate a series of events that bring to light several family secrets and relationship crises.  The series is really good at issue-ending cliffhangers.

This black and white reprint volume covers up to issue #12 of the ongoing, and the resolution of the Zephyr pregnancy plotline.  There were a number of back-up stories that flashed back to events before Liz met the family; instead of being bundled with the main stories of each issue they were published in, they have been placed at the end of the volume.  These stories explain some motivations and sometimes make the characters’ actions more sympathetic.

Content warnings:  There’s a fairly gory scene early on, a lot of talk about sex (and some near-sex scenes) and some rather disturbing implications in the backstory.   I’d say senior high school and up for readership.

Many of the characters are not particularly likable.  (When Doc suddenly starts being a somewhat better husband and father, Gaia worries that he’s terminally ill.)  But there are enough of them that are sympathetic or enjoyable to keep reading.

The art is by a number of different creators, mostly in the decent to acceptable range.

Recommended to comic book fans who are really into the soap opera aspect.

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