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 Tuesday Club Murders

Book Review: The Tuesday Club Murders by Agatha Christie

Author Raymond West has what he thinks is a smashing idea.  A series of Tuesday night gatherings where the six people present discuss mysteries they’ve run across, particularly juicy murders.  In addition to himself, there’s an artist, a lawyer, a clergyman, a retired Scotland Yard commissioner, oh, and his Aunt Jane.  She’s a darling maiden aunt who has seldom left her home village, and is obsessed with knitting, but she might have an insight or two.  But he needn’t have worried about her falling behind, for Miss Marple knows a thing or two about human nature.

The Tuesday Club Murders

Agatha Christie’s beloved elderly lady of detection first appeared in these short stories beginning in 1927.  The collection of them in a book (originally titled The Thirteen Problems) didn’t happen until 1932, so The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is the first Miss Marple book.  The format of the first six stories is the Tuesday night meetings, beginning with “The Tuesday Night Club” and ending with “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter.”  Then Sir Henry Clithering, the retired Scotland Yard man, gets Miss Marple invited to a dinner party where six more mysteries are told, from “The Blue Geranium” to “The Affair at the Bungalow.”

The last story, “Death by Drowning” has  Miss Marple ask Sir Henry to look into a young woman’s apparent suicide–she’s figured out what actually happened, but has no proof.

Miss Marple’s primary method is finding analogies.  Although she has seldom left her largish village of St. Mary Mead, Aunt Jane has had a long life and a keen interest in the people around her (and an ear for gossip.)  Thus she can almost always find something in her past that is reminiscent of the case at hand, and gives her the clues she needs.

Despite the title, not all of the stories involve a murder; “Ingots of Gold” for example is about a robbery.  Some of the tales may be more difficult for a reader to unravel due to them becoming dated; one relies on older British slang, while another requires a knowledge of obsolete work practices.   On the other hand, one of the tales has a trick ending of the type that made Ms. Christie’s work famous.  There’s some period sexism and classism, and one story involves domestic abuse.

While not Agatha Christie’s best work, and Miss Marple would have some character development in later books, (she’s kind of smug here) these are fun short mysteries that are very much of a time and place.

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.

When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains.  One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.

Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 2

This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced.  He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.

Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat.  Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.

Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him.  The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.

At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself.  (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?)  Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.

Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston.  There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.

After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir.  (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)

Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places.  Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches.  Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint.  (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)

Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that.  Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta.  Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails.  Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual.  (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)

These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that.  Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)

In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner.  There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced.  Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)

And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down.  Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.

Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.

Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler

The title of this volume is slightly misleading; “locked room” stands in for the general idea of impossible crimes in mystery stories.  A man  is found stabbed in the back in a windowless room with the door locked from the inside.   A woman is strangled in the middle of a snowy field, but the only tracks are her own.  Precious jewels disappear from a safe that hasn’t been opened.  It’s a thriving subgenre of the mystery field.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

This book starts with a selection of the most reprinted stories of this type, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and G.K. Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man.”  After these, which most readers will already know the endings to, the remaining stories are grouped by category, such as stabbings or impossible thefts.   A wide swath of famous mystery authors is included, and some more obscure writers with particularly good stories.    At least one of these stories has not been reprinted before.

Not all of these stories are “fair-play” mysteries where the reader can figure out the solution from the clues given, but they all play by the important rules of the subgenre.  It’s never as simple as “there’s a secret passage” and the murder itself is never accomplished by the paranormal.    Some of the stories are tinged with the possibility of the supernatural (Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case” is not one of them, surprisingly), but the solution is always possible, if highly implausible.  (Seriously, random Ourang-Outang attack in the middle of Paris?)

The genre-savvy reader will be able to figure out many of the stories before they end, especially as a couple of them use the same dodge as earlier ones in the volume.  Still, there are often other twists that distinguish the story, such as “The Wrong Problem” by John Dickson Carr, where solving the murder isn’t the real mystery; and “The House of Haunts” by Ellery Queen, which features the overnight disappearance of a three-story stone house, foundations and all!

The stories were mostly written in the Twentieth Century, and the first half of it at that, so there’s some period racism and sexism.  (The Flying Corpse” by A.E. Martin relies a lot on the narrator being unable to follow his wife’s “woman logic” )   I should also mention that at least one of the stories has the “it was suicide disguised as murder” solution, which may be triggery for some readers.

This book would make a terrific gift for the mystery-lover on your holiday list, or for yourself if locked-room mysteries are your thing.  I do have one caveat; the cover is a bit flimsy for the size of the book, and will not stand up well to more vigorous transportation.

TV Review: Checkmate | Colonel March of Scotland Yard | I’m the Law

TV Review: Checkmate | Colonel March of Scotland Yard | I’m the Law

Time for more old-time TV!  Checkmate was a 1960-62 series about a detective agency of the same name based in San Francisco.  Don Corey (Anthony  George ) and Jed Sills (Doug McClure) out of Corey’s plush apartment, and employ Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot), noted criminology professor, as a consultant.  The agency specialized in attempting to thwart crimes that had yet to be committed.

Checkmate

I watched two episodes on DVD:

  • “The Human Touch” :  The focus is on Dr. Hyatt, as a master criminal (Peter Lorre) he caught years ago is out of prison and wants revenge.  The two men are both very proud of their brains, and we get a lot of cat and mouse dialogue as they try to outsmart each other.  The revenge plan is nifty, but fails due to the title factor.  A fun episode!
  • “Nice Guys Finish Last”:  A more somber story, in which the Checkmate regulars play only a small part.  Instead, the main character is a police lieutenant who is denied promotion because of his obsession with a certain wealthy man about town.  (The man may have even directly intervened to quash the promotion.)  The wealthy man hires Checkmate to protect him from the police detective.   When the lieutenant has an opportunity fall into his lap to destroy his enemy, he takes it,, much to his cost.  An interesting aspect of the story is that it is never proven the rich man did anything wrong, even the one thing that set the policeman on his trail in the first place.  He just acts like a dirtbag, and I for one wanted him to be brought down.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard was a 1955 British series starring Boris Karloff as the eccentric head of the Department of Queer Complaints at Scotland Yard.  The premise was based on a book by John Dickson Carr, a master of locked room mysteries.  March wore an eyepatch (never explained) and was a playful chap who enjoyed a good puzzle.  Sadly, most of the episodes have been lost.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard

The episode I saw was “Error at Daybreak.”  As it happens, Colonel March is on holiday at the seashore, and reading a book on “The Psychology of Crustaceans” when a millionaire with a weak heart dies nearby.  The body is lodged between rocks and impossible to move, but March discovers blood by the corpse, and a mysterious sharp metal rod on the ground nearby.  March suspects murder rather than heart attack, a suspicion given credence when the corpse disappears before the police proper arrive.  The real solution lies in a little boy’s rubber ball.  Pleasant, but not Karloff’s best work.

I’m the Law ran in 1953, and starred George Raft as New York Police Lieutenant George Kirby.  Kirby had been a stage dancer before joining the police force, and never carried a gun.  Mr. Raft’s career was in a steep decline at the time, and was one of the first big-name film stars to be reduced to steady work in television as opposed to special guest appearances.

I'm the Law

Still, the series benefited from his tough-guy air and screen presence.  My DVD had three episodes.

  • “The Cowboy and the Blind Man Story”:  Kirby is contacted by a singing cowboy star (loosely modeled on Roy Rogers) to investigate a stalker of the singer’s current girlfriend.  That lady turns out to be a sharpshooter and fully capable of taking care of herself.  Except a shot comes in through her window, just missing her.  In the office of a blind record promoter across the street, the stalker turns up dead of lead poisoning.  Could be the sharpshooter, but her guns don’t match the bullet.  So who?  Pretty obvious to the genre-savvy.
  • “O Sole Mio”:  A boy’s father is gunned down in Central Park, with only the boy and an organ grinder as witnesses, and the organ grinder was looking the wrong way at the time.  Kirby takes the boy under his wing before the kid gets too far down the road to becoming Batman, and discovers the father had a taste for the horses and too much money for his day job.  The idea of a police woman is treated with some disbelief by the boy, and a subplot involving a seedy newsstand vendor and a juvenile delinquent turns out to be an entire red herring.
  • “The Trucking Story”:  A dockworker is killed in what is reported as an accident, but is pretty clearly an “accident.”  An elderly peddler who was friends with the dockworker calls on Kirby to investigate beyond the official report.  Kirby goes undercover and discovers that the shipping company is sending more than glassware to China.  The dockworker’s union is seen protecting its members from  abusive behavior by the bosses (one of the reasons the death had to be an “accident.”)

It’s an okay series, but relies a bit too heavily on eccentric minor characters to play off the strait-laced George Raft role.

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