Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

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

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

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book Review: 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.

Anime Review: Erased

Anime Review: Erased (Japanese title Boku Dake ga Inai Machi “The Town Without Me” or “The Town Where Only I Am Missing”)

The year is 2006, and Jun “Yuuki” Shiratori is on Death Row for the abduction and murder of three children back in 1988.  Very few people still believe that he’s innocent, considering the substantial circumstantial evidence against him.  One of them is Satoru Fujinuma, a struggling manga artist and part-time pizza delivery driver.   Satoru feels somewhat responsible for failing to save the other children (including one of his personal friends) and not convincing the adults that the simpleminded Yuuki was not the killer.  As a result, Satoru has had difficulty moving forward in life.  But he’s about to get another chance.

Erased: the Town Without Me

It turns out that Satoru has been blessed/cursed with a power he calls “Revival.”  When a tragedy strikes that he could avert, Satoru’s timeline reruns over and over until he fixes the problem.  Unfortunately, this usually works out badly for Satoru himself, so he is made even more frustrated by it.

Satoru’s mother drops by for a visit, and witnesses an event that sparks memories–for the first time she is able to realize that Satoru was right back then, and makes the connection to who the killer really was.  Except that the killer recognized her too, and murders her, framing Satoru for it.  Revival kicks in–

–And Satoru wakes up as his eleven year old self in 1988, before the murders began.  He determines that he needs to stop the killings to change the future, starting with saving the pretty but aloof Kayo Hinazuki, one of his classmates.  But how?

This 2016 anime series was based on a manga by Kei Sanbe, condensing 44 chapters into 12 episodes.  A couple of subplots were axed, the endgame is speeded up, and the events reworked a bit so that each anime episode save the last ends on a cliffhanger.

Satoru starts the series as an unenthusiastic person who worries that he’s a hollow shell; he helps people with his Revival power not out of any interest in helping them, but because it’s the right thing to do.  Over the course of the plotline, as he meets or re-meets people who genuinely wish him well and assist him, Satoru lightens up and learns that he doesn’t have to shoulder burdens alone.

This is important when it comes to Kayo; her situation is more complex than Satoru initially realizes, and working alone he can only delay her death, not stop it.  This results in a reverse Revival, as he must return to the future to gather more clues.

There’s some use of cultural allusion.  A reproduction of The Last Supper painting gives some quick foreshadowing, and the Ryuunosuke Akutagawa story “The Spider’s Thread” is something that the killer uses as a metaphor.  As a child, Satoru was heavily into the superhero shows of the time, and some real ones are mentioned.

Content warnings:  Child abuse is an important part of the 1988 section of the plotline, and domestic violence more generally.  Yuuki is framed as a pedophile by the killer swapping out his porn collection (we see some scantily-clad women on magazine covers.)  And of course the serial killing.  I’d rate this for senior high students and up.

Recommended for those looking for a thriller with fantasy elements and a bit of comedy (child Satoru with adult Satoru’s memories often makes slips of the tongue.)

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal

It is late December, 1941.  The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and America is now at war with the Axis powers.  The United States’ alliance with Great Britain is now an active one, and to cement that alliance,  Prime Minister Winston Churchill has crossed the ocean to confer with  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante

Accompanying Mr. Churchill is secret agent Maggie Hope, posing as a humble typist.  When Eleanor Roosevelt expresses worry about one of her employees who hasn’t shown up for work, Maggie volunteers to go with her to check on Blanche Balfour’s health.  As it happens, that young woman’s health is impaired by the fact that she’s dead, an apparent suicide.  There appears to have been a suicide note implicating Mrs. Roosevelt, but the note itself is missing.  Maggie smells foul play.

This is the fifth Maggie Hope mystery novel; I have not read the previous ones.  This volume is not much of a mystery from the reader’s point of view; we are privy to scenes Maggie is not, so it is really more of a thriller.  Also mixed into the plot are the upcoming execution of a young black man (whose trial stinks on ice) and the British intelligence service trying to find out about Germany’s rocket program.

Ms. MacNeal has done extensive research, and cites her sources in a “Historical Notes” section at the end.  This results in a lot of name-dropping and factoids scattered throughout the book.  I did spot one anachronistic reference; World War Two buffs will know it when they see it.

One of the themes of the book is that leaders are human; they have good qualities, but can also have unpleasant sides, wrong opinions, and do less than good things in pursuit of what they consider more important goals.  Both Maggie and her current lover, benched RAF pilot John, must make difficult decisions about their priorities and what will be the best course of action to win the war.

Thankfully, there’s at least one actual villain in the book to provide some moral clarity–they’re a bad person in every important way, and we can cheer Maggie on as she opposes them.  There’s also some Hope family drama back in England, presumably to set up the next volume in the series.

Maggie Hope herself is (as so often in historical mysteries) a woman way ahead of her time in attitudes and behavior.   It’s sufficiently supported by her special circumstances.

There’s period racism and to a lesser extent sexism and homophobia, as well as that apparent suicide.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries and spy thrillers.

Book Review: The Deaths of Tao

Book Review: The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

Note: This is the sequel to The Lives of Tao and this review may contain SPOILERS for the previous volume.

The Deaths of Tao

Millions of years ago, the Quasing crashed on Earth.  They could not survive in Earth’s atmosphere, and were forced to piggyback inside the native lifeforms.  They managed to survive until a semi-intelligent lifeform appeared.  Since then, the Quasing have guided the humans to create a civilization advanced enough to achieve space travel so that the aliens can get back home.  However, a while back the Quasing split into two factions.  The Genjix consider the humans a servant race to be used and discarded; humanity owes everything it has to the Quasing, and must be prepared to have it taken back.  The Prophus (“betrayers”) think of the humans as partners and want them to have free will.

Now, the Genjix are within sight of achieving one of their major goals–which will have the side effect of wiping out the human race as we know it.  The embattled Prophus and their human allies must find a way to survive and if possible stop this plan–even if it means being stranded on Earth forever.

We have six viewpoint characters in three pairs.  Roen Tan is a former computer whiz who is now the partner of the title character Tao (who used to be the partner of Genghis Khan, among other things).  He’s turned into one of the top agents of the Prophus, but has gone off the reservation for the last couple of years chasing down leads to the latest Genjix plan.

Which has led to a separation from his wife Jill Tan, a Washington, D.C. political aide.  Her partner is Baji, who previously inhabited Roen’s trainer Sonia.  Jill is fighting her own battle against Genjix-sponsored legislation that fits into their world domination plans…somehow.  Something in the complex bill is a deadly trap, but what?

Meanwhile, Genjix Council member Zoras has exhausted his current vessel, and now enters Enzo, a specially-created and trained ubermensch.  Enzo has been designed from birth to be the perfect vessel for one of the Holy Ones, smarter, stronger and more ruthless than any mere human.  Unfortunately, he is well aware of this, and is determined to demonstrate this superiority, which clashes with Zoras’ master planner mindset.  They are in charge of the latest Genjix project, which is achingly close to completion, if they can just hold off the Prophus a little longer.

This science-fiction thriller is fast-paced with interesting characters and a premise that allows both good guys and opponents to show up in surprising ways.    The Quasing being behind almost every event in human history (except the rise of Hitler; that was all us) does get a bit tiring–I’d have liked to have seen that humans have some initiative for positive action.  The Genjix are even behind global warming!

The bad guys indulge in a bit of torture, as well as murderous medical experiments.  There’s also a lot of conventional military violence.

The ending really shakes up the status quo, and Mr. Chu promises that things will get even worse for the characters in the sequel–I’m looking forward to that.

Recommended to SF thriller fans and secret history buffs.

Book Review: Death on a Warm Wind

Book Review: Death on a Warm Wind by Douglas Warner (also published as The Final Death of Robert Colston)

When newspaper editor Michael Curtis witnesses a man being gunned down in front of the Evening Telegram office, he’s startled to realize that it’s Robert Colston, a man who’s already been declared dead twice.  Robert Colston, who has been missing since the disaster at Arminster five years ago, and even now is being sought by the police on unclear charges.

Death on a Warm Wind

This time, Colston is really dead.  But is it coincidence, or something more sinister?  Mr. Curtis allows another survivor of the disaster and a police detective to read the story his reporter originally wrote as a fifth-anniversary piece, one that could not be published.

We read it with them, learning of the teeming throngs of tourists in that pleasant beachside resort town.  We see a number of them in some detail, going about their lives as Mr. Colston does his best Jor-El impression, warning of an oncoming earthquake.  The authorities ignore him, and so do almost everyone else, until the earthquake actually happens, as predicted with uncanny accuracy.  In this crisis, the true nature of people becomes evident; a handsome, wealthy nobleman and sports hero is revealed as a sniveling coward, while a common thief selflessly sacrifices his life for others.

Back in the present day, a weather phenomenon that happened in Arminster occurs again, letting the survivors know that another earthquake is about to happen, but this time in the heart of London!  Can Curtis assemble the proof he needs to warn the public in time?

This 1968 novel is a cross between a disaster story and a thriller, as the protagonist races against time and other obstacles to try to save millions of lives.  The obvious first question is, if Colston, a formerly respected physicist, was able to predict earthquakes with such precision, why did no one listen?  And if his theory was rubbish, discredited by the worlds’ seismologists, why did it work at Arminster?

The characterization isn’t very deep, but is effective.  The author actually got me to shed a tear for a character named Groins Mackenzie!  And the villain of the piece is truly chilling in his motivation, which Curtis guesses wrong at until the last moment.

There’s also some nice moments of dawning horror; the first time the characters realize what the wind shift means; the final confrontation with the villain, and the realization of just what Colston’s “earthquake prediction theory” actually is.

Certain aspects of the plot do rely heavily on contrived coincidences, and the science is dodgy at best.  It would make a terrible movie due to front-loading the disaster scenes.

Of amusement to me was the almost-sex scene in which a young honeymoon couple discover that “abstinence only” education has left them at a complete loss as to how to proceed now they actually can.  (It ends tragically when the earthquake hits.)

A fun read, but don’t engage your brain too much.

Book Review: The Dumb Gods Speak

Book Review: The Dumb Gods Speak by E. Phillips Oppenheim

In 1937, the dying genius Mark Humberstone bequeaths his marvelous inventions to a Council of Seven to be used in the service of peace.  Shortly thereafter, the United States grants independence to the Philippines.  When the Japanese attempt to invade the newly freed islands, their entire fleet is rendered inert.

The Dumb Gods Speak

The story proper picks up on April 14, 1947, in Nice, France.  This is the headquarters of the mysterious International Bureau, an espionage organization run by Mark Humberstone, Jr. and a man named Cheng.  Much rumor swirls around the agency, and the person who calls himself Mr. Jonson has come to join it.  Little does anyone outside the agency realize that it is on the cusp of a great coup–the end of war!

This 1936 novel was written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, a prolific author who mostly wrote spy thrillers and is considered one of the founders of the subgenre.   This one goes beyond techno-thriller and into downright science fiction territory.  The International Bureau uses advanced television (roughly equivalent to satellite TV without the need for satellites) and EMP weaponry; there’s also what appears to be some sort of force field, but that’s only seen as a parlor trick.

The political situation has stayed stagnant (presumably at least in part due to the actions of the Bureau); World War Two never broke out,  but Germany is spoiling for a fight (no mention of the Nazis.)  About the only major change is that Japan has had to set aside its invasion of the mainland due to its naval disaster, allowing China to catch its breath.

The Bureau’s plan is to turn China and Russia into constitutional monarchies, thus making them strong and stable factors for peace.  (Oppenheim was British.)  With that, and the demonstration of the full power of the Humberstone devices, war will be impossible.  Mr. Oppenheim was clearly not familiar with the concept of guerrilla warfare.  He also believed and put into the mouth of a character that without religion as a motivating force, the Russian army would have zero morale and fall easily.  (World War Two disproved that; their leaders might have been bad, their supplies inferior, but the Soviet soldier’s will to fight against invaders is unquestionable.)

Period racism and sexism is on display; Prince Cheng’s plan nearly crashes and burns because he failed to take into account that a woman might not want to marry a man she doesn’t love just because he told her to.  There’s also some not so subtle anti-Semitism.  (One of the villains is mentioned as being obviously Jewish, and there are no other Jewish people in the book.)

Quite a bit of space is devoted to telling us how luxurious the main characters’ lives are, what they eat, the fine wines they drink (they also smoke) and the fancy clothes they wear.  Mr. Oppenheim’s books were very much a predecessor to James Bond in these matters.

Humberstone, Cheng and their respective love interests (everyone is kind of surprised to learn that Cheng actually loves the woman he’s marrying) are kind of smug and omnicompetent, except for that one major bump I mentioned earlier.  More interesting are Mr. Jonson, who is also an omnicompetent as bodyguard/hitman/stage magician, but his loyalties are unclear for most of the story; and Suzanne, a femme fatale who works for the Bureau, who is very fallible and relatively sympathetically portrayed.  (I should mention there are lines in gratuitous French scattered throughout the book without translation, most are easy to figure out from context.)

The actual villains of the story are mostly notable for being completely ineffectual.  Mr. Jonson or the Bureau have been several steps ahead of them all along.

The title is explained near the end, when Cheng explains that the gods of China, long silent, seem to speak to him (and possibly through him) to restore the fortunes of his beleaguered country.

Content warning:  There are a couple of suicides.

There’s some good writing, but Mr. Oppenheim is trying for more utopian wish-fulfillment than serious thinking about the future; I think you would be better served by seeking out his straight-up spy fiction.

Book Review: The Jail Gates Are Open

Book Review: The Jail Gates Are Open by David Hume

Cardby and Son is a detective firm comprised of ex-Chief Inspector Cardby (late of Scotland Yard) and his son Mick.   They’ve been engaged by a consortium of banks to discover where a recent flood of “slush”, counterfeit money, is coming from.  Nick realizes that one way of tracking down forgers is to consult an expert.  As it happens, a former forger of note is being released from Dartmoor Prison, and owes the Inspector a favor.

The Jail Gates are Open
Dust cover image snaffled from seller on Amazon.com

 

While on his way to pick up the soon to be ex-convict, Mick runs into (nearly literally) a man named Milsom Crosby.  Mr. Crosby is a wealthy man who interests himself in the rehabilitation of criminals, especially those who have committed particularly brutal or violent crimes.  He’s at Dartmoor to pick up Bonny Slater, a hard man who’d done time for assaulting a police officer.  Mick is intrigued, but has other business to attend to.

Back in London, Cardby and Son soon have a new client, a Mr. Carter.  It seems his son Kendrick had served a term for bank robbery and recently been released, but failed to come home.  His only communication has been a letter saying that he was under the care of…Milsom Crosby.  When the father tried to visit, he was told that Kendrick was on holiday in south France, but he smells a rat.

Shortly thereafter, a beautiful woman tries to engage the firm for a lengthy but lucrative embezzlement investigation in Barcelona.  The Cardbys point out that this would be better accomplished by a forensic accountant that speaks Spanish, and she is forced to reveal that she is Iris Crosby, and the person she’s speaking on behalf of is her father, Milsom Crosby!

This is a thriller, rather than a mystery, and it’s soon obvious that Milsom Crosby is behind the counterfeiting ring and sundry other crimes.  But this cunning criminal mastermind will stop at nothing to punish those that get in his way–can Cardby and Son save their beloved wife and mother, let alone themselves?

The Tired Business Man's Library logo. The hilt of the knife has "AC for Appleton-Century" and the skull's teeth spell out TBML.
The Tired Business Man’s Library logo. The hilt of the knife has “AC for Appleton-Century” and the skull’s teeth spell out TBML.

 

This 1935 novel is part of the Tired Business Man’s Library, published by D. Appleton-Century Company, and “David Hume” appears to be a pen name (certainly not the famous philosopher!)  There’s a prologue in which the author explains some of the British criminal slang that is used in the book for “authenticity.”

Mick Cardby is very much the protagonist of the story, a young clean-cut fellow who’s athletic, clever and formidable.  We don’t get any background on him except that he has worked with his father in the firm for some years to great success.  His father, as noted above, retired from Scotland Yard, and his old partner Chief Inspector Gribble (a hardened pessimist) is scheduled to join the firm on his own pending retirement.  Both of them, and the various other policemen who show up, are primarily extra hands when Mick is outnumbered or busy doing something that needs concentration.

Milsom Crosby is a clear forerunner of the Bond villain–wealthy, powerful, a veneer of respectability, but a tendency to gloat and not quite as clever as he thinks.  Genre-savvy readers will see his repeatedly taking the choice that will least accomplish the goal of deterring the Cardbys and shake their heads.

As is sadly common in adventure fiction of the period,  women’s roles are limited.  Mrs. Cardby is taken hostage, rescued and otherwise not in the story at all (she has zero knowledge of or interest in her husband and son’s business other than fretting).  An engraver’s pretty daughter, taken hostage to ensure his cooperation with the counterfeiters, is only marginally more useful and mostly serves as a mild romantic interest for Mick.

And then there’s Iris Crosby, who tries to act the femme fatale but is easily thwarted by locking her in a room.  There’s a couple of nasty twists involving her in the final chapter, just so Mick can drive home how completely she’s failed.

Mick is pretty callous about usng violence, and sheds not a tear for a man he sends to his death (even cutting a deal with his murderer later on!)  He’s also willing to use a veiled homophobic slur, Mr. Crosby being quick to take offense at it being directed at him.

This book doesn’t seem to ever have been reprinted, so your chances of finding it outside of hole-in-the-wall used bookstores are slim.  Still, it’s a fun read suitable for unwinding after a long day at work.

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