Damned

damnedIts October so I have decided to read “horror” novels. Well, it is not as simple as that, but that is close enough. I do not read a lot of horror, so I halfway dedicated October to reading horror genre items – or things that are close-enough to horror, I suppose. It is, again, an effort to clear books from shelves and to make myself read things other than I normally read. I wanted to start off the month kind of “light” (i.e. no absolutely terrorizing horrific fiction) and so I pulled Damned by Chuck Palahniuk (b. 1962) off of the shelf.  Damned was published in 2011 and is Palahniuk’s eleventh novel (I think, maybe twelfth). I think most people on the planet recognize him as the author of Fight Club (1996).

Damned is a strange read. According to Wikipedia, its structure is based upon Judy Blume’s novels for young women. I have no referent for Judy Blume other than you see books compared to her books once in awhile. So I will have to take Wikipedia’s word for these facts. I suspect it is because the main character/narrator of Damned is a 13 year old girl.

The best thing about the narrator is her deadpan (seriously, no pun intended) delivery of her story. I mean, even in the most heinous scenes, the most excitement the book can offer, she remains fairly deadpan, practical, and level-headed. I mean, as she relates the story of her (short) life on earth, she maintains a healthy honesty and skepticism that makes her seem a reliable narrator. The fact that she “wakes up” in a cell in hell and is able to quickly assess her situation and be mindful of keeping her attire clean is a remarkable achievement for a thirteen year old, I think.

I am unsure whom she is narrating to. The novel has little headings at the start of the chapter in which the girl addresses Satan – but yet, she has not met this creature so it seems like a placeholder. Many times during her narrative she directly addresses the reader – as the living, of course, and counsels or goads them regarding their continuing to live while she is, of course, deceased. Madison, which is her name, is not even sure how she came to be dead. Her memory of the event is rather unclear and when this is explained later, it is reasonable to see how she can be so confused. However, she very naturally assumes that there is a logic of some sort to all of this and that she ought to be glad she died wearing solid, relatively durable footwear.

For the most part it is a coming of age novel – a super strange fact considering, well, the main character is dead and the setting is hell. Through Madison’s retrospective narration, the reader joins the character as she considers her life, short as it was. So, we learn about her parents (extremely rich, popular individuals), and her schooling (a boarding school in Switzerland), and her opinions regarding clothing, friends, boyfriends, and religion. I think it is a key fact for prospective readers to know:  Madison is quite intelligent and she knows it, but she is really not at all an arrogant character. Somehow Palahniuk was able to pull off designing a character that is full of  wit and erudition, but who remains matter-of-fact and not annoyingly arrogant.   I am not sure many readers can necessarily “bond” with Madison or find similarities, but I think it should be fairly easy to sympathize for the girl.

Palahniuk is a sharp writer in that while he makes his character intelligent and witty, he also knows when to have her make small “errors” or slip-ups, as it were. As bizarre as it sounds, he makes a thirteen year old girl who exists in hell seem quite genuine and realistic.

For the first four chapters, I think Madison’s wit is very much on display and there are definitely some amusing phrases and statements. Also, here is where the setup is for the entire novel. It is in chapter six that the rest of the storyline changes – she is released from her cell. During the first four chapters I admit that I was a little worried that the novel was going to continue in that same fashion – moving from witty and interesting into the range of tedious and repetitive. There is a lot of repetition in this novel that, for the most part works itself out, but not all readers are patient.

Palahniuk’s hell in this novel is very gross. The geography of the place is very repugnant. There are lakes of not-great-things, rivers of not-pleasant-things, and mountains of wow-that-is-disgusting. But it is hell. Still, even knowing this is a fantastical-humorous coming-of-age novel, there are some horrific sights in hell that I think maybe would prevent me from wanting to read a true horror novel by Palahniuk. Because this is definitely horrific – by a number of definitions, surely… but maybe not exactly a horror novel. Depends on perspective. Madison will share her opinion on these matters – you know, getting a manicure with her mother or some of her birthday “parties” might compete with most folks’ concept of hell. I read this for October, but some might say it certainly is not a horror novel. Well, chapter ten has some obscene, graphic, truly outrageous moments in it. Scenes that I am really sure the majority of readers would cringe or pause or something at. (If you’ve read it, this is the Jonathan Swift allusion with the Psezpolnica creature. Yikes.)

Even if the Bible is correct, and it’s easier to push caramels through the eye of a needle than get to Heaven, well, Hell doesn’t totally suck. Sure, you’re menaced by demons and the landscape is rather appalling, but she’ll meet new people. I can tell from her 410 area code that she lives in Baltimore, so even if she dies and goes straight to Hell and gets immediately dismembered and gobbled by Psezpolniza or Yum Cimil, it won’t be a huge culture shock.  She might not even notice the difference. Not at first. – pg. 110, chapter 14

Throughout the book, Madison references things like Jane Austen, the movie The Breakfast Club, and a few other items that remind us that Madison is not actually an adult and her worldview remains that of a child. Its strange to say, but I have never been even vaguely interested in such a worldview, so I suspect Palahniuk is a good writer to present such a view so entertainingly.

Still somewhere beyond halfway in the novel, Madison’s narrative becomes more focused on her introspective – efforts to make sense of her life and her death. Her insights and remembrances are sometimes serious, sometimes confused.  While Palahniuk can be called transgressive and nihilistic, I did not get that feeling whatsoever from Damned. This is a book full of honesty and hope, especially the latter. Again, I recognize the weirdness of calling a novel narrated by a dead thirteen year old in hell hope-centric, but there it is.

Pity the poor demon with but its single strategy to win.  In the same handicapped way Jane Eyre must remain meek and stoic, this demonic Baal knows only one way to exist:  by being fearsome.  While I exist plastic to change and adapt, tailoring my battle plan to each new moment, Baal can never dissolve an enemy into helpless laughter, nor charm a foe by using extraordinary beauty.  Therefore, when we neglect to fear such a brittle monstrosity, we render it powerless. – pg. 203, chapter 30

This is probably my favorite line from the book. This is because it is also one of the few takeaways from the novel. My main issue with the book, though it has some repetition and some unnecessary obscenity, is that there is not really a takeaway – not for the reader and not for Madison. Nothing. The ending is abrupt and nearly stupid. There is nothing after all of these pages of ruminating and assessing and considering. No takeaway at all. Now, I am not looking for some grand moral of the story or some incredible epiphany, but any novel should have something more than the nothing the reader gets here. Even if it is a resounding nihilism being asserted. The book ends with a “to be continued…” and that is all. Imagine a sort of coming-of-age novel without any coming-of-age. Well, what can be expected in the permanent status of hell? Thirteen forever, I suppose.

The best part of the novel is the character’s voice. There is some wit, some creativity. However, after finishing this one I felt like it was a reasonably entertaining diversion, but pointless read. Nothing much to takeaway, a novelty. I am glad I read it – because it has sections of really skilled writing. The last third seemed to be rushed and random. I do not think Palahniuk knew what to do with this? Overall, its fine, but nothing to hand awards to.

2 stars

Dark Matter

Dark MatterIf you, as I did, decide to “pseudo-hurricane evac,” you cannot bring every book on your tbr-mountain. As distressing as this is, it is possible to just take one single book along with you. And mainly, this is for space constraints. To be honest, I did not evac for safety reasons, but for sanity reasons. So, I was not really worried about the destruction some locations had, but sitting around in power outages while 50-mph wind whips nature at you is not exactly relaxing. So, what book did I grab? Well, I grabbed Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. Mainly because I figured it would last a day or two and I really had been meaning to knock it off of the tbr list for awhile.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (b. 1978) was first published in 2016. I am aware that it has been a popular read since then, but I have never gotten around to reading it. For the most part, the reviews and ratings that I have seen for this novel have been positive.

The novel is a very speedy read – its very obvious that the author is comfortable with screenplays. I think he writes line-by-line, especially dialogue. The author never really turns this into a novel. Maybe someday, if it has not already, it will be picked up by a film company and it will be easy to turn into a TV show/movie. I do not watch much TV and I never read screenplays, so this sort of writing did not grip me and pull me in.

Overall, though, this novel was disappointing. I enjoy science fiction and everyone who says that phrase also has a special little part of their heart reserved for parallel universes, time travel, quantum physics, and alternate realities. Even if they brush you off and deny this fact, ignore them – it is just that they are scared you know a secret.  Unfortunately, because this is a common fact among all science fiction fans, there are a great number of works that have attempted to, in some way, provide an exciting story within these themes. Another unfortunate fact is that these themes are particularly high-level science. Traditionally, it has been difficult to write very engaging/entertaining novels that are also filled with accurate and technically brilliant high-level “hard” science. I am not a quantum physicist, so I am not going to judge Crouch’s effort here from that angle. It seems to me that Crouch did not totally flub the science here. In fact, in several parts, he does a decent job of explaining to a reader what is going on, what is happening to the characters. Its not hard science that would block most readers who are not scientifically inclined, let us say.

However, the whole story is nearly like Quantum Leap (1989-1993).  Crouch, being born in 1978, should know about this show and maybe should have realized he was a little too close to it. The influence and proximity comes from the fugitive aspect of the storyline. Do not get me wrong, this is also where any action and excitement come from.  Yes, some of these segments are kind of thrilling and interesting.  Unfortunately, I remember watching Quantum Leap on TV back when it was originally on and I cannot say skipping through the realities is not fun – but its not super new for me.

Secondly, though this book really should be hard science fiction all the way, the book is mainly a love story. The love story (the main character is focused on his wife and teenage son), is his sole motivation for all that he endures. Like any good writer, Crouch knows that he needs to give his characters reasons. Jason Dessen’s “reason” is his family.  So when the main character has to find the motivation, he finds it in the “need” to return to and protect his family. Also, whenever the main character is feeling any sort of way, it is related to his relationship and emotions regarding his family.  This is a logical and reasonable motivation – but danged if this did not start to really annoy me. It definitely makes me sound like a cold-blooded, heartless reader, but I got pretty tired of hearing Jason go on and on about how his family makes him feel, etc.  In a sense, the storyline had me feeling some compassion and worry toward him. However the constant pounding on this theme made me actually start to dislike the characters and it turned my sympathy for him right around.

Choosing Well cover

my paperback 1982 edition

Further, the novel is actually not about the multiverse/parallel realities.  This novel is, at its very core, a question about ethics. Now, I am not an ethicist. I am, by training and trade, a metaphysician. Ostensive and defensive, if you please, along the Aristotelian lines. However, I know that most fiction writers are not very aware of what goes on in academia and think they have hit upon a new and unique vantage point or question or what have you. Rarely is this the case. Original thought and ideas are so incredibly rare…. ANYWAY, Crouch, whether he knew it or not, was literally writing very closely to the ideas put forth by Germain G. Grisez (1929 – 2018) and Russell B. Shaw in his Choosing Well (1982). Choosing Well is such an infamous book in my household because it routinely wins ugliest book ever. Its a decently academic read, short and very readable; printed by University of Notre Dame and organized logically. But it has the ugliest cover in the galaxy…. reminiscent of some 1960s self-help manual or something. There is actually a household rule that if you use/read this book you have to always have cover down (like on a table or whatever) so others don’t puke looking at it.  I suppose I could also mention John Finnis (b. 1940) here (not that I expect anyone to have followed this far down the rabbit trail of ethics texts, but I like being thorough).

Choosing Well backBecause at the end of the day, Crouch has his main character working on a problem – and it is not the problem of quantum physics or how to return to a specific universe. It is actually:  what is happiness? how does one have a happy life? of what does a happy life consist – and how do our choices determine this?

Sometimes it is really tough to be a philosopher, because you often get books spoiled because even if you want to read a new and exciting novel, the author hands you retread tires. It is difficult to keep any feeling of wonder or curiosity or excitement when its old news.

Dark Matter is a modernized Quantum Leap full of GGG-Shaw-Finnis ethics.  Now, I suppose, even such a work could be interesting because those items, on their own, are relatively interesting, of course. But – written in this screenplay manner with the limited number of characters, the endless droning about the main character’s wife, and the inevitable repetitive nature of the story – any wonder and thrill is quickly lost.

I tried to imagine this book being read by a reader who has no background in physics (or Quantum Leap) or academic ethics and maybe they would enjoy the very emotive, fast-paced plot. I am not sure. Sadly, I could not grant this thing more than two stars, though I honestly wanted it to be better. After all, it was the only book I had with me.

2 stars

The Werewolf Principle

THe Werewolf PrincipleThe Werewolf Principle by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was first published in 1967. I read the Berkley paperback with the Richard Powers (1921 – 1996) cover art.  My copy was only 216 pages, but I think it took over a week to read – because I had just gotten home from travel and for whatever reason, my mind was feeling listless and disinterested.  This is the eighth Simak novel that I have read, though, so I feel he and I are old friends, so to speak.

First of all, there are no “werewolves” and there is no “werewolf principle.”  Like all of our favorite science fiction grandmasters, Simak had a keen, uncanny eye for the future, but I doubt even he could have guessed our pop culture fascination with werewolves – and the many iterations of them that we have designed. Unfortunately, it seems we have saturated ourselves with werewolves (yes, and other monsters associated with them like vampires) and so the title of this novel from 1967 might be off-putting to someone in 2022.

Second of all, Simak’s love for pastoral, middle-America farms and woodlands is once again present. It seems no matter the storyline or the characters, Simak will find a way to take the reader fishing. He will also tell you all about the woods nearby, the critters that roam those woods, the farmland across the way, and the hills that overlook it all.  I, personally, am not a big fan of scenery, but it is such a part of Simak and his writing that I have come to accept it and understand it as necessary to enjoying Simak’s worldview and creations.  By the way, I do enjoy fishing. Trout, panfish, Bass, etc. although in my youth I did more big lake stuff like Walleye and Pike.

Generally I find Simak’s novels to be uneven.  Whether it is uneven in plotting, pacing, or execution, it does not really matter because the result is always somewhat of a rolling up and down read. This novel may be slightly more uneven than some of the others I have read, but its, again, something I have learned to expect with Simak. Specifically, the opening quarter of the novel is very in media res.  And chapter six is especially difficult/frustrating to read.  The novel moves in and out of a variety of “action/fugitive” moments to segments of introspection and description that seem so very sluggish.

Solar panels on houses – houses that are really Smart Homes. The A.I. of the houses is very intrusive and oppressive. The various rooms of the house are very often harassing the people in the house. Its really invasive and annoying – and I am just reading about it. I pity the main character. But, on the other hand, I think of some of the Smart Homes in society currently and I have to shrug a little. Perspectives….. Anyway, I really snorted at one of the interactions of the overbearing Kitchen in chapter seven.  While its obnoxious, I can relate to it. Many times my household has to throttle back my cooking. Literally, massive meals with Old World styled courses and plating. Also, enough to feed a battalion. So, when in chapter seven the Kitchen lets loose, I had to cheer!

The theme of the overall novel is about the meaning of the Self or what it is to be a mind. I am taken back to my graduate school days where we read things like Gilbert Ryle and argued about BIVs [Brain in Vat] for endless semesters. In this novel, Simak has BIVs. This fact is a little unnerving because I swear Simak predates a lot of the academic inquiry. It is not just about BIVs, though. There is also a wrangling that the characters do with what it means to be human and what it means to have/be a self.  I remember there was a lot of Macquarrie and Calvin O. Schrag that I had to read through. Everyone after Heidegger is very busy discovering themselves, you know…. I digress….

While this may sound interesting to some readers, it is very uneven and at some point in the novel, the tone changes. There is a very negative feeling that comes through the writing toward and about humanity. The main character, though full of knowledge and data, is also extremely emotional. Toward the end of the book, he basically makes a sudden decision that “oh, humans will be mean to me, so bye, I’m leaving.” It feels ridiculously abrupt and nearly childish.

The main character has three selves (so to speak), two of which are very alien to a human. In fact, the main character is not exactly a natural specimen of humanity. So, there is a lot going on there.  Some of this Simak looks at, some of it he does not. Its a lot to unpack and the story instead grinds along. Some of the “internal” dialogue between the three is interesting, most of it is tedious. They have names for each other (that symbolically designate themselves). Changer, Quester, Thinker. These seem like as good of names as any, but look too closely and they do not really stand up to scrutiny.

The very ending is a little bit better than some of Simak’s works. This ending had a surprise twist that I did not see coming, but that is very welcome – to the reader and to the main character. It pleases the main character a great deal, but it does not erase the bad taste of him being a bit impulsive and harboring a jealousy/bitterness.

With Simak’s writing there is also sometimes what I call a “comic book” feel to it. For example, the characters will have an epiphany in a very comic book manner. They might be on a long introspection jag and when an idea comes to them, the writing just feels like the yellow narrative boxes instead of a prose edit. It does not happen often, but its there in most of the Simak novels. Just a brief section where it feels like a novelization of some tense moment from a comic.

Anyway, I liked the usual things one likes about Simak novels. I disliked the unevenness and I definitely did not like the sudden negative mood of the main character. Like I have said, some of these themes arise in other novels by Simak, and I would not be surprised if the next novel I read of his also contains a character who does not fit in with humanity, finds a deep nostalgia for Earth and nature, but has a uncomfortable attitude toward humans.  This is NOT a bad read, certainly not at all. It just is not the high level of Simak’s work.

3 stars

The Last Wish

The Last WishThe Last Wish by Andrej Sapkowski is the first The Witcher item I have read. No, I have never played the game and no, I have never seen any video or show. So, this is basically my introduction to The Witcher. However, I also live in wild times with y’all and therefore I cannot say I was utterly blank when it came to this series and this character. How do I know about The Witcher? I could not say, except to suggest some sort of ambient knowledge that I absorbed unawares. This is a collection of stories that was first published in Polish in 1993.  In English, the first release was 2007.  I have had it on my TBR list since 2018.

I have reviewed about thirty novels on this blog this year, so far, and I think there are only a couple that I could call fun.  Lots of other adjectives could be used to describe all the other novels, including “entertaining,” “interesting,” and “engaging.” Some novels would get words on the other end of the spectrum. However, The Last Wish and maybe East of Desolation would get the word “fun” pinned to them.

I expected something along the lines of the usual sword and sorcery fantasy that we have all come to know and love.  I was not super excited to read the book, but I felt I could settle in with it being the third book of the week in the Appalachians.  Well, it was far better than I expected.

None of that farmboy becomes hero and everyone roots for the unlikely shining hero over the darkness that overfell the land stuff. This is grimdark-medieval themed and maybe just ever so slightly has hints of Eastern European influence, which makes sense and is a welcome change. It does not feel like so-called “appropriated” Slavic mythology (Cp. certain YA books) and these influences are only that – not burdensome heavy anvils to drag around. The writing is fresh and ribald and witty.  Read superficially, there is a lot of action and fun.  A little closer look shows there are some interesting concepts that the author is toying with. Concepts in ethics and religion, especially.

Many readers felt that the dialogue was not very good. I have no idea what they mean. Seriously, after reading some comments from other readers I was ready for some very stilted and awful writing.  Yet as I read along the one thought I kept having about the characters was that they are all very realistic.  They are neither, none of ’em, good or evil.  Their conversation and phrasing is true to how I hear people talk. Oh, I know most people think they are speaking in Old English at Buckingham Palace. I know most people feel like they are in the Ivory Tower and they are eloquently pontificating on the finer linguistic details of their chosen reading material.  But guess what – no, they are not.  The seeming inconsistencies in character show through in this novel not as inconsistent characters, but realistic personalities.  Characters are rarely good or evil.  Some of them are blatant with their status and some are more subtle. Mostly, everyone is in a mix of some good, some bad, trying to get through the day in a dog-eat-dog world. With the occasional monster.

Frankly, I found the stories in this book fresh, fun, interesting, and a good variety of creatures and characters. I loved several scenes in the book wherein characters strongly choose to be pragmatic, honest, exasperated, or stubborn. In one story when Geralt is talking with Nenneke, he starts having sharing things that in other books would be “personality insights” and “character development.”  But here, Nenneke shuts him down abruptly:

“Stop it,” she said sharply.  “Don’t cry on my shoulder. I’m not your mother, and I won’t be your confidante either. I don’t give a shit how she treated you and I care even less how you treated her. And I don’t intend to be a go-between or give these stupid jewels to her.” — pg. 270

In another story, a queen named Calanthe jousts with Geralt over supper. Their back and forth is witty, sarcastic, intelligent, but more than anything, it is realistic. It is not some weird stilted conversation had in some other books. This meandering, but sharp-edged conversation is fun to read. Particularly at a wild dinner party that is getting increasingly out of hand. Calanthe and Nenneke are just two of the female characters that seem to have no problem putting The Witcher in his place, so to speak. I would not call them weak or stereotypical female characters, either.  Among the comments at the table, Calanthe remarks:

“I’ve been told that witchers are an interesting caste, but I didn’t really believe it. Now I do. When hit, you give a note which shows you’re fashioned of pure steel, unlike these men molded from bird shit……” – pg. 166

Its realistic writing that is refreshing to read. I barked a laugh at the lines here and told myself I would have to include them in my review. Many times in the book, characters state something outlandish and another character just refuses to “follow them down the bunny trail” of ridiculous.  To use an example, no, it is not always special food demons that come from unfaithful kitchens – sometimes its just indigestion or overeating. That sort of thing.  It keeps a fantasy novel that is full of monsters and swordplay from viewing everything through the “its magical” lens.

I do not know what to say about Yennefer. I do not particularly like her, that is for sure. And the last wish…. hah, what a great writing ploy Sapkowski used on us! Bravo, well done. I guess it is all okay with me for Geralt and Yennefer to have crossing fates, because I know that Dandilion is on Geralt’s side and Dandilion is absolutely 100% awesomeness. He is a great character and I am very glad I met him and I am even more glad that he is Geralt’s buddy. Ack, who is not a bit jealous of such friendships?

The characters in this book are realistic because they do not fall into those neat categories that other fantasy novels rely on so very much. They are morally ambiguous or situationally ethical. They sometimes surprise and are also sometimes predictable.

“Stregobor,” said Geralt, “that’s the way of the world. One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off.  Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters.  In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at  banquet every minute, blue from poisoning.  I’m used to it.” — pg. 105

There is a somberness to the book as well. Both with the Yennefer scenario and the origin of Geralt as a child and then witcher. But also in the viewpoints sometimes expressed, which seem weary and worn. Some readers took offense at some of the ribald and wild moments in these stories. I find their comments ridiculous because in a land of monsters wherein everyone is fighting for power, magic, or might – acting shocked by these characters’ actions is silly. Characters are rough and they live in a rough world. As Geralt said above, that’s the way of the world. So, readers should not shun this book because “rough things” happen in it.

Anyway, of course I will read more The Witcher items. I think maybe this particular book will hang around in the collection awhile, as well. It surprised me because it was much better than expected.

4 stars

Fated

Fated coverFated by Benedict Jacka is the first in the Alexander Verus series.  It was released in 2012. The entire series is finished, now, and is twelve novels. I happen to think that the USA book cover editions are very colorful and well-designed. Someone in my household read a bunch of these and left them shelved. I have been meaning to read them in a very non-prioritized way for awhile. Since this is a shelf-clearing year (do not listen to my nonsense – I say this every year), I decided to grab the first novel and take it along to the mountains this week.

Unlike my previous read, Fated is a fast-moving novel that falls into the category, officially, of urban fantasy, but really is just a little action thriller that has magical elements. It is usually compared, reasonably so, to the Harry Dresden series of novels by Jim Butcher. I read the first novel (Storm Front) in that series a long time ago – it was first released in 2000 and I do not remember much. I probably gave it either two or three stars. That being said, I have no idea if these are similar except in that they are kind of in the same category – mage/wizard in modern urban setting has to deal with magical situation resulting in action plot.

Reading Fated after Count Zero is a kind of funny experience.  Fated‘s pages just flew past; I mean, I think it even has thirty more pages in it, but I read it much faster.  That just goes to show that it is not a book with great depth and intensity.  There is nothing wrong with that, per se, but I think this is something akin to how a number of readers felt this was more of a “YA” (i.e. young adult) novel.  I disagree that it is YA, I do not really even like that sort of faux-genre.  It does, though, feel like Jacka was not taking any risks and staying somewhat superficial with the storyline.

Except for the uncomfortable master mage and apprentice-slave scenario that runs through the entire novel. Clearly, the main character has some form of PTSD after having been involved in such a scenario. Alex Verus mentions it in the sort of way people mention things when they do not want to seem like they want to talk about a thing, but they really, really do.  So, again, is Jacka making the background mysterious? Is he writing “safely?”  Or, is this just a way to engage the reader that does not work 100% of the time?  For myself, I can say that I do not mind characters with shadowy and dark pasts. I do not have to know all of their details. However, in this one, it feels like Jacka needed to commit a bit better to telling the reader or not. Instead, Verus’ history is a mess.  Also, by not really being totally open about whatever is in Verus’ past, it makes the relationship between himself and the master-Dark mage take on aspects that are perhaps uncomfortably taboo or untoward.

Rather than have the clear good versus evil scenario of mages, Jacka bolsters his explanation of Dark mages as something other than just evil-driven. Maybe. It works to a point, and then it stops working. So, what I mean is, Jacka tells us that Dark mages do not buy into strict concepts of good and evil. Instead they think about morality totally from their self-indulgent egoism.  They recognize others only if and when the Other is something to have control over and to operate as one operates a tool. Thinking about this a bit deeper, though, readers might wonder if that sort of egoism is not, actually, the definition of evil. So, back again to perspectives of good and evil. Hey, I’m a metaphysician… an ontologist, I get really disinterested and bored with ethics. But it feels like Jacka really took to those ethics classes in school.

Anyway, I like a lot of the magical constructs that Jacka made for us.  Beings like Starbreeze, Helikaon, and Arachne are fun and interesting. I mean, I did get tired of Starbreeze by the end of the novel and Arachne is not exactly an original creation, but they were good inclusions in this novel.  The villains were villainous – which is good. I hate novels wherein the villains are rather pathetic and cannot hang onto their rôle as villains. The character Rachel is another who needed to have some good time with a psychologist – again because of whatever the heck happened in Verus’ past.

Overall, though, this novel is a decent read. Its not above average because it feels like a lot of the elements needed to be solidified and tidied up.  The Council, for example:  we are left with all sorts of impressions of it. After finishing the book, I cannot tell if they are a weak administrative sort of group or a snarling back-biting political thing, or a true over-seeing authority. Further, there seems to be so much magic – there is a lot and when Jacka needed a plot point, it seems like he just introduced another form of it. This needed to be shored up to a more manageable kosmology.

Finally, though it was a speedier read than Count Zero, there seemed to be some pacing issues. The time spent at “the ball” was overdone and tedious after awhile. Some of the “we are being chased” moments were a bit repetitive and therefore annoying. In spite of all of these smaller challenges, though, the world of Alex Verus is just interesting enough that I would read the next book in the series. I can also grant that maybe since this was the first novel, it was a little off-kilter and the next one rights the ship.

2 stars

Count Zero

Count Zero coverCount Zero by William Gibson was published in 1986. It is the pseudo-sequel to 1984’s Neuromancer novel. I read Neuromancer in 2012 and it has taken me ten years to get the motivation to read Count Zero. Sure, in the years I have picked the book up and read a page or two and every time I just did not feel like this was the novel I wanted to read. Well, I had enough of this behavior and I brought it with me to the middle of Appalachia. There is nothing much around besides kudzu and deer. I read Count Zero in about a day and a half.

After having finished two Gibson novels, I am no expert. However, I can confirm some of the things said online about his work.  Its said that he writes dense novels. I have been debating today about this particular word choice. I am not certain “dense” is the best word, though it is not utterly incorrect, either.  So, I feel “dense” has a connotation of being especially difficult to penetrate and examples of “dense” writing might include Finnegans Wake or The Name of the Rose. I think Gibson novels are very compressed. I am aware that this seems very picayune. The reason I prefer “compressed” is that when I read Gibson, I realize I have to read each and every word absolutely. There is no speed-reading these novels and there is no skipping. No skimming and no skipping – absolutely none, not one word. Not ever.

Reading Gibson novels is a bit tiring because he does have his own architecture and lingo that he does not explain to the reader and the context is not a huge assist, either.  Having to read every single word carefully is also tedious because it makes this 246 page novel seem much longer. It also shows that readers get lazy in their reading – maybe not intentionally skimming, but certainly not giving novels their full focus. The reader definitely loses out on a lot if they skim. So I also have to praise Gibson for his very precise writing. The demand on himself is even more, since if the reader dare not skim, the writer must have also very precisely selected each and every word. Gibson’s novels are a lot of work. The sort of plotting and conversation that other authors spread out over chapters and chapters is compressed into a few paragraphs. Readers better respect that or the book will quickly turn to total confusion for them.

Count Zero is a bit of a sequel to the previous novel – one would definitely want to read Neuromancer first. However, it is not much of a direct continuation of the storyline; it is more of a continuation of the environment and setting. I liked Count Zero more because the novel just seemed a bit easier to follow. Neuromancer was quite mysterious… I could not find my footing easily, and not in the good PKD sort of way. Perhaps this is because the first novel gave me necessary familiarization.  I just think this sequel has a better flow to it – even if it has all the cyberpunk/futuristic elements. Count Zero is not about getting readers to bond with characters. I think many readers find this off-putting; many readers seem to want to develop relationships with characters.  Gibson’s characters are significant and distinct, but they remain aloof and out of reach of the reader. I like that, other readers might be more critical of this. 

Some things, though, readers need to know. For example, Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972) plays a vague rôle in this novel due to his artwork. It gets really jumbled in the cybertechnology. However, if a reader is at least somewhat familiar with his work, it will make their reading of this novel quite a bit easier. Other things, like the voodoo stuff would be really tough to draw strictly from the novel. Reading these segments feels really bizarre and nutty. So, somehow, lucky readers might find out what all of this is about, but without reading spoilers (somehow) that would ruin their overall enjoyment of the plot.

The receptionist in the cool gray anteroom of the Galerie Duperey might well have grown there, a lovely and likely poisonous plant, rooted behind a slab of polished marble inlaid with an enameled keyboard. – pg. 11, chapter 2

The plot in this novel has three threads that are distinct, but converge at the end. The ending is a little bit of a mess, but maybe it was just my weariness talking. Overall, there is a lot of fodder here (back in the mid-80s) for the future cyberpunks. This is an action novel, believe it or not, it just has some slow parts that make you think of those really dull moments in certain movies – those segments that you wonder (during your first watch) why they are there, but then afterwards you see how they got everything all connected together. Remember, you cannot skip slow parts in this book. Every word has been selected and trimmed for the sake of the novel. 

This is a really strong novel for strong readers. Its definitely for fans of a certain style of cyberpunk/cybertechnology. It is demanding and it has its own landscape, language, culture, and tech that on occasion might look like ours (i.e. what we have going on in 2000+). At its heart it is an action novel, though. It is just a different style of action than the usual mass market paperback style of thriller novels.  Once you read Gibson, you cannot undo what you pick up from them, unless you are some kind of wilson. And yeah, when things go sideways, you might blurt to your pals that it got witchy.  I hope to finish off this “trilogy” – and I really hope it does not take me another ten years to read the last book in the set.

4 stars

Mystery Mile

Mystery Mile coverMystery Mile by Margery Allingham (1904 – 1966) was first published in 1930.  It is the second in the Albert Campion series; I read the first back in 2015 and did not really care for it. Mystery Mile, however, is the first novel in which the character Albert Campion actually stars having the main rôle.  Anywhere online where I saw anything about “Albert Campion,” I saw mention of how the character is a parody of or very similar to Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy L. Sayers’ work.  I feel like this is some sort of literary-world mantra that has been repeated so much that most readers accept it as fact. In my reading, I can see how readers might draw that conclusion, but at the same time, I do not think the connection is all that strong. Campion is made to produce a lot of chatter, some of it learned, most of it just free-association. It annoys his fellow characters more than it annoys the reader, truthfully. The Wimsey character can keep up a similar monologue, but his is somehow both more intelligent and more forlorn. So, Allingham might have taken a certain tidbit from Sayers and spun it a little differently. I doubt Wimsey is the only source; I seem to recall Sherlock et al. having a bit of – seemingly – irreverent chatter.

Of the bunch of Golden Age mysteries and detective yarns that I have read, Allingham’s are the least serious.  These are not quite the usual leisurely detecting that, say, are parodied in Leo Bruce’s novels. You know the ones – the murder happens, usually in a country manor home, and all the suspects sit around having brandy while the detective plays at various intellectual exercises.  These are also not the sort of heavy, serious stories that feel like the fate of the world is directly waiting the conclusion of the case. These are romps, a word I do not use often.  These are 1930s action/adventure mysteries.  Indeed, and I am going to go out on a limb here, they are entertaining and fun.

Now, the amount of fun and entertainment mileage a reader gets from a novel like this will vary. The story itself is fairly well-written, no one will accuse Allingham of being a lazy writer or a writer that did not have a grasp of plot, setting, characters, etc. However, at times it seems a bit overwritten.  At times, especially, in this particular novel, it seems the author focused too much on the main character and made the rest of the characters run around like panting obedient dogs behind him.  Do not get me wrong, though, this novel does introduce us to a number of definitely interesting characters who stand on their own. We meet Campion’s manservant/houseman, Magersfontein Lugg.  And Lugg’s associate Thos. T Knapp.  The segments of the story involving this latter character light up because Knapp is such a colorful and lively creature.  The scenes with his mother and their little apartment are also rather priceless.  Knapp’s character does play on some of those archetypes and Allingham pulls in those elements with skill.  Specifically, things like his accent, his skill set, his physical movements, etc.

Still, some of the other characters, though independent and not cardboard placeholders when taken on their own, seem unable to do otherwise than follow and obey the main character. They never really develop or show any particular insights or dynamic other than what their face value has already presented to the reader.  These characters, though likeable in their own way, make for some tediousness.

My main complaint about this novel is a singular plot point. I feel like left alone, most of the plot is organized and reasonable. However, there is one piece that were it not so, would utterly collapse the entire book.  So, it has to do with the early night in which guests arrive and a certain character, Anthony Datchett arrives – uninvited.  The housemaid, Cuddy, lets him in and hands his card to the lady of the house. The rest of the household should, at this point, knowing full-well why all of them are gathered the heck out on this swamp, misty peninsula, punt this guy right back out into the night. Literally, why he is allowed entrance to the room, much less the house and why he is allowed to engage with the guests is inexplicable.

My second complaint is really a bit unfair and very minor. In the middle of the book, the main character is given a specific prop. Apparently, he is aware of what it signifies, but no one else is. And there is no way any reader could know because we do not live on the peninsula nor do we have a map of it. So, when Campion reveals its meaning – though the prop is alluded to a number of times and suspense is allowed to build over it – it falls flat. It makes sense, its logical. However, I think this could have been handled better and been an awesome prop as opposed to a fizzled out element.

“Two young females in this ‘ere flat,” said Lugg. “Well!”

“Shocking!” agreed Campion. “I don’t know what my wife would say.”
Marlowe stared at him. “Good Lord, you haven’t a wife, have you?” he said.

“No,” said Mr. Campion. “That’s why I don’t know what she’d say. Get your coats on, my little Rotarians.” — pg. 199, chapter 24

I laughed at the above.  Some readers might find it stupid. Most of Campion’s punchlines are hit or miss, but this one tickled me. Allingham did provide several nicely done action scenes. There is a rooftop house-breaking rescue full of all the excitement readers could want. There is a nighttime escape and evasion late in the book which results in several reveals, but also things like gunfire and quicksand! There are comical moments as well:  being introduced to the rear entrance to Campion’s apartment is priceless.

Overall, this is a serviceable enjoyable read.  Readers ought not take it too seriously and have fun with the little romp.  There is a dog who provides little levity and amusement, as well. I will very likely read the next in the series, which I already own. However, this is not a series I can gobble down – it definitely does better with breaks in between stories.

3 stars

Love In Amsterdam

Love In AmsterdamContinuing in my reading crime spree (a lovely ambiguous way of putting it) I finished Love In Amsterdam by Nicolas Freeling (1927 – 2003).  The novel was first published in 1962 and was the source for at least one film and two television series. It seems to me that this novel was read more frequently when the years began with 19– than in the contemporary times.  I have to be honest and say that this is a difficult novel to review and rate.  It makes sense that readers seem to be a bit polar opposite in their feelings toward it.

The difficulties in discussing this novel begin straightaway because this is a crime novel but the bulk of it is really a psychological non-thriller.  Definitely a very slow-burn, as they say.  Being honest, there were plenty of points that I would have given this, just barely, a weak 2-star rating. My reaction immediately upon finishing the novel was that it was a 4-star novel, for sure, and certainly the author is underrated and incredibly talented.

Truthfully, I strongly disliked all of the characters.  Every one of these characters I could spend a paragraph or two complaining about – pointing out their flaws and the things about them that I found off-putting.  For example, the main character, Martin is wretched with emotions and opinions and he is just generally lazy and self-centered.  The deceased of the novel is absolutely horrible in that she is very toxic and rotten.  All of the characters seem to lack morality on some level.  Usually a lack of morals or a nasty ethics is a good thing in a crime novel, but here it just makes things slog on in a claustrophobic and uncomfortable manner. The characters hang on each other, as if there is nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.  Similar feathers flocking together. Drawn to each other out of lethargy and stupidity – love and hate having nothing to do with it.

She blossomed on dramas and scenes, loved upheavals, denouncements, tremendous rages, weeping reconciliations.  That kind of thing was her daily bread and butter.  – pg. 16

I mean, thankfully, most people are not as extreme in these scenarios as this character is, but I am sure we have all met or known a person who seems to thrive on drama – creating it when there is none. Now, there are people who enjoy such theatrics, but on a lesser scale. Almost as if having any drama validates their lives or situations. Most of these people, I think, tend to just be exaggerative, acting overwrought about water cooler moments, so to speak. But the character who blossoms on great upheavals – of course becomes the murder victim, because the reader would think this sort of person developed dozens of tumultuous relationships that would result, maybe, in murder.

Yet, here we are:  the police are focused on one gentleman, Martin, because there actually are no other suspects. Immediately, more or less, we are given to believe that the chief detective, Van Der Valk, believes in Martin’s innocence.  However, throughout the entire novel, I was convinced that Van Der Valk was being duplicitous.  I did not, and do not, trust him – not even after the last page was turned. Of course, throughout the novel the detective is very much a tertiary character.  He is really nothing more than dialogue – a specifically stilted dialogue at that. We learn nothing about him; he remains more or less an empty concept with barely an outline.  Again, I do not trust him.

The novel is divided, unequally, into three sections.  The first seems choppy, but is readable. We meet some characters and its a bit difficult to believe how unlikeable so much of the novel is. Still, there is a little sleuthing, albeit very unique and immersive detecting. Martin is innocent, Van Der Valk also thinks so, except it seems like Van Der Valk is trying to make Martin “crack” and confess. Maybe he is just trying to see what Martin knows subconsciously. It is difficult to tell.

The second section is, obviously, the part that loses readers. If readers are going to quit or complain – it is definitely in this second section.  It is such a slog. It repeats the entire history of the relationship between Martin and the deceased.  The relationship, too, is hideously toxic. It is insanely claustrophobic and emotional and the characters really seem to dislike each other and just use each other – but only in a vague and lethargic manner.  The cigars and gin are not spicy and sharp like in Red Harvest.  Here, they are smog and lay heavy in the small crowded homes.  Martin quotes stupid quotes from artists and writers. The characters fight about nothing.  Obsession and stubbornness are on every page.

As I read this lengthy slog, I kept wondering why this was happening – both the chapters and words and also the in-story relationships. Why. Why any of this. Sure, it would be all right for an author to give us some background, to describe the characters by using their past narrative history.  However, after all the gray and lethargic days and nights sitting drinking first coffee then liquor, and frequently noting the runners in the lady’s stockings, the matchboxes that are used to gesture with, its too much. It feels like no background story could be worth this.

On one hand, the two main characters are written as if they are in near-poverty.  Neither has employment or works at well, anything other than being miserable. Yet, they seem to have an endless supply of liquor, cigars, coffees, etc.  People in dire straits do not usually lounge around draped in armchairs, sprawled on carpeted floors, leisurely wandering around bedrooms. In other words, the characters ought to be eating snow and licking dirt for meals and yet they are acting like the lords and ladies of manor homes. The characters are utterly self-absorbed creatures.  The best example is how the husband of the deceased character, Elsa, comes and goes and the characters seem to misinterpret his feelings and actions completely. As if the husband inhabits a parallel, but ultimately different world than they do.  Do not get me wrong, the husband, too, has a bunch of hideous and unpleasant personality traits that make him as unlikeable as the lot of them.

Somehow, though, I made it out the other end of this middle third. Immediately, the novel was improved. The storyline picked up again and the action and intensity was reasonable and then the resolution. The last third is intense, relatively exciting, and interesting. As I said, though, I still do not trust the detective. I thought for certain in this last section he was going to show his true face and show that he was being deceptive.  The odd thing about this is that I really do not like the main character.  So the fact that I was worried and concerned about Martin’s case does not make a whole lot of sense to me. It is probably less that I was caring about Martin and more so I could not stand to have Van Der Valk be cruel.

The water of the Amsterdamse Vaart was shaking itself and rattling at the canal banks like a bored child in a playpen. – pg. 189

The setting and place do not play enough of a rôle in this novel as I, the judicial reader, think that they should.  I think more descriptions of cold, ice, gray clouds would have suited this story. However, there is very little discussion of the location and setting whatsoever.  Actually, there is a great deal of words in Dutch, German, French that pepper the whole story. (Allegedly, Martin is fluent in multiple languages, I guess.) But using all of these languages does not help situate the story. I wonder if that is how Amsterdam was (1960s) – a place known by the multi-lingual conversations.

“….but I haven’t the men to go nosing in every corner; we aren’t the FBI with a thousand judo experts and television hidden in a baker’s van.  Not having all of this tripe means we have to use our brains, though.” – 198

I admit this quote from Van Der Valk had me chortle. The dig at USA FBI measures was delivered perfectly. Tongue-in-cheek, amphiboly sort of thing with no emotion or snark. True wit, I guess. Anyway, this is about Van Der Valk’s only good line in the novel. As I said above, readers are not really given anything about him. He remains an outline at best. Maybe the novel could have used more of him. Literally, more of him, rather than just whatever lines he was handing Martin all the time (see, I don’t trust Van Der Valk).

Anyway, this is a slow, slow-burning noir. It looks at unpleasant people and their obsessions and connections in their unhealthy relationship.  Guilt and revenge and stubbornness are examined. That whole immensely tiring middle section of the novel is horrible to have to read through. However, once its read, it fits perfectly and makes the weight of the novel and gives the characters a reality that otherwise would not be there. It is a well developed investigation of what was a gross relationship. Why did this relationship exist? Was the murder, at the end of the day, just a form of entropy? Was it revenge? And, did the relationship end before or after the murder? There is a lot to sort through for those readers who do like pondersome, heavy novels.

The best scene in the novel is a series of about five pages in which Martin is returned to his prison cell after his examination with the state-hired Psychiatrist. Martin, for the only time in the novel, is at wit’s end. The guilt, imagination, worries, fantastical thinking, catastrophic thinking, rationalization, etc show Martin’s breakdown. Alone in his cell he, for once, seems to be engaged in introspection.  One wishes he had been so introspective as he was smoking in the armchair of Elsa’s home the first few times.  But this writing is what Freeling excels at.  Its nearly perfect for this novel and would work in any sort of noir crime fiction.  Its gripping and intense – even if Martin is no one’s hero. I am giving this novel three stars. It could deserve four, to be honest. But the brutality on the reader of that middle historical section is a very muddy slog – I say that knowing that there really was not another method to plot this storyline.

3 stars

Red Harvest

Red Harvest coverRed Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1894 – 1961) was published as a whole novel in 1929.  It had previously been published in parts from 1927-1928 in a pulp magazine. Technically, it is his first novel, but he had plenty of short stories and other smaller published pieces before 1929.  It is really quite an absurdity that I have not read any Hammett before. The only thing I can do about that, seeing as I have no ability to time travel to the past, is to read more now and in the future. I am about thirty minutes away, I guess, from a whole collection of Hammett documents and paraphernalia (photos, scrapbooks, writings, letters).  The collection, owned and housed at a nearby library, includes about 250 prints and pencil drawings of Hammett’s work for the Army newspaper he created. He was stationed in the Aleutian Islands where he developed the Army newspaper, The Adakian.

Hammett allegedly wrote Red Harvest with a lot of personal experience and current events in mind. I suspect this has a whole lot more meaning to literary people than to Hammett himself or his audience. Not to say that he or his audience were daft, I just think he used what was ready-at-hand to create the story. He had previously written stories involving a character called “The Continental Op.”  He split with the magazine over money issues. His first story back with the magazine, Hammett dedicated the novel to Joseph Thompson Shaw who was the newly installed editor of the pulp magazine (Black Mask). To me, this sounds like a writer chasing the dollars and not a writer with some lofty literary goals.

All of this being said, this is a very famous novel that I think usually receives top marks from readers and critics.  Taken utterly by itself, not looking at context or comparing it to any other work, I do not see how it can get very high ratings.  Even so, taken contextually and comparatively, giving the novel five stars seems silly.  What is the comparison? Well, let’s look at things like Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Wimsey and Agatha Christie’s Poirot.  The stories tell us about a more refined and genteel culture. The settings, characters, and plots are mysteries and isolated crimes.  Hammett wrote this work which showed another facet of “real life” in which workers’ strikes, kingpins, gang wars, and corrupt police departments were the norm. Hammett’s depictions play up the wild, wild West zeitgeist in which the American culture of independence slides into lawlessness and corruption.  Poirot ain’t comin’ to Poisonville.

However, taken novel qua novel, what does the reader of today get out of this? Well, the 1928-1930 time period had the tail end of the Roaring Twenties and prohibition marching straight into the “Great Depression” and general global civil wars. Knowing these basic historical facts, the reader should expect a story of excess and anxiety. Economies are toppling, but everyone is still partying, and there is a general confusion of morality everywhere. On a very small scale, this is what is occurring in Personville as it implodes because the fuse named The Continental Op showed up.

Why did he show up? Its 2022 and it is not common knowledge what the methods and rôles of the Pinkertons or the “Continental Detective Agency” might be. The story is that the Agency was hired to investigate a murder.  This situation goes rather sideways and I honestly find one of the plotholes to be that there is insufficient reason for the Op to have stayed in the town. Frankly, it just seems like the guy is stubborn and as toxic as everyone else in the place.  Anyway, he stays and decides to stir the pot to try to make the city combust with all of its crime goings-on.  This is passed to the reader as “cleaning the place up” by the method of “turning everyone against each other until they extinguish each other.”

The story is written via dialogue. So, if readers want the story told to them through conversation they can find that here. This is, of course, a bit of a departure from the British detectives who are conversing, surely, but still we are given long paragraphs of general information.  Hammett, the star of the new noir/hardboiled genre, keeps the dialogue crispy and direct.  This is a long conversation between all the characters. Here is my complaint – all of the characters and their dialogue sound exactly the same.  One conversation is the same as another.

Similarly, all the characters get jumbled.  Its kind of difficult to sort out who did what to whom and whatever. I think that is kind of the point of the web of crime in this town.  Toward the end of the novel, its clear that even the criminals do not know who is their enemy or their ally or what side anyone is on. In one sense, this could be an effective writing element, but it does not change the fact that it is a bit frustrating for the reader, too. So here is my main feeling on this:  if all the characters seem the same and if I have a feeling of frustration/annoyance, this is not going to be a five-star novel – even if the novel depicts the scenery well.

There is a little morality tale here about sleeping with dogs. You know, you get up with their fleas. So, in chapter 20, our main character is unsettled and goes on a bit of a rant about how he has been changed and snared by the burg.  In other words, the crime he is supposedly fighting against he has gotten snagged within and maybe has lost his moral center – if he ever had one.  Which, when reading this chapter, I wonder how other readers/critics have said that this Continental Op is amoral? Anyway, chapter 20 is probably one of the most important chapters in American fiction – how about that?!  I must give props to Hammett for making things worse – the next chapter, chapter 21, things get even worse for The Continental Op and all those rantings show there was substance to them. In other words, instead of just letting his character have a preachy monologue, he shows that the character had a reason to be concerned.

I liked the character Dinah Brand. I think she was really well-written and a bit different than I expected her to be. I felt vaguely bad about her ending, but she deserved it in the context of this storyline! One of the things a researcher should hunt for in his rummaging in the Hammett Family Papers should be who Dinah was in Hammett’s life. He admitted that nearly all of his characters were taken from “real life” so I would be interested to see who Dinah was patterned on. She was a hoot and probably my favorite character.  Honestly, The Continental Op himself does not impress me. I feel rather non-plussed about the guy.  He behaves as expected and he did not do anything truly amazing. I am kind of hard to impress….

I enjoyed the guns, cigars, and the rivers of gin flowing on every page. I like Hammett’s wordplay a lot. He turns phrases with an awkward fun-ness. One of the key characteristics of The Continental Op is his nonchalant manner. In the middle of gunfights his character is written as if everything is no big deal and he takes nothing seriously.  He comes across as a man who is bored by anyone without a severe economy of words.  He even gets bored with himself when he has to explain things and usually just truncates his own speech. He is all of our definitions of hardboiled.

3 stars

The Red House Mystery

red houseThe Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne is a rather famous mystery novel by the well-known author of Winnie The Pooh. It was first published in 1922.  I got my hardback copy back in 2018 and have been sluggish about reading it.  The cover design on the jacket is unremarkable and the first chapter is a wee bit difficult to read through unless you are in a patient mood. Once one gets beyond the first three chapters, though, the pages really do fly.

At first the novel really does seem precisely like some writing exercise. It seems as if it is an exercise in writing a whodunit mystery by a competent and, even, strong author. However, it does not immediately present as something engaging and exciting. The novel is very British and the setting is the not-quite-manor home of a man who is a bit of a fop and a dandy.  Truthfully, until I got a ways into the story, I really was doubting what all the fuss and praise for this novel were about.  I am really glad that I finally set myself to reading the whole thing and I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I am not sure it qualifies as one of the best I have ever read.  It did improve as I read along and I can recommend it to any general reader who enjoys vintage British mystery stories.

The characters are a bit unbelievable – particularly the four main characters.  Everything is such a setup for the story that I felt Milne might have been a bit lazy. It is not that the setting and characters do not work, it is just that it seems too easy. In other words, it feels like the author wants to write a murder mystery and wants to jump to the heart of the situation without any development or building as to why or whom or how. Just hurry up and get to the detecting parts of the thing.

In a lot of ways Antony, the main character, is too good to be true. He’s too smart, too slick, too convenient, too casual, too friendly, too forgiving, too honest.  I expect every reader likes him a whole lot and wants him to be safe and succeed and win the day.  However, if I am being honest, the character is a little too cool.

It is fun to follow his detecting. Antony is so smart about everything. He is good-natured and a real pal. So, as he runs through the various scenarios and investigates while he enjoys plenty of relaxation, the reader gets a good schooling on how to run a proper vintage British amateur locked-room murder mystery.  An official Inspector is, of course, called in to the crime scene, however, his deductions are not really a part of the story and only become interesting at the inquest.

As if Antony’s skills and personality were not enough, he gets his own “Watson” in this story. A younger lad named William Beverley who is willing to play the Watson rôle because he loves the fun and excitement of the whole thing. He keeps Antony company, does a bit of the dirty work, and provides a little comic relief. Bill Beverley is just the sort of harmless and helpful friend you would want to help you solve your murder mystery.

The murder is not very horrifying. It takes place in the office behind closed doors. The police are notified. Houseguests are sent away and “witnesses” are left to entertain themselves. The detecting takes place amidst dinners, pipe smoking, and leisurely walks. Eventually the frustrations and/or lack of possible solutions narrows the options to the point where the story must end. There can be nothing further to investigate.

I enjoyed the novel because it is a little bit of a writing exercise. I also enjoyed the camaraderie and fun spirit of the characters.  They poke fun at Sherlock and Watson, they tease detective novels, and they sport about the manor home. The story itself is grounded and reasonable. There is a lot to like in the novel and I think it is good to have read it, but it will not remain in my collection because I doubt I would read it again.

3 stars