Month: November 2013

The Living Shadow

The Living ShadowThe Living Shadow is the first published novel – in novel form.  It is the first official Shadow novel that I have read.  Now, I am not an early-pulp fiction expert, so some of this may be slightly askew, but I did try to get the correct information.  So, as I understand it, The Shadow debuted in July 1930.  The character and stories were originally radio shows.  (By the way, I do love those old radio shows.)  The novel was first published in 1931.  At that time, I believe it was released in the pulp magazine form. In any case, The Shadow has now been in comics, movies, etc. and there’s plenty of fun to be had.  I read the Bantam 1969 edition.

Ultimately, I know such things are not for everyone.  I have a bit of love for the vintage noir/crime novel, particularly the detective genre.  And not simply because of the recent explosion of Sherlock Holmes all over the place.  For whatever reason, I’ve been trying to acquire and read these.  It isn’t really “for whatever reason.”  It is for fun.  I like fun.  Truth be told, I was having a little trouble getting into some of the freshly-printed novels I have bought.  Exploring these pulpy fun items was a perfect remedy for being in a reading-mudpit.

This story is a bit hack. As is to be expected.  I learned through the course of my investigations, that the author Walter B. Gibson (AKA: Maxwell Grant, The Shadow’s personal annalist), was actually encouraged to include some East Asian elements in this story.  Something to do with the publisher and their cover artists’ production.  Needless to say, there is a Chinese element to the story, but it does seem a little forced.  BUT PEOPLE! He calls the Chinese “Celestials” – I have not heard that sort of lingo in an exceedingly long time.  And frankly, that was a lot of fun in this novel:  the lingo.  The cab drivers, the gas station attendants, the criminals – they all use that old-time pulpy lingo that is such a huge part of American culture-history.

Anyway, the first chapter is really good.  I mean, it could be in any novel – not simply a “pulp” novel.  I have said many times that you need a good first page, first chapter, first issue to make something really work.  You have to have something in that first part that hooks the reader and makes the story seem worthwhile for at least part two, hopefully longer.  I liked the cool and mysterious scenario that is setup and it makes The Shadow a great character before anything really happens.

Now, in these early novels, I am given to understand that The Shadow is not exactly the main protagonist.  And maybe this was built into the idea of developing The Shadow – a character that operates from the shadows (sic) and uses any number of loyal lackeys, servants, friends, associates to make him seem like he has a hand in all the scenarios.  Again, the hero/anti-hero twist to a character. I mean, I kind of want to review all the things I know about early Batman and make some comparisons.  Maybe I’ll do that – if I can get my team of researchers and secretaries to assist. Anyway, Harry Vincent is the main “hero” and detective in this novel.  He does most of the legwork for The Shadow.  He’s a bit too “smart,” in my opinion.  I mean, he generally makes good decisions and plans his moves with a measure of strategy.  I’m kind of unused to characters who do that? Have characters gotten dumber recently?

I digress. The point is:  this was fun and I enjoyed it.  Yes, it was sketchy and pulpy.  But there was a lot to like here for the reader who isn’t expecting too much.  I will be reading book #2 – as soon as I can acquire it.  I’ve been trying to listen to the old radio show, but my household is not exactly as excited about The Shadow as I am.

3 stars

The Languages of Pao

The Languages of PaoThe Languages of Pao is one of Jack Vance’s earlier works, published in 1958.  It is the third Vance novel that I have read, and probably the best so far.  I really enjoyed this novel and am going to give it a high rating.  However, I can see where some readers may not fancy this sort of novel.

This is science fiction for smart people.  In other words, it takes a bit of aptitude to read this and enjoy it for what it is.  If a reader comes to this novel thinking it is something else, they will be aggravated.  The Languages of Pao is not an action novel.  There are, really, only three characters in the novel.  Reader who are used to “growing up with” characters who reside in 10-tome epic fantasies, may find these characters underdeveloped.  I would disagree; they are just not rendered with tedious detail.  Finally, this novel only has the smallest amount of scientific detail.  So, readers who are used to high-tech, mecha stuff might be disappointed.

There is a concept that Vance utilizes in this novel that provides the overarching theme.  Wikipedia proudly proclaims this the linguistic Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.  This particular “hypothesis” was developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Boas, and Edward Sapir.  I cannot speak for how familiar our author was regarding these linguistic theories.  I, frankly, am not too familiar with them, although I’ve run across the names of these fellows plenty; particularly in philosophy of language and anthropology.  Humboldt generally comes up in reference to political philosophy.

Anyway, you may be chomping at the bit for me to explain what this Sapir-Whorf concept is.  Well, I’m not going to.  Because that’s what Vance’s book does.  On the planet Pao with main character Beran Panasper.  Let me then, simply, boil this whole thing down to one question:   “What role does language (organic or artificial) play in a social group’s understanding of reality? In other words, how does it shape their lives, nation, and outlook?”

It is okay to admit that the above paragraphs bored you to tears and you have already decided this novel is not for you.  However, understand that Vance is dealing with that linguistic question by working in the science fiction genre.  So, Vance selects three main facets of society (represented by the Paonese, the Breakness, and the Brumbos) to cause havoc on the planet Pao.  All of this gets situated within the political scheming/intrigue of the ambitious characters.  It is like Dune – without all of the sandworms, blue-eyes, and crazy witches.  But nevertheless, I see a lot of parallels between the two novels.  And the “villain” is not really a bad guy from all perspectives.  Plus, he’s the one that comes with the neat “modifications” – (surgical enhancements to his person).

I love Vance’s use of vocabulary.  I appreciate how he works with a linguistic concept without making his novel overlong or bludgeoning the reader (Mieville, looking at you, son).  I neither loved nor hated the characters, but I was interested to see what happened.  And maybe this is not the most exciting read in science fiction, but it surely is one of the more intelligent and well-written.  The only complaint is that it seems set up too artificially, almost as a too-carefully controlled experiment.  But on the other hand, what author doesn’t do this?

5 stars

It Walks By Night

It Walks By Night – John Dickson Carr; Avon

It Walks by Night was first published in 1930 by John Dickson Carr (1906 – 1977).  Carr also wrote under a number of pen names including Carter Dickson.  This novel is likely one of his first (if not his first) published novels.  It is also the first in the novel series starring detective/magistrate Henri Bencolin.

I read this novel in the end of October and beginning of November while traveling.  This means it saw use in the car and in hotel rooms.  Strangely, it was a fast read – but still took too long for its mere 176 pages.  That’s my copy in the picture – the Avon 1970 edition.  Avon published a number of mystery/thrillers in this same cover design (which I think is hideous).

My first impression after reading this novel is that it is such an oddly written novel.  At several points I felt that it was not a very good novel.  However, there are other parts where the writing is really quite impressive.  So, I guess if this is such an early work by Carr, one hopes he improved.  Not that this is a bad novel – but there are sections that are not where one wishes they were.

This is a locked-room mystery, although I did not love the resolution.  The setup up is quite interesting.  The story is told from the perspective of Jeff Marle (though you would miss this name if you were not specifically watching for it).  For some reason, Henri Bencolin decides to have an audience to “help him” solve the murder.  So, we are just stuffed with a few characters for the sake of characters. (Dr. Hugo Grafenstein is one such.)  The Duc de Saligny has been murdered in a “locked-room” at a nightclub.

I say this is an odd, odd little book for a number of reasons.  One, I feel Bencolin is patterned a little on Sherlock and Poirot (aren’t they all?) but we really do not know much about him.  In fact, though he’s the mastermind and brilliant detective, he mainly feels like a supporting character.  Two, there are long chapters which involve the romantic (not erotic) evenings of Marle.  And perhaps this is to setup a false lead for the reader, or maybe for the reader to get to know Marle.  Either way, it seems just very odd.  In fact a number of characters in this story are just odd.  If you read about this story in the news, it would definitely be one of those “wow, weird things go on in our town” news items.

Marle is prone to mentally breaking into poetry or song when the moment strikes him.  It is somewhat disjointed when it happens.  Again, is this to show that Marle is a cultured chap?  Or is he really suffering A.D.D. or what?  Anyway, I did not really know the referent for most of these poems/songs.  However, the references to Poe I managed to catch! See, I’m not senile, yet!

But there are whole passages where Carr displays that rare, old-fashioned classic style of writing that blends beauty and wit.  And these are really good passages.  Carr cannot consistently keep this up, though, and there are also long sections which are not expertly written. At one point it seemed we had totally forgotten the actual murder and had moved into a different storyline. Also, it ends really abruptly and oddly, too.  Certainly not a drawn out ending.

In the words of Marle, there is a particularly fun line in chapter ten:

Now the moment anybody mentions the word “Victorian,”  you can take it for granted that the conversation is going to become artificial, and that the person who says it is avoiding all pretensions to frank discourse.

Surprising lines like that make this book easier to read than maybe it should be.  It is sometimes confusing (lots of characters) and sometimes tedious (why did we spend three chapters with this?), but it does have a unique feel and a dose of charm that make it worthwhile.  I would not recommend this novel for everyone.  I think there are “better” mysteries out there.  However, if you want to read something that is older and classic, without reading Agatha, then this is one for you.  I do intend to read more by this author, though he’s a bit of a pain to find around.

3 stars