Month: July 2016

Why Shoot a Butler?

Why Shoot a ButlerThis year I have mainly read vintage science fiction novels. While that remains my preferred genre, I do like to read just about everything else as well. However, I admit, the other genres usually do not entertain me or engage me as successfully as the science fiction. So, giving space and aliens and the future of humanity a break, I spent some time in the household library digging out non-science fiction novels. Georgette Heyer’s (1902 – 1974) Why Shoot a Butler? was one of those. I believe it was first published in 1933. I believe it is Heyer’s second true-detective story, however she did write several other novels prior to this one.

Anyway, I enjoyed this novel as expected. It took me a moment to get used to the writing style and the diction of the characters. For one thing, the characters are all very sarcastic and until you get used to their remarks, it can be odd. The main character is introduced to the reader as he is en route to a country manor house, surly because he will arrive late for supper.  Heyer is upfront about Frank Amberley; she shares with us at several points that he can be abrasive and unlikable. Well, I never disliked him – but I never came to side with him, either. He is pompous and arrogant. Nevertheless, he is the detective in this story (his actual occupation is that of a barrister.) And he stumbles upon the murdered butler in chapter one.

Anyone who enjoys settings in the English countryside with manor homes and game preserves and little cottages will probably appreciate Heyer’s work here. There does seem to be a dizzying amount of twisting, half-paved country roads.  Still, she does not give in to long descriptions detailing the lawns, gardens, rooms, and decor of the area. Maybe, just maybe, I could have read a few more lines about all of this. Not much more, mind you.

It is good that the title is a question. This is not, as they say, a “fair-play” novel. I don’t mind that at all. Heaven knows I am not getting paid to be detective! I want to be entertained, not play Inspector! I am given to understand that some readers dislike not having an honest shot at solving mystery novel crimes. The title is a question and throughout there will be a lot of questions. Heyer provides a sketchy crime and a number of possible suspects. More than anything, however, the motive is hidden from the reader, and I could see that being somewhat frustrating.

“Why did he come snooping up here? Don’t say because he was tight, because I shall be sick if I hear that again.  If I went bursting into a strange house and tried to shoot up the place and then said I was tight by way of excuse, would you be satisfied with that? Like hell you would! That chap wanted to shoot up someone to start with.  Then he had four or five drinks and thought: By Jove, I’ll go straight off and do it.  Don’t tell me that just because a fellow’s three sheets in the wind it’s the natural reaction for him to get hold of a gun, stagger off several miles to a house he’s never been near before, and turn it into a shooting gallery. It’s childish.”  – pg. 109, Chapter Seven

This sort of sentiment is probably going to be felt by the reader, too. It always seems like events keep happening but we don’t have any idea why they should keep happening other than there is a reason out there somewhere.

Also, while I do not think there is a significant amount of gunplay, it did amuse me that Frank Amberley seems to be quite often coming upon handguns and depositing them in his coat pockets. Heyer never bothers to tell us what he does with them; I think it safe to assume he does something sane and reasonable. But it is fun to imagine this fellow walking around with every pocket containing a handgun.

Most readers seem to like Heyer’s characters – she seems to be well-known for creating likeable, interesting, and curious characters. In this novel the characters are somewhat face-value, no one undergoes a grand change in personality or development. They are all unique in their way, except for the police force.  All of the policemen are absolute bumbling idiots and are constantly being mocked for it. My favorite character in the novel is Lady Matthews who is Amberley’s aunt.

“Can’t talk in a public lounge, dear child.  So unwise. They always do it in bad thrillers, and it invariably leads to disaster.” – pg. 224, Chapter Fifteen

The majority of the novel contains a lot of back-and-forth movement. Driving, riding, pedaling, and walking back and forth to the three or four main locations. Honestly, it gets a bit dizzying and annoying. The dénouement is overly long – I stopped caring long before the characters stopped talking about the events. Sure, I guess it explains everything, but in a drawn out way that is unnecessary.

Recommended for fans of English countryside mysteries and vintage mysteries. I would gladly read Heyer again. I will miss Lady Matthews, though…

3 stars

The Secret Visitors

The Secret VisitorsThe Secret Visitors is James White’s first novel, published in 1957. I read the darling ACE edition that has tiny font that hurts my eyes. Cover by Schinella (???).  However, it should be noted that it was originally (at least parts of it) serialized in 1956’s New Worlds Science Fiction publications.  This is significant because I am allowing for the storyline to have been originally meant as a serialized work, digested in segments, and perhaps mauled a bit when put into novel format.  And it is White’s first novel. (Another attempt at presenting mitigation.)  Because, folks, this one is a stinker.

Anywhere on the Internet where you find someone giving this novel either four or five stars as a rating, you need to discard that person’s review/rating.  They are lying. Seriously, there is no way, that I can see, in which a reader can give this book anything higher than a three star rating. And, frankly, in all seriousness, I cannot really imagine anyone giving it that many stars.

Now, I have read a very good White novel ( The Watch Below ) and also a decent, endearing story ( Hospital Station ).  I have also heard rumor of some other good pieces by White. This, novel, however, is not good. I suspect that any good reviews it has ever received are out of sentimentality or because in this novel readers discern the germ out of which grew White’s best works.

The novel begins in media res in such a mess. Starting in media res is a frequently used method of beginning a story. However, authors who utilize this, need to pull it together and sort out the mess in a cogent way.  White gives the reader just a little bit more, but it is unsatisfying and still seems random and rushed. By chapter VI, though, it really just does not matter any more.

A big issue with White’s storytelling, in my opinion, is that he spends most of the work telling readers what is.  By this I mean that he does not explain or give any background. He presents a world of current-time facts. So, readers do not know how anything got to this point, the background on anything, the reasons for anything, etc.  Some of this is okay – and PKD is a master of pulling this writing style off with charm.  However, White just seems like Cratylus pointing at facts.

Lockhart, a doctor, races over to a body on the sidewalk. He is supposed to…. do something medically. Simultaneously, Hedley (an Intelligence Agent) is nagging him and shooing away bystanders.

Then, we are in hotel rooms. We meet “the girl” and several other wooden characters. A professor is there, he is apparently an older gentleman because he is cantankerous and does not fit in with the others. There are a couple of hazy, confused scenes in the hotel. Fistfight and then a needle stabbing? (I’m mad about the Cedric character – he is the worst-written, ill-explained, incomprehensible part of the novel.)

Lockhart is suddenly playing the rôle of tour guide for Kelly (the girl).  She is hideous and annoying. At first she really vexes him, but then he falls in love with her? I’m at a loss for this chaos.  Here, at least, we are given some information about the actual storyline. Apparently, there are off-worlders who are bored and our planet has stuff. So, they like to tour our planet and collect photographs and music and postcards.

Oddly enough, according to Miss Kelly, Earth was the only planet that changed its seasons, that had so infinitely lush variety in its flora and fauna, that was capable of producing such rich music, such gorgeous scenery.  No other inhabited planet had an axial tilt; this meant that the other worlds had no change of seasons, that their plants and animals had never had to adapt to changing circumstances, thereby producing variety.  Consequently, their inhabitants found the other worlds unbearably dreary and monotonous, while Earth would have been a veritable tourists’ paradise. – pg. 40, Chapter Four

Can you spot the dozens of logical/reasoning/scientific errors there?
Anyway, the story continues to a nearly-indecipherable scene on a beachfront with the landing of the off-worlders’ ship.  Suddenly, everyone is mentally and physically all good with hopping on the ship and heading into space with off-worlders. Aboard, we learn there are strange clothing, customs, and political machinations.  There is an interesting interlude wherein on a planet an alien body is ruining the planet and Lockhart becomes a hero by playing doctor.

Scenes take place involving guns and even a little kid with a water gun.

A weird trial occurs when the ship finally reaches its destination planet. Turns out the earthlings were doped. The little kid saves the trial. But it does not really matter because we have to have a space-navy battle. Hedley, at this point, is completely beyond any reader’s connection to character. And Lockhart decides on his “life’s work.”

I want to give this 1.5 stars. I guess I can give it two…. because the scenes with the “Grosni” are worthwhile. So, only read this if you are a White fanatic. It was a rough time reading this one.

2 stars

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel 1

The Scarlet Pimpernel – Orczy; Thorndike Press

This is a novel that I suspect used to be read more widely than in the last decade or so. While the story used to be very well-known, almost as a familiar anecdote, it seems that fewer people actually know the story.  I, for one, had never read it before. However, I was aware of several of the brute facts about the story. Proximity to Canada brought my first knowledge of French and British international relations. I knew the story took place during the French reign of terror. I knew that a “pimpernel” is a flower. I also knew that it is an historical adventure novel.  Honestly, when I was younger, I probably avoided it for very simplistic reasons…. the title is about a flower and it is written by a female author.

I have also never read The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, or anything by Kurt Vonnegut.  In fact, I only read Fahrenheit 451 in 2012.  However, as a high schooler I was able to quote disturbing amounts of Aristotle’s works and the Summa Theologiae. Needless to say, finally getting around to reading some of these works is nice and also surprising. I cannot suggest that I will ever read Salinger, but I do look forward to eventually reading Lord of the Flies and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

So it comes to the fact that reading literature out of the order of when “you should have read it” is a unique and interesting adventure of its own.  I am reminded a bit of that disgustingly oft-quoted line attributed to Aristotle about young gentlemen waiting until their fortieth birthdays to begin studying philosophy.  Well, the idea is that finally they are mature enough and the passions of youth are dissipated. (Cp. Thomas More being thankful for being freed from lust, gluttony, and jealousy). These ideas can be argued endlessly, but I do wonder if I’m lucky to be just approaching these works now as opposed to as a youth. Maybe the experience is different because instead of gobbling them up for high school essays, I can prop myself up in a leather club chair with an Irish whisky…. (The copy I read is even large print!)

The reading level for The Scarlet Pimpernel is nothing taxing whatsoever. Clearly, Emmushka Ortczy was not vying with Dostoyevsky and Stendhal. The novel is known for, I think, it’s adventure and its melodrama.  So, in 1905 the author produced a novel of daring and love and revolution that was able to be read by the most basic readers.  At the end of the day, the book is ridiculously readable and exciting – even when chapters are sloshing with melodrama.

There are certain lines that anyone who has read the book is quick to recall. For example, the internet alone is replete with quotations of the first line in the novel. Because, well, it is a striking and extreme first line. I have often mentioned that I think authors need to have powerful first lines in their novels. (Castle Skull was the last book I read that had a great opening line.) But the author is not a wordsmith.  Often, she is repetitive and almost Homeric in her character descriptions. The epitaph for Sir Percy is that he is inane. While this style of writing can be grating on the nerves, by the middle of the book, the reader has a very clear sense of the characters and wants to amend the character’s names with the epitaph anyway. In other words, annoying or not – its effective.

The main character, if you do not already know, is Marguerite.  Let’s call her Margot. Chapter XII begins with the line:  “Marguerite suffered intensely.”  Now, when I read these lines, I am thinking of something like St. Teresa d’Avila and her sufferings. Margot’s sufferings are largely brought on by herself, have their genesis in class struggles, and are rolled up in such melodrama that it is laughable. Well, in defense of the author – the story was originally a stage production. So, maybe a little of the heavy-handedness of the melodrama is forgiven.

There is a definite sense of race and class struggle here. It is fairly clear, too, which side the author falls on. The French are frogeaters, obviously, and the whole climax of the book’s adventure rests on using and abusing a Jew.  The British (and particularly the British aristocracy) are favorably looked upon as cultured, honored, and safe.  The bloodthirsty French are ruining their country because, well, they just go too demmed far!

Even though the British are the heroes, Margot stands out as a bridge between the two cultures – as if, perhaps, the author could not entirely condemn the French.  Now, I am not really the reader to discuss feminism with – what is Margot’s status as a female character in 1905? in 1792? I simply could not speculate. However, whenever she seems overwrought by her emotions there is always a moment or a scene wherein we are told she reasonably and rationally must think her way through things. Her epitaph is that she is the wittiest mind. I will leave this discussion to those better attuned to it.

The novel is dated. It does have heaps of melodrama. It is nothing more than an exciting adventure/romance.  However – at no point does it pretend to be anything more. And dem it all, by the end I was rooting for Percy and Margot, too. I do not think the forcibly critical empiricists of our time, who have made it a posh thing to criticize, will enjoy this novel. But if such persons can no longer access an appreciation for fun and melodrama, I daresay they will not be reading this novel anyway.

4 stars

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A Trace of Memory

A Trace of MemoryA Trace of Memory was first published in novel form in 1963.  It is the second novel by Laumer that I have read. The novel is actually an expanded version of the story that appeared in Amazing Stories in 1962 (July – September). I read a 1984 Tor Books edition with artwork by Bob Layzell.

This novel feels like it is three chunks of story.  I read the first chunk and really enjoyed it. But when the story seemed to transition to the second chunk, I lost interest and the book sat around the house abandoned for awhile. Simply put the direction of the storyline was somewhat disappointing since I was rather impressed and engaged with how that whole first section had gone.

For the sake of clarity, let me suggest that the “first chunk” includes chapters 1 – 7.  The second chunk: chapters 8 – 12.  Finally, the third: chapters 13 – 18.

Now, before I hear complaint, let me explain why I made these divisions.  I do not own the 1962 magazines in order to see just how far the story was published in those.  So, I have no idea what chunk was published there. However, I made these divisions because while, generally, the plot is a whole, I cannot say that it is seamless and fluid.  Honestly, this is a reason why I did not give this novel a four star rating. Though the main character remains the same chap we meet early on, the settings and direction of the story change so much that the novel feels too broken.

The first seven chapters are really good and I was very much engaged in the storyline.  Written as noir/horror with a dose of sarcastic humor thrown in, the story speeds along following two characters meeting in a town called Mayport.  Laumer displays a keen sense of how to write one of those almost-pulp, noir-esque mystery settings.  We meet the main character, Legion, casing a storefront in late evening. A few pages later we meet the mysterious and mannered Foster.  Their fates connect simply because Legion is a fast-talking swindler and Foster is quick-thinker.  Together, though they present a pair of opposites, they actually are somewhat alike in their underlying personalities.

A few chapters in and this novel moves at breakneck pace and the reader will probably have a lot of questions and not get a lot of answers. And Legion is a real whip of a character, so his sarcasm can get over the top at points. However, this is a good solid story.  And then, the plot jumps to three years in the future and I kind of lost a lot of interest in all the stuff in the first part of the book.  Now Legion’s circumstances have changed and, honestly, its gotten to the point where it is difficult to buy into this story.  Here a pseudo-James Bond/ Dr. No situation is set up featuring South America and help from a minor female character. Evasion and escape and government/military intervention. Well, I just did not enjoy this section much at all. Best part of these chapters is that we meet the magnificent Itzenca character. (A darling, swell cat.)

Finally, what I call the third section moves the story very far off planet and across the galaxy. Here the story turns into a sort of feudal-fantasy thing with Legion trying to evade, escape, solve a mystery, rally the troops, and challenge the planet. It gets a bit too swashbuckling here, I think. (Yes, there are sword fights.) But there is a lot of fun and adventure and the writing is not too shabby.  Still, this is far and away from where we started – a noir tale in little Mayport.

So, at the end of this, let us just accept this for what it is.  It is an adventure story with some science fiction elements, that just builds and builds on the level of far-out. It was never meant to be intellectual and ponderous. It does speed along and it does have some audacious moments. Adventure fans will appreciate this one, though it may not be all that alluring to many dedicated science fiction fans.

3 stars