1 Star

Gallows View

Gallows ViewI finished Gallows View by Peter Robinson (b. 1950) this morning and I do not have good things to say about it.  It was published in 1987 and is the first in his Inspector Alan Banks series of novels. This summer, for whatever reason I have been up to my elbows in crime, mystery, and suspense novels. Truth be told, there are only two that I found to be good reading. Only a couple were decent reads and then the majority, I think, were quite bad.  Since I have finished this novel, I am debating with myself about whether this is the worst of the bunch or second-worst.

After reading the thing, I let the covers gently ease shut and I was frowning at it. In all honesty, if the author were in the room I would be giving him a narrowed-eyed look of deep suspicion.  I mean, I do try to separate author from book, but sometimes you read a thing and cannot help but feel uncomfortable and distrusting. The entire novel is about sex and the creepiest and weirdest aspects thereof. I do not solely mean the main crime of the book (the peeping Tom) which starts on page one in a graphic way. I also mean in the utterly toxic, obnoxious, idiotic drivel of “psychology” that the characters engage in pretending to be scientific, but realistically, just playing barroom banter.

The character of Dr. Jenny Fuller – psychology professor at York University – is quite possibly the worst-written, most farcical, cringe-worthy, embarrassment of a fictional character to ever have been written.  I do not know if I can truly explain how horrendous this character is, but allow me to just paint broadly and say:  the character is a gruesomely heavy-handed ploy to make the novel seem edgy and balanced and feminist (to a point) and yet seem objective and modern.  All of this is an absolute fail.  So, that is the theory, here is the evidence:  in chapter three, she is at a bar with the main character – this is how they have serious work meetings – and she is overcome in a giggling fit that includes a bout of the hiccups. The whole time, though, she has a weird “you had better take me (and my field of study) seriously” vibe. It is truly one of the most awful scenes I have ever read. I could write quite a bit about the awfulness of this whole thing, but I think my disgust is apparent.

The writing is inconsistent and stupid. For example, we are at a crime scene that is the home of an elderly lady.  Her place is stuffed with cubbyholes and mantles and little shelves that are full of bric-a-brac, knick-knacks, mementos, trinkets, etc.  It is busy and flowery.

The house was oppressive. . . . The walls seemed unusually honeycombed with little alcoves, nooks and crannies where painted Easter eggs and silver teaspoons from Rhyll or Morecambe nestled alongside old snuff boxes, delicate china figurines, a ship in a bottle, yellowed birthday cards and miniatures.  The mantlepiece was littered with sepia photographs. . . . and the remaining space seemed taken up by the framed samplers, and watercolors of wildflowers, birds and butterflies.  Jenny shuddered.  Her own house though structurally old, was sparse and modern inside. It would drive her crazy to live in a mausoleum like this. – pg 54, chapter 3

I found this writing to be intolerable. Absolutely awful. The author spent a lot of time describing the home and I developed an image of the place as per his guidance.  And then his idiot character, Fuller, is made to say blatant illogical stupidity. I almost threw the book after I guffawed and complained to my household. I understand what the author was attempting to say, but he stupidly chose the incorrect word. Unfortunately, he literally chose the word that would lend to the opposite imagery. Have you ever been inside a mausoleum? Its brutally “sparse and modern” in most cases. It is cruelly “empty” of human touch. Sure there are sometimes small hangers with fake flowers or perhaps a small flag, but the overall scene is cold and empty and yeah, mausoleums tend to smell a bit off. I suspect Robinson meant a reliquary or menagerie – or, worse, that he meant MUSEUM and typed mausoleum.

Every character in the book is constantly drinking.  The majority of their time is spent in a pub or drinking bottles of liquor. Immense amounts of alcohol are consumed in this novel. Literally constantly, by everyone:  morning, noon and night. There is a gross imbalance in this sort of writing. Its too much by a lot. The characters drink whenever anything happens, they are always in the pub, half of them are always drunk, they drink before they drive – and whenever they get to their destination. Its just overboard.

Far too much of the novel is also taken up with Banks’ amazing struggle to remain faithful to his wife, Sandra. I mean, Banks is madly overwhelmed with desire from the moment he meets Dr. Fuller in the cop shop. That evening he begins their professional, working relationship at the bar across the street. And then, has her drive him to a crime scene in her car.  Further on in the novel, Banks ends up at Fuller’s house and “resists” the urge to cheat on his wife. Fuller knows he is married and allegedly was just testing him. Or was testing her own assessment of him. Either way, its utterly toxic and hideous.  Of course, throughout the novel, Banks avoids mentioning his collaboration with Fuller to his wife. Others (including the superintendent who requested Fuller’s presence on the case from the university) in the police force make it obvious that they suspect him of cheating on his wife.  I would really like to Banks to read Matthew 5:28 if he can stay out of the pub long enough to do so……

Two young thug teenagers have begun a life of crime. They escalate their crimes from theft, to breaking and entering, to awful behavior.  In one of their heists, they urinate/defecate all over the living room of the house they broke into. Things escalate further when, in the middle of a break-in, the owner comes home and finds them. The one teenager, who has never been with a woman, decides now is the time – and he rapes her.  Ridiculously enough, that is how the cops catch him – he gets VD from the woman and he seeks treatment at a clinic.  Seriously, the constant all-angles obsession with sex in this novel makes me uncomfortable about this author.

One would assume this is all that could be done in this little novel. Alas, I am sorry to report that there is more. One of the red herring characters is a creepy librarian with a penchant for porn magazines – a fact all the police officers seem to mention very knowingly.  Further, and worse, the father of one of the teenage thugs is currently having an affair with a woman in the neighboring apartment because her husband is often out of town.

This is a nasty little town of perverts. It is not a well-written novel! I have yet read much praise for this novel and for the main character, Banks.  Frankly, all the weird adultery aside, he is the most boring and dull detective that I have met in books. I am really floored and confused by all the praise it has been given. Once again it occurs to me that readers rate and review the novel that they THINK that they read or the novel that they WANTED to read and not the one they have in their paws. It is a strange disassociated delusion I think happens more than readers admit. There is nothing good I can say about this one, unfortunately, but I own book two of the Banks series and am unsure if I will read it.

1 star

New York Dead

NewYorkDeadNew York Dead by Stuart Woods (b. 1938) was first published in 1991.  This is the first in the Stone Barrington series. There is really not much I can say about this one that is positive.  Shockingly, there are over sixty in the series. One of the reasons I read it is because I am trying to get through a very large stack of – truly – pulp fiction.  The stack has a lot of real junk fiction on it – schlock and pulp at its finest worst. Part of me is utterly amused by how horrible most of these books are. I do mean in that paradoxical sense of “so bad, its good.”  Not all of them meet that level, though. Most are “so bad, just so bad.”

So interspersed with my usual much better reads there are going to be some of these schlock novels.  I could not possibly read them back-to-back, I would probably expire.   However, I realize it is ludicrous to use the same sort of rating system that I do with general fiction, etc.  The first thing to do is to decide if a thing is in the “Schlock Category” or not.  This book by Woods is without doubt in that category.  So, then to decide how to rate it within that category?  Maybe the novels earn stars through meeting basic elements. Like a coherent plot. Well, let me share that New York Dead is missing that. The plot was so, utterly, unnecessarily, uncomfortably ridiculous that it lost any claim to the concept “plot.”

Maybe we give a star for likeable and enjoyable characters.  Ones that are good to have met because they are interesting, curious people or because they are proficient at their jobs. Characters that maybe a better story and a better author could really develop.  In New York Dead we meet no one even remotely good at their jobs or even in the slightest to be likeable.  (There is a character named Baron Harkness – whom I could not think otherwise than Baron Vladimir Harkonnen from Dune.) These are some idiotic and wretched characters – in particular the main character, Stone Barrington.  The “uniqueness” is that he is allegedly from an upper “WASP” background full of money and education (he has his law degree, just has not passed the bar exam, which, by the way, he does in a skinny minute) and he inherits a massive old home. Except Stone decided he wants to be a cop because of some convoluted backstory that is unrealistic.  The thing is, he isn’t even a good cop, but we are supposed to believe that he is a detective (second rank).  Instead, he is an intemperate, undisciplined sucker who enjoys going to the posh spots in NYC.  Its supposed to come off as unique, but instead its dislikeable and toxic.

All right, but what about good writing? Good pulp writing should be a bit sharp and snappy. Caustic and yes, maybe it does rely on tropes, stereotypes, and well-built standards of junk fiction.  But the writing should be relatively consistent.  New York Dead has several examples of stupid writing:

“I had a couple of good collars that got me a detective’s shield; I had a good rabbi – a senior cop who helped me with promotion; he’s dead now, though, and I seem to have slowed down a bit.” – pg. 77, chapter 10.

That was the main character talking to another key character over dinner. Stone was asked for his life story and he just spewed it out over the dinner. Not very wary, is he? Anyway, he told her what a “rabbi” in that context was. But then on page 128 we have this interchange:

“Stone laughed and shook his head. “To get that badge, you’d have to sign up for the Police Academy, walk a beat for a few years, spend a few more in a patrol car, then get luck on a bust or two, and have a very fine rabbi.”

“Rabbi?”

“A senior cop who takes an interest in your career?”

“Do you have a rabbi?”

“I did. His name was Ron Rosenfeld.”

“And he helped you?” – pg 128, chapter 17

I mean, holy crap. If it had been a conversation between two different characters, maybe? But its like Groundhog Day at dinnertime with these idiots.

Setting and pacing might be my last two vital elements for these silly novels.  I can be a sucker for certain settings and I can appreciate well-written settings. I want to see those in all the books. I want the place to come alive. And if there is no setting whatsoever (Cp. PKD’s novels) then there has to be a legitimate reason for it (in PKD’s case, a setting would keep the plot too grounded and PKD likes when the reader is floundering a bit). As far as pacing goes, well, even a bad story can have action or edge-of-your-seat interest. Surprises, maybe? Tension and suspense?

Well, New York Dead was a bad read. I am not saying that because it is junk fiction. I am saying it because as I might rate schlock, it still does not attain a good rating.  I mean, there are some things in here that are just so awful I cannot write about them. Trust me, do not read this one – its very bad on the crap scale. The best thing that comes of my having read this (and my expectations on it were very low, by the way, when I began it) is that now I have some benchmark for how the junk fiction pile should be assessed. It gets 1 star for the fact that the idea of the main character is vaguely unique; too bad it was mauled. So, pure junk and bad even for it being pure junk!

1 star

** I made a grievous error in writing this review.  There is a character, Elaine, who is, for all intents and purposes, Elaine Kaufman (1929 – 2010). My error in saying there were no likeable characters obviously does not include Elaine – real or simulacrum.

The Universe Maker

The Universe Maker - A. E. Van Vogt; ACE, 1974

The Universe Maker – A. E. Van Vogt; ACE, 1974

The Universe Maker by A. E. Van Vogt was first published 1953. I read the 1974 ACE novel with 127 pages. The cover was created by Bart Forbes – and looks exactly like one would think it should for a 1970s cover art piece. A. E. Van Vogt is one of those “classic” science fiction authors who seems to have nothing really good said about him. He wrote a lot of things, but he seems to usually be held up as the standard for a low-water mark. I read this novel because I am certainly not afraid of reading terrible novels and because it is another 1950s sci-fi novel I can tick off the non-list.

Well, there is not a whole lot to say about this novel. It is bad. Really bad. In fact, of all the novels I have reviewed on this blog it is only the second to achieve the 1 star rating. So, if you’ve heard bad things about Van Vogt or his novels, you may not be too surprised. I cannot say that I was surprised – I was well aware that this had a high potential for being awful. Honestly, it was worse than I expected.

Most of this novel is incoherent at best. I do not mean in some…… Finnegans Wake sort of way. I mean in a “this author wrote this in one sitting and didn’t stop to re-read a single sentence” sort of way. I feel like the first two chapters are good enough. They set up a fairly interesting scenario and the characters are passable. Chapters three through seven seem like they belong to a slightly different novel. Sure, they have a tenuous relationship to the previous chapters, but it really seems a little forced. They are still not part of a “bad story” yet, but they are not what I expected.

Then, Chapters eight and nine happen. Again, the story seems really off. What is strange? Maybe the trajectory of the storyline, maybe the characters seem very removed. At this point, it has become very difficult to really isolate a plot. In fact, even the main character, Morton Cargill, does not seem to be a consistent character. He’s all over the place in his mannerisms, thinking, skills, psychology.

Finally in chapter ten it feels somewhat like we might be getting back to the early chapters of the book, circling back to pick up storyline threads. But sadly, that is not the case. Scenes are repeated, but this is a different path down the possible trajectory. So, if Van Vogt wanted this to seem like an alternative, cyclic time-travel story – he has very vaguely and minimally presented us with one.

But the interspersed communities/civilizations/tribes – there are three to keep track of, but we really learn very little about them – are mushy and thick. Was the author attempting to include some political/social seriousness as a plot? The first two chapters present a mystery, but by chapter eight, the novel has a very heavy-handed social dimension – that is also poorly written.

Things get worse because our main character, Cargill, has visions and dreams and things get really…. abstract. Let’s say abstract, but let us understand “distorted and random.” Throughout the book there is this obnoxious, never-ever developed superficiality regarding religion/faith. As if the author felt that religion (like politics) should be included to give a novel depth. Oh, bad mistake in this novel. It is just another nail in the coffin of a wretched little novel that should never have been written.

Maybe this is about time-travel? Or… something? I don’t know. Its really not good. By that I mean: it is quite awful, do not read this. I am not kidding. This is not just a novel “not near my tastes.” This is plainly a poorly written jumble of junk. Only read it if you are purposely trying to read really badly written things.

1 star

The Last Templar

Last TemplarI recently finished The Last Templar, published in 2005.  From the author’s website: The Last Templar is a fast paced contemporary adventure/thriller set in New York and in various settings around the Mediterranean, intercut by five epic chapters set during the closing years of the Crusades in which the last Templar of the title, entrusted with the Order’s secret, escapes from the burning city of Acre and struggles to make it back to France.

This novel starts off with a great idea. And the next several chapters are full of exciting bloodshed and intense chase. Then something happens…. everything goes downhill. Everything suddenly seems superficial and general. An annoying “love story” develops. Finally, after lots of nothing, there are several chapters filled with long-winded diatribe that seems more like the author speaking than the characters. The diatribe is fairly daft and foolish. I realize the topic will be seen by many as unpleasant and negative. Anathema. However, I don’t hate this part of the book just because I disagree with it – I hate it because its poorly written. Its awful.

I feel badly because the story starts off really interesting. But when the book goes downhill, it sure goes downhill. I debated giving the book two stars – because I really want to praise the originality of the opening story, but I just cannot.  Now, I do own Khoury’s next book The Sanctuary, which I suppose I may read someday simply because I own it.

1 star