The Crime at Black Dudley

The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham; Felony & Mayhem, 2006

The Crime at Black Dudley – Margery Allingham; Felony & Mayhem, 2006

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham (1904 – 1966) was first published in 1929.  It is the first of the “Albert Campion” mysteries written by the author.  It is the first novel by this author that I have read.  Overall, I was not terribly impressed.  The main complaint that I have is that the pacing for this story is uncomfortably off-kilter.  The main character, believe it or not, is not Campion, but a young Dr. George Abbershaw.

The story largely takes place at the Black Dudley, which is a large, rural estate owned by Wyatt Petrie.  The property has been in the Petrie family for some time, although in the distant past the manor was a variety of things including a monastery. Petrie allows his uncle, by marriage, to dwell at the property, entertaining the man by having “house parties” every so often.  These house parties consist of Wyatt inviting a number of his fellow young-academics over for dinner, drinks, conversation, and games. This story begins with Dr. Abbershaw finishing dressing in his room and heading downstairs for dinner.

Among the members of the party are Albert Campion and Meggie Oliphant.  The former is mysterious and annoys everyone constantly. The second is a red-haired young lady who Abbershaw is sweet on.  In any case, after dinner the group decides to partake in a game involving a ritual dagger. Its like hide and seek combined with hot potato. Wouldn’t you know, during the course of this game, someone gets killed….

Well, the pacing is all wrong in this novel. Chapters go on and on and on – and nothing much really happens at all. I think the reader is supposed to be getting to know the characters during these chapters, but since I did not really care about the characters, I did not care to bother about getting to know them.  The plot itself has a lot of stop and starts – although, more stops, it feels than starts.  Or, perhaps, the characters are painfully dull and crummy.

Campion annoys the other characters, but I think the reader is supposed to be intrigued by him.  I was not very intrigued. I did develop a sort of tolerance for the main character – who is easily the most developed in the novel. Abbershaw’s deductions, though, are sluggish and tedious.  He’s very mature for the most part, until he’s around Meggie, who makes him in turns:  courageous, sensitive, and protective.  The relationship he has with Campion is actually the only way we get to learn anything about Campion.

There are many chapters where I was grumpy because the characters seemed so pathetic.  Many of those same chapters do not advance the storyline whatsoever, either.  And then, late in the novel, I found myself asking:  “why is this story still happening?” it just goes on and on and it really should have been ended long before. Also, the villains – both the specific and in the relation to a larger body of organized crime – are almost completely absurd.

Overall, it is difficult to be told that most of the characters are skilled, academic professionals and then also watch them act and think so stupidly.  Coupled with the unending circular plot and this novel just is not very good. Nevertheless, I think because it is the first novel in the series, one should not write off this author/series. I do intend to read another Albert Campion/Margery Allingham mystery. Just not too soon.

2 stars

The Colorado Kid

The Colorado Kid - Stephen King; Hard Case Crime, 2005

The Colorado Kid – Stephen King; Hard Case Crime, 2005

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King was published in 2005.  I bought my copy years ago for $3.  I finally got around to reading it this past week because there was a lot of Haven watching going on around me and it occurred to me that that TV show is inspired by The Colorado Kid.  Anyway, the novel is a short, speedy read – I think I finished it in a day.

Overall, because the author is Stephen King, I think that this novel gets more praise and interest than it would if it had been written by almost any other author (with a few obvious exceptions).  I really like the Hard Case Crime concept – I cannot speak to their quality or their value. I just really like these pulp-style crime novels with vintage artwork covers. HCC has published many recognizable authors in their series; this novel by King is number 013 in the series.  Anyway, in the Afterword, King himself admits that this novel will divide readers – they will love it or hate it, he does not see any middle ground.

I did not hate this novel, but I really am not impressed whatsoever.  I accuse King of vague trickery with this one. Sure, it is a HCC novel and there is a vintage artwork cover on it. Yes, there is a mystery somewhere in the pages. However, as I was reading it and now afterwards, I keep asking myself:   is this really about anything or is it a novel about nothing? The novelty (pun intended) is that there is no closure or resolution to the mystery.  There really isn’t any deduction either.  Angela Lansbury and Sherlock Holmes are not showing up to follow the clues. Instead, at base, this is a rumination on what a “mystery story is” and what a “newspaper story” is.

The main characters are two elderly journalists who have developed a local newspaper (since 1948). They have hired on a young female intern named Stephanie to work at their paper The Weekly Islander.  Basically, the superficial story is that the two older writers are grooming/mentoring Stephanie to take over for them at the paper.  Part of doing this is getting her to value the local geography and society as well as teaching her various subtleties that are beyond textbook journalism basics.

Anyway, one evening the three journalists spend time discussing the locale’s “one big mystery.”  This mystery involves a John Doe body that was found back in 1980. And this is what this novel is really about.  It is a discussion on journalistic jurisdiction, the overarching purpose and goal of news items in a paper, and what a “story” consists of.  Ultimately, the three seem to conclude that mysteries that get published have closure and resolution – even if it is just what people want the end of the story to turn out to be. But real mystery stories tend to have a disconcerting multitude of deadends and open-ends.  And that is the sort of thing that doesn’t work just to sell papers and maybe puts more value in the journalist’s investigation than that of the policeman’s.

Nevertheless, is this novel really about anything? I go back and forth on this. In moments where I am feeling all speculative and academic I want to say that it is – it contains subtle ideas on stories and newspapers and mysteries etc.  In moments where I am feeling particularly empirical and dictatorial, well, I insist it is actually a faux-novel filled with nothing.

I’m only giving this two stars.  I’m not impressed. I just don’t think it is as insightful and witty as it wants to be. It is a quick read with a slight puff of twist to it.  Also, the effort King makes to have the characters speak in the local dialect is annoying. If I never read “Ayuh” again, it will be too soon.

2 stars

The Roman Hat Mystery

The Roman Hat Mystery - Ellery Queen; Signet, 1967

The Roman Hat Mystery – Ellery Queen; Signet, 1967

The Roman Hat Mystery was first published in 1929.  It was written by “Ellery Queen,” which in this instance is the collaboration of two cousin-authors:  Frederic Danny and Manfred Lee.  (Those names are also aliases.)  This is the first of the Ellery Queen novels – in this instance referring to one of the major characters in the series.  Ellery Queen, the character, is a mystery writer and amateur detective who assists his father, Richard Queen, a New York City police inspector.  “Ellery Queen” has also been used as a house name and a title which anthologizes mystery stories.

Overall, I expected better.  I was anticipating a better story.  Compared to stories about Lord Peter, Poirot, Nero Wolf, et al., this novel does not fare too well.  The first chapter is interesting and sets up what could be a taut and unique story.  However, the characters started to annoy me and I was very underwhelmed by the pacing of the story.

The Queens, father and son, really get on my nerves and annoy the heck out of me. The father, Richard, is supposedly an older man with a benevolent smile and gentle demeanor. Frankly, I find him churlish, moody, and immature.  The son, Ellery, reminds me of a big oaf.  He is allegedly broad-shouldered and tall, is constantly in a near-haze mentally, and fiddles endlessly with his pince-nez. His entrance into the story comes with some excitement – as if he is an intriguing character.  However, all he does is mope around and whine. He’s like an oversize turd who tries very hard to seem detached and wise. And between the father and son is a clearly co-dependent and exhausting relationship.

Not to mention Djuna, the non-white teenager that somehow Richard managed to bring into their home and subjugate into being a sort of manservant/cook.  Djuna is often compared to a monkey who simply adores his master, Richard. There’s a whole lot of weirdness about this.

Some readers have complained that this novel is “dated.”  Generally, I take “dated” to mean that it is difficult to read and enjoy without contextualizing it within a distant time period/setting.  Being “dated” does not necessarily mean anything, though, because there are heaps of works that are read and valued even though they are not recently published.  I do think we should read this novel (and others like it) with an understanding that it was written in 1928/1929.   Telephones operated differently and there was no internet. However, even for that dating it is difficult to accept as matter-of-fact the motive for the murderer in this story.

Anyway, the good parts of the novel are the actual setting and the props. I like murders in darkened theatres! I like that the theatre was presenting the stageplay “Gunplay!”  I like that there are a variety of characters – from rascal kids, to plump doormen, to sharp-witted policemen.  I like the props:  top hats and bowlers, evening capes and walking sticks, spats and decanters.  Heck, I am more comfortable with all of those items than with what I can accessorize with today!

I think the novelty of this story is that the authors supposedly put forth enough evidence/clues for the reader to race against the detectives and solve the crime.  Well, I guessed part of the solution – simply because it was the obvious.  I did not guess the murderer – or his motive – because that is a bit of a stretch.  And the “false leads” seem too convenient qua false leads.

The book is spoiled by the awfully annoying Queens and the horrendously slow pacing.  The pacing is so slow that chapters go by with literally nothing happening.  Put it this way:  most of the time I want to telephone the Queens up and tell them to “do something!”  instead of sitting around re-tracing their steps or sitting around snorting their snuff boxes. C’mon, get up and do work!

Anyway, I am glad I read it – to say that I read it.  I may try Ellery Queen again sometime, but no time soon. Really, this is only for the vintage-novel reader.

2 stars

Matrix

Matrix - Douglas R. Mason; Ballantine, 1970; cover: Paul Lehr

Matrix – Douglas R. Mason; Ballantine, 1970; cover: Paul Lehr

Matrix by Douglas R. Mason was published in 1970.  I read the Ballantine January 1970 edition with the cover by Paul Lehr.  This is the second book by Mason that I have read.  I have one more currently in my collection that I have not yet read.

Truth be told, this novel is, more or less, a re-write of Eight Against Utopia.  It has enough differences to say that it is a different novel, but let’s not buy into that too far.  Like in the earlier novel, an executive of the city questions the structure and command of the city.  He tinkers secretly in a makeshift storeroom with “forbidden” mechanics.  Like the main character in the earlier novel, this executive is reduced to apoplexia whenever a girl is around and has a libido that is out of control.  Just as in the earlier novel, the city is encased in a dome-structure and a good amount of the novel takes place in survival-mode outside of the domed city.

There are a whole lot more similarities between the novels, but I think those present a fair estimation of the comparison.  Don’t get me wrong – I think Mason should have re-worked Eight Against Utopia, because that was really bad.  However, I do not think Matrix is any better of an effort. I completely follow the storyline and I think that this could have been decent.  It could have been a readable, entertaining novel.  But somehow Mason just cannot write well-enough.  I’m somewhat embarrassed for him, I guess.

Joe Dill is an executive in the system.  He finds housing for the citizens.  He starts to believe something is happening within the domed city that does not sit right. So, of course, he decides to involve his secretary (Barbara Rowe) and they leave the dome and explore another domed city nearby:  Egremont City.  He returns home after a harrowing experience and discovers that the Matrix (the computer that governs the city) has found out about his rebellious thoughts and actions.

Part of the storyline involves the biomechs – these are people who have had their lifespan expanded exponentially because of mechanical and/or cybernetic modifications. Throughout the novel, Mason wants us to consider how an extended lifespan (near immortality) is actually ruination for humanity because it has bred a lethargic, incurious, stagnant humanity.  Mason talks at the reader about this (via Joe Dill), but it is not really fleshed out. A better author could have really explored this topic interestingly.  In some convoluted way, Mason ties this into the motives for Joe Dill’s escape, evasion, and battle against the Matrix.  I find it difficult to believe Joe is that concerned about humanity qua humanity.  I feel he just wants more freedom – and more freedom with women.

This is what had given the military idea such a long currency on the human scene.  There was a fierce and consuming satisfaction in it.  Outlet for aggression, that homed precisely on a basic strand of the psychological spectrum and had it vibrating. – pg. 95

Anyway, the book is sporadic.  The majority is filled with action-scenes.  To Mason’s credit, these are better than in the previous novel, but still not great.  In between are boring parts where the story rather stalls and sputters.  The chauvinism is still there, but maybe just slightly less than in the previous book. Not much less. Here’s a line with Dill addressing Barbara, who has joined their ragtag crew of rebels outside of the domed city:

Dill said, “You can make yourself useful right now and bring up some coffee.” – pg. 74

Anytime there is a female in the scene with Dill there are these sorts of comments or he has to pause to drool over her. It’s pathetic and ridiculous, most of the time.

One of the concepts that Mason kept from the earlier novel is the brain-connection between the overseeing system and the human individual.  Though hardly as present in this novel as in the other, this concept does play a role and is still the most interesting part of the storyline.  I have to share that there is a scene “straight out of a comic book” wherein Dill and Rowe are captured and the Matrix has robots hook the prisoners up to “porcupine-like electrodes” in order to establish links to their brains.  These links are where Mason’s development of the concept fails; he doesn’t know how to utilize this concept interestingly and solidly.

Well, overall another skippable novel.  It is just like Eight Against Utopia with a different cast.  Some minor differences. Still written poorly (so many people and things move “pneumatically” that it must have been Mason’s favorite word).  Once again, a better author could have done something with this landscape.  All I can say is that it does not require any brain power whatsoever to read.

2 stars

Eight Against Utopia

Eight Against Utopia - Douglas R. Mason; Paperback Library, 1970

Eight Against Utopia – Douglas R. Mason; Paperback Library, 1970

Eight Against Utopia is the first (I am reasonably certain) novel by Douglas R. Mason.  It was published in 1967 under this title.  A year prior, this novel was published under the title From Carthage Then I Came.  The cover art for my 1970 edition is by Dean Ellis.

This is not a well-written novel.  I mean this in several ways.  At the most basic – it’s not always coherent.  It is like an editor just hacked at it randomly – an editor who has not even read a chapter, but had some quota/word count and so he just chopped wherever.  The story suffers for this.  I do not need every detail written out for me, but there are times where I swear the pages must have stuck together and I missed something.  Besides that, the dialogue is horrendous.  Now, dialogue is one of the things I think are the most difficult to write.  But the work here is awful.  The few points where Mason attempts to use sarcasm or wit fall flat – because one actually thinks he might be serious.  Sometimes his “humor” is actually offensive and inappropriate. Most of the dialogue is written as if it were a bold sketch suggestion for actors who would then ad lib at their own discretion – no one would actually speak like this.

This is a very misogynistic/chauvinistic piece.  I grew up watching Archie Bunker and thinking hockey is the greatest sport on earth – so if the chauvinism is subtle and mild, I might miss it.  No worries here with this novel – it is big as day and bright and flashing in neon.  This is quite surprising because I did not expect this level.  I would expect this in any of those pulp 1940s/1950s “men’s novels.”  Sure, it’s common as water in those.  But I had assumed in Mason’s science fiction, the misogyny would not be at that level. Surprise.  And sure, we can say the novel is a bit dated (it’s not that old) and even so, a little chauvinism is a far cry from outright rude and barbaric thinking.  Much of this comes into play in the story when the male characters – in the middle of risking their lives, completing dangerous physical exertions, being sleep deprived, being chased, or applying themselves to intense intellectual scenarios – have to pause every time a skirt walks in the room.  And the “way” Mason describes these moments is just creepy and icky.  I’ll be honest:   at several points I would not have been surprised if suddenly Mason turned the storyline into some erotic fiction orgy.  Thankfully, that did not happen. Whew.

Finally, in terms of terrible writing, the most interesting part of the story is the situation in Carthage (the domed false-utopia).  But instead of developing this further, Mason’s storyline spends most of the book after the escape from the dome.  So, then it becomes a survival story. A wilderness chase.  And all of this is implausible and poorly written.  I wish that Mason had stuck with events in Carthage.  Having left Carthage, characters act like they have the physical and mental stamina of heroes of the Iliad.  It’s just not thought out.  And when Mason writes action scenes, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what is going on.  Even The Executioner series of men’s adventure/pulp manages to make action clear.  Mason fails spectacularly at all of these things.

It is a fast read, though. I read it quickly and it was still better than a few other terrible, horrible, awful novels I have been forced to read. (e.g. The Great Gatsby)  Also, I like some of the original concept of the storyline.  This is a copy of Big Brother in 1984, surely.  But I do not mind reading about this topic.  However, Mason has Big Brother (in this case, The President) somehow monitoring citizen’s emotions, vocal tones, inflections, and thoughts.  Well, this is interesting.  Or, it could be if it were fleshed out and developed and done by an author who actually understands anything about writing (including character development and dialogue).  I actually really want to take this kernel of idea and hand it to any other capable author and see what they can do with this concept.

Also, I do not think Mason has a concept of how long 7,000 years is and how much can happen in such a long time.  He needed to get with some historians and some sociologists et al.  Some items in the story seem plausible, others not at all. 7,000 years is significant. Anyway, don’t bother reading this slog.  It would only be good for those who have already read everything else and who can look past a whole lot of bad.

2 stars

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu – Sax Rohmer; Pyramid

I finished reading The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu today – just over 100 years since it was published in 1913.  I have been trying (for no reason other than pure whim) to bulk out my collection of detective/science fiction pulp novels.  This includes focusing on 1900 -1940 paperbacks and such.  Naturally, some items are of higher quality than others.  However, among the most famous are the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer (the penname of Arthur Henry Ward 1883 – 1959).

The first thing to discuss is the overwhelming xenophobia present in the novel.  There is no ignoring it.  I do not care to dwell on it too much.  I mean, this is hardly an isolated incident in history.  Yellow Peril / Yellow Terror is a pretty common fear theme in the early 1900s especially.  Historians can connect this sort of mindset with the events of the world wars and with the sociological milieu of Europe.  However, this is a novel review – not a discussion on history and racism.

I read the 1965 Pyramid edition of the novel.  I have the first three in the Fu Manchu series in these Pyramid printings. Fu Manchu – or some concept thereof – is rather pervasive in our contemporary society.  However, I’d wager most people have neither read the novels or seen the movies.  In fact, I am not so sure they know such things exist.  After all, I suspect many people think it is just a cool name for facial hair. Or, perhaps, a slightly off-color nickname for a Chinese person.  In any case, I doubt people connect the term “Fu Manchu” with this novel.

I have to say that I am not giving the novel a high rating – but not because it contains xenophobia.  And not because it seems dated or whatever else.  Frankly, the two star rating I am giving it is because it is not very likeable.  Simply put.

The two main characters are hideous.  I mean, they are just ridiculous and hideous.  Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie are obvious imitations of Sherlock and Watson. But not good imitations.  I mean, these two suck.  Sherlock and Watson are swift, agile, witty, sharp, clever… whereas Smith and Petrie are pathetic and fail constantly.  Rohmer gives Smith some “idiosyncrasies” like tugging on his earlobe and pacing whenever he is stressed.  Smith also smokes a pipe (albeit rather unsuccessfully).  Petrie is also the one who is narrating the story; but he tells us a repetitive story, reiterating constantly some main points.  For example, Fu Manchu is uncanny, the girl-slave is beyond meta supra-beautiful, etc.

The first few chapters are actually kind of difficult to figure out.  I was somewhat lost in them – mainly because I felt they were just not well written.  Eventually, though, the storyline evens out a bit and makes more sense.  Then the reader just follows along as again and again our Smith and Dr. Petrie fail at everything.  They are pathetic.

Good things:  Rohmer’s descriptions of the opium dens are creepy and intense.  I think Rohmer probably went to some such places for “research.”  This is important to note because whenever else in reading (Cp. Metropolis, etc.) I come across depictions of opium dens, it is Rohmer’s description that I imagine.  If you are interested in this underworld of drugs, you may be interested in these sections.  Also:  Rohmer does a good job of making sure the reader is scared and disgusted by the villain.  He gives us enough to let us know Fu Manchu is a very intelligent, scary villain – but without developing a familiarity that would take the mystery away.

Overall, there is no sense in reading this for a great detective/mystery.  This is truly a piece of its time and it shows.  I’m glad I read it – I can now discourse on Fu Manchu and find Fu Manchu spin-offs and copycat derivatives in all sorts of media.

2 stars

The Falling Astronauts

The Falling Astronauts – Barry Malzberg; ACE, 1971

The Falling Astronauts by Barry Malzberg was first published in 1971.  It is the first Malzberg novel that I have read. I read the ACE edition with cover by Davis Meltzer.

It took me quite a long time to get through this novel.  And I am not going to give it a rave review.  Basically, I think this novel might not really even qualify as actual science fiction, but I am rarely thrilled with such pigeon-holing.  All of the characters are unlikeable, which is fine.  I am used to disliking characters. However, in this particular novel, this is really a significant problem.

The novel is about the repercussions of the government agency in Washington and their space program.  Without being stated, it is obvious Malzberg is alluding to NASA.  Also, it takes place during wartime, presumably the Vietnam War.  Some comparisons are made here between the government and public interest in the war versus the interest in the space program.  Very heavy-handedly, the reader is to understand that the space program regardless of its facade of noble goals or scientific advances is utilitarian in nature.  The agency, in its methods and goals, dehumanizes and devalues humans – the astronauts who actually run the missions are treated as little more than machinery.  Their training turns them into machinery, tools, pieces within a greater (and more important) machine.

However, lest readers feel this is a direct attack on a specific organization, there are indeed hints in the novel that this attitude of the agency is actually a reflection of the entire societal structure within which the space agency operates.  Further, if this is so, a parallel assessment can (in theory) be drawn regarding the soldiers sent off to fight in the war effort.  Several times Malzberg includes references to “the war,” which could suggest this being read as a subtle anti-war novel.

The evidence for the dehumanizing of the astronauts is shown in their emotional and mental breakdowns.  Particularly in the character Richard Martin.  The novel begins with a sex scene – one in which the sex is described to us in very mechanical terminology. Literally:  docking procedure.  Gears, transmission, whines of engines, hiss of static, etc.  And this segues into the depiction of Martin having a ruined marriage.  His wife blames him and, more so, the Agency/Administration.  It has ruined his life, her life, and their life.  How so?  Because he is a machine; dehumanized and mechanical.  On the most recent mission, Martin had a mental breakdown which almost resulted in a significant tragedy.  The actual events were hushed up and when he returned from the mission, he was given treatment as a malfunctioning machine might be given.  Finally, he was proclaimed by the agency to be “all better.”  In reality, he carries extreme post-traumatic stress and he struggles with the remembering the “person” he used to be, as opposed to the mere individual he is now.

Malzberg’s writing is very interesting.  I like the actual style of writing qua writing.  It is remarkable and refreshing – his sentence structure and chapter-structure actually take a little bit to get used to.  I was re-reading a few sentences here and there when I started the novel.  Malzberg also uses a lot of subtle allusions and connotations that you have to pause a breath to consider before racing on.  Nevertheless, the reason why I give this novel such a low rating is because scenes just go on and on and on.  I mean, some of them feel interminable.  The whole novel is quite heavy-handed and with these scenes that just never end, the novel suffers.

Also, as I mentioned above, if the novel is built on the problematic of the agency dehumanizing astronauts, making such unlikeable and miserable characters does not really make me feel any great amount of care or concern for this problem.  I am not saying that is actually what Malzberg was aiming for.  I am just saying that it is hard to connect at all with characters and their problems as a whole when as a reader I just do not give a rip what happens to them, anyway.

There are sections where Malzberg’s wit shows through.  But all the words in between these sections really make the novel even more dismal than the situation it presents.  There are sections where Malzberg has Martin describing the room he is in, the interactions and relationships of the persons in the room, and so forth.  It is at these points that the writing really seems insightful and skilled.  Describing the intangible feelings in the room without seeming emotive or dreadful is tough to do, and I can praise Malzberg for that.

Discussing television/news programming, the character Oakes says:

“You see, as far as I can deduce anyway, these things were so devalued a long time ago that they’re just another kind of television.  People don’t believe what they see on television anymore so this becomes part of the general mix.  It’s very hard to get people really involved these days.  They’ve seen so much.  And television, I’m sorry to say, is a very poor medium for what we like to think of as reality.” – Chapter XXI, pg 175

That is my favorite quote in the book. I like that it is valid in 1971 and in present day.  It’s something to think about, surely, particularly on the topic of the simulacra/simulation theory.  Enter:  Badiou, Deleuze, Zizek.

2 stars

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