The Thirty-Nine Steps

39 steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan; Dover Thrift Editions

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was first published in book format in 1915.  It has been the source material that has been adapted in numerous ways; the most famous being the Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film.  Beyond adaptations of varying faithfulness, the story has also influenced all sorts of adventure, espionage, and thriller stories and characters.  The novel itself contains ten short chapters.  My Dover Thrift edition was a spare eighty-eight pages.

The story begins in May 1914 on the cusp of the First World War (accepted start date: July 28, 1914).  The work was not Buchan’s first work – he wrote a number of non-fiction and fiction works prior to this novel – but he alleged that it was his first “adventure/shocker” novel. It is the first of five novels starring the character Richard Hannay.  After the second novel, Greenmantle, Buchan enlisted in the British Army and was commissioned as a lieutenant serving in the Intelligence Corps.

There are a number of similarities between the character Hannay and Buchan himself. Obviously, Buchan made Hannay to be a very robust character, but he still drew from his own personal experiences.  Hannay is Scottish and enjoys strenuous outdoor activities, hunting, and when he is in London experiences boredom.  In many ways, Hannay is the macho archetype of a “man’s man.”  Hannay spent time in Africa where he worked as a mining engineer.  He often uses his experiences throughout the novel to make sense of his predicaments and challenges. He thinks things through with a healthy balance of Sherlock Holmes and Allan Quatermain.  Sherlock Holmes’ first appearance is 1887 and Allan Quatermain’s first appearance is 1885, so clearly Buchan could have had either or both in mind while writing.

We meet a relatively bored and underwhelmed Hannay located in London on a May evening.  The first thing we are told about the character is that he is disgusted with life. He is vexed by the weather, the conversation, and the entertainments. But luckily, that very night as Hannay is entering the rooms of his flat, a bearded blue-eyed stranger seeks him out for assistance.  The man is granted entry into Hannay’s rooms where he begins to tell Hannay a seemingly far-fetched and outlandish story of political intrigue and scheming. Principally, Constantine Karolides is in danger.

The thing about the stranger’s (Scudder) story is that it sounds to the reader just as it may have sounded to Hannay. Names, places, hints and clues all swirl around in a way that makes it seem like there is a dark and abiding danger.  There is enough fact to make the story seem true, but not enough detail to have the story really knowable.  A lot of espionage stories contain a super-complex weaving of threads that dance around the shadows.  This story is told in a frantic way to a very bored Scotsman. Hannay (and us readers) can hear the story and either place our bets on Scudder’s story being too far-fetched because he is off his rocker, or he is telling the truth and if there are gaps in the story they will make sense as we go along.

Hannay is motivated to accept Scudder’s story by the fact that the latter winds up murdered in Hannay’s flat.

The novel progresses rapidly. I think most readers expect that the espionage-story told by Scudder and relevant intrigue will be developed. Instead, the majority of this novel involves the fugitive adventures of Hannay as he avoids the London police and the conspirators of Scudder’s tale. The adventures take Hannay far from London and into the countryside. Time and again Hannay avoids detective and capture by using any number of skills that fugitives have recourse to.  Ultimately, Hannay ends up seeming like Batman or John Carter (of Burroughs’ works).  He is tireless, he is strong, he is determined.  And I think this hero character agitates readers who expect their characters to be horribly flawed and bumbling.

I like heroes who are heroic. I like that they defy odds and survive. Many readers may complain that this is “unrealistic,” and that they don’t like pure adventure stories. Well, I can see such a point, but in this particular novel, I think Hannay is a charmer. He sees his “mission” through to the end.  Now, the end of this novel is rather weak and sudden. It does not feel all that satisfying if readers were looking forward to saving the British Empire from the threat of the Black Stone. However, if readers were cheering a bored Scotsman who loves adventure – well, its a good yarn and well worth reading.

This is less an espionage novel than an adventure novel, but readers who enjoy the tradition of Allan Quatermain and John Carter should find this entertaining. And I do intend to read the next book in the Hannay series.

3 stars

*** Roughly a month after posting this review, The Guardian posted a podcast episode about this book. Apparently I read this novel nearly on its 100th year anniversary. The Guardian Books Podcast of Aug. 14, 2015. ***

March Violets

March Violets - Philip Kerr

March Violets – Philip Kerr

March Violets by Philip Kerr was first published in 1989.  It is the first of the “opening trilogy” of novels starring German detective Bernhard Gunther.  March Violets was republished in 1993 along with the other two novels of the trilogy.  The novel is set in Germany during the 1936 Summer Olympics, but there is no strong connection between the Olympics and the murder-mystery of the plot.  I think this is Kerr’s first published novel.

March Violets has a lot going for it to make it an interesting read.  However, there are a couple of elements that really take away from giving this novel a great rating.  Largely, Kerr wrote this “historical novel” in a way that emulates all of the stereotypes of “noir/hard-boiled” fiction.  Now, depending on whether readers are looking for that style or not, will determine how tolerant they will be of the novel.  If readers are seeking a rough and tumble detective who saw military action, is an ex-cop, drinks like a fish, and has a mighty libido, well, Bernie Gunther will be a hit.  If not, this novel will seem tedious and aggravating.

“It’s just typical of the bloody Nazis,” said Inge, “to build the People’s roads before the People’s car.” – pg. 153, Chapter 13

I was rather impressed with the setting.  Kerr manages to portray the reactions of the citizens living in this tumultuous Germany with skill.  With every character met and with every darkened Berlin street traveled, the reader feels the Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque oppression of the Nazi government.  The factions within the Nazi party create hazy divisions. Everyone is suspect, everyone tries to look like they are obedient to whatever authority is in their proximity. Berlin is overrun with thugs with badges who bully and abuse the citizens – sometimes on official business, sometimes on a whim. Newspapers have turned into propaganda. And anti-Semitism is the rule of the day.  All of these pressures are quite palpable and significant in the novel.

The voice was fastidious, suave even:  soft and slow, with just a hint of cruelty.  The sort of voice, I thought, that could lead you into incriminating yourself quite nicely, thank you.  The sort of voice that would have done well for its owner had he worked for the Gestapo. – pg. 11, Chapter 2

Gunther is an ex-soldier and ex-cop widower. His wife died many years previous and he has left the police force where he was a Kriminalinspektor of some repute.  He now works as a private detective.  This is not exactly a career that makes the official policing agents of Germany happy. Also, the reader is forced to share Gunther’s frustration at practicing this career in a regime wherein truth, legality, and morality are not the norm.  It is usually difficult enough for detectives to hunt down criminals and seek out the truth, but in 1936 Berlin, that seems like a ridiculous task.

Dogs are not at all keen on private investigators, and it’s an antipathy that is entirely mutual. – pg. 78, Chapter 7

The main noir-stereotype that Kerr uses is the metaphor.  Not sweet pastoral metaphors, but gritty tough-guy metaphors. Some of these are amusing and witty. At other times, they are overused. Where this stereotype comes from, I don’t know. But I have never met an individual (detective or otherwise) who thinks so frequently in metaphors as noir-characters do. Still, some of the lingo is fun: bulls = cops, lighters = handguns, etc.

Gunther is collected in the middle of the night by the associates of an industry tycoon. He is taken to that industrialist’s house and is hired to investigate a murder-robbery of the tycoon’s daughter and son-in-law.  The couple were shot and their house (including corpses) suffered arson in an attempt to destroy evidence. In the course of this investigation is where I lost track of the murder-mystery story and just learned to enjoy the setting. I probably was not paying careful enough attention. But Gunther’s “investigations” seem disjointed and without much profit. The cast of characters keeps expanding and I stopped differentiating between them all. Of course, this is meant to show the variety of forces acting in the case, but many times, it just seemed overcrowded and really stretched. Gunther even has a late night meeting with Göring.

Honestly, I spent a large portion of the novel thinking that Dr. Fritz Schemm was the same as the character Haupthandler. I’m still not sure where the latter came in and why he was significant?  He is one of the bodycount, though, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

Another issue I have with the story:  the number of times Gunther is knocked unconscious.  He is beaten senseless at least five times in this novel. I don’t know how many readers have been purposefully clobbered on the head, but that many times knocked down and out is not a light matter. In fact, it is absurd. And many times, Gunther is smacked by a blunt object, falls unconscious, and wakes up and just continues on with the investigation – perhaps muttering about a sore neck/head.

I didn’t need my deerstalker-hat to realize that the place had been turned over, from top to bottom. – pg. 115, Chapter 10

The largest issue I have with the novel is that there are several scenes – particularly the climactic ones near the end – that are what I think of as over-the-line graphic and gory. The scenes are meant to show depravity or inhumanity and they do. But I think the reader has enough to deal with considering the anti-Semitism, the political machinations, the general violence and crime throughout without needing the descriptively gross scenes. I thought about it and without these scenes – or reducing them to a milder level – does nothing harmful to the story. The scenes are unnecessary and bluntly repulsive. Yes, Nazis were brutal, but that is obvious in the novel without moving to the level that these scenes do.

Overall, I give this three stars.  The storyline gets lost and unclear. There is a horrific level of brutality in several scenes. The use of metaphors is a bit too frequent and too heavy-handed, even for noir.  Based on these complaints, one would expect a lower rating. However, the environment of the novel is very well-crafted and the main character, while not unique, is still a real trooper. I may read the next in the series (The Pale Criminal ), but certainly not until I’ve forgotten some of the gross of this novel.

3 stars

Star Science Fiction 1

Star Science Fiction 1 - ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 – ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 is the first book in the anthology series, Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl.  It was first published in 1953 by Ballantine Books and reprinted in 1972.  The book is especially notable because it contains the first appearance of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Nine Billion Names of God.  I read the 1972 edition with the John Berkey cover. I picked up my copy on a clearance display for $1. Editor Pohl provides a little opinion paragraph on the start page for each story. These little comments are interesting, but sometimes a little obnoxious.

My overall impression is that Pohl worked hard to select and present stories that would appeal to science fiction fans as well as to a more general readership.  Many of these stories emphasize or highlight some aspect of humanity or human relationships.  These are not simply “laser gun/alien” stories.  And the science is very minimal.  This is a decent collection of strong stories, but I did not feel that the stories were outstandingly awesome. Nothing here wow-ed me – maybe Pohl was playing it safe.  These are solid stories to be enjoyed, but maybe not to be all that excited about. The table of contents reads like a hall of fame inductee list.

  • Country Doctor • by William Morrison – 2 stars
  • Dominoes •  by C. M. Kornbluth – 2 stars
  • Idealist • by Lester del Rey – 3 stars
  • The Night He Cried • by Fritz Leiber – 1 star
  • Contraption • by Clifford D. Simak – 3 stars
  • The Chronoclasm • by John Wyndham – 3 stars
  • The Deserter • by William Tenn – 3 stars
  • The Man with English • by H. L. Gold – 3 stars
  • So Proudly We Hail • by Judith Merril – 2 stars
  • A Scent of Sarsaparilla • by Ray Bradbury – 2 stars
  • “Nobody Here But …”  • by Isaac Asimov – 3 stars
  • The Last Weapon •  by Robert Sheckley – 4 stars
  • A Wild Surmise • by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – 3 stars
  • The Journey •  by Murray Leinster – 1 star
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • by Arthur C. Clarke – 4 stars

The majority of stories in this collection focus on the effect science fiction situations and scenarios have on humans.  In some cases, there is an exploration of emotions.  In other cases, authors consider humanity’s common traits.  It seems odd to say it, but the stories are more about humanity than about science fiction.  And maybe that is why my ratings seem a tad bit lower – I tend to prefer my science fiction to be strongly science fiction.

The stories by Leiber, Merril, and Bradbury were not as good as the rest.  These three were let-downs and were rather poor. I have read so much better by both Bradbury and Leiber.  This is the first writing that I read by Merril, but I can see why Pohl selected it – it fits the theme of this collection nicely.  Leinster’s was pretty weak, in my opinion; a big fat “who cares!” for the plot. My favorite story of the bunch is by Sheckley.  Hands down it is a good story that matches the theme of this collection without turning sappy or overdramatic.  It maintained the “science fiction” aspect very well.

I guess the big take-away for this collection is something along the lines of:  science, the future, space exploration, etc. do not happen in a vacuum. Such things do not happen without humans. Without a doubt, it is necessary to consider humanity as the main delta in the equation.  Humans are not pure machines with perfectly predictable actions and reactions.  They are susceptible to a variety of traits and tendencies – but they remain unique and spontaneous.  Many times humans respond with their emotions rather than with pure calculated rationality.  Therefore, any vision of the future or of science [science fiction], must not ignore the humanity that drives it along. These stories work diligently to present a multitude of situations in which the humanity of the characters is the main focal point.

All of these stories are definitely classic stories. They are ones that science fiction readers ought to read because they are early 1950s stories that present a deep and relevant understanding of what science (and, therefore, science fiction) is about and how it reflects upon humans.  The majority of science fiction tends to focus on how mankind changes his universe.  These stories investigate how the universe (and the advancement of science) changes mankind – mostly on an individual/personal level.

I am probably too Russian or too autistic to really appreciate some of these stories. Or, I understand them, but I am just not excited about them.  However, this does not mean that they will not appeal to other readers. In fact, I think these stories will actually have a vast appeal because they are so personal-centric.  The characters are all realistic people who seem to react in realistic ways.  And these characters have a relationship with their kin – marriages, families, society at large.  These stories explore those relationships and that basically is one of the interests of all the readers that I know!

A few comments on the actual stories:

As soon as I began reading the Asimov story, it seemed a higher calibre than some of the others. Asimov was a good writer, regardless of how people criticize some of his stuff. This story, whether you like the plot or not, is very well-written.

Similarly, John Wyndam’s entry is well-written and stylish. It is certainly levels above almost all of the current day short story offerings.  It is unique and fun and if it was about anything but time travel, I would have given it five stars. But time travel is a train wreck for writers – its siren song pulls them in, but philosophy beats down all their exciting ideas.

“Contraption” by Simak was heart-breaking in parts. It is an emotion-filled tale, from which even I could not remain distant.  I would suggest reading this one and Sheckley’s if you only have time for two stories.

Fifteen stories – all very classic and classy.  Definitely worth the $1 I paid for this volume. Definitely worth recommending to other science fiction (even more so to non-science-fiction) fans.

3 stars

They Walked Like Men

They Walked Like Men - Clifford D. Simak; MacFadden, 1963.  Cover: Richard Powers

They Walked Like Men – Clifford D. Simak; MacFadden, 1963. Cover: Richard Powers

They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was first published in 1962.  I read the 1963 MacFadden paperback edition – the one with the Richard Powers artwork on the cover.  The first edition hardback by Doubleday has artwork by Lawrence Ratzkin.  Generally, I really like Powers’ work, but on this cover the pink hues are too aggravating. Or, mainly, it just looks dingy.  I do not usually discuss the cover art – I’m not qualified to discuss art, really – but the Doubleday is worth mentioning because it really works with the story and keeps the cover simple and interesting.  It is one of those covers that I would have no complaints about if it were expanded into a small poster and slapped on one of the walls in my house.

This is the second Simak novel that I have read; I still own a bunch of others to work through.  Similar to my thoughts on the other novel of his that I read, I think that They Walked Like Men has a whole lot going for it, but also a lot that just seems too lame and too simplistic.  However, regardless of how grumbly and critical we readers might be, Simak is a good author and should not be ignored or dismissed.  Simak is an above-average wordsmith and is capable of coming up with at least one solidly fascinating idea each novel.

The opening chapter introduces the main character – who will also be our first-person narrator – named Parker Graves. I really appreciate the interesting manner in which we meet Parker:  he is half-drunk and standing outside of his apartment door struggling with his keys.  This section is really well written and I really enjoyed reading it. It immediately brought the setting and characters to life. Simak presents a situation with such skill that most readers will read further just to find out what the heck is going on.

Somewhere in the tangled depths of the half-dark newsroom a copyboy was whistling – one of those high-pitched, jerky tunes that are no tunes at all.  I shuddered at the sound of it.  There was something that was almost obscene about someone whistling at this hour of the morning. – pg. 15

To my mind, this novel has two sections.  The first quarter of the novel is full of eerie, scary suspense and tension. It has a heap of bone-chilling, heart-racing stuff that builds on the mysterious and unknown.  That’s the best horror stuff in my opinion:  the unknown.  (I’ve mentioned before that I am only a rookie regarding anything in the horror genre.)  Anyway, as I read that first chunk of the book, I really was surprised at how scary it was.  I think writing effectively frightening prose must be super difficult.  How can one make words transmit something terrifying?  Matter-of-fact style won’t work.  Purposely being obtuse won’t work.  So, I have to praise Simak’s work here. And I decided maybe I had read enough for one night to suffer plenty of nightmares….

I gave him the intersection just beyond the McCandless Bulding.

The light changed and the cab edged along.

“Have you noticed, mister,” said the cabby, by way of starting a conversation, “how the world has gone to hell?”   – pg. 45

What I think of as the “second section,” is really the rest of novel. Here is where Simak actually displays his hand, so to speak.  We learn what his “big idea” for the novel is and the creepy horror stuff is over as the novel takes a turn toward the action-esque side of things.  Light-action, if you please; there’s no Mack Bolan running around here. Also, the novel utilizes some ridiculous elements to tell the story.  I think if you took Simak’s “big idea” and then gave it to a far more serious and dark minded writer that the story would go one of two ways:  very, very droll and boring or it would retain a lot of the creepiness of the early part of the novel.

The “big idea,” by the way, is that the rather bizarre aliens are using economic pressure to control the planet (eradicate the humans).  Lacking in this is a lot of motive, or relationship of aliens to anything in the universe, etc. Without Simak’s writing skill, we really do have a novel about economics. Not too many folk will be racing to read that story!

Let me be honest, I do not hate the sort of ridiculousness that Simak then writes.  I am generally a magnet for the absurd and the ridiculous (sometimes to my chagrin). But I really disliked the transition between being horrifying and then just ridiculous.  I do not want to spoil anything, but I should probably share that there is a talking-alien-dog that helps the main character.

That is one of Simak’s big failures – he never fully and completely fleshes out elements of his story.  Things just are and even though they are extremely ridiculous – he doesn’t give us any causes for them. No reasons or answers. Now, maybe things are so ridiculous that to speak on them would make it all worse. On the other hand, the lack of explanation sometimes makes the story feel loose and that perhaps some of these elements are really extraneous and should have been edited out.

Finally, I really liked the supporting character.  Joy Kane is a co-worker of Graves.  She is also his sweetheart.  Unlike the majority of female characters in books dating from before 1970, Joy is quite awesome.  She is smart, sharp, witty, kind, stubborn, and realistic.  The novel is over and I do not care if I run into Graves again, but I am going to miss Joy Kane.

3 stars

Our Friends From Frolix 8

Our Friends From Frolix 8 - PKD; Vintage Books, 2003

Our Friends From Frolix 8 – PKD; Vintage Books, 2003

I just finished reading my eighth novel by Philip K. Dick, Our Friends From Frolix 8 (1970).  I read the 2003 Vintage Books edition. I really felt this novel was going to be somewhere in the 4 – 5 star range as far as my rating goes.  It surprises me (maybe not that much) that it is going to get a solid three star rating.  I think there are two “halves” of the book, the first half is exciting, wild, and unique.  It is typical of what I have come to expect from PKD’s writing.  The second half had parts that tanked and the ending was miserable.  This is unsurprising as well, because PKD’s endings are always poorly done.

The year is 2208 and, as usual, everything is falling apart.  In this novel, PKD disassembles the lives of every character and the political/social structure of the planet.  The two main characters that get tore up by PKD are Nick Appleton and Willis Gram. Nick Appleton is one of the Old Men – normal, unenhanced,citizens.  Willis Gram is the telepathic Council Chairman of Earth – he is basically the President of the planet. The catalysts that start the whole mess are that Nick’s son allegedly fails a government test and Thors Provoni is allegedly returning to Earth after a ten-year absence in order to overthrow the current political schema.  (Willis Gram has been Chairman for over two decades.)

The best thing about PKD’s writing is how it makes the pages turn.  Readers starting a PKD need to wear their seatbelt and watch for wind sheer from the pages turning.  This novel begins by presenting a multilayered madness of future awesome.  That sounds neat, but actually does not say much, so let me say this:  events occur and PKD does not build up to big events or let the reader acclimate to the setting.  There is a lot going on, on a variety of plot levels, and you do not need to worry about all the details. Standard, masterful PKD writing.

In my opinion, there is a lot more emotion in this novel than in early PKD novels. Emotion from PKD himself, but also in the characters – as motive or as part of their personality.  For example, Willis Gram is one of the most temperamental characters I’ve met in awhile. Gram is positioned as the antagonist of the novel, but hardly the villain.  PKD rarely has heroes and villains. Anyway, Gram is full of emotion – he is impulsive, stubborn, and resentful.  His largest challenge is trying to separate his personal life (and its difficulties) from his role in the public sphere as Chairman.  [Here’s a really good essay to be written by a college student:  the concept of holistic characters in PKD novels.]

When we meet Nick (protagonist), he is disheartened, confused, and unsettled by the status of the government and its social policies.  Most of his actions in this novel are driven by his emotions, particularly after he meets Charlotte Boyer.  Nick’s world goes to pieces in this novel, sometimes because of his own choices, but many times because of his bad luck and coincidence.  Nick, several times, traces back the pattern of events to find out the catalyst.  Oftentimes, it is some minor choice or event that sends his life down a wild trajectory towards mayhem.  My main issue with Nick is that toward the end of the novel, this emotional and busy man seems to be burned out.  His character becomes quite a bit duller and matter-of-fact. So much so that I think it is one of the reasons that the ending is so poor.

Beyond that, there is a large measure of emotion from PKD.  Maybe it is my imagination, but it really seems to be there throughout the novel. The author seems angrier and more sorrowful than usual.  There is a seething undercurrent in many of the characters and scenes. Nothing I can necessarily put my finger on – but a definite recurring tone throughout the novel.  Maybe an example is in how Nick deals with his wife. Or perhaps how Nick feels the emotion jealousy, truly, for the first time. Gram, too, has to deal with his own wife, and it involves the same anger and frustration that Nick feels.

Chapters 14 and 15 are particularly well-written.  PKD loves aggravating his characters. The chapters also include a very good sample of how Gram is temperamental and the extreme emotion in the novel:

“What a renegade.  What a dispiteous, low-class, self-serving, power-hungry, ambitious, unprincipled renegade.  He ought to go down in the history books with that statement about him.  . . . . Add to that mentally-disturbed, fanatically radical, a creature – note that: a creature, not a man – who believes any means whatsoever is justified by the end.  And what is the end in this case? A destruction of a system by which authority is put and kept in the hands of those physically constructed so as to have the ability to rule.” – Willis Gram discussing Thors Provoni, pg. 94

No, Gram is not friendly with Provoni.  Rarely do I come across a character so vehemently obvious in their distaste. And yeah, if I didn’t tell you who was speaking and who they were speaking about – I think there are actually several viable choices for this quote.  I think I could be convinced that that quote was spoken by Nick about Gram.

Thors Provoni, isolated as he is from Earth and humanity, seems very worn out.  He is sorrowful and depressed – even though he still is carrying on his “mission.”  Physically and psychologically, Provoni is quite beaten down and sad. Chapter Eighteen is the most thoughtful writing of the novel. Parts of this chapter even caused me a sniffle – definitely a bit sad (the pets thing).

Overall, this is typical PKD.  Everything is crumbling, the government cannot be trusted, and people’s choices are what spin the globe.  There is a bit more emotion and depth to the characters in this novel, but PKD still stinks at writing endings. I have to mention that throughout the novel, I felt that the character Thors Provoni was actually PKD. So, three stars for a rating and recommended mainly to PKD fans and people who like tortured characters.

3 stars

Pietr the Latvian

Pietr the Latvian - Penguin Classics, 2013

Pietr the Latvian – Penguin Classics, 2013

I finished Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989).  This novel is the first of the Inspector Jules Maigret novels and it goes by a variety of titles.  It was allegedly written in 1929, serialized in 1930, and then published as a book in 1931. Anything I have skimmed regarding this novel is certain to include a caveat to the effect that (a.) this is not Simenon’s best work; (b.) this is not the ultimate basis of the Maigret character; (c.) Maigret’s characterization was heavily influenced by the real Inspector Marcel Guillaume.  Such statements seem more important than they are. I do not see how a reader needs to be warned and petitioned for mercy before they actually read the book. Also, those facts do not seem entirely germane to the value of this particular novel.  I read this book – and this is the book that I will review.

Anyway, the next time someone asks me for an example of noir, I think I may suggest this novel.  It matches quite well with the judgment that I have made regarding the definition of noir.  I think a lot of people simply suggest gangster novels, crime novels, or gothic-esque novels.  However, this novel really exemplifies what I mean by noir.

The writing style of this novel is exceedingly spare and pared-down.  Absolutely no long-winded descriptions or grandiose pontifications on minor aspects of any element of the novel.  There are no chapter-long ruminations on any relevant (or irrelevant) topics.  In fact, there are definitely some points where I felt a little bit lost or perplexed. Maybe a hair more detail would have been okay.  Or maybe my difficulty was based on the age of the novel and the fact that I read a translation.  Not that this ruins much of anything at all, I am just being honest and considering readers approaching this novel as they would any other.

We meet Maigret straightaway in chapter one.  He is in his office with the pipe, which becomes as essential to him as his limbs, and the fire-blazing stove.  Maigret is reading telegrams and files regarding the movements and description of Pietr the Latvian.  Maigret is on the move fairly soon afterwards and what we need to know about him, Simenon tells us directly.  Simenon tells us that Maigret is a hulking, sombre dude.  He intimidates others, he does not make unnecessary speeches, etc.  We do not get to know Maigret’s internal monologue or thought pattern.  Readers will not watch Maigret link each and every facet of this case together like some sort of jigsaw puzzle.

At first Maigret meant nothing to me.  Just a bland and somewhat predictable detective.  However, in chapter eight, the character really grew on me and I found myself much more concerned for his well-being and pursuits.  All of a sudden, and maybe without a lot of finesse, Simenon gave us a more developed Maigret personality. It was rather obvious, but I don’t always need the convoluted approach, either.

Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science.  But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall.  In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent. – pg. 38 Chapter 5

The novel contains a lot of characters and what seems like half-built plotlines and/or clues.  I do not know if this is because it is an early novel or because Simenon chooses not to get bogged down in every little detail and history.  While this can be confusing, it is also the source of a lot of the noir-feel.  Being a non-omniscient reader has its plusses and in a crime novel, it worked really well.

The dialogue format is probably the thing that will take the most work for readers.  Simenon does not write out every syllable of conversation – it is as if he almost uses just symbolic logic/keywords.  I can see this being annoying and a bit too bare for many readers.  On the other hand, I can think of plenty of readers who would be relieved that the actual speech of characters is reduced to necessary nouns.  Either way, I think this, too, makes the novel noir.

Regarding the actual crime – it is difficult to say how many there are.  Maigret gets the case due to a specific crime, but there is a lot more going on than just one incident.  And this is very relevant. The character whose role I really was not entirely clear about was Mortimer-Levingston. Throughout the novel he seemed very random.  Now, the ending of this novel was unexpected and definitely far from some cozy-mystery novel. I think the last few chapters bespeak a lot about the character Maigret and also the kinds of stories that Simenon was going to try to write.

This is a good novel and there is a lot of value in reading it and knowing about it. It is not a great novel. It is a worthy read and one does want to read more stories about Maigret.

3 stars

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax - Dorothy Gilman; Fawcett, 1990

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax – Dorothy Gilman; Fawcett, 1990

I finished the first novel in the Pollifax series, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.  It was first published in 1966 and is not a mystery novel, but a spy-novel.  That is actually the main reason for its relative fame.  The main character, Emily Pollifax, is a senior citizen who decides that she should finally pursue one of her greatest dreams – to be a spy.  She is a widow and has two adult children with lives of their own.  Pollifax realizes her life has become tedious, boring, and dull.  In fact, she has even suffered some rather self-destructive thoughts.  After visiting her medical doctor and having a brief meeting with an elderly neighbor, Pollifax decides to visit Washington, D.C.

Well, what a different world 1966 must have been that Pollifax could enter the CIA in D.C. and just sort of be selected as a spy.  That’s basically what happens – with a little coincidental help.  Pollifax hits the public library, looks up the address to the CIA headquarters, and takes a metro-train right on over.  Luckily, one of the handlers is working on a project wherein he requires an older operative for a courier-type mission.

Pollifax’s gig starts off with her heading off on a flight to Mexico City.  Events transpire and the majority of the rest of the novel takes place in Albania.  Now, Albania is not exactly one of the most commonly researched countries.  It is my strong recommendation that readers interested in this novel brush up on Albania.  A deep and exhaustive examination is not necessary, but do glance at a map and orient yourself.  Remember to pay particular attention to Albania in the 1950s/1960s (Eastern Bloc timeframe).  (Also, Albania has a cool flag.)

Anyway, all of this is tremendously exciting and unique. And should be full of comic relief and edge-of-one’s seat intrigue.  But somehow, I found this novel really difficult to plod through.  It just moves very slowly.  I think it is well-written and there is plenty of unique stuff in it to keep interest – but it just moves like a snail!  It took me months to force myself to read it.  Yes, Pollifax is charming – she is the epitome of down-to-earth and civilized. But she is also quite annoying and aggravating, too.  The main thing is that with Pollifax, you need to have a willing suspension of disbelief.  She actually accomplishes some things in this book that would thoroughly lay out many 30 or 40 year old gentlemen.  Do I know any elderly women who could do some of these things that Pollifax does? Oddly, yes. I also realize that many people do not.

There is a light amount of the typical American patriotism and such going on, too.  It works in this novel, though, because one would expect a civilized elderly woman to hold certain views and ideas.  So, in that way, Pollifax is also an authentic character. An upper class, elderly WASP in the 1960s probably has some not-so-politically correct views regarding Chinese people, Communists, Mexicans, etc. I’ve read worse….

Still, I cannot put my finger on why this novel was so tedious for me. Spy novels in Albania with eccentric elderly women (and there are also goats in this novel) should not be sluggish.  So here is an odd anomaly:  I found the plot and characters charming and interesting, but the pacing and the novel itself was painfully slow. I would read another Mrs. Pollifax novel – but maybe only in the dead of winter and I am out of comic books and movies to play with.

3 stars

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