Novels

Fiction

Enter a Murderer

EaMEnter A Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982) is the second book in the Roderick Alleyn police detective series.  It was first published in 1935, but I read the St. Martins Paperback 1998 edition.  Readers cannot help but be told, if they even glance at Marsh’s career and her opus that this novel is significant because it represents one of her novels in which the plot involves the theatre.  The theatre was Marsh’s primary career interest and she was very successful in that line.

Generally, I am disinterested and unamused by stories that take place in and around a theatre. I am oddly above-averagely educated on Shakespeare, the Classic Greek items, and some select modern works. I also have seen a bunch of plays, dramas, and theatre performances of note. I am woefully uneducated regarding Noh work.  However, I usually dislike the whole sphere because there is something unpalatable – to me – about a profession designed to deceive.  Well, to deceive and to be excessively demonstrative.  In my worst moods, if I dislike a person or how they are behaving, I will snarl “Thespian” in a tone that leaves no misunderstanding for how I feel about it all.

Something about the simulacra and simulation. Or maybe the society of the spectacle. Souring and sneering and disdainful….

I mean, in my very worst moods, I admit, I classify those involved with the theatre (stage and film, as it were) as something lower than the criminal class – usually because, well, the criminal seems nearly more honest about his lifestyle. Trust me, a number of people who know this about me usually want to bludgeon me because of this disdain.  I cannot apologize, though, I am wholeheartedly me.

I mention this information, which does not put me in the best light [see what I did there?!], because I knew this novel was theatre-centric and I dreaded reading it.  I knew I would be bored and I would find the characters insufferable.   It was not as bad as all of that, I was definitely being dramatic [heh, heh].  However, it did not engage me, say, like a novel might in a different setting.

Alleyn and Bathgate, which is another of those happy duos we find endemic to detective fiction, are at times annoying both each other and themselves.  Alleyn is so very pompous at times – even his facetious self-effacing is too obvious and arrogant.  But yet – he has some quoteable segments that really make the reader suspect that Alleyn does deserve all of the praise and postering that goes on.  The quotes are just brilliant lines of wit and insight that just outshine all of the flaws.

“There’s a murder charge hovering round waiting for somebody, Mr. Saint, and shall we say a drama is being produced which you do not control and in which you play a part that may or may not be significant?  To carry my flight of fancy a bit farther, I may add that the flat-footed old Law is stage manager, producer, and critic.  And I, Mr. Saint, in the words of an old box-office success, ‘I, my Lords, embody the law.’  Sit down if you want to and please keep quiet.” – pg. 53, Chapter 5

Miss Susan Max, though, is my favorite character in the book, and it is easy to see why.  She is “old-school” and seems to be the most honest and fair of the lot.  I know that this is an early work by Marsh because I was able to suspect and then correctly assign the crime to the culprit very early in the work.  I think I was able to do this for two reasons, both are probably due to Marsh just overwriting a bit for both reasons.  The one reason being that I took an instant and immense dislike to the character – and there are a bunch of dislikeable (especially from my perspective) characters! The other reason that Marsh overwrote would be a spoiler if I mentioned it, suffice to say its very Shakespearian [Hamlet] as well.

Marsh is clearly a theatre-expert.  She knows her way around a stage like a boss.  She also knows the temperments, tendencies, and traditions of the theatre.  There is nothing that is lacking in her detail of the setting and background for this story.  I am almost curious to do a more deep critical reading and examine how well her novel does or does not structure like a theatre piece – literally did she move the characters round the storyline as if they were on a somewhat larger stage?  And this is but her second novel, I am sure that Marsh improves as she writes this series, so I am looking forward to watching this idea of mine develop a bit. Or fall flat.

Normally the frequent quoting of famous lines or references to plays/dramas would irritate me a lot because it always feels so…. well… dramatic. Contrived and artificial, I guess. In this novel, there is a fair bit of such “quoting,” but it works contextually, obviously, so it did not annoy me as it would have in a different setting.

“All amateurs are tiresome.  You want to be in on this, but you shy off anything that is at all unpleasant.  We had this out before in the Wilde case.  You’d much better keep out of it, Bathgate.  I should have said so at the beginning.” – pg. 135, Chapter 13

Well, a number of readers have mentioned that “romantic” element that swirls around the major character Stephanie Vaughan and ….. I was going to say Alleyn, but really, I ought to simply say “all the other male characters.”  I read this described as cringey and awkward, etc.  I actually did not find it that way – Marsh sets up the intrigue very nicely:  she describes-without-describing-too-much Vaughan and her appeal and Alleyn’s unique handsomeness.  I do think it concerning that Marsh seems to have perfectly written these scenes and yet let some of the other, more pertinent, scenes go less cared for.

The problem with the novel, overall, is setting up a duo of Bathgate and Alleyn and then having Alleyn nearly constantly play a weird game of push-and-pull with Bathgate.  Supposedly a polished and expert detective, he should know better than to use and abuse Bathgate as he does. I mean, I do not particularly like Bathgate, but I felt sympathy for him because Alleyn treats him like a yo-yo. Once is enough, but it happens repeatedly in the novel – telling me Marsh had not quite worked out, perhaps, how this team was going to operate.

Anyway, I suspect we should hand out copies of this book to all the detectives and interested parties involved in Alec Baldwin’s “shooting accident” on the set of the suspended movie Rust (2021).  And wouldn’t you LOVE to know what Ngaio Marsh’s take on it would be?

Recommended to general readership and vintage mystery fans. I intend to read more in the Alleyn series, of course.

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King! For I am a Pirate King!

3 stars

The Rubber Band

THe Rubber BandI finished The Rubber Band by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975), which was first published in 1936 and is the third novel in the famous Nero Wolfe series.  I last read a Nero Wofle novel (the second) in 2014, so reading the third has been due for quite some time. I really enjoy these novels and this January has not been given over to science fiction, but rather mysteries.  There is a lot to love about the classic vintage detectives Lord Peter, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, et al. However, I think Wolfe has the least amount of reader-sympathizers.  He does come across, most of the time, as petulent and stubborn.  His girth and his seemingly-upper class status would be enough to do in most of those people who get past his personality.

One of the necessary things that readers of Wolfe mysteries must be able to do, is to understand that the majority of the commentary is sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek.  Most of the wit and banter is part of the jovial and unsinkable personality of the narrator, Archie Goodwin.  The humor moves around from deadpan drops to facetious comments to outright snark.  It is going to take a witty and discerning reader to enjoy the ruckus. Now, I am not going to say that at times it can get a little tedious. However, it seems there exists readers who take certain lines very seriously, instead of realizing they should be taken quite opposite.  My own household is full of witty retort and often ridiculous conversation.  That is not to say that deep, academic argument is not undertaken.  If this very average household witnesses these things, I can only imagine the same would hold true for Wolfe’s very unique household.

“You’ve already upset enough.  Go upstairs and behave yourself.  Wolfe has three wives and nineteen children in Turkey.”

“I don’t believe it. He has always hated women until he saw how nicely they pack in osmundine.”

Chapter 12

This is a very funny exchange – between harried characters who are both witty folk.  Strangely, I think there are readers out there who could not see this sarcasm….

There is a very surprising and amusing event that happens in the Wolfe household when the city police come through with a search warrant. I was really worried for the group – how were they going to hide their client? And then when it happened, I did laugh aloud. It is funny as heck, particularly if you really spend time imagining the scene properly!

She had been in the plant rooms with Wolfe for an hour before six o’clock, and during dinner he went on with a conversation which they had apparently started then, about folk dances and that sort of junk.  He even hummed a couple of tunes for her, after the guinea chicken had been disposed of, which caused me to take a firm hold on myself so as not to laugh the salad out of my mouth. – Chapter 15

Because at the end of the day, truly, Wolfe, like all good heroes, is a romantic and a connoisseur.  Archie, of course, has no immense cultural learning so his perspective on such moments is priceless. Such is the comedic situation that Stout adroitly manages.  Now, there has been effort by some so-called literary folk to make Wolfe and Goodwin’s lifestyle into some facet of homosexual scenario.  I think, and I did not think very much on it, that such literary folk are reading way too much of their own personal agendas into these novels – simply because there are plenty of lines in each novel that nearly state how untrue that could be. I think one could, if they entertained such imaginings, make a slight case for Fritz (the cook/butler), but otherwise it seems to me such an assessment is hogwash.

So, I have complained about readers who have no sense of humor and ones who seek to agenda-interpret.  The reason for both, though, is the same:  these books are not for the dour and sour.  I do not know much at all about Stout, but I do know – based on these novels – that he was not dour. And his audience is probably primarily the readers of that golden era detective fiction that literature historians have delineated.  However, I do think his actual audience was anyone who enjoyed wit and humor.  The pretty neat thing about Stout’s work is that he was able to combine comedy with detective-plot skill.  I am at the point, now, where I rarely read vintage detection/mystery novels for their plots.  I often find their storylines to be a bit convoluted or tangled.  I am usually reading these novels for the characters and the wit. In short, I enjoy intelligent, witty people and have no use for the miserable and perpetually over-serious.

This novel is full of characters and for a short novel, it is really stuffed with them. Archie, by the way, feels similarly as he is running around the house opening doors and shuttling people to and fro.  I think the plot is okay overall, but that Stout did let it get away from him a bit.  The beginning is a bit slow – and my word, the story that the character Clara Fox tells is really long-winded.  By the end, though, the whole thing is sewn up nicely and satisfactorily.  I think there ends up being three dead bodies in total, which seems like a lot for a two-day time span of the novel.  Unfortunately, the majority of the detection and investigation occurs off-screen and even beyond the scope of the narrator.  This is weird. I mean, even for off-screen detection this one is further on down that line.  For that reason, I am sure many readers would not rate this novel as highly as some other Nero Wolfe reads.  Its strange to have such a great narrator and main character and just keep the reader so completely in the dark about all of the detection.  I suppose that is exactly how Nero gets to have such bombshell-dropping reveals at the end while all of the characters sit calmly in his office. However, it is not a technique I think an author ought to use very much.

So, if you are a fan of vintage “Golden Era” mysteries AND you have a strong sense of humor, I can recommend this novel (and other Wolfe novels).  If you are utterly humorless, well, do not even bother, you will hate them. Now, I am not kidding:  it is literally time for my supper and beer and I absolutely despise when those times are disrupted.

3 stars

Mrs, Presumed Dead

Mrs Presumed Dead brett coverMrs, Presumed Dead by Simon Brett (b. 1945) is the second in the Melita Pargeter series of novels. This one was first published in 1988.  I read the first novel in the series years ago in 2015.  I think these novels (or most of them) are out of print, so until they are reprinted (or not) I am keeping these on the shelf for other readers who need a copy (my specific copy is February 1990 printing).

I cannot honestly call the Pargeter series a cozy mystery series, since there are elements in the books that are not so cozy at all. Cozy/innocent – whatever it is that makes the lightest mystery novels so warm and sweet.  There are elements of Pargeter novels that sometimes come across as critical of society, shuffling morality in a sort of very-English Mill/Bentham way at times, and some sordid moments.  Nevertheless, this was an easy-reading novel that was good for a light off-day.  Just something to occupy the mugs of tea and the chilly temperatures outdoors.  This is a no-stress read.

The main character, amateur sleuth Melita Pargeter has relocated to a very small cul-de-sac style upper class semi-rural development.  I enjoyed Brett’s addition of explaining the detail of how/why the development had the name it had. She has purchased a large house in this rather Yuppie community and has moved into the home and found the social structure of the close a bit challenging.  I wanted to hear more about Pargeter’s designing and decorating and setting up her new house. It would have given a bit more insight into Melita herself – how one organizes one’s living space is very telling about that person’s psychology and activities.

I think the first novel was a bit better in a few respects. My main complaint is that the author was not as smooth and engaging with his main character’s conversations this time. Mrs. Pargeter in this novel was nearly KGB-interrogator at times. I know she is a shrewd and witty old bird, but I think she would also be a bit more subtle than a sledgehammer.  I mean, she just moved into the neighborhood and she really is laser-pointer-focused on the murder investigation. I would think that even the most uppity, yuppie, self-centered people of that neighborhood would notice that Pargeter was so dogged in her conversation.

“I’m not so sure,” said Mrs. Pargeter. “You don’t know what people are like in Smithy’s Loam.” – pg. 222

The other complaint I had was that we are very repeatedly told that Pargeter’s deceased husband had left her a lot of resources.  I mean, once or twice is reasonable – but we are reminded quite a lot. And after awhile, I felt the need to grab the author by his ear and ask if he really felt me so stupid that in a 240 page novel he needed to remind me of this constantly.

I did not guess who did it. I never do, though. I am utterly horrible at mystery novels/television. Its always a surprise for me. Now, I know more astute readers might scoff and tease me about this, but I would remind them that I get full enjoyment out of the books, whereas they are too busy reading stories they have already figured out. Anyway, it makes sense who the criminal was – which is very key in a mystery novel. I want a solid and satisfying resolution not one that feels forced or that it could have just as easily been answered differently. As Pargeter says in that late chapter:

“No, I’ve worked it out now. I should have realised before.” – pg. 238

So, the ending worked out all right, which I like. There were, of course, several points in which Brett could have spiralled this story some other way. Lots of plausible guilty parties with plenty of motive. But I like that Brett has Pargeter tell us:

For a start, she had a strong prejudice against murders committed by people who were mad.  She had always disliked them in crime fiction and didn’t care for them much in real life.  Madness was so vague, so woolly.  Any motivation and logic could be ascribed to someone who was mad.  At the end of a crime book in which a madman dunnit, Mrs. Pargeter always felt cheated and annoyed. – pg. 211

Well, don’t worry, Melita in this one there is no such cheap and flimsy ending.

Recommended for readers needing an easy-read, day-read.  Enjoyable to a point without any major complaints.  Pargeter is a thoughtful woman in many ways. I will likely, eventually, read the next in the series.

3 stars

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

UnpleasantnessThe Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957) is the fourth novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey “series.”   It was originally published in 1928. I read the 1988 printing of the New English Library edition of the novel.  It was quite hard to separate from the book itself because the bright pink cover made it very difficult to ignore!

For the first few chapters, there is some witty sarcasm about the word “unpleasantness” and Sayers was a very intelligent woman so I think this sardonic and ironic bantering has a lot of meaning. It is not just a superficial humor – although, on some level, it is that, too.  The Bellona Club is a British “club” – something contemporary Americans do not really have a concept for. I guess maybe a country club or private drinking club is some sort of vague approximation.  This particular club is for war veterans. The thing is, most Americans do not really have a solid, true experience of British life before-during-after the first World War, either, and that context is very significant in reading Sayer’s Lord Peter novels.  Simply put, the horror and magnitude and shock of experiencing the first World War is not really something that is accessible. We can read about it, but that probably does not come close to the experience. Ineffable and incommunicable lifetime event, I think, best describes that generation/society’s moment. At one point there is a small segment about Armistice Day and wearing a flower and all of this seems so distant and removed from current day that the gravity and significance that those characters would experience is nearly lost on readers today.

So, while the book has this layer of humor and wit, it is also a coping mechanism and a ironic sarcasm for the utter horrors and psychological struggles of the first World War.  That is not to say that you should not chuckle at the wit. The best readers should laugh heartily and then also shed a tear for the unspeakable horrors of that society.

Needless to say, there is a particular character, Wetheridge, that depicts the PTSD-sufferings of veterans perhaps better than the major character George Fentiman, who represents the very demonstrative examples of PTSD. At first, Wetheridge is annoying, but on the last page of the novel, Wimsey points out Wetheridge is all right and has his place among “us.”

I really enjoy reading Lord Peter, as many readers through the decades have said, I’m sure. So, spending time with him as he goes around and harasses and cajoles and banters with other characters is always time well-spent. Lord Peter, himself, as you readers who know also deals with PTSD from his time in the war.

“Exactly. He is the Most Unlikely Person, and that is why Sherlock Holmes would suspect him at once.” – pg. 148 (chapter 15)

However, this story qua story was a bit of a mess. I mean, I think Sayers really wrote a complicated plot, but it was so complicated over nothing, I think. Or, over-complicated. Or it just went on way too long. The storyline really is entangled and it becomes a bit boring to try and sort it out – especially when the red herrings are not exactly red herrings.

There are some enjoyable moments – Peter at the Bellona Club, the scenes with the Munns, any time spent with Marjorie Phelps, and of course, Peter ordering from any menu anywhere.

The end of the story had interesting resolutions to the plot threads and I cannot say that it ended unfairly or untidily. I definitely will read more Sayers, no surprise there, and I recommend this for most vintage mystery readers. However, there is something to be exasperated with here in the slightly over-worked plot.

Overall, the most subtle, and yet key, element is that nearly all of the major characters are war veterans. The doctor, the deceased, the detective, the supporting characters, etc. So, the resolution has a very bittersweet pang to it – because money is the issue. But the issue is not money….

3 stars

Death Shall Come

Death Shall ComeDeath Shall Come is the fourth novel in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series of books.  I have read the first three in December for three years so far and saw no reason to abandon this habit this year.  I think the first book was the best of all of them, by far.  However, the silliness and outlandishness of the stories entertains me and I look forward to my December reading.   Death Shall Come was first published in 2017.  

The thing that the end of the year (particularly these last two years) needs, is some entertaining, outlandish fun to be had. Something silly and preposterous that does not feel oppressive or dismal.  These Ishmael Jones books are utterly the best fit for my end of year reading. Every novel is basically setup the same way – a country house murder-mystery, which usually is quite gory and involves something un/supernatural.  Ishmael and his vivacious partner, Penny, end up wandering around locked rooms, long corridors, and the bodies pile up.  That’s it – that’s the story.

In this particular novel, we are given just a glimpse more into the character of the Colonel.  However, not much more – and I think nearly every page we are re-told how “military” he is.  Its tedious and I am sure impatient readers will hate the whole thing.  But it doesn’t bother me; I was weaned on Homer, do you know how many times we are reminded of the stock epithets for Achilles and Agamemnon? 

This story’s theme involves a family of collectors of ancient Egyptian artefacts.  The family’s name in the book is the Cardavans.  We are told that for generations the Cardavans have used their enormous wealth to acquire treasures and circumvent legal/monetary obstacles regarding possessing these treasures.  Readers with an ounce of history will know that the famous Howard Carter (“discoverer” of the Tut tomb) was financed by George Herbert, Lord Carnarvon.  A name similar to the characters’ in this novel.  The Cardavans have acquired a freshly-unearthed mummy and are currently relishing in their acquisition.  The mummy is allegedly one of the older Cleopatras (not the most famous Greek one). 

The “twist” in this book, I guess, is that the Colonel assigns Ishmael this mission – not for the mysterious Organization, but as a “favor” to him.  And the Colonel stays with us the entire story, not just appearing in the first and final chapters.  Overall, in this particular story, he was rather flat and one-dimensional. I think I preferred him at a distance.  In any case, he asks for this favor from Ishmael because the Cardavans are his in-laws.  Meaning, we get to meet the Colonel’s wife, Chloe.  

‘What are you so nervous about?’ said Penny.  ‘At best it’s a mummy, at worst it’s a serial killer.  We can handle either of those without breaking into sweat.’ – pg 139

So, Chapter Seven actually had a moment of pulse-pounding for me. I guess I am a silly, simple reader.  Nevertheless, when the suspense was building I was really on the edge of my seat.  Its not a long segment, maybe three pages, tops, but it was fun and I liked listening to the terrifying footsteps on the other side of the door. Listening to them listening to it listening to us. 

A personal anecdote of relevance…. one of my favorite books as a single-digit monster was The Secret of Terror Castle (1964). I read the ever-living hell out of that thing. I loved it. I read and re-read that one many times.  So, I do wonder if the impact of having read that story so many times developed a strong inclination toward country-home/Gothic castle murder-mysteries.  In any case, if the story contains any elements whatsoever of The Secret of Terror Castle, chances are I will be thrilled.  And this has borne out with the fact that I rated John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull (1931) so highly.  Anyway, it should come as no surprise that I will likely try to read the rest of Green’s Ishmael Jones series.

3 stars

The Voice and Other Stories

The VoiceThe Voice by Seicho Matsumoto (1909 – 1992) is a collection of six short crime stories.  This is the first I have read by him, but I absolutely would read everything by him based on how much I enjoyed this collection. I think the height of popularity for him was in the 1960s/1970s.  In 1952 he was the winner of the Akutagawa Prize.

This collection was just the sort of fiction that I enjoy.  One of the characteristics is that the writing is perfectly balanced – like a nice gravy. Yeah, that is an odd thing to use, I know, but hear me out.  Most gravies/sauces are too salty, too fatty, too pungent, too potent, too sweet! Every once in a while, though, you get the joy of a perfectly balanced sauce that is blended, vibrant, and balanced.  There is no one flavor or seasoning that is overpowering. The whole thing is complementary of whatever else is being eaten. In the case of these stories, I felt Matsumoto’s writing was utterly balanced:  he absolutely had the correct scaling between giving us a robust and well-formed story and not over-writing every aspect.  The writing was excellent for short stories.

The genre of crime fiction and noir stories really matches Matsumoto’s writing skills here. At the heart of each story is not some complicated situation with many actors and many victims and misdirects and red herrings. The stories here are from situations in everyday life.  Although there are a few points that rely on coincidence, most of these stories are so ordinary as to be rather boring – were it not for the skill in telling them.

  • Kyohansha – 1965 – The Accomplice5 stars
  • Kao – 1959 – The Face5 stars
  • Chiho-shi o kau Onna – 1959 – The Serial5 stars
  • Sosa Kengai no Joken – 1959 – Beyond All Suspicion5 stars
  • Koe – 1959 – The Voice4 stars
  • Kanto-ku no Onna – 1960 – The Woman Who Wrote Haiku4 stars

The first story, The Accomplice, was stressing me out as I read it. I am a silly, basic reader and I kept shaking my head as I read because the main character’s choices were digging him deeper into the scenario and it was all because of a choice he had made a long time ago that was haunting him and tormenting him.  Now, I am quite sure, many readers would scoff at my tension caused by this character.  But there is no defense, Matsumoto knew how to get his story to resonate with my reading style, I guess. Character Hikosuke was a man who created his own demise, but he made me worry about him and his errors. Without a doubt, I gave this story five stars because unlike so many stories I read, it engaged me quite a bit – and without using exaggerated writing tricks.

The Face has some similar elements to the first story – the main character is, again, the cause of his own struggles. The perspectives of characters and the skewed decisions based on such perspective drive both of these rather mundane storylines. In this story, there are some detectives that really bring the plot to life.  I like Matsumoto’s detectives, because they are not the superhuman Poirots and they are not the pompous Nero Wolfs.  There is a fantastic scene that takes place in a restaurant in Kyoto – an imobo (kind of a yam based dish…) restaurant – that caused my heart to palpitate.  It was so subtly written and yet so immersive.

The Serial started off with such an everyday and mundane beginning that I was sure that it was not going to meet the level of the previous stories. But I was wrong! First of all, I really enjoyed the brief thoughts about newspapers that used to print serial fiction. (Maybe, in a few years, I will simply be reminiscing about a thing called newspapers!) I enjoyed this one a lot because it also played on the characters’ assumptions and perspectives. I really liked the inclusion of some of the details and the way the plot built. The main character is trapped in a situation, so, of course, I pity the character.

Beyond All Suspicion was one of the longer stories, but it kept my interest the full length. Again, a character finds himself in an unfortunate situation and does not make the best choices. He chooses revenge and thinks he can outwit everyone. Poor, miserable character. As a revenge tale it works really well because it demonstrates a revenge that is long-in-coming and not some hot-headed slash-up.  It also contains a bunch of noir elements like nighttime bars, banks, taxi-cabs, and a silly song that becomes an integral part of the story.

The last two stories are the ones I gave only four stars.  I felt that The Voice started off very interesting and super noir.  However, the second part (there are two parts to this one) got a bit too convoluted, though the detective team involved really do keep the reader informed throughout the investigation. I just felt the resolution was a bit too complicated. Or, maybe “complicated” is not the most accurate word here. Perhaps I just did not like the way it all worked out. I think that is accurate.  I felt badly for the victim; she had a lot of nonsense in her life that it does not seem she deserved – plus, she was one of us:  a fellow reader!  Similarly with The Woman Who Wrote Haiku – wow, this was quite a sad story.  The crime was entirely imaginable, though. It was difficult to not feel sad for the poor woman we readers never actually met.  I supposed we ought to be somewhat glad that there were these interested parties (members of a Haiku magazine) who solved the crime.

Easily some of the best stories I have read in this year. The style of writing is exactly what I enjoy and the crime/noir was neither gross nor over-done.  Nothing was exaggerated, nothing was unnecessary. I do not re-read a lot of fiction, but I do think that I could re-read these stories.  I wish I could get my hands on all of the author’s fiction, because he has a lot of skill that makes reading his stuff an enjoyable experience.

5 stars

Between Light and Shadow

Beyond Light and ShadowBetween Light and Shadow by Sarah Jane Huntington is a collection of self-published short stories, first released in 2021. The thirteen stories are structured to be an homage to/a pastiche of the old Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and Outer Limits (1963) television episodes.

I took a chance on this book since I am having a year of reading small press, self-published, independently published items. I am glad to say, most of my choices have been very successful. Between Light and Shadow is another mark in the win column, if you will. The formatting/editing is a tiny bit rough, but nothing that left me aghast. Once again, the rating I give it feels slightly skewed; I am starting to really hate rating any books that are not mass market from the Big Publishers. 4 stars feels too high for this blog, 3 stars feels way too low for the effort and fun. 3.5 just feels like a cop-out. Hey – maybe do not pay much attention to that rating, deal?

The main element swaying me to get this book was the very strong feeling of honesty that I got from the author when I read the intro. I like supporting authors (et al.) who are genuine and authentic and honest. I love the Twilight Zone, too… so I can appreciate any attempts to work in that specific mold.

Of the thirteen stories, two stories really did not work for me. I disliked “Such a Perfect Day” and I think “Tourists Guide to the Galaxy” probably maybe should not have been included, if the author will forgive my saying so. This latter was so very heavy-handed, negative, and abrasive…. Plus, I feel it has been overdone by so many already. It just is the thud of the book, I think.

However, all of the other stories contain the wonder, twists, entertainment, and escapism that I like to have when reading fiction. These are short stories that are easily digestible, engaging, and all over the spectrum of “speculative fiction.” In particular, “Written On a Subway Wall” and “Trapped” were really good. If a reader is into horror, the gruesome and twisted “Mirror Darkly” works well, even if it is not completely surprising.  Also, I enjoyed “Exploration for Humanity” – even though it felt a wee bit too obvious.

This is a fun collection and I am glad that the author shared them with us. She was not aiming for “Greatest Stories Ever Written” – and she’s honest about that. Instead, she aimed for “strong effort, fun genre, and comfortable writing.” Huntington nailed it! Readers who need some easy-reading with some similarity to the sentiments of those old television shows will be mostly satisfied with this collection.  And I am encouraged to try more of her writing. (I think I saw that she has a new horror-genre novel out.)

3 stars

The Gunslinger

Gunslinger coverThe Gunslinger by Stephen King was first published in 1982, but it was actually separate stories that were previously written that made this into a “fix-up” novel, as they are called. In 2003, King famously revised and updated the novel. I do not know if this is the second or third time reading this novel.  Every time I read it, though, I feel more or less the same way about it – its really good in retrospect after having read the next two books or so in The Dark Tower series. Taken on its own, it is exceedingly weird and disjointed and awkward.

For better or worse, it is a fact that in our lifetime, Stephen King is one of the most famous and well-read authors.  His name and works are included in that batch of fiction that have become cultural references, common knowledge, and household facts.  Even people who do not read at all (yes, horrifically, these are real) are able to have some concept/referent for ‘Stephen King.’  I have not read King like many of his fans. I have read maybe two or three of his non-Dark Tower books. I have no idea if he is a good author or not, because I feel like I cannot assess him accurately without reading far more of his catalogue. 

So, The Gunslinger is an odd fix-up of stories that King wrote in the late 70s and early 80s. There is not a whole lot for me to say about the novel because everyone on the planet has read it and has given their opinions on it. There is nothing new, surely, that I can provide regarding the actual novel and info about it. For example, many fans of the book absolutely adore the first line, which seems to evoke all the best feelings and images of all the best adventures and entertainments. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”  There it is, again. All the readers quote it and now I can be counted as one of them.  I think the critical point about this first line is that it is very deadpan and very simple. Three items and two actions: man in black, desert, gunslinger…. one fled, one followed.  Contained in this little statement is all the makings of the excitement and thrills and hopes and curiousity of all readers; it seems paradoxical that such a bland sentence can do so much.

The spare writing, though, in which each sentence seems to contain so much meaning and significance, is what I consider to be the overall characteristic of this novel.  It is spare like a desert.  The writing is matter-of-fact, but yet at times somewhat poetic.  However, the poetry is not flowery or fancy, it is just honest and matter-of-fact as the rest.  Instead of having “dynamic” characters who are overly complicated and full of layers of delusions, it seems these characters are blunt and direct and very honest. The main character, Roland, is utterly honest with the reader. 

Roland is a big deal.  He is a character that, in his will, his strength, his skill, and his honesty, he appeals to readers.  He is presented as a “simple man,” meaning he is unimaginative and not prone to time-waste.  However, he is also very complex because he is not a farmhand or a grunt or a lackey.  A character that wrestles with “inner demons” and with the fabric of the kosmos is hardly a “simple man.”  However, it is clear straightaway that Roland is also not a “good man.”  This is not a sinless, shining knight of virtue and holiness. So, he causes readers to constantly have to wrestle with his morality.

The novel is a sort of Western, Dark Fantasy, Steampunk mash-up that has a vast history and expanse of setting – but it also feels unclear and confused.  The lack of detail and linear layout makes for some of the dreamy and bewildered feeling in the book.  I doubt King, at the time, had any clear ideas about all of this and purposely left his world-building vague and open. He did a good job because there is definitely an ominous and mysterious kosmology that pervades every scene.  The Western is medieval in tone and that is a very cool spin on the medieval-based fantasy usually found in books. 

Not that all of this can be granted to King. He has always admitted that he was heavily inspired by Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1852).   In fact, this whole business is reduced a bit once the originality is denied it and we realize that Browning handed a very creative author a silver platter full of perfect delicacies and delights.  Both that work and King’s work are strange.  Dream-like and wondrous and maybe a bit apocalyptic.

The major thing that bothers me about King’s work is the vulgarness that comes through.  I mean, I rarely read anything so vile and vulgar. Horror, as I have said previously, is often vulgar. I do not care for this kind of writing and it always makes me wary of a soul that creates and writes such stuff.  In a sense, we all write about what we know and because I could never write with such vulgarity, I wonder about the writer who knows such stuff.

The reason I re-read this novel is because lately I have been sensing the cracks in the kosmos. Hold on! Do not click away thinking I am some looney! I have been working on linguistics/logic and the odd statements that defy the good, common, healthy reasoning that we all have come to know and love. Counterfactual, self-referential, contradictory, ambiguous, paradoxical sentences that most people shrug at, other people are amused by, and metaphysicians are deeply disturbed by.  Cracks in the world, my friends. The sentences that the computer programmers just want to ignore. The sentences that the poet knows about, but cannot understand the ramifications.

Plus, I have been reading Plotinus and Porphyry and Proclus. WE, the systematic Aristotelian science-men, have long since turned up our noses at such esoteric hogwash – all that Hermetica and astrology and alchemy and Kabbalism stuff that none of us take seriously. However, every great immense once-in-awhile there is a line or a comment in the Enneads or something that sends a bit of a chill, like a draft through a crack in a cellar wall. Mysticism and magis and its all very hocus-pocus, so we do not look at those parts directly; we dismiss them as silly esoteric junk that was ridiculously overlayed on the substantial and meaty ontology. I guess.

When Roland says: “The world has moved on,” it also feels like a cold draft. I feel like in 2021, with the strange things going on in the real world, yeah, it is easier to fall in step with Roland as he crosses the desert.  The best thing about Roland is that he takes it in stride. The world is dying, everything is wrecked, there are abominations and absurdities everywhere, the remnants of the future (somehow) – but yet Roland just accepts it as it is. Zen master level.  Pretty cool character, this Roland.

Overall, its hard to separate the vulgarity and the derivative context from the book.  So, sure this one is only two stars. But when I read further into the series and then look back, I want to give this maybe four stars.  Readers who have not read this (are there any?) will likely be shocked, confused and not know what to make of this craziness. Helps to think of the world moving on and there being cracks in the kosmos, I think.

2 stars

Nightmare

NightmareNightmare by Chad Nicholas was first released in 2020, it is Nicholas’ first novel. I saw it on a bunch of recent internet postings by a number of fellow readers that I follow.  Everyone seemed to have very positive reactions, so I added it to my plan of October.  Honestly, since I am not a very frequent reader of horror, I am not really sure what to expect in a lot of these books this month.  Obviously, I expect gore and darkness, but I don’t know about all of the styles and nuances this genre utilizes. That being said, I do think it is really key for this genre that readers not “spoil” the books for other readers.  That’s sometimes true with other fiction, of course, but I feel like its even more important not to do that with this genre. So, that is an added challenge in reviewing such a book – I am going to try to weave a careful path, then.

Overall, I can see why a lot of readers thought this book was well-written and they were captivated.  I read the novel over two days and I can agree that it is a very fast read and one that the writing style and storyline are built to be read in one larger space as opposed to being broken up over a longer duration.  I did not find any typos or any spots where editing was needed. Also, as a quick remark, I think that for a debut novel, the author chose to write a difficult storyline, but managed it fairly well. 

So, this particular horror novel is one that I would put in the pyschological horror subgenre.  After having read not very much horror at all, I am going to share that I do not think this is my preferred segment of horror.  I paused after typing that in order to give myself a moment:  could I develop a reasonable taxonomy of horror types?  Let me see, there is cosmic horror (which I have heard about, but I still wonder if there is a solid definition), there is devils/possession/religious horror, and there is monster horror (which would include, perhaps, kaiju science fiction themes, as well), psychological as seen in Nightmare, Gothic, and maybe, finally, stuff that is just slasher gore.  So, possibly six different subgenres. I kicked around the idea of “survivor” horror and “haunted space” horror, but ended up arguing with myself. I am unsure about those. Most survivor horror would fall under slasher or monster, I think. And most haunted space, though a frequent setting/locus, would still come to one of the other subgenres, usually religious or maybe monster.

SPOILER ALERT

From here onward, though I will still attempt to not add heavy spoilers, I still intend to talk about this novel, so I will have to include some things that may spoil the read. Such is the way of the review…..

Regarding the overall plot, there were plenty of hints and clues that the author is banking on readers not picking up on. And the author’s strategy is to throw so much “shock” and “awe” that the reader does not notice and the hints and clues slip by because of the fast-paced page turning and the sudden gory shock, perhaps.  Apparently, and this is me going by a number of reviews (YouTube/Goodreads/blogs), this strategy worked very well. Sadly, it did not work on me. I say “sadly” because yeah, maybe I wish it had worked on me? I have been thinking about the reasons why it did not work on me and I do not know how to write about them without sounding awful and arrogant and hideous.  I guess, I’m just going to say:  I’m a philosopher – by education and trade, you think you gonna sneak dat stuff by me? Naw, bro, not gonna happen.

I suspected what was going on in this book, but on page 93, that’s when it got a bright pink Post-It note smacked on it. Wham! pink post it 2 Because, you see, what I had read was so incongruous that it could not sneak by me. Most of the clue was based on mundane details.  SPOILERS ARE COMING NOW —->  The main character calls his doctor and the doctor answers: “Hello?”  First of all, it is highly unlikely that you direct call a doctor unless you are part of his golf foursome.  Secondly, for the sake of fiction license, let us say you can reach the doctor directly, he certainly is not going to answer “hello.” Instead, he would say “Dr. Reynolds.”  A small thing? Maybe, but the clues continue.   The main character opens a desk drawer at work and pulls out a lighter.  At no point throughout the story was smoking hinted at or mentioned. Why is there a lighter in his drawer? Does he smoke – he does not seem to be a character that smokes? Next, the character dumps papers in a wastebasket and lights them on fire. At work – on one of the upper floors of the building.  Yeah, this is not going to happen in the real in 2020 (smoke alarms, fire hazard, fireable action, etc.).  So, what is going on here? Is the author truly stupid? No, instead these are hints that we are not in reality. 

There are other clues, but I think the one of the biggest is on page 182 in chapter eleven wherein:

Outside, Dr. Reynolds spoke with them. “You can go home for the night if you wish.  I will make sure that she is well looked after.”

This obviously is not a realistic reaction to how we started this chapter, which was fraught with action and sorrow and drama:

Scott rushed into the hospital, carrying May in his arms.  He ran straight past the desk to Dr. Reynolds, who was in the hallway, speaking to another patient.

“What happened?” Dr. Reynolds asked as they ran down the hallway. 

“She was stabbed,” Scott said, not telling him how.

This one is much more obvious than a lot of the previous clues.  I mean, a doctor cannot recognize stab wounds? And at the end of the chapter, the doctor telling them they can “go home” as if bringing anyone, especially a child, into a hospital covered in stab wounds will not result in any call to the police. 

Finally, the last clue that was much like a bright flashing marquee to readers, was late in the book on page 247.  After having a massive ridiculous-level blowout at his house, Scott drives to the county library. 

The first aisle he walked down was history, the next children’s books, and the one after that thriller.  It struck him as a weird order to have the sections in, but what did he know about libraries? He had never been in one before.

What now? Now, before this, we have learned that Scott is college educated and he also has a library card account.  Again, obviously we are not in reality. 

The title of the whole book is called Nightmare and I feel like that should be a really massive clue to all readers as to what is going on here.  Granted, the plot does involve nightmares, but the reader should have been able to realize what was going on – to some extent, I think. Well, the author chose a tough plot and took a big gamble on strategy.  I want to say it did not work, but after looking at the internet for awhile, I guess I would be wrong.  The author’s strategy worked plenty on a whole slew of readers. They enjoyed the novel and they were kept off-balance and on the edge-of-their-seat.  Unfortunately, the strategy did not work for me. I almost want to apologize to the author for this. At the same time, I am sure the author knew he was not going to hook all the readers; as long as he got a large percentage, I am sure he is pleased.

Unfortunately, the author was never going to wow me because, besides my suspicious Cheka-trained reading, the last sort of novel that I enjoy is the psychological one. It is a bit difficult to define, though.  The blatant heavy-handed psych stuff always bores me and that is what happened here. In this novel, I got bored quickly. I just wanted it over already. Yes, that makes me sad because that is obviously not something an author every wants to hear. But, consider… after I figure out it is not reality, what is left to keep me reading? Such is the gamble with this strategy.  Take D. G. Compton’s Synthajoy as an example – I gave the novel four stars because it was very strong and intellectual, but I knew reading it that I was not able to really connect with it or comprehend a lot of it. In a similar, but not exact, vein look at my rating of VALIS. I gave it two stars, because of the blatant psychological/psychotropic business of it. I just do not do well with this sort of fiction. 

Along with this point, however, if an author is writing a psychological novel – that rather means it is character-based.  We need strong character development or the reader needs to be able to connect with the characters.  Due to the need to keep this novel constantly shocking and fast-paced, there was not much effort at all to build or connect with the characters.  Another risk for the author, one that I do think he could have modified or reworked. As a reader, I am usually not for character-driven plots, but I do like to be able to identify the character. For some readers, characters are all that matters and they practically bond with these fictional identities. In either case, there is not a lot I can tell you about the main character and that keeps me, as a reader, at a distance. I do not care about the character, which usually means I do not care what happens to him. Also, that distance allows me the perspective to see the plotholes or the dull parts. 

Overall, not a book for my tastes and aptitude. However, I recognize a lot of readers really enjoyed this. I think it was a heavy lift for a young author.  Would I read this author again? Yes, but not everything he writes.

2 stars

Concrete Island

Concrete IslandConcrete Island by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) is the third Ballard novel I have read. It was published in 1974, I read the Picador 2018 edition with the Introduction by Neil Gaiman.  I did not read the introduction in this novel, because I dislike Neil Gaiman’s writing/perspectives a lot.  I understand he is a strong, prolific, and well-liked author, but I found it just so “expected” that yes he would write the introduction to a Ballard novel.

And from what I have already said, it is probably strongly noticeable that I am not Ballard’s greatest fan. I actually enjoy Ballard’s wordsmithing. I like his writing style, although I struggle a bit at how to describe it.  Here I am not talking about the tools of literary art, but more the actual “penmanship.” What I mean is, Ballard writes in a sturdy, heavy tone. Its exceedingly erudite, but not long-winded. It can be descriptive and use metaphors, but somehow it is also sparing or clipped. So, while he utilizes metaphors and overall satirical themes, I think the whole edifice of his novels are held by that same very sturdy and solid tone.

I have read three Ballard novels and definitely do not claim to be any sort of expert reader of his.  I do know that I feel like the three main characters I met are all the same person. Perhaps they are:  Donald Maitland, Robert Laing, Robert Maitland are their names.   All three of these characters are very independent personalities; outwardly cold and distant, projecting a sense of strength and power. I would not call them the stereotypical masculine archetype, though.  I feel that their projection of strength and power comes directly from their detachment and disassociation from society.   They are calculating, antisocial types.

In Concrete Island, Robert Maitland is a successful architect. He is thirty-five years old and driving his Jaguar home; he has exceeded a safe speed and has crashed it on page one of the novel. On page three the question is already asked, “Why had he driven so fast?” In the next paragraph:

Today, speeding along the motorway when he was already tired after a three-day conference, preoccupied by the slight duplicity involved in seeing his wife so soon after a week spent with Helen Fairfax, he had almost willfully devised the crash, perhaps as some bizarre kind of rationalization. – pg. 3

The readers have just gotten to the bottom of page three and we already know so much about Maitland. And, frankly, none of what is learned is entirely admirable or virtuous.  From this point on, all the critics and readers and experts can spend a lot of time dissecting this novel. For example, as a representation of a white-collar, amoral class of society, does Maitland speed because he is recklessly thinking “nothing bad happens to me or my kind”? Or, as suggested, does he willfully (almost subconsciously) cause the crash -as a sign that he is aware of his “white-collar, amoral class” and somehow this crash represents that class crashing?  Or does he crash because of some warped judgment that selects masochism over a fake façade of domestic sufficiency? Or is there an understated, but fierce desire to reject contemporary society and return to some primative and base survival-mode?

Is this 1970s “new wave” novel just 156 pages of revolt?

I think much is made of Ballard’s dystopian and tragic stories. I also think the symbolism and satire within these stories is at once very good and yet very heavy-handed. I think what a lot of readers love about Ballard is that he has provided so much fodder for them to make even more fodder. After all, there is an industry about this.  I am not always a huge fan of satire because though it can be exciting and counter-culture, I find that most of the time it turns bitter and caustic and feels like instead of subverting the society it aims at, it ends up devouring itself in its own venom.

As I read it, I did think it was a rewrite of a Jules Verne novel.  It is not and I have not read the Verne novel recently enough to even consider making any sort of comparisons. However, I feel a strong enough connection between these two novels that I wanted to mention it here.  Surely, all the readers of this blog are utterly familiar with Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1875)? LOL

The simple conception of this novel, the character’s situtation, the setting for the story – all as “island” is really significant, as well. Dozens of papers and opinions could be written on this matter. Naturally, one considers an island both as something isolated and surrounded by something else, as-well-as a pseudo-magical place – a getaway or a reserve. Sometimes Ballard plays with the standard definition, sometimes he uses it metaphorically here. Maitland thinks himself the island.  Of course, eventually, as the memory and significance of Maitland’s normal life starts to pale and fade, the reader is also supposed to consider that whatever happens here on this Island is actually the “really-real,” and the other outside world is the fake insubstantial stuff.

On page fifty two: “In some way, this act of concentration proved that he could dominate the island.” I think this is the first statement of dominance. Merely a page later this is reworked as Maitland thinks:

Nonetheless, his success in building even this shabby shelter had revived him, rekindling his still unbroken determination to survive.  As he was already well aware, it was this will to survive, to dominate the island and harness its limited resources, that now seemed a more important goal than escaping. – pg. 54

The desire to dominate, the notion that might-makes-right, and that this domination is success fills this novel – and maybe the other novels I have read by Ballard, too.  The concept is there throughout the storyline – if Maitland crashed purposively, then he had some “dominance” over Fate and Physics. If Maitland starts viewing his inability to escape as a desire to stay and become dominant, he shows his overcoming the situation/scenario in a different light. Subversive, maybe, revolutionary, maybe.  It gets especially convoluted if we consider that Maitland sometimes views himself as the island and so, does he also dominate himself? Yes, in the segments where Ballard writes about Matiland overcoming his physical ailments.

How much can be read into the idea that those who build are also those who dominate?  Several times in this short novel, Maitland “builds” (or has something built).  Is that the ultimate sign of his dominance?

The speed with which Maitland moves from wealthy architect to primitive is part of Ballard’s worldview, I think.  Obviously, everything about this novel is echoed or parallel to the novel High-Rise.  Honestly, it is kind of the same novel. It takes the same survival-satire-social subversion and instead of taking place in a high rise building, it takes place in the center of the “traffic” of normal society.

Anyway, there is a lot to wonder about in this novel, though none of it is necessarily positive or engaging. Most of it is dark and uncomfortable.  Ballard’s prose (being somewhat spare and cool) takes some of the sharpness off of these ruminations, however, at its core, this story nothing gentle and warming. Also, since I have read other Ballard, this novel is also nothing new and exciting.  I feel like Ballard wrote the same story and while I appreciate this, believe it or not, I am not very impressed, either.

The concepts are worthwhile to explore, but at the end of this, I feel it was an intellectual exercise of an expression of discontent with society. I am sorry that Ballard is discontented. It was not horrible to spend a few minutes reading his satire, but I am not going to remain there, on these isolations, with him.

2 stars