Novels

Fiction

Dark Matter

Dark MatterIf you, as I did, decide to “pseudo-hurricane evac,” you cannot bring every book on your tbr-mountain. As distressing as this is, it is possible to just take one single book along with you. And mainly, this is for space constraints. To be honest, I did not evac for safety reasons, but for sanity reasons. So, I was not really worried about the destruction some locations had, but sitting around in power outages while 50-mph wind whips nature at you is not exactly relaxing. So, what book did I grab? Well, I grabbed Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. Mainly because I figured it would last a day or two and I really had been meaning to knock it off of the tbr list for awhile.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (b. 1978) was first published in 2016. I am aware that it has been a popular read since then, but I have never gotten around to reading it. For the most part, the reviews and ratings that I have seen for this novel have been positive.

The novel is a very speedy read – its very obvious that the author is comfortable with screenplays. I think he writes line-by-line, especially dialogue. The author never really turns this into a novel. Maybe someday, if it has not already, it will be picked up by a film company and it will be easy to turn into a TV show/movie. I do not watch much TV and I never read screenplays, so this sort of writing did not grip me and pull me in.

Overall, though, this novel was disappointing. I enjoy science fiction and everyone who says that phrase also has a special little part of their heart reserved for parallel universes, time travel, quantum physics, and alternate realities. Even if they brush you off and deny this fact, ignore them – it is just that they are scared you know a secret.  Unfortunately, because this is a common fact among all science fiction fans, there are a great number of works that have attempted to, in some way, provide an exciting story within these themes. Another unfortunate fact is that these themes are particularly high-level science. Traditionally, it has been difficult to write very engaging/entertaining novels that are also filled with accurate and technically brilliant high-level “hard” science. I am not a quantum physicist, so I am not going to judge Crouch’s effort here from that angle. It seems to me that Crouch did not totally flub the science here. In fact, in several parts, he does a decent job of explaining to a reader what is going on, what is happening to the characters. Its not hard science that would block most readers who are not scientifically inclined, let us say.

However, the whole story is nearly like Quantum Leap (1989-1993).  Crouch, being born in 1978, should know about this show and maybe should have realized he was a little too close to it. The influence and proximity comes from the fugitive aspect of the storyline. Do not get me wrong, this is also where any action and excitement come from.  Yes, some of these segments are kind of thrilling and interesting.  Unfortunately, I remember watching Quantum Leap on TV back when it was originally on and I cannot say skipping through the realities is not fun – but its not super new for me.

Secondly, though this book really should be hard science fiction all the way, the book is mainly a love story. The love story (the main character is focused on his wife and teenage son), is his sole motivation for all that he endures. Like any good writer, Crouch knows that he needs to give his characters reasons. Jason Dessen’s “reason” is his family.  So when the main character has to find the motivation, he finds it in the “need” to return to and protect his family. Also, whenever the main character is feeling any sort of way, it is related to his relationship and emotions regarding his family.  This is a logical and reasonable motivation – but danged if this did not start to really annoy me. It definitely makes me sound like a cold-blooded, heartless reader, but I got pretty tired of hearing Jason go on and on about how his family makes him feel, etc.  In a sense, the storyline had me feeling some compassion and worry toward him. However the constant pounding on this theme made me actually start to dislike the characters and it turned my sympathy for him right around.

Choosing Well cover

my paperback 1982 edition

Further, the novel is actually not about the multiverse/parallel realities.  This novel is, at its very core, a question about ethics. Now, I am not an ethicist. I am, by training and trade, a metaphysician. Ostensive and defensive, if you please, along the Aristotelian lines. However, I know that most fiction writers are not very aware of what goes on in academia and think they have hit upon a new and unique vantage point or question or what have you. Rarely is this the case. Original thought and ideas are so incredibly rare…. ANYWAY, Crouch, whether he knew it or not, was literally writing very closely to the ideas put forth by Germain G. Grisez (1929 – 2018) and Russell B. Shaw in his Choosing Well (1982). Choosing Well is such an infamous book in my household because it routinely wins ugliest book ever. Its a decently academic read, short and very readable; printed by University of Notre Dame and organized logically. But it has the ugliest cover in the galaxy…. reminiscent of some 1960s self-help manual or something. There is actually a household rule that if you use/read this book you have to always have cover down (like on a table or whatever) so others don’t puke looking at it.  I suppose I could also mention John Finnis (b. 1940) here (not that I expect anyone to have followed this far down the rabbit trail of ethics texts, but I like being thorough).

Choosing Well backBecause at the end of the day, Crouch has his main character working on a problem – and it is not the problem of quantum physics or how to return to a specific universe. It is actually:  what is happiness? how does one have a happy life? of what does a happy life consist – and how do our choices determine this?

Sometimes it is really tough to be a philosopher, because you often get books spoiled because even if you want to read a new and exciting novel, the author hands you retread tires. It is difficult to keep any feeling of wonder or curiosity or excitement when its old news.

Dark Matter is a modernized Quantum Leap full of GGG-Shaw-Finnis ethics.  Now, I suppose, even such a work could be interesting because those items, on their own, are relatively interesting, of course. But – written in this screenplay manner with the limited number of characters, the endless droning about the main character’s wife, and the inevitable repetitive nature of the story – any wonder and thrill is quickly lost.

I tried to imagine this book being read by a reader who has no background in physics (or Quantum Leap) or academic ethics and maybe they would enjoy the very emotive, fast-paced plot. I am not sure. Sadly, I could not grant this thing more than two stars, though I honestly wanted it to be better. After all, it was the only book I had with me.

2 stars

The Werewolf Principle

THe Werewolf PrincipleThe Werewolf Principle by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was first published in 1967. I read the Berkley paperback with the Richard Powers (1921 – 1996) cover art.  My copy was only 216 pages, but I think it took over a week to read – because I had just gotten home from travel and for whatever reason, my mind was feeling listless and disinterested.  This is the eighth Simak novel that I have read, though, so I feel he and I are old friends, so to speak.

First of all, there are no “werewolves” and there is no “werewolf principle.”  Like all of our favorite science fiction grandmasters, Simak had a keen, uncanny eye for the future, but I doubt even he could have guessed our pop culture fascination with werewolves – and the many iterations of them that we have designed. Unfortunately, it seems we have saturated ourselves with werewolves (yes, and other monsters associated with them like vampires) and so the title of this novel from 1967 might be off-putting to someone in 2022.

Second of all, Simak’s love for pastoral, middle-America farms and woodlands is once again present. It seems no matter the storyline or the characters, Simak will find a way to take the reader fishing. He will also tell you all about the woods nearby, the critters that roam those woods, the farmland across the way, and the hills that overlook it all.  I, personally, am not a big fan of scenery, but it is such a part of Simak and his writing that I have come to accept it and understand it as necessary to enjoying Simak’s worldview and creations.  By the way, I do enjoy fishing. Trout, panfish, Bass, etc. although in my youth I did more big lake stuff like Walleye and Pike.

Generally I find Simak’s novels to be uneven.  Whether it is uneven in plotting, pacing, or execution, it does not really matter because the result is always somewhat of a rolling up and down read. This novel may be slightly more uneven than some of the others I have read, but its, again, something I have learned to expect with Simak. Specifically, the opening quarter of the novel is very in media res.  And chapter six is especially difficult/frustrating to read.  The novel moves in and out of a variety of “action/fugitive” moments to segments of introspection and description that seem so very sluggish.

Solar panels on houses – houses that are really Smart Homes. The A.I. of the houses is very intrusive and oppressive. The various rooms of the house are very often harassing the people in the house. Its really invasive and annoying – and I am just reading about it. I pity the main character. But, on the other hand, I think of some of the Smart Homes in society currently and I have to shrug a little. Perspectives….. Anyway, I really snorted at one of the interactions of the overbearing Kitchen in chapter seven.  While its obnoxious, I can relate to it. Many times my household has to throttle back my cooking. Literally, massive meals with Old World styled courses and plating. Also, enough to feed a battalion. So, when in chapter seven the Kitchen lets loose, I had to cheer!

The theme of the overall novel is about the meaning of the Self or what it is to be a mind. I am taken back to my graduate school days where we read things like Gilbert Ryle and argued about BIVs [Brain in Vat] for endless semesters. In this novel, Simak has BIVs. This fact is a little unnerving because I swear Simak predates a lot of the academic inquiry. It is not just about BIVs, though. There is also a wrangling that the characters do with what it means to be human and what it means to have/be a self.  I remember there was a lot of Macquarrie and Calvin O. Schrag that I had to read through. Everyone after Heidegger is very busy discovering themselves, you know…. I digress….

While this may sound interesting to some readers, it is very uneven and at some point in the novel, the tone changes. There is a very negative feeling that comes through the writing toward and about humanity. The main character, though full of knowledge and data, is also extremely emotional. Toward the end of the book, he basically makes a sudden decision that “oh, humans will be mean to me, so bye, I’m leaving.” It feels ridiculously abrupt and nearly childish.

The main character has three selves (so to speak), two of which are very alien to a human. In fact, the main character is not exactly a natural specimen of humanity. So, there is a lot going on there.  Some of this Simak looks at, some of it he does not. Its a lot to unpack and the story instead grinds along. Some of the “internal” dialogue between the three is interesting, most of it is tedious. They have names for each other (that symbolically designate themselves). Changer, Quester, Thinker. These seem like as good of names as any, but look too closely and they do not really stand up to scrutiny.

The very ending is a little bit better than some of Simak’s works. This ending had a surprise twist that I did not see coming, but that is very welcome – to the reader and to the main character. It pleases the main character a great deal, but it does not erase the bad taste of him being a bit impulsive and harboring a jealousy/bitterness.

With Simak’s writing there is also sometimes what I call a “comic book” feel to it. For example, the characters will have an epiphany in a very comic book manner. They might be on a long introspection jag and when an idea comes to them, the writing just feels like the yellow narrative boxes instead of a prose edit. It does not happen often, but its there in most of the Simak novels. Just a brief section where it feels like a novelization of some tense moment from a comic.

Anyway, I liked the usual things one likes about Simak novels. I disliked the unevenness and I definitely did not like the sudden negative mood of the main character. Like I have said, some of these themes arise in other novels by Simak, and I would not be surprised if the next novel I read of his also contains a character who does not fit in with humanity, finds a deep nostalgia for Earth and nature, but has a uncomfortable attitude toward humans.  This is NOT a bad read, certainly not at all. It just is not the high level of Simak’s work.

3 stars

The Last Wish

The Last WishThe Last Wish by Andrej Sapkowski is the first The Witcher item I have read. No, I have never played the game and no, I have never seen any video or show. So, this is basically my introduction to The Witcher. However, I also live in wild times with y’all and therefore I cannot say I was utterly blank when it came to this series and this character. How do I know about The Witcher? I could not say, except to suggest some sort of ambient knowledge that I absorbed unawares. This is a collection of stories that was first published in Polish in 1993.  In English, the first release was 2007.  I have had it on my TBR list since 2018.

I have reviewed about thirty novels on this blog this year, so far, and I think there are only a couple that I could call fun.  Lots of other adjectives could be used to describe all the other novels, including “entertaining,” “interesting,” and “engaging.” Some novels would get words on the other end of the spectrum. However, The Last Wish and maybe East of Desolation would get the word “fun” pinned to them.

I expected something along the lines of the usual sword and sorcery fantasy that we have all come to know and love.  I was not super excited to read the book, but I felt I could settle in with it being the third book of the week in the Appalachians.  Well, it was far better than I expected.

None of that farmboy becomes hero and everyone roots for the unlikely shining hero over the darkness that overfell the land stuff. This is grimdark-medieval themed and maybe just ever so slightly has hints of Eastern European influence, which makes sense and is a welcome change. It does not feel like so-called “appropriated” Slavic mythology (Cp. certain YA books) and these influences are only that – not burdensome heavy anvils to drag around. The writing is fresh and ribald and witty.  Read superficially, there is a lot of action and fun.  A little closer look shows there are some interesting concepts that the author is toying with. Concepts in ethics and religion, especially.

Many readers felt that the dialogue was not very good. I have no idea what they mean. Seriously, after reading some comments from other readers I was ready for some very stilted and awful writing.  Yet as I read along the one thought I kept having about the characters was that they are all very realistic.  They are neither, none of ’em, good or evil.  Their conversation and phrasing is true to how I hear people talk. Oh, I know most people think they are speaking in Old English at Buckingham Palace. I know most people feel like they are in the Ivory Tower and they are eloquently pontificating on the finer linguistic details of their chosen reading material.  But guess what – no, they are not.  The seeming inconsistencies in character show through in this novel not as inconsistent characters, but realistic personalities.  Characters are rarely good or evil.  Some of them are blatant with their status and some are more subtle. Mostly, everyone is in a mix of some good, some bad, trying to get through the day in a dog-eat-dog world. With the occasional monster.

Frankly, I found the stories in this book fresh, fun, interesting, and a good variety of creatures and characters. I loved several scenes in the book wherein characters strongly choose to be pragmatic, honest, exasperated, or stubborn. In one story when Geralt is talking with Nenneke, he starts having sharing things that in other books would be “personality insights” and “character development.”  But here, Nenneke shuts him down abruptly:

“Stop it,” she said sharply.  “Don’t cry on my shoulder. I’m not your mother, and I won’t be your confidante either. I don’t give a shit how she treated you and I care even less how you treated her. And I don’t intend to be a go-between or give these stupid jewels to her.” — pg. 270

In another story, a queen named Calanthe jousts with Geralt over supper. Their back and forth is witty, sarcastic, intelligent, but more than anything, it is realistic. It is not some weird stilted conversation had in some other books. This meandering, but sharp-edged conversation is fun to read. Particularly at a wild dinner party that is getting increasingly out of hand. Calanthe and Nenneke are just two of the female characters that seem to have no problem putting The Witcher in his place, so to speak. I would not call them weak or stereotypical female characters, either.  Among the comments at the table, Calanthe remarks:

“I’ve been told that witchers are an interesting caste, but I didn’t really believe it. Now I do. When hit, you give a note which shows you’re fashioned of pure steel, unlike these men molded from bird shit……” – pg. 166

Its realistic writing that is refreshing to read. I barked a laugh at the lines here and told myself I would have to include them in my review. Many times in the book, characters state something outlandish and another character just refuses to “follow them down the bunny trail” of ridiculous.  To use an example, no, it is not always special food demons that come from unfaithful kitchens – sometimes its just indigestion or overeating. That sort of thing.  It keeps a fantasy novel that is full of monsters and swordplay from viewing everything through the “its magical” lens.

I do not know what to say about Yennefer. I do not particularly like her, that is for sure. And the last wish…. hah, what a great writing ploy Sapkowski used on us! Bravo, well done. I guess it is all okay with me for Geralt and Yennefer to have crossing fates, because I know that Dandilion is on Geralt’s side and Dandilion is absolutely 100% awesomeness. He is a great character and I am very glad I met him and I am even more glad that he is Geralt’s buddy. Ack, who is not a bit jealous of such friendships?

The characters in this book are realistic because they do not fall into those neat categories that other fantasy novels rely on so very much. They are morally ambiguous or situationally ethical. They sometimes surprise and are also sometimes predictable.

“Stregobor,” said Geralt, “that’s the way of the world. One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off.  Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters.  In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at  banquet every minute, blue from poisoning.  I’m used to it.” — pg. 105

There is a somberness to the book as well. Both with the Yennefer scenario and the origin of Geralt as a child and then witcher. But also in the viewpoints sometimes expressed, which seem weary and worn. Some readers took offense at some of the ribald and wild moments in these stories. I find their comments ridiculous because in a land of monsters wherein everyone is fighting for power, magic, or might – acting shocked by these characters’ actions is silly. Characters are rough and they live in a rough world. As Geralt said above, that’s the way of the world. So, readers should not shun this book because “rough things” happen in it.

Anyway, of course I will read more The Witcher items. I think maybe this particular book will hang around in the collection awhile, as well. It surprised me because it was much better than expected.

4 stars

Fated

Fated coverFated by Benedict Jacka is the first in the Alexander Verus series.  It was released in 2012. The entire series is finished, now, and is twelve novels. I happen to think that the USA book cover editions are very colorful and well-designed. Someone in my household read a bunch of these and left them shelved. I have been meaning to read them in a very non-prioritized way for awhile. Since this is a shelf-clearing year (do not listen to my nonsense – I say this every year), I decided to grab the first novel and take it along to the mountains this week.

Unlike my previous read, Fated is a fast-moving novel that falls into the category, officially, of urban fantasy, but really is just a little action thriller that has magical elements. It is usually compared, reasonably so, to the Harry Dresden series of novels by Jim Butcher. I read the first novel (Storm Front) in that series a long time ago – it was first released in 2000 and I do not remember much. I probably gave it either two or three stars. That being said, I have no idea if these are similar except in that they are kind of in the same category – mage/wizard in modern urban setting has to deal with magical situation resulting in action plot.

Reading Fated after Count Zero is a kind of funny experience.  Fated‘s pages just flew past; I mean, I think it even has thirty more pages in it, but I read it much faster.  That just goes to show that it is not a book with great depth and intensity.  There is nothing wrong with that, per se, but I think this is something akin to how a number of readers felt this was more of a “YA” (i.e. young adult) novel.  I disagree that it is YA, I do not really even like that sort of faux-genre.  It does, though, feel like Jacka was not taking any risks and staying somewhat superficial with the storyline.

Except for the uncomfortable master mage and apprentice-slave scenario that runs through the entire novel. Clearly, the main character has some form of PTSD after having been involved in such a scenario. Alex Verus mentions it in the sort of way people mention things when they do not want to seem like they want to talk about a thing, but they really, really do.  So, again, is Jacka making the background mysterious? Is he writing “safely?”  Or, is this just a way to engage the reader that does not work 100% of the time?  For myself, I can say that I do not mind characters with shadowy and dark pasts. I do not have to know all of their details. However, in this one, it feels like Jacka needed to commit a bit better to telling the reader or not. Instead, Verus’ history is a mess.  Also, by not really being totally open about whatever is in Verus’ past, it makes the relationship between himself and the master-Dark mage take on aspects that are perhaps uncomfortably taboo or untoward.

Rather than have the clear good versus evil scenario of mages, Jacka bolsters his explanation of Dark mages as something other than just evil-driven. Maybe. It works to a point, and then it stops working. So, what I mean is, Jacka tells us that Dark mages do not buy into strict concepts of good and evil. Instead they think about morality totally from their self-indulgent egoism.  They recognize others only if and when the Other is something to have control over and to operate as one operates a tool. Thinking about this a bit deeper, though, readers might wonder if that sort of egoism is not, actually, the definition of evil. So, back again to perspectives of good and evil. Hey, I’m a metaphysician… an ontologist, I get really disinterested and bored with ethics. But it feels like Jacka really took to those ethics classes in school.

Anyway, I like a lot of the magical constructs that Jacka made for us.  Beings like Starbreeze, Helikaon, and Arachne are fun and interesting. I mean, I did get tired of Starbreeze by the end of the novel and Arachne is not exactly an original creation, but they were good inclusions in this novel.  The villains were villainous – which is good. I hate novels wherein the villains are rather pathetic and cannot hang onto their rôle as villains. The character Rachel is another who needed to have some good time with a psychologist – again because of whatever the heck happened in Verus’ past.

Overall, though, this novel is a decent read. Its not above average because it feels like a lot of the elements needed to be solidified and tidied up.  The Council, for example:  we are left with all sorts of impressions of it. After finishing the book, I cannot tell if they are a weak administrative sort of group or a snarling back-biting political thing, or a true over-seeing authority. Further, there seems to be so much magic – there is a lot and when Jacka needed a plot point, it seems like he just introduced another form of it. This needed to be shored up to a more manageable kosmology.

Finally, though it was a speedier read than Count Zero, there seemed to be some pacing issues. The time spent at “the ball” was overdone and tedious after awhile. Some of the “we are being chased” moments were a bit repetitive and therefore annoying. In spite of all of these smaller challenges, though, the world of Alex Verus is just interesting enough that I would read the next book in the series. I can also grant that maybe since this was the first novel, it was a little off-kilter and the next one rights the ship.

2 stars

Count Zero

Count Zero coverCount Zero by William Gibson was published in 1986. It is the pseudo-sequel to 1984’s Neuromancer novel. I read Neuromancer in 2012 and it has taken me ten years to get the motivation to read Count Zero. Sure, in the years I have picked the book up and read a page or two and every time I just did not feel like this was the novel I wanted to read. Well, I had enough of this behavior and I brought it with me to the middle of Appalachia. There is nothing much around besides kudzu and deer. I read Count Zero in about a day and a half.

After having finished two Gibson novels, I am no expert. However, I can confirm some of the things said online about his work.  Its said that he writes dense novels. I have been debating today about this particular word choice. I am not certain “dense” is the best word, though it is not utterly incorrect, either.  So, I feel “dense” has a connotation of being especially difficult to penetrate and examples of “dense” writing might include Finnegans Wake or The Name of the Rose. I think Gibson novels are very compressed. I am aware that this seems very picayune. The reason I prefer “compressed” is that when I read Gibson, I realize I have to read each and every word absolutely. There is no speed-reading these novels and there is no skipping. No skimming and no skipping – absolutely none, not one word. Not ever.

Reading Gibson novels is a bit tiring because he does have his own architecture and lingo that he does not explain to the reader and the context is not a huge assist, either.  Having to read every single word carefully is also tedious because it makes this 246 page novel seem much longer. It also shows that readers get lazy in their reading – maybe not intentionally skimming, but certainly not giving novels their full focus. The reader definitely loses out on a lot if they skim. So I also have to praise Gibson for his very precise writing. The demand on himself is even more, since if the reader dare not skim, the writer must have also very precisely selected each and every word. Gibson’s novels are a lot of work. The sort of plotting and conversation that other authors spread out over chapters and chapters is compressed into a few paragraphs. Readers better respect that or the book will quickly turn to total confusion for them.

Count Zero is a bit of a sequel to the previous novel – one would definitely want to read Neuromancer first. However, it is not much of a direct continuation of the storyline; it is more of a continuation of the environment and setting. I liked Count Zero more because the novel just seemed a bit easier to follow. Neuromancer was quite mysterious… I could not find my footing easily, and not in the good PKD sort of way. Perhaps this is because the first novel gave me necessary familiarization.  I just think this sequel has a better flow to it – even if it has all the cyberpunk/futuristic elements. Count Zero is not about getting readers to bond with characters. I think many readers find this off-putting; many readers seem to want to develop relationships with characters.  Gibson’s characters are significant and distinct, but they remain aloof and out of reach of the reader. I like that, other readers might be more critical of this. 

Some things, though, readers need to know. For example, Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972) plays a vague rôle in this novel due to his artwork. It gets really jumbled in the cybertechnology. However, if a reader is at least somewhat familiar with his work, it will make their reading of this novel quite a bit easier. Other things, like the voodoo stuff would be really tough to draw strictly from the novel. Reading these segments feels really bizarre and nutty. So, somehow, lucky readers might find out what all of this is about, but without reading spoilers (somehow) that would ruin their overall enjoyment of the plot.

The receptionist in the cool gray anteroom of the Galerie Duperey might well have grown there, a lovely and likely poisonous plant, rooted behind a slab of polished marble inlaid with an enameled keyboard. – pg. 11, chapter 2

The plot in this novel has three threads that are distinct, but converge at the end. The ending is a little bit of a mess, but maybe it was just my weariness talking. Overall, there is a lot of fodder here (back in the mid-80s) for the future cyberpunks. This is an action novel, believe it or not, it just has some slow parts that make you think of those really dull moments in certain movies – those segments that you wonder (during your first watch) why they are there, but then afterwards you see how they got everything all connected together. Remember, you cannot skip slow parts in this book. Every word has been selected and trimmed for the sake of the novel. 

This is a really strong novel for strong readers. Its definitely for fans of a certain style of cyberpunk/cybertechnology. It is demanding and it has its own landscape, language, culture, and tech that on occasion might look like ours (i.e. what we have going on in 2000+). At its heart it is an action novel, though. It is just a different style of action than the usual mass market paperback style of thriller novels.  Once you read Gibson, you cannot undo what you pick up from them, unless you are some kind of wilson. And yeah, when things go sideways, you might blurt to your pals that it got witchy.  I hope to finish off this “trilogy” – and I really hope it does not take me another ten years to read the last book in the set.

4 stars

Mystery Mile

Mystery Mile coverMystery Mile by Margery Allingham (1904 – 1966) was first published in 1930.  It is the second in the Albert Campion series; I read the first back in 2015 and did not really care for it. Mystery Mile, however, is the first novel in which the character Albert Campion actually stars having the main rôle.  Anywhere online where I saw anything about “Albert Campion,” I saw mention of how the character is a parody of or very similar to Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy L. Sayers’ work.  I feel like this is some sort of literary-world mantra that has been repeated so much that most readers accept it as fact. In my reading, I can see how readers might draw that conclusion, but at the same time, I do not think the connection is all that strong. Campion is made to produce a lot of chatter, some of it learned, most of it just free-association. It annoys his fellow characters more than it annoys the reader, truthfully. The Wimsey character can keep up a similar monologue, but his is somehow both more intelligent and more forlorn. So, Allingham might have taken a certain tidbit from Sayers and spun it a little differently. I doubt Wimsey is the only source; I seem to recall Sherlock et al. having a bit of – seemingly – irreverent chatter.

Of the bunch of Golden Age mysteries and detective yarns that I have read, Allingham’s are the least serious.  These are not quite the usual leisurely detecting that, say, are parodied in Leo Bruce’s novels. You know the ones – the murder happens, usually in a country manor home, and all the suspects sit around having brandy while the detective plays at various intellectual exercises.  These are also not the sort of heavy, serious stories that feel like the fate of the world is directly waiting the conclusion of the case. These are romps, a word I do not use often.  These are 1930s action/adventure mysteries.  Indeed, and I am going to go out on a limb here, they are entertaining and fun.

Now, the amount of fun and entertainment mileage a reader gets from a novel like this will vary. The story itself is fairly well-written, no one will accuse Allingham of being a lazy writer or a writer that did not have a grasp of plot, setting, characters, etc. However, at times it seems a bit overwritten.  At times, especially, in this particular novel, it seems the author focused too much on the main character and made the rest of the characters run around like panting obedient dogs behind him.  Do not get me wrong, though, this novel does introduce us to a number of definitely interesting characters who stand on their own. We meet Campion’s manservant/houseman, Magersfontein Lugg.  And Lugg’s associate Thos. T Knapp.  The segments of the story involving this latter character light up because Knapp is such a colorful and lively creature.  The scenes with his mother and their little apartment are also rather priceless.  Knapp’s character does play on some of those archetypes and Allingham pulls in those elements with skill.  Specifically, things like his accent, his skill set, his physical movements, etc.

Still, some of the other characters, though independent and not cardboard placeholders when taken on their own, seem unable to do otherwise than follow and obey the main character. They never really develop or show any particular insights or dynamic other than what their face value has already presented to the reader.  These characters, though likeable in their own way, make for some tediousness.

My main complaint about this novel is a singular plot point. I feel like left alone, most of the plot is organized and reasonable. However, there is one piece that were it not so, would utterly collapse the entire book.  So, it has to do with the early night in which guests arrive and a certain character, Anthony Datchett arrives – uninvited.  The housemaid, Cuddy, lets him in and hands his card to the lady of the house. The rest of the household should, at this point, knowing full-well why all of them are gathered the heck out on this swamp, misty peninsula, punt this guy right back out into the night. Literally, why he is allowed entrance to the room, much less the house and why he is allowed to engage with the guests is inexplicable.

My second complaint is really a bit unfair and very minor. In the middle of the book, the main character is given a specific prop. Apparently, he is aware of what it signifies, but no one else is. And there is no way any reader could know because we do not live on the peninsula nor do we have a map of it. So, when Campion reveals its meaning – though the prop is alluded to a number of times and suspense is allowed to build over it – it falls flat. It makes sense, its logical. However, I think this could have been handled better and been an awesome prop as opposed to a fizzled out element.

“Two young females in this ‘ere flat,” said Lugg. “Well!”

“Shocking!” agreed Campion. “I don’t know what my wife would say.”
Marlowe stared at him. “Good Lord, you haven’t a wife, have you?” he said.

“No,” said Mr. Campion. “That’s why I don’t know what she’d say. Get your coats on, my little Rotarians.” — pg. 199, chapter 24

I laughed at the above.  Some readers might find it stupid. Most of Campion’s punchlines are hit or miss, but this one tickled me. Allingham did provide several nicely done action scenes. There is a rooftop house-breaking rescue full of all the excitement readers could want. There is a nighttime escape and evasion late in the book which results in several reveals, but also things like gunfire and quicksand! There are comical moments as well:  being introduced to the rear entrance to Campion’s apartment is priceless.

Overall, this is a serviceable enjoyable read.  Readers ought not take it too seriously and have fun with the little romp.  There is a dog who provides little levity and amusement, as well. I will very likely read the next in the series, which I already own. However, this is not a series I can gobble down – it definitely does better with breaks in between stories.

3 stars

Red Harvest

Red Harvest coverRed Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1894 – 1961) was published as a whole novel in 1929.  It had previously been published in parts from 1927-1928 in a pulp magazine. Technically, it is his first novel, but he had plenty of short stories and other smaller published pieces before 1929.  It is really quite an absurdity that I have not read any Hammett before. The only thing I can do about that, seeing as I have no ability to time travel to the past, is to read more now and in the future. I am about thirty minutes away, I guess, from a whole collection of Hammett documents and paraphernalia (photos, scrapbooks, writings, letters).  The collection, owned and housed at a nearby library, includes about 250 prints and pencil drawings of Hammett’s work for the Army newspaper he created. He was stationed in the Aleutian Islands where he developed the Army newspaper, The Adakian.

Hammett allegedly wrote Red Harvest with a lot of personal experience and current events in mind. I suspect this has a whole lot more meaning to literary people than to Hammett himself or his audience. Not to say that he or his audience were daft, I just think he used what was ready-at-hand to create the story. He had previously written stories involving a character called “The Continental Op.”  He split with the magazine over money issues. His first story back with the magazine, Hammett dedicated the novel to Joseph Thompson Shaw who was the newly installed editor of the pulp magazine (Black Mask). To me, this sounds like a writer chasing the dollars and not a writer with some lofty literary goals.

All of this being said, this is a very famous novel that I think usually receives top marks from readers and critics.  Taken utterly by itself, not looking at context or comparing it to any other work, I do not see how it can get very high ratings.  Even so, taken contextually and comparatively, giving the novel five stars seems silly.  What is the comparison? Well, let’s look at things like Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Wimsey and Agatha Christie’s Poirot.  The stories tell us about a more refined and genteel culture. The settings, characters, and plots are mysteries and isolated crimes.  Hammett wrote this work which showed another facet of “real life” in which workers’ strikes, kingpins, gang wars, and corrupt police departments were the norm. Hammett’s depictions play up the wild, wild West zeitgeist in which the American culture of independence slides into lawlessness and corruption.  Poirot ain’t comin’ to Poisonville.

However, taken novel qua novel, what does the reader of today get out of this? Well, the 1928-1930 time period had the tail end of the Roaring Twenties and prohibition marching straight into the “Great Depression” and general global civil wars. Knowing these basic historical facts, the reader should expect a story of excess and anxiety. Economies are toppling, but everyone is still partying, and there is a general confusion of morality everywhere. On a very small scale, this is what is occurring in Personville as it implodes because the fuse named The Continental Op showed up.

Why did he show up? Its 2022 and it is not common knowledge what the methods and rôles of the Pinkertons or the “Continental Detective Agency” might be. The story is that the Agency was hired to investigate a murder.  This situation goes rather sideways and I honestly find one of the plotholes to be that there is insufficient reason for the Op to have stayed in the town. Frankly, it just seems like the guy is stubborn and as toxic as everyone else in the place.  Anyway, he stays and decides to stir the pot to try to make the city combust with all of its crime goings-on.  This is passed to the reader as “cleaning the place up” by the method of “turning everyone against each other until they extinguish each other.”

The story is written via dialogue. So, if readers want the story told to them through conversation they can find that here. This is, of course, a bit of a departure from the British detectives who are conversing, surely, but still we are given long paragraphs of general information.  Hammett, the star of the new noir/hardboiled genre, keeps the dialogue crispy and direct.  This is a long conversation between all the characters. Here is my complaint – all of the characters and their dialogue sound exactly the same.  One conversation is the same as another.

Similarly, all the characters get jumbled.  Its kind of difficult to sort out who did what to whom and whatever. I think that is kind of the point of the web of crime in this town.  Toward the end of the novel, its clear that even the criminals do not know who is their enemy or their ally or what side anyone is on. In one sense, this could be an effective writing element, but it does not change the fact that it is a bit frustrating for the reader, too. So here is my main feeling on this:  if all the characters seem the same and if I have a feeling of frustration/annoyance, this is not going to be a five-star novel – even if the novel depicts the scenery well.

There is a little morality tale here about sleeping with dogs. You know, you get up with their fleas. So, in chapter 20, our main character is unsettled and goes on a bit of a rant about how he has been changed and snared by the burg.  In other words, the crime he is supposedly fighting against he has gotten snagged within and maybe has lost his moral center – if he ever had one.  Which, when reading this chapter, I wonder how other readers/critics have said that this Continental Op is amoral? Anyway, chapter 20 is probably one of the most important chapters in American fiction – how about that?!  I must give props to Hammett for making things worse – the next chapter, chapter 21, things get even worse for The Continental Op and all those rantings show there was substance to them. In other words, instead of just letting his character have a preachy monologue, he shows that the character had a reason to be concerned.

I liked the character Dinah Brand. I think she was really well-written and a bit different than I expected her to be. I felt vaguely bad about her ending, but she deserved it in the context of this storyline! One of the things a researcher should hunt for in his rummaging in the Hammett Family Papers should be who Dinah was in Hammett’s life. He admitted that nearly all of his characters were taken from “real life” so I would be interested to see who Dinah was patterned on. She was a hoot and probably my favorite character.  Honestly, The Continental Op himself does not impress me. I feel rather non-plussed about the guy.  He behaves as expected and he did not do anything truly amazing. I am kind of hard to impress….

I enjoyed the guns, cigars, and the rivers of gin flowing on every page. I like Hammett’s wordplay a lot. He turns phrases with an awkward fun-ness. One of the key characteristics of The Continental Op is his nonchalant manner. In the middle of gunfights his character is written as if everything is no big deal and he takes nothing seriously.  He comes across as a man who is bored by anyone without a severe economy of words.  He even gets bored with himself when he has to explain things and usually just truncates his own speech. He is all of our definitions of hardboiled.

3 stars

The Red House Mystery

red houseThe Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne is a rather famous mystery novel by the well-known author of Winnie The Pooh. It was first published in 1922.  I got my hardback copy back in 2018 and have been sluggish about reading it.  The cover design on the jacket is unremarkable and the first chapter is a wee bit difficult to read through unless you are in a patient mood. Once one gets beyond the first three chapters, though, the pages really do fly.

At first the novel really does seem precisely like some writing exercise. It seems as if it is an exercise in writing a whodunit mystery by a competent and, even, strong author. However, it does not immediately present as something engaging and exciting. The novel is very British and the setting is the not-quite-manor home of a man who is a bit of a fop and a dandy.  Truthfully, until I got a ways into the story, I really was doubting what all the fuss and praise for this novel were about.  I am really glad that I finally set myself to reading the whole thing and I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I am not sure it qualifies as one of the best I have ever read.  It did improve as I read along and I can recommend it to any general reader who enjoys vintage British mystery stories.

The characters are a bit unbelievable – particularly the four main characters.  Everything is such a setup for the story that I felt Milne might have been a bit lazy. It is not that the setting and characters do not work, it is just that it seems too easy. In other words, it feels like the author wants to write a murder mystery and wants to jump to the heart of the situation without any development or building as to why or whom or how. Just hurry up and get to the detecting parts of the thing.

In a lot of ways Antony, the main character, is too good to be true. He’s too smart, too slick, too convenient, too casual, too friendly, too forgiving, too honest.  I expect every reader likes him a whole lot and wants him to be safe and succeed and win the day.  However, if I am being honest, the character is a little too cool.

It is fun to follow his detecting. Antony is so smart about everything. He is good-natured and a real pal. So, as he runs through the various scenarios and investigates while he enjoys plenty of relaxation, the reader gets a good schooling on how to run a proper vintage British amateur locked-room murder mystery.  An official Inspector is, of course, called in to the crime scene, however, his deductions are not really a part of the story and only become interesting at the inquest.

As if Antony’s skills and personality were not enough, he gets his own “Watson” in this story. A younger lad named William Beverley who is willing to play the Watson rôle because he loves the fun and excitement of the whole thing. He keeps Antony company, does a bit of the dirty work, and provides a little comic relief. Bill Beverley is just the sort of harmless and helpful friend you would want to help you solve your murder mystery.

The murder is not very horrifying. It takes place in the office behind closed doors. The police are notified. Houseguests are sent away and “witnesses” are left to entertain themselves. The detecting takes place amidst dinners, pipe smoking, and leisurely walks. Eventually the frustrations and/or lack of possible solutions narrows the options to the point where the story must end. There can be nothing further to investigate.

I enjoyed the novel because it is a little bit of a writing exercise. I also enjoyed the camaraderie and fun spirit of the characters.  They poke fun at Sherlock and Watson, they tease detective novels, and they sport about the manor home. The story itself is grounded and reasonable. There is a lot to like in the novel and I think it is good to have read it, but it will not remain in my collection because I doubt I would read it again.

3 stars

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without MustardA Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley is the third in the Flavia de Luce novel series. It was published in 2011. I read the first two in the series and enjoyed them and I think I will be giving this novel the same rating, four stars.

My only criticism of this novel is that it may have just a few too many red herrings and bunny trails. It can seem a bit repetitive. But, and this is key, Bradley writes such an engaging character the repetitiveness does not seem to matter. This series reminds me a lot of the Simon Green Ishmael Jones series. Basically, readers rather know what they are going to get – and if they like it, they like it. If they do not, then they don’t.  No great boundaries were pushed around here, nothing innovative or extraordinary was done.  This novel is not wholly unlike the previous two – however, if you liked those two, you will enjoy this one.  Maybe some readers will feel that the character and stories are stagnant or not going anywhere. I agree with that while at the same time I am satisfied with the novels as they are. I like spending time in Bishop’s Lacey; that’s enough for me.

… I had learned to start campfires, but I’d vowed that never again would I be caught dead trying to make a fire-bow from a stick and a shoestring, or rubbing two dry sticks together like a demented squirrel. – pg. 35, chapter 2

The thing that Bradley does very well is to confuse the reader with “reality.”  There are murders/crimes – but the unreliable narrator element makes the novel a bit more layered than it would be otherwise. The fact that the narrator is not willfully deceiving the reader is important – the narrator is an incredibly likeable eleven-year old. Obviously the perspective and understanding of such an individual is not as holistic and nuanced as an adult’s vision. So, when Flavia applies her efforts to mysterious and suspicious events, the reader really does not have much to go on.

“Good afternoon, Miss Flavia.”

“Good afternoon, Dogger.”

“Lovely rain.”

“Quite lovely.”

Dogger glanced up at the golden sky, then went on with his weeding.

The very best people are like that. They don’t entangle you like flypaper. — pg. 129, chapter 10

The novels are, generally, lightweight and breezy.  The pages turn quickly and some of the horrors are glossed over, of course. Interestingly, though, readers can pick up subtle hints and flavors of how wartime struggles affect matters.  There are also poignant moments filled with potential emotion. I say “potential” because Flavia is discovering she is caught in the middle of changing worlds, changing classes of society, changing viewpoints, etc.  She wrestles with the manners of the gentry, religion of a separate group, economic concerns of those dealing with wars, and the maturation of her own personality.  Bradley skirts some of these issues, but he does give glimpses of these struggles.

Under any other circumstances, I’d have said something rude and stalked out of the room, but I thought better of it.  The investigation of murder, I was beginning to learn, can demand great personal sacrifice. — pg. 216, chapter 17

I usually read these with half-attention. These novels do not require my full attention, which is good because sometimes I do not have much attention left to give. Sometimes it feels weird – like I am not really reading the novel and the pages are turning anyway. Yet I do always notice the awesome quotes or quips or whatever.

The main movement in this novel as regards the series is that Buckshaw is under continued financial stress and even the eleven-year old is beginning to feel it. Secondly, the subplot with Flavia’s mother continues. This is an enjoyable read.  It is witty and eventful and engaging. Its not intense literature, but it is fun enough to read in the summertime.

4 stars

Death At The President’s Lodging

Death At the President LodgingDeath at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes (John Innes Mackintosh Stewart 1906 – 1994) was first published in 1936 and is the author’s first novel in the Inspector John Appleby series.  Innes was an academic; professor of English Language and Letters. This novel was published when he was only thirty years old and while I think it is nearly excellent, there are some minor issues that I think keep it from being a five-star novel.  First and foremost the most important point to emphasize is that this is not an entirely coldly serious novel, it is a bit self-referential and it does seek to amuse via subtle wit at the expense of detective novels in general.  Not just mystery novels, but also academic life (specifically high-brow British).

Throughout the novel the wit and humor is very subtle and very tongue-in-cheek.  Readers who can pick up on subtle nuances and hints are going to have a better time of this one than readers who just like straightforward “whodunits.”  In his very first detective novel, Innes includes a character who is a don of a university that also, under a pseudonym, writes detective novels.  Including such a character is a mark of confidence and also demonstrates the author’s ability to find amusement in such reflective items.

“To be as clear as I can, sir, I would speak a trifle technically and say that your question had a latent content.  The feeling-tone evoked was decidedly peculiar.” And with this triumph of academic statement Slotwiner gave one more ghost of a bow to Appleby and glided – levitated almost, to speak technically – out of the room. – pg. 33, chapter 2, part 3.

This segment, where Inspector Appleby is quickly asking a few questions of the butler, was the first piece of the book in which I laughed aloud.  Its the “technically” part. It is even funnier as you read it in context. Like I said, the humor is subtle and tight.

There are sometimes passages like the below that can be used as a litmus test for readers. You will either snort because you find it amusing or you will find it tedious, stupid, and obnoxious:

The ability to smell a rat is an important part of the detective’s equipment.  Appleby had smelt a rat – in the wrong place.  But he was too wary to take it that a rat in the wrong place is necessarily a red herring:  it may be a rat with a deceptive fish-like smell – and still a rat. — pg. 166, chapter 11, part 1

Subtle humor like this, a little wordplay, will either make readers giggle a bit or they will find it impenetrable and wonder why the author is writing “like this.”  In any case, in this novel there are plenty of suspects, and as the detective often complains, a lot of “light” on the matter. In other words, there seems to be too many clues and too much evidence.  This is kind of a fun twist, again surprising for a first novel, on the detective novel trope – usually, it seems, detectives are missing key clues or are constantly looking for more evidence to prove their theories. The fact that there is an abundance of evidence is a neat element for this genre.

The overall theme of this novel, though, is its academic setting.  As I have said many times, most writers write what they know and Innes was definitely an academic.  We can know this through his biographical reports, but also because of the very accurate and realistic manner in which he portrays the setting and characters in this novel.

Most of the suspects or persons of interest in this novel are dons/fellows/professors.  The ones who are not, are long-time residents and employees of the school. The core group of individuals that are involved are scholars:  to be seen as experts in their field and in academia generally. These are men who have dedicated their lives to their profession, in whatever specific field of study that was, and have been granted the titles and prestige to go along with achieving a high level of success.

Immediately upon beginning his investigation, and at several points throughout, Appleby is struck by the fact that this case is not the “average crime” involving hasty, ham-fisted criminals.  In this case, the suspects and witnesses are all exceedingly comfortable with being interrogated about details, they are experts in explanations, and they are adept at ratiocination. These are calculating, efficient, and sharp intellects that generally do not make errors and cannot be bullied by a gruff interrogation.

Innes does not give us a weakling for an inspector, though. Turns out, Appleby is a graduate of the school himself.  The case allows for a bit of a homecoming, if you will.  This little detail gives the reasonability of Appleby to “keep up with” the dons intellectually and also for his moving around campus with the facility that is afforded a member, so to speak.

I enjoyed considering this situation. It is a daunting and interesting scenario to put your detective up against.  I imagined some of the minds that I know and knew from all of my schooling and I promise I would not want to have to sift through their witness statements or to have to discover which of them was misleading or something. To have to match wits in such circumstances would be intense – but what a fun theme for a novel!

Innes balances out these formidable intellects with a brilliant and lovely segment in chapter eleven that is, no doubt, quite famous among those who have read it.  It is worth, probably, reading the entire book just to come upon this fantastic section.  Appleby has gone about to trace the movements of a couple of the dons on the night the murder took place.  This involves his going to the suburbs where one is likely to find “scholars of enormous age” who live in quiet retreats. The entire segment is worth reading every single word for because it is absolutely beautifully depicted, but the ultimate point is that Appleby has called on a small villa in which lives Sir Theodore Peek.

Appleby found him in a small and gloomy room, piled round with an indescribable confusion of books and manuscripts – and asleep.  Or sometimes asleep and sometimes awake – for every now and then the eyes of this well-nigh ante-mundane man would open – and every now and then they would close.  But when they opened, they opened to decipher a fragment of papyrus on his desk – and then, the deciphering done, a frail hand would make a note before the eyes closed once more.  It was like being in the presence of some animated symbol of learning. — pg. 169, chapter 11, part 2

Every bit of Appleby’s interview with Peek is outstanding for its witty, realism, erudition, and fun. A perfect chunk of writing – including the end of the segment with its utterly truthful response from Appleby. Anyway, this scene is absolutely perfect and I feel like I have seen it, lived it, and see it coming in the future. The description is totally balanced with the necessary realism and the intrinsic characteristic of humor found in brute reality.

From what I have I have written so far, it should be amply clear that I enjoyed the novel and that it contains several uncommon elements to make it interesting and engaging even among mystery readers. However, I am very sad that I have to refrain from giving it the full five-star rating.  The first reason is that it became clear that Innes could not (or would not?) write the character of Dr. Barocho.  This character was removed from the “likely suspects” early on (he lacked means and motive, I suppose), however, if we are to believe Appleby is as thorough and diligent as he is meant to be, then we were deprived of an interview with Barocho – although we did have interactions with him. Unfortunately, the interactions made Barocho seem like an awkward character simply because of the fact that he is a “foreign” item in the setting. It is not that he was written rudely, but that he was not given a fair chance at being either a hero or a villain. So why include him at all except to include a foreigner?

Secondly, the ending is paced a little too suddenly.  One should have expected the denouement to be a bit of a gather round and explain.  However, it seems like Appleby was just a moment ago by the river watching the rowing team and pondering clues. Then, suddenly, denouement. The end. It is not inaccurate or strange, but it is paced too suddenly.  This could be a product of it, indeed, being Innes’ first novel and maybe in the following books this is tamed and tempered.

Lastly, the strongest reason for withholding the fifth star, is the motive-cause of the murderer.   Pargeter would be dismayed. Its not enough. Its not good enough. Its not worth all of the foregoing. It could be valid, naturally, but it was not proven. It was hung upon like shirt is hung on a hanger. It is not sufficiently nuanced.

So, overall, I am thrilled I read this one.  It was a great read and I enjoyed so much of it.  I loved spending time at St. Anthony’s with all of these gentlemen and I did not find Appleby to be some retread of any other inspector.  I liked the setting and the writing and the crime, but yes, I admit, the denouement needed a bit more work. I would happily read Appleby stories again.  Recommended for bright readers, vintage mystery fans, and for readers who do not get frustrated at subtle humor. The reader is not going to be spoonfed – to speak technically.

4 stars