Ishmael Jones

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

Very Important Corpses

I have read one of Simon R. Green’s Ishamael Jones series novels the last two Decembers. I continued with that this year – even though it has not been a “reading” year. For many, they utilized the lockdowns and quarantines for reading; unfortunately, I just did not get a chance to read. I am fortunate in that my household has stayed healthy. Anyway, I finished Very Important Corpses (2017) before Christmas Day, but I have not been able to write a review. I did want to get this one in, such as it is, before the New Year.

I like this series, although this novel was admittedly not as good as the previous. Maybe the novelty is wearing off? Difficult to say, but I think this one just was not very good. I found Penny to be a little less likeable. But I like the settings, the locked-rooms, the supernatural/spy mash-up. I enjoy the whop ’em, chop ’em storyline. So, while I will never say that these are highbrow literature, they work for Decembers.

The interesting character in this one is the Major Domo. She is a well-developed character (this can be taken in several senses). Readers will enjoy meeting her, being frustrated by her, and being amused by her antics and responses. The other characters are rather what-you-see-is-what-you-get folk. Nothing altogether interesting or original.

In this novel it seems that we learn quite a bit more about the Organisation – and Ishamael’s past work. I say “it seems,” because at the end of the novel, it does seem sketchy and like we were told a lot of nothing that was wrapped in a bow. Again, that’s the nature of this goofy-series. Its not something any reader is going to really puzzle over and needs to come to terms with. Besides, telling us nothing lets the author have a lot of freedom to keep all these books coming right along! I think there are nine total in the series as of my writing this.

I am not going to lie. I did not write many reviews because WordPress changes to the editor have really turned me off. I agree WordPress is the top internet blog site. However, I just really don’t have the time or inclination to re-learn how to do every little thing every time some kanban-infected I.T. junkie kiddo decides THIS is the WAY. I know I sound grumpy; I write in beautiful cursive and my elementary school was a fallout shelter. However, the desire to find the way to, say, align text next to the book cover image is absent. It used to be ‘click’ right there. Now? Who knows. Who cares? In other news, my 2020 Ford truck has an APP for MY PHONE…. the dealership called and nagged me to activate it. I realized it was pointless to explain to the young chap: I really have no interest in such things.

So, amidst this sort of world, a little Ishamel Jones can be a nice diversion. I am glad I read this one even if it is not as good as the rest. Definitely, next December, I will be reading the next.

2 stars

Dead Man Walking

DMWDead Man Walking by Simon R. Green is the second novel (2016) in the Ishmael Jones series. I read the first novel (The Dark Side of the Road) early in January 2017 and knew I would continue in the series. I liked the timing of reading the novel because it is a fast-paced, easy-reader sort of thing without much brain-drain whatsoever. The second novel was the same, a little less gory, though, but still with copious amounts of fun. A really good read for lazy winter holiday break between lounging and liquor and languishing.

What is this series? Its sort of a spy organization combined with noir British detective stories and rural country homes with monsters. Needless to say, this is not high-brow stuff. Its fun, though, and if you read so much un-fun literature that you cannot enjoy the fun stuff, you have got this whole reading thing all wrong.

The novel has some repetitive lines, which might exasperate readers who are looking for a different (more literary?) sort of novel. But it works here and I like it. Its a comfortable feeling. There are tropes and obvious items and goofy elements, too, but its all in fun. The writing is speedy and I have grown fonder of Ishmael in this second book.

I admit, in the first book I did not know what to expect. I was a little surprised, but I found it gripping and intriguing and a quite a bit creepy in parts. There was a lot of gore – but it was fitting with the storyline. Now that I am more familiar with the characters and the style, it feels like spending the holiday break with some friends.

Penny (the supporting character) is a riot. Even when you know the author is trying to be funny and amuse us very heavy-handedly, it works. I laughed aloud a couple of times – earning some quizzical looks from my household. Isn’t the book I’m reading some sort of noir horror novel? Why am I laughing?

Well, I took a dislike to the culprit early on. I am not sure his motive was anything other than very “typical.” And as far as doing any detecting or investigating, the characters just got shoved around the country house here and there, running around always after-the-fact and too-late. None of this would be good writing for those expert detective club grandmasters. So, why is it so engaging? I think because it does not take itself overly-seriously and there is always going to be a fun/exciting appeal to creepy country homes with murder and spies.

Yes, I intend to read the next book in the series. Yes, its as goofy as you would expect. Yes, I recommend it to, more or less, all readers.

3 stars

The Dark Side of the Road

the-dark-side-of-the-roadThe Dark Side of the Road is the first novel in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series.  Simon R. Green is a well-known author hailing from England.  He is known for writing a number of series including the Deathstalker, Hawk & Fisher, Nightside, and Ghost Finders series.  The Dark Side of the Road was first published in 2015.

I own the Deathstalker series novels and I have read three Nightside novels. I generally find Green’s writing to be a wee bit darker and a little less enjoyable than comparable authors. I recall that some readers recommended the Nightside series to fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden series.  Something that I think is somewhat similar betwixt the two series is the lead characters in both are somewhat snarky, rather jaded, loners who seem to be the only experts in a field of interest comprised of one member.

To be honest, these types of characters are nearly archetypal categories in certain genres.  They are necessary elements in a specific novel. This feels both comfortable and also saddening.  I do not mind admitting that sometimes you want to read a novel that contains character-forms that are already familiar. Fantasy novels (particularly traditional epic fantasy novels) are rife with examples.  Let me give an example; the group of archetypal characters has a quest.  The group always consists of:  the comedy, the wizard, the brute, the knight, and the Everyman.  Some readers treat this negatively.  I admit that I sometimes find it horribly unoriginal and tiring, too.  However, on occasion it is just easily comfortable to know who the characters are before you open the cover.

So, when I say that Ishmael Jones is one of those characters who is a loner, drinks moodily at the pub, answers questions with questions/without giving any data, and prides himself on being without roots or hindrances – you know exactly the character I mean. Immediately the reader has to confront the name of the character. The first line of the novel is: “Call me Ishmael. Ishmael Jones.”

At this point, it can go one of two ways… A.) The reader can guffaw and snort with the author at the painfully obvious reference AND think this is a neat name for a character; B.) The reader can be disgusted by the over-the-top obnoxiousness of this line and name. Honestly, I was in the second group. I like sarcasm and and satire, but this is just too much.

Anyway, this story takes place at Christmastime in rural Cornwall.  Green sets the whole story (which is a total of three days) in the middle of a horrendous blizzard.  I read this book at the start of January and I recommend readers keep this one for December and January as well. It helps reading the thing if it is also wintertime.  This is no beach read and reading it at Myrtle or Clearwater will ruin the effect because the blizzard is providing the “locked-room” constraint to the novel.

Jones is invited to spend Christmas at a country manor house with the Colonel and the Colonel’s family.  Jones has known the Colonel for fifteen years, but their relationship has been solely work-focused. They work, of course, in a secret, underground, shadowy world. The Colonel’s invite to come to Cornwall, therefore leaves Jones agitated and worried. Jones is not the sort of person you invite anywhere unless there is serious business to be handled.

Throughout the first chunk of the novel, Green repetitively drops “hints” (if by hint we mean sledgehammer) about how Jones is abnormal. He is special. He is a little more skilled, robust, knowledgeable than he should be. He is well-trained and heavily experienced – at whatever shadowy and mysterious tasks he does.

And for the first half of the novel, the storyline is slow. After all the whole novel is only spanning three days of time. So, the first half spends a lot of time setting the scene and meeting the characters. Naturally, Jones is an aloof house guest who provides a sketch of each of the other members at the party.  Some of this is very info-dumpish and heavy-handed. Its not good writing – there is no nuance whatsoever. But it is vaguely interesting. Because the story feels a lot less like Nightside and a lot more like a mystery novel.

And go ahead and admit it with me….. a blizzard at Christmas in a rural Cornwall manor house with a mystery afoot…. is definitely something you want to read even if the writing is hack and weak.

The second half of the novel is where the action takes place. And events transpire quickly, once they get going. The novel is very much like Clue – but with some supernatural elements. And I need to share here that the events do get very gory at times. So, it is not a light and bright read.  There is some gore that will bother the best imaginations that read this story.

The ending opens the knowledge that this will be a series. But as a standalone, this is okay – it is a completed, closed unit in itself. Will I read the second? Oh sure, but not because it is  great novel. I will read on because it is such easy reading to find out what happens next to a character who, in his own way, is quite unique – even if a lot of tropes cover his landscape. The secret organization is actually the real hook Green got me with….

In some ways, this is a genre-mixing of a couple ideas. Tropes and archetypes abound. It is not nuanced or complex. But it is interesting, fast-reading, and entertaining.

3 stars

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