Friday, 24 April 2015

Woman in the Dark

 Claustrophobic ex-convict Brazil is on parole for a man slaughter sentence and is hoping never to go back behind bars again. All he has to do is stay out of trouble in his quiet cabin in the woods. Then a beautiful woman with a broken shoe stumbles through his door.
This was one of the last shorter stories that Hammett published before he walked away from crime writing. It's not his greatest bit of writing but still well worth a look. To be honest I much prefer the 1934 film version with Ralph Bellamy and Fay Wray in the lead roles.
 It's pretty faithful to Hammett's story though it does smooth off the rough edges, notably Hammett's insistence on having characters with accents and lisps all fully annotated. The romantic element is more developed and there's also a bit of humour along the way mainly from Roscoe Ates. And you get to see Fay Wray's ankles.. so no contest really.
An introduction by Robert B.Parker comments on Hammett's style and suggests the reasons for the story's level of romance.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The World Inside

Oh I bet this one has been a firecracker at many a book club meeting.The World Inside began life as a short story (chapter one) in 1970. But it proved to be such a fertile idea that a year later five more stories were added to expand and more fully explore the world inside Urban Monad 116. Each story is from the point of view of a different character though they all interlink with each other to give a wider view of life in Silverberg's vertical monoliths; a narrative microcosm I suppose. The Urbmons are huge sky-scraping towers housing over 800,000 people. Society is rigorously regulated and procreation is celebrated and venerated. People are controlled by limitless sex, fear of being fed down the garbage chute, sex, religion, indoctrination, drugs and sex. Over population is another issue that has been visited often by Science Fiction writers; Harry Harrison's "Make Room! Make Room!" (the basis for the movie "Soylent Green") springs readily to mind as does tv episodes like Star Trek's "Mark of Gideon". Silverberg chooses to delve deep into the psychological effects of living with high population density and the social mores and laws; the inside of people's heads being another "World inside". Although it's not always an easy or pleasant reading experience there is much here to think about. Most of the main characters highlight the flaws and cracks of the society by getting as close to their psychological make up as it is possible to get. Though in terms of insight into the state of humanity with its propensity with enslaving itself with desire and triviality, comparisons to Orwell's 1984 or especially with Huxley's Brave New World is apposite and probably where the concept of "slavery of absolute freedom" comes from. Comparisons with today's society with its Twitter, unlimited porn, on demand tv....etc are frighteningly easy. The range of ideas is pretty rich. I was particularly fascinated by how comparative ethics was taken to extremes of separation via first a human visitor from Venus and later a 24th century historian examining the 20th century through its films and literature. And here I sit passing judgement on literature from a previous century that speculates on a century yet to come.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Like Love

The book begins with suicide. Carella tries to prevent one and Cotton Hawes gets an apparent love pact suicide that just doesn't ring true. This one isn't one of the stronger titles in the series. McBain opens up with his now familiar turning of the seasons line - this time Spring gets characterised as a rather lively lady. It's a line he's used before. McBain doesn't really explore the theme of suicide either. He doesn't seem interested. Finding the absence of suicide is all that matters and Mcbain is mostly interested in the crime just like his detectives. Hawes has been absent from the series for a few titles which made me think he'd been written out but I think the real explanation might be due to McBain going through a period of publishing some of his previously abandoned or delayed material. It's a side effect of being such a prolific writer.
McBain through Carella rather pooh-poohs the importance of first discovering motive to solve a crime. I don't know whether he believed that or whether it was just the frustration with the difficulties of maintaining mystery in a story when clear motives are detectable.
Mayer and Parker lend a hand when needed as does Bert Kling. Kling has not moved on from the loss of his girl. He's being eaten up by the tragic event. Hawes has settled down more and seems happy with his long time relationship. Gone are the days of him falling in love every thirty pages.
Although the mystery isn't the best it does show the precinct at work  due to the investigation stalling so early resulting in other business getting priority.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Case of the Hail Mary Celeste.

Jack Wenlock is a Railway Gosling. Imprinted at birth with the image of a railway locomotive as their mothers a young group of detectives are nurtured during the era of the great wars. Years later with all his Gosling compatriots either missing, mad, dead or, worst of all, in possession of a blotted copybook Jack is all that is left of the experimental group. He's counting out the days that remain of his entire world; the Great Western Railway, which is soon to be privatised. His last case begins as a young woman with a Veronica Lake hairstyle walks into his office.
Malcolm Pryce distils a sometimes dream-like surreal England from a multitude of influences spanning the gamut of popular culture and the mythical golden haze of nostalgia. It's awash with imagery, language and attitude drawn from the Boys Own magazines, Pathe film reels,  radio adventure serials like Dick Barton, a wash of films often with railway settings; Brief Encounter, The Lady Vanishes, King Kong and adaptations of Agatha Christie like the 4.50 from Paddington.
Jack Wenlock is an engaging mix of almost child-like naivety and steely resolve. He looks at the world through that Boys Own filter of fair play, Englishness and manliness, good chaps giving bounders a bloody nose, venerating his beloved railway the GWR with such love and devotion that getting him talking about it in public risks a 'When Harry Met Sally' moment of embarrassing decibels. Oh and he carries a lump of Formica in his jacket pocket - oh the wonders of modern technology.
Chapters are preceded by extracts from Vol. 7 of the Railway Goslings Annual 1931 featuring Railway Gosling Cadbury Holt in search of the missing nuns plus the answers to reader's questions.
Pryce writes well, delighting in the language and the skewed view of the world presented by Jack in an era full of propaganda and exaggerated recollection. The book is fun, funny, sad, poignant, nostalgic and romantic. Noir with knobs on.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Starman's Quest

Robert Silverberg and I have had a fairly scatological association for the best part of four decades. My childhood in the 70s and early 80s was full of little encounters when I'd bump into him in small shops with the odd revolving book rack or amongst the slim volumes brought home from jumble sales. Some of the slim volumes would get read or filed for a rainy day (the rainy day being anything from six weeks to thirty plus years down the line). His output in the latter half of the 80s received more organised attention from me as his name became a library sci-fi staple.
Starman's Quest was written in the 1950s when he was nineteen during his junior year at Columbia. It was his second book and as he admits in his preface he's written better since. The imagination is all there but plotting and story progression certainly have their fair share of problems. The Starman's Quest is the unlikely ambition of a young spacer (a Starman) to solve the drawbacks of interstellar space travel at near the speed of light. Time dilation and relativity are hard science that's fuelled the imaginations of speculative sci-fi writers like Silverberg for most of the last century. Shoving the problems with the plot mechanics aside Silverberg's actual narrative is quite fun and thoughtful. The dismay of our young protagonist being separated from his twin by first space and later age is very well done as is his deep culture shock when he jumps ship and tries to find his brother on the harsh consumerism driven overcrowded Earth. A talking sentient rat accompanies him but Silverberg doesn't really need an extra voice in the narrative so ends up almost completely forgetting he's there. Flawed but enjoyable and far beyond what a nineteen year old should be able to accomplish - just like our young Starman.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Pronto

With the first five seasons of 'Justified' currently available on demand to Sky subscribers I was tempted into watching this show from the start. I soon got hooked and became curious about the original books featuring sharp shooting US Marshall Raylan Givens by Elmore Leonard. Being a beast with a very methodical nature I grabbed me a copy of book 1 and got started, 'Pronto' isn't really a book about Raylan though. He starts out as a supporting character in what turns out to be a character piece. The main player of the piece is a Miami Beach bookie called Harry Arno who becomes a pawn in an attempt by the police to bring charges to bear on a local mob boss. Arno soon has a price on his head and decides to escape to Italy and a little place he'd long planned to retire to. The story is a simple one no mistake. There's a lot rumination over nostalgia and the difference between folks perceived self and reality and man does Harry have a thing for Ezra Pound. The author writes some great dialogue. Raylan makes the book though.
He's a slightly different character than his screen version with a slightly different back story but essentially they occupy the same space both being sharp shooters, masters of the psychological edge that all gunmen need to stay in the game and of course there's the hat. His role as a US Marshall also makes a refreshing change from all the detectives mooching about detecting things. His job normally involves guarding folk. dealing with fugitives and escorting prisoners.  Timothy Olyphant really makes the character his own in the tv series, exuding quirky old school charm that hides just how lethal he is. Some scenes and dialogue made it onto the screen in the first episode and a less globe trotting version of Harry's story can be found in episode 4 "Long in the Tooth" which includes the back roads confrontation between Raylan and two mob gunmen.
Usually my idea of a box set binge is one episode a week because I like to savour the good stuff but I actually watched two episodes last week. I know... the shame.
Anyhow I'll be getting all the books and the short stories but I think I'll pass on the hat.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Ghosts and Vampires

Oh I so wish this had been the audio collection I'd chosen for my Christmas listening this year. instead of the woeful "Dark Holidays."
"Classic Tales of Ghosts and Vampires," is a quality collection that gets off to a cracking start with "The Upper Berth," by F. Marion Crawford. It's not the first time I've tried to cross the pond in cabin 105 but it remains a creepy voyage nonetheless.
Guy de Maupassant's "Was it a Dream," isn't quite a horror story, being more another of Maupassant's journeys into the darker corners of the human psyche. There is some pretty creepy graveside imagery though.
It's over thirty years since I first took the hard drop in Ambrose Bierce's American Civil War chiller "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."  I recognise it straight away. Sometimes a story just stays with you.... forever.