Monday, April 26, 2010

28. The Great Pulp Heroes by Don Hutchison

Finally completed a non-fiction book! Though this one is basically a survey of the many stories that made up the pulp fiction wave in the '30s, each with a synopsis of the storyline, so it was kind of like reading a lot of fiction from a slightly removed perspective.

For whatever reasons, the term "pulp" seems to cause a lot of controversy and argument in the geek world. I guess there are some purists who feel that people mistakenly define the term based on more recent interpretations such as the Indian Jones movies or the Mummy franchise. In the gaming world, there are others who get all bent out of shape when people equate pulp with over-the-top action. Fundamentally, pulp refers to the cheap paper these fiction magazines were printed on. They were popular among men during the depression, being a cheap form of escapist entertainment for people who were having a tough time in the real world. Their influence stays with us today in well-known characters like The Shadow, Tarzan and Doc Savage. Many big name authors, like John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard and Louis L'Amour in the science fiction, western and crime genres got their start as pulp writers as well. With the increased cost of paper pulp and the real menace of World War II, the pulps fell out of favour and evolved into a darker, more realistic strain, hard-boiled noir detectives and super hero comic books.

This book is not a profound analysis of this development, though it lays it out pretty clearly at the beginning and end. Rather, it goes through all the various genres and details the popular characters and series, giving a nice synopsis and all the main characters. Quite an entertaining read and it really gives me the taste to try and hunt some of these down. These pulp stories really were over the top. My closest connection to them are the old time radio shows, but they are quite tame compared to the pulp novels, where entire cities are destroyed, invading hordes actually take over America and violence and super-science are a given. I'm particularly interested in Operator 5, where America is under control of an evil mongol empire from across the Pacific and the hero is part of an underground resistance movement (yes, the yellow peril is in full effect in the pulps).

If you want to get a broad overview of the wide range of pulp novels, then I would strongly recommend this book. If you are looking for a more in-depth analysis, either literary or social, this book only touches the surface. Nevertheless, it does reinforce how important and prevalent these novels were in their time and that is always a good reminder for the fan of story.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

27. The Lady or the Tiger by Frank Stockton

I picked up this paperback from 1968 in an antique store in the Eastern Townships here in Quebec. It was part of a complete set of Airmont Classics. I picked up a couple of others but most weren't interesting to me. I guess Frank Stockton and in particular the titular short story were quite popular back in the day (it was first published in 1882). Each of these stories had really intriguing premises and were written in a very pleasant way, with a kind of Americanized British syntax, which was probably a popular style around the turn of the century. The problem is that a lot of the stories don't really go anywhere. The promise of the premise is never fulfilled. They do often have a nice satisfying romantic conclusion, but I get the sense that was just to satisfy the demands of readers at the time. There is also a nice element of fantasy in some of them.

The Lady or the Tiger takes place in a kingdom with a unique legal system. When someone is accused of a heinous crime they are put into an arena to face two doors. Behind one door is a ferocious tiger that will eat them. Behind the other is a beautiful maiden who will marry the culprit. In the story, the culprit's crime is to fall in love with the king's daughter. At the time of the punishment, the king's daughter knows what is behind each door and she gives a signal to her lover. The question is, knowing that if he goes through one door he'll be killed or if he goes through the other, he'll have to marry some other maiden, which signal did she give him?

This question supposedly tantalized readers of the past. You can share their feelings by reading the actual story here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

26. Street Players by Donald Goines

Everybody needs to read at least one Donald Goines in their lives. I'll pick one up every couple of years or so and drop into his slightly romanticized, brutally violent and harsh world of pimps, gangsters and whores in 1970s black america. He has a blunt, almost naive writing style that is flashy and effective. His writing reminds a bit of the way his pimp characters dress themselves up and preen, considering themselves at the top of the world, but always knowing in some corner of their mind that a greater, darker force is always out there and is going to crush them one day. Goines himself was shot down with his wife at the age of 37. This is some dark, harsh shit, but with a lot of real passion and love flowing through it. The guy tells a story.

Street Players is not the first of his I'd recommend though. It's about a pimp whose shit slowly falls apart, not really through any fault of his own. The narrative is straightforward and rather uninteresting. The relationship between him and his whores is fascinating and actually quite moving. I really don't know how much of this pimping and turning out is real, but the picture he paints is a convincing one. It's a world with limited safety and economic options for black women and it makes sense that they would turn to the stability of a strong pimp, even if it means walking the streets and all that entails. And I guess it follows that they would be in love with their pimps, despite him having a harem and beating them (though Earl, the protagonist, is portrayed as a pimp who only beats his women as a last resort). The relationships are quite fascinating and following a pimp around in his day to day business dealings in all the dark and interesting little corners of the ghetto is compelling. But I'd recommend Daddy Cool if you've never read any Donald Goines before. I reiterate also, that his books are not for the squeamish.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

25. The Glass Cage by Colin Wilson

Halfway baby! Well, so far I have lived up to my goal of not allowing a major drop-off in book reading in the spring. Specifically, I'm shooting for at 4 books a month for March, April and May and so far have done that. It is still a drop-off from the first part of the year, but that was an extreme case with my vacation and all. 50 books is hard! I'm not even a third of the way through the year and have already read 25 books. At this rate (I think to myself over-optimistically as usual) that I should be able to read 75 books this year. But when you really figure it out, that still leaves 50 books in 8 months, which is still 6+ books a month, which is not easy to do. I'll be happy reaching 50 again.

I picked up the Glass Cage a long time ago on the strength of Colin Wilson's awesome (but ultimately unsatisfying because it never concludes) Spider World series. It's been on my on-deck shelf for at least a couple years. I enjoyed it immensely. The language, the gentle behaviour of the characters and the setting all strongly appealed to me. I don't know what it is about Britain in the 60s and 70s, but everybody just seems so much more civil and educated. And the language, both the dialogue and the descriptions, is rich and involved without being overly complex. Ultimately, it is a quiet, psychological murder investigation without any real suspense. I wouldn't even necessarily strongly recommend. Just for me, it was really enjoyable and I read it quite quickly.

The protagonist is a young, hermetic Blake scholar who hears about a murderer in London who leaves Blake quotations near his dismembered victims. The scholar decides that he needs to go to London to try and solve the mystery. It's partly because the Blake quotations fascinate him but also because he needs to know if he is too disengaged from society. He studied at Oxford and still has several friends and aquaintances in London so has no trouble getting reconnected. His analysis and psychological deduction lead him to a very interesting man who may be the murderer. The study of this character is quite fascinating and the hero starts to make friends with him.

What is notable about the book is the amazingly humane way the characters talk about crime. It is seriously in play that the murderer may be capable of redemption and if so should be allowed to live his life. The concern is not that he should be punished for his past crimes, but that it be ensured that he won't do them again. I don't know if this is a reflection of the author's position or just the liberal mores of London at the time, but there are conversations that go on in the book that would be pretty upsetting even offensive to many angry North Americans today. Is this fantasy anger against criminals something that is relatively new to our society, something borne out of political discourse and commercial media in the last few decades?

The physical book itself that I found is beautifully put together. It's a paperback, but with pages so thick they are almost card stock. The binding is stitched in seven parts and then glued to the cover, so that you can look down on the top and see how many sevenths of the book you've read. Very nice to handle and read. I'm sorry to say that I didn't treat it as well as it deserved when I was reading it and rough handling took out the corner of the cover as you see in the scan above.

Monday, April 12, 2010

24. The Green Wound by Philip Atlee

Philip Atlee's Joe Gall series is quite well respected by fans of manly spy and crime fiction from the '60s and '70s. I read The Canadian Bomber Contract, which I took a little less seriously as the anachronisms and cultural assumptions hit a bit closer to home for me (it took place in Montreal). It was also later in the series and I think was getting a bit more over the top. Also, The Green Wound was recommended as one of the better in the series. For whatever reason, I approached this one a bit more seriously.

Atlee is a good writer with some great turns of phrase. He uses some colloquial language of the time but it rarely becomes so pervasive that it is annoying. Rather it fits in with the rest of his style and gives the book a slightly poetic prose that can be quite entertaining to read. He also has some great locations and situations. Here, the bulk of the book takes place in a small southern town that is basically under the control of one man and fairly stable. No problems really, but another plot thread leads the CIA to send Gall here to check some suspicious stuff out and he undercovers a plot to overthrow the power structure by secretly enfranchising the black population and voting in black leaders. A pretty neat idea and the way it goes down is quite cool. Of course, the actual power behind this move is not some civil rights organization, but an evil external force that wants to bring down the U.S. and this is just the beginning of a larger campaign of destabilization.

The problem with this book, though, is that the main plot, which I just described only makes up about 60% of the book. There is all this complex and unnecessary cruft of Joe Gall's past and the machinations of the intelligence organizations in the government and Washington and it's all very roundabout so you have no idea of where the book is going until about two-thirds of the way in. And then when you do have a better picture of what the main story is, the situation in the town is suddenly broadened into a much bigger conspiracy involving white slavery and the caribbean islands and the reader is jumping from place to place chasing after the big baddie. It all felt a bit disjointed and unsatisfying. I think maybe that readers of the time, especially ones who followed Gall in a series enjoyed that kind of stuff, but it was just distracting to me. I would have much preferred it focus on the story in the town and the local politics. The description of the black side of town and the way the power structures were laid out and the riot that followed the election were all really top-notch. Atlee has it in him, he just didn't seem to be motivated to focus his skills into a single superior story. But that may have been a factor of what the audience wanted at the time.

Not a terrible book by any means and if I were stuck in an airport or some remote hotel I could do a lot worse than have a Philip Atlee book at hand.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

23. The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers

I think that Mount Benson Report blogger HannibalChew gave me this book, mainly because of the cool cover, but it could have been for the book itself, which after having done some research, I see is fairly well known and respected by crime novel enthusiasts. The respect is well-deserved as this is an absorbing, unsettling and genuinely creepy book that manages to keep the reader guessing both in the fiction and at the meta-level, trying to determine if the author is messing with you or not.

Reading this book made me realize how much at times our expectations can inform our interpretation of a book. As a rule, I try to read as little as possible about a book once I've decided to read it, including (and often especially) the blurb on the back page or any business in the first couple pages. So I really had no idea what this book was going to be like. I did, though, have some assumptions based on the time it was written (1945) and the look of the cover. I thought it might lack sophistication, addressed to a simpler audience by a hack author. However, right from the beginning of the book, there is a strong suggestion of an unreliable narrator. There are a lot of hints that the narrator himself may be the murderer and while I was really enjoying the rich prose and the slow layering of plot (it keeps backtracking from the present, revealing more and more), I kept thinking to myself, 'either this book is really obvious and the narrator is the murderer and I'm going to be annoyed or there is something a lot more complex and interesting going on here.' It was my own built-in chronology = progress assumption that made me doubt the quality of the author. Fortunately, the characters, the situation and the narrative of the mystery, as well as the writing style, that my own hesitation only detracted from the pleasure of reading it at a couple moments.

The story is told from the point of view of a young surgeon, Dr. Riddle, whose car crapped out somewhere in Northern Connecticut. He stumbles upon a hysterical young woman who had driven up from New York City with her paramour to get married. Along the way, they had picked up a hobo who had then attacked the boyfriend, and failing to find the girl had stolen the car, with the boyfriend in it and gone on a bit of a crime spree, running over a local dog and a local resident. At the time you start reading the book, the county is alerted and there is clearly a lot more story and information yet to come. The doctor is at a country house with the passed-out girl. The authorities are out hunting down the hobo, but the doctor keeps dropping hints that there were other murder victims and other characters that the reader hopes to learn more about.

So the narrative structure follows this pattern of the doctor presenting a new contradiction or problem in the story and then going back in time to expand on that piece of the narrative. Sometimes, it seems to come from an omniscient perspective, the detail of someone else's story is so great, but he always reminds the reader that this is the doctor piecing everything together. But the doctor is weirdly connected to everything. He looks kind of like the hobo (whose almost clown-like appearance is lovingly and repeatedly described), the hobo's hat turns out to be an old one of his and his car was parked in a part of the road the hobo must have gone by with the stolen car and victim only the doctor never saw him. And he keeps referring to this headache. I'll leave explaining the story at that, because it is the unraveling of all the little pieces that is part of the fun for the reader. I'll risk a general spoiler in saying that the ending is satisfying and interesting. There is no obvious cop-out.

I was also quite surprised at the level of gore and violence. There are some harsh moments and descriptions here, including facial mutilation that would seem fitting in an episode of CSI:NY. Aside from being a really enjoyable read, The Red Right Hand is also a strong reminder for me not to make assumptions about the nature of a book based on when it was written. Shit was just as hardcore back in 1945 as it can be today.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

22. The Destroyer #106: White Water by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir

You really never know what new world you are going to fall into in the used paperback game. I went up to the great S.W. Welch bookstore with my wife to sell some of our recently read books to clear some shelf space. We had the neighbour's dog in tow and I am on a strict no new books embargo, so I waited outside. They had the $1.00 book table out and I couldn't help but notice the cover you see here. I'm not a fan of most of these series of men's military action books that were produced in series, though I like to keep an eye on them and there are definitely some gems in there. I looked closer and seeing the lady with the 4 arms on the cover was just too much to resist. So I started skimming the book and lo and behold it is strongly centered around an environmental theme, the over-fishing of the ocean. I went to the back and saw that #107 is about plagues of insects attacking the world. Going against my embargo (and convincing myself that the book would be a quick read, especially with a train ride to Toronto for Easter weekend), I picked it up.

Well it turned out to be even wackier than the cover implied. The hero of the book Remo Williams (does that ring a bell to anyone in their '40s?) practices this super high level Korean martial art that allows him to run on water, smash people's teeth in with a flick of the finger and other pretty over-the-top stuff. I was quite pleased to see that they take this concept to the limit, with Remo trapped in the Atlantic and running out of the energy needed to maintain his body temperature, so he punches out a shark's teeth and rides it back to shore, but near the end of the trip, he rips open the shark's back and eats its meat raw in order to gain enough energy to make the trip! Colour me impressed. This was almost a send-up of these kinds of books.

So I did a little research and it turns out that this series has a strong following and was purposefully intended to be a bit of a humourous satire of the genre, but at the same time there was enough there that people kept buying them for over 100 books! This one sort of petered out at the end, and there is no way I'll read the whole series, but I'd dabble into some of the earlier ones. According to what I read online, books 1 and 2 are very straightforward and it isn't until the third that things really go in the new "neo-pulp" direction.