Monday, November 12, 2018

41. Red Ketchup l'Intégrale Volume 2

I enjoyed volume 2 of Red Ketchup (books 4-6) so much and in doing so realized that it had been quite a long time since I had read the previous volumes.  Furthermore, I wasn't even sure that I had read them all.  Fortunately, the local library had the first intégrale and so I took it out and spent the weekend reading it, to my renewed pleasure.

For reference's sake, the first 3 books here are not actually the first appearance of Red Ketchup.  There is a summary of his origin story but it's only four pages.  He first shows up in the pages of Michel Risque when it was serialized in Croc magazine (kind of a Mad magazine from Quebec, though I am probably not doing it justice).  He is a secondary character whose side story takes over a bit from the main Michel Risque storyline (these Michel Risque's are also really good and you should hunt them down as well).  I guess Red Ketchup was so popular that he had to be killed off and then given his own books.  There is a nice summary to be found here.

In the first story, La Vie en Rouge, Red Ketchup gets brought into the ancient society of Templars, who are working behind the scenes to get their conservative populist leader elected.  According to their mythology, Ketchup is the modern incarnation of the knight templar who saved their society from siege (in the tapestry and legend, he has the same white skin, red hair and eyes as our hero).  There is also an internal power struggle and Ketchup with his trademark manic destructiveness is the catalyst that makes everything exploded.  The underlying satire of American politics and conspiracy is strong and funny here.

Because he has caused so much damage, his FBI boss this time sends Red Ketchup to Antarctica to guard a research base there in the second book Kamarade Ultra.  Here he becomes obsessed with what he believes to be a penguin spy (and massacres an entire penguin colony with a machine gun) which leads him to the Soviet base, which he of course attacks.  Two great recurring characters are introduced here for the first time:  Olga Dynamo, Soviet super spy and Docteur Künt, Nazi mad doctor.  This latter is really my favourite, one of the better humourous portrayals of the evil Nazi doctor in hiding.  He lives with his wife Natasha and there is always a hilarious introductory scene with him returning to whatever domestic situation he is and talking to her before the reveal that she is a blow-up sex doll.  Just the movement of his hands cracks me up as well.  I shouldn't sleep on Olga either whose sexual "tension" with Ketchup is just dying for consummation.  Will we ever get it?

He shows up as the main antagonist in the third book Red Ketchup contre Red Ketchup where he creates a clone army of Red Ketchups.  His plan, financed by a bunch of other Nazis in hiding is to use them to sow chaos and then move in to the anarchic aftermath as super troops to establish the Fourth Reich.  It's all really good stuff.

Dr. Künt at home

Sunday, November 11, 2018

40. Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas

Ross Thomas has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the better thriller/espionage/crime writers of the second half of the twenthieth century, though that reputation is probably better held among fans of the genre than the broader book-reading public.  The Porkchoppers is one of my favourite books.  Yet once again, I am somewhat underwhelmed by one of his books, especially the ones that are part of a series with a regular cast of protagonists. 

Cast a Yellow Shadow is a McCorkle and Padillo adventure. They are two cold war era men who don't really want to do what they do but have to because they are so good at it.  McCorkle is the narrator and ostensibly the less engaged of the two (and the less skilled and experienced, though he always handles himself well).  In this book, Padillo turns up unconscious after a knife fight on the Baltimore docks.  He had presumably died in the last book whose events took place two years earlier.  McCorkle gets a call from some of his contacts in the DC African-American criminal establishment, specifically one bookie and gangster Hardman (pronounced Hard-Man).  McCorkle is happy to see his partner alive, but his pleasure is short-lived as they discover that McCorkle's wife has been kidnapped. The ransom:  Padillo must do a job for these kidnappers.

The kidnappers are agents from a ficitonal south African country beween Rhodesia and South Africa.  They are from the white minority government who wants to gain independence from Britain while not relinquishing their power to the black majority (this book was written in 1967).  Their plan is to get Padillo to assassinate their Prime Minister who is visiting America and make it seem like it was done by an American black radical group.  They believe this will turn world opinion in their favour.  The Prime Minister himself is behind the conspiracy as he has stomach cancer and only a few months to live anyways.  They are white supremacist fanatics who are fairly realistically portrayed despite the loopiness of their plan.

It's kind of a cool set up and the cast of characters is interesting, especially the black gangsters who help McCorkle and Padillo with their counterplay.  The problem is that the tone is all a bit too glib and everything feels slightly superficial. The premise was also a bit weak, as the bad guys though violent and desperate are basically amateurs compared to McCorkle and Padillo and completely out of their home territory.  Finally, there was a lack of emotional payoff in the end. 

It is a beautiful paperback that I found in in Vancouver in one of those great free book boxes that are popping up all over and I feel like I need to keep it for archival purposes even though it's not one of my favourite reads. 

Thursday, November 08, 2018

39. The American Senator

The American Senator is the fourth Trollope I have read and likewise picked it up simply because I stumbled upon a paperback copy that whose condition I wouldn't have to worry about. Once again, I became quite quickly enveloped in Trollope's detailed prose and engrossing settings.  Though called The American Senator, the story begins and is ultimately founded on the town of Dillsborough.  We follow several members of the gentry as well as several who want to become or were once close to the gentry.  It starts off with a bewilderingly complex pre-history of the lord and manor hall of the county that Dillsborough is in, but we soon settle down to Lord Morton, a diplomat who has returned to his family seat where he never grew up, his insanely snobby grandmother and his unknown cousin Reginald (whose mother was from Montreal and thus hated by Lord Morton's grandmother).  The Senator in question is a guest of Lord Morton and goes around interrogating everybody and then criticizing England in a way that tends to put people off.  Sir Reginald is a loner and quite content to read books and wander around the family land smoking his pipe.  He also secretly is in love with Mary Masters the angelic daughter of the ex-family lawyer to the Mortons (the third generation of lawyers to them who was unceremoniously fired by the previously mentioned grandmother).  As I say, complex.

Two other important storylines are the laying down of poisoned herring in an fox-hunting wood during a lawsuit between a poor farmer and the neighbouring Lord Rufford (readers will know this is the stuff I really love) and the pursuit of said Lord Rufford by Arabella Trefoil.  This latter is ostensibly engaged to Lord Morton but is a career husband-hunter.  Much of the plot is how she juggles between pursuing Lord Rufford while being engaged to Lord Morton. 

Finally we have the senator himself.  He is a guest of Lord Morton initially.  His whole deal is to learn about British institutions and then diss them.  He is often correct in his theoretical positions but almost deliberately blunt and ignorant of the customs he is violating.  He comes off at first as a bit of a caricature of the ignorant and headstrong American, but as you read on, you sense more and more that Trollope is using him as a mouthpiece to expose some of the absurdities of english law at the time.

I enjoyed this book for the most part, but had some reservations.  I found that the subtext here was more conservative than past Trollope books I read.  He lampoons the aristocracy but also seems to subtly argue for its ongoing existence.  My understanding was that Trollope was quite progressive for his time, but I felt a bit of a lament against change here.  None of that reduced my pleasure in the reading and I may be offbase.  However, the romance here was a bit simplistic and also hinged on for me an unbelievable lack of communication.  It dragged the tension on unnecessarily long which I found manipulative and in contrast to the deft way he goes beyond that kind of narrative trickery in Barchester Towers.  That being said, the final conclusion of the romance had a slight wrinkle that went some way to make it more interesting than it promised to be during its unfolding.

Monday, November 05, 2018

38. The Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh

I picked up this very nice hardover in Nanaimo.  I think it's a first edtion, but don't know how to tell for sure [editor's note: it's not.  It's a book club edition, story of my life].  I quite enjoyed her book Cyteen, enough that I wanted to try out her more popular Chanur series. It took me a while to find the first one and I am glad I didn't give up the search.

The Pride of Chanur demonstrates Cherryh's strong handling of emotional interactions and complex political and commercial intrigue.  Unlike Cyteen, this one takes place in a really far flung universe with several alien species, some of them so alien that they can't even really understand each other (though they trade).  The protagonist is Pyanjar Chanur, the female Hani captain of the merchant ship The Pride of Chanur.  The Hani (actually hani as none of the species are capitalized here, I guess like the way we use the word humans) are lion-like creatures, bipedal with claws, manes and expressive ears.  Only the females venture out in space, as the men are too volatile and remain back at their home planet protecting their holdings from each other and their own sons who come back and try to take power.

The book begins with the Pride docked at Meetpoint, a trading station, when a strange fugitive creature runs aboard their ship.  It takes a while for the reader to realize it is a human and we learn that it escaped from the kif, a nasty, thieving species that all the others hate and fear.  It sounds a bit simplistic from my description but in the book it quite works.  These are really unlikable creatures.  Pyanjar cannot in her conscience return the human once she realizes it is sentient (though they cannot communicate at first) but by keeping it, she risk stirring up major inter-species conflict.  And that's what happens.

A lot of this book is a really cool space chase, with the Pride at a major disadvantage.  It is Pyanjar's experience and character that is put to the test in such overwhelming odds and we the readers are right there cheering for her and her crew (and the human dragged along).  There is lots of cool space combat and tense strategy and trickery as well.  All very enjoyable stuff for me.

There are 5 books in the series, which I think make up two overall narratives.  I will definitely keep my eye out for the second one.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

37. Red Ketchup Intégrale Volume 2

This is a collection of books 4, 5 and 6 of the Red Ketchup series.  The first three books are some of my all-time favourite comics, a beautiful combination of Hergè-like art and Wonder Warthog style anarchy and chaos.  Red Ketchup is an unkillable psychotic FBI agent, existing solely on handfuls of pharmaceuticals, driven by an 80's American distilled Rambo fascism.  He is also not bright at all and ends up achieving his mission through sheer destruction and the wild coincidences and machinations of the characters swirling around him. His boss at the FBI is constantly trying to take him out of circulation which leads to him causing greater destruction.  It's all a hilarious critique of American exceptionalism and the fantasy of violent victory over bad guys that dominates American comics.  Réal Godbout and Pierre Fournier are highly recognized in the BD field for this and their other great series Michel Risque (where Red Ketchup first appeared as a side character).  The books are also physically beautiful published by La Pasteque, such that I made an exception to my usually going to the library and actually started buying them.  They are translated into english and you should get them.

I sat on this Intégrale for quite a while because I wanted to savour it.  Ironically, when I did finally start reading this one, I got bogged down and abandoned it.  Book 4 Red Ketchup s'est échappé!  (Red Ketchup Got Away!) is actually very talky and starts out with tons of dialogue.  Ketchup who has been sent up to space by his bosses decides he has finally had enough.  He returns to earth (ignoring the burning up as he goes through the atmosphere), resigns in a huff and moves to LA to open up his own private detective agency.  This one really lacks the chaos of the preceding three volumes and I found myself worried that Godbout and Fournier had lost their way as perhaps there is only so much you can do with the concept.  Particularly frustrating is that Ketchup is constantly constrained throughout the book while surrounded by the kind of sleazeballs whom he usually destroys.  Likewise, while much of this takes place in the Hollywood film milieu, the satire is applied rather lightly.  There are the characteristically funny touches along the way, especially in the advertising for American products you can see in the background.

The second volume, Le couteau aztèque (The Aztec Knife), gets interesting again, though this time it is a trippy time travel adventure.  Red Ketchup's sister and brujo Juan Two-Tree chase Red through history (and he chases himself through his own abusive past) as he inserts himself into various conqueror's and completely rewrites the past. 

The third book, L'oiseau aux sept surfaces (The Seven-Surfaced Bird) brings Red Ketchup fully back to form.  I burst out loud laughing several times so much that my daughter kept asking me what was so funny.  The story here is an hommage to manga and kaiju, as Red Ketchup is sent by his bosses on a false investigation of the disappearing turkey population ("if the turkey disappears, what will happen to democracy!?") to get him out of the way.  After a hilarious investigation in supermarkets, Turkey farms, processing plants and finally a country fair where he slaps a turkey (this is what cracked me up first), Ketchup goes to Japan where it turns out his old enemy Docteur Künt is developing a gigantism gene. Chaos ensues.  This one was fucking awesome.

Now I have 3 more volumes left. The intégrale hasn't come out yet and I am debating whether to get them individually or just wait.  Either way, I am going to savour again.

I mean look at that.

Friday, November 02, 2018

36. The Moonbeams by R. Vernon Beste

I quite like the sombre colours and purple edges of this paperback.  It was in very good condition when I got it, perhaps only read once by the previous owner.  Two days of reading by me has left it in a much more "used" state.  I was pretty careful but I guess just the age of the paper and glue means that any movement creates lines and little degradations.

I thought it was an American crime novel when I picked it up, but it's actually a British WWII spy novel, specifically about agents working the ground in rural occupied France near the end of the war, allying with the resistance and communists.  The protagonist, Maltby, is cynical and bitter, but also kind of lost.  The book begins with him back in London after a debilitating ulcer forced him out of the France where he had worked with a small team of 5 other spies, blowing up industrial sites and spying on the Nazis.  Although he could have had his "ticket" to take the rest of the war off, his own anxiety about who he is allows him to be convinced to return.  His handlers learned that one of his crew was a double agent, working with the gestapo and was getting ready to blow up the entire extended network.  They send Maltsby back to find out which one was the traitor and also to blow up some crucial and irreplaceable machinery (because it was manufactured in Britain before the war) in a ball-bearing factory.

This is really more of a war book than an espionage book, though technically it's all part of espionage.  Most of the narrative takes place in France in this one region where Maltsby has been operating.  I found the detail of the way they managed themselves and planned their actions to be really interesting.  I don't know how realistic it is (there seemed to be quite a few englishmen who could succesfully pass as working class or peasant frenchmen, but perhaps to the Germans such a disguise would be more effective).  It was also near the end of the war and German forces were weakened, distracted and low on supplies.  There is also some really interesting social exploration, as Maltsby gets to know each of his fellow spies in a new way now that he suspects them of betrayal.  In particular, he discovers that one them is homosexual and he is disgusted but doesn't want to be, as his own innate prejudice clashes with his theoretical liberal values.

Though I am always a sucker for the happy ending, given the darkness and anxiety that makes up most of the book, I found the way this one concluded a bit pat.  Likewise, I guessed the traitor quite early on and found Maltsby's mistake somewhat difficult to believe. These are minor complaints about what was otherwise a solid and engaging story set in a well-portrayed and complex milieu.  Basically a really good resistance story.

Love those purple edges!

Thursday, November 01, 2018

35. Without a Trace by Background GmBH

I can't even remember where I found this book now, possibly in a box of books on the sidewalk.  It's a guide to police detection techniques written in 1977 by a far-left radical group in Switzerland. The version I have is a reprint by Partisan Press in Seattle 3 years later.  I was interested in it mainly for the time period and some insight into policing methods that would be relevant to the genre of books I tend to read.  I had been putting off reading it for some time along with the few other non-fiction books on my on-deck shelf but with my current spurt of reading energy decided finally to take it on.

At first it was really quite laborious.  I really struggle reading non-fiction. On top of it, the intro is dripping with the vocabulary of late 20th century intellectual left dogma.  I consider my politics to be fairly left-leaning (what we would call "progressive" today) and even quite radical in some areas.  But god do I balk at the nerdy rigidity of this particular form of thinking where everybody is a comrade and the bourgeoisie are this evil force.  It is probably the biggest failure of the left (and most ironic), its insistence on verbal conformity and taking itself so seriously, an issue we still see with us today in the internet sphere of leftist politics, though the language has varied.  Anyhow, I digress (and probably have already labelled myself as some kind of traitorious middle-roader).  My point is that I was having a hard time with the lack of narrative and feeling annoyed by the rhetoric.

As I progressed through the book, however, I began to enjoy it more and more.  The bulk of it is straightforward and well-written.  It is a broad survey of the various techniques that police forces use to investigate crimes.  The word they use the most is "trace" but I think they meant "clue".  They explain how detectives can find clues in voice recordings, typewriters, handwriting, explosion and arson scenes, guns and bullet wounds, fibres and materials.  It's a fascinating look at the state of forensic analysis and tools at this time period.  Much of the techniques are pretty outdated today, though probably form the foundation of many current techniques.  It is amazing the detailed work the cops go through and how difficult it is for "criminals" (a bourgeois label filled with bias) to neutralize the evidence.  There is an afterword where the writers mockingly explain what they went through to ensure that they could not be identified by this booklet (the original one), buying paper in small batches from several producers, destroying all the identifiable parts of the offset printing press that made it and so on.

And it is at this point by the end that this book got really entertaining.  They editorialize much more and there is some hilarious stuff.  Here is a paragraph from a section on ordering helpful material directly from book publishers and dealers.

Many or most of these works are written by and for the police, military, and intelligence communities, which has both positive and negative aspects.  On the one hand, frequently the practical and theoretical expertise of the authors cannot be questioned, despite the political despicableness of the presentation.  On the other hand, because many of the books are written for the ignoramuses who staff these government agencies, they are frequently boring and unenlightening for the intelligent reader.

That immediately made me think of the narcs and DEA agents pissing in their boots while on stake out in the Freak Brothers comics.  The bibliography at the end is gold.  There are several books that I need to add to my list that I discovered here, including Operation Ogro by Julen Agirre about the assassination of the Prime Minister of Spain and Franco's right-hand man and The Final Score by Emmet Grogan.

It's also a very revealing look at the mentality of the time and how much more freedom (at least of thought and expression)we have achieved since that time in the West.  Or perhaps how much more information we have access to and can share because of the internet.  Also a warning in these darkening times that extreme repression is always lurking.

As I read the book, it basically fell apart at the spine.  I was planning on recycling it but think I may now get it repaired and keep it on the shelf.