Wednesday, July 21, 2021

46. The Intercom Affair by Eric Ambler

It is the plot of The Intercom Affair that stands out for me. With Ambler, you are always going to get well-written european mid-century spy milieu scenarios with a nice gang of eccentric characters, euro-mongrels of equally mixed morality.  We had all that here, but it was the setup that made this a stand-out Ambler for me that I am glad to have re-read as an adult when I could appreciate it better.  Two mandarins of small unnamed NATO countries' espionage department meet over the years socially and over time, develop a plot to make a bunch of money and disappear into a luxurious retirement.  

It takes a while for the reader to figure out what the plot actually is, as the action moves to Ted Carter, the lone writer, editor and publisher of a jingoistic, right-wing conspiracy journal bankrolled by a wealthy retired American military officer.  Said officer and owner dies and what Carter expected would be the end of a soft but paying gig, gets weird as he gets purchased by a distant Swiss investor who only asks that he add certain articles to his paper.

I will not expand any further, as the fun is in the elements being revealed and then connected as you read the book.  It is cleverly structured with multiple perspectives in the form of transcripts of interviews, letters, etc.  Semi-epistolary, you could call it.  It has fun little digs at the rigid Swiss security forces and other players in the European circus that immerse the reader nicely.  I think that I am old enough now to properly appreciate later Ambler.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

45. The Tin Men by Michael Frayn

I took this from the free bookbox on Esplanade solely because it was a cool looking Fontana. I had not idea what it was about. I still struggle to explain it now that I have read it. It's a satire of British professional culture in the 60s and quite funny at parts. The plot centers around an institute of automation, somehow affiliated with a big television company. The Queen is coming for an official inauguration. 
There is a weird mix of academics, technicians, administrators and really weird upper-class "directors" who seem to do nothing at all. I think the culture of work and technology has changed so much since this book was written that a lot of the humour loses its impact. Nonetheless, it was very wittily written and has some very funny characters, like the super sporty guy with a horrible colonial past now obsessed with security risks.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

43. The Black Assassin by James-Howard Readus

I think I bought this at S.W. Welch because it was $5 and has there pencilled-in price in the upper right hand corner.  As a paperback artifact, it is a beautiful find, an original Holloway House with a cool cover.  I'm a big fan of the assassin/sniper rifle scope view for a cover.  I am also very into black power conspiracies to take over America.

Unfortunately, this book was kind of a mess. It never really got to the government takeover that the back blurb promised.  It spent way too much time on the excessive side characters, most of whom got their own paragraph and then were promptly forgotten.  It felt like Readus was trying to copy the style of thrillers of the time, but left out most of the meat of what would have made this story great.  A group of Black American elites conspire to train an elite assassin and send him on kill missions that will propel a Black senator to become the president.  Again, a great plot.  The assassin himself, Adrian Baker, ex-military is sent to Algiers where he is broken down and then built up again by Chang, Soviet-trained Chinese scientist.  He is then sent to DC and NYC in the guise of the Tanzanian ambassador.  There he hooks up with a supermodel and carries out two hits.  The story ends up focusing on Adrian and the girl who I guess sneak off and live happily ever after while the conspirators try again with a new assassin.  

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

42. The Ravine by Phyllis Brett Young

Ricochet Press does great work.  They publish out of print Canadian genre fiction, mainly in the mystery and thriller category.  I've bought most of the Montreal-based ones and found this one somewhere.  The author is Canadian (and I guess was quite succesful back in her day with several books, including The Torontonians which I would like to get my hands on), though The Ravine takes place in an anonymous American small city.  I was a bit disappointed because I was hoping it was going to be about the ravine that goes through the northern part of Toronto.  I suspect she was inspired by that one.

The town is shaken up by the second rape and murder of a young girl in the aforementioned ravine (though the first girl actually survived but was a near-catatonic shell of herself).  The protagonist is a young woman artist and teacher who left her NYC upper-class background because her own sister disappeared.  She discovers the second body and sees just a flash of the killer, who looks to her like a devil.  Though she is ridiculed at the inquest for this and in the local newspaper, a doctor senses she is telling the truth and then from this figures out that the killer is one of his esteemed colleagues.  Together, she and the doctor work to capture him.  I am not spoiling anything because this is all spelled out quite early on.  I guess the suspense was supposed to be more psychological but the lack of mystery took the energy out of the book for me.  

The ravine itself is portrayed as a source of evil, in an almost Stephen King way.  It's treated as a dank, marshy tangle, dark and hateful.  This really felt like that very 20th century hatred of nature.  This bugged me.  Uncontrolled nature is not just a location where human evil can thrive but its very existence encourages human evil.  The newspaper has a campaign to cut all the trees down and build a road through it.  There is also a part where this super excellent police dog gets killed and there is zero aftermath.  His police handler doesn't even seem to care!  

Friday, July 02, 2021

41. The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart

This was a nice little find that did not disappoint. I would say at this point I am a Mary Stewart fan with some minor misgivings.  I have read all of her Arthurian works and 8 of her thrillers.  I had a feeling that she would bring her skill to a young adult tale with excellent results.  My only disappointment is trying to get my daughter to be interested in these kinds of books.  My agenda is to expose her to the classic young adult fantasy books from the mid to late 20th century before her mind gets polluted by Harry Potter.  She showed zero interest so far in this book and I must be prepared that she never will but I am going to keep i lurking around on the off-chance that something inspires or forces her (like boredom) to open it up and discover the magic within.

It starts off with the pretty classic situation of the younger child being left alone at her boring great aunt's house, so bored she wishes she could be sick so she could go to the friends' house she where was supposed to be staying (but couldn't because those kids got sick).  Of course, it is a beautiful old lodging house with a cool old gardener, gardens and a mysterious forest nearby. She meets a small black cat who leads her out into the forest where she discovers a very special looking flower.  Things start gradually at first, which some might find a bit slow but I just loved, particularly when you get a nice mix of local folklore (the gardener expressing surprise at her finding such a rare flower which used to be used for healing) setting the stage for the real magic to come.

I won't go into the details because the fun is in going on the journey with Mary.  A lot happens and it gets pretty wild and fast-paced.  This is the thing about these older YA books.  Mary Stewart did not need 16 books and a theme park to deliver satisfying escapism.  It's all here in less than 200 pages.  It's also not soft as the bad witches are up to some pretty nasty stuff.  I also liked the theme of animal alliance.  Just a really great little book.  It was also made into a Studio Ghibli movie called Mary and the Witch's Flower which we will have to check out.

Monday, June 28, 2021

40. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

So from struggling to find them at all, I have no read 4 books by Dorothy Hughes in the last year or so.  In a Lonely Place has been sitting on my on-deck shelf for a long time, a bland NYRB reprint (redeemed by putting an excellently written by Megan Abbot afterward instead of a forward) which kept calling at me "when will the time be right for you to read me?".  Well maybe it would have been sooner if you weren't such an odd size and with a super boring ass and forgettable cover.  "It's not my fault fake highbrow readers will only approach genre fiction if it doesn't threaten them with appearing lower class in their hands."  Indeed, this is not your fault book and we should not judge you by your cover, so read you I finally shall.  And did.

Once again, we have a female crime author whose masterpiece is obscured and lost while people continue to freak out about big-name male authors.  I was really glad to read Abbott's analysis at the end, because I didn't fully appreciate how thoroughly Hughes twists the genre inside out, gender-wise.  Even without smarter analysis, this book is possibly one of best and probably earliest of the serial killer point of view sub-genres.  Serial killers are really not my jam at all.  I have found them played out even when Silence of the Lambs came out and now they are as ubiquitous as zombies.  They always seem like an excuse for a male author to express "creative" violence against women.  Simply because of the subject matter, I am not inclined to love this book.  But I have to recognize its craft.  It also feels like it establishes several cliches that become commonplace in noir and pulp fiction (and even later movies and books): the class resentment motivation, the killer who is friends with the detective, the killer's perspective.  As Abbott states, this book came out before Jim Thompson (who is today almost a household name among crime readers with movies getting made).

One of the great things of this book is that it is super dark but never nasty or titillating.  All the real violence takes place off stage, yet their impact is no less minimized.  Likewise, the unreliable narrator (because of their own insanity) is handled so deftly that there is very little fake mystery for the reader.  Hughes doesn't need to play those jump scare fake-out games with us as she is so deep in his sad, twisted head that you get enough horror from beginning to understand his thinking.  The natural social concerns of anybody with status (worrying about how you look, worrying about what the neighbours may think, etc.) get all mixed up with Dix Steele's paranoia so that he is both constantly obsessing about what evidence he may have left behind as well as whether or not to park his car in the street or in his garage (which is a minor pain in the ass, but lets him enter his apartment via the alley unseen).  The latter worry is not about avoiding getting caught but because he doesn't want the neighbours to think he is someone who stays out late.  Likewise, he is also super angry with anybody who is working class. Hates the gardener and thinks he will punch him if he says hello again, hates the "slattern" who cleans up his apartment.  It's almost funny at times.

One element this book has that didn't get copied is strong female characters who end up saving the day without any fake suspense generating risk to them.  The ending doesn't remove any of the darkness and yet left me satisfying.  It is not explicit, but you really feel for the soldiers who come back from a world war to a complex world with their status often back to zero.  In a Lonely Place really gives you the feeling of how quickly and artificially post-war America imposed a vision of suburban ease on itself.  The violence coming out of Dix Steele in some ways prefigures the violence of Vietnam and the 60s yet to come.  I tease NYRB for their design above, but I commend them for reprinting this book.  

This is no masterpiece of a cover
but at least it has something going on!

Sunday, June 27, 2021

39. The Hard Sell by William Haggard

Another excellent, "sophisticated" thriller by Haggard, this time the plot revolves around a British engine manufacturing company struggling with industrial sabotage in Vittorio, Italy where they have partnered with an Italian airplane firm (the brits make the enging and the italians the plane).  Colonel Charles Russell of the Executive branch takes some personal time to deal with the problems, since the owner of the British company is an old friend of his.  Russell is very scrupulous to pay for everything himself, but once he gets to Italy, he sniffes out that the mystery impacts England on the global industrial stage and his overnight stay becomes two weeks and real work.

Though I would consider Haggard's spy stories to be "above" Fleming's in that the actual espionage is subtle and complex and the conflicts mostly psychological. Victory requires knowledge, self-control, profound understanding of other humans rather than brand names and gadgets.  That being said, The Hard Sell feels very similar in its aspiration to a James Bond book. This is spy escapism for older men with a higher education level.  Russell gets to stay in a really nice hotel with a great bar, slum it in the older working class part of town (and of course stumble upon a little unpretentious bistro that has the best food and service) and even get knocked out and end up in an old school brothel with a super hot and experienced courtesan who appreciates him for being a gentleman ("She might be forty-five but looked much less, still a warmly magnificent woman").

There is a bit of action, but most of the story is Russell and the other major players all scheming and trying to second-guess what all the others are doing.  The cast of characters is rich with amoral euros playing the game: the chief of police hiding that his cousin is a Communist, the Swedish expat fixer way over his head in debt to Americans pulling his strings, the aforementioned Communist who is well educated and rich but doing good in some weird way that Haggard approves.  It's all very enjoyable and in this very beautiful Penguin paperback that I tried to keep in good condition but had to read.